Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Kingston Reif

South Korea to Deploy U.S. Defense System

September 2016

By Kingston Reif and Kelsey Davenport

The United States and South Korea have agreed that the United States will deploy an advanced missile defense system on the Korean peninsula to counter North Korea, a plan that is drawing strong objections from China and vocal domestic opposition in South Korea. 

The two allies described the decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery “as a defensive measure to ensure the security” of South Korea and “to protect alliance military forces from North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats,” according to the July 8 joint announcement of the agreement. Seoul’s aim is to have the system operational by the end of 2017.

South Koreans at the Seoul Railway Station watch a television report July 13 on the planned deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to protect the South from North Korean missiles. [Photo credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]Formal talks about deployment began in early February “in response to the evolving threat posed by North Korea,” according to the announcement. In January, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, which had a yield of about 10 kilotons. (See ACT, March 2016.) North Korea is also developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles with longer ranges and tested K-11 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) on July 9 and Aug. 23. 

Pyongyang embarked on an accelerated testing schedule for its intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Musudan, this spring as well as undertaking further rocket-engine tests for an intercontinental ballistic missile. (See ACT, July/August 2016; May 2016.) It is likely that North Korea already has the capability to fit a nuclear warhead on its short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, although the reliability would be uncertain. (See ACT, June 2014.) 

Three days after the U.S.-South Korean announcement, North Korea’s military threatened to respond to the THAAD deployment with “physical response measures,” including “a ruthless retaliatory strike” against South Korea. 

The mobile, ground-based THAAD system is designed to defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in the middle and end stages of flight. A THAAD battery consists of interceptor missiles, launchers, a radar, a fire control and communications system, and other support equipment. A battery can hold between 48 and 72 interceptors. The THAAD system has completed 13 successful flight and interception tests since 2006, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA). 

The THAAD system is intended to complement the Patriot system, which can intercept ballistic missiles at low altitudes and at short distances from its location, and the sea-based Aegis system, which can only intercept ballistic missiles outside the atmosphere. South Korea and the United States already deploy a mix of Patriot systems and Aegis ships in defense of the Korean peninsula. 

The battery will be operated by United States Forces Korea. The South Korean Defense Ministry said on July 13 that the battery would “better protect” one-half to two-thirds of South Korea’s citizens “from North Korean nuclear and missile threats.”

The defense ministry initially announced that the THAAD battery would be deployed at a military base in the southeastern county of Seongju, about 180 miles southeast of Seoul. But thousands of residents of Seongju county have demonstrated against the plan, citing concerns that the radar could pose health and environmental dangers and expressing frustration that the county was not consulted before the deployment decision. 

On Aug. 22, the defense ministry said it will review alternative locations to deploy the battery. 

China Opposes THAAD

Despite U.S. and South Korean claims that the THAAD battery will be focused solely on North Korea, China has sternly objected to the planned deployment. The decision “severely undermines China’s strategic security interests,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang in a July 11 press conference.

“China will take corresponding measures to safeguard its interests” in response to the deployment, Lu added. He did not specify what form such steps might take. 

Protesters outside the South Korean Defense Ministry in Seoul on July 13 denounce plans for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in Seongju county, about 180 miles southeast of the capital. [Photo credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]

Chinese officials have said that the THAAD system’s radar could be configured to detect and track missiles launched from China, thereby increasing the capability of U.S. missile defenses against China. 

In an Aug. 11 press conference in Seoul, U.S. Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the director of the MDA, said the THAAD deployment “will not be part of the wider missile defense network that” the agency “has developed and commanders around the world utilize.”

The U.S. missile defense system “is not designed against China,” he said. “We don’t defend against China as a threat.”

North Korea Tests Missiles

North Korea tested a medium-range ballistic missile in August that landed approximately 125 miles off the coast of Japan in an area Tokyo claims as its economic exclusion zone. 

In an Aug. 4 statement, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the test “an intolerable act of recklessness” and said North Korea’s missile activities are a serious threat to Japan.

The Nodong missile, a system North Korea has tested successfully on past occasions, was launched on Aug. 3 from the southwestern tip of the country. It traveled approximately 1,000 kilometers  (620 miles) before landing in the Sea of Japan. A second missile was launched simultaneously, but exploded shortly after launch. These launches followed two Nodong tests in July that were successful but fell short of Japanese waters.

North Korea is prohibited from launching ballistic missiles under UN Security Council resolutions. The Security Council met on Aug. 4 to discuss the launch, but did not issue a statement condemning the missile test due to disagreements over language in the statement. 

An official familiar with the discussions told Arms Control Today on Aug. 15 that China wanted language in the Security Council statement saying that any deployment of missile defenses aimed at North Korea would “escalate tensions.” The United States and other members objected.

North Korea’s test launch of a K-11 SLBM took place a day after the THAAD deployment announcement. The missile appears to have exited the water successfully, but exploded after gaining altitude.

North Korea tested another SLBM on Aug. 23 from a submarine based out of Sinpo shipyard in the northeast of the country. The missile flew approximately 500 kilometers before splashing down into the ocean between North Korea and Japan. Although it is unclear what objectives Pyongyang was attempting to achieve with the test, the launch seems to have been successful.

The United States plans to operate a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in South Korea by the end of 2017.

New Cruise Missiles to Cost $11 Billion

September 2016

UPDATED: September 2, 2016

UPDATED: December 12, 2016

By Kingston Reif

An updated U.S. Air Force estimate, approved by the Pentagon’s top acquisition official in July, puts the cost to design and build a fleet of new nuclear-capable cruise missiles at $10.8 billion, a source familiar with the program told Arms Control Today

The service prepared the estimate, which is in fiscal year 2016 constant dollars, in the spring in preparation for the program’s milestone A decision, a key early benchmark in the acquisition process for the weapon, according to the source. 

(UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, Arms Control Today has learned that this acquisition estimate is in "then-year dollars," which includes inflationary increases expected over the life of the program, not constant dollars as previously reported.)

An unarmed AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile maneuvers over the Utah Test and Training Range en route to its target September 22, 2014, during a simulated combat mission. [Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Roidan Carlson/U.S. Air Force]Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, approved that decision on July 29, the Air Force said later that day. The service declined requests from Arms Control Today to provide information on new program cost estimates.

An early draft estimate prepared by the Air Force in fiscal year 2015 projected the price to acquire the missile fleet at $8.3 billion. 

The service also announced on July 29 that it had begun soliciting proposals from the defense industry to design the new air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), known as the long-range standoff weapon, and a new fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). 

These programs are part of the Defense Department’s plan to modernize and replace elements of the U.S. nuclear triad, which department officials anticipate will cost $350-450 billion over the next 20 years and will put severe pressure on the overall military budget unless Congress provides additional funding. (See ACT, May 2016.)

The Air Force’s current ALCM is the AGM-86B, up to 20 of which can be carried by a B-52H bomber. Current Air Force plans call for the procurement of about 1,000 new nuclear-capable missiles to replace the current missile, which has been operational since 1986. (See ACT, June 2015.

The Air Force intends to award contracts to one or two companies for the long-range standoff weapon program in the summer of 2017, according to the service press release announcing the solicitation. The contractors will spend the next four and a half years completing a preliminary design, which will be followed by the selection of a sole contractor to further develop and produce the missiles. The first new missile is slated to be produced in 2026. 

As the Pentagon proceeds with its plans to replace the AGM-86B, the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is pursuing a life extension program for its warhead. The NNSA estimates that the cost of the program will be between $7.4-9.9 billion in “then-year dollars,” which includes inflationary increases expected over the life of the program. The first refurnished warhead is scheduled for production in 2025. 

Pentagon Debates New ICBM Cost

The Air Force also plans to award up to two contracts in the summer of 2017 to design the replacement for the Minuteman III ICBM system, known as the ground-based strategic deterrent. 

But Bloomberg News reported on Aug. 18 that Kendall has yet to approve the milestone A decision for the program due to a gap of billions of dollars between the cost estimate prepared by the Air Force and an independent estimate prepared 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.

(UPDATE: The Air Force announced in a Sept. 1 press release that the Defense Department approved the milestone A decision for the ground based strategic deterrent on Aug. 23.)

In an Aug. 10 press conference at the Pentagon, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the program “is not on hold” but that the department still needs to “get on the same page” regarding how to estimate the cost of the new missile system.

An early estimate prepared by the Air Force in February 2015 projected the cost to acquire 642 missiles and rebuild the existing Minuteman III infrastructure, including command and control systems, at $62.3 billion over the next 30 years in then-year dollars. (See ACT, July/August 2015.)

In 2014 the Air Force projected the total life-cycle cost of the ground-based strategic deterrent at $159 billion (in fiscal year 2014 constant dollars) between fiscal years 2016 and 2075. (See ACT, April 2016.)

Navy Names New Sub Program 

On July 28, U.S. Naval Institute News reported that the first submarine in the Navy’s Ohio-class replacement program will be called the Columbia and that the program will now be called the Columbia-class program. 

The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Alabama returns to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, Washington, on May 14, following a patrol mission. The Navy plans to replace its 14 Ohio-class submarines with 12 new Columbia-class subs. [Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda R. Gray/U.S. Navy]The Navy plans to replace its fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with 12 new subs. In 2014 the service estimated that the 12 planned boats, which are slated to be purchased between 2021 and 2035, will cost approximately $140 billion (in then-year dollars) to develop and build.

According to an informed source, the Navy in December 2010 projected the total life-cycle cost of the Columbia-class program to be $342 billion in then-year dollars through the 2080s. The source said the Navy prepared a second life-cycle estimate in 2014 that put the cost at $282 billion. The reduction in the life-cycle cost is attributable to such factors as a reduction in the average cost to buy the submarines, updated operations and maintenance costs, and revised inflation assumptions, according to the source. 

In a May 27 email to Arms Control Today, Lt. Kara Yingling, a Navy spokesperson, did not confirm the life-cycle estimates, but said the service is preparing updated cost estimates in preparation for the Columbia-class program’s milestone B acquisition decision, which is considered the formal start of a Pentagon acquisition program. That decision is scheduled to take place later this year, she said.

The Pentagon has raised the estimated cost for the new missiles slated to be produced in 2026.

Group Seeks Nuclear Ban Negotiations

September 2016

Kingston Reif

A supermajority of the non-nuclear-weapon states that participated in a working group on nuclear disarmament in Geneva this year called on the UN General Assembly to convene a conference in 2017 to negotiate a legally binding agreement that prohibits nuclear weapons.

The final outcome of the open-ended working group, a forum in which all UN members can participate, sets the stage for what many diplomats believe will be a highly contentious debate on a resolution to mandate the start of formal talks on such a treaty at the UN General Assembly First Committee in New York this fall. 

A view of the dais during a session of the Open Ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament, Palais des Nations on May 15, 2013. [Photo credit: Violaine Martin/UN Office at Geneva]On Aug. 19, by a vote of 68 to 22 with 13 abstentions, countries approved the final report of the working group. Many countries had expected the final report to pass by consensus, as the most contentious paragraphs underwent multiple revisions in an attempt to reconcile differing views. But the Australian delegation announced that it could not support the final report and called for a vote. An Australian Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman told The Guardian that Australia sought the vote as “the most effective way to register our opposition to a recommendation to start negotiations on a ban treaty.”

The final report reflected the different opinions on how to advance nuclear disarmament by noting that more than 100 countries, not all of which were present for the final vote, supported the recommendation to begin negotiations on a ban treaty, while a smaller group, most of them close U.S. allies, opposed the recommendation. (See ACT, June 2016.

Although none of the nine nuclear-armed states attended the working group meetings, countries that rely on U.S. nuclear weapons for their protection did participate. (See ACT, March 2016.) The final report noted that these so-called umbrella states backed “the pursuit of practical steps consisting of parallel and simultaneous effective legal and non-legal measures to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations,” such as achieving entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and commencing negotiations on further nuclear weapons reductions below the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty levels.

A supermajority of the non-nuclear-weapon states that participated in a working group on nuclear disarmament in Geneva this year called on the UN General Assembly to convene a conference in 2017...

NATO Highlights Role of Nuclear Weapons

September 2016

By Kingston Reif

Leaders of the 28 member countries of NATO strongly criticized Russian nuclear behavior and reaffirmed the security role played by U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe at their July 8-9 summit meeting in Warsaw, Poland. The sections of the alliance statement, or communiqué, devoted to nuclear weapons are nearly three times as long as those issued at the 2014 summit in the United Kingdom. (See ACT, October 2014.

In Warsaw, NATO leaders characterized as “destabilizing” Russia’s “irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric, military concept and underlying posture.” Alliance officials have expressed concern over the past two years about Russian actions such as more nuclear bomber flights close to the borders of alliance members, more nuclear exercises, and nuclear threats directed at NATO members. (See ACT, November 2015.)

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses press following the meeting on Afghanistan with Resolute Support Operational Partner Nations at the level of heads of state and government in Warsaw on July 6, 2016.[Photo credit: NATO]

The communiqué explicitly states that NATO’s deterrence posture “relies, in part, on the United States’ nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe and on capabilities and infrastructure provided by allies concerned.” This language is a significant departure from the 2014 communiqué and the alliance’s 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review report, neither of which explicitly referred to the need for U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. 

In addition, NATO countries stated in Warsaw that “[a]ny employment of nuclear weapons against NATO would fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict” and warned that “NATO has the capabilities and resolve to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable.” The 2014 communiqué did not include these declarations.

Alliance members reiterated their desire to reduce the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and the role of nuclear weapons in alliance strategy. But the communiqué expressed “regret that the conditions for achieving disarmament are not favorable today.” The United States is thought to deploy approximately 200 tactical B61 gravity bombs in Europe in support of NATO. 

Despite speculation ahead of the Warsaw meeting that the alliance might make changes to NATO’s nuclear posture, such as increasing the readiness level of alliance nuclear forces, there is nothing specific in the communiqué about readiness. (See ACT, January/February 2016.

The alliance also announced in Warsaw that its missile defense system had achieved an “initial operational capability.” The communiqué said the activation of the missile defense site in Romania in May and the transfer of the command and control of the site to NATO is “a new milestone” in the development of NATO’s missile defense plan that “offers a stronger capability to defend” NATO members in southern Europe. (See ACT, June 2016.) Russian President Vladimir Putin asserts that the missile defense system threatens his country, despite U.S. assurances to the contrary.

Leaders of the 28 member countries of NATO strongly criticized Russian nuclear behavior and reaffirmed the security role played by U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe...

Rethink Oldthink on No First Use

This op-ed originally appeared in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. For the second time during his presidency, President Barack Obama and his top advisors are re-evaluating whether to adjust the declared role of nuclear weapons in US national security policy to meet the evolving global strategic environment and reduce the risk of nuclear war. Speaking at the annual meeting of the Arms Control Association on June 6, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Benjamin Rhodes announced that the administration “will continue to review whether there are additional steps...


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