"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
U.S. Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear Test Readiness at Risk, DOE Reports

October 2002

By Christine Kucia

The Energy Department’s ability to resume full-scale nuclear testing within 36 months is at risk due to the loss of experienced employees, dismantled facilities, and unusable equipment, according to a report by the department’s Office of Inspector General (IG). The department is required to be able to conduct a nuclear test within three years of receiving an order from the president to resume testing.

The report, released September 9, harshly criticized the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) management of the test readiness program, noting a significant lack of planning to fill key roles and update equipment. The audit asserted that NNSA “did not have a comprehensive plan or methodology in place to address its most significant test-related concerns.”

Lack of personnel with testing experience was a chief problem listed in the report, which cited a 50 percent loss of such employees in the past five years. Physical assets, such as computer equipment and diagnostic tools used during testing, are in disrepair or obsolete. In addition, computer modeling to determine the site’s readiness has not been updated to reflect changes in personnel, facilities, and safety requirements over the last 10 years.

In an accompanying memorandum addressing the report’s findings, NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Everet H. Beckner defended the agency, saying, “NNSA is confident that the weapons complex could resume testing on a time scale appropriate” to deal with any potential problem. Other Energy Department management comments noted that the audit focused only on the Nevada Test Site’s preparedness when it is the national weapons laboratories that have the greatest technical capabilities to conduct nuclear tests.

The IG report was issued as Congress contemplates reducing the time required to resume nuclear testing as part of the FY 2003 defense authorization and appropriations bills. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives approved $15 million to enhance test readiness, but only the House authorization bill calls for the ability to resume underground nuclear weapons testing within 12 months.

Given the current state of the test site’s facilities and annual funding level of $10 million, it would be “an ever greater challenge to meet a smaller window” of test readiness time, according to an Energy official familiar with the report.

The audit was conducted from September 2001 to July 2002 and involved interviews with over 70 current and former employees, visits to the Nevada Test Site and the North Las Vegas Facility, and reviews of policies and procedures.

Nuclear Test Readiness at Risk, DOE Reports

A Breakdown of Breakout: U.S. and Russian Warhead Production Capabilities

Oleg Bukharin

The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty signed in May cuts the U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads. Although a significant step forward, the long-term impact of the treaty remains unknown because the accord does not require the destruction of warheads or delivery vehicles removed from service. If the United States and Russia are to cut their nuclear arsenals further and fully develop their emerging strategic partnership, predictability and irreversibility of arms reductions will be essential. Neither country must be capable of gaining an overwhelming unilateral advantage by quickly reconstituting its nuclear stockpile—a threat that concerns both Washington and Moscow today.

The substantial capabilities of the Russian warhead production complex have been of concern to some U.S. policymakers and nuclear weapons experts. The Russian complex is very large relative both to the U.S. complex and to the projected size of Russia’s nuclear weapons stockpile. Because of manufacturing and technology problems that limit the lifetime of Russian warheads to 10-15 years and because of stockpile management practices that emphasize routine rebuilding of nuclear warheads, the Russian complex also maintains high levels of production. The fear, then, is that Russia could use its large and active production infrastructure to offset arms reductions by quickly building new nuclear warheads in large numbers—that it has a “breakout capability.” Russia’s secretive nuclear weapons policies and uncertainties about the technical capabilities and operational practices of its nuclear weapons complex further exacerbate these fears.

The Department of Defense is using Russian warhead production capacity as part of its justification for maintaining a large stockpile of nondeployed warheads in the United States even as it reduces
its deployed arsenal under the StrategicOffensive Reductions Treaty. Appearing before the Senate in February, Undersec-retary of Defense Douglas Feith explained the U.S. rationale for storing, rather than destroying, warheads removed from service:

Russia has a large [nuclear weapons] infrastructure. They have a warm production base capable of producing large numbers of new nuclear weapons annually. The United States has not produced a new nuclear weapon in a decade, and it will take nearly a decade and a large investment of money before we would be in a position to produce a new nuclear warhead. So the issue of…whether we choose to build up a large infrastructure that would put us in a position to create new nuclear weapons if circumstances in the world changed and warranted it, versus taking weapons and rendering them unavailable for use in the near term by putting them in storage is an issue that…needs to be examined….1

Conversely, this plan to maintain a large stockpile of stored warheads—the so-called responsive force—is of great concern to Russian experts and officials who believe that these warheads provide the United States with a significant breakout capability.

Producing new warheads requires a source of electronic and mechanical non-nuclear components, tritium and a capability to load tritium reservoirs, fissile material components, and facilities to conduct final assembly of nuclear warheads. Only a few factors, however, are likely to limit the U.S. and Russian capability to “surge” production. Non-nuclear warhead components can be stockpiled, cannibalized from inactive or retired warheads, or procured off-the-shelf. Secondary explosives, composed of thermonuclear fuel and possibly highly enriched uranium, also have a long shelf life, and each country could retain substantial reserves. The availability of tritium, which radioactively decays to helium, could be a limiting factor in new warhead production, but for the foreseeable future both the United States and Russia are expected to maintain significant stocks, as well as the ability to produce tritium and load it into reservoirs.

New warhead production is most likely to be limited by the capacity to actually assemble new warheads and, to an even greater extent, by the availability of stored or new plutonium pits, the explosive cores of nuclear weapons. Analysis of the U.S. and Russian ability to build new warheads and the availability of plutonium pits shows that the United States has a sizeable warhead production capability and that the concern about Russia’s production capacity is not warranted at present. In addition, a close look at each country’s surge nuclear production capacity suggests ways in which the United States could configure its nuclear stockpile to facilitate further arms reductions and reassure Moscow while still hedging against a possible Russian breakout.

Warhead Assembly Facilities

Under routine, nonemergency conditions, warhead assembly plants perform a wide range of activities. For example, they dismantle retired warheads, produce new ones, refurbish and modernize old warheads, and disassemble and inspect warheads. The capacity of a warhead assembly facility can vary considerably depending on what type of work it is doing, what kinds of warheads it is working on, and the availability of support infrastructure and personnel. For example, the Pantex plant in the United States can disassemble and inspect only 250-350 warheads per year, but it can dismantle 3,500-4,500 warheads per year.2

However, a number of the tasks that such facilities perform are similar in nature, and for the purpose of estimating warhead assembly capacity, they can be generalized as “warhead operations.” In particular, the operations of warhead refurbishment, warhead dismantlement, and new warhead assembly each take roughly the same amount of time and require comparable specialized resources such as personnel, warhead assembly bays and cells, storage facilities, and transportation assets.

In a national emergency, a warhead assembly facility would presumably de-emphasize routine stockpile maintenance and dismantlement operations and instead concentrate on producing new warheads. This “surge production capacity” could thus be higher than regular production capacity when a facility is performing its regular mix of activities. As discussed below, although the U.S. warhead assembly capacity is significantly smaller than that of Russia, each country is capable of fielding new warheads in large numbers.

The United States
The United States has two facilities certified to work with uncased high explosives and nuclear materials. The Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, is its primary warhead assembly plant. The plant has not produced a new warhead since 1991 and in recent years has been primarily involved in warhead dismantlement, refurbishment, and inspection activities. During the Cold War, Pantex performed 2,000 warhead operations per year. The projected production requirements for 2015 are approximately 1,000 warhead operations per year, most of which would be warhead refurbishments.3 Pantex’s surge production capacity would depend on specific warhead systems and is difficult to estimate, but this analysis conservatively estimates it to be 3,500 warheads per year, a rate consistent with the lower estimate of the stated dismantlement-only capacity of Pantex. (Because the process of dismantling a warhead is essentially the reverse of assembling one, a facility’s capacity for producing new warheads is likely comparable to its capability to dismantle them.4 )

The second facility, the Device Assembly Facility (DAF) at the Nevada Test Site, is a compact, state-of-the-art operation that was designed to support nuclear testing. At present, DAF supports subcritical experiments and is designated to handle unusual cases (such as disassembling damaged or foreign nuclear explosives). It has five warhead assembly cells and seven bays, as compared to the 13 cells and 60 bays at Pantex.5 DAF’s production capacity can therefore be estimated at 10-20 percent of Pantex’s, or roughly 500 warheads per year. (Such a massive warhead production effort at DAF would likely require additional support infrastructure and personnel, however.) The total U.S. warhead assembly capacity can thus be estimated to be 4,000 warheads per year.

Estimating Russia’s warhead assembly capacity is considerably more difficult because open official information does not exist. U.S. practices and facilities are probably a poor guide in analyzing the Russian complex as Russia’s stockpile management practices (and its technology for designing and manufacturing warheads) appear quite different from those in the United States. Limited (though highly uncertain) information on the size of the Russian stockpile in the 1980s, shelf life of Russian warheads, and stockpile management practices is, however, available:

  • It is believed that in the mid-1980s Russia had an operationally deployed stockpile of some 30,000-35,000 warheads.6
  • Russian warheads are reported to have a shelf life of approximately 10 years (with newer warheads having a life of 15 years), presumably because the warheads’ conventional high explosives degrade and their fissile components deteriorate.7
  • The deployment cycle for Russian warheads is reported to be three years long.8 After three years of deployment, warheads are removed from their delivery systems and shipped to a serial production facility for modernization and refurbishment. Refurbished warheads are placed in storage prior to a new cycle of operational deployment.

This information makes rough estimates of Russia’s warhead production capacity possible. Assuming that the warheads are refurbished and returned to their delivery systems one year after removal, one-third of the operational stockpile would have to be replaced every year if the stockpile was to remain constant in size. Such an equilibrium stockpile could be imagined to consist of four equal parts. At any given moment, three parts would constitute the operational stockpile and one part would be cycling through the warhead production and storage complex. This suggests the Russian actual stockpile could be more than 30 percent larger than its operational stockpile. This also means that the Russian warhead production complex maintains a significant level of warhead refurbishment activities.

The following equilibrium model of the Russian warhead stockpile and complex could then be considered for the mid-to late-1980s. The operationally deployed stockpile consisted of 30,000 warheads, and the size of the actual stockpile was one-third larger, or 40,000 warheads. An estimated 10,000 warheads were removed from deployment and sent to the warhead production complex annually. Assuming a warhead life of 10 years, 4,000 warheads (out of 10,000) were retired and fully dismantled; and 4,000 new warheads were produced to keep the stockpile at 40,000 warheads. The rest (6,000 out of 10,000 warheads) were going through scheduled maintenance and modernization. The warhead assembly complex thus was performing an estimated 14,000 warhead operations per year, of which 8,000 were full warhead assemblies or disassemblies.

It is likely, however, that the Russian stockpile has never been in equilibrium. It was expanding rapidly until the mid-1980s and began to decline shortly after reaching its peak. This suggests that the complex was producing more warheads than it was dismantling before the mid-1980s. In subsequent years, stockpile reductions have been implemented by keeping newer warheads and retiring older ones without replacement. The production capacity of the Russian warhead assembly complex therefore could be considerably less than that estimated in the equilibrium model.

The Russian warhead production infrastructure has undergone considerable reductions after the Cold War. Russia had four so-called serial warhead assembly/disassembly facilities in the closed cities of Sarov, Zarechny, Trekhgorny, and Lesnoy. An additional, albeit relatively minor, warhead production capability is associated with the two pilot production plants at the warhead design institutes in Snezhinsk and Sarov. The facilities at Sarov and Zarechny have ceased warhead assembly work and are to stop warhead dismantlement by 2003. The nuclear weapons workforce at the four assembly facilities is projected to decline to 8,000 workers by 2005 from approximately 30,000 workers employed during the Cold War.9

Therefore, a worst-case analysis (from the U.S. point of view) is that Russia could make 7,000 new warheads per year in a surge production, approximately half of the Cold War peak capacity estimated above, because of the projected closure of two out of four serial warhead assembly facilities. In reality, however, Russia’s manufacturing capacity is likely to be considerably lower because funding limitations will allow the nuclear complex to assemble enough warheads only to support the active stockpile. Excess workers will be let go and unneeded equipment allowed to become inoperative, reducing surge capacity well below 7,000 warheads per year.

Availability of Plutonium Pits

The United States and Russia are in dramatically different situations concerning the production and storage of plutonium pits. The United States currently does not have an industrial facility to produce pits, but its pits are durable and it has a large number in storage. Russia has a substantial manufacturing capacity but must remanufacture its pits on an ongoing basis because they have a limited shelf life. For both countries, the availability of pits could be the primary limitation on the scale of a hypothetical surge warhead production effort.

It is believed that the shelf life of plutonium pit assemblies in Russia is limited to about 10-15 years because of the way the pits and warheads are designed and manufactured. In particular, because the fissile components are not completely isolated from the surrounding environment as they are being made (perhaps due to weld defects in pit casings), they are subject to corrosion and swelling. Russia therefore needs to remanufacture plutonium pits continuously.

Russia has two facilities that can manufacture fissile components: the chemical and metallurgical plants at Ozersk and Seversk. Assuming a stockpile of 40,000 warheads and a pit life of 10 years, as discussed in the previous section, the two facilities used to produce 4,000 new pits per year. The pit manufacturing facility in Seversk reportedly is no longer involved in defense work, and the Russian government has announced plans to consolidate all defense-related fissile material processing operations to Ozersk.10 If the two facilities have comparable capabilities, the remaining pit manufacturing capacity at the Ozersk plant will be 2,000 pits per year. It is likely, however, that the pit capacity would be lower and more consistent with stockpile maintenance requirements of approximately several hundred pits per year.

The overall breakout capacity of the Russian complex then would be limited by its pit production capabilities of up to 2,000 pits per year. Because of resource limitations and short pit life, Russia does not have a large stockpile of reserve pits outside of nuclear weapons that could be used in massive surge production of new warheads. Indeed, by 2015 all pits existing today would be well beyond their design life and most would likely have been destroyed.

The United States
The United States currently does not have a pit manufacturing facility—the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver stopped producing new pits in 1989 and has since been fully dismantled. A new, fairly small capability to produce 50 pits per year (80 in a sprint mode) is being established at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, but clearly that facility would not be able to contribute greatly to a U.S. surge production effort.

U.S. pits are considerably more durable than their Russian counterparts, lasting an estimated 40-60 years. But because a significant fraction of pits in the active stockpile warheads were built in the late-1970s to mid-1980s, many U.S. pits could become unusable and would have to be remanufactured starting around 2020. For a stockpile of 10,000 warheads (including operationally deployed, responsive, and reserve),11 pit retirement and replacement would likely occur over a period of 20 or so years at an average rate of 500 pits per year.

The Los Alamos facility will not be able to support such a significant pit replacement process, and the Department of Energy is currently in the process of designing a plant with a manufacturing capacity of 500 pits per year. But the facility, which may be built at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina, will not be ready for more than a decade. General John Gordon, formerly the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said, “We need to begin thinking seriously about a modern pit production facility” but added that he does not “foresee a need for such a facility for at least 15 years.”12

However, despite its inability to produce large numbers of new pits, the United States’ breakout potential remains quite large because it maintains a stockpile of approximately 5,000 stored reserve pits. It could therefore support a surge warhead production effort for at least a year.


Despite Russia’s larger nuclear weapons infrastructure, the data presented show that its breakout capability is not greater than that of the United States. Russia’s warhead assembly capacity is considerably greater than that of the United States, but this is not particularly important because it can only produce an estimated 2,000 pits per year at Ozersk, provided the Seversk chemical and metallurgical plant is fully shutdown and dismantled. By contrast, the United States can assemble 4,000 warheads in one year, although such production would have to rely on stored pits. Furthermore, the United States plans to maintain a large number of stored strategic warheads in the inactive stockpile and responsive force (perhaps totaling more than 5,000 in 2012) that could be returned to the operational stockpile.13

To illustrate the strategic significance of these stockpile reconstitution capabilities, imagine that in 2015 the United States and Russia have fully implemented the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. The United States, as is expected, deploys 2,200 warheads allowed by the treaty’s upper limit. In addition, the United States maintains 2,400 warheads in the responsive force, as Pentagon officials have indicated it will; 3,000 warheads in the inactive stockpile; 5,000 reserve pits; and a large number of delivery vehicles. It also builds an industrial pit manufacturing facility to replace aging pits. In contrast, Russia deploys only around 1,700 warheads as is currently expected. Its fleet of strategic delivery systems has declined because of block obsolescence of missiles and submarines and is not able to accommodate reserve warheads. Warheads from the retired delivery systems have been deactivated and, because of their short life, dismantled.

If, in this scenario, Russia wanted to break out, it could produce 2,000 warheads in one year, but unless it made a significant effort to build new strategic missiles and bombers, which in itself would be an advance indicator of its intentions, its delivery systems would not be able to accommodate more than 500 new warheads. The introduction of these additional warheads would probably require conversion of the currently single-warhead SS-27 strategic missiles to a three-warhead configuration.14 (Russia would presumably be less limited by the availability of delivery systems for tactical nuclear weapons.)

The United States, however, could produce 4,000 new warheads. In fact, the United States would not even need to produce new warheads because it could simply supplement its operationally deployed warheads with the thousands of warheads it is keeping in the responsive force and the inactive stockpile. It would also be able to deploy most of these warheads quickly because U.S. delivery vehicles are newer and the United States can afford to maintain them in large numbers. The U.S. stockpile reconstitution capabilities in this scenario are consistent with the recent nuclear posture review, and they are clearly of concern to the Russians.

However, the United States could be threatened by a Russian breakout capability if both sides were to reduce their stockpiles to 500 operationally deployed warheads, the United States eliminated all stored pits and inactive warheads, and the United States did not build a new industrial pit production facility. In that situation, Russia could increase its stockpile to 2,500 warheads in one year, while the United States could increase the number of warheads it deployed only slightly. (Again, Russia’s ability to deploy new strategic warheads would be severely limited by the availability of delivery systems.) Indeed, the U.S. ability to expand its stockpile would probably be limited to a few hundred warheads, including spares and warheads based on new pits from Los Alamos. This scenario would be unacceptable to the United States, but it could be easily prevented if the United States were to retain a stockpile of 2,000 reserve pits.

This analysis assumes that neither country will be involved in multiyear, secret preparations for a breakout and that a strategic balance depends on the relative sizes of stockpiles one year after the beginning of breakout production. A considerably more conservative methodology from a U.S. security standpoint would be to consider a multiyear surge production effort in Russia until the time (for example, five years) when the United States is capable of constructing new or expanding existing production facilities. Such sustained surge production, however, would probably not be possible for economic reasons in the case of Russia and because of limitations imposed by the availability of non-nuclear components and/or tritium.

The analysis of surge warhead production capacities in the United States and Russia and the above scenarios suggests the following:

  • The risk of a breakout posed by the Russian warhead production complex will remain minimal unless the United States reduces its stockpile to a few hundred warheads.
  • Limits on the number of strategic delivery systems remain important for limiting stockpile reconstitution capabilities in the case of Russia.
  • The proposed 500 pits/year manufacturing facility in the United States would be of limited value in the context of surge production unless its capacity could be expanded rapidly by a factor of four. The primary utility of such a facility would simply be to rebuild aging pits in stockpiled warheads and in the reserve pit stockpile (if the Los Alamos plutonium facility is not capable of meeting these requirements).
  • The United States could eliminate its stockpiles of stored warheads but keep a stockpile of approximately 2,000 reserve pits. Maintaining stored pits (as opposed to warheads) would be less threatening to the Russians and would facilitate deep arms reductions. At the same time, a pit stockpile would minimize the breakout risk posed by the Russian production infrastructure. The shutdown and dismantlement of the pit production line in Seversk is critical to limiting Russia’s surge warhead production capacity.
  • A more effective approach to addressing the breakout production concern would be to further downsize and reconfigure the U.S. and Russian nuclear warhead production complexes. In particular, all fissile component manufacturing and warhead assembly operations could be consolidated to pilot-scale facilities associated with nuclear weapons research and development centers. In Russia, they could be transferred to the pilot plants of the Sarov and Snezhinsk warhead design centers. In the United States, pit manufacturing and warhead assembly could be conducted at the Los Alamos plutonium facility and DAF, respectively. The existing industrial facilities (including Ozersk, Seversk, Sarov, Zarechny, Trekhgorny, and Lesnoy in Russia; and Pantex in the United States) then would be shut down and irreversibly dismantled or converted.
  • Concerns about production asymmetries could also be reduced by cooperative transparency measures. Initially, such transparency measures could include warhead stockpiles and manufacturing declarations, and monitoring of the production facilities that no longer manufacture new warheads. Eventually, transparency arrangements could be implemented at the remaining active warhead production facilities as well.

U.S. concerns about the breakout potential of the Russian warhead production infrastructure are not justified at present and threaten to hinder further easing of the Cold War nuclear threat. In the future, as the two countries continue to slash their nuclear stockpiles, the United States could hedge against the risk of a Russian breakout by maintaining a modest stockpile of nuclear components. In parallel, the United States and Russia should work to eliminate any breakout potential by drastically consolidating their respective nuclear weapons production infrastructures and increasing transparency of nuclear operations.


1. Senate Armed Services Committee, Hearing on the Results of the Nuclear Posture Review, February 14, 2002.
2. Department of Energy’s Office of Defense Programs, FY 2000: Stockpile Stewardship Plan, March 1999, (sanitized version).
3. FY 2000: Stockpile Stewardship Plan.
4. In some cases, new production capacity could be higher than that of dismantlement. According to Yuri Zavalishin, former director of the Avangard warhead assembly plant in Russia, “If we compare assembly and disassembly of nuclear warheads, the latter is more difficult…. During assembly operations, every part and every subassembly, everything is visible. The technology is highly optimized…. The reverse process is a different story. There is a certain unpredictability because a lot depends on the condition of what is inside. Both explosives and uranium change during the years in storage.” Yuri Zavalishin, Atomic “Avangard,” (Saransk: Krasny Oktyabr’, 1999), p. 272-273.
5. George West, United States Nuclear Warhead Assembly Facilities (1945-1990), (Amarillo, TX: Pantex 1991). Gravel Gertie assembly cells, constructed at every U.S. warhead facility handling high explosives and fissile materials together, are designed to vent explosion gases and filter radioactive dust after a high explosive explosion. A typical cell features a reinforced concrete tube with a labyrinth entrance and has a screen-filter roof covered with a thick layer of gravel. Mechanical assembly bays are blast-proof rectangular rooms, which are used for final mechanical assembly and disassembly of intact warheads and nuclear explosive packages containing insensitive high explosives.
6. U.S. and Russian reports on the subject are discussed in Joshua Handler, Russian Nuclear Warhead Dismantlement Rates and Storage Site Capacity: Implications for the Implementation of START II and De-alerting Initiatives, Princeton University, CEES report, 1999.
7. According to General Evgeni Maslin, former head of the 12th Main Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense, “[A]pproximately after ten years in storage, it [high explosive] starts to crack and change its chemical and physical properties…” O. Falichev, “Who Keeps the Keys from the Nuclear Arsenal,” Krasnaya Zvezda, December 26, 1993. The problem of corrosion and swelling of nuclear components were mentioned in Stenographic Records of the Parliamentary Hearings “Safety and Security Problems at Radiation-Hazardous Facilities,” November 25, 1996, Moscow (see Yaderny Control, October-November 1997, p. 7-11.)
8. For a brief discussion of the described warhead management system, see K. Belyaninov, “Cheap Asymmetric Response,” Novyey Izvestia, April 7, 2001.
9. Oleg Bukharin, Frank von Hippel, and Sharon Weiner, Conversion and Job Creation in Russia’s Closed Nuclear Cities (Princeton University, November 2000).
10. Lev Ryabev, presentation at the Princeton Conference, March 13-16, 2000.
11. This estimate is consistent with the 2002 nuclear posture review and includes operationally deployed, responsive, and inactive warheads. See Faking Nuclear Restraint: The Bush Administration’s Secret Plan for Strengthening U.S. Nuclear Forces, (Washington, D.C.: Natural Resources Defense Council, February 2002)
12. Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on the Results of the Nuclear Posture Review, February 14, 2002.
13. See Faking Nuclear Restraint.
14. See Oleg Bukharin and James Doyle, “Transparency and Predictability Measures for U.S. and Russian Strategic Arms Reductions” (Los Alamos National Laboratory, report LA-UR-01-5001, October 2001).

Oleg Bukharin is a research scientist with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.


The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty signed in May cuts the U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads.

GAO Faults U.S. Anti-Smuggling Efforts

In May, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report criticizing U.S. efforts to reduce the likelihood of nuclear and radioactive material smuggling abroad.

U.S. programs in this area are “not effectively coordinated” and lack an “overall” government-wide plan for effective implementation. Despite minimal coordination efforts, the U.S. agencies’ different approaches have left “some border crossings more vulnerable to nuclear material smuggling than others,” the report said.

The report also contended that although U.S. foreign assistance generally helps other countries to combat nuclear and radioactive material smuggling, “serious problems with installing, using, and maintaining radiation detection equipment have undermined U.S. efforts.” The United States currently conducts such anti-smuggling efforts in about 30 countries, most of which are located throughout the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe, the report said.

The GAO, which is the investigative arm of Congress, recommended that the secretary of state lead an effort to develop an interagency plan to “help other countries develop an integrated approach to combat nuclear smuggling.” In addition, U.S. government agencies with “duplicative or overlapping” internal responsibilities should consolidate their efforts. For example, the Energy Department should move its radiation-detection equipment activities into one office, and the State Department should do the same for its border security and anti-smuggling efforts.

The GAO suggested that the secretary of energy should work with the secretaries of state and defense and the National Nuclear Security Administration chief to strengthen efforts to account for detection equipment currently deployed abroad and to ensure the equipment is properly installed. The energy secretary should also seek assurances from countries that receive U.S. equipment that they are sharing information on the detection of radioactive materials with U.S. agencies on a timely basis.

At a June 26 press briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that his department has already taken steps to implement some of the GAO’s recommendations and recognizes that “there’s always room for improvement.”

Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT)


This treaty required the United States and the Russian Federation to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear forces. It took effect and expired on Dec. 31, 2012. Both could then change the size of their deployed strategic nuclear forces.


The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) required both the United States and the Russian Federation to reduce and limit their strategic nuclear warheads to a certain number, determine the composition and structure of their offensive arms and agree that the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I (START I) remain in force. SORT did not have any verification or compliance provisions. Yet, both states agreed to meet at least twice a year at the Bilateral Implementation Commission (BIC) for progress updates. The Treaty allowed for withdrawal upon 90 days of written notice.

Opened for Signature: 24 May 2002

Entry into force: 1 June 2003

Official Text: http://www.state.gov/t/isn/10527.htm

Status and Signatories: http://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/strategic-offensive-reductions-treaty-sort/

ACA Backgrounder: https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/sort-glance

Bush Endorses Legally Binding Nuclear Arms Deal With Russia

April 2002

By Philipp C. Bleek

In the administration’s highest-level statement of support to date for a legally binding pact on strategic reductions, President George W. Bush said March 13 that he expects to sign an agreement that will “codify” nuclear cuts in May, when he is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Speaking at a White House press conference, Bush said he agreed with his Russian counterpart that “there needs to be a document that outlives both of us.” Administration officials indicated in February that two types of agreement, a treaty and an executive-legislative agreement, are under consideration, and Bush said that what form the pact takes remains under discussion.

In his press conference, Bush also repeatedly emphasized verification, calling it “the most important thing” in any prospective agreement. Bush indicated that the two sides still need to “develop and fully explore...how best to verify what’s taking place, to make sure there’s confidence in both countries.”

In announcing last November that he would cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal to between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed strategic warheads, Bush said that a formal arms control pact with Russia was unnecessary. But the administration’s stance has shifted over the past several months, and the president’s recent statement echoes the calls for a binding agreement first made by Secretary of State Colin Powell in February. (See ACT, March 2002.)

Recently, U.S. legislators have also become more insistent on playing a role in any process that significantly alters the deployment of U.S. nuclear forces. In a March 15 letter to Powell, Senators Joseph Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Jesse Helms (R-NC), the committee’s ranking member, argued that there is “no constitutional alternative” to a treaty.

Observing that “with the exception of the SALT I agreement, every significant arms control agreement during the past three decades has been transmitted to the Senate” as a treaty, the lawmakers insisted on their constitutional prerogative to provide advice and consent. The senators also indicated that they “expect close consultation…as negotiations with Russia proceed.”

Differences Remain

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, who is leading a delegation in the ongoing negotiations with Moscow, said in a March 22 press conference that “a number of outstanding issues” have been dealt with but that there are still “a number of issues to resolve.” The undersecretary expressed optimism about reaching agreement in time for the May summit.

Bolton said that the United States and Russia have yet to agree on the manner in which warheads will be counted or on whether warheads removed from service must be dismantled. According to Bolton, there is not yet “complete congruence” on the issue of destroying downloaded warheads, but “the parties have reached an understanding that in order to reach agreement by the summit in May, we have to focus on…operationally deployed warheads.”

According to a Defense Department official, the United States is seeking to maintain a “responsive force” that would allow as many as 2,400 reserve nuclear warheads to be redeployed within three years to augment its planned operational force of 1,700-2,200 warheads.

Russia has long insisted that warheads removed from operation should be destroyed. Hinting that Moscow may be softening that stance, however, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov said in a March 17 television interview that the issue of storing some nondeployed warheads was “negotiable” and that the key criterion was maintaining “strategic stability.”

Bolton also indicated that, in addition to a standard clause included in most arms control accords that would allow either party to withdraw from the agreement with six months’ notice, the administration is proposing a mechanism that would allow it to exceed the agreement’s numerical limits “without actually withdrawing from the treaty” if warranted by “international geostrategic circumstances.”

Bush Endorses Legally Binding Nuclear Arms Deal With Russia

Energy Department to Study Modifying Nuclear Weapons

Philipp C. Bleek

The administration is moving ahead with plans to study modifications to existing nuclear weapons that would enable them to more effectively threaten underground facilities, Energy Department officials said in March interviews and testimony to Congress.

The move to study nuclear warhead modifications was presaged by a Pentagon report, leaked in December, on destroying hard and deeply buried targets, as well as the administration’s January 9 press briefing on the nuclear posture review. (See ACT, January/February 2002.)

At the briefing, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy J. D. Crouch stated, “We are trying to look at a number of initiatives,” including modifying existing nuclear weapons to give them “greater capability against…hard targets and deeply buried targets,” such as command-and-control and weapons-storage bunkers.

The hard and deeply buried targets report, submitted to Congress last October, indicated that the Defense and Energy departments had formed a joint nuclear planning group “to define the appropriate scope and options selection criteria for a possible design feasibility and cost study.” In its February budget request for 2003, the administration requested funds for both feasibility and cost studies for a “robust nuclear earth penetrator.”

A National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) spokesperson indicated in late March that the “feasibility study” and the “design definition and cost study” would be conducted over two to three years, at a cost of about $45 million. NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Everett Beckner told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 14 that possible modification of two existing warheads, the B61 and the B83, would be studied.

Both weapons have yields “substantially higher” than 5 kilotons, Beckner indicated, meaning that a new earth-penetrator would not be a “low-yield nuclear weapon,” as defined by U.S. law. The 1994 Defense Authorization Act bars “research and development which could lead to the production by the United States of a new low-yield nuclear weapon.”

NNSA head John Gordon told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee March 18 that the administration’s proposal involves “simply taking an existing design and packaging it in a way that gives you the opportunity to penetrate to depths greater than existing systems,” the Associated Press reported.

The need to improve earth-penetration capabilities is highlighted in the nuclear posture review, which describes an existing nuclear weapon designed to attack such targets, the air-dropped B61-11 bomb, as having only a “very limited ground-penetration capability.”

The nuclear posture review also calls for other “nuclear weapon options that might provide important advantages for enhancing the nation’s deterrence posture,” including “possible modifications to existing weapons to provide additional yield flexibility” and “warheads that reduce collateral damage.”

In order to assess “these and other nuclear weapons options,” the document states that the NNSA “will reestablish advanced warhead concepts teams at each of the national laboratories and at headquarters in Washington.”

Effectively disbanded in the early 1990s after a nuclear testing moratorium was instituted, the re-established teams will allow the “next generation of weapons designers and engineers” to be trained and will allow the administration to “review potential programs to provide nuclear capabilities and identify opportunities for further study, including assessments of whether nuclear testing would be required to field such warheads,” according to the review.

At the same time, administration officials have continued to reiterate that there is currently no requirement for a new nuclear weapon and that congressional authorization would be required before the development of any new system could proceed. The administration is also examining whether conventional munitions could be used to threaten hard and deeply buried targets.

Nuclear Posture Review Leaks; Outlines Targets, Contingencies

Philipp C. Bleek

A leaked version of the Bush administration’s classified nuclear posture review lists seven countries against which the United States should be prepared to use nuclear weapons and outlines a broad range of circumstances under which it could do so. The document also calls for a large-scale revitalization of the nation’s nuclear weapons infrastructure and discusses the development of new or modified nuclear weapons.

Mandated by Congress to clarify U.S. “nuclear deterrence policy and strategy…for the next 5 to 10 years,” the nuclear posture review, produced by the Defense Department in consultation with the Energy Department, was publicly summarized at a January 9 Pentagon briefing. (See ACT, January/February 2002.) The review remains classified but was obtained by The Los Angeles Times, which first reported on it March 9, and The New York Times. Substantial excerpts of the review were subsequently posted on the Web site of GlobalSecurity.org, a policy organization.

The review states that “greater flexibility” in nuclear forces and planning is needed to maintain a “credible deterrent” against adversaries “whose values and calculations of risk and of gain and loss may be very different from and more difficult to discern than those of past adversaries.”

Despite press reports characterizing the Bush review as a break with past policy on nuclear weapons use, former Clinton administration officials said in March interviews that the review appears to represent only a modest shift in emphasis compared with the previous posture review, conducted in 1994.

Secretary of State Colin Powell rebutted criticism that the Bush review had lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons in March 12 testimony before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, saying, “There is no way to read that document and come to the conclusion that the United States will be more likely or will more quickly go to the use of nuclear weapons.”

Discussing “requirements for nuclear strike capabilities,” the report lists Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria as “among the countries that could be involved in immediate, potential, or unexpected contingencies.” Two former Clinton officials indicated that, although the 1994 nuclear posture review addressed the problem of “rogue states,” it concluded that the threat they posed did not warrant significant changes in U.S. nuclear forces or policies.

The Bush review also indicates that the United States should be prepared to use nuclear weapons against China, citing “the combination of China’s still developing strategic objectives and its ongoing modernization of its nuclear and non-nuclear forces.”

Finally, although the review repeats Bush administration assertions that Russia is no longer an enemy, it says the United States must be prepared for nuclear contingencies with Russia and notes that, if “U.S. relations with Russia significantly worsen in the future, the U.S. may need to revise its nuclear force levels and posture.” Ultimately, the review concludes that nuclear conflict with Russia is “plausible” but “not expected.”

The nuclear posture set forth by the 1994 review was based on Russia’s large nuclear arsenal. But despite Bush administration statements that a threat from Moscow is no longer driving U.S. strategy, Russia still appears to be the key driver of U.S. nuclear forces and policies, as demonstrated by the administration’s decision to maintain a large strategic arsenal and substantial reserve forces.

President George W. Bush has said that the United States will reduce its operationally deployed forces to 1,700-2,200 strategic warheads within 10 years. A Defense Department official indicated in early March that the administration has decided that by 2012 the United States should deploy the upper limit of that range and maintain an additional 2,400 reserve strategic warheads in operational condition, all of which could be deployed within three years. The administration also intends to stockpile additional strategic warheads in nonoperational condition.

The policy of maintaining substantial warhead reserves while reducing the deployed arsenal was established by the 1994 review.

The new review says nuclear weapons “provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and large-scale conventional military force.” The review also says “nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapon facilities).” Three specific “nuclear strike” contingencies the review discusses are “an Iraqi attack on Israel or its neighbors, a North Korean attack on South Korea, or a military confrontation [with China] over the status of Taiwan.”

An official involved with the 1994 review indicated that the inclusion of such contingencies in the review is not novel, saying the 1994 review specifically discussed nuclear contingency plans involving North Korea and also China as a result of a crisis over Taiwan. But the official also speculated that the administration appeared to be seeking to “enhance deterrence” by adopting a less veiled retaliatory stance toward possible attacks by non-nuclear-weapon states.

President Bush buttressed that argument when he said March 23, “The reason one has a nuclear arsenal is to serve as a deterrence…. We’ve got all options on the table because we want to make it very clear to nations that you will not threaten the United States or use weapons of mass destruction against us or our allies or friends.”

But using nuclear weapons against any of the five “rogue states” identified in the review would violate a longstanding U.S. pledge, termed “negative security assurances,” not to use nuclear weapons against states that do not possess such weapons and are members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). A senior official called the administration’s adherence to that policy into doubt last month, but State Department spokesman Richard Boucher subsequently reiterated the policy in a February 22 briefing. (See ACT, March 2002.)

However, consistent with statements by officials from previous administrations, Boucher qualified the pledge, saying that, if a weapon of mass destruction—typically defined as a nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon—were used against the United States, “We will not rule out any specific type of military response.” Still, a pre-emptive nuclear attack against any of the five states, all of which are members of the NPT, would violate the declaration.

But appearing to broaden the range of scenarios in which the administration might contemplate the use of nuclear weapons, General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a March 10 television interview that the posture review “preserves for the president all the options that a president would want to have in case this country or our friends and allies were attacked with weapons of mass destruction, be they nuclear, biological, chemical, or for that matter high explosives.” Pentagon officials declined to comment on whether Myers’ categorization of conventional explosives as weapons of mass destruction represented a policy shift.

Consistent with its recommendation to give the president a broader range of options, the posture review suggests the development of new types of “[nuclear] warheads that reduce collateral damage” as well as “possible modifications to existing weapons to provide additional yield flexibility.” The review also specifically cites the need to improve “earth-penetrating weapons,” designed to threaten hard and deeply buried targets, such as command-and-control and weapons storage bunkers.

An existing weapon designed to threaten such targets, the air-dropped B61-11 bomb, is described in the review has having only a “very limited ground-penetration capability.” That weapon was developed as a result of a similar call for new capabilities in the 1994 review and was deployed in late 1996. (See ACT, March 1997.)

Asked at the January 9 briefing on the posture review if the Bush administration planned to develop new nuclear weapons, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy J. D. Crouch said, “At this point, there are no recommendations in the report about developing new nuclear weapons.” But Crouch subsequently qualified that statement, saying, “We are trying to look at a number of initiatives,” including modifying existing nuclear weapons to give them “greater capability against…hard targets and deeply buried targets.” (See Energy Department to Study Modifying Nuclear Weapons.)

The review highlights the need to establish a “responsive defense infrastructure.” The ability to “upgrade existing weapons systems, surge production of weapons, or develop and field entirely new systems…can discourage other countries from competing militarily with the United States,” the review says. Suggesting a need for new weapons systems, the review states that “it is unlikely that a reduced version of the Cold War nuclear arsenal will be precisely the nuclear force that the United States will require in 2012 and beyond.”

Highlighting past “underinvestment in the infrastructure,” the review calls for “a revitalized nuclear weapons complex that will…be able, if directed, to design, develop, manufacture, and certify new warheads in response to new national requirements” as well as “maintain readiness to resume underground nuclear testing if required.” The review says the administration is already restoring the ability to produce nuclear weapon components, including both primary plutonium “pits” and thermonuclear secondaries.

The review also details plans for the long-term maintenance and modernization of U.S. delivery vehicles, citing the need for a new ICBM by 2018, a new ballistic missile submarine and submarine-launched ballistic missile by 2029, and new strategic bombers by 2040. According to the review, possible new systems to meet these needs are already under study.

The leaks generated little reaction from key U.S. allies but strong critiques from nations listed as potential targets by the review. “There is a feeling that the document was written during the Cold War,” Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said March 13. “We think this does not agree with the spirit of our relations”

But after talks with senior U.S. officials, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said March 15 that Washington’s explanations “satisfy us,” the Associated Press reported.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said March 11, “Like many other countries, China is deeply shocked by this report” and called on the United States to explain its policies, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a key centrist figure in Iranian politics, accused the United States of intimidation, saying, “America thinks that if a military threat looms large over the heads of these seven countries, they will give up their logical demands,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency carried a March 13 statement from a foreign ministry spokesman saying, “Now that nuclear lunatics are in office in the White House, we are compelled to examine all agreements with the U.S.,” an apparent reference to the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea committed to dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

In the United States, Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) voiced support for the policies in a March 10 television appearance, saying they would cause “renegade nations” such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea to “think twice about the willingness of the United States to take action to defend our people and our values and our allies.” Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), meanwhile, said March 12 that the report represented a “profound shift…in our thinking about arms control” and suggested that it might expand the potential uses of nuclear weapons.

Foster Panel Calls for Reducing Nuclear Test Preparation Time

Philipp C. Bleek

A congressionally established panel presented its findings March 21, calling for the preparation time required before a U.S. nuclear test can be conducted to be substantially shortened.

Current test readiness time, defined as the period between a presidential order for a nuclear test and the time the Energy Department can actually carry out that test, is two to three years. But the Panel to Assess the Reliability, Safety, and Security of the United States Nuclear Stockpile—colloquially termed the “Foster panel” after its chairman, John Foster—says that test readiness should be reduced to between three months and one year.

The recommendation meshes with those contained in the Bush administration’s nuclear posture review, which said that the current test readiness time “may be too long.”

The Foster panel was established by the fiscal year 1999 Defense Authorization Act and tasked with preparing three annual reports assessing the state of the Energy Department’s stockpile stewardship program, which is intended to maintain the reliability and safety of U.S. nuclear weapons in the absence of nuclear testing. This is the panel’s final report.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Foster said the panel was unanimously recommending that the administration and Congress “support test readiness of three months to a year, depending on the type of test.” But Foster also noted that the recommendation was not driven by an “imminent” need to test, but rather “because prudence requires that every president have realistic options to test should technical or international events make it necessary.”

A congressional staff member close to the issue said the calls for shortening the test time were little more than “saber rattling,” saying that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to conduct a “meaningful test” within months. The staff member said that the administration should clarify its intentions and that recent “rhetoric” on the issue was “counterproductive.”

The Foster panel recommendation was foreshadowed in the panel’s previous report, which did not focus directly on test readiness but which suggested that a time “well below” one year was appropriate. (See ACT, April 2001.) The report also cited potentially serious shortcomings in the weapons complex and the stockpile stewardship program, issues that Foster indicated in his recent testimony had been at least partially addressed.

But Foster also warned that “major challenges remain,” citing an “atrophied” weapons complex and the “unprecedented technical challenge” of maintaining confidence in weapons as they are refurbished and modified.

The nuclear posture review says a revitalization of the nation’s nuclear weapons infrastructure is necessary “so that the United States will be able to adjust to rapidly changing situations,” including moves to “modify, upgrade, or replace” portions of the nuclear arsenal or to develop and deploy new weapons.

The posture review also hints at the need for a return to nuclear testing, stating, “Increasingly, objective judgments about [nuclear weapons] capability in a non-testing environment will become far more difficult.”

At the same time, administration officials have continued to emphasize that they do not foresee a return to testing in the near future and that the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile remains “safe, secure, and reliable,” as National Nuclear Security Administration head John Gordon told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee March 18.

Democrats Criticize Nuclear Posture Review

Philipp C. Bleek

Disagreeing with their Republican colleagues, leading Democratic lawmakers sharply criticized the Bush administration’s recently released nuclear posture review, charging that the administration’s plans perpetuate outdated nuclear policies.

In a contentious February 14 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) was joined by several Democratic colleagues in arguing that the administration was failing to substantially reduce nuclear forces and make a meaningful break with Cold War nuclear policies, as administration officials have argued they are doing. (See ACT, January/February 2002.)

Levin pointed out that the administration intends to maintain a force structure nearly identical to the one recommended by the previous nuclear posture review, conducted in 1994, and that U.S. bomber and submarine forces would remain “exactly the same.” Testifying at the hearing, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith agreed with that characterization but noted that “operationally deployed warheads” would be reduced by about 65 percent under the Bush administration’s plan, which calls for the United States to reduce its 6,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads by 2012.

But Levin pointed out that the administration has said it would store most of the warheads removed from deployed forces and that maintaining the delivery vehicles—missiles, bombers, and submarines—would allow them to be “reinserted.” When Feith subsequently argued that the administration was moving beyond the Cold War “balance of terror” between the United States and the Soviet Union, Levin quipped that it was simply substituting “warehouse terror.”

Responding to repeated queries from Levin, Feith indicated that “some” warheads would be destroyed but later said that “the warheads, by and large, are not going to be destroyed.” Exactly how many warheads would be dismantled has yet to be decided, Feith indicated. Levin argued that this approach makes it “highly unlikely that Russia will destroy its nuclear warheads” slated for reduction and said this poses a proliferation threat.

Moscow has called for reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic forces to be both verifiable and irreversible. Feith treated the latter goal dismissively, saying, “There is no such thing as irreversibility” and that “a state that destroys warheads could manufacture new warheads.” The undersecretary also pointed out that Russia maintains a “large infrastructure” that is “capable of producing large numbers of new nuclear weapons annually.” The United States, on the other hand, “has not produced a new nuclear weapon in a decade” and will not be able to do so for “nearly a decade,” he said.

Others Democratic lawmakers echoed Levin’s concerns. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) expressed concern that by moving warheads into storage rather than destroying them, the administration might just be “rearranging the furniture.” And colleague Daniel Akaka (D-HI) argued that “no substantial reduction in nuclear weapons is being proposed in this review.”

Key Republican senators sought to counter their Democratic colleagues’ sentiments, expressing strong support for the administration. Saying the study represented a “breakthrough,” Senator John Warner (R-VA) indicated in a statement read by colleague Wayne Allard (R-CO) that he thought the review addressed in an “innovative way” the improved relationship with Russia and the increased threat of weapons of mass destruction proliferation. And Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) argued for maintaining “clear superiority,” suggesting that locking in “low numbers” and destroying warheads might encourage other nations to try to “reach parity with us in nuclear weaponry.”

Bush Administration Reaffirms Negative Security Assurances

Philipp C. Bleek

On February 22, the State Department reiterated a longstanding U.S. policy that restricts the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-armed states, after a senior arms control official cast doubt on the Bush administration’s support for the pledge.

Responding to a question at a press briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher repeated a 1995 version of a commitment first made in 1978: “The United States reaffirms that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon state parties to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons [NPT], 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.”

Boucher subsequently qualified the pledge, saying, “We will do whatever is necessary to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, its allies, and its interests. If a weapon of mass destruction is used against the United States or its allies, we will not rule out any specific type of military response.”

The United States first formally enunciated the nuclear pledge, known as a “negative security assurance,” in 1978 and reiterated it in slightly less restrictive form prior to the 1995 NPT review and extension conference to encourage the non-nuclear-weapon states to support the indefinite extension of the treaty. Similar pledges were made by the other four NPT nuclear-weapon states and subsequently noted in a UN Security Council resolution.

However, despite the language in the negative security assurance—and consistent with Boucher’s qualification of the pledge—U.S. officials have repeatedly refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in response to biological or chemical weapon attacks. For example, in April 1996 Defense Secretary William Perry said that if “some nation were to attack the United States with chemical weapons, then they would have to fear the consequences of a response from any weapon in our inventory.”

U.S. diplomats have tended to emphasize the negative security assurances policy in international forums, such as arms control negotiations, while the Defense Department has enunciated its purposefully ambiguous qualification of the pledge in response to specific perceived threats, such as during the Persian Gulf War when it was feared Iraq might use chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops.

Boucher’s comments came after John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, questioned the value of negative security assurances in a February 11 interview with Arms Control Today, saying that they are not “terribly helpful in analyzing what our security needs may be in the real world.” Bolton argued that such security commitments “were made in a very different geostrategic context” and indicated that they would be reviewed prior to the next NPT review conference in 2005. (See interview.)

Bolton subsequently told The Washington Times that “we are not ruling anything in and we are not ruling anything out.” He continued, “We are just not into theoretical assertions that other administrations have made.”

Questioned about Bolton’s comments to The Washington Times, which appeared in a February 21 article, Boucher said that the undersecretary had in fact been “reiterating” the longstanding U.S. policy on negative security assurances and that there has been “no change in U.S. policy.”


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