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"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Kingston Reif

Pentagon Reviews Nuclear Budget


April 2021
By Kingston Reif

The Defense Department has begun an initial review of aspects of the costly U.S. plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal amid continued support from military leaders for the modernization program and debate in Congress about the need for and affordability of the effort.

The Defense Department has begun an initial review of aspects of the costly U.S. plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal amid debate in Congress about the need for and affordability of the effort. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)In a Feb. 17 memo, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks directed the director of the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) to lead a set of reviews “on a very small number of issues with direct impact on [fiscal year] 2022 and of critical importance” to President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Among those issues is a review of lower-yield nuclear weapons and select command, control, and communications topics.

Although the exact scope of the review of the nuclear enterprise is unclear, the language in Hicks’ memo suggests the review is confined to an assessment of the Trump administration’s proposal to develop and field a new low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead variant, known as the W76-2, and a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile. (See ACT, March 2018.)

The Navy began fielding the W76-2 in late 2019. (See ACT, March 2020.) The new cruise missile is currently undergoing an analysis of alternatives to determine possible options for the weapon.

The Biden administration is planning to release the defense budget on May 3. Multiple press reports indicate that the topline for national defense is likely to remain roughly the same level as the $741 billion appropriations for the current fiscal year.

The Hicks-directed review and likelihood of a flat defense budget comes as the ambition and price tag of the U.S. program to maintain and replace the U.S. nuclear triad and its associated warheads and supporting infrastructure grew significantly under the Trump administration.

President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request of $44.5 billion for the arsenal was a 19 percent increase over the previous year. Over the next several decades, spending is likely to top $1.5 trillion.

Administration officials have indicated that the budget review will be followed by a more comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear policy, but it remains to be seen when such a review will commence and what form it will take.

Austin said in response to advance questions prior to his confirmation hearing on Jan. 19 that “[i]n keeping with past practice for incoming Administrations, I would anticipate that President-elect Biden will direct the interagency to conduct a thorough set of strategic reviews, including of U.S. nuclear posture.”

Similarly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a group of Japanese reporters on March 17 that the Biden administration is “going to undertake something called the Nuclear Posture Review” and “that I think will begin in the weeks ahead.”

Some military officials are counseling the new administration to consider a broader strategic deterrence review that evaluates nuclear, space, cyber, and missile defense issues as a unified whole.

Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Air Force Association in late February that strategic deterrence is not “just about nuclear posture…not about missile defense, not just about space…. [I]t’s about all those things together that provide our overall strategic capability and our ability to strategically deter our adversaries.”

Austin and Hicks said at their confirmation hearings that they support the continued maintenance of a nuclear triad and highlighted modernization of the triad as a top priority. They did not commit to continuing the status quo on every modernization program, most notably the program to build a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, and instead said they would closely review the current plans before making any recommendations.

But top Pentagon military leaders are continuing to express strong support for the modernization effort.

Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters on Jan. 5 that the purpose of a new nuclear policy review should be “[v]alidation, that we like the strategy that we have.”

Richard added that it is no longer possible to extend the life of the existing Minuteman III ICBM, an alternative advocated by critics of the new missile plan. (See ACT, October 2020.)

“It is getting past the point of…not [being] cost effective to life-extend Minuteman III,” he said. “You’re quickly getting to the point you can’t do it at all.”

Meanwhile, supporters and opponents of the current modernization plans in Congress continued to debate the merits of the plans ahead of the release of the Biden administration’s first budget request. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking members on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, respectively, wrote in February that Biden “must prioritize long-overdue investments in the nuclear triad, or risk permanently losing our most effective means for deterring existential military threats.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) responded in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on March 5 by arguing that the United States has more nuclear weapons than it needs for its security and questioning whether the current modernization plans “are really necessary to have a deterrent.”

Other Democrats have been more supportive of continuing forward with the status quo. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told Bloomberg in a Feb. 23 interview that bipartisan support for modernizing the nuclear triad is “very strong.” He added that “we need a replacement” for the Minuteman III.

Under evaluation are lower-yield nuclear weapons, and select command, control and communications.

U.S. Nuclear Warhead Costs Surge


April 2021
By Kingston Reif

The projected long-term cost to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure has skyrocketed to unprecedented heights, according to the Energy Department’s latest Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, published last December.

U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles carry the W76-1 nuclear warhead. According to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the W76-1 Life Extension Program extends the originally designed warhead service life of 20 years to 60 years. NNSA completed refurbished warhead production in December 2018. (Photo: Getty Images)Prepared annually by the department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the report highlights the growing scope of the NNSA modernization plans and the fiscal challenge they will pose to the Biden administration.

The fiscal year 2021 version projects $505 billion in spending, after inflation, on NNSA efforts related to sustaining and modernizing the nuclear warhead stockpile over the next 25 years. This is an increase of $113 billion, or 29 percent, from the 2020 version of the plan. (See ACT, September 2019.)

The document states that the NNSA “considers this program to be affordable,” but does not provide a detailed explanation of why the agency believes that to be the case or why the cost of the 2021 plan is so much higher than the previous version.

According to an analysis published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in July 2020, a “reevaluation of the funding needed to meet existing requirements, rather than costs associated with new requirements, was the main factor contributing to the large increase in proposed funding in [the Energy Department’s] fiscal year 2021 budget justification.”

The Trump administration in February 2020 requested $15.6 billion for NNSA nuclear weapons activities account in fiscal year 2021, an increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, above the fiscal year 2020 appropriation and $2.8 billion above the projection for 2021 in the fiscal year 2020 budget request. (See ACT, March 2020.)

An NNSA spokesperson told Arms Control Today in December that “[b]arring unexpected new requirements or additional major programs of record, [the] NNSA’s weapons activities portfolio growth will reach a steady-state period beginning in fiscal year 2021.”

“As new program of record activities begin, previous programs of record will be closing out, and the projected budget trend through fiscal year 2045 will see similar year-to-year increases that account for inflation,” the spokesperson added.

Under the Trump administration, the budget for the NNSA’s nuclear sustainment and modernization program grew well higher than the rate of inflation. The budget for this program has increased by more than 65 percent over the past four years.

The ambition of the agency’s modernization program is unlike anything seen since the Cold War. Allison Bawden, a director at the GAO, told Congress in March 2020 that the federal spending watchdog is “concerned about the long-term affordability of the plans.”

The agency has consistently underestimated the cost and schedule risks of major warhead life extension programs and infrastructure recapitalization projects.

The stockpile plan projects the cost to build a newly designed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead proposed by the Trump administration, dubbed the W93, at $11.8–18.2 billion. The high degree of cost uncertainty reflects the fact that the proposed warhead is still in the early development phase.

The plan also reveals that, in addition to the W93, the agency is planning to eventually replace the existing W76 and W88 SLBM warheads with new warheads.

Existing plans call for a 29 percent increase in funds to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads.

U.S., Russia Signal Willingness to Hold Arms Control Talks

Since securing the extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ) in February, the United States and Russia have both signaled a willingness to hold a dialogue on arms control as part of a broader conversation on strategic stability, though when exactly such discussions may take place remains unclear. “The United States is ready to engage Russia in strategic stability discussions on arms control and emerging security issues,” said U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on Feb. 22. The Biden administration released interim national...

New UK Defense Strategy A Troubling Step Back on Nuclear Policy

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For Immediate Release: March 15, 2021

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext 107; Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext 104

The United Kingdom announced today that it will move to increase its total nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling by over 40 percent and reduce transparency about its nuclear arsenal. This is a needless and alarming reversal of the longstanding British policy to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons.

These changes, which are outlined in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, are also inconsistent with the British government’s prior pledges on nuclear disarmament under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The United Kingdom now joins China and perhaps Russia as the permanent members of the UN Security Council that are planning to increase the size of their warhead stockpiles. Open source estimates put the current size of the British arsenal at 195 warheads.

The review attributes the need to increase the total stockpile ceiling from the goal of 180 warheads (which was reaffirmed in 2015) to 260 warheads to “the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats,” but it does not explain how raising the number of warheads will enhance deterrence against these threats.

The United Kingdom’s decision to increase its warhead stockpile will contribute to the growing competition and distrust between nuclear-armed states. There is no compelling military or strategic rationale that justifies such an increase.

The review also states that the United Kingdom, which fields its warheads on sea-based ballistic missiles, will “no longer give public figures for our operational stockpile, deployed warhead or deployed missile numbers.” Like the United States, the United Kingdom’s past commitment to transparency about its nuclear forces has set it apart from other nuclear powers. Both governments have rightly criticized China for its excessive nuclear secrecy, for example. Such opacity is irresponsible and undemocratic.

The next NPT Review Conference slated for this summer was already poised to be a difficult and contentious one given the Trump administration’s efforts to expand the role and capability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Russia’s development of grotesque new nuclear delivery systems (such as a nuclear-armed torpedo), and China’s continued modernization and expansion of its nuclear forces. The United Kingdom’s decision to increase its arsenal and clamp down on transparency will further worsen the atmosphere.

In addition, the United Kingdom’s new direction will complicate the Biden administration’s efforts to pursue further bilateral arms control and reduction measures with Russia. Russia has been adamant that any future nuclear cuts beyond the limits contained in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) should take into account the arsenals of the other nuclear-armed states, especially the United Kingdom and France. Moscow can be expected to make this argument even more forcefully after the United Kingdom’s announcement today.

President Biden and has pledged to “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”

With the United Kingdom headed in the opposite direction, the Biden administration should cast an even more critical eye on the Trump administration’s weak rationale for accelerating the development of a newly designed third submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead (known as the W93) - and London’s lobbying of the U.S. Congress for support of U.S. funding for this new weapon.

The Trump administration justified the W93 in part on the grounds that it is vital to continuing U.S. support of the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal. But the United States can continue to support its ally without rushing forward with this new and unnecessary new nuclear warhead program.

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U.S., Russia Extend New START for Five Years


March 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

With only two days remaining until its expiration, the United States and Russia officially extended the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years, keeping in place the treaty’s verifiable limits on the deployed strategic nuclear arsenals of the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

Then‑Vice President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, March 10, 2011. (Alexey Druzhinin/AFP via Getty Images)The U.S. State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued separate statements Feb. 3 announcing that the formal exchange of documents on the extension had been completed. The treaty was set to expire Feb. 5.

Biden administration officials stressed that the extension would buy time and space to pursue follow-on talks on new arms control arrangements.

In a Feb. 3 statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that President Joe Biden “made clear” that the New START extension “is only the beginning of our efforts to address 21st century security challenges. The United States will use the time provided…to pursue with the Russian Federation, in consultation with Congress and U.S. allies and partners, arms control that addresses all of its nuclear weapons.”

“We cannot afford to lose New START’s intrusive inspection and notification tools,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a Jan. 21 statement after news first emerged that the Biden administration would pursue a five-year extension. “Failing to swiftly extend New START would weaken America’s understanding of Russia’s long-range nuclear forces.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry emphasized on Feb. 3 the importance of New START’s extension for maintaining strategic stability. In a statement, the ministry said, “Considering the special responsibilities that Russia and the U.S. carry as the world’s largest nuclear nations, the decision taken is important as it guarantees a necessary level of predictability and transparency in this area, while strictly maintaining a balance of interests.”

The ministry also signaled that Moscow “is ready to do its part” to return the U.S.-Russian dialogue on arms control “back to a more stable trajectory [and] reach new substantial results which would strengthen our national security and global strategic stability.”

Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke for the first time Jan. 26 and “discussed both countries’ willingness to extend New START for five years, agreeing to have their teams work urgently to complete the extension,” according to the White House readout of the call.

Although Biden did not need to secure the Senate’s approval for the extension, Russian domestic law required that Putin obtain the consent of the Russian parliament for his decision to extend the treaty. The Kremlin submitted the necessary bill to parliament Jan. 26.

Russian officials had warned that it could take weeks, if not months, for the Russian legislature to act on an extension, but the State Duma and the Federation Council each approved the extension law in less than a day. Putin signed the law Jan. 29, which allowed the two countries to officially seal the extension with an exchange of diplomatic notes Feb. 3.

Russia in recent weeks had reiterated its long-standing support for an unconditional five-year extension of New START, the maximum amount allowed by the treaty. Although Biden had expressed his support for an extension on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, he did not specify how long of an extension he would seek. Some of his advisers were reportedly encouraging a shorter extension. (See ACT, November 2020.)

The Washington Post reported on Jan. 21 that the Biden administration would seek a five-year extension, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed the report later that day.

Biden “has long been clear” that the treaty extension “is in the national security interest of the United States, and this extension makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversarial as it is at this time,” she said.

New START’s extension comes after the Trump administration did not seriously pursue arms control talks with Russia for more than three years and then, in the last six months of 2020, hinged a short-term extension of New START on additional conditions that Moscow repeatedly rejected.

Last October, the two countries exchanged proposals on a one-year extension of New START paired with a one-year freeze on all U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads. The Trump administration maintained that there was an agreement in principle on this concept, but Russia firmly dismissed any agreement and rejected the Trump administration’s insistence that a freeze be accompanied by detailed definitions of a warhead, a warhead stockpile declaration, and a plan to verify a freeze. (See ACT, November 2020.)

Extending New START for five years “really abandons all the leverage one has with the Russians,” said Marshall Billingslea, the former U.S. special envoy for arms control, in January. Appointed as special envoy in April 2020, Billingslea led the Trump administration’s failed discussions with Russia on New START and arms control.

“We’re aware that the last administration engaged in negotiations on an extension of…New START for months but was unable to come with an agreement,” a senior U.S. official told The Washington Post. “We also understand there have been various proposals exchanged during those negations, but we’ve not seen anything to suggest that at any point an agreement on the terms that have been reported was in place,” the official said.

The Trump administration also had initially insisted on the inclusion of China in trilateral arms control talks as a prerequisite for a New START extension. That demand eventually fell away as Beijing repeatedly refused to join talks. (See ACT, June 2020.)

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Jan. 27 that Beijing welcomes New START’s extension. “It is conducive to upholding global strategic stability and promoting international peace and security, which meets the aspiration of the international community,” he added.

In the Feb. 3 statement, Blinken said that the Biden administration “will also pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal.” Unlike its predecessor, the Biden administration plans to seek bilateral talks with China in parallel with a U.S.-Russian dialogue, rather than trilateral arms control talks.

When dialogue between the United States and Russia might begin remains unclear.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Jan. 29 that the treaty’s extension “is the beginning of the story on what is going to have to be serious, sustained negotiations around a whole set of nuclear challenges and threats that fall outside of the New START agreement, as well as other emerging security challenges.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov struck a similar tone on Jan. 27. “We now have a significant amount of time in order to launch and hold profound bilateral talks on the whole set of issues that influence strategic stability, ensure security of our state for a long period ahead,” he said.

Without extending New START for five years, “this task would have been much more difficult,” Ryabkov argued.

The United States has expressed concern about Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons and new nuclear weapons delivery systems, two of which, the Sarmat and Avangard, Moscow has already said would be covered by New START, as well as China’s advancing nuclear capabilities. For its part, Russia has said that, in future talks, it would like to take into account U.S. missile defenses, hypersonic weapons, missiles formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the inclusion of France and the United Kingdom in arms control measures.

Ryabkov told the RIA Novosti news agency on Jan. 27 that the October proposal involving a warhead freeze “came in a package” with the Trump administration’s proposal to extend New START for one year and has since been canceled under the new Biden administration. “Now there is no reason to return” to the previous proposal, he said. “We will negotiate from a different starting point.”

Meanwhile, U.S. allies and partners welcomed the news that the Biden administration planned to seek a five-year extension of New START and encouraged further dialogue on arms control.

“I have repeatedly stated that we should not end up in a situation where we have no limitation whatsoever on nuclear warheads,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Jan. 22. “NATO allies have made clear that the preservation of New START is of great importance.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Peter Stano, European Commission spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, also said that they applauded the extension of the accord. In addition, France, Germany, and the UK issued statements of support.

In the U.S. Congress, Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), who had introduced bipartisan legislation in 2019 calling for the extension of New START, released a statement on Jan. 22 welcoming the Biden administration’s decision.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) also commended the treaty’s extension. “Despite Russia’s wide-ranging malign activities, ensuring limits on and insight into Russia’s nuclear arsenal is unquestionably in the national security interest of the United States,” they wrote.

Most Republican lawmakers, however, criticized the extension decision. They echoed former Trump administration officials in arguing that the treaty was a deeply flawed agreement and that a shorter extension would have enhanced U.S. leverage in follow-on talks with Russia.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), a top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said on Jan. 22 that although he agreed with the president’s decision to extend the treaty, he was “concerned with the length of extension given Russia’s continued undertaking of massive modernization and its building of new capabilities that leaves out entire classes of nuclear weapons.”

Also on Jan. 22, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said in a statement that “[h]aving secured the longer extension he desired, President Putin has no incentive to negotiate with the United States and will, as he has done, decline to engage in any further discussions.”

Signed in 2010, New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each. Inspections under the treaty and meetings of the Bilateral Consultative Commission, the implementing body of the treaty, have been suspended since early 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. But Ryabkov commented on Feb. 11 that Washington and Moscow have launched efforts to restart the inspections.

The loss of the only remaining treaty limiting the world’s two largest arsenals is averted as Washington and Moscow pledge to pursue further arms control measures.

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