"[The Arms Control Association is an] 'exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size.'" 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
Kingston Reif

Missile Defense Blimp Crashes

December 2015

By Kingston Reif

A flight crew launches a blimp that is part of the U.S. Army’s Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System at the Utah Test and Training Range February 3, 2014. (Photo credit: Tiffany DeNault/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images)

Part of a U.S. Army blimp-borne radar system designed to detect and track objects such as cruise missiles and other airborne threats crashed in northeastern Pennsylvania on Oct. 28, increasing doubts about its ability to contribute to the defense of the U.S. homeland.

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. In a Nov. 5 press statement, North American Aerospace Defense Command said an investigation to determine the cause of the incident was under way.

The helium-filled JLENS blimps float 10,000 feet in the air and carry radars capable of providing 360-degree coverage of objects from 340 miles away. The blimps can remain aloft for 30 days at a time and transmit the information they gather to a range of defensive systems.

The U.S. government initially planned to buy 16 pairs of JLENS blimps, but the purchase ultimately was curtailed to two pairs of test blimps. The blimps are used in pairs because one conducts surveillance and the other analyzes the information that the first one gathers.

The U.S. government spent $2.8 billion on the system through 2013, according to a March 2014 Government Accountability Office report.

The JLENS has faced questions about whether it can work as intended. A 2014 report by the Pentagon’s director for operational test and evaluation stated that poor weather could reduce performance of the system and that the JLENS has not yet demonstrated “the ability to survive in its intended operational environment.”

Late last year, a pair of JLENS blimps began a planned three-year exercise over the area around Washington designed to demonstrate the system’s capabilities for homeland defense and determine its future. The exercise has been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation of the Oct. 28 crash. The Army requested $40.6 million for the exercise in fiscal year 2016.

In a May 19 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the exercise as a key part of the Defense Department’s efforts to ensure that the U.S. homeland is adequately defended against a cruise missile attack.

Responding to news of the crash, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee oversight and investigations subcommittee, said in a Nov. 4 statement that the United States “cannot afford to waste taxpayers’ money on ‘zombie programs’ whose best function is fodder” for late-night comedians. She called for “canceling the program outright and using the money where it will do more good.”

But the Defense Department has not ruled out resuming the planned three-year exercise.

Adm. William Gortney, the head of U.S. Northern Command, said in a Nov. 5 statement that if the results of the ongoing investigation warrant resuming the exercises, “we will work with the Army and the [Defense] Department to review the way forward for the JLENS exercise in support of cruise missile defense capabilities” of the Washington area. 

Part of a U.S. Army blimp-borne radar system designed to detect and track objects such as cruise missiles and other airborne threats crashed...

UK Party Leader Shuns Nuclear Arms Use

November 2015

By Kingston Reif

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament conference in London on October 17. [Photo credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images]Ahead of a possible decision next year to proceed with the replacement of the United Kingdom’s submarine-based nuclear deterrent, the new leader of the country’s Labour Party said he would not authorize the use of nuclear weapons if he were prime minister.

“We are not in the era of the Cold War anymore; it finished a long time ago,” Jeremy Corbyn told the BBC in a Sept. 30 interview.

“I am opposed to the use of nuclear weapons,” he said. “I am opposed to the holding of nuclear weapons.”

UK Prime Minister David Cameron strongly criticized Corbyn’s remarks, stating in an Oct. 4 interview with the BBC that “[i]f you…believe like me that Britain should keep the ultimate insurance policy of an independent nuclear deterrent, you have to accept there are circumstances in which its use would be justified.”

The UK currently possesses four Vanguard-class submarines armed with Trident missiles carrying a total of 120 nuclear warheads. (The submarines sometimes are also called Tridents.) The government is planning to replace these submarines with a fleet of four new ones.

The first new Trident submarine is slated to enter service in 2028.

Corbyn said he opposes replacing the Tridents. “There are many in the military that do not want Trident renewed because they see it as an obsolete thing they don’t need,” he said.

In 2011, the government approved a five-year preparatory research and design phase for the new submarines. A final investment decision on the program, known as Main Gate, is scheduled for 2016. But it is unclear when exactly the decision will occur or whether the Conservative Party, which strongly supports the replacement of Trident and currently holds a majority in Parliament, will submit the decision to a vote.

In 2006, the UK Ministry of Defence estimated the cost of designing and building the new submarines to be 15-20 billion pounds (about $23-31 billion). Reuters reported on Oct. 25 that the total cost to build and operate the new submarine fleet will reach 167 billion pounds, citing figures provided to Crispin Blunt, a Conservative member of Parliament, by the Ministry of Defence.

Jon Thompson, the top civil servant at the ministry, told UK lawmakers on Oct. 14 that the Trident replacement plan is “the single biggest future financial risk” facing the UK defense budget. “The project is a monster,” he added.

NATO Weighs Nuclear Exercises

November 2015

By Kingston Reif

UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon (left), U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (center), and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg confer during a meeting of defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on October 8. [Photo credit: John Thys /AFP/Getty Images]Against the backdrop of heightened Russian nuclear saber rattling, NATO is evaluating how to respond to Russia’s actions, with some alliance members calling for the resumption of certain nuclear exercises.

In comments to reporters on the sidelines of an Oct. 8 meeting in Brussels of defense ministers from NATO member states, Adam Thomson, the UK permanent representative to NATO, said that, since the end of the Cold War, the alliance “has done conventional exercising and nuclear exercising” but has not conducted exercises on “the transition from one to the other.”

“That is a recommendation that is being looked at” within the alliance, he said.

Thomson added that the United Kingdom “see[s] merit in making sure we know how, as an alliance, to transition up the escalatory ladder in order to strengthen our deterrence.”

Similarly, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said at a separate Oct. 8 press conference that NATO must “write a new playbook” to adapt to the challenges and threats of the 21st century, including “better integrating conventional and nuclear deterrence.”

It is unclear what specific nuclear-related exercises NATO may be considering or what the improved integration of conventional and nuclear deterrence would mean in practice.

In an Oct. 21 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a NATO official said that “we cannot go into detail on our nuclear discussions” as these “are internal and classified matters.”

The official added that the readiness of NATO nuclear forces has not changed.

Asked to elaborate on Thomson’s comments, a UK official said in an Oct. 22 e-mail that “discussions and proposals” on responding to Russian nuclear rhetoric and activities “are developing well” and that “these discussions account for a wide range of capabilities, including nuclear capabilities.”

NATO officials have repeatedly raised concerns about Russian nuclear behavior over the last year. (See ACT, May 2015.) These actions have included more Russian nuclear bomber flights close to the borders of some alliance members, more nuclear exercises, and threats to base nuclear forces in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea, and Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine last year.

Of particular concern to some alliance members is the apparently increasing degree to which Russia’s military doctrine relies on nuclear weapons. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on June 25, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said, “Russian military doctrine includes what some have called an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy—a strategy that purportedly seeks to de-escalate a conventional conflict through coercive threats, including limited nuclear use.”

“Anyone who thinks they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire,” Work added.

Two European analysts speculated that the potential exercises being considered by NATO were tabletop exercises, which are meetings involving key personnel to discuss and test how to respond to a situation.

In an Oct. 21 e-mail, Łukasz Kulesa, research director at the European Leadership Network in London, said that the proposal for new exercises “seems to be a suggestion to introduce Russian nuclear escalation and NATO counter-escalation scenarios into table-top staff exercises at NATO headquarters and into the political-military level exercises with the presence of decision-makers.”

Kulesa added that even if the proposal for new nuclear exercises was adopted, he would not expect that the pattern of already ongoing nuclear exercises or the readiness levels of NATO nuclear forces to change automatically. But “these changes may come later if the table-top exercises show, for example, that NATO’s current posture is totally unsuitable to respond” to the potential “nuclearization” of a crisis involving NATO and Russia, he said.

Jacek Durkalec, nonproliferation and arms control project manager at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, agreed with Kulesa’s assessment. In a separate Oct. 21 e-mail, he commented that the consideration of new exercises was a “step in the right direction.”

He added that including “nuclear scenarios in NATO’s table-top crisis-management exercises would strengthen the ability of NATO’s decision-makers to act effectively during crises.”

Such exercises would not be comparable to “what Russia has been doing in live exercises, where nuclear and conventional forces are closely integrated,” he said.

NATO is evaluating how to respond to heightened Russian nuclear saber rattling, with some alliance members calling for the resumption of certain nuclear exercises.  

Hill Urges Military Response on INF Pact

November 2015

By Kingston Reif

President Barack Obama signs a veto of the National Defense Authorization Act on October 22. Many of the policy provisions of the bill are expected to resurface now that Congress and the White House have resolved the budget issue that led to the veto. [Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images]Congress voted in October to push the Defense Department to take the first steps toward developing military capabilities in response to Russia’s alleged violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, even if the testing and deployment of those capabilities would violate the treaty.

This policy provision is part of the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. The final compromise version of that bill, which Congress passed last month, establishes spending ceilings and legislative guidelines for Pentagon programs and the activities conducted by the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

President Barack Obama vetoed the bill Oct. 22 over an unrelated budget issue, but the provisions on the INF Treaty and certain other issues relating to nuclear weapons are expected to resurface in light of a deal between Congress and the White House that resolves their differences over the budget issue.

The State Department reiterated earlier this year that 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.)

The defense authorization bill calls for a plan for the development of three kinds of response capabilities to address the noncompliance concern: “active defenses to counter” INF Treaty-range GLCM attacks and two types of additional offensive capabilities to match or threaten the Russian missiles. Those three response options mirror the ones the Defense Department has said it already is developing and analyzing. (See ACT, January/February 2015.)

The offensive forces that the bill contemplates are “[c]ounterforce capabilities” and “[c]ountervailing strike capabilities.” In both cases, the bill specifies that the Pentagon should consider the option “whether or not such capabilities are in compliance with the INF Treaty.”

But the legislation provides the Defense Department with the latitude to pursue response options that would not run afoul of the pact.

The bill also mandates that, in making a recommendation on a response capability, the department should give priority to those that could be fielded in two years. Funding to develop any new capabilities would have to be approved by lawmakers through the appropriations process.

The policy provision on the INF Treaty incorporates elements that were contained in the original House and Senate versions of the authorization legislation. The House version, approved on May 15, included $25 million for the purpose of developing military response capabilities, but the final bill does not provide a specific amount for this purpose.

In testimony at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on June 25, Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned against a “rush into a definitive” military response to Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty “because we would like to bring Russia back into this treaty.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work recently said the allegedly noncompliant Russian missile “is in development” but “has not been fielded yet.”

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Sept. 29, Work said that the Obama administration was still in the midst of “negotiating” how to respond but that if Russia fielded a system that violates the INF Treaty, he would “expect” the United States to pursue one of the three options the Defense Department outlined.

Battle Over Spending

In his statement explaining the veto, Obama declared his strong opposition to the way the bill attempts to circumvent the spending cap on defense for fiscal year 2016 as detailed in the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Disagreement between the White House and Republican lawmakers over government spending also has stymied the passage of fresh appropriations bills for fiscal year 2016.

In late September, Congress approved a short-term continuing resolution that would extend the previous year’s funding levels for a few months, buying time to negotiate new funding levels for fiscal year 2016. (See ACT, October 2015.) Fiscal year 2016 started on Oct. 1 and runs until Sept. 30.

On Oct. 26, the White House and key congressional leaders announced that they had reached a deal on new spending levels for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The House and Senate approved the agreement on Oct. 28 and Oct. 30, respectively.

Some key lawmakers expect the authorization bill to be revised to match the funding levels in the deal while retaining most of the current bill’s policy provisions. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters in Washington on Oct. 26 that revising the bill would not “take much time.” 

Missile Defense Gets Boost

The defense authorization bill requires the Defense Department to designate a preferred location on the U.S. East Coast for a third missile defense interceptor site to augment defenses against a limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack. Under the bill, the Pentagon must make that decision within a month of the completion of environmental impact studies of possible sites mandated by Congress in the fiscal year 2013 defense authorization act.

The United States currently deploys long-range missile defense interceptors at sites in Alaska and California.

The defense bill requires the Pentagon to develop a plan to accelerate the construction in the event the U.S. government decides to proceed with a third site, and it authorizes $30 million to begin site planning and design once the environmental studies are finished.

The Defense Department announced in January 2014 that it would conduct environmental impact studies for four possible missile defense sites in the eastern United States, as directed by Congress. The department said the studies would take approximately 24-30 months to complete. (See ACT, March 2014.)

The four sites are Fort Drum in New York, Portsmouth SERE Training Area in Maine, Camp Ravenna Joint Training Center in Ohio, and Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan.

Department officials continue to reiterate that no decision has been made to move forward with an additional long-range missile defense site and that money would be better spent to upgrade the existing Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system to counter long-range ballistic missiles.

Another provision in the authorization bill requires the director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency to evaluate a space-based missile defense option for the United States. The provision mandates a study assessing how such a defense would function and how it could contribute to defending against ICBM attacks.

In addition, the provision requires a report summarizing the results of the study and a plan for creating one or more developmental programs for space-based missile defense and estimates of the costs of each of these potential programs.

The final bill does not include a requirement contained in the original House bill that would have mandated the start of research and development of a space-based defense system.

Nonproliferation Constraints Diluted

The defense authorization bill dilutes provisions in the original House bill imposing restrictions on NNSA programs to detect nuclear smuggling, undertake research and development of next-generation nuclear verification technologies, and dismantle retired U.S. nuclear warheads.

The House bill barred spending any money on fixed-site radiological detectors for use in foreign countries to detect nuclear smuggling. The final bill would instead authorize the requested funding for these detectors after the completion by the director of national intelligence of a report on how well the detectors address nuclear proliferation and smuggling threats.

Similarly, the House bill barred the use of $3 million in requested fiscal year 2016 funding to develop certain advanced technologies for arms control verification and monitoring activities, but the final bill would allow the funds to be spent after the NNSA submitted a report on the technologies being developed.

On weapons dismantlement, the House bill would have set an annual limit of $50 million for NNSA expenditures in fiscal years 2016 to 2020 on dismantlement and disposal of retired nuclear warheads unless certain stringent conditions could be met. The final bill includes a $50 million limit only for fiscal year 2016.

The final bill also prohibits the use of fiscal year 2016 funds to dismantle the W84 nuclear warhead, which had been deployed on U.S. GLCMs that were destroyed under the INF Treaty. It was not clear if that ban was intended to preserve the option of deploying the W84 as part of the U.S. response to Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty.

UN Mulls Rival Disarmament Proposals

November 2015

By Kingston Reif

Robert Wood, U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, shown above in a September 2014 photo, said a recent Mexican proposal for a disarmament working group is “unacceptable.” [Photo credit: U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva/Dominique Nicolas]UN member states are considering two competing proposals to advance nuclear disarmament, a reflection of the continuing differences among states on how to accelerate progress toward a world without nuclear weapons.

Each of the two proposals under discussion in the UN General Assembly First Committee, which deals with nuclear disarmament, would create an open-ended working group, a forum in which all UN members can participate.

The creation of a working group was a recommendation in the draft final document from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference that took place earlier this year. (See ACT, June 2015.) The proposal for the working group grew out of the frustration of many states with the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament.

According to the NPT document, the purpose of the working group would be “to identify effective measures for the full implementation of Article VI” of the NPT, “including legal provisions or other arrangements,” and to do so on the basis of consensus. Under Article VI, the treaty parties are to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

One working group proposal in the First Committee, submitted by Iran, closely resembles the language contained in the draft review conference document. It calls for a discussion on advancing nuclear disarmament and would operate on the basis of consensus. The working group would meet for four sessions of 10 working days each, with two sessions in 2016 and two in 2017. The group would send a report on its work, including agreed recommendations, to the UN General Assembly during the 2017 session.

Mexico, on behalf of a group of countries associated with the so-called humanitarian initiative, an effort focused on raising awareness of the humanitarian and societal impacts of nuclear weapons use, has offered an alternate proposal. A key difference with the Iranian approach is that under the Mexican resolution, the working group would operate according to the General Assembly’s normal rules of conducting business on the basis of a majority vote. The group would convene in Geneva in 2016 for up to 15 days and would present a report on its work to the General Assembly at its session next year.

The original version of the Mexican proposal also differed from the Iranian approach by specifying the end result of the working group’s effort: “to negotiate with a view to reaching agreement on concrete effective legal measures…that will need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.” But an Oct. 29 version of the Mexican proposal is closer to the Iranian proposal in calling on the group “to substantively address” the legal measures.

The contrasting proposals have sparked a contentious debate within the First Committee about the purpose of the working group.

In an Oct. 29 tweet, Robert Wood, U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, said “Mexico [is] still pursuing an unacceptable” proposal for an open-ended working group. He added that the aim of the proposal “is to subvert [the] established [UN] disarmament machinery” and that it “will not succeed.”

Alexander Kmentt, director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation in the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, encouraged states to support the Mexican resolution. In an Oct. 27 statement, he said that a forum is needed to allow all states to engage in discussions on nuclear disarmament “without the procedural setup that stifles progress in other fora of the UN disarmament machinery.” Austria is a co-sponsor of the Mexican resolution.

It remains to be seen if both proposals will come to a vote this month and, if so, which proposal will garner the most support. Resolutions in the First Committee require a simple majority to pass.

In remarks on Oct. 16 at a conference in Prague, Kim Won-soo, the acting UN high representative for disarmament affairs, said he expects “common ground” to be found on a working group concept that meets the needs of key member states.

The current session of the First Committee runs through Nov. 9.

Two competing proposals on disarmament reflect continued differences among UN states on how to achieve that goal.   

Overkill: The Case Against a New Nuclear Air-Launched Cruise Missile



Volume 7, Issue 13, October 19, 2015

In an Oct. 15 op-ed in The Washington Post, William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Andrew Weber, President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, call on President Obama to cancel current plans to build a new fleet of approximately 1,000 nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs).

Nuclear-armed cruise missiles “are a uniquely destabilizing type of nuclear weapon,” they write, and foregoing the development of a new version “would not diminish the formidable U.S. nuclear deterrent in the least" and "could lay the foundation for a global ban on these dangerous weapons.”

The op-ed marks a significant development in the debate about whether to build a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, as Perry was one of the fathers of the current version of the ALCM when it was first conceived in the 1970s.

The ongoing development of a new ALCM is part of the Defense and Energy Department’s plans to rebuild all three legs of the nuclear triad and their associated nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure at a cost of $348 billion over the next decade, according to a January 2015 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report. An August 2015 report by the Center for Strategy and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) estimated that the sustainment and modernization of nuclear forces could consume almost $1 trillion over roughly the next 30 years.

The projected growth in the nuclear weapons budget comes at a time when other big national security bills are also coming due and Congress has mandated reductions in military spending through the end of the current decade relative to current plans. In addition, despite the fact the president and his military advisors have determined that the United States can reduce the size of its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal by up to one-third below the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) levels, the proposed spending is based on maintaining the New START levels in perpetuity.

Given that current U.S. nuclear weapons spending plans are excessive and unsustainable, it behooves the administration and Congress to more closely evaluate options that would both be more cost-effective and promote the reduction of nuclear risks around the world. As the Arms Control Association detailed in a report last year, tens of billions can be saved over the next decade and beyond by trimming portions of the arsenal and scaling back current modernization plans.

As it prepares its budget submission for fiscal year 2017, the president should heed the advice of Perry and Weber and not request funds to advance the development of a new nuclear ALCM.


Nuclear-armed ALCMs are part of the U.S. nuclear triad of delivery systems consisting of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range bombers, which can carry ALCMs and gravity bombs. ALCMs are carried by the B-52 long-range bomber and can attack targets at long distances. The United States also deployed large numbers of nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) during the Cold War, but ceased deployment of these weapons in 1992.

The original military rationale for developing the ALCM emphasized the cruise missile’s value as a standoff weapon that could overwhelm Soviet air defenses. The B-52’s ability to penetrate Soviet airspace was under pressure in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and standoff capability allowed a B-52 to hold strategic targets at risk in relative safety despite its large radar cross section and subsonic speed.

The Air Force’s lone remaining ALCM variant is the AGM-86B, up to 20 of which can be carried by a B-52H bomber. The missile, which has a range of more than 1,500 miles, was first fielded in 1982 with a planned service life of 10 years. Multiple life extension programs have kept the missile in service for more than 30 years. The Air Force is planning to retain the missile until 2030. 

The Air Force currently retains 572 nuclear-capable ALCMs, down from the original production run of 1,715 missiles, which concluded in 1986. Roughly 200 of these missiles are believed to be deployed at Minot Air Fore Base in North Dakota with the W80-1 nuclear warhead. New START does not cap the number of bombs or cruise missiles that can be carried on treaty limited strategic bombers.

The Air Force is developing the long-range standoff cruise missile (or LRSO) to replace the existing ALCM. The new missile will be compatible with the B-2 and B-52 bombers, as well as the planned Long-Range Strike bomber. The first missile is slated to be produced in 2026.

The current Air Force procurement plan for the LRSO calls for about 1,000 new nuclear-capable missiles, roughly double the size of the existing fleet of ALCMs. According to the service, the planned purchase of 1,000 missiles includes far more missiles than it plans to arm and deploy with nuclear warheads.

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request proposed to increase spending to accelerate by two years the development of the LRSO and the modified W80-4 warhead that it would carry, partially reversing the fiscal year 2015 proposal to delay development of both by three years.

The total cost to build the LRSO and refurbish the associated warhead could reach $25 billion (in then-year dollars). CSBA estimates the development cost of the LRSO at nearly $15 billion. The Energy Department projects the cost of the life extension program for the ALCM warhead to be between $7 billion and $9.5 billion. 

Dubious Rationale

The two main arguments the Pentagon has made in support of building a new ALCM do not withstand close scrutiny.

First, supporters of the LRSO cite anticipated improvements in the air defenses of potential adversaries as a reason to develop the new cruise missile. However, as Perry and Weber note, the LRSO weapon is just one element of the Air Force’s plan for the air-based leg of the triad.

The service is planning to spend over $100 billion to build 80-100 new stealthy penetrating strategic bombers. One of the top rationales for building a new bomber is to extend America’s air dominance in advanced air defense environments. In addition to carrying the LRSO, the new long-range strike bomber (or B-3) will be armed with refurbished B61 mod 12 nuclear gravity bombs. Upgrading the B61 is expected to cost roughly $10 billion. The B-3 is scheduled to remain in service for 50 years while the B61 mod 12 is expected to last for 20-30 years.

The United States already has redundancy built into its strategic forces posture with three independent modes of delivery. The requirement that the air-leg of the triad have two means to assure penetration against the most advanced air-defenses constitutes excessive redundancy. Other standoff weapons, such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles, can penetrate air defenses with high confidence.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is significantly increasing the lethality of its conventionally armed cruise missiles.

For example, the service is purchasing an extended-range precision air-to-surface standoff cruise missile known as the JASSM-ER. This missile will have a range of over 1,100 kilometers and be integrated onto the B-1, B-52, B-2, F-15E, and F-16 aircraft – and likely on the F-35 and long-range strike bomber as well. The Air Force is planning to arm the JASSM-ER with a new computer-killing electronic attack payload. The technology is designed to have an effect similar to an electromagnetic pulse.

This raises the question of what is so unique about the penetrating mission of a nuclear ALCM that can’t be addressed by other U.S. nuclear and conventional capabilities?

Second, proponents of the nuclear ALCM mission say that the missile, by virtue of the lower yield of the nuclear warhead it carries, provides the president with flexible options in the event of a crisis and the ability to control escalation. In other words, the missiles would come in handy for nuclear war-fighting.

Yet, 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.

More importantly, the notion that nuclear weapons can be used to carefully control escalation is dangerous thinking. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work noted at a June 25 House Armed Services Committee hearing: “Anyone who thinks they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire. Escalation is escalation, and nuclear use would be the ultimate escalation.”

This is wise counsel and speaks to the limited utility and added risks of seeking to fine-tune deterrence. 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. 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.

In fact, instead of controlling escalation, nuclear-armed cruise missiles could entail a significant risk of miscalculation and unintended nuclear escalation.

Former British Minister of Defense Philip Hammond drew attention to this problem in explaining the United Kingdom’s decision to reject a sea-launched cruise missile alternative to its current force of sea-launched ballistic missiles.

“At the point of firing, other states could have no way of knowing whether we had launched a conventional cruise missile or one with a nuclear warhead,” he wrote in 2013. “Such uncertainty could risk triggering a nuclear war at a time of tension.”

Instead of investing billions in a new fleet of nuclear ALCMs, the Air Force should prioritize continued investments in longer-range conventional cruise missiles. Further investment in conventional standoff weapons would provide the Air Force with a more readily useable capability without the unintended escalation risks associated with the possession of nuclear and conventional ALCMs. It would also help set the stage for an eventual global phase-out of nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

Excessive Cost

In light of the modernization needs of other defense systems and congressionally-mandated reductions in planned military expenses required by the Budget Control Act, military leaders continue to warn that the United States is facing an affordability problem in the near future when it comes to sustaining and modernizing nuclear forces.

“[W]e do have a huge affordability problem with that basket of [nuclear weapons] systems,” said Frank Kendall, under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, in April. “It is starting to poke itself into the [future years defense plan] — the five-year plan now. And we're trying to address it.”

Funding for the LRSO program over the next 10-15 years will come at the expense of other costly Air Force priorities such as the acquisition of the long-range strike bomber, KC-46A tanker, the F-35, and a replacement for the existing Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system.

Though no one knows for sure what the military budget will look like after the expiration of the Budget Control Act, it seems unlikely that there will be enough money to fund all of the military’s nuclear and conventional modernization plans, especially during the decade of the 2020s when costs are expected to be at their highest. Tradeoffs will have to be made.

Given the nuclear ALCM’s redundant mission and inherently destabilizing dual-use nature, its replacement is not necessary.

A Global Ban

The United States, Russia and France are the only nations that currently acknowledge deploying nuclear-armed cruise missiles. However, countries such as China and Pakistan are believed to be working on them. U.S. security would benefit if they do not deploy such weapons.

Chinese nuclear-armed cruise missiles would add to U.S. concerns about Beijing’s capabilities and would be able to more easily circumvent U.S. missile defenses, which are mainly oriented against ballistic missiles. Pakistan’s program would add to tensions in South Asia and could motivate India to follow suit.

As part of its strategy to bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty the United States should express its willingness to engage in technical discussions and agree to special inspections to resolve compliance concerns if Russia is willing to engage with U.S. concerns. Moving forward the United States should promote a global dialogue on limiting and eventually phasing out all nuclear-armed cruise missile systems.

Verifying limits and later a ban on all types of nuclear-armed cruise missiles would no doubt be a significant challenge, though not an insurmountable one. One early preparatory step toward building a transparency and monitoring regime is for the United States to pressure Russia to resume the exchange of data on nuclear-armed SLCMs that occurred under START I.

Rather than spend billions on a nuclear weapon that is not needed to deter potential adversaries, the United States should cancel its new cruise missile program. This would be a win-win for the military budget and U.S. security.

—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy


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. 


In an Oct. 15 op-ed in The Washington Post, William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Andrew Weber, President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for nuclear...

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U.S. Nuclear Weapons Funding in Limbo

October 2015

By Kingston Reif

Defense Secretary Ash Carter delivers remarks at an Air Force Association conference in National Harbor, Md., on September 16. He warned of the impact on U.S. military forces if Congress passes a spending bill that does not allow military funding to rise above current levels. (Photo credit: Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/U.S. Air Force)Congress failed to pass any fresh appropriations bills for fiscal year 2016, raising questions about whether the Defense and Energy departments can carry out the nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization activities they have planned for the year.

In the fiscal year 2016 budget request, the Obama administration requested a major funding hike above the previous fiscal year for programs to sustain and to rebuild nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and their associated nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure. (See ACT, March 2015.) If these programs are not funded at the requested levels, the result could be schedule delays and cost increases.

Pentagon leaders already are issuing warnings about the danger to U.S. security if Congress passes a year-long continuing resolution that would extend the previous year’s funding levels.

“[T]he longer a continuing resolution is, the worse it becomes, eventually resulting in a $38 billion deficit in resources for our military if Congress chooses to pursue this path for a full year,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Sept. 16 at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in National Harbor, Md.

Overall, the administration requested $561 billion for national defense in fiscal year 2016, which includes the Defense Department’s regular budget activities and the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons programs. This spending proposal is roughly $38 billion above the cap in the 2011 Budget Control Act and $40 billion above the fiscal year 2015 enacted level.

The impact of a year-long continuing resolution on the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department, would depend on whether Congress makes an exception from the general no-increase constraints of a continuing resolution so that nuclear weapons funding can increase above the fiscal year 2015 level, a congressional staffer told Arms Control Today in a Sept. 16 e-mail.

The NNSA has been successful in seeking such an exception in the past, the staffer said.

As Arms Control Today went to press, Congress appeared poised to approve a short-term continuing resolution that would extend the previous year’s funding levels for a few months, buying time to negotiate new funding levels for fiscal year 2016 later this year.

In fiscal year 2015, Congress passed a continuing resolution for the first three and a half months of the year, followed by the passage last December of a $1.1 trillion conglomeration of 12 appropriations bills, known as an omnibus appropriations bill. The omnibus bill provided new funding for Defense and Energy department programs at roughly the level of the administration’s fiscal year 2015 request. (See ACT, January/February 2015.)

The passage of higher funding levels in fiscal year 2016 would likely require changing the spending caps set by Congress in the Budget Control Act. But Republicans and Democrats have yet to reach agreement on a total budget for discretionary domestic and military spending.

If Congress fails to pass new funding after a short-term continuing resolution, it could opt to pass a continuing resolution for all of fiscal year 2016.

Cruise Missile Delay Possible

A continuing resolution could have a significant impact on the administration’s plan to buy a fleet of new nuclear-capable cruise missiles. (See ACT, June 2015.)

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request proposed to markedly increase spending to accelerate by two years the development of the long-range standoff missile and the modified warhead that it would carry, partially reversing the fiscal year 2015 proposal to delay development of both by three years. (See ACT, March 2015.

Air-launched cruise missiles are carried by the B-52 long-range bomber and can attack targets at great distances. 

The NNSA is requesting $195 million to begin refurbishing the existing cruise missile warhead that would be delivered by the new missile. That is an increase of $186 million above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation of $9.4 million.

The Air Force is seeking $36.6 million in fiscal year 2016 for research and development for a long-range standoff weapon, more than 10 times as much as the $3.4 million that Congress appropriated for fiscal year 2015.

Impact Debated

In a Sept. 17 e-mail to Arms Control Today, NNSA spokeswoman Michelle Laver said that unless the NNSA receives a special waiver from Congress to begin funding the warhead refurbishment at the requested fiscal year 2016 level right at the beginning of the year, even a short-term continuing resolution would “delay development and engineering work” on the warhead refurbishment and “coordination activities with the Air Force” and would “result in a slip in the overall schedule including first production.” 

But the congressional staffer was skeptical of the NNSA’s warning, which the NNSA has conveyed to Congress. “I don’t think anyone believes” that a short-term continuing resolution and associated delay to the program “is problematic,” he said.

The Air Force had no specific comment on the impact of a continuing resolution on the development of the new cruise missile. “It is hard to say exactly which programs will be affected until we see the language” of the continuing resolution, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in a Sept. 17 e-mail.

In their respective fiscal year 2016 defense appropriations bills, the Senate and House appropriations committees approved funding for the new missile at levels below the administration’s $36.6 million request. Senate appropriators provided $14.1 million while the House provided $27.5 million. According to the reports accompanying the Senate and House versions of the bills, the appropriators approved the smaller amounts because they believed that the Air Force requested more money than it could spend on the program in fiscal year 2016, not because of a lack of faith in the program.

Congress failed to pass any new appropriations bills for fiscal year 2016, raising questions about whether the United States can carry out the nuclear weapons activities planned for the year.

Date Set for 2016 Nuclear Security Summit

By Kingston Reif

The fourth and final nuclear security summit will take place next March 31-April 1 in Washington, D.C., the White House said Aug. 10.

The summits are the most visible feature of an accelerated international effort to prevent nuclear terrorism. U.S. President Barack Obama launched the effort as part of his speech in Prague in April 2009. Summits have been held in Washington in 2010, Seoul in 2012, and The Hague last year.

At the summits, participating countries have announced steps they would take individually and collectively to increase the security of fissile materials. These steps have included the removal of nuclear materials, enhancement of capabilities to counter nuclear smuggling, creation of centers to improve nuclear security and training, and ratification of international agreements that govern nuclear security.

In an Aug. 10 press release announcing the summit date, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the 2016 meeting “will continue discussion on the evolving [nuclear terrorism] threat and highlight steps that can be taken together to minimize the use of highly-enriched uranium, secure vulnerable materials, counter nuclear smuggling and deter, detect, and disrupt attempts at nuclear terrorism.”

As the United States prepares to host the final summit, Laura Holgate, Obama’s top adviser for nuclear security, was nominated on Aug. 5 as U.S. representative to the Vienna office of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

For the last six years, Holgate has served in the position of special assistant to the president and senior director for weapons of mass destruction terrorism and threat reduction on the National Security Council staff, where she has played a central role on the U.S. negotiating team for the summits. The White House has not named a successor for Holgate.

In an Aug. 5 statement, national security adviser Susan Rice praised Holgate as “the life blood” of the summit process. 

The fourth and final nuclear security summit will take place next March 31-April 1 in Washington, D.C., the White House said Aug. 10.

Next Steps on Disarmament Uncertain

By Kingston Reif

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström speaks at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations on April 27. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)In the aftermath of a contentious review conference earlier this year, key states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) differ on the best way to pursue disarmament as they look to the UN General Assembly session that opens Sept. 15 and the treaty’s next review conference, in 2020.

The recent review conference ended May 22 without agreement on a final document due to unbridgeable differences over the process for convening a conference on ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction. In addition, countries clashed over the pace of the nuclear-weapon states’ disarmament efforts. (See ACT, June 2015.)

Although nuclear disarmament was not the “deal breaker” that prevented consensus at the meeting, differences on the issue are “severe and intensifying,” Adam Scheinman, President Barack Obama’s special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, said during a July 16 panel discussion at the U.S. State Department.

Speaking on the same panel, Alexander Kmentt, director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation in the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, said that the longer the negotiations on disarmament at the review conference went on, the deeper the divide became.

The conference’s draft final document did not represent “anything close” to a consensus, he said.

Scheinman said countries can take a number of steps before the 2020 review conference. For example, he emphasized the importance of finding a way to bring Russia back to the negotiating table on arms control although he did not suggest how that might be possible in light of U.S.-Russian tensions over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and alleged violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

In addition, Scheinman urged the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to begin negotiations on a global ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, which has effectively been blocked by Pakistan (see, "UN Disarmament Body Still Stalemated"). Scheinman said it would not be possible to move toward much lower numbers of nuclear weapons without a verified cap on fissile material production.

He also called for the development of better lines of communication on nuclear disarmament issues between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states as a way to bridge some of the gaps that persist. He specifically mentioned the possible creation by the UN General Assembly of “an open-ended working group”—a forum in which all UN members can participate—as a “first-order opportunity to have a serious dialogue among the various parties.”

Scheinman expressed hope that there would be progress “quite soon” on the steps he listed.

The U.S. State Department’s Adam Scheinman (left) and Alexander Kmentt of the Austrian foreign ministry (right) discuss the recent NPT review conference during a July 16 panel of the Generation Prague conference at the State Department. At center is moderator Sharon Squassoni of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)The working group was a recommendation in the draft final document from the NPT review conference. According to the document, the purpose of the working group would be “to identify effective measures for the full implementation of Article VI” of the NPT and to do so on the basis of consensus. Under Article VI, the treaty parties are to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

The General Assembly last established an open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament in 2012. (See ACT, December 2012.) In that group, which met in Geneva in August 2013, about 80 states discussed ways to advance multilateral disarmament negotiations, but the nuclear-weapon states declined to participate. The group produced a final report that summarized the content of the discussion.

Kmentt questioned the approach touted by Scheinman, noting that disarmament steps such as a fissile material cutoff treaty have been on the international agenda for nearly two decades, but no progress has been made. He called such a step-by-step approach “extremely incredible” and said it has been “discredited.”

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, also criticized the step-by-step approach and expressed skepticism about the idea of an open-ended working group.

In an Aug. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today, she called the idea of a working group based on consensus “useless” and said the states seeking faster disarmament progress are not pushing this idea.

Fihn said the main issue at the UN General Assembly will be how the 114 signatories of the “Humanitarian Pledge” will seek to take action to fill this gap. The document, which originated at the third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use, held in Vienna last December, calls on states “to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.” (See ACT, January/February 2015.)

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies said in an Aug. 19 interview that it would be “interesting to watch” if an open-ended working group is established at the upcoming General Assembly meeting and if the humanitarian initiative’s leaders, such as Austria, Mexico, and Norway, are able to move the disarmament discussion beyond where it ended at the review conference.

Mukhatzhanova said that the diplomats representing the leading countries of the humanitarian movement are “regrouping.” It is unclear what they will do to advance their agenda at the General Assembly and if they will seek to hold a fourth humanitarian-impact conference, she said. 

In the aftermath of a contentious review conference earlier this year, key states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty differ on the best way to pursue disarmament.

UN Disarmament Body Still Stalemated

By Kingston Reif

Kim Won-soo (center, on dais), acting UN high representative for disarmament affairs, addresses the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on July 7. (UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré)As the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) nears the end of its annual session, the body mandated to negotiate multilateral disarmament treaties remains stalemated.

Nevertheless, some member states say they think progress is being made toward a global ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

For the third year in a row, an informal working group could not reach consensus on any of the CD’s four core issues: nuclear disarmament, a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), the prevention of an arms race in outer space, and negative security assurances.

The CD, which operates on the basis of consensus, has not negotiated a disarmament agreement since the completion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996.

Although some member states praised the efforts of this year’s iteration of the working group, other delegations lamented the recent trend of establishing informal discussion forums.

In an Aug. 17 statement, Mexico said the three years of effort by the working groups “had not left the Conference any closer to the adoption of a programme of work” and had produced “useless outcomes.”

Similarly, Austria said that although it was open to approaches that could advance negotiations on legally binding arrangements on disarmament, it would not “accept any future attempts to lower the expectations for the CD to conduct such negotiations.”

Austria warned that it would “assess…more carefully” the wisdom of continuing to use “scarce resources for informal discussions and activities.”

Since the end of negotiations on the CTBT in 1996, Russia, the United States, and many Western countries have sought a mandate at the conference to negotiate an FMCT. But Pakistan continues to oppose the start of FMCT talks unless the negotiating mandate explicitly includes existing stockpiles of materials in addition to new production. Russia, the United States, and others oppose that approach.

In 2009 the CD approved a preliminary work plan, but the plan collapsed after Pakistan withdrew its support. Pakistan says that it has a smaller stockpile of fissile materials than India and that a production freeze would put Islamabad at a disadvantage.

In an effort to break the FMCT deadlock, the UN General Assembly First Committee, which deals with disarmament, in 2012 approved a resolution by Canada to establish a group of governmental experts to discuss how to advance negotiations on an FMCT.

The group, which consisted of 31 experts and diplomats from 25 different countries, met in Geneva over eight weeks during 2014 and 2015 under the auspices of the United Nations. The group submitted its final report to the General Assembly in May.

The group was mandated to make recommendations on the key elements of a notional FMCT. The final report summarized the group’s deliberations and outlined a range of views on a possible FMCT, most notably on the issues of existing stocks versus future production, verification, governance, entry into force, and the definition of “fissile material.”

The members of the group expressed confidence that their report and the deliberations that were the basis for it “can serve as a valuable reference for States and should be a useful resource for negotiators of a future treaty.”

Most CD members applauded the work of the group of experts, with some members characterizing the intergovernmental assessment as a potential turning point on the issue of a fissile material production ban.

In an interview with Arms Control Today last October, Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said that although an FMCT “has been a great source of tension and anxiety,” the group of governmental experts “open[ed] the floodgates for substantive discussions on this matter” and “renewed the issue for the arms control community in the Conference on Disarmament in a very positive way.”

But Pakistan, which declined an invitation to join the group, said in a June 23 statement that the group “had been an ill-conceived experiment, which had failed to produce any consensus recommendation with any substance.” 

Pakistan also said another “downside” of the group was that not all nuclear-weapon states “had been represented in that forum” and that it “rejected [the group’s] report and assertion that the report could form the basis for further consideration” of an FMCT in the CD. 

As the Conference on Disarmament nears the end of its annual session, the body remains stalemated although some member states say they think there has been progress toward a fissile material cutoff treaty.


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