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

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
U.S. Nuclear Weapons

New Price Tag for Los Alamos Cleanup

October 2016

By Terry Atlas

The Energy Department said it will cost $2.9-3.8 billion over the next two decades to clean up hazardous waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a legacy of the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Although the report made public on Sept. 15 said that funding would complete the cleanup at the 40-square-mile site, Nuclear Watch New Mexico said the government is underestimating the cost to deal fully with the lab’s accumulated waste.

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Waste Disposal Area G is seen from a helicopter June 29, 2011. (Photo credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory)Nuclear Watch, a research and advocacy group, criticized the estimate as being based on what the report calls “realistic expectations of annual funding” and as failing to adequately deal with the lab’s largest waste site. The group said that 150,000 cubic meters of “poorly characterized radioactive and toxic wastes” at the Area G site are to be capped and covered rather than treated and removed. That would create a permanent nuclear waste dump above the regional groundwater aquifer and three miles uphill from the Rio Grande river, the group said in a statement Sept. 21.

The report by the Energy Department’s environmental management office is the most comprehensive view of the cleanup work remaining after 26 years of efforts to deal with the waste at the lab, a hub of nuclear weapons research and development since the Manhattan Project in 1943. 

So far, 1,168 potential release sites have been “investigated and cleaned up where required,” while 955 potential release sites are covered by the new cost estimate, the report said. In contrast to the figure used by Nuclear Watch, the Energy Department said that “an estimated 5,000 cubic meters of legacy waste remains, of which approximately 2,400 [cubic meters] is retrievably stored below ground.”

The Energy Department committed to expediting the cleanup under a June 2016 consent order with the New Mexico Environment Department, which supersedes a 2005 consent order, under which many deadlines were missed. The new accord reflects concerns expressed by state officials and Nuclear Watch that cleanup funding has declined from a high of $225 million in fiscal 2014 to $189 million for the current fiscal year, even as funding for the lab’s nuclear weapons programs has increased.

The Energy Department said it will cost $2.9-3.8 billion over the next two decades to clean up hazardous waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a legacy of the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Law of War Considerations In Fielding Nuclear Forces

September 2016

By Justin Anderson

The status of nuclear weapons within international law was a subject of intense debate during last fall’s UN General Assembly First Committee session. State supporters of the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons pressed for resolutions asserting the illegality of nuclear weapons and sought to build support for the near-term negotiation of a global ban on nuclear arsenals.

They were strongly opposed by the five states permitted to possess nuclear weapons under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).1

At Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, U.S. Navy Admiral. Cecil D. Haney (right), U.S. Strategic Command commander, and other command members monitor a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 20, 2015. [Photo credit: Jim Lamar/U.S. Strategic Command]Such clashes are likely to continue and prove intractable, shedding more heat than light on the relationship between the law of war and nuclear forces. The five NPT nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) will continue to view nuclear deterrence as vital to the security of themselves and key allies for the foreseeable future. Inconclusive debates in international forums over the general legality of nuclear weapons obscure a more important question at a time when the NPT nuclear-weapon states are overhauling their nuclear forces and, in the cases of Russia and China, upgrading and diversifying: for those states permitted to possess nuclear weapons, how does the law of war apply to their development, fielding, and deployment of nuclear forces? 

This article will discuss how core principles of the law of war,2 which represents the specific body of law that is lex specialis to the conduct of armed conflict, including the means and methods used to wage war, can apply to or be integrated with the decision-making processes of these five states with regard to their development, fielding, and deployment of nuclear forces.3 It provides guidelines and suggestions rather than specific “rulings” or prescriptions because the application and implementation of the law of war is best carried out through a series of assessments that evaluate weapons, their delivery means, and the rationale for their potential employment.4 It is informed by legal interpretations and policy positions associated with the United States but offered in hopes of catalyzing a broader discussion on how the law of war, which is intended to reduce the suffering and destruction of all types of conflicts and to facilitate the “restoration of peace,”5 applies to all states that elect to field nuclear forces.

Law of War Principles

Many participants in debates on the legality of nuclear weapons have discussed them as different and separate from other types of weapons, focusing on their destructive power. Yet for the NPT nuclear-weapon states, these weapons and the forces that operate them are not separate from international law, including the law of war. The “Department of Defense Law of War Manual” states this succinctly and directly: “The law of war governs the use of nuclear weapons, just as it governs the use of conventional weapons.”6

As such, the core principles of the law of war apply to the development, fielding, and deployment of nuclear forces. The manual identifies three “interdependent” core principles within the law of war: military necessity, humanity, and honor. Humanity itself encompasses three key principles: distinction, proportionality, and the prohibition against unnecessary suffering. This article seeks to address several of these principles as they relate to leadership decision-making on nuclear strategy, posture, and potential employment of nuclear weapons, to the development of nuclear delivery systems and weapons, and to the military assessment process known as weaponeering. 

The principle of military necessity states that, in times of war, the use of force is acceptable and justified in order to defeat an opponent. It qualifies, however, that the use of force is not unlimited; the manner in which it is employed should seek to bring about the end of a conflict as quickly as possible and with the least amount of destruction necessary. Francis Lieber, whose 1863 law of war instructions to the Union Army became the foundational document for many later writings and guidance documents on the topic, described the principle: “Military necessity admits of all direct destruction of life or limb of armed enemies, and of other persons whose destruction is incidentally unavoidable in the armed contests of the war…. [Yet,] military necessity does not admit of cruelty…. It does not admit of the use of poison in any way, nor of the wanton devastation of a district…and, in general, military necessity does not include any act of hostility which makes the return to peace unnecessarily difficult.”7

In weighing the legitimate use of force in wartime and the imperative of winning “quickly and efficiently” against the imperative of fighting in a manner that is not “cruel” or “wanton” or makes a future peace impossible, military necessity is often linked with the principle of proportionality.8 The latter principle asserts that the use of military force should not be “unreasonable or excessive.”9 In terms of application, proportionality asks leaders and war-fighters to consider the first- and second-order effects, including the potential effects on civilians, of proposed military actions. If these outweigh the benefits of the suggested action—they do little to advance the cause of victory and could result in significant civilian casualties and damage to civilian property—they should be rejected. 

One way to think about the relationship between the principles of military necessity and proportionality is to consider the example of an adversary military base that is important to their continued operations against you or that houses forces that can cause you grievous harm. This base is a legitimate target and can be totally destroyed, but proportionality considerations may mitigate or change how a leader or commander plans to destroy this facility and what means or methods are used. If a range of means are available, proportionality considerations will lead to the election of an option that is less likely to cause collateral damage. 

Military necessity and proportionality are critically important principles for decision-making by national leaders and their military advisers, as they survey the entirety of a conflict and promulgate the strategies and orders whereby all elements of national power are brought to bear on an adversary. The two principles require leaders to make decisions weighing the imperative of winning the war and directing the campaigns or major operations required to do so against the risks of causing collateral damage and prolonging conflict. The difficulty of obtaining, processing, and communicating accurate information due to the “fog of war” is an acknowledged limitation to effectively integrating consideration of these principles into decision-making processes at the highest levels.10

Acknowledging and attempting to address the tension between military necessity and proportionality are important for all potential uses of force, but they are particularly critical when it comes to the possible employment of nuclear force. What types of information and processes can ensure a measured evaluation of courses of action that includes consideration of these law of war principles? 

First, an assessment factoring in military necessity and proportionality should not begin during a nuclear crisis or conflict. The stress of the situation will likely result in a focus on quickly addressing the most immediate or pressing threats at hand, with little to no time or attention available to consider the potential second-order effects or broader implications of decisions made in the breach. Regardless of how an NPT nuclear-weapon state chooses to integrate law of war considerations into its national leadership decision-making calculus, this is an argument in favor of undertaking this integration in peacetime, well before any situation arises where nuclear employment may need to be considered. 

Second, when taken together, the principles of military necessity and proportionality frame a limited, discrete space for considering potential nuclear weapons employment. In a geopolitical environment where the NPT nuclear-weapon states face significant threats, including those from weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it is possible to envisage scenarios where the circumstances are dire and the demands of military necessity could lead to the consideration of employing nuclear force to destroy rapidly and totally, if necessary, these threats. Yet, the principle’s dual requirement to consider whether the means employed make the return to peace difficult or impossible, buttressed by the admonishment to minimize collateral damage to the extent possible, raise the bar for nuclear employment very high. 

Informed Choices

Determining the parameters of this space and the height of this bar is not a single, stand-alone assessment. It requires a series of nested, interrelated assessments that provide information allowing decision-makers to make informed choices that take into account military necessity and proportionality. These assessments should be undertaken shortly after a new leader begins their term in office, should draw on the experience and expertise of the state’s national security community, and should be supplied to the leader and their most senior advisers. 

Missileers train in the missile procedures trainer at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, home to 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles on January 21, 2008. It is one of three U.S. Air Force bases that maintain and operate Minuteman III ICBMs. [Photo credit: John Turner/U.S. Air Force]These assessments would contribute to the development of a nuclear strategy, and their purpose would be wider than the law of war. They would also, however, provide information vital to an evaluation weighing the demands of military necessity against the limitations of proportionality. One set of assessments would focus on the military threats, such as weapons of mass destruction, which might justify consideration of nuclear strikes. This analysis would provide critical context with regard to military necessity. In a geopolitical environment where the NPT nuclear-weapon states face these types of threats, it is possible to envisage scenarios in which circumstances could lead to the consideration of employing nuclear strikes to destroy an adversary’s WMD-equipped forces (or associated command and control infrastructure) in order to prevent or halt a devastating attack against themselves or their allies. Yet, the parameters of these major threats—How immediate might they be employed? How potentially lethal?—should be assessed in detail.

Another set of assessments should focus on the first- and second-order effects of each nuclear weapon within the arsenal and offer a comparison of these effects against those of the state’s most powerful conventional weapons. Detailed descriptions of the effects of nuclear detonations against different types of targets will likely impress on decision-makers the weighty importance of all decisions involving potential nuclear employment (histories and memoirs, for example, demonstrate this to be the case with regard to U.S. presidents who received briefings on nuclear war plans during the Cold War).11

It is important to emphasize, however, that these assessments will also reveal the enormous difference, in orders of magnitude, between megaton, kiloton, and subkiloton weapons. They will also reveal an enormous difference between “small” nuclear weapons and whatever weapon represents the arsenal’s largest conventional munition. An additional, related set of assessments should focus on when and where the weapon detonates, such as the height of burst of a potential nuclear strike and the impact of shifting the aimpoint, i.e., whether hitting the center or the corner of an adversary’s military base. Here too, the assessments will demonstrate that the effects of strikes will vary dramatically depending on variables such as whether a weapon is detonated on the ground, a short distance from the earth, or high in the atmosphere. Similarly, effects will differ based on where a target is hit. 

These various types of effects assessment are important to informing considerations of proportionality, communicating the incredible power of nuclear munitions and the various effects of nuclear detonations such as heat, blast, and radiation. Yet, they will also demonstrate that the range of these effects is radically different based on the size and type of nuclear weapon employed and when and where it is detonated. In addition, they will elucidate the massive gap between the destructive power of nuclear and conventional munitions. These differences could figure significantly within the cost-benefit comparison between military necessity and proportionality should a target or targets be identified that must be destroyed in order to secure victory, prevent a devastating attack, or both.12

Furthermore, these assessments should consider how the adversary may react, addressing important questions regarding conflict escalation and war termination. These assessments will grapple with human psychology, strategic culture, and other issues that differ from the physics and engineering calculations behind assessments of the effects of nuclear detonations. In addition to being critical to nuclear strategy development, consideration of these factors is important to fully addressing the requirements of military necessity, which allows the use of force against legitimate strategic or tactical objectives but does not permit “any act of hostility which makes the return to peace unnecessarily difficult.” 

These considerations could serve to illustrate that the law of war does not always provide definitive answers with regard to strategic dilemmas. A national military or nuclear command headquarters, for example, may be a legitimate target in wartime, but would destroying it actually result in conflict escalation, up to and including nuclear employment, either because an adversary is now bent on revenge, loses command and control over its own forces, or both? The necessary tension inherent to the principle of military necessity is meant to prompt leaders and commanders wherever possible to thoroughly assess their options and consider likely outcomes. Its evaluative criteria, however, may help define decisions regarding nuclear forces—where the requirements of defending your population or forces may be paramount at the same time that uncertainty regarding adversary intentions and capacity for escalation may be acute—without facilitating them, even if the desire to adhere to the law is sincere. 

The law of war permits the use of force, including massive force, to achieve victory, but also emphasizes that attempting to achieve victory at any cost, with no thought for the consequences to civilians, is unlawful and harms the prospects of achieving a lasting peace. Yet, the challenge in correctly calibrating the use of force, particularly when confronted with adversaries capable of causing massive harm, is significant, acute, and sometimes unappreciated by advocates and analysts of international law. 

The assessments described above are important to a government’s development of its nuclear posture and its declaratory policy—that is, when, where, and how it will employ nuclear force. In addition to addressing questions of strategy and policy, they provide information that allows leaders to integrate law of war considerations into critical decisions and guidance documents. 

Principle of Distinction

The principle of distinction requires that the use of force be directed against military targets and not civilians or civilian objects, such as civilian buildings; as described by Lieber, “the unarmed citizen is to be spared in person, property, and honor as much as the exigencies of war will admit.”13 As a general rule, the more powerful and destructive the weapon, the greater the care and caution in ensuring that its design and form of employment permit it to be employed in accordance with this principle. 

Some activists and commentators assert that nuclear weapons can never be employed in a manner that does not violate the principle of discrimination, often pointing to radioactive fallout as an uncontrollable effect of nuclear detonations that will sicken and kill civilians far from the original target. These assertions often appear to assume that all nuclear weapons and detonations are alike in terms of their effects. As discussed above, however, how a weapon is employed can significantly change its effects. So too does its design and the design of its delivery means. This places significant weight across the spectrum of decisions associated with the development, fielding, and deployment of a nuclear force, with questions regarding discrimination first applied during the initial research and design stage of delivery systems and munitions.

A critical decision relevant to a weapon’s design is its yield. In its commission and design of nuclear munitions, an NPT nuclear-weapon state should carefully assess how many high-yield weapons it requires because a larger weapon is more likely to raise issues with regard to proportionality. This is also the point in time to consider whether to invest in weapons that have a variable yield, sometimes colloquially referenced as “dial-a-yield,” in order to provide greater flexibility in the event of actual employment. In short, with regard to the weapon itself, an important means of calibrating its effects can begin with design decisions.

Discrimination of effects is only possible if the delivery of the munition is itself discriminate. So, it is critically important for an NPT nuclear-weapon state to invest in the technologies—some organic to the delivery system, some resident within supporting systems—to ensure that a delivery system directly strikes its intended aimpoint and does not go astray. In the contemporary era, this almost certainly demands secure and accurate navigational guidance provided by space systems, for example. The degree of fidelity required to ensure that a nuclear-capable delivery system is discriminate is greater than that required for less destructive conventional systems. 

The above factors can help an NPT nuclear-weapon state field delivery systems and bombs or warheads that have the potential to be discriminate.14 Just as important, however, is how these delivery systems are used and how these weapons might be employed in a potential armed conflict. This should lead to law of war considerations being integrated into a state’s weaponeering processes. Weaponeering is defined by the U.S. Air Force as “the process of determining the quantity of a specific type of lethal or nonlethal means required to create a desired effect on a given target.”15 It refers to the integration of a series of evaluations by specially trained military personnel that considers factors such as the effects of different types of weapons and various types of strikes, including the question of how many weapons are necessary, whether delivered singly, in groups, or in sequence, to neutralize or destroy a target. 

The assessments discussed in the preceding section with regard to the size of a weapon’s yield and the location of the detonation are also included as part of weaponeering. Other topics taken into account include weather, terrain, and a target’s passive defenses, such as whether it is hardened and deeply buried. All of the above can have a significant impact on the effects of any type of weapon, including nuclear weapons. Weaponeering is a process and a skill set, requiring time and investment in order to ensure it is effective and can fully integrate law of war considerations.16

A Sandia National Laboratories engineer prepares for an impact test of hardware in the nose assembly of a mock B61-12 nuclear bomb on January 28, 2015 in New Mexico. The new guided version of the B61 gravity bomb, scheduled for production between 2020 to 2024, is intended to strike targets more accurately and is reported to have a variable explosive yield that could reduce the radioactive fallout. [Photo credit: Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories]Weapons design and weaponeering are highly technical and specialized fields. Particularly during a period of time when an arsenal is being overhauled, upgraded, and perhaps expanded, ensuring that these processes integrate law of war considerations is critically important. They also require a robust interaction or feedback loop with the assessments that inform decision-makers discussed above; the degree to which a weapons designer can make a weapons system accurate, for example, should impact decision-maker views on whether these systems can be used in a discriminate and proportional way. 

In turn, decision-makers should provide guidance for how investments are made that, in addition to strategic considerations, result in the development of an arsenal that can implement and adhere to the law of war. A weapon may appear to fail tests of discrimination and proportionality, for example, until it can be matched with a delivery system whose accuracy improves on its predecessors (a high degree of certainty in reaching a target, for example, can also lead to the use of a smaller munition). In addition, weapons may be redesigned, replaced, or retired because their yield or other aspects of their design may raise discrimination and proportionality issues in light of changes to a potential adversary’s force that alter calculations of military necessity. Moreover, as noted above, a significant gulf exists between the destructive power of conventional and nuclear weapons; greater investment in high-end conventional capabilities may allow future non-nuclear munitions to fulfill roles and missions currently assigned to nuclear forces. 

Again, these points do not necessarily rule out the potential employment of nuclear weapons because the need to have a type of force capable of rapidly and totally destroying existential threats may be high. They are arguments, however, in favor of taking steps to integrate law of war considerations into the research, development, and acquisition phases for nuclear-capable delivery systems and nuclear weapons and into the education, training, and processes required to develop effective weaponeering cells within the military services. 

Principle of Honor

The principle of honor is a foundational concept that binds together all individuals who take up the profession of arms. As the Law of War Manual notes, “Opposing military forces should respect one another outside of the fighting because they share a profession and they fight one another on behalf of their respective States and not out of personal hostility.”17

This respect influences the treatment of wounded or captured combatants and, more broadly, the conduct of war, whereby military personnel do not demonize their opponents, viewing and treating them as professionals. This concept of honor extends to all warfighters, including those tasked with operating nuclear-capable systems and carrying out nuclear missions. 

This suggests that one way in which to “thicken” the relationship between the law of war and nuclear forces is to encourage professional interaction between those members of the uniformed militaries of the NPT nuclear-weapon states that are tasked with the unique and weighty responsibility of maintaining nuclear forces and preparing to employ them if called to do so in a future war. Aside from the scientists and engineers that develop nuclear weapons, no other class of professional is so well aware of the effects of different types of nuclear weapons employment and, in turn, is deeply wary of the costs and consequences of any conflict between two nuclear-armed states. 

Increased communication and interaction between these highly specialized forces is not a law of war requirement, but it could bolster the relationship between the law of war and nuclear forces by cementing respectful, professional relationships between these warfighters. The NPT nuclear-weapon states have held an annual conference since 2009 to discuss issues of mutual concern; future conferences could include semiformal sidebar meetings bringing together officers from these five states who have experience in commanding or serving as part of the crew of nuclear-capable delivery systems. 

Litmus Test

Many contemporary commentaries on nuclear weapons and the law of war discuss these weapons within a vacuum absent of any context regarding their development, fielding, or deployment. This can lead to abstract or erroneous analyses that contribute little to understanding or implementation of the law. For the NPT nuclear-weapon states, nuclear weapons are legitimate tools of self-defense and will remain so until such time as all states-parties to the treaty can negotiate a comprehensive disarmament treaty. This does not mean that these weapons or military operations involving these weapons are somehow unregulated. Nuclear weapons and the forces that are “organized, trained and equipped,” in U.S. parlance, to operate them are fully subject to the law of war. This article has offered some thoughts on what this means for these five states with regard to implementation of this body of law. It suggests that this implementation requires integrating consideration of key law of war principles within the broader decision-making processes that develop, establish, and sustain a state’s nuclear strategy, posture, and arsenal, including narrowing and restricting what these forces target and how they might be employed. 

How the NPT nuclear-weapon states conduct this integration with regard to their current nuclear forces and ensure it plays an important role in ongoing processes to upgrade their arsenals may differ, but it represents an important obligation for all five. Moreover, it serves as a litmus test for this body of law as a whole, providing these states with an opportunity to demonstrate that all weapons, including the most powerful, are subject to the law of war. 


1.   July 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) opinion on the “legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons,” which continues to reflect these debates in a number of ways. Although the court expressed skepticism that nuclear weapons could be employed in a way that did not violate the laws of war, it concluded that it could not rule these weapons illegal in every circumstance and stated that the court “cannot lose sight of the fundamental right of every State to survival,” reflecting nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty nuclear-weapon states’ arguments that the existential threat posed by other state’s nuclear weapons justifies fielding their own nuclear forces for the purposes of deterrence. Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, I.C.J. Reports, July 8, 1996, pp. 40-41, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/7495.pdf.  

2.  The law of war is often referenced as the law of armed conflict or international humanitarian law. The latter body of law is not identical to the law of war. As noted by Christopher Greenwood, ICJ judge, “International humanitarian law thus includes most of what used to be known as the laws of war, although strictly speaking some parts of those laws, such as the law of neutrality, are not included since their primary purpose is not humanitarian.” Office of the General Counsel, U.S. Department of Defense, “Department of Defense Law of War Manual,” June 2015, p. 8, http://www.dod.mil/dodgc/images/law_war_manual15.pdf (hereinafter Law of War Manual).

3.  For a discussion of the law of war as lex specialis, see the Law of War Manual’s section 1.3.2. on “The Law of War’s Relationship to Other Bodies of Law.” Ibid.

4.  The term “employment” refers to nuclear forces conducting an operation that concludes with a nuclear detonation. In general, the U.S. armed forces tasked with nuclear deterrence responsibilities, including patrols and other operations that are not nuclear strike operations, will often utilize the term “use” to broadly encompass these and other non-kinetic activities. 

5.  Ibid., p. 15.

6.  Ibid., p. 393.

7.  Avalon Project, “General Orders No. 100: The Lieber Code,” 2008, arts. 15-16, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lieber.asp.

8.  Law of War Manual, p. 52.

9.  Ibid., p. 60.

10.  Ibid., p. 56.

11.  David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand (New York: Doubleday, 2009), pp. 39-40.

12.  Col. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “Taming Shiva: Applying International Law to Nuclear Operations,” The Air Force Law Review 42 (1997): 161-162.

13.  Avalon Project, “General Orders No. 100: The Lieber Code,” art. 22.

14.  The U.S. statement on the 1996 ICJ case considering the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons addressed a number of law of war issues, including the principle of distinction: “It has been argued that nuclear weapons are unlawful because they cannot be directed at a military objective. This argument ignores the ability of modern delivery systems to target specific military objectives with nuclear weapons, and the ability of modern weapon designers to tailor the effects of a nuclear weapon to deal with various types of military objectives.” U.S. Department of State, “Letter Dated 20 June 1995 From the Acting Legal Adviser to the Department of State, Together With Written Statement of the Government of the United States of America,” June 20, 1995, pp. 22-23, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/8700.pdf.

15.  Curtis E. Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, “Annex 3-60 Targeting: Weaponeering and Allocation,” January 10, 2014, https://doctrine.af.mil/download.jsp?filename=3-60-D26-Target-Wpn-Allocate.pdf.

16.  Law of war considerations are included within U.S. Air Force weaponeering. “The output of weaponeering is a recommendation of [what is] needed to achieve desired effects while avoiding unacceptable collateral damage…. According to [the law of war], incidental damage to civilian objects must not be excessive in relation to the expected military advantage to be gained. Collateral damage criteria were established on this foundational principle.” Ibid.

17.  Law of War Manual, pp. 66-67.

Dr. Justin Anderson is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at National Defense University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Many participants in debates on the legality of nuclear weapons discuss them as different and separate from other types of weapons, focusing on their destructive power. Yet, these weapons...

Reinforcing the Taboo on Nuclear Testing is in the United States' National Security Interests



For Immediate Release: August 4, 2016

Media Contacts: Tony Fleming, communications director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 110; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

(Washington, D.C.)—In response to a column written by Josh Rogin in The Washington Post, Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball issued the following comments:

President Obama addresses the Security Council on nuclear non-proliferation and resolution 1887 (2009), expressing the Security Council's resolve to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. (Photo credit: UN)We applaud President Obama’s consideration of a politically-binding UN Security Council resolution this fall that would reinforce the global norm against nuclear weapon test explosions and strongly dispute the allegation made by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that such an effort would "cede the Senate’s constitutional role” on advice and consent of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
It is our understanding that the initiative being pursued by the administration would, as other UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions have already done several times before, exhort those states that have not yet ratified the CTBT to do so and call upon all states to refrain from further nuclear testing and to support ongoing efforts to maintain the monitoring system established to detect and deter clandestine nuclear testing.

With President Bill Clinton’s signature of the CTBT in 1996, the United States ended the practice of nuclear testing and today all but one state—North Korea—respects the de facto moratorium on nuclear testing. 
More than two decades after the last U.S. nuclear test in 1992, the United States' nuclear weapons labs are in a better position to maintain the reliability of the U.S. arsenal than during the era of nuclear weapons test explosions.
Clearly, in order for the United States to ratify the CTBT and the treaty to enter into force, the U.S. Senate would have to reconsider the treaty and provide its advice and consent to ratification. 
In the meantime, it is clearly in the interests of the United States to seek ways to reinforce the de facto global nuclear testing moratorium and make it more difficult for states, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran, from conducting nuclear test explosions.
We would hope that Sen. Corker and other members of Congress would not attempt to sabotage efforts to increase the political barriers against nuclear testing by other states and to reinforce the existing, but fragile, legal norm against testing that already exists.
As President Bill Clinton said upon his signature of the CTBT in September 1996: “The signature of the world’s declared nuclear powers… along with the vast majority of its other nations will immediately create an international norm against nuclear testing, even before the treaty enters into force.”

The most effective way to verifiably end nuclear testing is to bring the treaty into force. To succeed, U.S. leadership is essential.

Bringing the CTBT back to the Senate for another vote requires a lengthy, intensive educational and outreach campaign to present the new information, answer detailed questions, and dispel old myths and misconceptions.

It was through such a process that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) was approved in 2010. Unfortunately, in recent years, the Senate has shown it is not prepared for a serious discussion of the CTBT. 

The Obama administration has made it clear in congressional hearings, including on December 1, 2015 and July 14, 2016, that it is not pursuing "a prohibition of nuclear testing through a U.N. Security Council resolution.” 

The initiative that the administration is seeking, while not legally binding, would have tremendous political value in reinforcing the global norm against testing and reduce the risk that other nations might use nuclear testing to improve or develop nuclear weapons capabilities that threaten U.S. and global security.

Finally, any efforts by Congress to withhold the U.S. contribution for the global test monitoring system could undermine long-term U.S. security by eroding our ability to detect and deter clandestine nuclear test explosions by countries such as Russia and Iran.


In response to a report in The Washington Post, Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball made the following comments.

No, Nuclear Modernization Doesn’t Cost Less Than You Think

Modernization proponents argue that the costs will only impose a small financial burden relative to the overall military budget. Are they right?

The Complex and Increasingly Dangerous Nuclear Weapons Geometry of Asia


By Greg Thielmann
July 2016

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While much of the world’s attention is focused on efforts to halt the nuclear and missile tests of North Korea, the nuclear arsenals and ambitions of India, Pakistan, and China also pose significant dangers and deserve more attention.

The complicated nuclear weapons geometry of Asia extends from the subcontinent to the other side of the world. While Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is designed to counter India’s conventional and nuclear forces, New Delhi measures its own nuclear weapons program against that of China. Beijing, in turn, judges the adequacy of its nuclear arsenal against the threat it perceives from the United States’ strategic offensive and defensive capabilities. And in its efforts to mitigate the ballistic missile threat from North Korea, the United States and its allies in the region are expanding their strategic and theater missile defense capabilities.

In order to fully understand how the pace and direction of nuclear proliferation can be influenced, the interconnections of these countries must be considered, along with the kinds of nuclear weapons they have at their disposal.


Asian states Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea comprise four of the world's nine nuclear-armed states. The interconnections of these countries must be considered to fully understand how nuclear nonproliferation can be influenced.

Progress on Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation Inadequate to Meet Threats, New Study Finds



For Immediate Release: July 15, 2016

Media Contacts: Tony Fleming, communications director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 110; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

(Washington, D.C.)—President Barack Obama failed to make progress in key nuclear disarmament areas over the course of his second term, but did achieve important steps to improve nuclear materials security and strengthen nonproliferation norms, namely the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, according to a new study released by the Arms Control Association, which evaluates the recent records of all the world’s nuclear-armed states.

The report, "Assessing Progress on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, 2013-2016," is the third in a series that measures the performance of 11 key states in 10 universally-recognized nonproliferation, disarmament, and nuclear security categories over the past three years. The study evaluated the records of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea—each of which possess nuclear weapons—as well as Iran and Syria, which are states of proliferation concern.

“The United States is investing enormous resources to maintain and upgrade nuclear weapons delivery systems and warheads and is keeping its deployed nuclear weapons on ‘launch-under-attack’ readiness posture. The lack of U.S. leadership in these areas contributes to the moribund pace of disarmament,” said Elizabeth Philipp, the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Arms Control Association, and a co-author of the report.

“Obama should use his remaining months in office to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategies and mitigate the risks of inadvertent use. Obama could consider declaring that Washington will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association and co-author of the report.

“U.S. leadership could spur China and Russia to take positive actions and improve the prospects for further disarmament. Russia’s decision to develop a new missile in violation of its treaty commitments and Moscow’s rebuff of attempts by the United States to negotiate further nuclear reductions is very troublesome, as is the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal and Beijing’s steps toward increasing the alert levels of its forces,” Philipp added.

“Several states did take significant steps over the past three years to strengthen nuclear security, including action by the United States and Pakistan to ratify key nuclear security treaties,” said Davenport.

“The July 2015 nuclear deal struck between six global powers and Iran was also a significant nonproliferation breakthrough that has significantly reduced Tehran’s nuclear capacity and subjected its activities to more intrusive international monitoring and verification. While the international community must remain vigilant in ensuring that the deal is fully implemented, blocking Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons negates a serious nonproliferation concern and demonstrates the consequences of flouting the international norms and obligations,” Davenport said.

“For the third time, the United Kingdom received the highest grade of all the states assessed, while North Korea remained at the bottom of the list with the lowest overall grades. North Korea’s recent nuclear test and its ballistic missile development require the next U.S. administration to pursue more robust engagement with Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear activities,” Philipp said.

“Our review of the record indicates that further action must be taken by all 11 states if they are to live up to their international disarmament and nonproliferation responsibilities. By tracking the progress, or lack thereof, of these states over time, we hope this report will serve as a tool to encourage policymakers to increase efforts to reduce the risk posed by nuclear weapons,” Davenport said.

A country-by-country summary can be viewed here.
The full report card can be downloaded here


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 suggests that President Obama, failed to make progress in key nuclear disarmament areas during his second term.

"Perceptions of WMD in the Media" — Presentation by Kelsey Davenport at the 2016 James Timbie Forum



Kelsey Davenport, Director of Nonproliferation Policy

Kelsey Davenport, Arm Control Association's director of nonproliferation policy, spoke on "Perceptions of WMD in the Media" and how to engage emerging young professionals in the field of arms control at the U.S. State Department's 2016 James Timbie Forum.

Video of her remarks is available via our Youtube channel, or below.



Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy, at the 2016 Timbie Forum on engaging emerging professionals in the field

2016 Report Card on Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation Efforts

Table of Contents

Download this report.

Looking Back on the ICJ’s 1996 Advisory Opinion

On July 8, 1996, following a prolonged debate on the legality of nuclear weapons and their use, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a momentous advisory opinion that would influence the discussion of nuclear weapons use under the scope of international law for years to come. In the July/August edition of Arms Control Today , John Burroughs offers an in-depth look back on the 1996 advisory opinion . He describes the court’s discussion of the issue, the conclusions and context of the advisory opinion, and how the ruling has recently been invoked in a new nuclear disarmament case...

The Dangers of Using Cyberattacks to Counter Nuclear Threats

July/August 2016

By Andrew Futter

Top military and defense officials in the United States are currently contemplating plans to use cyberattack capabilities against enemy missile and command-and-control systems as part of a new push for full-spectrum missile defense.1

The idea is to augment the current suite of kinetic missile interceptors deployed within the United States, at sea, and on the territory of certain allies with new, nonkinetic capabilities designed to attack, compromise, or destroy enemy missiles before they can be launched. As Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, explained in a recent testimony to Congress, 

[W]e need to develop a wider range of tools and that includes the efforts underway to address such threats before they are launched, or “left of launch.” The development of left-of-launch capabilities will provide U.S. decision-makers additional tools and opportunities to defeat missiles. This will in turn reduce the burden on our “right-of-launch” ballistic missile defense capabilities. Taken together, left-of-launch and right-of-launch will lead to more effective and resilient capabilities to defeat adversary ballistic missile threats.2 

The end goal is a more robust, affordable, and holistic U.S. ballistic missile defense system,3 designed to protect against limited or perhaps undeterrable conventional and nuclear missile threats from certain states and nonstate actors around the globe. 

The concept is being driven by an increasing diversification in the types of missile threats facing the United States and by the growing acceptance that there will never be enough interceptors to address all of these missile threats or enough money to build them. Although the idea of using cyberattacks or other nonkinetic weapons for missile defense is not necessarily new and probably has been discussed in secret in the Pentagon for at least a decade, such options appear to have become increasingly viable for the United States today. In the words of Admiral Archer Macy, former director of the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization, “Ballistic missile defense cannot consist simply of defeating the launch, flight, targeting and arrival of all of the missiles an enemy could employ. We cannot simply play catch.”4

The desire to disable a missile before it can be launched rather than to intercept it after launch, however, represents a significant shift in mission and planning. This is because it amalgamates traditional protective ballistic missile defense concepts with a new offensive focus on pre-emptive prompt global-strike technologies. Although each of the systems under the prompt global-strike mission is likely to create problems, the use of cybercapabilities to disable missiles before launch is a move with particularly worrying implications for other nuclear-armed states for three key reasons. 

•   Kinetic missile interceptors are used only after a missile has been launched and the threat has materialized. Cyberattacks, on the other hand, would likely have to be used pre-emptively and be based on prior infiltration of enemy networks. It is therefore a notable transformation of strategy, and it will become more difficult to classify the mission as purely defensive. 

•   It will be even more difficult to identify the targets of such cybercapabilities and what the capabilities are intended to achieve. Although a limited U.S. ballistic missile defense system is not a serious threat to China and Russia, at least currently, due to their ability to overwhelm the limited number of U.S. interceptors, it is virtually impossible to prove what type of cybercapabilities have been deployed by the United States or other actors and in what quantity.

•   The adoption of cyberattack capabilities for missile defense opens up a Pandora’s box of future uncertainty for all nuclear-armed states given the likelihood that other states and potentially nonstate actors will follow suit in developing such options. 

Ultimately, such moves would appear detrimental to U.S. goals of strategic stability, arms control, nuclear security, and the safe management of the global nuclear order and may even drive renewed proliferation. The United States therefore needs to think long and hard before it opens up a whole new area of competition and insecurity that it may not win in the long run.

China and Russia 

Although the budding U.S. concept of full-spectrum missile defense has not specifically mentioned nuclear weapons systems or particular actors, it is virtually impossible to see how the incorporation of cyberattack capabilities will not be met with great alarm in Beijing and Moscow. Officials in both capitals have expressed concern about the deployment of kinetic missile interceptors in the past two decades, and moves to augment these deployments with a new suite of kinetic and nonkinetic offensive options are likely to magnify this distrust and lead to potentially greater nuclear instability.

Conventional prompt global-strike systems are clearly a major concern, but it is arguably the uncertainty associated with cyberattacks that will prove to be the most problematic aspect of this new approach. Conventional kinetic systems can be quantified, monitored, and perhaps even countered. In addition, they are limited by cost. Cybercapabilities, however, remain inherently nebulous, and it is impossible to estimate their quantity or the extent of the threat. The use of cybercapabilities will also almost certainly require that an adversary’s missile systems be penetrated and perhaps even compromised in advance. As scholar Greg Austin notes, “Strategic nuclear stability may be at risk because of uncertainty about innovations in cyber attack capability.”5

Russia already is acutely worried about the vulnerability of its strategic nuclear systems to cyberinterference and may even see cyberattacks as the greatest challenge at the strategic level, while China’s limited nuclear arsenal and posture make it particularly susceptible to disablement through cyber means or otherwise. The worst-case scenario is that “one state could hack into the nuclear command-and-control systems of another, render its weapons unusable, and use the temporary monopoly of power to coerce its target.”6 Although it is highly unlikely that the United States could or would want to hack into enemy systems as the precursor to a disarming first strike against an adversary’s nuclear forces, it will be difficult for China and Russia to get this worst-case thought out of their minds. The fact that the stated U.S. desire to be able to strike strategic assets anywhere in the world in either “30 minutes or 300 milliseconds” through conventionally armed missiles or cyberweapons could theoretically be directed toward any adversary seems unlikely to help build trust in the nuclear realm.7 For full-spectrum missile defense, these perceptions matter as much as capabilities or intent.

Utilizing cyberattack capabilities for full-spectrum missile defense will almost certainly further undermine strategic stability with Russia and place considerable pressure on the strategic balance with China. Tensions between Washington and Moscow are already high, and cooperation on nuclear security has been suspended. Although both parties continue to implement the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the prospects for further arms control or reduction measures appear bleak. The introduction of cybercapabilities that could undermine the Russian nuclear deterrent is highly unlikely to help ease these strains.8 In fact, the threat of cyber disablement, combined with the development of other U.S. capabilities as part of the full-spectrum missile defense mission, is likely to add to Russia’s desire to modernize and upgrade its nuclear forces and keep them on high alert.9 The direct result of the United States using cyberattacks in this way could be increased instability, creating another major impediment to the maintenance of nuclear arms control regimes between Russia and the United States and to the idea of further nuclear cuts. Keeping nuclear missile forces on high alert is also seen by some as a major cyber risk because this makes them vulnerable to a cyberattack that could directly or indirectly lead to a launch.10 

The potential implications of full-spectrum missile defense are perhaps even more acute for China, given its smaller and less sophisticated nuclear arsenal. Chinese planners are concerned about the possibility of a U.S. non-nuclear first strike involving precision missile attacks backed up with increasingly capable missile interceptor systems.11 The idea that China’s deterrent could be compromised through cyberattacks as well will be a major concern. As with Russia, it is difficult to see how adding new cyberattack options to the U.S. arsenal will help improve relations or engender greater trust with Beijing. The new U.S. capability is much more likely to force reconsideration of Beijing’s no-first-use policy and create another incentive for China to build up and diversify its nuclear arsenal. Indeed, China and Russia are looking at developing new high-tech capabilities for the nuclear deterrence mission in response to growing concerns about U.S. plans.12

The introduction of cyberattack capabilities also creates a whole range of worrying dynamics for crisis stability and management, given that it will likely never be possible to know whether nuclear weapons systems have been breached and compromised or whether they will work as planned when needed. This problem is magnified in Russia due to the degradation of its strategic forces, problems with early-warning systems, and recent moves to increase the role of nuclear weapons in Russian strategy. In China, Beijing’s rumored sharing of certain components of its command-and-control infrastructure between nuclear and conventional systems raises the prospect that a cyberattack on conventional systems might be interpreted as an attack on nuclear systems.13 Including cyberattacks as part of the full spectrum of missile defense may well lead to a compressed escalation ladder, a shortened time frame for nuclear decision-making during a crisis, and a greater incentive to “use them or lose them.” Commanders may incorrectly think they are under attack, fear that nuclear systems had been or could be compromised, or worry cyberattacks might be used to directly cause a nuclear launch. Each of these anxieties might increase the pressure to act first. As analyst Sydney Freedberg has pointed out, “The best defense may be a good offense, but that raises the unsettling possibility that the US might strike first.”14 It is not inconceivable to see this as the beginning of a possible transition to a condition of Mutually Unassured Destruction, or MUD.15 

In the quest to secure the United States against the threat of missile attack, the employment of cyber- and other new technological capabilities seems likely to create many of the problems it seeks to solve. The deployment of increasingly capable ballistic missile defense systems has become a major impediment in nuclear arms control discussions with Russia. Yet, although a full-spectrum missile defense approach by the United States may mean that the deployment of kinetic interceptors can be slowed or even capped, replacing interceptors with cyber- and other capabilities is unlikely to unblock the road to greater bilateral nuclear cuts or produce stability. The general idea behind U.S. plans to develop cyberwarfare capabilities is almost certain to target rogue actors and limited missile threats, but it will be very difficult to convince others, notably China and Russia, that these capabilities are not directed or at least usable against them. Convincing Beijing and Moscow that the nascent kinetic-based missile defense program is not directed against them has been difficult enough; the unknowns associated with cyberattacks intertwined with the clear possibility for pre-emptive strikes raise the stakes considerably. 

Challenges for the U.S. 

At the same time that it creates concerns for other states by pursuing cybercapabilities, the United States is highly likely to become vulnerable to the use of cybercapabilities to undermine its own nuclear weapons systems. Concerns in the United States about relying on computers for nuclear weapons management can be traced back as far as the 1960s and early 1970s,16 but anxieties have grown considerably in the past few years. In 2013 the U.S. Defense Science Board cautioned that U.S. nuclear weapons might be vulnerable to cyberattacks and that future cyberthreats to U.S. nuclear systems “might be impossible to fully defend against.”17 Two years later, retired General James Cartwright, former head of U.S. Strategic Command, warned that “[t]he sophistication of the cyber threat has increased exponentially…. It is reasonable to believe that the threat has extended itself into [our] nuclear command and control systems.”18 

Although U.S. nuclear weapons and associated command-and-control systems are well protected and “air gapped” where possible, and therefore physically separated from unsecured networks, they are by no means invulnerable to hackers seeking to disable these systems or at least stop them from working as planned. The increasing reliance of all aspects of the nuclear mission on complex software and endless lines of code and the requirement for ever greater connectivity among nodes mean that hackers have numerous potential points of entry. Indeed, a backdoor into naval broadcast systems used to transmit nuclear launch orders was discovered in the 1990s,19 and in 2012, Thomas D’Agostino, head of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, revealed that U.S. nuclear weapons and associated systems “are under constant attack” from a “full spectrum of hackers.”20 Although recent moves to bolster the defense of U.S. nuclear systems against cyberattacks,21 as well as the establishment of in-house hacker teams at the Pentagon,22 should be welcomed, they are unlikely to be foolproof. This is particularly true in light of the ongoing development of technologies to “jump” the air gap and widespread attempts by U.S. adversaries to use cyberespionage to steal sensitive nuclear-related secrets about these systems from U.S. government agencies, research laboratories, and contractors, possibly as a precursor to future attack.

The problem is particularly pressing given the ongoing upgrade of the U.S. nuclear command-and-control infrastructure and possible plans to replace all three legs of the nuclear triad in the years ahead. The Pentagon has been clear that this involves a transition to relying on “internet like networks” for command and control, and all of these modernization programs almost certainly will entail a greater reliance on computers, software, and code.23 Although modernization may well allow for greater functionality, processing speed, control, and real-time management, it also makes U.S. nuclear weapons systems and missile defense systems much more vulnerable to hackers and those seeking to interfere with or gain access to sensitive nuclear infrastructure. It also makes the systems increasingly difficult to protect. As General C. Robert Kehler, head of U.S. Strategic Command, put it, “The age of the [U.S.] command and control system might inadvertently offer some protection against the latest hacking techniques.”24 This is because some parts of the system are so old that current cyberattack techniques do not apply to them. 

The cyberthreat extends across the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise and will include all components that rely on networked computers and software, including weapons and delivery platforms, early-warning and command-and-control systems, and secret design and operational information produced and stored by defense contractors and research laboratories.25 The cybersecurity challenge will also include information about the humans that operate these systems. 

The threat is bifurcated between attacks designed to disable U.S. systems and prevent them from working and those designed to enable them by indirectly exacerbating a crisis or spoofing systems or directly seeking to cause an unauthorized launch or explosion. The disablement attacks are more likely to come from states, as discussed above; the enablement scenarios are more likely to be perpetrated by nonstate actors. As the Global Zero Commission warned, “Questions abound: could unauthorized actors—either state or non-state—spoof early warning networks into reporting attack indications that precipitate overreactions? Could such hackers breach the firewalls, the air gaps, and transmit launch orders to launch crews or even to the weapons themselves? What if an insider colluded with them to provide access and passwords to the launch circuitry? Might they acquire critical codes by hacking?”26

Protecting against these two different types of cyberthreats arguably requires different and to some extent antagonistic requirements. For example, greater security and protection against both state and nonstate threats might mean a reduction in usability. The problem is that the United States, as well as Russia and to a lesser extent China, appears determined to prioritize the threat of disablement and therefore the ability to ensure weapons can be used over measures that might be taken to guard against outside interference designed to enable nuclear use. This in turn means that there are more opportunities for nonstate actors to attack these nuclear systems, either directly or indirectly through manipulation of information or through so-called false-flag attacks, in which attacks by one party are designed to look like they are conducted by another.27 Bruce Blair, a former missileer and the co-founder of Global Zero, has argued it is at least possible that terrorist groups or other unauthorized actors might have taken advantage of the loss of control of 50 Minuteman missiles at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming in October 2010 and caused a nuclear launch.28 Moves to make the use of cybercapabilities against nuclear systems routine are a double-edged sword: using cyberattacks to undermine missile threats from U.S. adversaries might also expose significant vulnerabilities in U.S. systems to other states and other nonstate actors. 


The use of cybercapabilities to undermine missile threats to the United States by disabling the missiles before they are launched might seem at first like an attractive, cost-effective, and sensible way of bolstering protection against a serious and growing challenge. Yet, the idea is inherently problematic for a number of reasons, and thought needs to be given before the Pentagon turns this concept into reality. First, the use of cybercapabilities conspicuously transforms the ballistic missile defense mission from one of protection to one of pre-emption. Second, it will add further pressure for states to focus more on the credibility of using their nuclear forces rather than on safety and security against harmful interference by nonstate actors. Third, such moves appear antithetical to virtually all U.S. nuclear proliferation, arms control, and nuclear security objectives. Fourth, it sets a precedent and creates a norm that such attacks or at least planning for them, is acceptable. Finally, it is far from clear that the United States will retain a comparative advantage in this field in future years as capabilities spread, and the United States may find its own nuclear and missile systems vulnerable to cyberattack. 

A far better approach to the emerging cyber-nuclear nexus is to consider how an increasingly diverse nuclear environment can best be managed and how an array of new threats can be mitigated and perhaps overcome. The focus of U.S. policymakers should be on how nuclear forces and associated command-and-control systems of all states might be better protected against cyberinterference and how to ensure that hackers cannot cause a nuclear crisis or, in a worst-case scenario, facilitate a nuclear launch. Although better security, training, and understanding are a must for protecting against cyberattacks, the United States might also consider reaching out to other nuclear-armed states in the hope of building trust through various confidence-building measures, perhaps through sharing best practices or exchanging data and intelligence on nonstate threats. This approach also might conceivably lead to discussion of constraints on targeting each other’s weapons or command-and-control systems with cyberattacks and to formal discussion within broader nuclear arms control dialogues and within global forums such as the review conferences for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The goal of the discussions would be to reach agreement on a moratorium or other constraints on targeting each other’s weapons or command-and-control systems with cyberattacks. 

This is undoubtedly a difficult task, not least because of problems of verification, attribution, transparency, and trust. It is worth pursuing because it might help reduce some of the uncertainties and worst-case thinking that surround the cyber challenge. It might even provide a basis for moving toward a safer nuclear environment. 

Although it may be true that cyberthreats and nuclear strategy will become increasingly commingled in the future,29 this does not mean that such a nexus should be desired or sought. It is far from clear that the United States will remain immune from the myriad threats to its own nuclear systems posed by cyberattacks. At the same time, it is clearly in the national interest not to make other governments feel increasingly vulnerable and suspicious. The next U.S. president faces a big choice on the future shape of U.S. missile defense, the use of cybercapabilities for pre-emptive attacks on enemy systems, and the full-spectrum concept more generally. Although various techno-military developments undoubtedly will make the nuclear future more uncertain and potentially more complex, a strong decision now to forswear or at least limit the use of cyberattacks against nuclear assets would be an important benchmark for managing this challenge and minimizing the risks of nuclear weapons use in the longer term. 


1.   See Riki Ellison, “Left of Launch,” Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, March 16, 2015, http://missiledefenseadvocacy.org/alert/3132/; Bill Gertz, “Pentagon Developing Pre-launch Cyber Attacks on Missiles,” Washington Free Beacon, April 14, 2016, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/pentagon-developing-pre-launch-cyber-attacks-missiles/.

2.   Brian P. McKeon, Statement before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, April 13, 2016, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/McKeon_04-13-16.pdf

3.   Thomas Karako, remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C., April 12, 2015, http://csis.org/files/attachments/151204_full_spectrum_transcript.pdf.

4.   Admiral Archer Macy, remarks at CSIS, Washington, D.C., April 12, 2015, http://csis.org/files/attachments/151204_full_spectrum_transcript.pdf.

5.   Greg Austin, “Costs of American Cyber Superiority,” China-U.S. Focus, August 6, 2013, http://www.chinausfocus.com/peace-security/costs-of-american-cyber-superiority/.

6.   Martin Libicki, Crisis and Escalation in Cyberspace (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2012), p. 128.

7.   See General James Cartwright, “Whither the Forward-Basing of U.S. Troops?” MP3 audio, 01:34:14, June 4, 2009, http://c689403.r3.cf2.rackcdn.com/090604_militaryforum.mp3.  

8.   See Andrew Korybko, “U.S. ‘Missile Defense’: Satellites, Lasers, and Electromagnetic Railguns,” Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, September 22, 2015, http://en.riss.ru/analysis/18912/.

9.   William Broad and David Sanger, “Race for the Latest Class of Nuclear Arms Threatens to Revive Cold War,” The New York Times, April 16, 2016.

10.   See Global Zero Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction, “De-alerting and Stabilizing the World’s Nuclear Force Postures,” April 2015, http://www.globalzero.org/files/global_zero_commission_on_nuclear_risk_reduction_report_0.pdf.

11.   Andrew Futter and Benjamin Zala, “Coordinating the Arm Swing With the Pivot: Nuclear Deterrence, Stability and U.S. Strategy in the Asia-Pacific,” The Pacific Review, Vol. 28, No. 3 (July 2015): 377.

12.   Martin Matishak, “The Next Arms Race for the U.S., China and Russia: Hypersonic Weapons,” The Fiscal Times, March 2, 2016, http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2016/03/02/Next-Arms-Race-US-China-and-Russia-Hypersonic-Weapons

13.    Joshua Pollack, “Emerging Strategic Dilemmas in U.S.-Chinese Relations,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 65, No. 4 (July-August 2009): 56.

14.   Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Joint Staff Studies New Options for Missile Defense,” Breaking Defense, September 16, 2015, http://breakingdefense.com/2015/09/joint-staff-studies-new-options-for-missile-defense/.

15.   Richard J. Danzig, “Surviving on a Diet of Poisoned Fruit: Reducing the National Security Risks of America’s Cyber Dependencies,” Center for a New American Security, July 2014, p. 6, http://www.cnas.org/sites/default/files/publications-pdf/CNAS_PoisonedFruit_Danzig_0.pdf.

16.   Gordon Corera, Intercept: The Secret History of Computers and Spies (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2015), pp. 71-72; James P. Anderson, “Computer Security Technology Planning Study,” ESD-TR-73-51, October 1972, http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/history/ande72.pdf.

17.   Defense Science Board, “Task Force Report: Resilient Military Systems and the Advanced Cyber Threat,” January 2013, pp. 2, 6, http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/ResilientMilitarySystems.CyberThreat.pdf.

18.   Robert Burns, “Former U.S. Commander: Take Nuclear Missiles Off High Alert,” Associated Press, April 29, 2015, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/2ae0a33fa1c7402999afb6d55046e2cc/former-us-commander-take-nuclear-missiles-high-alert. When asked about the vulnerability of U.S. systems, retired General James Cartwright responded, “Have they been penetrated? I don’t know. Is it reasonable technically to assume they could? Yes.”

19.   Jason Fritz, “Hacking Nuclear Command and Control,” International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, July 2009, http://icnnd.org/documents/jason_fritz_hacking_nc2.pdf.

20.   Jason Koebler, “U.S. Nukes Face Up to 10 Million Cyber Attacks Daily,” U.S. News and World Report, March 20, 2012, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/03/20/us-nukes-face-up-to-10-million-cyber-attacks-daily.

21.   Benjamin D. Katz, “U.S. Beefs Up Cyber Defense to Thwart Hacks of Nuclear Arsenal,” Bloomberg, March 24, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-03-24/u-s-beefs-up-cyber-defenses-to-thwart-hacks-of-nuclear-arsenal.

22.   Colin Clark, “As GAO Finds DoD Wobbly on Cyber Policies, Carter Launches HackerOne,” Breaking Defense, April 7, 2016, http://breakingdefense.com/2016/04/as-gao-finds-dod-wobbly-on-cyber-policies-carter-launches-hackerone/.

23.   Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Command, Control and Communications System,” in Nuclear Matters Handbook, 2011, p. 53. 

24.   Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (London: Allen Lane, 2013), p. 475.

25.   For more information, see Andrew Futter, “Cyberthreats and Nuclear Weapons,” RUSI Occasional Paper (forthcoming) (copy on file with author).

26.   Global Zero Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction, “De-alerting and Stabilizing the World’s Nuclear Force Postures.” 

27.   See Andrew Futter, “War Games Redux? Cyber Threats, U.S.-Russian Strategic Stability and New Challenges for Nuclear Security and Arms Control,” European Security, Vol. 25, No. 2 (2016): 163-180.

28.   Bruce Blair, “Could Terrorists Launch America’s Nuclear Missiles?” Time, November 11, 2010, http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2030685,00.html.

29.   Stephen Cimbala and Roger McDermott, “A New Cold War? Missile Defenses, Nuclear Arms Reductions, and Cyber War,” Comparative Strategy, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2015): 103.

Andrew Futter is a senior lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. He is the author of Ballistic Missile Defence and US National Security Policy (2013) and editor of the forthcoming book The United Kingdom and the Future of Nuclear Weapons. His current work into cyberthreats and nuclear strategy is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council.

Officials are contemplating the use of cyberattack capabilities to counter missile and command-and-control systems. Doing so risks creating new competition and insecurity...


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