"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Missile Defense

The Perils of Space-Based Missile Defense Interception

Past U.S. efforts to develop and deploy a space-based missile defense have known many names, including "Strategic Defense Initiative,” “Brilliant Pebbles,” and “Global Protection Against Limited Strikes.” And all have suffered the same fate: cancellation due to insurmountable financial, technical, and strategic obstacles. But like a zombie that can’t be killed, the idea keeps coming back. Senator Ted Cruz wrote a letter Feb. 22 calling for a space-based capability to intercept ballistic missiles (SBI) in “boost phase,” when a missile is “traveling its slowest, emitting its clearest heat...

Nuclear Declaratory Policy and Negative Security Assurances

March 2018

Contact: Kelsey DavenportDirector for Nonproliferation Policy, (202) 462-8270; Kingston ReifDirector for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy, (202) 462-8270 x104

Updated: March 2018

The world’s nuclear-armed states each have declared, to varying degrees of specificity, when and under what circumstances they reserve the option to use their nuclear weapons. Most nuclear-armed states have also declared under what circumstances they rule out the use of nuclear weapons. These “positive” and “negative” nuclear declaratory policies are designed to deter adversaries from military actions and to assure non-nuclear weapon states and allies they will not be subject to a direct nuclear attack on their territory and should be dissuaded from pursuing nuclear weapons themselves.

There is no universal agreement among nuclear weapon states on the first-use of intercontinental ballistic missiles.Today, most nuclear-armed states, including the United States, reserve the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Only two nuclear-armed states (China and India) have declared no-first-use policies, by which they commit themselves to use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack.

All five of the nuclear-weapon states recognized in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have issued a set of “negative” nuclear security assurances, which were recognized by the UN Security Council in Resolution 984 (1995). These pledges, however, are nonbinding and some nuclear-weapon states reserve the right to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states under certain circumstances. The following is a more detailed summary of each country’s policies.

United States

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report declared that there are four missions for the U.S. nuclear arsenal: deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear attacks, assurance of allies and partners, achievement of U.S. objectives if deterrence fails, and capacity to hedge against an uncertain future.

The document reiterated that the United States does not maintain a nuclear “no first-use policy” on the grounds that U.S. response options must remain flexible to deter nuclear and non-nuclear attacks. “Non-nuclear capabilities,” according to the report, “can complement but not replace U.S. nuclear capabilities” for the purpose of deterrence. In the event that deterrence were to fail, the report also declared that Washington could use nuclear weapons to end a conflict on the “best achievable terms for the United States.”

The NPR dictates that the use of nuclear weapons will only be considered under “extreme circumstances” to defend the “vital interests” of the United States and its allies. It defines “extreme circumstances,” which the 2010 NPR did not, to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against “U.S., allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”

The United States issued assurances not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon-state NPT members in 1978, 1995 and 2010 except in the case of “an invasion or any other attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies, or on a State toward which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear-weapon State in association or alliance with a nuclear- weapon State.” In 1997 the United States issued a classified presidential decision directive (PDD) reaffirming these pledges.

The 2018 NPR repeated existing U.S. negative security assurances by stating that Washington “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” However, the report qualified that the United States reserves the right to amend its negative assurance if warranted by “the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies.” At the February 2 press briefing following the report’s release, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood clarified that this may include cyber capabilities.

For a more details, see U.S. Negative Security Assurances at a Glance.

China issued negative security assurances at the United Nations in 1978 and 1995 and is the only NPT nuclear-weapon state that has declared a no-first-use policy, which it reiterated in February 2018.

At the 2018 Munich Security Conference, Fu Ying, chairperson of the foreign affairs committee of the National People’s Congress, said that “China is also committed to the principle of non-first-use of nuclear weapons, and no-use of nuclear weapons against any nuclear state [sic] at any circumstances and no-use of nuclear weapons against nuclear-free zones.”

In its April 1995 letter to UN members outlining its negative security assurances, China declared that it “undertakes not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances.” China consistently reiterates this policy in its defense white papers. The most recent, edited in 2016, stated that “China will unconditionally not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or in nuclear-weapon-free zones, and will never enter into a nuclear arms race with any other country.”

At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, China also called for the negotiation of an international legally binding instrument to prohibit first-use of nuclear weapons and use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states and nuclear-weapon free zones.

France maintains a policy of calculated ambiguity regarding first-use of nuclear weapons. A 2013 French government defense white paper states that “the use of nuclear weapons would only be conceivable in extreme circumstances of legitimate self-defence” and that “[b]eing strictly defensive, nuclear deterrence protects France from any state-led aggression against its vital interests, of whatever origin and in whatever form.”

France issued negative security assurances at the UN in 1987 and 1995. In its 1995 statement to the UN, France pledged not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the NPT “except in the case of invasion or any other attack on France, its territory, its armed forces or other troops, or against its allies or a State toward which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a State in alliance or association with a nuclear-weapon State.”

At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, France called for nuclear possessor states to “work resolutely to advance disarmament in all its aspects; in which the doctrines of nuclear powers will restrict the role of nuclear weapons solely to extreme circumstances of self-defence where their vital interests are under threat.”

According to the December 2014 Russian Military Doctrine Paper published by the Ministry of Defense, Russia reserves the option to use nuclear weapons in response to an attack involving any weapon of mass destruction, and in response to conventional attacks “when the very existence of the state is under threat.” This phrase suggests a willingness to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states in the event of an impending conventional military defeat.

In 1993, Russia moved away from Leonid Brezhnev’s 1982 no-first-use pledge when the Russian Defense Ministry under Boris Yeltsin adopted a new doctrine on nuclear weapons. The new policy ruled out the first use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the NPT but said nothing about use against states possessing nuclear weapons. Since the 1993 shift, many Western analysts have come to believe that Russia pursues an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy—the notion that, in the event of a large-scale conventional conflict, the Kremlin would use or threaten to use low-yield nuclear weapons to coerce an adversary to cease attacks or withdraw. However, other analysts maintain that this is not the case. 

Russia issued unilateral negative security assurances not to attack non-nuclear-weapon states in 1978 and 1995, but stated in 1995 that those pledges would not apply “in the case of an invasion or any other attack on the Russian Federation, its territory, its armed forces or other troops, its allies or on a State toward which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear-weapon State in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State.”

United Kingdom
In the 2015 Strategic Defense and Security Review document, the United Kingdom said it will not use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with the treaty’s obligations. The United Kingdom appears to leave open the option to use nuclear weapons in response to WMD threats, such as chemical or biological attacks, if such threats emerge. Currently London acknowledged that there is “no direct threat” posed by WMDs to the United Kingdom in the 2015 document, but the government reserves the right to “review this assurance if the future threat, development or proliferation of these weapons make it necessary.”

The United Kingdom issued a unilateral negative nuclear security assurance in 1978 and again in 1995. In the 1995 pledge the United Kingdom said it will not use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states party to the NPT. This assurance does not apply, however, to any state acting “in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon state” that attacks the United Kingdom, its territories or allies, or any state in breach of its commitments under the NPT.

India has a no-first-use doctrine. As the government stated in a draft nuclear doctrine in August 1999, “India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.” Although India has adopted a no-first-use policy, some Indian strategists have called the pledge’s validity into question. The credibility of this pledge was weakened in 2009 when Indian Army Chief Gen. Deepak Kapoor suggested that the government should review the pledge in light of the growing threat of Pakistan. In 2010, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon stated that India's nuclear doctrine was “no first use against non-nuclear weapons states.” MIT professor Vipin Narang has also observed that “the force requirements India needs in order to credibly threaten assured retaliation against China may allow it to pursue more aggressive strategies—such as escalation dominance or a ‘splendid first strike’—against Pakistan.”

During debate at the Conference on Disarmament in 2014, India’s representative reiterated the government’s no-first-use policy and the policy on nonuse against non-nuclear-weapon states and said that India was “prepared to convert these undertakings into multilateral legal arrangements.”

Given that Israel has not acknowledged possession of nuclear weapons, it has not made any statements regarding its willingness to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states. Israel generally abstains from voting on an annual UN General Assembly resolution that would establish international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon states that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons would not be used against them, including recently in resolution 72/25 in 2017.

Pakistan has only issued negative nuclear security guarantees to those states that are not armed with nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s position regarding when and whether it would use nuclear weapons in a conflict with another nuclear-armed state, namely India, is far more ambiguous. Pakistani officials have indicated that the circumstances surrounding its no-first-use policy must remain deliberately imprecise, as demarcating clear redlines could allow provocations by the Indian military just below any established threshold for use.

In a 2015 statement, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry said that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is one-dimensional, that is it for "stopping Indian aggression before it happens" “not for starting a war.” He also said in 2015 that Pakistan is capable of answering aggression from India due to Islamabad’s development of short-range tactical nuclear weapons. In July 2016, Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif suggested Islamabad would use nuclear weapons for defensive purposes in armed conflict with India.

North Korea
Following its fourth nuclear test in January 2016, Pyongyang declared a policy of no-first-use under the condition that hostile forces do not encroach on its sovereignty. The Jan. 6, 2016 government statement said that North Korea, as a “responsible nuclear weapons state, will neither be the first to use nuclear weapons…as long as the hostile forces for aggression do not encroach upon its sovereignty.”  North Korea has re-affirmed this stance at the May 2016 Worker's Party Congress in Pyongyang and in the 2018 New Year's Address. North Korea, however, routinely threatens to use nuclear weapons against perceived threats, including against the United States and South Korea, a non-nuclear-weapon state.

Strategic Arms Control and Policy

Fact Sheet Categories:

Aegis Missile Interceptor Fails Test

The Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA, the latest in the line of U.S. interceptor missiles designed for the Aegis ballistic missile defense system, failed to hit its target in its third intercept test on Jan. 31 after being launched from the Aegis Ashore test site in Hawaii. At a Feb. 1 press briefing, Pentagon spokesperson Dana White confirmed that the test “did not meet our objectives.” A Missile Defense Agency (MDA) statement later that day, however, said that “much was still learned that demonstrated an increase in the effective range” of the overall ballistic missile defense system.

At a Feb. 12 press briefing, Gary Pennett, MDA director of operations, said officials had isolated the failure to the missile itself rather than any sensor or control system in the “engage on remote” apparatus. This was the second failure in three intercept tests of the missile, which is currently being developed jointly by Raytheon Co. and Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The system is set to begin deployment this year on U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force ships, as well as at an Aegis Ashore site in Poland as part of the third phase of the so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach. (See ACT, June 2016.) This latest failure raises questions about whether the current deployment schedule can be met.

The Block IIA is a larger and faster version of previous SM-3 missiles. It boasts an improved range and was designed to engage medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the midcourse phase of flight.—MACLYN SENEAR

Aegis Missile Interceptor Fails Test

Turkey Signs Missile Deal With Russia

Turkey and Russia signed an agreement for Moscow to supply Ankara with advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries, according to a Dec. 29 Turkish government statement. The deal is controversial because Turkey is a NATO member and normally would buy weapons from allied-country suppliers that could be integrated with NATO’s defense architecture.

A Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system is displayed on August 22, 2017 during the first day of the International Military-Technical Forum Army 2017 near Moscow. NATO-member Turkey announced it is buying the Russian system, which is incompatible with NATO’s defense architecture.  (Photo: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)The deal reportedly is valued at $2.5 billion and has been in the works for more than a year, Reuters reported. On Dec. 27, Sergey Chemezov, head of the Russian state conglomerate Rostec, told the Kommersant that Russia would supply Turkey with four S-400 batteries. In a statement, Turkey’s Undersecretariat for Defence Industries said that an initial delivery is planned for the first quarter of 2020. The Turkish government said the deal covers two S-400 batteries, with one being optional, and added the systems would be used and managed “independently” by Turkish personnel, rather than Russian advisers, according to Reuters. Turkish newspapers cited President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as saying Turkey would get a Russian loan in rubles to help finance the purchase. Russia’s English-language RT news service headlined the deal as a “Blow to NATO?”

The Russian state-owned news agency Tass reported in December that Moscow is close to a deal for Saudi Arabia, another U.S. ally, to buy the S-400 system. A sale to India is also close to completion, according to Russian officials cited by Tass.—TERRY ATLAS

Turkey Signs Missile Deal With Russia

Hill Wants Development of Banned Missile

December 2017
By Kingston Reif

Lawmakers voted in November to require the Defense Department to establish a program to begin development of a new missile system that if tested would violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis briefs the press at the NATO headquarters in Brussels November 9, after discussing with allies issues including Russia's alleged violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.  (Photo credit: Jette Carr/ U.S. Air Force)The bill authorizes $58 million for a conventional, road-mobile, ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range prohibited by the treaty, as well as other offensive and defensive capabilities to counter Russia’s alleged deployment of a GLCM in violation of the treaty. The measure also expresses the sense of Congress that the United States is entitled to suspend its implementation of the treaty so long as Russia remains in material breach. Furthermore, it requires a report outlining possible sanctions against individuals in Russia deemed complicit in the violation.

The policy provisions are part of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act and come amid reports that the Pentagon has already begun preliminary research on the new missile.

The final compromise version of the bill, passed Nov. 14 by the House and Nov. 16 by the Senate, establishes spending ceilings and legal guidelines for Pentagon programs and activities conducted by the Energy Department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Since 2014, Washington has accused Moscow of violating its commitment “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” a GLCM having a range prohibited under the INF Treaty. In the past year, the Pentagon has alleged that Russia is fielding a noncompliant system. Moscow has denied both charges.

The INF Treaty required Russia and the United States to eliminate permanently their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The treaty does not prohibit activities related to research and development of this category of weapons.

The original House and Senate versions of the authorization bill called for R&D programs on a new GLCM. (See ACT, October 2017.) The House bill required development of a conventionally armed missile, whereas the Senate bill would authorize a nuclear-capable version.

Russian Colonel Aleksey Gridnev, Russian Federation team chief, receives a welcome gift May 15 from U.S. Air Force Colonel John Klein, 60th Air Mobility Wing commander, at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. The visit is part of the Open Skies Treaty missions.  (Photo credit: Louis Briscese/U.S. Air Force)In statements during the summer, the Trump administration objected to the GLCM language, stating that it “unhelpfully ties the administration to a specific missile system, which would limit potential military response options.” Nevertheless, The Wall Street Journal reported on Nov. 16, citing U.S. officials, that the Pentagon started research on the missile given the likelihood that it would soon be required by law.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis briefed NATO defense ministers on the administration’s plans at a Nov. 9 meeting in Brussels. Mattis told reporters afterward that Washington is focused on trying to bring Russia back into compliance and does not intend to abandon the pact.

A U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal that the idea behind beginning the GLCM research is “to send a message to the Russians that they will pay a military price” for violation of this treaty. “We are posturing ourselves to live in a post-INF [Treaty] world…if that is the world the Russians want,” the official added.

If the United States ever decides to deploy the new missiles, development would likely take years and cost several billion dollars.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported on Nov. 16 that the Trump administration has called for another meeting of the Special Verification Commission, the treaty’s dispute resolution forum. The commission last met a year ago without progress. (See ACT, December 2016.)

The authorization bill would provide $626 billion for national defense programs and $66 billion for the overseas contingency operations account, which is nominally used to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Syria but also funds other defense programs. This spending level exceeds the spending cap for fiscal year 2018, imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, by roughly $77 billion and the administration’s budget request by $23 billion. The bill does not include an additional $8 billion for defense activities requested by the administration.

The government is currently being funded by a continuing resolution that covers most programs at the fiscal year 2017 appropriated level through early December. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have yet to agree on top-line spending levels for the current fiscal year.

Neither the House nor Senate appropriations committee-approved versions of the fiscal year 2018 defense appropriations bill include funding for a new GLCM.

Missile Defense Buildup Urged

The final authorization bill supports the Trump administration’s early moves to significantly expand U.S. ballistic missile defenses to counter North Korea’s advancing missile capabilities.

The bill authorizes $10.5 billion for the Missile Defense Agency, an increase of $2.6 billion above the administration’s initial request. In total, the bill adds $4.4 billion above the request for missile defense and related programs.

The legislation provides all of the extra $4 billion for missile defense programs requested by the administration in a Nov. 6 amendment to its fiscal year 2018 budget request (see page 40). The supplemental request follows congressional approval in October for the transfer of $440 million in unspent fiscal year 2017 Army operations and maintenance funds to missile defense programs. (See ACT, November 2017.)

The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, designed to protect the United States against a limited intercontinental ballistic missile attack from North Korea or Iran, would receive $1.3 billion in the bill, an increase of $498 million above the requested level of $828 million. This includes $88 million to begin increasing the number of ground-based, long-range missile defense interceptors by up to 20 beyond the currently deployed 44.

In addition, the bill requires the Pentagon to develop a plan to increase the number of interceptors to 104 and authorizes additional money for missile defense sensors, upgrades to the Navy’s Aegis missile defense program, and classified programs to augment U.S. cyber capabilities for missile defense. It also supports the rapid acquisition of a boost-phase missile defense capability and a space-based interceptor layer.

The administration is currently conducting a congressionally mandated review of the U.S. approach toward missile defense. (See ACT, May 2017.) The review is slated for completion by the end of the year.

CTBTO Funds Curtailed

The authorization bill limits funding for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) and declares that UN Security Council Resolution 2310, passed in September 2016, does not “obligate…nor does it impose an obligation on the United States to refrain from actions that would run counter to the object and purpose” of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The explanatory statement accompanying the bill states that “it is wholly inappropriate for U.S. funds to support activities of the [CTBTO] that include advocating for ratification of the treaty or otherwise preparing for the treaty’s possible entry into force.”

The CTBTO is the intergovernmental organization that promotes the CTBT, which has yet to enter into force, and maintains the global International Monitoring System to deter and detect nuclear test explosions. Resolution 2310 urges eight countries, whose ratification is needed for the treaty to enter into force, to ratify the CTBT “without further delay” and calls on all states to refrain from conducting nuclear tests, emphasizing that current testing moratoria contribute to “international peace and stability.” (See ACT, October 2016.)

The legislation also imposes conditions on funding to upgrade U.S. digital imaging systems pursuant to implementation of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty. The treaty, which entered into force in 2002, permits each of the agreement’s 34 states-parties to conduct short-notice, unarmed reconnaissance flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

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

The United States has raised numerous concerns about Russian compliance with the treaty. Republican lawmakers have voiced concern that Russian flights under the treaty, which now employ more advanced sensors and cameras as allowed by the treaty, amount to spy missions.

Congress completes the fiscal year 2018 defense authorization act.

Boost Sought for Missile Defense

The Trump administration laid the groundwork to aggressively expand U.S. ballistic missile defense capabilities when it submitted an amendment to its fiscal year 2018 defense budget request. The supplemental request, sent to Congress on Nov. 6, asked for an additional $4 billion for ballistic missile defense programs, citing the need to “counter the threat from North Korea.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) hands over the gavel to Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) at the start of an Armed Services conference committee meeting on the National Defense Authorization Act on Capitol Hill October 25. (Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)In a press release later that day, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairmen of the armed services committees, welcomed the request, noting their committees “in fact…have already authorized many of these missile defense programs in our respective defense bills.”

The fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress’s defense policy bill, authorizes increased procurement of interceptors for currently deployed missile defense systems to address near-term threats while endorsing development of proposed boost-phase and space-based intercept capabilities that could require even more substantial spending in the future.

The supplemental request follows congressional approval in October for the transfer of $440 million in unspent fiscal year 2017 Army operations and maintenance funds to missile defense programs as the administration and Congress make expanding missile defenses a priority. (See ACT, October 2017.) The House overwhelmingly passed the compromise authorization bill on Nov. 14, and the Senate followed on Nov. 16, sending the bill to President Donald Trump for his signature.—MACLYN SENEAR

Boost Sought for Missile Defense

Ballistic Missile Defense: Proceed With Caution

November 2017
By Boris Toucas

The ballistic missile defense review underway by the Trump administration may end years of shifting approaches and decisively strengthen programs that have experienced ups and downs since the 1990s.

A medium-range ballistic missile target is launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, during a test August 29. The target was successfully intercepted by SM-6 missiles fired from the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones.  (Photo credit: U.S. Missile Defense Agency)Incrementally, missile defenses, despite current technical limitations, haves acquired a genuine operational dimension for military planners and political leaders. Going forward, technological advances and business interests will make increased spending on such programs appealing, accelerating the development of systems designed to counter advanced offensive arsenals. The missile defense revolution may be taking shape slowly, but it is almost inevitable.

The aim is to enhance the overall security of the United States and its allies in a world of increasing ballistic missile threats. Yet, that appealing goal may be jeopardized if the process is driven primarily by technological advances and business interests and without adequate political vision and consideration of the implications for strategic stability. Absent such safeguards, this evolution may lead to increased strategic instability as other countries seek to counter U.S. developments. Alternatively, ensuring meaningful political oversight in the United States and encouraging other countries to join in regulatory efforts would guarantee that the overall security contribution remains positive.

After the end of the Cold War, U.S. missile defense, once a divisive topic, gained bipartisan support.1 Although Iraqi and North Korean missile capabilities spurred the development of new defensive systems, the combination of incremental technological progress and Russia’s momentary loss of diplomatic clout created the necessary political momentum. In 1997 in talks with the United States, Russia agreed under pressure to the deployment of theater missile defenses on the condition that they were not to be used against the other side. Russia expected to preserve the core of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in return, but the United States withdrew from that treaty in 2002 to complete development of a new generation of systems aimed at intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The 1999 National Missile Defense Act called for the United States to deploy “an effective national missile defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack.” At that time, the stated level of ambition was modest, emphasizing technical improvements to theater missile defenses over advancing territorial systems.

Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discusses ballistic missile defense capabilities with Lt. Cmdr. Brian Gauthier in the combat information center aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry on September 7.  (Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin V. Cunningham)Progress was achieved on the theater systems while technical success was more elusive for new systems directed against key strategic threats, such as the emerging long-range missile capabilities of Iran and North Korea. Still, President George W. Bush’s declared goal in 2002 to deploy a homeland missile defense “within two years” did not reflect the actual performance of available technology, such as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. That system, which was fielded with untested prototype kill vehicles that suffered malfunctions, is an illustration of the dissonance between political and technological timelines. As of 2017, the GMD program has cost roughly $40 billion, and the Department of Defense assesses that the reliability and availability of the ground-based interceptor missiles remain low.

The official narrative on missile defense programs is a subtle mix between the call for staying ahead of the threat by attempting to capitalize on continuous technological progress, the permanent need to secure funding, and an acknowledgment of the limited effectiveness of fielded systems. As a result, the U.S. posture may seem to fluctuate greatly over short periods of time, sometimes sowing confusion among allies. In Europe, for example, U.S. missile defense projects were first aimed at protecting the United States against a future Iranian ICBM threat. That shifted to the European Phased Adaptive Approach, as the Obama administration’s missile defense policy in Europe is formally known, to defend NATO’s European territory against a salvo of Iranian shorter-range missiles. Yet for several European countries, the phased adaptive approach was primarily relevant as a symbol of U.S. political assurances against Russia, an issue unrelated to the ballistic threat it was meant to tackle.2 Although the United States clarified that Russia was not a target, the uncertainty surrounding the final shape of the system fueled a debate about whether it posed a potential threat to Russia’s strategic capabilities, a situation that Moscow used as a pretext to justify its own military buildup in Europe.

Tech Breakthrough

Recent developments will add more uncertainty regarding U.S. intentions. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, although enhancing the “stabilizing benefits” of missile defense, calls for the establishment of a “robust layered missile defense system” capable of defending against the “increasingly complex” missile threat. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in February 2017 proposed the development of new types of defenses while other lawmakers urged increasing the number of GMD interceptors and initiating a space-based missile defense program. Analysts argue that the vocabulary used in the authorization act is in line with previous documents, the absence of the term “limited” paves the way for more ambitious objectives.

The new ballistic missile defense review likely will echo this call for more action. Further progress is necessary before ballistic missile defense can be considered a strategic game-changer from the perspective of the defender. Yet, predictions of such technological breakthroughs are credible with certain caveats, suggesting the potential for limited protection against Russian and Chinese missiles.

As the latest North Korean launches of the ICBM-range Hwasong-14 missile demonstrate, the spread of offensive capabilities in third countries will trigger a legitimate debate on the need for more advanced defenses. Approximately 30 countries possess ballistic missiles, and more countries in the Middle East and Asia will acquire them.

In the meantime, progress on specific systems, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, create the reassuring impression among the public that missile defense may nullify the risk of an attack. It provides a long-awaited political justification for the $123 billion invested by the Missile Defense Agency in the missile defense sector since 2002 and even opens the perspective of a return on investment through exports. In fact, as the perceived threat grows, the United States holds a quasi-monopoly position on a potential $23 billion global market.3 These factors seem to call for a more ambitious missile defense policy that would involve interception capabilities against advanced systems and would seek to offset its costs through a more aggressive export policy.

Such a policy, of course, comes at a price. The creation of a global missile defense network implies agreements with hosts for forward-based sensors and interceptors, which generates new liabilities and commitments toward third states on the periphery of the traditional U.S. areas of influence. It raises the issue of defending new critical assets, especially radars, located on allied territories, which are more vulnerable to preventive destruction. For example, Russia threatened to destroy fixed ballistic missile defense assets assigned to NATO in Poland, Romania, and Turkey. In a crisis, it is not clear that all hosting states would accept responsibility for systems they do not supervise, such as in South Korea, or when the bilateral relationship is tense, as with Turkey. Eventually, such a global network could reduce the U.S. political margin of maneuverability in a conflict instead of improving it.

The economic factor also may drive missile defense programs in a direction inconsistent with U.S. long-term strategic interests. First, the export-driven approach, which favors off-the-shelf acquisitions, has a mixed impact on the resilience of U.S. allies. For limited defense budgets, the acquisition of costly missile defense systems may come at the expense of more cost-efficient reforms in other sectors and put an end to the development of indigenous capabilities, as has been the case in Europe. It also will diffuse sensitive technologies among a much broader range of business partners while prompting adversaries of these countries to invest even more in offensive capabilities so as to overwhelm their defenses. As a result, the missile threat could grow rather than diminish, but proponents argue that more effective and numerous defensive systems could compensate for this.

Impact on Stability

In the longer run, a policy to develop interception capabilities against advanced systems could have an impact on strategic stability and crisis stability. Concerns expressed by China and Russia that U.S. missile defenses already undermine strategic stability are far-fetched. Their views are mostly unrelated to current deployment but nurtured by an insecure view of the future, including extreme interpretation of projections that in 2030 the United States could possess 350 to 550 missiles4 on Aegis ships with enhanced detection and interception capacities.

The U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) station Aegis Ashore Romania, part of what the United States calls the European Phased Adaptive Approach for BMD, at the military base in Deveselu, Romania is shown in a May 12, 2016 photograph. Aegis Ashore is a land-based capability of the Navy’s Aegis ballistic missile defense system.  (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)In theory, missile defenses coupled with continued investment in conventional long-range, precision-strike capabilities could help disable significant portions of an adversary’s arsenal during a first strike while complicating retaliation, with the consequence of increasing the risk of escalation to early use of nuclear weapons. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s 2008 statement that “it is most likely that in the foreseeable future we will hear of hundreds and even thousands of interceptor missiles in various parts of the world, including Europe,”5 indicates that such concerns, although exaggerated, are real. This is a reminder that, on the international stage, mutual confidence matters as much as observable facts.

A U.S. breakthrough might ideally create an important rift between the major rival powers and aspiring competitors. It could complicate the efforts of potential adversaries to keep U.S. territory or forces under the threat of a missile strike. Regional powers, such as Iran and North Korea, would not give up their programs because they consider ballistic missile capabilities a political guarantee against regime change. However, they would be forced to devote far more of their limited resources to countering missile defenses with decoys or increased maneuverability while less advanced proliferators may abandon ballistic missile ambitions to focus instead on cheaper, asymmetric strategies. Such tactical achievements, even if limited and temporary, will be used in the United States to dismiss any restraint on missile defenses as counterproductive.

Yet, efforts to obtain a capability to reliably shoot down advanced ballistic missiles would almost certainly trigger a renewed arms race with the greatest powers. It would not only increase the risks of a misunderstanding, but also justify a surge in modernized nuclear stockpiles and delivery systems, harming prospects for nuclear disarmament. Potential adversaries would use an ambitious U.S. missile defense policy as a pretext to infringe on existing multilateral regimes if they believe that such accords will eventually become obsolete anyway due to technologically driven developments. For instance, this could be used by Russia to justify formal withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and deployment of more short-range ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad.

For the same reasons, an increased level of ambition for missile defense programs would harm the prospects for U.S.-Russian talks on strategic stability. Instead, a competition on missile defense systems accompanied by a diversification of offensive arsenals would encourage new, therefore unstable weapons concepts and doctrines, fueling the risk of misunderstanding. Russia’s delivery of the advanced S-300 air defense systems to Iran and Russian efforts to field S-400 area defense capabilities against air and missile threats have spread alarm within NATO, worried that anti-access/area denial capabilities might give Russia tactical superiority in disputed areas, such as the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and Syria.

Notably, these concerns have been high in peacetime, a period during which Russia never activated them against NATO assets. This suggests that any U.S. sense that relying more on missile defenses will lead to increased stability and security could vanish as China and Russia also invest in this sector and start implementing similar strategies.

Missile Defense Policy

For two decades, the United States chose to reinforce and expand missile defenses as new needs arise while ensuring the modernization of nuclear arsenals to maintain the credibility of nuclear deterrence. As missile defenses gain the power to shape the strategic environment, it is worth examining policy options for the United States and its allies.

There are ways to defuse some of the risks associated with missile defense development without changing the existing framework. Currently, only minimal deconfliction efforts are pursued, primarily through public emphasis on the limited aim of missile defense systems. In this regard, NATO summit statements offer remarkable examples of unilateral transparency. More concrete verification measures could be proposed to monitor territorial ballistic missile defense sites, such as Aegis Ashore in Romania, but such steps could backfire because they would be deemed intrusive6 and of limited effectiveness. The United States and Russia could agree on prohibiting the deployment of theater systems in certain areas under shared control or restrain their coverage when these assets overlap foreign territories. Yet in the longer run, none of these measures would prevent missile defenses from generating an arms race.

A different policy could be pursued by abandoning the perception that missile defenses may not be subject to arms control talks. After all, it was a pillar of such talks until the 1990s. Advertising restraint, however, is not an easy task because the United States and U.S. allies have hinted at missile defenses as the best security assurance possible and a quasi-deterrent against potentially hostile powers such as Iran, North Korea, and even Russia. Yet, recent developments in Northeast Asia, where missile overflights of Japan tamper high expectations that such systems could act as a deterrent, would weigh in the debate.

An important goal is to prevent too many actors from joining the club of missile-defensible states. To begin with, sensitive technologies associated with missile defenses, for example hit-to-kill vehicles, should be placed under closer scrutiny. Moreover, rather than aggressively promoting off-the-shelf procurement, the United States could support indigenous missile defense development efforts among their most skilled partners only, in exchange for a bilateral commitment not to re-export them. In the meantime, the United States would insist on China and Russia taking responsibility in curbing missile proliferation.

North Korea’s demonstration that it possesses an ICBM capability complicates the equation. Still, China and Russia have some leverage on North Korea. In return for effective action on their side, the United States should let the door open to a rollback on deployed systems, in particular the THAAD system in South Korea, if the threat were suppressed. The United States, China, and Russia could also explore capping territorial missile defense development according to missile threat evolution, but this would require coordinated monitoring efforts of proliferating states.

The perception by some allies that missile defenses are a symbol of the U.S. commitment to protect their territory further complicates matters. Yet, the need for reassurance in Europe mostly stems from Russia’s attempt to bully its neighbors into submission in the Baltic region. If Russia wishes to avoid the future establishment of an Aegis Ashore site in Poland, it should offer to decrease its military posture in Kaliningrad and the Black Sea significantly; Poland could still host U.S. personnel and equipment for security reasons. At the alliance level, this asymmetric bargain could compensate for the very limited loss of protection against an Iranian threat. It could be cancelled if Russia failed to dissuade Iran from significantly augmenting the range of its missiles.

At present, the notion of capping missile defense development is not being explored by the United States, in part on dubious grounds that missile defense activity is morally legitimate. Such an assertion is not justified in theory, nor is it effective in practice. Although primarily a defensive concept, missile defenses support offensive missions on the theater level and shapes the evolution of other powers’ deterrence strategies to an extent. Moreover, it is a powerful diplomatic irritant, which makes it a strong bargaining chip in any negotiation.

It is uncertain what price China and Russia would pay to cap U.S. missile defense development. Their willingness to pay a high price may decline over time because both countries are becoming increasingly efficient themselves in this emerging domain. Hence, it is not certain that time will always be an asset for the United States, especially as China’s funding potential grows. Yet, the immediate interest for China and Russia is to negotiate in good faith. A refusal on their part to engage in serious discussions would discredit their narrative about a U.S. military buildup in their respective regions.

Additionally, China and Russia would benefit from negotiating because a strategic arms race on missile defenses would risk disrupting China’s deterrence strategy and would certainly strain Russia’s economic capabilities. With the United States, China, and Russia on board, this club would have the critical mass to diffuse good practices to the entire international community, mitigating the potentially destabilizing consequences of missile defense development.


1. “Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States,” 1998, https://fas.org/irp/threat/missile/rumsfeld/toc.htm.

2. “[Polish and Czech] goals were political, having nothing to do with Iran and everything with Russia; the US deployments on their soil would be a concrete manifestation of US security guarantees against Russia beyond our commitment under the NATO treaty.” Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), p. 403.

3. Strategic Defense Intelligence, “The Global Missiles and Missile Defense Systems Market 2015-2025,” March 2017, https://www.reportlinker.com/p03605945/The-Global-Missiles-and-Missile-Defense-Systems-Market-Major-Programs-Market-Profile.html?.

4. George Lewis, “Strategic Capabilities of SM-3 Block IIA Interceptors,” Mostlymissiledefense.com, June 2016, https://mostlymissiledefense.com/2016/06/30/strategic-capabilities-of-sm-3-block-iia-interceptors-june-30-2016/.

5. Interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Gazeta Wyborcza, February 7, 2008.

6. For example, monitoring the Aegis Ashore MK-41 platform would probably involve an in-depth investigation of the tubes and software involved.


Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, expressing personal views. Previously, he served in the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament office at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2013 to 2016 and was responsible for nuclear deterrence and ballistic missile defense as a member of the negotiating team during the NATO summit in Warsaw.


The envisioned security benefits may be jeopardized if the process is driven primarily by technological advances and business interests and without adequate political vision and consideration of the implications for strategic stability.

Pentagon Gets More Missile Defense Funds

Congress last month approved the transfer of an additional $440 million in unspent fiscal year 2017 Defense Department funds to missile defense programs amid on ongoing administration review of U.S. missile defense strategy and growing concern about North Korea’s advancing ballistic missile capabilities. Of that amount, $136 million would support increasing the number of ground-based long-range missile defense interceptors in Alaska by up to 20 beyond the currently planned 40.

A ground-based interceptor missile sits inside its underground silo August 23 at the Missile Defense Complex at Fort Greely, Alaska. (Photo credit: U.S. Army photo by Capt. Jennifer Beyrle)The additional money, which had originally been earmarked for Army operations and maintenance accounts, would also fund missile defense sensors, upgrades to the Navy’s Aegis missile defense program, and classified programs to augment U.S. cyber capabilities for missile defense. The Defense Department submitted the reprogramming request to Congress on Sept. 7.

The administration is currently conducting a congressionally mandated review of the U.S. approach toward missile defense. (See ACT, May 2017.) The review is slated for completion by the end of the year. The Trump administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2018, released May 23, seeks $7.9 billion for the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency, a decrease of $334 million from the current level but an increase of $470 million from the projection in the final Obama administration submission. (See ACT, July/August 2017.)

President Donald Trump said at an Aug. 10 news conference at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, that he would “be increasing our budget by many billions of dollars because of North Korea and other reasons having to do with” missile defense. It remains to be seen if the administration will submit a so-called supplemental request to lawmakers for additional missile defense funds beyond its request for fiscal year 2018, which began Oct. 1.

The House and Senate versions of this year’s defense authorization act would permit expanding the number of ground-based interceptors in Alaska. The two chambers are currently in negotiations to produce a final bill by early December.—KINGSTON REIF

Pentagon Gets More Missile Defense Funds

U.S. Sets Major Saudi Missile Defense Sale

The Trump administration notified Congress of the largest piece thus far of the controversial $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia first announced in May. The Oct. 8 notification covered 360 interceptor missiles, 44 launchers, seven radars, related components, and support for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, with an estimated value of $15 billion. Aimed at intercepting short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, the THAAD system would support the “long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region in the face of Iranian and other regional threats,” according to the notification. The notification came just days after reports that Riyadh had agreed to buy Russian S-400s, a mobile surface-to-air missile system, calling into question whether the Saudis are playing Russia and the United States against each other.

Yemeni children gather at a bomb crater from a reported air strike October 7 by the Saudi-led coalition that allegedly hit a health center in the northern province of Hajjah. (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)U.S. military sales to Saudi Arabia have drawn extra attention due to the Saudi-led coalition’s conduct of its war in Yemen, which has resulted in many direct and indirect civilian casualties. Saudi Arabia and its allies have prevented ships carrying humanitarian aid from reaching Yemeni ports. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who voted in June to block the sale of $500 million in precision-guided munitions to the Saudis, threatened to block the nomination of Jennifer Newstead as legal adviser in the State Department. During confirmation hearings, Young pressed Newstead on the Saudi actions in Yemen. Young said that the Saudi obstruction of humanitarian aid violates Rule 55 of customary international humanitarian law (as listed by the International Committee of the Red Cross) and undercuts “our national security interests and our moral values.” —ARSEN MARKAROV

U.S. Sets Major Saudi Missile Defense Sale

New CBO Report Warns of Skyrocketing Costs of U.S. Nuclear Arsenal



Experts Call for Shift to More Cost-Effective Alternatives

For Immediate Release: October 31, 2017

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

(Washington, D.C.) – A new study published by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Tuesday highlights the skyrocketing cost of the current plan to sustain and upgrade U.S. nuclear forces and outlines several pragmatic options to maintain a credible, formidable deterrent at less cost.

The USS Wyoming, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia in 2014. The Navy is planning to replace the Ohio-class submarines, but the cost of the replacement is prompting a debate in Washington. (U.S. Navy)CBO estimates that sustaining and upgrading U.S. nuclear forces will cost taxpayers $1.24 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars between fiscal years 2017 and 2046. When the effects of inflation are included, we project that the 30-year cost will exceed $1.5 trillion. These figures are significantly higher than the previously reported estimates of roughly $1 trillion.   

“The stark reality underlined by CBO is that unless the U.S. government finds a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the nuclear weapons spending plan inherited by the Trump administration will pose a crushing affordability problem,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

The CBO study comes amid reports that the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which is slated for completion by the end of the year, could propose new types of nuclear weapons and increase their role in U.S. policy.

“If the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review by the administration does not scale-back current nuclear weapons spending plans – or worse, accelerates or expands upon them – expenditures on nuclear weapons will endanger other high priority national security programs,” Reif noted.

The CBO report evaluates roughly a dozen alternatives to the current plans to manage and reduce the mammoth price tag. For example, according to CBO, roughly 15 percent, or nearly $200 billion, of the projected cost of nuclear forces over the next three decades could be saved by trimming back the existing program of record while still maintaining a triad of delivery systems. Additional savings could be found by shifting from a triad to a nuclear dyad. 

“The report blows apart the false choice repeatedly posited by Pentagon officials between the costly ‘all of the above’ plan to maintain and upgrade the nuclear force and doing nothing. There are cost-cutting alternatives that would still maintain a U.S. nuclear force capable of obliterating any potential nuclear adversary,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

“The trillion and a half dollar triad is not just unaffordable, it is unnecessary. The United States continues to retain more nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and supporting infrastructure than it needs to deter or respond to a nuclear attack,” Kimball added.

Over the past several years, the Arms Control Association has repeatedly raised concerns about the need and affordability of the current spending plans, argued that these plans pose a threat to other military priorities, and suggested more cost-effective alternatives.

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


A new study published by CBO highlights the skyrocketing cost to sustain and upgrade U.S. nuclear forces and outlines several options to maintain a credible deterrent at less cost.


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