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"I actually have a pretty good collection of Arms Control Today, which I have read throughout my career. It's one of the few really serious publications on arms control issues."
– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
Kingston Reif

Examining the Flawed Rationale for a New Nuclear Air-Launched Cruise Missile

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Volume 8, Issue 2, June 12, 2016

The debate about the necessity and affordability of the Obama administration’s half trillion dollar plan to modernize the nuclear triad of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range bombers–and their associated warheads and supporting infrastructure–continues to escalate.

The mammoth costs of nuclear modernization prompted Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) to ask on May 19 at the Brookings Institution: “it is very, very, very expensive... Do we really need the entire triad, given the situation?”

President Barack Obama has acknowledged that existing U.S. and global nuclear weapons capabilities already provide more than enough nuclear killing power. Yet, his administration has to date pursued a costly, “all-of-the-above” plan to maintain and upgrade U.S. nuclear forces at force levels that exceed nuclear deterrence requirements.

One of the most controversial pieces of this approach is the Air Force’s proposal to build a new fleet of roughly 1,000 nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) and refurbish the warhead for the weapon. The replacement is known as the long-range standoff cruise missile, or LRSO.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) filed an amendment to the fiscal year (FY) 2017 national defense authorization act that would delay development of the new cruise missile and warhead by one year to allow further consideration of the programs. While the Senate is unlikely to debate or vote on the amendment, the Senate and House of Representatives could consider amendments on the issue again later this month when each body takes up the FY 2017 defense appropriations bill.

For its part, the Obama administration appears content to pass on the growing fiscal challenge posed by its nuclear modernization project to its successor.

However, Ben Rhodes, the assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said at the Arms Control Association annual meeting on June 6, that the President recognizes the enormous budget challenge posed by the plans and will continue to review them “as he considers how to hand the baton off to his successor.”

Regardless of what happens during the remainder of the Obama administration, the next president will likely face a number of increasingly urgent questions about the modernization effort, including its need, affordability, opportunity costs, impact on global security, and more.

In other words, the debate about modernization, and in particular the new cruise missile, has just begun.

The Defense Department and supporters of replacing the nuclear ALCM in Congress and the think tank community have circulated a number of materials in response to Markey’s amendment and other efforts to raise doubts about the rationale for the new missile.

The following is a rebuttal to some of the top arguments made in favor of the program.

A closer examination of the issue makes it clear that the LRSO is redundant, lacks a unique mission, could have a destabilizing effect, and is not worth its estimated $20-$30 billion acquisition cost.

The LRSO Is Not Needed to Maintain the Air-Leg of the Triad

Proponents argue that air-launched cruise missiles extend the range of strategic bombers and complicate an adversary’s air defense problem. The LRSO will ensure the country has an air-leg of the triad that can penetrate enemy airspace as adversaries enhance and expand their air defense capabilities, they say.

It is important to remember that the United States first fielded a nuclear ALCM in the early 1980s at a time when the country did not have stealth bombers or advanced conventional cruise missiles and sought an additional nuclear system with which to deter and impose costs on the Soviet Union. None of these conditions exist today.

According to Andrew Weber, former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological matters, had the United States procured even half of the 132 B-2 bombers it had originally planned to build during the late 1980s and early 1990s (the Air Force ultimately bought 21), the Pentagon would have retired the current ALCM and removed the B-52H from the nuclear mission years ago.

The range of America’s existing strategic bombers is being extended by increasingly advanced long-range conventionally-armed air-launched cruise missiles. The planned introduction of 80-100 B-21 strategic bombers, which will be armed with the modernized B61 mod 12 gravity bomb, conventionally armed cruise missiles such as the JASSM-ER, and electronic warfare capabilities for air defense suppression, will further enhance the range of the bomber leg.

Together these improvements will make the bomber leg of the triad much more formidable than it is today. The B-21 is projected to be able to penetrate enemy airspace for decades after its initial fielding in the mid-2020s, which begs the question of why a new ALCM is urgently needed now. Even if the survivability of the B-21 is called into question in the future, the Pentagon has yet to demonstrate that the LRSO, which is being procured at the same time as the B-21, will be inherently more survivable or that a B-21 armed with conventional air-launched cruise missiles won’t be able to blow holes in air defenses. If the Air Force believes the stealth of the B-21 could be compromised soon after it is deployed, the service shouldn’t procure it in the first place.

The LRSO Is Not Needed to Deter Limited Nuclear Escalation, Nor Should We Want It for Waging Limited Nuclear War

Proponents argue that new air-launched cruise missiles would provide low-yield nuclear war-fighting options for responses to limited adversary attack, which is important for escalation control and maintaining a credible deterrent.

In reality, U.S. nuclear capabilities would remain highly credible and flexible even without a nuclear ALCM. The arsenal includes other weapons that can produce more “limited” effects, most notably the B61 gravity bomb. Moreover, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warheads could be configured to produce limited effects at a lower cost than the LRSO and its warhead, if necessary.

Regardless, has the U.S. intelligence community produced an assessment showing that failing to replace the current ALCM would increase the risk of limited adversarial nuclear use? Under what scenario has the intelligence community concluded that an adversary might believe the United States would be self-deterred from using a higher-yield ICBM or SLBM in response to limited nuclear use?

More importantly, the notion that the use of nuclear weapons can be fine-tuned to carefully control a nuclear war is very dangerous thinking. It is highly unlikely that an adversary on the receiving end of a U.S. nuclear strike would (or could) distinguish between a large warhead and a small warhead. The fog of war is thick. The fog of nuclear war would be even thicker. Large or small, nuclear weapons are extremely blunt instruments, both in terms of their destructive power and the taboo associated with the fact they have not been used in 70 years.

Finally, under what scenario could one ALCM or LRSO reliably circumvent the most sophisticated adversarial air defense capabilities and destroy a target that a B-21-borne gravity bomb or conventional cruise missile could not? If such a scenario does not exist, and the United States needed to launch more nuclear cruise missiles to ensure penetration, how would such a strategy not unavoidably escalate the conflict?

The LRSO Would Be a Costly “Hedge on a Hedge”

Proponents argue that ALCMs (and later the LRSO) complement the nuclear triad and will provide an important and rapidly uploadable hedge against technical problems with the sea and ground based legs of the triad. They also argue that the weapon allows the military to take advantage of the counting rules in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which counts each strategic bomber as one launcher and one warhead, regardless of the number of cruise missiles and gravity bombs they can carry.

It is not surprising that military planners would want many different ways of attacking a target. But how much added deterrence value do air-launched cruise missiles actually provide in the minds of potential adversaries?

The weapons associated with the other two legs of the nuclear triad–namely, SLBMs and ICBMs–can penetrate air defenses and strike targets anywhere on the planet with high confidence. The United States possesses far more warheads for these missiles than does Russia and could upload hundreds of warheads to its deployed ballistic missiles and bombers. In addition, the Navy’s sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missile is also a highly capable and continually improving conventional standoff weapon, and it has an even longer range than the JASSM-ER.

Has the military identified possible technical or other problems that could compromise the sea and ground based legs of the triad? What specific targets cannot be effectively and credibly held at risk by other nuclear and standoff weapons, together with gravity bombs, that could only be held at risk by the current ALCM and later, the LRSO force? How large and unique is that target set?

The Defense Department believes SLBMs, ICBMs and gravity bombs have different characteristics than ALCMs and are not perfect substitutes. At least a portion of the total ALCM force can also be more quickly uploaded to the deployed force than non-deployed ballistic missile warheads. (Note: nuclear ALCMs are not deployed on B-52H bombers on a day-to-day basis. Roughly 200 of these missiles are believed to be deployed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota armed with the W80-1 nuclear warhead.)

Yet as Hans Kristensen with the Federation of the American Scientists notes, “the bottom line for an effective nuclear deterrent is the credible capability to hold at risk the targets that an adversary values most.” On the issue of timing, how essential for deterrence is the quicker generation time for ALCMs? It is also important not to forget that B61 bombs can be rapidly uploaded to the B-2 and later the B-21.

Finally, regarding the New START bomber counting rule, it has been reported that the United States originally preferred an agreement that would count the actual number of nuclear bombs and ALCMs at air bases for use by bombers, but compromised and agreed to a discount rule that attributes each deployed bomber as one warhead. If such an agreement had been reached would reductions in the ALCM force have been required? There have also been reports that the United States was prepared to go lower than the 1,550 accountable warhead cap in the treaty.

Russia’s Actions Do Not Require Pursuit of a Costly New ALCM

Some LRSO advocates suggest that because Russia is fielding nuclear and conventional cruise missiles on aircraft, submarines, and surface ships, the United States must retain a nuclear cruise missile option.

Such arguments ignore the fact that the United States did not acquire the ALCM because the Soviet Union had such a capability, and it does not maintain or need to replace the ALCM because Russia has nuclear cruise missiles. It is not in the U.S. interest to engage in a new tit-for-tat arms race with the Russians to rebuild an excessively large nuclear force. This is especially true if it comes at the expense of needed conventional improvements that are more relevant to countering Russia and maintaining America’s military technological edge.

Questions about ALCM's Role in Current U.S. Strategy

Proponents consider a new ALCM necessary to maintain an effective U.S. nuclear deterrent because the current missile is losing its ability to penetrate increasingly sophisticated air and missile defenses.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the existing ALCM have stated that the reliability of the missile is not assured over the next ten years and that there are serious restrictions on the current use of the ALCM due to reliability issues. This suggests that the current ALCM could play more of a "backup" role in U.S. nuclear planning. Consequently, it would be imprudent to spend $20 billion or more to build a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile that could increase the role these weapons play in U.S. policy.

The Imaginary Strategic Bomber Gap

Some advocates of the LRSO erroneously claim that without the new weapon, a strategic bomber "capability gap" will emerge in the late 2020s and last for at least a decade. They argue that because the B-21 bomber will not be available in sufficient numbers for the nuclear mission until the 2040s, the U.S. military will need to continue to use B-52Hs armed with LRSOs until then.

It is important to keep in mind that LRSO production is slated to begin in 2026 and reach only initial operating capability by 2030. It will be several years later before full operating capability is achieved.

In contrast, the B-21 is slated to achieve an initial operating capability in 2025, with nuclear certification to follow two years later. The initial capability could include as many as 24 planes.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has announced a full production rate of 7-8 B-21s per year. Assuming the United States continues to deploy no more than 60 nuclear capable strategic bombers (as it currently plans to do under the New START treaty), the B-52 may need to be removed from the nuclear mission as soon as the early to mid-2030s in order to accommodate the B-21.

In sum, the current bomber force will provide a more than formidable capability and would become even more potent when the B-21 is fielded with the B61 mod 12 and advanced conventional cruise missiles. Fears of a "bomber capability gap" are misplaced.

The New LRSO Would Create New Military Capabilities and Could Prompt Countermeasures

Proponents of the LRSO claim that it would simply sustain an existing capability, not expand that capability. They claim the new missile will not be used for new military missions and air-launched cruise missiles would not pose a destabilizing first-strike threat to potential U.S. nuclear adversaries.

In reality, the president’s nuclear modernization program is vastly increasing the military capability of U.S. nuclear weapons, including the bomber leg, across key attributes such as stealth, accuracy, range, and speed. The LRSO is likely to have greatly enhanced capabilities relative to its predecessor, and will be mated to the B-52H, B-2 and B-21 bombers, whereas the current ALCM can only be delivered by the B-52H. U.S. nuclear stealth bombers have never carried stealthy nuclear cruise missiles.

The LRSO raises serious questions about stability that have yet to be fully explored. Some sources have revealed that the Pentagon is envisioning potential uses for the new cruise missile that go beyond "the original mission space" of the ALCM, namely in limited nuclear war-fighting contingencies involving China. Some supporters of the LRSO emphasize its utility for achieving tactical surprise in combat.

Furthermore, as stressed by William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Weber, "cruise missiles are a uniquely destabilizing type of weapon" due to the fact that "they can be launched without warning and come in both nuclear and conventional variants." The possible risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation posed by the LRSO requires far more scrutiny than blithe assertions from administration officials that the missile won’t upset stability.

Bottom Line

While it is uncertain what the military budget will look like a decade from now, there will likely be insufficient funding for the complete portfolio of proposed nuclear and conventional modernization goals. This will force the U.S. government to choose between the nuclear effort and other military priorities.

As senior White House officials have noted, the current "modernization plan was put together in a different budget environment, with a different Congress and varied expectations about our future arms control efforts. Our administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modernization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades. And the President will continue to review these plans as he considers how to hand the baton off to his successor."

The estimated $20-$30 billion cost to buy the LRSO and W80-4 would be much better spent on other parts of U.S. nuclear and non-nuclear mission areas.

The choice is clear: chart a more realistic path for the nuclear arsenal that doesn’t severely constrain the force-sizing options of future presidents and reduces the risk of doing serious damage to conventional capabilities and other national security programs.

As an early step in this course correction, the Pentagon should cancel its new cruise missile program and prioritize continued investments in the other legs of the nuclear triad and more relevant and usable non-nuclear capabilities, including longer-range conventional cruise missiles and other advanced air defense suppression tools.

—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 

Description: 

A close examination of the proposed long-range standoff cruise missile (LRSO) reveals that it would be redundant, lack a unique mission, and could have a destabilizing effect with potential adversaries.

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Momentum Builds for Nuclear Ban Treaty

June 2016

By Kingston Reif

A growing number of non-nuclear-weapon states are expressing support for the immediate commencement of negotiations on a legally binding agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons, despite strong opposition from those states that possess nuclear weapons and many U.S. allies. 

The contentious debate over how best to advance nuclear disarmament occurred at a meeting last month of an open-ended working group on disarmament taking place in Geneva this year.

It remains to be seen how the final report of the working group will reflect the different views expressed and whether ban-treaty supporters will seek a mandate at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York this fall to start formal talks on a treaty.

In a working paper considered by the group during the first two weeks of May, nine states belonging to nuclear-weapon-free zones, including Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico, called for convening “a Conference in 2017 open to all states, international organizations, and civil society to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.”

The paper detailed elements that negotiators of a ban treaty might include in this instrument, such as a prohibition on possession, use and threat of use, acquisition, and “assisting, encouraging, or inducing, directly or indirectly, the engagement in any activity prohibited by the legally-binding instrument.” 

In addition, the paper argued that a ban treaty “would have a political as well as legal impact on the disarmament debate” and “would not need universal adherence to be negotiated nor to enter into force.” 

Meanwhile, a May 4 working paper submitted by Austria and co-sponsored by all 126 other endorsees of the so-called Humanitarian Pledge that emerged from a December 2014 conference in Vienna on the impact of nuclear weapons use urged states “to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons,” including “an additional legal instrument or instruments.” (See ACT, January/February 2015.)

The Austrian paper noted that “[a]chieving and maintaining a world without nuclear weapons will require a multitude of legal and non-legal measures” and that “the various approaches cannot be considered as mutually exclusive but as complementary.” 

Many supporters of the Humanitarian Pledge expressed their support for beginning negotiations on a ban treaty at the May meeting of the working group, but the Austrian paper did not explicitly endorse such a treaty as the most appropriate next step toward advancing nuclear disarmament, nor did it recommend specific elements a treaty should include. 

One member of a European delegation participating in the group told Arms Control Today in a May 11 interview that although a majority of UN member states support starting negotiations on a ban treaty, some pledge signatories within the Non-Aligned Movement have not yet decided whether to support a ban as a near-term step. 

During last year’s meeting of the UN General Assembly First Committee, UN member states voted to approve a resolution sponsored by Mexico creating the working group. (See ACT, December 2015.) It is open ended, which means that all UN members can participate. 

The creation of the open-ended working group grew out of the frustration of many non-nuclear-weapon states at the slow pace of nuclear disarmament. This has prompted these states to look for new and alternative approaches and venues to spur progress.

Under the resolution, the main mandate of the group is to “substantively address concrete effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms” necessary to “attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.”

The working group held its first meeting Feb. 22-26. Another set of meetings was held in Geneva during May 2-4 and 9-13. 

United States Skips Meetings 

Approximately 100 states sent delegations to the May session, but the nine states that have nuclear weapons declined to participate.

Blake Narendra, a U.S. State Department spokesperson, told Arms Control Today in February that the United States decided not to participate because the agenda and rules for the working group “will not result in constructive dialogue on nuclear weapons or conditions under which nuclear disarmament can best be achieved.” (See ACT, March 2016.

Washington also expressed concern that the working group would lay the groundwork for negotiations on a ban treaty, which it strongly opposes. 

Some diplomats questioned the U.S. decision not to participate in the working group. A second European diplomat told Arms Control Today that had a U.S. delegation attended the meetings in Geneva, it could have slowed or even stopped the growing momentum in support of ban-treaty negotiation. 

Umbrella States Oppose Ban

Although none of the nuclear-armed states are attending the working group meetings, many countries in Europe and Asia that rely on U.S. nuclear weapons for their protection are participating. 

These states, often referred to as “umbrella states,” repeatedly expressed opposition to commencing negotiations on a ban treaty. 

In an April 27 working paper, Canada disputed the existence of a “legal gap” that must be filled by negotiating effective legal measures such as a ban treaty. According to the paper, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) “provides a sufficient legal basis for achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.”

Canada also voiced concern that the premature negotiation of a ban treaty that does not include the participation of states that possess nuclear weapons “would intensify existing rifts among states on nuclear issues” and “have the unintended consequences of imperiling the stability achieved under” the NPT.

Most umbrella states instead backed a progressive “building blocks” approach to advancing nuclear disarmament. As described in a Feb. 24 working paper, the approach calls for the pursuit of “parallel and simultaneous” nonlegal and legal measures, such as reducing the risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, reducing numbers of nuclear weapons, bringing into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and commencing negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty. 

According to the paper, only after these steps had been achieved would it be feasible to pursue the “final building block” of an “internationally verifiable nuclear disarmament framework such as...a multilateral nuclear weapons convention.” 

Some countries suggested additional ideas to advance disarmament with the aim of bridging gaps between supporters of a ban treaty and the building blocks approaches. 

For example, Annika Thunborg, director of the department of disarmament, nonproliferation, and export control in the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, proposed in a May 11 statement that states pursue an instrument prohibiting the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, which she argued would reduce nuclear weapons risks and “could gain support among both countries with nuclear weapons and countries in nuclear alliances.” 

Sweden also submitted a working paper co-sponsored by Switzerland proposing that states “initiate or engage in a process to reduce risks associated with nuclear armed cruise missiles,” including “actions to limit, prevent deployment of and lead to a ban on all nuclear armed cruise missiles.” 

Next Steps Uncertain

At the May 13 close of the most recent working group meetings, group chair Thani Thongphakdi, the permanent representative of Thailand to the United Nations in Geneva, noted that the debate “was not an easy one and if agreement could be observed on several important topics, there were also persisting differences in views and approaches on others.”

Thongphakdi said that he would prepare a “factual report reflecting as much as possible the discussions held and proposals made” and circulate a first draft to states no later than early August. 

The working group is scheduled to meet for its final session on Aug. 5, 16-17, and 19 to consider and adopt a final report. 

Some states warned against seeking “a lowest common denominator outcome” at the expense of accurately reflecting what transpired during working group deliberations. In a May 13 statement, Dell Higgie, New Zealand’s ambassador for disarmament, said her country would not support a report that “simply repeats steps we have already agreed to elsewhere.” 

She stressed “the importance of” the report emphasizing that the “clear majority” of states support “pursuing a negotiating process right now.” 

Whether the UN First Committee might take up a resolution this fall to authorize the beginning of a negotiating process of a ban treaty is unclear. 

Thomas Hajnoczi, the permanent representative of Austria to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that such a resolution would be a “logical” next step, but said his country, which supports starting negotiations on a ban, had yet to begin detailed consultations with other countries on the matter.

A growing number of non-nuclear-weapon states are expressing support for the immediate commencement of negotiations on a legally binding agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons.

Romania Missile Defense Site Activated

June 2016

By Kingston Reif

NATO last month declared operational a U.S.-built ballistic missile interceptor site in Romania and broke ground on a second site in Poland amid continued Russian claims that the alliance’s missile defense plans are aimed at undermining Moscow’s nuclear deterrent. 

The two sites are part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, as the Obama administration’s missile defense policy in Europe is formally known. The phased adaptive approach is the U.S. contribution to NATO’s missile defense system and is designed to protect Europe against short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles launched from Iran. 

“As long as Iran continues to develop and deploy ballistic missiles, the United States will work with our allies and partners to defend against this threat,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work at a May 12 ceremony marking the integration of the site at Deveselu, Romania, into NATO’s larger missile defense architecture.

The United States completed construction of the Aegis Ashore site at Deveselu last December as part of the second phase of the phased adaptive approach. The site is equipped with a land-based Aegis SPY-1 radar and 12 missile tubes for the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IB interceptor missile.

The SM-3 Block IB has additional capabilities compared to prior SM-3 versions in identifying and tracking objects during flight. The interceptor will defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and have a limited capability against intermediate-range missiles. 

Work said that along with the four U.S. Navy missile defense-capable Aegis destroyers based in Rota, Spain, and an advanced radar in Turkey that were part of the first phase of the phased adaptive approach, the Romania site “provides both a quantitative and qualitative increase in NATO’s missile defense capability and capacity.” 

Work added that “neither this site nor the site going into Poland will have the capability to undermine Russia’s strategic deterrent.” 

A day after the ceremony in Romania, Work attended a ceremony in Redzikowo, Poland, to break ground on a second Aegis Ashore site as part of the third phase of the phased adaptive approach. The site, which is slated to become operational in 2018, will include a SPY-1 radar and use the SM-3 Block IB and the more advanced SM-3 Block IIA missile. The SM-3 Block IIA is being co-developed with Japan and will have a greater range and more-advanced capabilities than the Block IB. The missile is expected to provide protection for all of Europe against short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. 

NATO hopes to declare the achievement of an initial operating capability for the entire missile defense system, which includes the U.S. contribution of the phased adaptive approach and contributions from other countries such as Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, at its upcoming summit meeting in Warsaw on July 6-7. But The Wall Street Journal reported on May 18 that France is withholding its approval for the declaration pending resolution of its concerns about whether the command and control network for the system is sufficiently mature. 

A major alliance exercise in April tested the operational capabilities of the missile defense system. French officials are continuing to analyze the results of the exercise, the report said. 

Russia remains unmoved by U.S. and NATO assurances that the system is not aimed at Moscow. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin told a meeting of Russian military and defense industry officials on May 13 that “as these elements of ballistic missile defense are deployed,” Russia will be “forced to think about how to neutralize emerging threats to the Russian Federation.” 

“All these are additional steps toward throwing the international security system off balance and unleashing a new arms race,” he added.

Putin did not specify the steps that Russia might take in reaction to the development of the defense system. 

In a May 12 opinion article posted on NATO’s website, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg echoed Work’s comments in Romania, stating that the alliance has repeatedly made clear to Russia that “[g]eography and physics both make it impossible for the NATO system to shoot down Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

Stoltenberg added that “Russia has declined all NATO proposals for cooperation” on missile defense and “unilaterally terminated dialogue with NATO on this issue in 2013.” 

Russia also argues that NATO’s ballistic missile defense system is no longer necessary due to the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which the United States says will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon for at least the next 15 years. 

A May 10 fact sheet posted on the website of the U.S. mission to NATO disputed that claim. The Iran nuclear deal “addresses nuclear weapons, but it does not resolve the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missiles which are being modernized in violation of [UN Security Council]-approved sanctions and are capable of carrying nuclear, conventional or chemical weapons,” the fact sheet says.

NATO last month declared operational a U.S.-built ballistic missile interceptor site in Romania amid continued Russian claims that the alliance’s missile defense system is aimed at Moscow.

Summit Looks Ahead Amid Concerns

May 2016

By Kingston Reif and Daniel Horner

The more than 50 national leaders who attended the recent nuclear security summit in Washington endorsed action plans for five key institutions and initiatives to carry on parts of the summit agenda amid concerns from some observers that momentum on this agenda will fade now that the summit process has ended. 

In an April 1 press conference at the end of the two-day summit, President Barack Obama said that “one of the central goals of this summit was how do we build on the work that has been done so that we have an international architecture that can continue the efforts, even though this is the last formal leaders’ summit.”

The meeting was the fourth and final biennial summit on nuclear security since Obama hosted the first one in April 2010 as part of an accelerated effort to prevent nuclear terrorism and secure civilian nuclear material worldwide. Subsequent summits took place in Seoul in 2012 and The Hague in 2014.

The summit participants, comprising 52 countries and four international organizations, issued a consensus communiqué expressing their “collective determination to ensure political momentum and to continuously strengthen nuclear security at national, regional, and global levels.”

To do that, the summit created action plans to highlight and augment the nuclear security roles of the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Interpol, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. 

In addition, 29 summit countries signed a joint statement creating the Nuclear Security Contact Group. The group, which will consist of an “informed senior official or officials” from each of the participating countries, is tasked with convening annually on the margins of the IAEA General Conference with the goal of keeping senior officials focused on nuclear security and advancing commitments made at the summits. 

Some nuclear security experts warned that these efforts would not be enough to sustain the high-level attention necessary to further improve global nuclear material security in the future.

Matthew Bunn, a professor of practice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said in an April 4 article published on the website of the school’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs that the communiqué offered “no firm new nuclear security commitments.”

Bunn, a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, added that the action plans for the five international institutions provided “few steps beyond what those institutions are already doing—certainly less than is needed to fill the gap left by the end of the summit process.” 

In a commentary published on the website of the European Leadership Network, Miles Pomper, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said the end of the summit process “threatens to downgrade the issue from one of high politics to a technical concern that receives insufficient attention—until or unless there is a terrorist attack that uses such materials.”

Central Role for IAEA

The text of the action plan for the IAEA stressed the central importance of the agency in strengthening global nuclear security in the aftermath of the summits and the need to buttress the agency’s nuclear security role and capabilities. 

In particular, the plan expressed strong support for the agency’s convening of a regular, triennial nuclear security meeting “to promote political commitment, enhance awareness and keep momentum on strengthening the global nuclear security architecture.”

The IAEA held the first such meeting in July 2013. The second is scheduled for December 2016.

The plan also calls on summit participants to provide “reliable and sufficient resources” for the agency and to use “information sharing mechanisms managed by the IAEA to build domestic, regional and international confidence in the effectiveness of national nuclear security regimes.”

In addition, states are encouraged to collaborate with the IAEA “to raise awareness of the threat of cyber attacks with potential impacts on nuclear security.” The plan recommends that the agency “develop a methodology for states to report cyber or computer security attacks.”

Trevor Findlay, an associate of the Belfer Center’s Project on Managing the Atom, said in an April 8 blog post published on the center’s website that the essential role given to the IAEA is noteworthy given “years of speculation as to whether and to what extent the Agency could or should take on the summits’ innovative, high-level approach and activities.”

But he said the action plan “is more wish list than action plan.” Findlay added that the plan provides no new authorities or funding to the IAEA and missed an opportunity to propose that the agency’s voluntary recommendations on the security of nuclear and radiological materials ultimately evolve into legally binding standards. 

Russian Objections

With the exception of Russia, all of the countries from the 2014 summit attended in 2016. Russia announced in late 2014 that it would not attend the Washington meeting. (See ACT, December 2014.)

At an April 7 event in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin said a main reason he decided not to attend was because Russia was invited to participate in the drafting of only one of the five action plans in the preparatory process leading up to the gathering. 

“[A] big nuclear power like Russia cannot take part in an event such as this and not have the possibility to influence the drafting of the final resolutions,” Putin said.

Russia remains a co-chair with the United States of the GICNT, a voluntary organization launched in 2006 to strengthen global abilities to prevent and respond to acts of nuclear terrorism. (See ACT, March 2016.)  The action plan for the GICNT emphasizes buttressing the national capacity of partner states in nuclear security, particularly in the areas of nuclear detection, forensics, and response.  

In addition to not participating in the 2016 summit, Russia decided in late 2014 to end most nuclear security cooperation with the United States. (See ACT, March 2015.)

In his article, Bunn said Washington should “put high priority on rebuilding nuclear security cooperation with Russia, on a different, more equal model.” 

Given the threat posed by the Islamic State and the large stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material in Russia and the United States, cooperation between the two countries is essential, he said.

Legal Standards 

One of the most noteworthy achievements of the final summit was the announcement that the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) received the necessary ratifications to enter into force. (See ACT, May 2016.)

The CPPNM amendment expands the original treaty to require parties not only to protect nuclear material in international transit, but also to protect nuclear facilities and nuclear material that is in domestic storage, use, or transit.

Some observers advocate negotiating more-comprehensive binding standards for securing nuclear and other radioactive material based on the IAEA’s currently voluntary guidance on nuclear security and creating a process to assess implementation and review those standards. 

But in an email to Arms Control Today during the run-up to the summit, a senior White House official observed that it has taken more than 10 years to bring the CPPNM amendment into force and that only a fraction of IAEA member states have endorsed a document originating at the 2014 summit in which countries committed themselves to meet the intent of the IAEA’s voluntary guidelines in their domestic laws and regulations. That track record indicates that “there is not adequate support within the IAEA to create legally binding standards at this time,” the official said in the Feb. 12 email. 

In remarks on March 30 at a high-level nuclear industry gathering held in conjunction with the governmental security summit, John Barrett, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, said mandatory standards might be “too much too soon.” In the remarks and an interview afterward, he said binding standards might take some time to develop, as they often do not comport with the existing legal regimes in some countries.

At least at first, the industry might take an approach of forming “coalitions of the willing,” in which some companies jointly agree to accept certain higher standards, he said. A slightly different approach would be to establish industry benchmarks or approved best practices, he said.

In all of those cases, Barrett emphasized, companies not following the model should have to be able to answer the question, “If not that, then what are you doing” to achieve the same goal by different means?

As part of a report for the industry meeting, a working group chaired by Barrett produced a “governance template” that poses a series of questions for organizations that are responsible for the security of nuclear and radiological materials. One question in the template asks how the organization’s board of directors carries out “effective governance and oversight” of the organization’s nuclear security program. It observes that boards of directors “are usually required by law to oversee risk, including security,” and asks, “Does your Board have a mechanism to review security policy and performance? If not, why not?”

In a presentation at the March 30 session of the industry meeting, Roger Howsley, executive director of the World Institute for Nuclear Security, said that a goal for nuclear organizations is that they increasingly see nuclear security “as a strategic issue…rather than a regulatory burden.”

Howsley elaborated in an April 14 email to Arms Control Today, saying that the organizations’ governing bodies should “really believe that the nuclear security arrangements for which they are responsible are key to business success and take a view on the risk and associated security measures, rather than just complying with security regulations on a compliance basis.”

National leaders last month endorsed action plans for five key institutions and initiatives to carry on parts of the nuclear security summit agenda.

U.S. Reveals New Data on Nuclear Costs

May 2016

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. government in recent months has released new long-term cost data that shine further light on its plans to ramp up spending to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons, especially during the 10-year period between 2025 and 2035. 

Senior officials from the Defense and Energy departments have warned for years about the affordability challenges posed by their nuclear spending plans, but they argue that the expenditures are needed to sustain a credible nuclear deterrent and can be successfully carried out if appropriately prioritized. 

On April 1, the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) publicly released the fourth version of its annual report on the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan. The fiscal year 2017 iteration projects more than $300 billion in spending on agency efforts related to modernizing the nuclear weapons stockpile over the next 25 years. 

The NNSA is requesting $9.2 billion for its nuclear weapons activities in fiscal year 2017, an increase of almost $400 million, or 4 percent, above the enacted level for the current year. (See ACT, March 2016.)

Notably, the new report says that the NNSA may need $2.9 billion more in funding between 2022 and 2026 to implement its weapons activities than the agency is projecting to request. During this period, the NNSA is planning to be in the midst of simultaneously executing four to five major warhead life extension programs and several major construction projects.

The mismatch between NNSA budget projections and program plans is driven in part by the agency’s costly and controversial proposal to eventually consolidate the U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads. The April report does not alter the schedule for that effort.

First announced in June 2013, the so-called 3+2 strategy has a sticker price of roughly $60 billion and calls for shrinking the current stockpile of nine different warhead types down to five types. Three of these warhead types would be “interoperable” on land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, an approach that has not been tried. Two other warhead types would be used on bombers, and two of the seven current warhead types would be retired.

Congress has repeatedly questioned the wisdom of the 3+2 approach, citing the cost and risks involved with the interoperable warheads. (See ACT, May 2014.)

Nonetheless, the NNSA maintains that the 2017 version of its stockpile plan is “generally more affordable and executable” than last year’s version because the projected budget requests between 2026 and 2041 more closely align with the actual predicted costs of the plan. 

Meanwhile, the Pentagon in recent months has begun to reveal more information about the planned costs of its plans to build new fleets of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), ballistic missile submarines, long-range bombers, and short-range tactical aircraft. 

Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate and House armed services committees in March that he “expects the total cost of nuclear modernization to be in the range of $350-$450 billion.” He did not provide further details on what accounts for the large range in the estimate, whether any projected NNSA costs are included, or what timeline the figure covers.

Carter said that although the nuclear modernization plan “still presents an enormous affordability challenge for [the Defense Department], we believe it must be funded.”

He added that prior “modernizations of America’s strategic deterrent and nuclear security enterprise were accomplished by topline increases to avoid having to make drastic reductions to conventional forces, and it would be prudent to do so again.”

Pentagon officials have previously stated that the cost to build and sustain new nuclear missiles, submarines, and bombers and to make needed improvements to nuclear command-and-control systems is projected to average $18 billion per year from 2021 to 2035 in constant fiscal year 2016 dollars. (See ACT, September 2015.

In addition, a Defense Department chart obtained by Arms Control Today shows that the department’s planned nuclear spending is slated to average more than $40 billion in constant fiscal year 2016 dollars between 2025 and 2035. The chart was prepared in January by the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, which provides the Defense Department with detailed analysis of the costs of major acquisition programs. 

A knowledgeable source said last month that the chart does not include the NNSA’s projected weapons-related spending during this period. Including these costs would push average spending during this period to well more than $50 billion per year.

A new report by the National Nuclear Security Administration illuminates U.S. plans to spend more on nuclear weapons maintenance and modernization.

U.S.: Russian INF Treaty Breach Persists

May 2016

By Kingston Reif

Russia remains in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty for the third year in a row, according to an annual State Department report released on April 11.

Nevertheless, one high-ranking State Department official expressed optimism that Russia and the United States could make progress this year toward resolving the issue. 

Reiterating the public assessment that it made in July 2014 and June 2015, the State Department said Russia is violating its INF Treaty obligations “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers or “to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.” (See ACT, July/August 2015.

Moscow continues to deny that it has violated the agreement. The Russian embassy in Washington said in a lengthy April 16 statement that the United States “does not provide objective facts or any other reliable arguments to reiterate these accusations.”

The statement also accused the United States of “preparing military response scenarios” to Russia’s alleged violation that could “have unpredictable consequences for Europe and the international community as a whole.”

In testimony at a Dec. 1 hearing held jointly by House armed services and foreign affairs subcommittees, Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said the Pentagon is “developing a comprehensive response to Russian military actions” and “committing to investments that we will make irrespective of Russia’s decision to return to compliance with the INF Treaty due to the broader strategic environment we face.” (See ACT, January/February 2016.

As in the 2014 and 2015 reports, this year’s report did not specify the type of Russian cruise missile in question, the number of tests conducted, or the location of the tests.

Defense and State department officials have said they do not believe Russia has deployed the prohibited missile.

In March 17 testimony at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said she had seen “some progress in Russia’s willingness at the highest level to recommit to the treaty” and that the U.S. government is “looking forward to moving expeditiously in 2016 to try to make some progress on this difficult matter.”

Gottemoeller did not elaborate on the reasons for her optimism.

Meanwhile, the compliance report also registered concerns about Russia’s compliance with the 1992 Open Skies Treaty. The report said Russia “continues not to meet its treaty obligations to allow the effective observation of its entire territory.” In addition, the report said that Russia in 2015 refused to allow Ukraine to overfly its territory “unless Ukraine paid for each flight in advance.” This “could be the basis for a violation determination” by Ukraine, the report said. 

The Open Skies Treaty, which entered into force in 2002, permits each of the agreement’s 34 states-parties to conduct short-notice, unarmed reconnaissance flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

Separate from the compliance concerns, some U.S. military officials and intelligence officials appear to be opposed to Russia’s request in February to end the use of older wet-film cameras on flights over the United States and instead use a more advanced digital optical sensor to collect data. 

Although the upgrade to digital equipment is allowed under the treaty, the concern is that the use of the more advanced cameras and sensors would greatly increase Russia’s ability to collect intelligence on critical military and civilian infrastructure. 

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the House Armed Services Committee at a March 2 hearing that he has “great concern about the quality of the [digital] imagery” for intelligence collection purposes and “would love to deny the Russians…that capability.” 

The United States has yet to transition to the use of the more advanced digital sensors in its treaty flights over Russia, but plans to do so in the near future.

Gottemoeller told lawmakers at the March 17 hearing that she has “a somewhat different view of the utility of the treaty” than Stewart does. 

“I do want to stress that the Open Skies Treaty is an arms control treaty with a larger set of goals and purposes, among them confidence building, mutual confidence building,” she said. 

“It has a great value to our allies and to our partners,” such as Ukraine, Gottemoeller said, adding that Ukraine has “made great use of the treaty” during its ongoing confrontation with Russia.—KINGSTON REIF

For the third year in a row, the State Department declared Russia to be in violation of the arms control pact, despite Moscow’s continued denial. 

Hill Blocks JLENS Funding

May 2016

By Kingston Reif

The Senate Appropriations Committee in March denied the Defense Department’s request for additional funding in fiscal year 2016 to resume an exercise of a blimp-borne radar system designed to detect and track objects such as cruise missiles. 

The action will force the Army, which had hoped to resume the exercise, to store the system for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. (See ACT, March 2016.)

The exercise was suspended after the system suffered a major mishap last October. One of the two tethered blimps that make up the current test deployment of the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) detached from its mooring station near Baltimore, dragging 6,700 feet of cable for three hours before finally coming to rest. (See ACT, December 2015.)

Ben Marter, a spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the top Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee, said in a March 11 statement to Politico that the “JLENS program has been a big disappointment to taxpayers.”

“It’s time to end the program,” he added.

In the fiscal year 2016 omnibus appropriations bill, Congress slashed $30 million from the requested amount of $40.6 million for the JLENS exercise in the wake of the crash. 

The extra funds requested by the Pentagon earlier this year would have restored nearly all of the money cut by Congress. 

Despite the setback, the Defense Department said it remains committed to the system. In a March 22 press briefing, Lt. Gen. David Mann, the commander of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, said the department is working to “further validate” to Congress the need for the system. 

The Pentagon requested $45 million to resume the exercise of the system in its fiscal year 2017 budget submission, which was released in February.

The Senate Appropriations Committee in March denied the Defense Department’s request for additional funding in fiscal year 2016 to resume an exercise of a blimp-borne radar system...

On Nuclear Security, U.S. Must Put Its Money Where Its Mouth Is

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Body: 

Volume 8, Issue 1, April 15, 2016

The Nuclear Security Summit process and associated U.S. nuclear threat reduction programs have played a vital role in reducing the risk of a nuclear or radiological attack by terrorists. But the threat is constantly changing and may have grown in recent years in light of the rise of the Islamic State group and indications it may have nuclear and/or radiological ambitions.

Despite noteworthy achievements, however, significant work remains to be done to prevent terrorists from detonating a nuclear explosive device or dirty bomb. For example, even after four Nuclear Security Summits there are no comprehensive, legally-binding international standards or rules for the security of all nuclear materials. The existing global nuclear security architecture needs to continue to evolve to become more comprehensive, open, rigorous, sustainable, and involve the further reduction of material stockpiles.

It is thus puzzling that just weeks before the final summit in Washington earlier this month, the Obama administration submitted to Congress a budget that proposed significant spending reductions for key National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) programs that lessen nuclear security and nonproliferation risks, accelerating a trend in recent years of short-sighted cuts to these programs. If implemented, these decreases will slow progress on key nuclear security initiatives, jeopardize the sustainability of those initiatives, and undermine U.S. leadership in this area.

As the Senate and House of Representatives begin their work on the fiscal year 2017 defense authorization and energy and water appropriations bills—which establish spending levels and set policy for Defense Department and NNSA activities—lawmakers should reverse these ill-advised budget cuts. Additionally, Congress should encourage the NNSA to augment its nuclear and radiological security work to help ensure the end of the summit process does not weaken progress toward continuously improving global nuclear and radiological material security.

Disappointing Budget Request

If the risk of nuclear or radiological terrorism isn’t on your mind, it should be. The recent Islamic State group-perpetrated terrorist attacks in Brussels offered another bloody reminder of the danger of terrorism. To make matters worse, reports indicate that two of the suicide bombers who perpetrated the attack had also carried out surveillance of a Belgian official with access to a facility with weapons-grade uranium and radioactive material.

A new report published on March 21 by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs concludes that the risk of nuclear terrorism may be higher than it was at the time of the third Nuclear Security Summit in 2014 due to the slowing of nuclear security progress and the rise of the Islamic State group.

Against this concerning backdrop, the NNSA, a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department responsible for the bulk of U.S. nuclear security work, in February requested $1.47 billion for core nuclear security, nonproliferation, and counterterrorism programs in fiscal year 2017—a reduction of $62.4 million, or 3.8 percent, relative to the current fiscal year 2016 level. (Note: these figures exclude the administration’s request of $270 million to terminate the Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel program for excess U.S. weapons plutonium disposition.)

The drop is even steeper when measured against what the NNSA projected it would request for these programs in its fiscal year 2016 submission, which was issued in February 2015. The agency had said it planned to ask for $1.65 billion in fiscal year 2017, or roughly $185 million more than the actual proposal.

The largest proposed reduction in the request is to the Global Material Security program, which improves the security of nuclear materials around the world, secures orphaned or disused radiological sources—which could be used to make a dirty bomb—and strengthens nuclear smuggling detection and deterrence. Within this program, the NNSA is seeking $7.6 million less than last year’s appropriation for radiological material security programs and roughly $270 million less for these activities over the next four years than it planned to request over the same period, last year.

Most experts agree that the probability of a terrorist exploding a dirty bomb is much higher than that of a nuclear device. This is due in large part to the ubiquitous presence of these materials, which are used for peaceful applications like cancer treatment, in thousands of locations and in almost every country around the world, many of which are poorly protected and vulnerable to theft. A new report published last month by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) noted that only 14% of International Atomic Energy Agency member states have agreed to secure their highest risk radiological sources by a specific date.

Along with reducing the budget for radiological security, the NNSA is planning to transition from a primarily protect-based approach for radiological materials to one that emphasizes permanent threat reduction through the removal of sources and the promotion of alternative technologies, when feasible. While it makes sense to seek to replace these sources as opposed to securing them in perpetuity, this revised approach raises numerous questions, including whether some sources will remain vulnerable for longer than under the previous strategy. At the current planned pace, it would take another 17 years to meet the NNSA’s much-reduced target of helping to secure just under 4,400 buildings around the world with dangerous radioactive material—down from a target of roughly twice that just last year.

Elsewhere in the NNSA nonproliferation budget, funding for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development activities would fall to $394 million from its $419 million fiscal year 2016 appropriation. This program matures technologies used in tracking foreign nuclear weapons programs, illicit diversion of nuclear materials, and nuclear detonations. The NNSA projected a request of $430 million in fiscal year 2017 research and development funding in its fiscal year 2016 request.

The NNSA has defended some of the reductions to the nonproliferation account on the grounds that several major projects have been completed, thereby lessening resource needs, and that the impact of spending cuts can be mitigated by using unspent money left over from prior years, largely due to the suspension in late 2014 of nearly all nuclear security cooperation with Russia. But the cuts proposed for fiscal year 2017, relative to what was projected last year, are significant, especially to the radiological security and research and development programs where the NNSA does not say they will use unspent balances.

An Energy Department task force report on NNSA nonproliferation programs released last year expressed concern about the recent trend of falling budgets for those programs (see chart). “The need to counter current and likely future challenges to nonproliferation justifies increased, rather than reduced, investment in this area,” the report said.

Similarly, Andrew Bieniawski, a former deputy assistant secretary of Energy who ran the NNSA’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative during both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and who is now a vice president at NTI, said last month that the agency’s recent budget requests “do not match the growing threat and they certainly don’t match the fact that you are having a presidential nuclear security summit.”

Many members of Congress agree with these concerns. In August 2014, 26 senators sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget seeking increased funding for NNSA nuclear nonproliferation programs for fiscal year 2016. Though the 2016 request was higher than the previous year’s enacted level, it did not meet the Senators’ desire “to further accelerate the pace at which nuclear and radiological materials are secured and permanently disposed.”

Reinvigorating Congressional Leadership

The global effort to prevent nuclear terrorism is at a key inflection point. While the United States can’t tackle the challenge on its own, U.S. leadership and resources are essential. The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2017 budget request was a missed opportunity to advance many good ideas in this space that haven't received adequate attention and investment.

Congress has a critical role to play in this endeavor, and there are a number of steps it can take this year to sustain and strengthen U.S. and global nuclear and radiological security efforts.

First, Congress should increase fiscal year 2017 funding for NNSA radiological security and nonproliferation research and development efforts, the two programs hardest hit by the agency’s proposed budget cuts. Additional funding would allow an acceleration of efforts to secure dangerous radiological materials and ensure the United States is prepared to confront emerging security and nonproliferation challenges.

Congress should also call for a global strategy, stronger regulations, and increased funding to secure and eliminate the most vulnerable highest-risk radiological sources around the world during the first term of the next administration. This multidimensional effort should entail a number of elements, including: securing the most vulnerable sources (where needed); requiring the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to implement stronger regulatory requirements; supporting universal adherence to the IAEA Code of Conduct on radiological sources; mandating additional cost-sharing by industry; and, where appropriate, accelerating the development and use of alternative technologies. An accelerated international radiological security effort would be consistent with a proposal from Sen. Carper (D-Del.) requiring the administration to craft a plan for securing all high-risk low-level radiological material in the United States.

In addition, Congress should require NNSA to report on its research and development activities and identify opportunities to expand them in areas such as:

  • developing alternatives to high performance research reactors that run on highly enriched uranium (HEU);
  • converting HEU-powered naval reactors to use low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel (the White House announced on March 31 that the Energy Department is forming a research and development plan for an advanced fuel system that could enable use of LEU in naval reactors); and
  • examining ways adversaries could potentially use 3D printing and other new technologies to make nuclear-weapons usable components.

Other ideas that have been put forth to augment NNSA’s (and the rest of the interagency) nuclear security and nonproliferation work worthy of Congressional backing include:

  • completing a prioritization of nuclear materials at foreign locations for return or disposition, to identify the most vulnerable material stocks to focus efforts on, and establishing a time frame for doing so;
  • developing new detection and monitoring technologies and approaches to verify future nuclear arms reductions;
  • outlining a plan for how to expand U.S. nuclear security cooperation with China, India, and Pakistan and addressing obstacles to such an expansion and how they could be overcome;
  • developing approaches to rebuild nuclear security cooperation with Russia that would put both countries in equal roles;
  • building a global nuclear materials security system of effective nuclear security norms, standards, and best practices worldwide;
  • enhancing protections against nuclear sabotage; and
  • strengthening—and sharing—intelligence on nuclear and radiological terrorism threats.

In addition, Congress should seek ways to dissuade other states from pursuing programs to reprocess fuel from nuclear power plants, which lead to the separation of plutonium.

While the Nuclear Security Summit process has seen significant progress in the minimization of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for civilian purposes, global civilian plutonium stockpiles continue to grow. East Asia in particular is on the verge of a major build up of separated plutonium, which could be used in nuclear weapons and poses significant security risks. Japan and China both have plans to reprocess on a large-scale, and doing so would almost certainly prompt South Korea to follow suit.

To its credit, the Obama administration has recently been more vocal in expressing its concerns about these plans. Congress should encourage the administration, and NNSA in particular, to engage in additional cooperative work with countries in East Asia on spent fuel storage options and the elimination of excess plutonium stockpiles without reprocessing.

Over the years, U.S. support for nuclear security programs at home and abroad has resulted in an enormously effective return on investment that greatly strengthens U.S. security, and will be even more important in the years ahead in absence of head of state level summit meetings.

Indeed, there is a long legacy of members of Congress from both parties working together to reduce nuclear risks. For example, in 1991, Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) put forward the “Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991,” which authorized $400 million to create U.S.-led programs assist the countries of the former Soviet Union secure and eliminate nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and other weapons. This effort became known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, which has successfully liquidated thousands of Cold War-era Soviet weapons.

Twenty-five years later, the evolution of security and proliferation challenges requires similarly bold and innovative Congressional leadership.

—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 

Description: 

The Nuclear Security Summit process and associated U.S. nuclear threat reduction programs have played a vital role in reducing the risk of a nuclear or radiological attack by terrorists.

Live Blogging the Nuclear Security Summit

Recap: The Summit Process and Beyond The Nuclear Security Summit process has forged cooperation and catalyzed action to prevent the common threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism. It has facilitated cooperative efforts between dozens of states to eliminate, consolidate, and secure stocks weapons-usable nuclear material. The process has also accelerated the adoption of tougher standards for the physical protection of nuclear materials where they remain, as manifested today by the news that enough states have ratified the 2005 amendment to the Conventional on the Physical Protection of...

Air Force Seeks Mobile ICBM Option

April 2016

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. Air Force is planning to design a next generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that will have the capability to be deployed on mobile launchers, a knowledgeable source told Arms Control Today last month.

Initial Air Force estimates suggest that it would cost roughly $400 million in development funding to provide the “modularity” that would allow this option, the source said.

A decision by the United States to deploy ICBMs on a mobile platform would represent an unprecedented development in U.S. nuclear strategy. The United States explored two mobile ICBM options during the Cold War—the Peacekeeper, which would have been carried by railcars, and the small ICBM, or Midgetman, which would have been carried by trucks—but both programs were canceled before they became operational.

Developing transportable ICBM forces would cost at least $80 billion more over the next 50 years than retaining only silo-based missiles, according to Air Force estimates.

In an email exchange last month, Maj. Robert Leese, an Air Force spokesman, confirmed that the service is pursuing a replacement for the silo-based Minuteman III system “that will provide the option for alternative modes of operation in the future.” The replacement is known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).

Leese declined to provide additional details, saying that “[t]he design features and the total cost required to support this option will be evaluated” later in the acquisition process.

A 2014 report by the RAND Corp. on the future of the ICBM force said a “mobile missile must be designed and built to more-demanding specifications then a silo-based ICBM,” such as remaining “reliable under the rigors of periodic movement.” The Minuteman III currently is not capable of being put on a mobile platform.

The requirement to examine future ICBM mobility appears to have originated with the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review Report.” The document stated that the Defense Department would study “new modes of ICBM basing that enhance survivability and further reduce any incentives for prompt launch.” Under this argument, a mobile ICBM would enhance the overall survivability of the ICBM force by making the missile more difficult to target and destroy, thereby reducing the pressure the president might feel in the event of a nuclear attack to use ICBMs quickly lest they be destroyed.

The current Air Force proposal for replacing the Minuteman III calls for procuring 642 replacement missiles and rebuilding the existing missile infrastructure at an estimated acquisition cost of $62.3 billion (in then-year dollars) over the next 30 years. (See ACT, July/August 2015.)

That number of missiles would allow the United States to have a capability extending into the 2070s to deploy 400 ICBMs, the number that the United States will have in 2018 under the terms of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

To meet the treaty limits, the Defense Department has said it will reduce the U.S. arsenal from its current level—441 deployed missiles as of September 2015—while retaining 50 nondeployed missile launchers.

Leese said that, under the GBSD program, the Air Force is proposing to build “an improved system” that replaces the entire Minuteman III flight system, including the re-entry vehicles, guidance system, and propulsion system. The program also would renovate the associated missile-launch facilities, launch control centers, and command-and-control system, he said. The Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor reported last August that the plan is to replace the missiles first, followed by the support systems. The program is scheduled to achieve an initial operating capability of nine missiles by fiscal year 2029, the report said.

The Obama administration is requesting $114 million for the program in fiscal year 2017, an increase of almost $39 million over the appropriation for the current fiscal year. (See ACT, March 2016.)

The knowledgeable source said that, under the Air Force plan, the replacement missiles that will be fielded between 2028 and 2036 will not include mobile missiles.

ICBMs make up the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad of delivery systems, which also consists of submarine-launched missiles and long-range bombers. The bombers can carry air-launched cruise missiles and gravity bombs.

The Minuteman III, which has a range of more than 8,000 miles, was first fielded in 1970 with a planned service life of 10 years. Several multibillion-dollar life extension programs have kept the missile in service for more than 40 years.

Costs Revealed

In 2014 the Air Force completed an analysis of alternatives to sustain the ICBM force beyond the anticipated end of the Minuteman III’s service life in 2030.

The analysis focused on three alternatives: a “baseline” option that would extend the life of the Minuteman III through 2075, a “replacement system” that would “capitaliz[e]” on the existing Minuteman III silo infrastructure, and a “hybrid” option that would mix the existing Minuteman III silo infrastructure with new road-mobile ICBMs.

The analysis ultimately recommended that the Air Force proceed with the replacement option. The total life-cycle cost of this approach was estimated at $159 billion (in fiscal year 2014 constant dollars) between fiscal years 2016 and 2075, according to Leese.

The baseline option was estimated to cost $160 billion and the hybrid option $242 billion.

Leese said that mobile forces would not have been deployed until around 2050 under the hybrid option. 

Incremental Upgrade Rejected

Like the Air Force, the 2014 RAND study ruled out basic sustainment of the Minuteman III as a realistic follow-on option, noting that “replacement of failed items with exact replicas is not possible in some instances.”

The RAND study took a more favorable view of an approach to sustaining the Minuteman III beyond 2030 that the authors called “incremental modernization,” which differed from the three main alternatives that the Air Force considered. The report said maintaining the missile through continued life extension programs and “gradual upgrades is a relatively inexpensive way to retain current ICBM capabilities.”

The study identified two challenges to this approach. First, the number of Minuteman III missile bodies is declining due to test launches. Based on the current testing pace, maintaining a force of 400 missiles, as is the plan under New START, would deplete the test inventory by 2035. Second, the report said incremental modernization would be “viable” only if the capability the Minuteman III provides “is not substantially changed.”

In the March email exchange, Leese said the analysis of alternatives “looked at a ‘phased’ implementation of” system “improvements” but did not recommend this option. “Incremental modernization is hindered by” the near-term need to upgrade key parts of the missile “and the remaining elements of the weapon system,” such as ground security and communications, he said.

This approach would also increase the near-term cost of sustaining the Minuteman III, Leese added.

Meanwhile, an Air Force official told Politico last October that “as enemy capabilities continue to progress...more advanced technologies are required to meet” the ICBM mission. The official did not specify what new technologies would be required or if a future mobile option is desired to enhance the U.S. capability.

A Feb. 17 story in The Daily Beast cited concerns among some military officials that the Minuteman III lacks the required accuracy to destroy key hardened targets.

In addition, Gen. Robin Rand, the commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 2 that the Minuteman III “will have a difficult time surviving” against missile defenses or other anti-missile capabilities—known as “anti-area access denial”—that potential adversaries are expected to possess “in the 2030 and beyond time period.”

When asked to clarify whether future Russian or Chinese missile defenses could prevent the Minuteman III from delivering nuclear warheads to their targets, a second Air Force spokesman said in an email last month that the “[s]pecifics regarding the survivability of the Minuteman III weapon system are classified.” The spokesman added that the GBSD program will “address future threats, especially those that may emerge in a post-2030 Anti-Access/Area Denial environment.”

A second knowledgeable source who has been briefed on the GBSD program questioned the Air Force’s approach to replacing the Minuteman III. The source said in an interview that the Air Force had yet to adequately explain why the Minuteman III could not be sustained until the 2040s, thereby allowing the Air Force to defer until then its decision on whether to build a replacement system.

Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a January report that “delaying GBSD by five years would yield savings in the early 2020s averaging $2 billion annually.”

Deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles on mobile launchers would represent an unprecedented development in U.S. nuclear strategy.

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