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"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
News Briefs

Trump War Powers Veto Survives Override

 

The U.S. Senate failed to override President Donald Trump’s April 16 veto of a congressional resolution to assert authority over direct U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen. The 53–45 vote taken May 2 did not get the 67 votes needed to overcome Trump's veto of the War Powers Act resolution, which had passed the House of Representatives on April 4 and the Senate on March 13. (See ACT, May 2019.)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) shown speaking in Texas in April, introduced the resolution restricting the U.S. military's involvement in the war in Yemen, later vetoed by President Donald Trump. (Photo: Sergio Flores/Getty Images)“The bad news today: we were unable today to override Trump’s veto regarding U.S. intervention in this horrific war in Yemen,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who introduced the Senate resolution, said following the vote. “The good news: for the first time in 45 years, Congress used the War Powers Act to reassert its constitutional responsibility over the use of armed forces.”

The override vote closely mirrored the Senate vote of 54–46 to approve the resolution in March, with the same five Republicans joining Democrats in supporting the resolution. Two senators did not vote on the veto override, one on each side of the issue.

Asserting authority over war on arms control issues was a congressional theme in May as many legislators raised flags about possible U.S. military intervention in Iran. “Congress has not authorized war with Iran, and the administration, if it were contemplating military action with Iran, must come to Congress to seek approval,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on May 15.—JEFF ABRAMSON

Trump War Powers Veto Survives Override

B61 Bomb Production Delayed

 

Technical problems have prevented production of a new variant of the U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bomb, according to Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), in May 8 testimony to the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. The project was scheduled to be ready for full-scale production by March 2020, but the problems have delayed work on the first unit of the “mod-12” version of the bomb, she said, offering no estimate on the length of the delay.

An Air Force F-16C carries an inert B61-12 bomb during a development flight test on March 14, 2017. Production of electrical components of the weapon's warhead has hit technical snags. (Photo: Brandi Hansen/U.S. Air Force)The delay is caused by defects with some of the new warhead’s electrical capacitators, according to a May 9 ExchangeMonitor report. Gordon-Hagerty told the publication that it would take several months to look at the issue before the agency decides how to proceed. The NNSA plans to build 480 B61-12 bombs, according to the Federation of American Scientists. The new B61-12 bombs are supposed to lead to the retirement of the B83 gravity bombs, the most powerful nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, as well as the previous variations of the B61 bombs. (See ACT, June 2017.)

The B61-12 is slated to be one of the most expensive life extension programs undertaken by the NNSA, estimated to cost around $10 billion and originally scheduled to be completed by fiscal year 2027, according to an independent cost estimate reported by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in May 2018. It has been called a “smart” bomb in that it will come with an advanced guided tail kit, making it easier to “steer” the bomb to increase its accuracy. The tail kit upgrade is managed by the Air Force.—SHERVIN TAHERAN

B61 Bomb Production Delayed

U.S. Reverses Nuclear Stockpile Transparency

 

The Trump administration refused in April to release information describing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the number of weapons dismantled as of the end of fiscal year 2018. The decision reversed a practice established by the Obama administration in 2010 and followed for one year by the Trump administration.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) requested the data in October 2018, as it has annually. The Energy Department denied the request on April 5 with no explanation. Any disclosure also requires Defense Department approval, and FAS nuclear stockpile expert Hans Kristensen said he was told later the decision was made “higher up” than the defense secretary’s office.

The move was an “unnecessary and counterproductive reversal of nuclear policy,” said Kristensen. He said the new policy would lead to a number of negative consequences, including placing the United States at a disadvantage in the upcoming nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference and putting other nuclear-armed allies in the awkward position of having to reassess their own transparency policies.

A May 2010 Defense Department fact sheet accompanying the then-new release of information said such transparency is “important to nonproliferation efforts, and to pursuing follow-on reductions” to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Since then, France and the United Kingdom have increased their own stockpile transparency, although they have not yet disclosed the entire history of their inventories.—SHERVIN TAHERAN

U.S. Reverses Nuclear Stockpile Transparency

Congress Seeks Decision on Missile Defense Site

 

House Democrats and Republicans continue to press the Defense Department to designate a preferred location for a third long-range ballistic missile defense interceptor site.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan testifies to Congress in March. He has not announced where the Pentagon would like to build a third missile defense site in the United States. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) at a House Appropriations Committee hearing on May 1 that a decision on a preferred site had been made and that he would share the result with Congress later that day. Shanahan has yet to announce a decision.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) has similarly pressed the Pentagon to make a final designation.

The current system to protect the U.S. homeland against a limited long-range missile attack, known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, consists of interceptor sites in Alaska and California.

In the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress required the Defense Department to conduct a study to evaluate at least three possible new long-range interceptor sites that could augment the GMD system, including at least two on the East Coast.

The Defense Department announced in 2016 that it had completed a draft environmental impact statement of three possible locations: Fort Drum in New York, Camp Garfield Joint Training Center in Ohio, and Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan.

Fort Drum is located in Stefanik’s congressional district while Ryan represents Camp Garfield.

The fiscal year 2016 and 2018 defense authorization bills directed the Pentagon to designate a preferred location for a third site. Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s “2019 Missile Defense Review” report, published in January, said that no decision has been made to deploy a third GMD site and that the location for a potential site “will be informed by multiple pertinent factors at the time.” (See ACT, March 2019.)

The Missile Defense Agency has repeatedly stated that the estimated cost of $3–4 billion to build such a site would be better spent on improving the capabilities of the existing GMD system.—KINGSTON REIF

Congress Seeks Decision on Missile Defense Site

UN Security Council Previews NPT Meeting


May 2019
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

The UN Security Council endorsed a general statement in support of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) during an early April meeting, but the session revealed persistent fault lines over the pact that serves as the foundation of international nonproliferation efforts. The meeting previewed positions before the two-week preparatory committee meeting for the 2020 NPT Review Conference that began April 29.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas chairs an April 2 UN Security Council meeting to discuss the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. (Photo: Eskinder Debbie/United Nations)German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas presided over the meeting, which began with statements from Yukiya Amano, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Izumi Nakamitsu, high representative of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs.

Many non-nuclear-weapon states stressed the need for increasing the pace of nuclear disarmament, arguing that nuclear-armed powers have made unimpressive progress and are pursuing steps in the wrong direction. Jerry Matjila, South Africa’s permanent representative to the UN, expressed disappointment about nuclear-weapon states’ “lack of urgency and seriousness” about disarmament, and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that disarmament was the least advanced of the nuclear powers’ NPT obligations. Peru’s representative said that states can only strengthen the NPT if they reduce nuclear arsenals further.

States said that even existing disarmament commitments are under threat, and several diplomats urged the United States and Russia to resolve their dispute over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Indonesia, for example, said that intentions to dismantle existing disarmament commitments must be prevented. Several countries, including Belgium, China, and Germany urged the United States and Russia to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty when it expires in 2021.

Diplomats continued to disagree over the merits of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and whether it complements the NPT. Cote D’Ivoire, the Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Indonesia, Peru, and South Africa expressed support for the TPNW, emphasizing its complementarity with the NPT.

Some nuclear-weapon states disagreed. Jonathan Allen, UK deputy permanent representative to the UN, criticized the TPNW’s lack of verification measures. “Disarmament cannot be decreed,” added French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “Only concrete actions count.”

Andrea Thompson, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, dismissed the TPNW as failing “to address the security challenges that continue to make nuclear deterrence necessary,” in stark contrast, she contended, with the U.S. approach titled “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament.” Thompson argued that NPT members should focus on areas of commonality and not hold next year’s review conference “hostage” to divisive issues such as the TPNW or creating a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East.

Russia announced it would participate in a November UN conference on advancing this Middle Eastern zone and encouraged all nuclear-weapon states to participate. The conference was mandated by a UN General Assembly resolution adopted in late 2018, although the United States voted against it and France and the United Kingdom abstained. (See ACT, December 2018.) An April report by an experts group convened by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs also encouraged states to participate in the conference.

Looking ahead, Nakamitsu recommended four steps for states to take to avoid a failure to reach consensus at the 2020 NPT Review Conference: implement agreements from past NPT review cycles; engage in a genuine dialogue about international security; ensure a balance between advancing disarmament, nonproliferation, and nuclear energy concerns; and think creatively about a successful review conference outcome.
 

 

The final preparatory meeting before the 2020 NPT Review Conference is set to begin.

Russia Challenges Changes to CWC

 

Russia officially objected on April 10 to the Canadian-Dutch-U.S. proposal to add Novichok-related chemicals to the list of banned chemicals in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), forcing a vote on the proposal at the next meeting of all treaty parties in November.

UK forensic investigators prepare to examine a vehicle believed to belong to chemical weapon attack victim Sergei Skripal in March 2018 in Salisbury, England. (Photo: Rufus Cox/Getty Images)The Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voted for the change in January, following a Novichok attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom in March 2018. (See ACT, March 2019.)

The proposal was “clearly substandard from a scientific point of view,” Russia said in a Foreign Ministry statement on April 12, calling one of the chemicals in the proposal “theoretical.”

The Russian objection was a “cynical attempt to undermine the effectiveness of [the] OPCW after [a] shocking attack in Salisbury,” said Peter Wilson, UK ambassador to the Netherlands, in an April 10 tweet. “Canada is very alarmed by this Russian obstruction,” read an April 11 statement from the Canadian Foreign Ministry.

Russia submitted its own proposal to add different sets of Novichok-related chemicals to the CWC, but the Russian proposal was voted down in February in an Executive Council meeting after a technical evaluation. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement suggested considering the rejected Russian proposal together “as a package” with the Canadian-Dutch-U.S. proposal when states-parties vote later this year.

If any change to the list of banned chemicals is adopted in November, this would mark the first change to the treaty’s Schedule 1 list of most dangerous chemicals since the 193-nation pact prohibiting chemical weapons entered into force in 1997.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Russia Challenges Changes to CWC

Switzerland to Decide on Ban Treaty by 2020

 

The Swiss executive branch decided in April to reconsider joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) five years ahead of schedule in response to a parliamentary motion calling on the government to ratify the treaty by 2020. The Federal Council also cited recent international security developments as an explanation for the expedited review.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons awaits signatures on Sept. 20, 2017, in New York. (Photo: Kim Haughton)Switzerland participated in TPNW negotiations in 2017 and voted in favor of its adoption, but the Federal Council ultimately decided in the summer of 2018 to withhold a Swiss signature or ratification. Switzerland committed to attend the first meeting of TPNW states-parties as an observer and reconsider joining the treaty in 2025.

A Swiss parliamentary motion passed in December last year rejected the Federal Council’s decision and called on the government to join the treaty rapidly, by 2020 at the latest.

The authority of the parliamentary motion over the executive branch is in a “legal grey area,” according to Maya Brehm, the co-founder of the Swiss chapter of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and a former researcher at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. In an April 4 email, she told Arms Control Today that parliamentary motions are binding on the Federal Council and Swiss legal culture respects the authority of the parliament, but the prerogative for signing and ratifying treaties rests with the executive branch.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Switzerland to Decide on Ban Treaty by 2020

Trump Orders EMP Readiness Efforts

 

Warning of the dangers of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on March 26 directing federal agencies to assess and mitigate the risks of an EMP event on the United States. The order, “Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses,” calls for integrated action by a wide range of federal agencies to address the threat of natural or malicious EMP events.

The concern over EMP attacks was reflected in the Republican platform during the 2016 presidential election campaign: “With North Korea in possession of nuclear missiles and Iran close to having them, an EMP is no longer a theoretical concern — it is a real threat.”

“The executive order sends a clear message to adversaries that the United States takes this threat seriously,” said Energy Secretary Rick Perry in a departmental release supporting the Trump action.

An EMP is a burst of electromagnetic energy that can “disrupt, degrade, and damage technology and critical infrastructure,” according to the executive order. EMP threats can come in two forms: high-altitude nuclear detonations and natural geomagnetic disturbances, such as solar flares.

Critics have long questioned the merits of devoting significant resources to defeating EMP attacks from U.S. adversaries. “Doomsday headlines in the press regarding [North Korea’s] potential EMP threat are grossly overstated,” wrote Jack Liu of 38 North in a 2017 commentary. “EMP is the new test case of seriousness in national security,” said Peter Singer of New America in 2016. “But not in the way advocates not in on the joke think.”—COLE FALKNER

Trump Orders EMP Readiness Efforts

CD Fails to Advance Agenda

 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (second from left) addresses the Conference for Disarmament on March 20.  (Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)The Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva concluded its first session of 2019 in late March without taking forward a program of work. Last year, the CD adopted a proposal to establish subsidiary bodies to advance the body’s work on four core areas: nuclear disarmament, fissile material, outer space, and negative security assurances. (See ACT, April 2018.) Since then, however, it has failed to create the bodies and remained divided on who should lead them.

“The result is that the CD has lost the momentum it began to build up last year,” said Aidan Liddle, the UK permanent representative to the CD, in a March 22 blog post. “A third of the way through the 2019 session, there’s no plan in place for conducting detailed discussions on the core issues,” he added.

The second CD session of 2019 takes place May 13–June 28 in Geneva.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE
 

CD Fails to Advance Agenda

OPCW Says Chlorine Used in Syria Attack

 

International investigators confirmed in March that a chemical weapon was used in an April 2018 attack in Douma, Syria. The Fact-Finding Mission established by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was not asked to identify the responsible party for the April 7, 2018, attack that reportedly killed dozens and injured many more.

A laboratory technician examines a test vial at an OPCW laboratory near the Hague in 2017.  The agency has determined that an April 2018 attack in Syria used chlorine-based weapons.  (Photo: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)Investigators from the OPCW, the implementing agency of the Chemical Weapons Convention, were unable to visit the attack site until about two weeks after the incident. Their report notes there was evidence of tampering at the site, but they were able to conclude that the “toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine.”

Although the mission was not empowered to identify the party responsible for the chemical attacks, the report notes several details at the scene that independent analysts have argued would be consistent with aircraft use. The Syrian regime has access to aircraft, but no nonstate actors in Syria do. The OPCW has created a new investigative body, the Investigation and Identification Team, to assess who conducted chemical weapons attacks in Syria confirmed by the Fact-Finding Mission. (See ACT, July/August 2018.) The head of the new team has been selected, and the team should be fully operational within weeks, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias told the OPCW Executive Council in mid-March.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

OPCW Says Chlorine Used in Syria Attack

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