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Policy White Papers

Reinforcing the Global Norm Against Chemical Weapons Use


February 18, 2021
By Julia Masterson
Research Associate, Arms Control Association

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In recent years, the global norm against chemical weapons use has eroded, and it is critical that responsible states take action to reinforce it. Systematic violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the malign use of chemical agents have continued for nearly a decade without adequate accountability. These incidents risk growing in severity and becoming more widespread for as long as the issue remains unaddressed. Reinforcing the norm against chemical weapons use necessitates a unified global effort to utilize all CWC provisions and to strengthen the consequences that violators face under the treaty and in accordance with international law.

Establishment of the Norm

The first known use of chemical weapons in modern history was in April 1915, when the Germans unleashed chlorine gas on units of French and Algerian soldiers at Ypres, Belgium. Following that attack, chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas were used on a widespread basis throughout the first World War, accounting for approximately 90,000 of the war’s casualties. In direct response to a global recognition of the severe and indiscriminate effects of chemical weapons use, the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, dubbed the Geneva Protocol, was negotiated.1 From that point onward, chemical and biological agents were banned from use in war as a matter of international law.

Yet the production, stockpiling, and intermittent use of chemical weapons continued despite the 1925 prohibition, in part due to the narrow scope of the Geneva Protocol, which applies only to the use of chemical weapons in interstate conflicts. Furthermore, a number of states included in their ratifications a reservation of the right to use chemical weapons in retaliation against a chemical weapons attack or offensively toward those not party to the protocol, including the United States, which ratified the Geneva Protocol only in 1975, after dropping napalm and Agent Orange over Vietnam throughout the Vietnam War.2 Italy deposited its instrument of ratification in 1928 without reservations, but proceeded to use chemical weapons against Ethiopia in 1934, which had not yet ratified the protocol.3 The lack of a formal verification mechanism further complicated the effectiveness of and widespread compliance with the Geneva Protocol.

The de facto norm against chemical weapons use solidified following the entry into force of the CWC in 1997. Negotiations on the CWC began in 1980 at the UN Conference on Disarmament,4 ultimately producing a treaty prohibiting chemical weapons in 1993 that is far more expansive than the Geneva Protocol. The CWC goes beyond the Geneva Protocol by banning not only the use but also the development, production, stockpile, and transfer of chemical weapons. Today, the near-universal treaty has 193 states-parties. There are only four CWC holdout states: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan.

The CWC requires that all states verifiably destroy their declared chemical weapons stockpiles upon accession to the treaty. This effort by a wide group of states to negotiate such a prohibitive treaty throughout the 1980s and 1990s was an early indicator of the growing interest in establishing a stronger legal framework to support the norm against chemical weapons use.5

The CWC established the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which supports implementation of the CWC and verifies states-parties’ compliance with their obligations under the treaty. The CWC’s near universality and the governing OPCW’s oversight undoubtedly played a role in upholding the global norm against chemical weapons use for more than 20 years.

Six states declared stockpiles upon acceding to the treaty: India, Iraq, Libya, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.6 Albania declared a chemical weapons stockpile several years after joining the CWC and has since destroyed it.7 Only the United States has yet to complete destruction of its stockpile, but it is scheduled to do so by 2023.8 Since the CWC’s entry into force, more than 98 percent of the world’s chemical weapons stockpiles have been verifiably destroyed.

Erosion of the Norm

Reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria began in early 2013 as the Assad regime clashed with Syrian opposition forces amid the budding civil war. In August that year, news spread of a large-scale chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, with an estimated one thousand or more people experiencing convulsions, foaming from the mouth, blurry vision, and suffocation—symptoms consistent with nerve agent poisoning. The United Nations immediately launched an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the OPCW promptly dispatched technical experts to aid in the investigation.

UN and independent governmental assessments concluded that sarin, a volatile nerve agent, was used by the Assad government in the attack.9 Leaders around the world began to weigh the prospects of military intervention, and the UN Security Council met in two emergency sessions over the course of a week. The UK Parliament voted against supporting military action while U.S. President Barack Obama stated he would seek authorization from Congress for a limited strike.10

During an emergency Security Council session on April 5, 2017, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley displayed photos of the victims of the Syrian government’s April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykuhn. Sarin, a nerve agent, was used in the attack which reportedly killed as many as 100 people. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)


Under the threat of serious U.S. military action, the United States and Russia forged an agreement whereby Syria would immediately accede to the CWC and surrender its chemical weapons arsenal, which would be verifiably destroyed through a coordinated effort led by Washington and Moscow with the support of the OPCW and the UN. Syria submitted a declaration of its stockpile to the OPCW on September 20, 2013.11

Prompt destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons program alleviated urgent concerns that the weapons would continue to be used on a large-scale basis throughout the country’s civil war and lowered the growing risk of those weapons falling into the hands of nonstate actors in the region. Although largely unnoticed by those not privy to the situation, destruction of Syria’s enormous declared chemical weapons stockpile marked an extraordinary feat.

Syria was long suspected of having a chemical weapons program but was not party to the CWC at the time of the Ghouta attack. Its use of chemical weapons against civilians during a civil war was also not expressly prohibited by the Geneva Protocol, which Damascus ratified in 1968.12 The international community’s immediate condemnation and calls for a punishing response to the large-scale use of a suspected nerve agent under these circumstances was indicative of the strength of the de facto norm against chemical weapons use that existed even beyond the bounds of relevant governing legal institutions and treaties.

While Syria did declare and surrender the bulk of its stockpiles of chemical weapons, chemical agents, and associated equipment as required by the 2013 agreement, a host of allegations arose in 2014 regarding the use of a toxic chemical, likely chlorine gas, in the Syrian conflict. Syria was not obligated to declare nor destroy its stockpile of chlorine gas upon its accession to the CWC due to the chemical’s dual-use applicability, but the CWC’s general-purpose criterion explicitly prohibits the use of any chemical as a weapon.

The OPCW responded to these allegations through the conduct of its Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), which is mandated to establish the use of chemical weapons in Syria without assigning blame for the attacks. From 2014 to 2020, the OPCW deployed the FFM numerous times in Syria.13

In 2015 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2235,14 which condemned “any use of any toxic chemical, such as chlorine, as a weapon” in Syria and established the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), dedicated to identifying those responsible for chemical weapons use in Syria.15

The JIM determined in August 2015 that the Syrian government was responsible for chemical weapons use during at least two incidents, in April 2014 and March 2015. The JIM also found that the Islamic State group was responsible for the use of sulfur mustard in Syria in August 2015. From 2014 to 2017, the UN and the OPCW conducted 10 JIM investigations in Syria (table 1).

Chemical weapons use continued in Syria despite the JIM findings implicating the Assad regime and the supposed total destruction of Syria’s stockpile. The first major allegation surrounding the renewed use of sarin in Syria came in April 2017, in an attack that killed dozens of civilians in Khan Shaykhun, suggesting that Syria did not give up its entire chemical weapons program or that it reconstituted parts of it in violation of the CWC. Yet, after the FFM verified that sarin was used in the attack, Russia vetoed a Security Council vote to extend the mandate for the attributive JIM for another year. The JIM’s final report established that the Assad regime was responsible for the use of sarin in the April 2017 attack.

In part to continue the JIM’s attribution work, OPCW member states voted to establish the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) in 2018. In April 2020, the IIT found in its inaugural, and to date only, report that the Assad regime was responsible for a series of chlorine and sarin attacks in Syria in March 2017—a month before Khan Shaykhun.

In July 2020, spurred by the IIT’s findings, the OPCW Executive Council issued a decision calling on Syria to come clean on the totality of its chemical weapons stockpile within 90 days.16 Syria failed to meet that deadline, which expired in October 2020.

Note: The OPCW FFM investigated more than 100 reported incidents of chemical weapons use in Syria from 2013 to 2018. Of those, the UN-OPCW JIM investigated 10 incidents and attributed responsibility for four of those (Talmenes, Qmenas, Sarmin, and Khan Shaykhun) to the Syrian government. The JIM also attributed two incidents (Marea and Umm Hawsh) to the Islamic State group. After its establishment in 2018, the IIT attributed one attack (Ltamenah) to the Syrian government. It is difficult to know with certainty why the Assad regime chose to use chemical weapons in blatant defiance of international law and the CWC after Syria’s accession to the convention. Although the incidence of Syrian chemical weapons attacks has slowed in recent years, President Bashar al-Assad appears not to have been adequately deterred by the international community’s limited actions taken in response to the continued attacks. Damascus denies that it is behind the attacks, but the regime has continued to employ chemicals as weapons of terror against its own population.

The Assad regime’s risk-benefit calculation is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that, despite substantial evidence regarding its repeated use of chemical weapons, Syria’s status under the convention has been challenged only recently.

During the first portion of the 25th annual conference of states-parties, held November 30–December 1, 2020, 46 states co-sponsored a resolution to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges in the “decision-making bodies” of the CWC and the OPCW. French Ambassador Luis Vassy introduced the resolution and called on the conference to support the decision “to demonstrate our collective commitment to fight impunity.”17 States-parties are expected to further debate Syria’s rights and privileges under the treaty during the second portion of their annual conference in the spring of 2021.

The OPCW Executive Council’s July 2020 decision, cited in France’s resolution, affirmed that the Secretariat would conduct inspections at two Syrian sites identified by the IIT as directly involved in the March 2017 chemical weapons attacks.18 That decision called on Syria to comply fully with the inspections, but Syria has yet to cooperate with or provide access for OPCW inspectors.19

The OPCW Declaration Assessment Team, which works to ensure the completeness of states-parties’ stockpile declarations, has sought to clarify outstanding inconsistencies related to Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile, but has received no response from Syria to date.20

The Syrian government appears to view its compliance with the CWC and cooperation with the OPCW as voluntary. A lack of historical precedent for the treaty-prescribed challenge inspections may have led the Assad regime to calculate that it can stockpile and use certain chemical weapons without significant risk of penalty. Challenge inspections grant the OPCW authority to conduct unscheduled inspections into sites or facilities believed associated with a country’s chemical weapons program and, if utilized, could serve as a deterrent against states seeking to covertly maintain weapons in violation of the treaty.

In addition, the Syrian government’s more recent chemical attacks have been met with far less forceful denunciations by the international community as compared to the strong and coordinated international response that immediately followed the 2013 sarin gas attack in Ghouta.

In 2018 a group of states formed the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons to respond to investigative gaps and to identify and hold perpetrators of chemical weapons use responsible.21 Despite their important efforts to name, shame, and economically sanction responsible parties, the International Partnership’s efforts to reinforce the chemical weapons norm have been less than decisive thus far.

Screenshot from a video posted to YouTube on April 11, 2014 shows substantial yellow coloration at the base of the cloud over Kafr Zita, Syria, drifting with main cloud. Chlorine is suspected to have been used in that attack. (Via Human Rights Watch)The Syrian case highlights two important conclusions with respect to the global norm against chemical weapons use. First, it reveals that although the global norm was undoubtedly supported and strengthened by the CWC, it is distinct from the convention. The international community’s coordinated and punitive response to the use of chemical weapons in 2013 by a state not originally party to the CWC, i.e., Syria, suggests that the global norm against chemical weapons use transcends the CWC and other relevant international legal institutions.

Second, the strength and effectiveness of the global norm against chemical weapons use is foremost measured by the extent to which the weapons are not used, under any circumstances, by any state or nonstate actor. Yet, the norm’s strength can also be measured by the severity of the international community’s response to violations of the norm. In 2013 the coordinated international response to the sarin gas attack in Ghouta demonstrated a high level of commitment to preserving and upholding the norm against chemical weapons use, highlighting the strength of the norm. The relatively muted response, however, to ongoing use of chemical weapons, primarily involving chlorine and mustard gas, in Syria from 2014 onward, combined with Russia’s efforts to shield the Assad regime from blame for the chemical attacks, has further weakened the norm.

Third, because Russia has used its veto power on the UN Security Council to undermine efforts to investigate chemical weapons use in Syria since 2013, the council has shown that it cannot always be relied on to hold violators of the chemical weapons norm to account. Only when the permanent members of the council are aligned can the body effectively help enforce compliance with the norm. In 2013, coordination among Security Council members helped drive the international community’s response—specifically the U.S. and Russian responses—to the Ghouta attack. Today, absent that coordination, the unpredictability of certain veto-wielding states’ responses to instances of chemical weapons use necessitates that the OPCW and coalitions of like-minded states take a more active role in reinforcing the global norm against chemical weapons use.

Outside of Syria, the targeted use of chemical weapons in assassinations have further weakened the normative and legal prohibitions on chemical weapons use. Two major instances of chemical weapons use—the 2017 assassination in Kuala Lumpur of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, using VX, and the 2018 poisoning in the United Kingdom of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal with a Novichok agent—were met by a similarly lackluster response from the international community, further exemplifying the eroded norm.

Reinforcement of the global norm against chemical weapons use requires strong legal institutions and governance alongside a coordinated, multilateral effort to address past and future instances of chemical weapons use appropriately and punitively. In keeping with the CWC’s general-purpose criterion, this effort must also address the use of any chemical as a weapon, regardless of whether an agent is listed in the treaty’s Annex on Chemicals. Attacks using chlorine, which states are not required to declare or destroy under the CWC due to its dual-use nature and ubiquitous commercial use, should warrant an identical response to those using sarin or another nerve agent. The norm against chemical weapons use will be restored when the international community shores up its response to instances of use and demonstrates that such use is never acceptable under any circumstances. Perpetrators of chemical weapons use must be held accountable.

The UN Security Council votes to extend investigations into who is responsible for chemical weapons attacks against Syria at the United Nations on October 24, 2017. Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia voted no to the resolution.  (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)


The recent OPCW finding that a Novichok nerve agent was used to poison Russian dissident Alexei Navalny presents an opportunity for a unified effort to reinforce the global norm against chemical weapons use. Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok agent in August 2020 on a domestic flight in Russia. Moscow has denied responsibility for the attack.22

Novichok agents were added to the CWC’s list of banned Schedule 1 substances in June 2020, after the poisoning of Skripal triggered a campaign by CWC members to amend the Annex on Chemicals, subjecting countries in possession of the nerve agent to the convention’s most stringent declaration and verification requirements. Moscow is widely believed to be responsible for Skripal’s poisoning.23 Although the OPCW conducted sample analyses and confirmed that a Novichok agent was used, Russia has never been formally investigated or held accountable by the OPCW or under the CWC. The specific agent used against Skripal was among those included in the recent amendment to the convention’s annex.

The deliberate and relatively unadmonished use of a nerve agent by a CWC state-party in 2018 represented the reality of an eroded normative prohibition on chemical weapons use. Now faced with a similar circumstance, the international community must take the necessary steps to reinforce the global norm against these indiscriminate, inhumane weapons.

Reinforcement of the Norm

Reinforcement of the global norm against chemical weapons use requires taking steps to strengthen the existing mechanisms included in the CWC while shoring up the international community’s ability to respond to the use of chemical weapons by any state or nonstate actor and hold them accountable.

The OPCW has taken a series of important steps to strengthen the global norm, notably by addressing Syria’s chemical weapons program through the Executive Council’s July 2020 decision and by expanding the CWC Annex on Chemicals in 2019.24 Despite these efforts, further measures should be pursued.

Widespread support for a strong OPCW budget is critical for the organization to make progress toward reinforcing the norm. Russia, Iran, Syria, and other CWC states-parties have outspokenly opposed the OPCW budget for the past several years, arguing that the OPCW is overreaching its prescribed mandate to oversee the demilitarization of declared chemical weapons stockpiles. Russia, in its statement before the conference of states-parties, denounced the legitimacy of the IIT, saying “We strongly oppose the imposition to Member States against their will of financial obligations due to the illegitimate work of the attribution mechanism.”25 Iran’s delegate noted that the OPCW’s authority to attribute instances of chemical weapons use is not codified in the CWC and also rejected the annual budget.26

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons headquarters in the Hague, Netherlands. (Photo: Ant Palmer/Getty Images)In reality, the OPCW’s mission is far greater than demilitarization oversight,27 and the organization has received wide support by the majority of CWC states-parties for each of its undertakings, including the establishment of the IIT.28 States-parties’ undue opposition to the OPCW budget is destructive to the work of the OPCW. It is important that, despite opposition by spoilers, states-parties continue their otherwise strong support for an effective OPCW budget.

With adequate funding, there are a range of approaches the international community and specifically the OPCW can pursue to reinforce the global norm.

1. The OPCW Executive Council, together with input from all CWC states-parties, should explicitly clarify what rights and privileges will be revoked under the convention for noncompliant behavior.

Article XII of the CWC, titled “Measures to Redress a Situation and to Ensure Compliance, Including Sanctions,” lists four steps to be taken in response to a country’s noncompliant behavior under the convention. Step one dictates that the conference of states-parties will take into account all relevant information submitted to it by the Executive Council. Step two details that:

...in cases where a State Party has been requested by the Executive Council to take measures to redress a situation raising problems with regard to its compliance, and where the State Party fails to fulfill the request within the specified time, the Conference may, inter alia, upon the recommendation of the Executive Council, restrict or suspend the State Party’s rights and privileges under this Convention until it undertakes the necessary action to conform with its obligations under [the CWC.]29

Steps three and four procedurally outline the process for the conference to recommend collective measures under international law and to refer the issue to the UN General Assembly and Security Council.

In the Syrian case, the Executive Council’s July 2020 decision stated that if Syria failed to meet the October deadline to declare the remainder of its chemical weapons stockpile to the OPCW, the council would recommend the conference of states-parties adopt a decision to take action under step two.30 These “rights and privileges,” however, are not defined in any explicit way by the CWC. According to a briefing by the UK House of Commons, because these measures are not specified under the CWC, step two may include the revocation of any rights and privileges “so long as they conform with international law.” Examples of a state’s rights under the CWC include the right to vote on matters pertaining to the CWC, the right to serve on the Executive Council and the CWC staff, the right to participate in the exchange of scientific and technical information, the right to participate in OPCW development programs, and the right to trade certain industrial chemicals.31

Clarifying explicitly what rights and privileges a state could lose under the CWC for noncompliant behavior and revoking them when agreed may deter future violations of the treaty and are important steps toward reinforcing the global norm against chemical weapons use. Yet, it is important to ensure that the revocation of these rights and privileges is not enough to drive that state’s withdrawal from the treaty altogether. The OPCW Executive Council and CWC states-parties should consider carefully what consequences are appropriate under step two when deciding on the Syrian case and should take action to codify these measures under the CWC going forward.

2. CWC states-parties should establish a precedent for challenge inspections.

The CWC assumes compliance and does not regularly inspect all facilities as the International Atomic Energy Agency does to ensure nuclear programs are peaceful,32 but in the event that a state may appear to be in noncompliance with its obligations under the treaty, the convention includes an explicit provision allowing states-parties to request a challenge inspection of the potential noncompliant state.33 The process includes a series of expedited steps to notify the possibly noncompliant state of other states’ concerns and, eventually, to conduct an inspection at any location or facility in question. Challenge inspections are not guaranteed, however, and the inspected state is permitted to deem the requested parameter of inspection to be unacceptable.34 For this reason, even in the event that a challenge inspection is conducted, it may not ultimately reveal a state’s covert chemical weapons production or storage. No challenge inspection has ever been conducted, but the OPCW has run several simulated challenge inspections to practice the process and test the organization’s readiness, most recently in 2011 in Thailand.35

Challenge inspections represent an important verification tool under the CWC and, if enacted, could contribute to deterring future covert chemical weapons production, stockpiling, and use by noncompliant states. To maintain the OPCW’s preparedness, the organization should consider hosting simulated challenge inspections on an annual basis. In 2011 the inspection was based on a hypothetical scenario but conducted at an actual chemical plant in Bangkok, giving inspectors the opportunity to practice the technical processes necessary to conduct a challenge inspection. Regular mock challenge inspections will signal to potentially noncompliant states that the OPCW will not balk to initiate such an inspection and will be prepared to conduct it.

As with clarifying the rights and privileges a state will lose for noncompliant behavior, establishing a precedent for practicing and enacting challenge inspections is an important step toward strengthening the CWC and reinforcing the norm against chemical weapons use.

3. The OPCW should work to immediately expand the mandate of the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) to investigate any alleged use of chemical weapons by any CWC state-party.

The IIT was established in 2018 with a mandate to investigate instances where the OPCW FFM determined that chemical weapons were used in Syria and to attribute responsibility for those attacks.36 The inaugural IIT report, issued in April 2020, concluded that the Syrian government was responsible for the use of sarin and chlorine in March 2017, and those findings directly informed the OPCW Executive Council’s July 2020 decision on Syria.

No OPCW attribution body exists apart from the IIT. According to the organization, although the IIT was established specifically to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria, the OPCW director-general may provide technical assistance to aid in a state-party’s investigation of chemical weapons use on its territory. In this circumstance, “experience and know-how of the IIT will be transferred to relevant parts of the Secretariat to enable it to provide adequate assistance to States Parties, upon request.”37

But an OPCW effort to support a state’s individual attribution effort is vastly different from an impartial and formal investigation led by the global chemical weapons watchdog. The political considerations that plague the former help to explain why occurrences of chemical weapons use by CWC states-parties, such as Russia, have continued.

Although the organization’s attribution work in Syria is valuable, the OPCW can further strengthen the IIT by expanding its mandate to include the use of chemical weapons by any CWC state-party. Doing so would also necessitate expanding the mandate of the FFM, whose actions precede the IIT’s investigation and which conducts an inquiry immediately after an attack to determine whether a chemical weapon was used.

The OPCW aided in a German-led investigation of Navalny’s poisoning by confirming that a Novichok agent was used, similar to the work of an FFM.38 The organization also responded to a letter from Moscow requesting the possible dispatch of technical experts to support Russia’s investigation into the poisoning, which occurred on Russian territory.39 A Russian investigation into the use of a nerve agent by Russian officials is unlikely to produce any findings that implicate the Kremlin, despite strong evidence to the contrary, but a formal OPCW investigation attributing the attack to Russia could mark an important step toward holding Moscow accountable for its continued violations of the CWC.

The recent poisoning of Navalny presents an opportunity to extend the mandate of the FFM and IIT. To do so, a state or group of states would need to introduce a joint proposal to the conference of states-parties, which can vote by majority to extend both mandates just as the conference did to establish the investigative body in 2018.40 The 25th conference is expected to convene for its second session before the end of April 2021.41

Going forward, removing the burden of attribution from individual states-parties and reassigning it to the OPCW in all cases can help to assuage any concerns that states may have for launching an investigation into certain powerful states, such as Russia, and holding their leaders accountable for the use of chemical weapons. Formally identifying perpetrators is an important step in the process of reinforcing the global norm against chemical weapons use.

4. Partner states should consider expansion of the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons.42

Outside of the OPCW, additional mechanisms exist that can contribute to reinforcing the norm against chemical weapons use. France established the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons in 2018, with a stated purpose to “supplement the international mechanisms to combat the proliferation of chemical weapons.” The initiative brings together 40 countries and the European Union, who commit to support international investigations into chemical weapons use and to hold perpetrators accountable by encouraging multilateral action to sanction implicated states and individuals.43 Additional activities include publishing the names of all sanctioned entities, groups, or governments to ensure accountability. Most recently, in September 2020, France and Germany announced they would work to investigate the poisoning of Navalny under the International Partnership.44

The recently established partnership’s value as a third-party investigator is yet to be fully realized. Although expansion of the IIT and the OPCW’s formal adoption of all attribution work is important to promote thorough investigations into all instances of chemical weapons use, the partnership’s work can support OPCW findings by independently corroborating the organization’s conclusions, which have been accused of being politically motivated by states seeking to avert blame. Notably, in the Syrian case, Russian and Syrian opposition to OPCW findings regarding the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons have precluded a coordinated response by the organization at times, including when Russia vetoed an extension of the JIM’s mandate. Third-party verification of OPCW findings can help dispel any allegations of politicization and can strengthen the IIT’s attribution work. An expanded International Partnership can support future prosecution efforts by sharing information with relevant legal institutions alongside the OPCW and can help to ensure that punitive sanctions in response to chemical weapons use are applied on a coordinated, multilateral basis as member states agree to collectively sanction identified states and individuals.

Expanding the International Partnership to include a majority of OPCW member states, either as a centralized body or on a regional basis, could widen the mechanism’s bandwidth and signal the broad, multilateral support for upholding the global norm against chemical weapons use.

5. The OPCW should establish a near-automatic process by which all findings attributing chemical weapons use to an individual, state, or nonstate actor are compiled for referral to and prosecution in national or international courts or tribunals.

In July 2020, the OPCW Executive Council’s decision welcomed a memorandum of understanding between the OPCW and the UN International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes Under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic Since March 2011 (IIIM).45 That expression in the July decision reflected a provision of the IIT’s mandate, which requires that it “preserve and provide information to the [IIIM], as well as to any relevant investigatory entities established” under UN auspices.46 The IIIM does not have the authority to prosecute perpetrators of chemical weapons use, but it is responsible for collecting and conveying information that may be relevant for national or international courts and tribunals. The OPCW reported in October 2018 that the Secretariat was in the process of implementing the arrangement with the IIIM,47 but it is not clear whether this pathway has been formally established.

Information verifiably implicating the Assad regime in the systematic use of chemical weapons will support any future international efforts to prosecute the Syrian president for crimes committed against humanity.

There is no precedent for such a body apart from the IIIM, which applies only to Syria and is mandated to investigate all crimes against humanity committed in Syria. Yet, an IIIM-inspired team that focuses solely on chemical weapons use could follow a similar model and be housed within the OPCW. The liaison team need not limit its work to CWC states-parties or to states alone. There is value in developing a system that may be used to hold nonstate actors accountable for the use of chemical weapons.

The International Partnership Against Impunity for Use of Chemical Weapons calls on its member states to gather and retain available information on perpetrators of chemical weapons use and to share that information with relevant national and international legal institutions.48 Although an expanded International Partnership would be beneficial for the international community’s efforts to combat chemical weapons use, the OPCW should establish a similar in-house process to ensure that its work duly supports the future criminal prosecution of those responsible for the use of chemical weapons.

The OPCW Executive Council should discuss the merits of a new team dedicated to consolidating all information related to a state’s or individual’s use of chemical weapons to support future prosecution efforts on an ad hoc basis. That team would serve as the liaison between the OPCW and relevant courts or tribunals, who may otherwise lack the technical expertise that the organization has with respect to chemical weapons. The Executive Council should propose that the conference of states-parties vote to establish the new initiative.

In practice, the liaison team could serve as a clearinghouse for the information acquired by the OPCW through its challenge inspections, the FFM, and IIT investigations. It could also serve as a space for the OPCW to process information related to the use of chemical weapons by nonstate actors and groups, which the chemical watchdog investigates periodically as those instances arise. Impartial OPCW experts staffed to the new team could compile all relevant information into a comprehensive report that could support any future prosecution efforts.

A team similar to the IIIM that collects information that may be relevant for the eventual prosecution of those responsible for the use of chemical weapons can play an important role in the international community’s effort to appropriately penalize violations of the legal prohibition.

6. The international community should pursue the prosecution of perpetrators of chemical weapons use.

Individuals involved in ordering or carrying out chemical weapons attacks by any state or nonstate actor should be prosecuted as war criminals. Chemical weapons are illegal under international law, as outlined by the Geneva Protocol, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the CWC. The international community should establish a precedent of prosecuting any instances of chemical weapons use as war crimes, and the perpetrators of those attacks as war criminals. A new OPCW-based, IIIM-modeled team could support these legal efforts.

The threat of criminal prosecution, if credible, can serve as a deterrent against would-be perpetrators of chemical weapons use. When legal prosecution is not politically or immediately feasible, the international community should articulate that evidence is being collected for future legal action and utilize other tools to hold individuals or governments accountable for use of chemical weapons. These tools could include targeted economic sanctions, asset freezes, or a collective loss of privileges under relevant multilateral institutions. For example, returning to the Syrian case, a temporary revocation of Damascus’ rights and privileges under the CWC and sanctions against the Syrian government could be enacted in the short term as a case is built to prosecute Assad for war crimes.

Enforcing accountability for the use of chemical weapons will require a coordinated effort by individual states. While CWC states-parties could vote together to suspend certain Syrian rights and privileges under the treaty, imposing effective sanctions or other economic measures necessitates a commitment by a large number of states to individually hold the Assad regime accountable. There is no single forum where all states can meet to coordinate the various facets of a joint response to chemical weapons use. Ultimately, holding perpetrators accountable for use of chemical weapons demands a commitment by the international community writ large to act in every way possible to penalize states and individuals without impunity.


In his speech before the 25th conference, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias said, “[T]he world now is not the same as the one of 1993, when the Convention was signed. It is a more polarised place, where progress on demilitarisation and non-proliferation is constantly threatened, and the efforts of the international community to live in a safer place are compromised.”49

Against the backdrop of Syria’s chemical weapons program and the repeated use of nerve agents by certain governments to poison political dissidents and innocent bystanders, Arias’ words ring true. There is an urgent need to pursue additional, more creative approaches to reinforce and strengthen the global norm against chemical weapons use.


1. UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), “Chemical Weapons,” n.d., https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/chemical/ (accessed February 4, 2021).

2. UNODA, “United States of America: Ratification of the 1925 Geneva Protocol,” n.d., http://disarmament.un.org/treaties/a/1925/unitedstatesofamerica/rat/paris (accessed February 4, 2021).

3. UNODA, “Italy: Ratification of 1925 Geneva Protocol,” n.d., http://disarmament.un.org/treaties/a/1925/italy/rat/paris (accessed February 4, 2021).

4. Arms Control Association (ACA), “The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) at a Glance,” April 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/cwcglance.

5. “CWC Timeline,” Chemical Weapons Convention Archive, n.d., https://cwc.fas.org/about-the-cwc/cwc-timeline/ (accessed February 4, 2021).

6. Paul Walker, “Abolishing Chemical Weapons: Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities,” Arms Control Today, November 2010, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2010-11/abolishing-chemical-weapons-progress-challenges-opportunities.

7. ACA, “Chemical and Biological Weapons Status at a Glance,” April 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/cbwprolif.

8. David Vergun, “DOD Approaches Goal of Destroying All Stockpiled Chemical Weapons,” DOD News, September 21, 2020, https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2354786/dod-approaches-goal-of-destroying-all-stockpiled-chemical-weapons/.

9. “‘Clear and Convincing’ Evidence of Chemical Weapons Use in Syria, UN Team Reports,” UN News, September 16, 2013, https://news.un.org/en/story/2013/09/449052-clear-and-convincing-evidence-chemical-weapons-use-syria-un-team-reports.

10. ACA, “Timeline of Syrian Chemical Weapons Activity, 2012-2020,” May 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Timeline-of-Syrian-Chemical-Weapons-Activity.

11. Ibid.

12. International Committee of the Red Cross, “Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries: Syrian Arab Republic,” n.d., https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/vwTreatiesByCountrySelected.xsp?xp_countrySelected=SY (accessed February 4, 2021).

13. Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), “Fact-Finding Mission,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/fact-finding-mission (accessed February 4, 2021).

14. “Security Council Unanimously Adopts Resolution 2235 (2015), Establishing Mechanism to Identify Perpetrators Using Chemical Weapons in Syria,” SC/12001, August 7, 2015.

15. “Fact Sheet: OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism,” June 2017,

16. OPCW, “OPCW Executive Council Adopts Decision Addressing the Possession and Use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic,” July 9, 2020, https://www.opcw.org/media-centre/news/2020/07/opcw-executive-council-adopts-decision-addressing-possession-and-use.

17. Ambassade de France aux Pays-Bas, “Déclaration de la France prononcée par son Excellence M. Luis Vassy, Ambassadeur de France au Royaume des Pays-Bas, Représentant permanent de la France auprès de l’OIAC,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2020/11/20201127%20CSP%2025%20intervention%20d%C3%A9bat%20g%C3%A9n%C3%A9ral%20FR.pdf.

18. OPCW Executive Council, “Decision Addressing the Possession and Use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic,” EC-94/DEC.2, July 9, 2020.

19. OPCW, “OPCW Executive Council Adopts Decision Addressing the Possession and Use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic.”

20. OPCW Executive Council, “Report by the Director-General: Progress in the Elimination of the Syrian Chemical Weapons Programme,” EC-96/DG.6, January 25, 2021.

21. See International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons (International Partnership), “Chemical Weapons: No Impunity,” n.d., https://www.noimpunitychemicalweapons.org/-en-.html (accessed February 4, 2021).

22. Julia Masterson, “OPCW to Investigate Navalny Poisoning,” Arms Control Today, October 2020, pp. 28–29.

23. UK Office of the Prime Minister, “PM Commons Statement on Salisbury Incident,” March 12, 2018, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-commons-statement-on-salisbury-incident-12-march-2018.

24. Daryl G. Kimball, “CWC States Update List of Banned Chemicals,” Arms Control Today, December 2019, p. 32.

25. “Statement by the Delegation of the Russian Federation at the 25th Session of the Conference of the States Parties,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2020/11/Russia%20CSP25.pdf.

26. Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, “Explanation of Vote by the Delegation of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the Draft Decision on Programme and Budget of the OPCW for 2021 at the Twenty-Fifth Session of the Conference of States Parties,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2020/12/Statement%20by%20the%20Delegation%20of%20the%20Islamic%20Republic%20of%20Iran%20on%20draft%20decision%20on%202021%20Budget%20in%20the%20CSP%2025_0.pdf.

27. OPCW, “Mission: A World Free of Chemical Weapons,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/about/mission (accessed February 5, 2021).

28. OPCW, “CWC Conference of the States Parties Adopts Decision Addressing the Threat From Chemical Weapons Use,” June 27, 2018, https://www.opcw.org/media-centre/news/2018/06/cwc-conference-states-parties-adopts-decision-addressing-threat-chemical.

29. OPCW, “Article XII: Matters to Redress a Situation and to Ensure Compliance, Including Sanctions,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/chemical-weapons-convention/articles/article-xii-measures-redress-situation-and-ensure-compliance (accessed February 5, 2021).

30. OPCW, “OPCW Executive Council Adopts Decision Addressing the Possession and Use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic.”

31. Louisa Brooke-Holland and Claire Mills, “The Chemical Weapons Convention,” House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, No. 08258, March 26, 2018, https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-8258/CBP-8258.pdf.

32. Although the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons does not inspect every declared chemical facility as the International Atomic Energy Agency would for a declared nuclear facility, the organization does conduct a total of 241 industry inspections in Chemical Weapons Convention states-parties each year.

33. OPCW, “Article IX: Consultations, Cooperation and Fact-Finding,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/chemical-weapons-convention/articles/article-ix-consultations-cooperation-and-fact-finding (accessed February 5, 2021).

34. OPCW, “Part X: Challenge Inspections Pursuant to Article IX,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/chemical-weapons-convention/annexes/verification-annex/part-x-challenge-inspections-pursuant (accessed February 5, 2021).

35. OPCW, “OPCW Launches Challenge Inspection Exercise 2011,” October 28, 2011, https://www.opcw.org/media-centre/news/2011/10/opcw-launches-challenge-inspection-exercise-2011.

36. OPCW Conference of the States Parties, “Decision Addressing the Threat From Chemical Weapons Use,” C-SS-4/DEC.3, June 27, 2018.

37. OPCW, “Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) FAQs,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/iit-faqs (accessed February 5, 2021).

38. OPCW, “OPCW Issues Report on Technical Assistance Requested by Germany,” October 6, 2020, https://www.opcw.org/media-centre/news/2020/10/opcw-issues-report-technical-assistance-requested-germany.

39. OPCW, “OPCW Responds to Russian Federation Request Regarding Allegations of Chemical Weapons Use Against Alexei Navalny,” October 5, 2020, https://www.opcw.org/media-centre/news/2020/10/opcw-responds-russian-federation-request-regarding-allegations-chemical.

40. OPCW Conference of the States Parties, “Decision Addressing the Threat From Chemical Weapons Use.”

41. OPCW, “CSP-25: 25th Session of the Conference of States Parties,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/calendar/csp (accessed February 5, 2021).

42. For a similar argument for expanding the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, as well as numerous other recommendations to hold perpetrators of chemical weapons use accountable, see Rebecca K.C. Hersman and William Pittinos, “Restoring Restraint: Enforcing Accountability for Users of Chemical Weapons,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2018, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/180607_Hersman_Restoring

43. International Partnership, “Chemical Weapons: No Impunity.”

44. French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, “Joint Communique by the Foreign Ministers of France and Germany,” September 4, 2020, https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/russia/news/article/alexei-navalny-joint-communique-by-the-foreign-ministers-of-france-and-germany.

45. International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes Under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic Since March 2011, n.d., https://iiim.un.org/ (accessed February 5, 2021). See OPCW Executive Council, “Decision Addressing the Possession and Use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic.”

46. OPCW, “Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) FAQs.”

47. OPCW Executive Council, “Opening Statement by the Director-General to the Executive Council at Its Eighty-Ninth Session,” EC-89/DG.31, October 9, 2018.

48. International Partnership, “Chemical Weapons: No Impunity.”

49. OPCW Conference of the States Parties, “Opening Statement by the Director-General to the Conference of the States Parties at Its Twenty-Fifth Session,” C-25/DG.19, November 30, 2020.




In recent years, the global norm against chemical weapons use has eroded, and it is critical that responsible states take action to reinforce it. Systematic violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the malign use of chemical agents have continued for nearly a decade without adequate accountability.

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U.S. Claims of Illegal Russian Nuclear Testing: Myths, Realities, and Next Steps


Updated August 21, 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball
Executive Director, Arms Control Association

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In prepared remarks delivered at the Hudson Institute May 29, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, Jr., charged that “Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the ‘zero-yield’ standard outlined in the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).”

Russia has vigorously denied the allegation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the accusation “a crude provocation” and pointed to the United States’ failure to ratify the CTBT.

On June 12, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, “we are acting in full and absolute accordance with the treaty ratified by Moscow and in full accordance with our unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests.”

The DIA director’s remarks, and a subsequent June 13 statement on the subject, are quite clearly part of an effort by Trump administration hardliners to suggest that Russia is conducting nuclear tests to improve its arsenal, and that the United States must be free of any constraints on its own nuclear weapons development effort, and, indirectly, to try to undermine the CTBT itself—a treaty the Trump administration has already said it will not ratify.

The challenges posed by the new U.S. allegations are significant and they demand a proactive plan of action by “friends of the CTBT” governments for a number of reasons.

First, any violation of the CTBT by Russia, which has signed and ratified the agreement, or any other signatory, would be a serious matter. But thus far, the Trump administration has not presented any credible information to back up the allegation. As late as December 2015, it was the view of the United States government that the only state in recent years that has tested nuclear weapons in a way that produced a nuclear yield is North Korea. This begs the question of what, if anything, has changed since then that would support a different conclusion.

The most effective way, of course, to enforce compliance is to bring the CTBT into force, which would allow for intrusive, short-notice, on-site inspections to detect and deter any possible cheating. In response to the recent U.S. allegations, CTBT states parties should encourage the U.S. government, if it believes it has credible evidence that Russia is violating its CTBT commitments, to negotiate arrangements for mutual confidence-building visits to the respective U.S. and Russian test sites, involving technical experts, to address any compliance concerns.

Second, the DIA allegations falsely suggest there are different national interpretations of what activities the CTBT prohibits. According to the U.S. State Department, the United States, Russia and China and all of the other NPT nuclear-weapon states have publicly affirmed that the Treaty’s Article I prohibition on “any nuclear weapons test explosion, or any other nuclear explosion” bans all nuclear test explosions, no matter what the yield.

Third, even if Russia or other advanced nuclear-armed states are conducting very low-yield nuclear test explosions, it is technically incorrect for the DIA to suggest that low-yield nuclear explosions are militarily significant for states that have extensive experience with nuclear weapons testing when, in reality, they are not militarily useful.

Finally, the allegations could prompt some officials in the Trump administration to advocate for the “removal” of the U.S. signature from the list of 184 states parties to the treaty—an action that Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, once advocated when he held a senior position at the State Department in 2002. Such a move could have a ripple effect that could undermine necessary financial and political support for the CTBT Organization’s International Monitoring System, and over time, weaken the taboo against nuclear weapons testing itself.

In response, governments that support the CTBT should:

  • reaffirm that CTBT states parties agree that the CTBT’s prohibition on nuclear weapon test explosion bans nuclear explosions of any yield;
  • develop and advance a multilateral plan for resolving charges of noncompliance based on the treaty’s provisions for confidence-building measures; and
  • clarify the costs of any attempt by the United States (or any other signatory state) to “un-sign” the treaty.

The Myths and Realities of the DIA Allegations

When pressed in the question and answer session of the May 29 event by Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Gordon about whether Russian officials have simply set up the Novaya Zemlya test site “in such a way that they could conduct experiments in excess of a zero-yield ban in the CTBT” or are actually conducting nuclear test explosions, Ashley would only say that Russia had the “capability” to conduct very low-yield supercritical nuclear tests in contravention of the treaty.

Ashley also implied that China may not be complying with the CTBT. He claimed that “China’s lack of transparency on their nuclear testing activities raise questions as to whether China could achieve such progress without activities inconsistent with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty,” but he did not provide any evidence that China has violated the treaty.

Tim Morrison, senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense at the National Security Council who spoke on a panel following Ashley at the May 29 Hudson Institute event tried to clarify Ashley’s remarks. “I think General Ashley was clear,” Morrison said, “that we believe Russia has taken actions to improve its nuclear weapons capabilities that run counter or contrary to its own statements regarding the scope of its obligations under the treaty.”

Ashley’s statement was anything but clear. On June 13, in response to numerous press inquiries about the ambiguous charges, the DIA issued another statement, which said: “The U.S. government, including the intelligence community, has assessed that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons tests that have created nuclear yield.”

This statement, though still vague, represents a significant shift from other very recent U.S. government and intelligence community assessments that suggest Russia has not violated the CTBT.

In December 2015, former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller told the House Armed Services Committee that “within this century, the only state that has tested nuclear weapons ... in a way that produced a nuclear yield is North Korea.” No charge of a Russian violation of the “zero-yield” nuclear test moratorium was reported by the State Department in its Annual Report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, until the August 2019 edition, which simply repeats the June 13 DIA statement.

Furthermore, this June 13 DIA statement does not clarify whether the assessment is a joint intelligence community assessment, what the confidence level is, whether it only represents the view of the DIA and the National Security Council staff.

A Familiar Charge Based on Old Information? Given the lack of specificity of the DIA allegations, it may be a case of the new administration’s political appointees interpreting older intelligence data points differently.

The DIA assessment that “Russia probably is not adhering” to the CTBT echoes charges by test ban opponents inside and outside the government that have surfaced intermittently over the years that Russia may be conducting nuclear test detonations are extremely low yields in a containment structure at its Soviet-era nuclear test site on the arctic island of Novaya Zemlya.

In 2002, The New York Times reported that George W. Bush “administration officials have briefed Congress on what they described as disturbing intelligence indicating that Russia is preparing to resume nuclear tests.”

In 2009, the Republican appointees of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, led by former defense secretary James Schlesinger cited earlier intelligence assessments to argue Russia was not complying with the CTBT. Like Lt. Gen. Ashley of the DIA, they also erroneously charged that Russia does not agree with the United States on what the CTBT prohibits.

They ignored or else were not aware of statements by Russian officials during the process for approval for ratification of the CTBT by the State Duma in 2000 that made it clear that Russia agrees that the CTBT prohibits all test explosions, including “hydronuclear experiments,” whatever the level of
energy released.

In their section of the report, which was not endorsed by the Democratic appointees, the Republican members of the commission asserted that: “With no agreed definition [on the scope of the CTBT or of what a nuclear explosion is] U.S. relative understanding of these capabilities would fall further behind over time and undermine our capability to deter tactical threats against allies.”

The 12-member bipartisan commission was split on whether the United States should seek ratification but agreed that “the United States should seek clarification—and a clear understanding—on what tests are banned by this treaty, since there seems to be some ambiguity and confusion on that point.”

Such an approach may sound appealing to some. However, given that the states parties believe they have a common understanding that the CTBT is a “zero-yield” prohibition, such an option is unnecessary. Rather, a simple reiteration of previous statements is more practical and just as effective.

“Zero-Yield” Understanding: In his May 29 remarks, Ashley also said the DIA assessment was based, in part, on the view that Russia “has not affirmed the language of zero-yield.” This assertion is wrong.

As documented in a series of CTBT fact sheets published by the State Department in September 2011, Russia and China and all of the other NPT nuclear weapon states have publicly affirmed publicly that the treaty’s Article I undertakings “not to carry out any nuclear weapons test explosion, or any other nuclear explosion” prohibit all nuclear test explosions, no matter what the yield.

“At the time the treaty opened for signature, all parties understood that the treaty was a “zero-yield” treaty as advocated by the United States in the negotiations,” according to a Sept. 28, 2011 fact sheet from the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance titled “Scope of the CTBT.”

The “United States led the efforts to ensure the treaty was a ‘zero-yield’ treaty, after the parties had negotiated for years over possible low levels of testing that might be allowed under the agreement,” the document notes. “Public statements by national leaders, confirmed that all parties understood that the CTBT was and is, in fact, a ‘zero-yield’ treaty.”

As the State Department’s paper on “Key P-5 Public Statements on CTBT Scope” notes:

“Some countries prefer to use the term “no threshold,” meaning there is no line (or threshold) below which any amount of yield from a nuclear weapon test explosion would be allowed, and this usage is reflected in statements by senior P-5 government officials. The expression is translated into English in various ways: prohibition of ‘tests at whatever level,’ ‘without any threshold,’ ‘without threshold values,’ ‘regardless of the power,’ ‘any release of nuclear energy,’ or ‘regardless of the level.’ All of these formulations refer to the same concept: zero yield.”

Under this “zero-yield” interpretation, supercritical hydronuclear tests (which produce a self-sustaining fission chain reaction) are banned by the treaty, but subcritical hydrodynamic experiments, which do not produce a self-sustaining fission chain reaction, are permitted.

Ambassador Stephen Ledogar, chief U.S. negotiator of the CTBT, testified under oath to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on October 7, 1999 that Russia and the rest of the P-5 had committed to this zero-yield standard.

Chief U.S. negotiator for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Amb. Stephen Ledogar, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 7, 1999. He stated under oath that: “I have heard some critics of the Treaty seek to cast doubt on whether Russia …committed itself … to a truly comprehensive prohibition of any nuclear explosion, including an explosion…of even the slightest nuclear yield. In other words, did Russia agree that hydronuclear experiments, which do produce a nuclear yield, although usually very, very slight, would be banned and that hydrodynamic explosions, which have no yield because they do not reach criticality, would not be banned? The answer is a categorical ‘yes.’ The Russians as well as the rest of the P-5 did commit themselves.” (Image: C-SPAN)In a March 1996 statement from China’s lead CTBT negotiator, Ambassador Sha Zukang, “the Chinese delegation proposed at the outset of the negotiations its scope text prohibiting any nuclear-weapon test explosion which releases nuclear energy. The future CTBT, he said, will without any threshold prohibit any nuclear-weapon test explosion.”

More recently, Russia has publicly reaffirmed its commitment to this standard. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on July 29, 2009 that: “Under the global ban on nuclear tests, we can only use computer-assisted simulations to ensure the reliability of Russia’s nuclear deterrent.”

Furthermore, Russia reasserted its position in an April 2017 commentary co-authored by Ryabkov and CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo, who wrote that the treaty “prohibits ‘any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion,’ anywhere on Earth, whatever the yield.”

Lt. Gen. Ashley acknowledged at the May 29 Hudson Institute event that he was not aware of Ryabkov’s essay.

“Un-signing” the Treaty? According to The Washington Post, Republican Senators Tom Cotton (Ark.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), John Cornyn (Tex.) and James Lankford (Okla.) sent a March letter to President Donald Trump asking him whether he would consider “un-signing” the CTBT.

Similarly, back in 2002, The New York Times reported that: “Officials at the Departments of Defense, Energy and State, and at the National Security Council have discussed whether President Bush should renounce Mr. Clinton’s signature on the test-ban treaty.” The chief advocate for un-signing at the time was John Bolton, who was then the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, and who is now the National Security Advisor to the President.

Formally withdrawing the U.S. signature from the CTBT would be self-defeating and profoundly counterproductive. If the United States were to formally withdraw its signature from the treaty, it would lose access to the nuclear test monitoring provided by the IMS, which even CTBT opponents acknowledge is valuable for the United States.

According to the Trump administration’s budget request to Congress in 2017: “The U.S. receives the data the IMS provides, which is an important supplement to U.S. National Technical Means to monitor for nuclear explosions (a mission carried out by the U.S. Air Force). A reduction in IMS capability could deprive the U.S. of an irreplaceable source of nuclear explosion monitoring data.”

According to the rules of the CTBT, only state signatories can have access to the IMS monitoring information, and only state signatories have voting rights in the CTBT Organization meetings.

Military Significance of Very Low-Yield Nuclear Test Explosions: The May 29 presentation by the DIA director sought to connect Russia’s ongoing effort to replace and upgrade its nuclear weapons delivery systems with his allegation that “Russia probably is not adhering to” the CTBT.

It is well-documented, however, that from a technical perspective, very low-yield nuclear test explosions, including hydronuclear experiments, are useful only for unboosted nuclear warhead designs with yields of less than 10 tons. There is no mission for such a warhead that conventional warheads could not accomplish with less collateral damage. (See: Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Report of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control, 2002.)

Comprising nearly a mile and a half of underground tunnels and alcoves, the U1a facility is a state-of-the-art laboratory dedicated to subcritical experiments and other physics experiments in support of science-based stockpile stewardship. (Photo: Nevada National Security Site)Furthermore, an earlier August 1995 report on “Nuclear Testing” conducted by the independent JASON scientific advisory group for the U.S. Department of Energy determined that:

“So-called hydronuclear tests, defined as limited to a nuclear yield of less than 4 lbs. TNT equivalent, can be performed only after making changes that drastically alter the primary implosion. A persuasive case has not been made for the utility of hydronuclear tests for detecting small changes in the performance margins for current U.S. weapons. At best, such tests could confirm the safety of a device against producing detectable nuclear yield if its high explosive is detonated accidentally at one point.”

Siegfried S. Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory told The New York Times he is skeptical of the charges that Russia was conducting low-yield tests to create new weapons.

If Russia was engaged in any low-yield testing at Novaya Zemlya, where Moscow conducted nuclear tests until it declared a testing moratorium in October 1991, he said it would most likely relate to experiments to enhance the safety and reliability of Russia’s nuclear arsenal—not the development of new types of nuclear warheads. Therefore, Hecker said, if there is very low-yield nuclear testing, “I don’t think it’s militarily significant.”

Next Steps

Pursue Options for Resolving the Compliance Dispute. Under Article VI of the treaty, which addresses the settlement of disputes before or after treaty entry into force, “the parties concerned shall consult together with a view to the expeditious settlement of the dispute by negotiation or by other peaceful means of the parties’ choice, including recourse to appropriate organs of this Treaty.” Such measures could, for instance, involve mutual confidence-building visits to the respective U.S. and Russian test sites by technical experts to address concerns about compliance.

At the November 2002 Conference on Facilitating the Entry into Force of the CTBT, Igor Sergeev, adviser to the Russian president on the issues of strategic stability, suggested “examining the possibility of elaborating additional monitoring measures for nuclear test sites, going far beyond the framework of the provisions of the treaty; such measures might include exchanging geological data and the results of certain experiments, the installation of additional sensory devices, and other measures.”

This proposal was originally made by Russian authorities with the hope and understanding that such steps could be pursued after U.S. ratification and entry into force of the CTBT. Given the passage of time and the nature of the new U.S. allegations, such an approach would be useful to consider before CTBT entry into force.

Because the United States and Russia both engage in subcritical experimental activities in underground containment structures at their Cold War-era test sites—the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site) and at Novaya Zemlya—it is in the interest of both countries, as well as the international community, to develop and implement transparency measures to increase confidence that neither state is conducting low-yield explosions that are the result of a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.

The joint statement that will emerge from the upcoming Sept. 25 CTBT Article XIV Conference on Facilitating the Entry Into Force of the CTBT presents a useful opportunity for states parties to:

  • “underscore that the most effective way to enforce compliance with the zero-yield standard is to bring it into force, which would allow for intrusive, short-notice, on-site inspections to detect and deter any possible cheating, and
  • call upon any signatory or states party that might have credible evidence that one or another state signatory is taking actions that violate the CTBT to pursue confidence building visits by technical experts for the purpose of addressing concerns about compliance.”

Reaffirm that All States Parties Share the “Zero-Yield” Understanding of Article I of the CTBT. Russia and the other nuclear weapon state signatories to the CTBT should reiterate their previous statements on the scope of the CTBT.

Other states parties should also publicly reaffirm their view that Article I of the CTBT prohibits all nuclear explosions at any yield, including hydro-nuclear test explosions in experimental containment chambers.

The joint statement that will emerge from the Sept. 25 conference should reiterate CTBT states parties’ common understanding that Article I of the CTBT prohibits all nuclear explosions at any yield, including any hydro-nuclear test explosions in experimental containment chambers.

Reaffirm Support for Entry Into Force and the Cost of Un-Signing the CTBT. To help deter a possible decision by the Trump administration to formally exit the CTBT, it is essential to make it clear that such a move would lead to international condemnation and carry tangible costs.

Specifically, CTBT states should reiterate that only state signatories can have access to the IMS monitoring information, and only state signatories have voting rights in the CTBT Organization meetings.

The biennial Article XIV Conference on Facilitating the Entry Into Force of the CTBT, which will convene on Sept. 25, 2019 at the United Nations in New York, is a critical opportunity to do more than simply reiterate calls for prompt action by CTBT hold-out states to sign and/or ratify the CTBT in order to bring it formally into force. The joint statement should also:

  • underscore that the most effective way to enforce compliance with the zero-yield standard is to bring it into force, which would allow for intrusive, short-notice, on-site inspections to detect and deter any possible cheating; and
  • if there are credible concerns that one or another state signatory is violating the CTBT, states parties should, as suggested in Article VI of the treaty, agree to mutual confidence-building visits by technical experts to address concerns about compliance.

The 2019 debate on the resolution on the CTBT is another crucial opportunity to express support for these points, and to try to win support from North Korea for the resolution.

In November 2018, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a resolution on the CTBT (A/C.1/73/L.26) that “urges all States that have not yet signed or ratified, or that have signed but not yet ratified ... to sign and ratify it as soon as possible.” The resolution was approved 183-1-4. Only North Korea, whose recent nuclear tests were condemned in the resolution, voted no. The United States abstained from the vote.

If the drafters of the 2019 UNGA resolution “welcome North Korea’s unilateral nuclear test moratorium” and call upon all remaining Annex 2 states to sign and/or ratify, there would be a much higher chance North Korea might decide to vote “yes.”


The CTBT has established a powerful taboo against nuclear testing. Global support for the treaty, which now has 184 state signatories, is strong, and the treaty’s International Monitoring System is fully operational and more capable than originally envisioned. Today, for the first time since 1945, no nuclear-armed state has an active nuclear testing program.

Yet, the door to further nuclear testing remains ajar. Although the treaty has been signed by 184 states, its entry into force is being held up by eight states, most notably the United States, China, and North Korea, which have refused to ratify the pact, and North Korea’s voluntary nuclear testing halt, announced in 2018, could easily be reversed.

Given their existing nuclear test moratoria and the U.S. and Chinese signatures on the treaty, these states bear some but not all CTBT-related responsibilities. But their failure to ratify has denied them (and others) the full security benefits of the treaty, including short-notice, on-site inspections to better detect and deter clandestine nuclear testing.

For the safety and security of future generations and out of respect for the people harmed by nuclear testing, it is time to close and lock the door on nuclear testing. “Friends of the CTBT” states need to pursue new, more creative, and sustained strategies to encourage the CTBT holdout states to ratify the treaty, address any credible allegations and concerns about noncompliance prior to formal CTBT entry into force, and take other steps to reinforce the norm against nuclear weapons test explosions, no matter what the yield.


In prepared remarks delivered at the Hudson Institute May 29, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, Jr., charged that “Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the ‘zero-yield’ standard outlined in the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).”

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Revitalizing Diplomatic Efforts to Advance CTBT Entry Into Force


April 25, 2018
By Daryl G. Kimball
Executive Director, Arms Control Association

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More than two decades after the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the treaty has near universal support and has established a global norm against nuclear test explosions. The nuclear testing taboo impedes the development of new and more advanced nuclear warhead designs, which helps prevent dangerous nuclear competition, and maintain international security.

Although the CTBT has created a norm against testing and a robust technical organization responsible for the operation and maintenance of a highly sensitive global nuclear test monitoring system, the treaty has not entered into force due to the failure of eight key states, including the United States and China, to ratify.

The CTBT is and will continue to be an essential pillar in the global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament enterprise. Moving closer to the goal of the CTBT’s formal entry into force is the task of every CTBT state party, every nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) state-party, every state that supports the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and any other state that considers itself a “responsible” nuclear actor.

But in order to realize the full potential of the treaty and to close the door on testing, friends of the CTBT will need to rejuvenate and update their efforts to achieve its entry into force and reinforce the taboo against nuclear testing.

For the first five decades of the nuclear age, nuclear weapon test explosions were the most visible symbol of the dangers of nuclear weapons, nuclear arms racing, and the omnipresent danger of nuclear war—or as President John F. Kennedy described it, the nuclear “Sword of Damocles” that hangs over every man, women and child on the planet.

The 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has brought the era of frequent nuclear testing to an end and has established a strong norm against any kind of nuclear test explosion. The treaty has near-universal support with 183 signatories, including the five original nuclear testing states.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), with headquarters in Vienna, is operating on a 24/7 basis to collect and analyze data in real time from a global network of nuclear test monitoring stations. The CTBTO’s International Monitoring System, which is nearly complete and is operating on a 24/7 basis, serves as a strong deterrent against any state that might consider conducting a clandestine nuclear test explosion.

However, the door to nuclear testing remains open as the treaty has not entered into force due to the treaty’s onerous Article XIV provisions, which require that 44 specific states sign and ratify. Currently there are eight “hold out” states—China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and the United States—which have failed to ratify.1

The non-testing norm cannot be taken for granted and, over time, it must be actively renewed and reinforced. In order to realize the full potential of the treaty, to close the door on further nuclear testing, and to reinforce the nonproliferation regime, states must need to rejuvenate their efforts to achieve the entry into force of the CTBT.

Unfortunately, the United States, which was leading proponent for the CTBT during the 1990s is now lagging behind. Without explanation or a high-level review or consultation with allies, the Donald Trump administration announced in February 2018 that it will not seek Senate approval for U.S. ratification of the CTBT.

In response, other hold-out states, particularly China, need to lead the way by signing and/or ratifying the treaty, and all signatory states should reaffirm their support for a permanent, verifiable end to nuclear test explosions by achieving entry into force of the CTBT, including by means of a joint heads of state declaration in the run-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference.

Supporters of the global norm against nuclear testing and CTBT entry into force should also explore how North Korea’s pledge to close its only known nuclear test site at Punggye-ri beginning April 21 and suspend nuclear testing for the foreseeable future can be solidified into a legally-binding, more verifiable commitment by securing Pyongyang’s signature and ratification of the CTBT through the ongoing diplomatic negotiations with South Korea and the United States on the denuclearization and the establishment of a lasting peace regime on the Korean peninsula.

Regional adherence to the CTBT in the Middle East—and the creation of a regional nuclear weapons test free zone—should also be pursued as a new approach toward building the foundation for a WMD-free zone in the region, which is a long-standing but unfulfilled goal of every state party to the NPT.

The Role of the Comprehensive Test Ban in Nonproliferation and Disarmament

Since 1945, nuclear testing has been used to develop new, more advanced nuclear-warhead designs and to demonstrate nuclear-weapon capabilities. Nuclear testing has propelled the global nuclear-arms competition and undermined global peace and security. In aggregate, at least eight states (United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea) have conducted more than 2,0562 nuclear test explosions, with U.S. tests accounting for nearly half that total.

For nearly as long, a global, verifiable ban on nuclear test explosions has been a goal for international nuclear risk reduction, nonproliferation, and disarmament. Without the ability to conduct nuclear explosive tests, a country cannot confidently develop more advanced types of nuclear warheads.

Kazakh citizens gather to demand an end to nuclear testing at the Soviet nuclear test site near Semipalatinsk in August 1989.   (UN Photo/MB)


A global nuclear test ban was first formally proposed in 1954 by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as a step toward ending the nuclear arms race and preventing proliferation—and to prevent the significant health and environmental damage produced by atmospheric nuclear-test explosions.

In the negotiations for the 1968 Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the CTBT was widely recognized as a critical part of the nuclear-weapon states’ obligation to meet their NPT Article VI commitment to “effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”3 The preamble of the NPT specifically cites the goal of “the discontinuance of all test explosions of nuclear weapons for all time and to continue negotiations to this end.”4

Not until the end of the Cold War would the conditions to secure the CTBT finally became more favorable. An important catalyst was the pressure of a popular protest movement in Kazakhstan, which successfully pressed the Soviet government in Moscow to close the Semipalatinsk test site and announce a unilateral nuclear test moratorium in October 1991. Late the following year, the U.S. Congress approved legislation mandating a nine-month U.S. moratorium with conditions on the resumption of nuclear testing. The next year, President Bill Clinton decided to extend the U.S. test moratorium and pursue negotiations on a CTBT at the Conference on Disarmament.

The push for the comprehensive test ban became a key variable in the negotiations between the “nuclear-haves” and the “nuclear-have-not states” at the pivotal 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. Support from the NPT’s five recognized nuclear-weapon states for the CTBT gave non-nuclear-weapon states leverage at the NPT conference and contributed to the decision to extend the treaty and adopt a strong “program of action” for disarmament, including the conclusion of CTBT negotiations by the end of 1996.5

Following two years of intense multilateral negotiations, the United Nations General Assembly overcame an attempt by India to block the treaty when it adopted a resolution endorsing the CTBT on September 10, 1996, by a vote of 158-3. Two weeks later, on September 24, the treaty was opened for signature. U.S. president Bill Clinton became the first signatory.

As the Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, Lassina Zerbo, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, wrote in an April 2017 essay, Article I of the CTBT prohibits “’any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion’ anywhere on Earth, whatever the yield.”6 This provision of the treaty is recognized by all of the major negotiating parties to mean that supercritical hydronuclear tests (which produce a self-sustaining fission chain reaction) are banned, but subcritical hydrodynamic experiments (which do not produce a self-sustaining fission chain reaction) are permitted.7

In 1997, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization was formally established to work with state parties to build and operate a robust International Monitoring System (IMS) and International Data Center (IDC). Today, the IMS is nearly 90 percent complete, the IDC is fully functional, and the CTBTO is a mature, highly professional, and fully operational organization that is collecting and analyzing information on a continuous round-the-clock basis for the purpose of detecting and deterring clandestine nuclear-test explosions and to provide the technical basis for international responses to noncompliance.

Once the treaty formally enters into force, the verification system will also include the option for short-notice on-site inspections to investigate suspicious events. Information from states’ national intelligence networks, which are more sensitive in some geographic regions, can be taken into account.

In anticipation of the fact that the treaty’s onerous Article XIV entry into force provisions would delay entry into force, Canadian negotiators insisted on a provision in Article XIV that allows for conferences of states-parties to meet every two years to develop strategies and seek ways to accelerate the process toward securing the necessary 44 ratifications. Beginning with the first such conference in 1999, there have been ten such meetings, which have, unfortunately become pro forma affairs that primarily allow states which have signed and/or ratified to reiterate their support, exhort hold-out states to take action, and to develop a modest joint diplomatic outreach plan.

The Nuclear Testing Taboo

Since the CTBT opened for signature it has established a powerful standard of “responsible” behavior. Nations that conduct nuclear tests are outside the international mainstream and will bear the consequences of global isolation. Only one country—North Korea—has conducted nuclear test explosions in this century.

Even India, which strongly opposed the CTBT during and after the conclusion of the negotiations in 1996, has declared a moratorium on nuclear testing following its May 1998 series of nuclear tests.8 Pakistan, which responded with its own nuclear tests weeks later, has also since observed a testing moratorium and declared it would not be the first state in the region to resume nuclear testing.9

International support for the CTBT has been reaffirmed over the years through multiple UN General Assembly resolutions and UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. UNSC Resolution 1887 (2009) calls upon all states “to refrain from conducting a nuclear test explosion and to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, thereby bringing the treaty into force at an early date.”10

On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the opening for signature of the CTBT in Sept. 2016, the UNSC adopted the first-ever, CTBT-specific resolution (UNSCR 2310), which reaffirms the global norm against nuclear-weapon-test explosions, calls on the eight remaining states that must ratify for entry force to do so, and urges all states to provide their full financial and technical support to the CTBTO. The resolution was formally co-sponsored by forty-two states, including Israel.11

The new UNSC test-ban resolution also formally recognizes the important September 15, 2016, statement12 from the permanent five members of the council expressing the view that any nuclear test explosion would “defeat the object or purpose of the treaty.” The statement gives public expression to the existing legal obligation of all CTBT signatories not to test a nuclear weapon, even before the treaty enters into force.13

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) negotiated, which was opened for signature in 2017, further reinforces the CTBT and the non-testing norm. Under the TPNW, states parties may not “test” nuclear weapons or any other nuclear explosive devices.

Nonproliferation and Disarmament Benefits

A global ban on nuclear explosions has been a central element of the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament enterprise because an effective, comprehensive, verifiable test ban directly constrains the ability of all parties to develop more-advanced nuclear weapons.

As noted in the preamble of the 1996 treaty: “the cessation of all nuclear weapon test explosions and all other nuclear explosions, by constraining the development and qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons and ending the development of advanced new types of nuclear weapons, constitutes an effective measure of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation in all its aspects.”14

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats vote to adopt the resolution in support of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty during a UN Security Council meeting September 23, 2016. (Photo: Astrid Riecken/CTBTO)


Technically, a state might have some degree of confidence that a simple, relatively cumbersome fission device would work without testing, as the United States did with the Hiroshima bomb in 1945. Today, a country with no or little nuclear-weapons design and nuclear test explosion experience might be able to acquire an ambiguous nuclear deterrent without nuclear-explosive testing, but under the CTBT it could not use a nuclear test to demonstrate that capability, as India did with its first nuclear-test explosion in 1974.

However, the test ban constrains nuclear weapons development by states with little or no nuclear testing experience by blocking the progression from simple fission designs to “boosted” fission designs to two-stage thermonuclear designs with better yield-to-weight ratios.

How far along the developmental ladder a proliferator could go without nuclear explosive testing is not exactly clear, but states intent on acquiring and deploying modern, two-stage thermonuclear weapons compact and light enough to deliver on long-range ballistic missiles would certainly not have confidence in their performance without multiple, multi-kiloton nuclear-test explosions, which would very likely be detected by the CTBTO’s International Monitoring System and national technical means of intelligence.

Despite substantial science and technological advances over the past two decades that can aid in maintaining and extending the service life of existing nuclear warheads, the CTBT also creates a technical barrier for states with a substantial history of nuclear testing who may in the future see new nuclear warhead designs, such as China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

According to the exhaustive 2012 study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences on CTBT technical issues, these states “… are unlikely to be able to deploy new types of strategic nuclear weapons that fall outside the design range of their nuclear-explosion test experience without several multi-kiloton tests. Such multi-kiloton tests would likely be detectable (even with evasion measures) by appropriately resourced … national technical means and a completed IMS network.”15

Tailored Strategies to Bring the Eight Hold-Out States Into the Treaty

Movement toward ratification of the CTBT by the remaining hold-out states would strengthen international and regional security, and each of the remaining eight states have good reason to do so. But in order to make progress, advocates of the CTBT in government and in civil society will need to update and tailor their outreach and diplomacy if there is to be a shift in outdated attitudes of the governments of these eight “hard cases.” CTBT states parties will also need to rejuvenate the bi-annual gatherings of foreign ministerial meetings on the CTBT and signatory states at “Article XIV Conferences on Facilitating Entry Into Force” so they are more impactful.

North Korea: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)’s nuclear program represents the most direct and immediate threat to the global nuclear-test ban enterprise. Pyongyang’s policies with respect to further nuclear testing and the CTBT are inextricably tied to the resolution of long-running security and political disputes with the United States and South Korea, and to resumptions of sustained negotiations on denuclearization and a peace regime on the Korean peninsula.

Diagnostic cables snake their way across the Nevada Test Site towards the Icecap tower, which housed the diagnostic cannister. One of three U.S. nuclear tests planned for 1993. The test was to have been in the 20-to-150-kiloton range and would have been conducted 1,557 feet underground.  (Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration)As President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in engage in talks with their DPRK counterpart, it is vital that they seek to solidify Pyongyang’s pledge to halt ballistic missile and nuclear testing and close their nuclear test site, and also to bring an end to further North Korean fissile material production.

For now, North Korea possesses enough plutonium for fewer than a dozen bombs, but if left unchecked, it will amass a larger and more potent arsenal. Additional successful nuclear weapon test explosions will improve confidence in the DPRK’s warhead designs and facilitate the mass production of a compact warhead design that can be delivered on its short- or medium-range ballistic missiles. Further tests long-range ballistic missiles, coupled with additional nuclear testing, would likely expand Pyongyang’s nuclear retaliatory potential.

Although the DPRK’s leaders may no longer be willing to negotiate away their nuclear weapon’s program altogether, the regime in Pyongyang still appears to be willing to freeze and possibly abandon portions of his nuclear program in exchange for improved relations with the United States, a reduction of tension on the Korean peninsula, and the possibility of much-needed foreign economic trade and food and energy aid.

On April 21, the DPRK’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un announced that North Korea had developed smaller and lighter nuclear, high-yield nuclear weapons and their means of deliver and could therefore “… discontinue nuclear test and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire from April 21, 2018. The northern nuclear test ground of the DPRK will be dismantled to transparently guarantee the discontinuance of the nuclear test.”

He also said that “…the discontinuance of the nuclear test is an important process for the worldwide disarmament, and the DPRK will join the international desire and efforts for the total halt to the nuclear test.”

Now, as the United States and South Korea and other states in the region pursue diplomacy and pressure to achieve denuclearization, they should seek solidify Kim Jong-un’s no testing pledge by securing North Korean signature and ratification of the CTBT, along with confidence building visits by CTBTO technical teams.

Some have suggested the Punggye-ri test site may not be available for additional nuclear tests because of cavity and tunnel collapses caused by previous nuclear blasts. But, in reality the site could still be used for further tests. Clearly, the DPRK’s pledge to close down its main nuclear weapons test site and join the international effort to halt all nuclear testing is a very significant pledge toward denuclearization that clearly puts the DPRK’s accession to the CTBT within reach.

The DPRK’s April 20 announcement to halt nuclear and ballistic missile tests was welcomed by key leaders, including the European Union’s High Representative Federica Mogherini who, in an April 21 statement, called it a “positive, long sought-after step on the path that has now to lead to the country’s complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, the full respect for its international obligations and all relevant UNSC resolutions, and the ratification of the CTBT.”

In a statement to the 2018 preparatory committee meeting for the 2020 NPT Review Conference, the CTBTO’s Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo also welcomed the DPRK announcement and added that the “CTBT can provide the security and certainty needed by solidifying the commitment to turn away from nuclear testing.”

Kim Jong-un’s remarks on nuclear testing are consistent with the logic expressed years earlier in a statement about nuclear testing and the CTBT that was delivered by a senior DPRK official at a conference in Moscow in 2012:

“Once the CTBT becomes effective … then there is no doubt that it would make a great contribution to the world peace and stability. [However,] unless the U.S. hostile policy and its nuclear threats are completely withdrawn and a solid and permanent peace regime is in place on the Korean peninsula, the DPRK is left with no other choices but to steadily strengthen its self-defensive nuclear deterrent to the standard it deems necessary.”16

As the United States and the international community explores options to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, another option, pending the entry into force of the CTBT, would be for North Korea to begin technical cooperation with the CTBTO so that, in the event there is seismic event in North Korean territory, CTBT teams could use their remote monitoring tools, and potentially on-site confidence building visits, to ensure that Pyongyang continues to respect its nuclear test moratorium commitment.

India and Pakistan: Since their destabilizing tit-for-tat nuclear detonations in 1998, India and Pakistan have stubbornly refused to reconsider the CTBT even though neither country has an interest in or technical justification for renewing nuclear testing.

India and Pakistan could advance the cause of nuclear disarmament and substantially ease regional tensions by converting their unilateral test moratoria into legally binding commitments through the CTBT. Pakistan has said it supports the principles and goals of the CTBT and would welcome a legally binding test ban with India, but leaders in Islamabad have failed to take the first step by signing the CTBT.17

In particular, India’s ongoing campaign for recognition as one of the world’s “responsible nuclear-armed states,” its effort to win support for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and obtain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council would get a strong boost if leaders in New Delhi would commit to sign and ratify the CTBT.

The NSG’s 2008 decision to exempt India from the full-scope safeguards standard for civil nuclear trade was taken with the understanding that India would continue to observe a complete nuclear-test moratorium.18 The renewal of nuclear testing by India would re-open that decision and jeopardize its hard-won access to the international civil nuclear technology and uranium market—an “intolerable” price to pay, according to former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal, who noted in 2009: “We will suffer international isolation. It will be a huge setback to our bid for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.”19

This makes it all the more logical for New Delhi’s leaders to join the nuclear-test ban mainstream and reinforce global efforts to detect and deter testing by ratifying the CTBT.

For their part, UN member states that are serious about their commitment to the CTBT and nuclear-risk reduction should insist that India and Pakistan sign and ratify the CTBT before they are considered for NSG membership and insist that India should sign and ratify the treaty before its possible permanent membership on the Security Council is considered.

The Middle East: Ratification of the CTBT by Israel, Egypt, Iran—all of which must ratify to trigger CTBT entry into force—and Saudi Arabia would reduce nuclear weapon-related security concerns in the region. It would also help create the conditions necessary to achieve their common, stated goal of a Middle East zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.20

“As a stepping-stone towards this long-term objective, a ‘nuclear-test-free zone’ could be created in the Middle East, by way of CTBT ratifications by the remaining states of the region,” High Representative Federica Mogherini suggested in June 2016 at special ministerial meeting in Vienna to mark the twentieth anniversary of the treaty.21

Israel was among the first nations to sign the CTBT in 1996 and has been actively involved in the development of the treaty’s monitoring system and on-site inspection mechanisms. Israel’s Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency and CTBTO Merav Zafary-Odiz said in 2016 that: “a regional moratorium [on nuclear testing] could enhance security, and potentially lead to a future ratification of the CTBT. Israel has announced its commitment to a moratorium, it would be useful for others to do the same.”

Unfortunately, Israel has hesitated to take the next steps toward its own ratification of the CTBT—a move that would bring that nation closer to the nuclear nonproliferation mainstream and lend encouragement to other states in the region to follow suit.

Iran has signed the CTBT but has not yet ratified. In September 1999, at the first Conference on Facilitating the Entry-Into-Force of the CTBT, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, then Iran’s deputy foreign minister, spoke in support of the CTBT and later endorsed a UN conference statement calling for cooperation aimed at bringing the treaty into effect.

Iran is understandably focused on the implementation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and eventual approval of the Additional Protocol to its nuclear safeguards agreement—and the future of the JCPOA itself has been put into doubt as a result of the Donald Trump administration’s critical approach to the agreement.

Regardless of the status of the JCPOA, if over time Iran fails to ratify the CTBT and fully cooperate with the operation of IMS monitoring stations in the years ahead, it will add to concerns about the purpose of its sensitive nuclear-fuel activities.

If the JCPOA survives the Trump era, Iran could help assuage concerns about the purposes of its nuclear program as key JCPOA limits on its uranium enrichment program expire over the course of the next ten-to-fifteen years by making clear its support for and intention to ratify the CTBT in a timely manner.

China’s Potential Leadership Role: China decided two decades ago to join the CTBT regime and become one of the treaty’s early signatories. China’s leaders and officials have consistently expressed their support for the CTBT, but it is clear that China has made a quiet decision to stop short of ratification until the United States completes its ratification process.

To most observers outside of China, there does not appear to be any serious political impediments to Chinese ratification at this time, aside from the inaction of the United States on the CTBT. Beijing’s failure to ratify has likely also given cover for India not to consider ratification more seriously and has undermined the credibility of Beijing’s overtures to Pyongyang to refrain from further nuclear test explosions.

Comparison of seismic signals (to scale) of all six declared DPRK nuclear tests, as observed at IMS station AS-59 Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan. (Credit: Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization)


Recently, however, Beijing has been more energetic in its support for the CTBT. With encouragement from CTBTO Executive Secretary Dr. Lassina Zerbo, China has in the past year certified its first five International Monitoring System (IMS) stations, of the twelve it is treaty-bound to certify in order to realize the completion of the global nuclear test detection system.

The first Chinese IMS station, radionuclide station RN21, was certified in December 2016. The most recent four stations include two primary seismic stations, and two other radionuclide stations, all certified between the months of September to December of 2017. These most recent certifications will “fill in an important geographical coverage gap in terms of event detection in the region,” according to a CTBTO press statement.

During a certification ceremony in January 2018 in China, Zerbo commended China for setting a “positive example” for other Member States in regard to its technical engagement, and Vice Director of Equipment Development at the Chinese Department of the Central Military Commission Lt. General Zhang Yulin noted that the certification of the five stations in one year was “of landmark significance.”

In a statement released following a meeting with Zerbo, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the CTBT is “an important pillar of international nuclear disarmament,” and has an “irreplaceable” role. He also noted that China is “willing to deepen” it’s cooperation with the CTBTO and further “promote the construction and certification of follow-up stations,” which will provide further concentrated monitoring of potential nuclear test activity in the region, particularly North Korean activity.22

The United States: The policy of the United States—which has conducted more nuclear weapon test explosions than all other states combined and has the world’s most potent nuclear arsenal—toward the CTBT is perhaps the most important of all the remaining Annex 2 states. Much has changed since the Senate last examined the CTBT in 1999 and rejected the treaty by a 51-48 margin after a brief and highly partisan debate that centered on questions about the then-unproven program to maintain the existing nuclear warheads in the U.S. stockpile without nuclear explosive tests (a.k.a. the Stockpile Stewardship Program) and the then-unfinished global test-ban monitoring system.23

The substantive case for U.S. ratification of the CTBT is stronger than ever. Today, the global monitoring system can detect any militarily significant nuclear test explosion and U.S. stockpile stewardship programs to maintain its nuclear arsenal without nuclear test explosions has proven to be more effective than originally anticipated.24 The United States no longer has a technical or military need for nuclear explosive testing and it is clearly in U.S. national security interests to prevent other states from testing, which would create new nuclear tensions and enable advances in other states’ nuclear weapons arsenals.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate is deeply divided and dysfunctional and has not systematically debated the issues related to the CTBT for nearly two decades. Few senators are familiar with the technical issues surrounding the CTBT or its potential benefits.

Worse still, the Trump administration’s 2017 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) asserts that “the United States does not support the ratification of the CTBT,” even though there is no technical need to resume nuclear testing.25

The review, which generally defines U.S. policy regarding the role of nuclear weapons in security strategy, says “the United States will continue to support the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Preparatory Committee” and “the related International Monitoring System and the International Data Center.”

The NPR calls upon other states not to conduct nuclear testing and states that “[t]he United States will not resume nuclear explosive testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. arsenal ….”26

The Trump administration’s test ban policy implies that it wants to reap the benefits of the CTBT, including obtaining data from the monitoring system, without fulfilling earlier pledges to reconsider ratification of the treaty. Unfortunately, this policy is not likely going to change during the Trump administration and will not change without stronger international pressure from U.S. allies and civil society. With a renewed push for U.S. leadership on CTBT ratification and movement on the treaty by other hold-out states, it is possible that a new administration and a new Senate will take another look at the CTBT, which is clearly in the U.S. and international security interests.

When the United States does eventually ratify the treaty, it can put additional pressure on other holdout states to follow suit. Until then, it is vital that other states continue to reinforce the global taboo against nuclear testing to reduce the risk of renewed nuclear testing and a dangerous cycle of global nuclear-arms competition.

Bottom Line

Moving closer to the goal of the CTBT’s formal entry into force is the task of every NPT state party, every CTBT state-party, every state that supports the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and any other state that considers itself a “responsible” nuclear actor, because the CTBT is and will continue to be an essential pillar of the global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament architecture.

Doing so will, however, take political energy, more diplomatic creativity, and a more serious and sustained commitment from national and international leaders in government and in civil society, beginning now.


1. The eight key states that must still ratify before the CTBT enters into force are: China, the DPRK, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and the United States. This onerous requirement is spelled out in Article XIV of the treaty, which references forty-four states listed in Annex II.

2. United States Nuclear Tests 1945 Through September 1992, U.S. Department of Energy, DOE/NV-209, Rev. 14, December 1994; V. N. Mikhailov, editor, Catalog of Worldwide Nuclear Testing, Begell-Atom, LLC 1999; “The Nuclear Testing Tally,” Arms Control Association Fact Sheet, September 2016 https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/nucleartesttally

3. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, March 5, 1970, Article VI, www.un.org/en/conf/npt/2005/npttreaty.html

4. Ibid., preambular paragraph 11.

5. For a detailed history, see: Jayantha Dhanapala, Multilateral Diplomacy and the NPT: An Insider’s Account (Geneva: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, 2005).

6. “The Nuclear Test Ban: Time to Finish What We Started,” by Sergei Ryabkov and Lassina Zerbo, The Diplomat, April 21, 2017. See: https://thediplomat.com/2017/04/the-nuclear-test-ban-time-to-finish-what-we-started/

7. “Scope of the CTBT, Fact Sheet, US Department of State, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, n.d. http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/212166.htm

8. In a statement to the UN General Assembly in September 1998, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told the 53rd UN General Assembly that India would not be among the last states standing in the way of the treaty’s entry into force. Vajpayee said that India’s series of five underground tests, conducted on May 11 and 13, 1998, “do not signal a dilution of India’s commitment to the pursuit of global nuclear disarmament. Accordingly, after concluding this limited testing program, India announced a voluntary moratorium on further underground nuclear test explosions.” He went on to say that: “We conveyed our willingness to move towards a de jure formalization of this obligation. In announcing a moratorium, India has already accepted the basic obligation of the CTBT… . We expect that other countries, as indicated in Article XIV of the CTBT, will adhere to this Treaty without conditions.” See: https://www.pminewyork.org/adminpart/uploadpdf/92927lms48.pdf

9. Ayesha Riyaz, Statement of Pakistan before the Ministerial Meeting on the CTBT, June 13, 2016, Vienna. See: https://www.ctbto.org/fileadmin/user_upload/statements/2016_Ministerial_Meeting/Pakistan.pdf

10. “Historic Summit of Security Council Pledges Support for Progress on Stalled Efforts to End Nuclear Weapons Proliferation,” Security Council 6191st Meeting, United Nations Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, September 24, 2009. See: http://www.un.org/press/en/2009/sc9746.doc.htm

11. United Nations S /PV.7776 Security Council Seventy-first year 7776th meeting, 23 September 2016, page 2. See: http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/PV.7776

12. Joint Statement on the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Nuclear-Weapon States, Media Note, Office of the Spokesperson Washington, D.C., September 15, 2016. See: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/09/261993.htm

13. Under Article XVIII of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which is widely recognized as customary international law, states are obliged not to take actions that would “defeat the object and purpose” of treaties they have signed. Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, May 23, 1969, Article 18, https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%201155/volume-1155-I-18232-English.pdf

14. Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, September 24, 1996, preambular paragraph 5, www.ctbto.org/fileadmin/content/treaty/treaty_text.pdf

15. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), “The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: Technical Issues for the United States,” 2012, p. 117.

16. Jang Song Chol, Statement to “The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT): Prospects for Making Its Global Benefits Permanent,” presented at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference, September 6, 2012. See: http://ceness-russia.org/data/page/p915_1.pdf

17. On August 16, 2016, the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement on the proposal, noting: “The bilateral non-testing arrangement, if mutually agreed, could become binding immediately without waiting for the entry into force of the CTBT at the international level.”

18. In a September 5, 2008 statement by Pranab Mukherjee, India’s external affairs minister issued on the eve of the key NSG meeting, India’s reiterated its commitment to adhere to a unilateral nuclear testing moratorium among other nuclear restraint pledges. The text of the approved waiver states that it is “based on the commitments and actions” described by Mukherjee. Several states asserted this reference indicated that the group will end nuclear trade with India if it does not honor the Mukherjee statement, particularly if it conducts a nuclear test. In a Sept. 6 statement, New Zealand declared, “It is our expectation that in the event of a nuclear test by India, this exemption will become null and void.” Other states, including Japan and Ireland, offered similar statements. See: “NSG, Congress Approve Nuclear Trade with India,” by Wade Boese, Arms Control Today, vol. 38, no. 8, October 2008.

19. Rama Lakshmi, “Key Indian Figures Call for New Nuclear Tests Despite Deal With U.S.,” Washington Post, October 5, 2009, <www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/04/AR2009100402865.html>.

20. See: “WMD-Free Middle East Proposal at a Glance,” Arms Control Association Fact Sheet, June 2015 https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/mewmdfz For more detail on Israel’s position, see: Dr. Paul Chorev, Director General of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, Statement at the 53rd General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency, September 2009 https://www.iaea.org/About/Policy/GC/GC53/Statements/israel.pdf

21. Speech by High Representative of the European Union for Foreign and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini at the Ministerial-level meeting of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, Vienna, June 13, 2016. https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/5005/speech-by-high-representative-of-the-european-union-for-foreign-and-security-policy-and-vice-president-of-the-european-commission-federica-mogherini-at-the-ministerial-level-meeting-of-the-preparatory-commission-for-the-comprehensive-nuclear-test-ban-trea_fr

22. Shervin Taheran, “China Adds Monitoring Stations,” Arms Control Today, Vol 48, No. 2, March 2018. https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2018-03/news-briefs/china-adds-monitoring-stations

23. Daryl G. Kimball, “What Went Wrong: Repairing the Damage to the CTBT,” Arms Control Today, Vol. 29, No. 10, December 1999. https://www.armscontrol.org/act/1999_12/dkde99

24. “U.S. Has No Need to Test Atomic Arsenal, Report Says,” by Matthew L. Wald, The New York Times, March 31, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/31/science/earth/us-tests-of-atomic-weapons-not-needed-report-says.html

25. Nuclear Posture Review, U.S. Department of Defense, February 2018, page 63. https://www.defense.gov/News/SpecialReports/2018NuclearPostureReview.aspx

26. Ibid.



More than two decades after the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the treaty has near universal support and has established a global norm against nuclear test explosions. The nuclear testing taboo impedes the development of new and more advanced nuclear warhead designs, which helps prevent dangerous nuclear competition, and maintain international security.

The Future of the ICBM Force: Should the Least Valuable Leg of the Triad Be Replaced?


March 2018
By Ryan Snyder
Former Visiting Research Fellow at the Arms Control Association

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Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the plan to overhaul the nation’s nuclear arsenal is the replacement program for the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, the land-based leg of the nuclear triad that also includes submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers. The current deployed fleet of 400 silo-based Minuteman III ICBMs are distributed across three bases touching five states and are expected to be removed from service by the U.S. Air Force in the mid-2030s.1 A follow-on ICBM system–known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD)–is scheduled to replace the Minuteman IIIs (and their supporting infrastructure) on a one-for-one basis between 2028 and 2035.2 Many have questioned the need for this program, including former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who has argued for eliminating all ICBMs.3

The latest independent Pentagon acquisition cost estimate to design and build the ICBM replacement ranges from $85 to over $140 billion (in then-year dollars),4 while the cost to operate and sustain the weapons system over its expected 50-year service life is projected at roughly $150 billion.5 This ICBM recapitalization cost is but one piece of a larger plan to sustain and upgrade the nuclear arsenal over the next thirty years, with the total price tag projected to exceed $1.2 trillion (in 2017 dollars).6 Separate modernization programs planned for U.S. conventional forces will require additional outlays. These upgrades will necessitate either a significant and prolonged increase in defense spending, which is unlikely to be forthcoming, or a reallocation of resources within the defense budget.7 Hard choices will likely be required among competing programs.

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review published in February endorses replacing and upgrading the current Minuteman III force with the GBSD program. It will be up to Congress to assess the program’s cost-effectiveness and evaluate alternatives. This paper will examine this issue in several stages: first, by considering whether ICBMs are needed to hedge against threats to the strategic submarines; second, by discussing their possible benefits and risks as a warhead “sponge”; third, by examining whether ICBMs possess necessary capabilities absent from other legs of the triad; and last, by considering the stability implications of developing a new ICBM with enhanced capabilities. Finally, the paper evaluates alternative options to the costly GBSD program of record.


  • The deterrent value of the ICBM force is small and diminishing.
  • Without ICBMs, the current absence of any foreseeable threat to the U.S. strategic submarines assures that no adversary can preempt massive retaliation by the United States.
  • ICBMs should not be considered an acceptable hedge against possible future threats to the
  • strategic submarines.
  • ICBMs provide no unique nuclear strike capabilities not already provided by other legs of the strategic triad.
  • The enhanced capabilities planned for the GBSD are either unnecessary or may adversely affect strategic stability.
  • Consequently, the United States should consider eliminating its land-based missiles or abandoning or scaling back the planned GBSD program.

Are ICBMs needed to hedge against foreseeable SSBN vulnerabilities?

A central, if not the central, rationale for maintaining the ICBMs rests upon fears of vulnerability in the strategic nuclear submarine (SSBN) force.8 If the SSBNs are unable to withstand threats to their survivability and deliver nuclear weapons to the homeland of an adversary, it is argued, then the ICBMs provide a backup to carry out that mission. Absent any such threats, maintaining the ICBMs for the purpose of deterring nuclear attacks is more difficult to justify.

Concerns that technology may one day render SSBNs vulnerable have existed since nuclear weapons were first placed on submarines during the Cold War. And while U.S. SSBN vulnerability was last studied in the public domain several years ago, no prior scholarship has revealed any doubt about the survivability of the sea-based leg of the triad. Among these previous studies includes one 1983 paper by Richard Garwin that suggested the extraordinary demands of holding an SSBN in trail by passive acoustics9 would not threaten the force, and in any case, that countermeasures would very likely deter the attempt.10 Garwin further concluded that short-range sensors would be required by the “hundreds of thousands” to make the SSBN force vulnerable to attack.11 A different study claimed that countermeasures are even easier to deploy against attempts to acquire an active acoustic trail and that such threats are easily neutralized.12

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 2:10 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time Wednesday, August 2, 2017, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (Photo: Ian Dudley/U.S. Air Force)Another study from 1994 by Eugene Miasnikov relied on the fundamental physics of sound propagation in the ocean to calculate the maximum range at which Russian strategic submarines could be detected. Miasnikov found that the ranges were so short that not only were covert trailing threats using passive acoustics implausible, but that the increasing silence of submarines in both the United States and Russia risked causing accidental collisions.13 This suggests that unintended mishaps have been the greater threat to SSBN survivability than from any capability intended to hold them at risk.

In addition, no nonacoustic means of detection has been found to present a survivability threat. All indications suggest that every possible nonacoustic signal–with the possible exception of subsurface water motions detected on the ocean surface by synthetic-aperture radar–can be attenuated if SSBNs patrol at greater ocean depths or if certain operational procedures or other countermeasures are implemented.14

Of course the possible detection of a U.S. SSBN is an insufficient basis upon which to judge their vulnerability. Once detected, an SSBN would need to be localized to within the range and accuracy of the weapon used to destroy it, and then successfully trailed while other U.S. SSBNs at sea were detected, localized, and trailed with acceptable confidence. Only after concluding that this circumstance may arise within a considered period could the survivability of the sea-based leg be brought into question.

Recent advancements in technology, however, have raised questions about possible future vulnerabilities. In particular, improved acoustic sensors, lasers, signal processing advancements, and unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV) have been mentioned as possible threats to the ability of submarines to remain concealed.15 Despite this concern and the need for an up-to-date review of fundamental survivability prospects in the public domain, no analysis has yet challenged the conclusions of the studies cited above.

Any review of SSBN survivability should consider whether these technological advancements neutralize the survivability gains made by the modernization and deployment of increasingly quiet submarines over the past few decades. What’s more, the U.S. Navy is planning to replace the existing fleet of 14 Ohio-class submarines with 12 new Columbia-class submarines that will use new technologies related to stealth to ensure the new boats will remain serviceable through the 2080s.

The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN 738) dives before test firing an unarmed Trident II D5 missile off the coast of Florida, August 31, 2016. (Photo: John Kowalski/U.S. Navy)Factors that should be evaluated include: What is the maximum range at which any technology can detect an SSBN? If further localization to bring the target SSBN within range of a weapon to destroy it is necessary, what would be required? How do UUVs and advanced computer processing capabilities affect the challenge of trailing SSBNs? If any evolving technology adversely affects SSBN survivability, are there any countermeasures that could prevent an adversary from identifying real SSBNs? Even if the U.S. government has not developed countermeasures for certain detection technologies, how would an adversary reach this conclusion if possible countermeasures could be imagined? Could the U.S. government develop the necessary countermeasures? What confidence would an adversary then need before convincing itself that detecting and destroying U.S. SSBNs is possible before a second strike response from the United States?

It is important to note that one Ohio-class SSBN is armed with roughly 100 warheads–each with a yield of 100 kilotons (kt)–and carries 500 times more explosive energy than did the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki at the end of World War II.16 This is almost certainly an underestimate given that some deployed warheads on SSBNs have yields of 455 kt.17 If a single survivable SSBN only had a single 100 kt nuclear warhead uploaded onto each of its 20 Trident II D5 SLBMs, the total explosive energy would be equivalent to 100 Nagasaki bombs. Without ICBMs, each of these SSBNs at sea, both SSBN bases at Kings Bay, Georgia, and Bangor, Washington, and all nuclear-capable heavy bombers would need to be destroyed by an adversary before either a bomber or SSBN could retaliate with nuclear weapons in a second strike.18

Moreover, the long-acknowledged vulnerability of the ICBMs19 make them an unsuitable hedge against any threat to the SSBNs. To provide a useful backup, the ICBMs must be launched under attack, and possibly even on warning of an attack.20 This is unattractive because to prevent their destruction by Russia (and perhaps China in the future) a decision to launch would need to be made in only a few minutes, if not less, after detection and before knowing whether the attack is a false alarm. The deterrent value of this launch posture then rests upon the United States demonstrating commitment to it and hoping that an adversary believes it. While an argument could be made that the prospect of launching ICBMs under attack enhances deterrence, convincing U.S. adversaries that Washington would risk starting an accidental nuclear war to defend the life of the United States–when no adversary is capable of preempting massive U.S. retaliation–should be considered unacceptable.

If concerns exist about SSBN vulnerability, consideration should be given to developing a mobile or another more survivable ICBM basing mode with plans to deploy it quickly if any threat to the SSBNs arises. Mobile missiles would probably force an attacker to barrage a deployment area with nuclear weapons and deceptive basing modes would proliferate an attacker’s aim points, but both would provide a more survivable SSBN backup. Due to drastically higher costs and land constraints, however, alternatives to the fixed silo-based ICBMs appear politically infeasible; indeed, the current GBSD program plans to retain silo-basing. In any case, given expected SSBN invulnerability, threats to a more survivable ICBM are more likely to materialize first.

No rationale based upon fears of SSBN vulnerability therefore exists for spending a large sum of money to replace the ICBM force, and vulnerable silo-based ICBMs with a launch under attack option should not be considered an acceptable hedge against possible future SSBN threats.

Limitations of the ICBM “sponge” rationale

During his January 2017 confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee to become Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis stated that the deterrent value of the ICBMs is derived from the notion “that they are so buried out in the central U.S. that any enemy that wants to take us on is going to have to commit two, three, four weapons to make certain they take each one out. In other words, the ICBM force provides a cost-imposing strategy on an adversary.”21

This is a common justification for retaining a large and distributed ICBM force given the unlikely prospect of an adversary successfully destroying 400 targets. If an adversary also accepts Mattis’s premise, the large number of ICBMs could provide meaningful deterrence. Even if an adversary imagined it was possible to destroy all 400, their need to use a significant fraction of their arsenal to do so would then limit the number of warheads remaining to target U.S. cities. This is known as the warhead “sink” or “sponge” rationale for retaining the ICBM force.

Yet this reasoning has significant limitations, beginning with how improving missile accuracy will make the ICBM force less of a warhead “sponge” in the future. Today the probability of destroying a Minuteman III missile silo with a single Russian warhead could exceed 98 percent given advancements in inertial guidance that could be aided with a Global Positioning System (GPS) and maneuverable reentry vehicles (MaRVs) to improve accuracy.22 While this may be an overstatement now, it should not be expected to remain one.

From the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) level of 1,550 warheads, a successful 1:1 attack on each of the 400 U.S. ICBMs would leave Russia with 1150 strategic nuclear warheads free to target U.S. command and control and civilian population centers. Even if two Russian warheads were needed to destroy each Minuteman III silo with the desired probability, 750 warheads would still remain–more than enough to destroy American society.

Furthermore, a 1986 study calculated that the nuclear blast and radioactive fallout from an attack with two 500 kt warheads exploding over each of the then 1,000 operational U.S. ICBM silos, 100 launch control centers (LCCs), and 16 missile test silos at Vandenberg Air Force Base would cause between 2.4–15.0 million deaths and an additional 4.0–31.8 million casualties.23 While this calculation should be updated, a nuclear attack on 400 ICBMs today could still cause millions of fatalities given the larger populations living downwind of the bases.24

Maintaining the ICBMs for use as a warhead “sponge” requires that Russia direct its warheads at the American homeland in order to target missiles that can destroy their country in the event of a nuclear war. Conversely, Russia would not need to threaten millions of American lives­ in this manner if the ICBMs did not exist. The number of homeland targets used for launching nuclear weapons should therefore be kept as small as possible to limit the number of nuclear warheads an adversary would be required to detonate inside the United States. As nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling wrote in 1987:25

“If we unilaterally dismantled our land-based missiles, we would instantly deprive a large part of the Soviet land-based missile force for its raison d’être. It might look to them as if they had much less to preempt. They actually would not, because the U.S. missiles they might have preempted were redundant in the first place. Looking over a seascape inhabited by U.S. submarines and at bombers likely to be launched on warning, they would see, without the smoke and the ruins, what would have been left over after they preempted. So if we cannot dismantle their land-based missiles by negotiation, we may gain a lot by dismantling their targets instead.”

Schelling went on to add that, “It may be hard to know which it is that the land-based missile forces on both sides would lament most–the loss of their missiles or the loss of their favorite targets.”26

If one still accepts the “sponge” rationale, however, a new GBSD missile is unnecessary because an adversary would still be required to attack life-extended Minuteman III missiles to limit damage. In any case, there is no way to eliminate the capability to target American cities other than by reducing the number of nuclear weapons through arms control.

Yet this analysis of the ICBMs as a warhead “sponge” is incomplete, having thus far only suggested that more American lives would be saved without an adversary needing to target U.S. ICBMs in a nuclear war. But what about the effect of ICBMs on the likelihood of nuclear war itself? Does the ICBM force increase or decrease the chances of a nuclear exchange?

Despite whatever complications may exist for executing a successful first strike on 400 ICBMs, reliance on them to deter attacks is problematic given their vulnerability, and the consequent deterrence value they provide should be considered small. That being said, how would the motivation arise during peacetime to attempt such an attack if the SSBNs–and possibly other survivable means of retaliation by the American military–could not also be destroyed? It is doubtful that ICBM vulnerability in this case invites preemptive attack.

In a severe crisis that involves missile exchanges, major battles, or the loss of some strategic nuclear targets by conventional means, however, an adversary could conclude that escalation to the nuclear level is imminent. And if they decide that it is preferable to be attacked with fewer weapons rather than more,27 attention could turn to the ICBMs and other vulnerable U.S. military targets. This concern is supported by both Russian and U.S. nuclear counterforce doctrines designed to limit damage if nuclear war appears inevitable, with the risk heightened from ever-improving counterforce capabilities against silo-based ICBMs due to missile accuracy improvements worldwide. In this case, nuclear warheads directed against 400 ICBM targets would kill millions of more Americans than if only vulnerable U.S. command and control targets, bomber bases, and SSBN bases were preemptively destroyed.

This appears to be the most likely circumstance in which the ICBM force could be targeted–an escalating conflict that convinces an adversary to do as well as possible. The benefits imagined from destroying more versus fewer targets could then increase the likelihood of an attack. In such a crisis, it may therefore be better to demonstrate more clearly what forces cannot be preempted rather than what can. As Thomas Schelling wrote about the prospect of the United States dismantling its ICBMs: “It looks like a posture quite stable against all the motivations that could lead to an outbreak of unwanted nuclear war.”28

Do ICBMs provide other benefits?

Beyond complicating the execution of a successful first strike, the ICBMs are assumed to offer other benefits. One of these is that of the three triad legs, the ICBMs can be launched most quickly. As a December 2016 report by eight U.S. Senators in the ICBM Coalition claimed, the “ICBMs give the President a timely response option.”29

Yet a 1993 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that Communications, Command, and Control (C3) to SSBNs “is about as prompt and reliable as to ICBM silos, under a range of conditions.”30 The same report also found “no operationally meaningful difference in time to target” between the ICBMs and SLBMs indicating that the ICBMs were not needed for any time-sensitive targets.31

There also exists a presumption that ICBMs either are or should be used for targeting an adversary’s nuclear forces and command and control–known as “counterforce” targeting–to limit damage to the United States. While this is possible, their vulnerability would require a “launch under attack” option to destroy targets of any value. Avoiding this unattractive option leaves doubt about whether any ICBMs would survive an attack, and then the consequent demand that targeting requirements be satisfied without them would be as if the ICBMs did not exist at all.32

In addition, ICBM flight trajectories to plausible targets in China, North Korea, and Iran must pass over Russian territory.33 If Russia interprets a U.S. ICBM launch intended for another state as an attack on them, they may retaliate with a nuclear strike of their own. This possibility should rule out applying any credible deterrence rationale for the ICBM force to these other US adversaries because all could reasonably conclude that retaliation with ICBMs is unlikely if it risks triggering an unwanted nuclear war with Russia. In other words, without other weapons systems to deter nuclear attacks by other adversaries, ICBMs should not be expected to deter.

Without ICBMs, the United States could still deploy an arsenal of 1,150 New START accountable warheads against the following counterforce targets:34

Russia: WMD targets (456 warheads in 2-on-1 attacks against 228 missile silos); leadership command posts (110 warheads); war-supporting industry (136 warheads). At least 80 of these warheads would likely be assigned to destroy targets in the greater Moscow area alone

China: WMD targets (150 warheads in 2-on-1 attacks against 75 missile silos); leadership command posts (33 warheads); war-supporting industry (136 warheads).

North Korea, Iran, Syria: Each country would be covered with (43) warheads.

This plan lays out how U.S. warheads could be directed against the fixed targets of plausible adversaries. The total number could exceed 1,150 because each bomber is only counted as one under New START counting rules. Also neglected here are the very substantial counterforce capabilities of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons and conventional forces. This destructive power is more than sufficient to deter any rational adversary and provides the same counterforce coverage to limit damage to the United States regardless of whether the ICBMs are maintained.35

In sum, any imagined benefits regarding the promptness of ICBMs to deliver nuclear warheads to their assigned targets and counterforce targeting capability are practically nonexistent. The “launch under attack” requirement for using ICBMs in counterforce would also reduce the time the president has to evaluate response options, thereby increasing the risks posed by false warnings or miscommunication in a crisis.

A technological arms race may adversely affect strategic stability

Proponents of the ICBM leg also argue that replacing the Minuteman III with the GBSD should be valued for the capability enhancements to be included on the new missiles. In particular, some claim that new capabilities are necessary for penetrating the future ballistic missile defenses of U.S. adversaries and improving counterforce capabilities.

When asked at a congressional hearing why the new ICBM needed more capability and accuracy, General Robin Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, replied:36

“Potential adversaries are continuing their modernization efforts of their defensive systems to attempt to minimize what our ICBM force can effectively hold at risk. In order to maintain a credible deterrent, the ICBM force must have the performance to overcome these defensive measures.

Improved ICBM capability and accuracy has the benefit of providing ICBM strike planners the weaponeering options of either achieving a higher probability of effect on a given target; using fewer warheads per target while still achieving the desired level of effect and thus allowing more targets covered; or provide opportunities to potentially reduce yield size while still achieving the desired level of effect. These weaponeering options will be critical if changes to the current strategic weapon stockpile would otherwise adversely impact what targets could effectively be held at risk.”

This claim is not convincing. The land-based leg of the triad can utilize a whole repertoire of countermeasures to overpower growing ballistic missile defenses: adding additional warheads on each missile; deploying decoys or radar-reflecting wires (chaff) to complicate warhead detection; jamming adversary radars or leading an attack with a nuclear explosion to blind infrared detectors; or adding thrusters to warheads to enable maneuvers.37 And this is only a small sample of potential options. The claim that new capabilities on the GBSD are necessary to defeat future missile defense deployments therefore requires much greater scrutiny before it can be seriously considered.

An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM shoots out of its silo during an operational test launch February 25, 2012 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.  (U.S. Air Force photo)A more serious implication is what the stated need for this missile may suggest to the world about U.S. motivations. As discussed, ICBMs must be launched under attack to be used in counterforce, but a strong presumption against this risk requires that targeting requirements be satisfied without them. What General Rand’s comments suggest instead is that the United States may wish to improve the first-strike counterforce capabilities on its ICBMs.

Advancing this prospect by equipping U.S. ICBMs with improved accuracy is unnecessary, and together with new low-yield options for its warheads, could be destabilizing. If hypersonic delivery becomes possible with a follow-on ICBM that shortens the warning time of an incoming attack, strategic stability may be further adversely affected. These acquisitions risk driving a technological arms race around the world where a country’s growing awareness that an increasing fraction of its nuclear deterrent may be successfully destroyed–possibly without warning—coupled with that same country’s growing confidence in its own counterforce capabilities against an adversary’s targets may increase the chances that nuclear weapons will be used. These evolving capabilities would only add to crisis stability concerns previously discussed.

Therefore, a new ICBM is unnecessary to defeat ballistic missile defenses and does not require enhanced counterforce capabilities given existing capabilities on other legs of its triad. Regardless of whether other states pursue new technological enhancements for their weapons, similar acquisitions by the United States­ will only drive these destabilizing efforts further.

Options for ICBM force deployment

Given the excessive redundancy, risks, and costs associated with the existing ICBM force, “launch under attack” posture, and replacement plans, the United States should consider several alternative deployment options. The alternatives presented here range from comparatively small ICBM reductions and cost savings to more substantial changes. Each of the following alternatives would still allow for a deployed strategic nuclear force with more than sufficient retaliatory capacity to deter nuclear attacks on the United States or its allies.

  1. Eliminate one squadron (50 missiles and their silos) at each of the three Air Force ICBM bases, reducing the number of deployed ICBMs to 300.38 If the number of SSBNs were also reduced to 10–but 1,550 warheads remained deployed–the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that $40 billion would be saved over the next three decades.39 This force structure would still allow the United States to deploy the 1,550 warheads allowed under New START. With only 150 ICBMs, 8 SSBNs, and 1,000 deployed warheads, $85 billion would be saved over the next three decades.40 (See chart above.)
  2. Reduce the total number of ICBMs and rotate the remaining missiles among the 400 remaining silos. This would preserve the “sink” rationale by requiring an adversary to attack every remaining silo–unless it could confirm which are empty–to ensure destruction of every ICBM. More money could be saved if some of the silos were also eliminated.
  3. Extend the life of the Minuteman III force. A 2014 study from the RAND Corporation found no evidence that long-term sustainment of the Minuteman III missiles, with incremental modernization, could not continue in perpetuity.41 And a recent CSIS report suggested that the life of Minuteman IIIs could be extended beyond 2030 for a period of time while deferring a decision on GBSD.42 If GBSD was deferred for 20 years, CBO estimates that $37 billion could be saved over this period and $17.5 billion over the next thirty years by simply life extending the Minuteman III.43 This would leave open the option for gradually reducing the size of the deployed ICBM force over time, either through unilateral reductions or in conjunction with a nuclear arms reduction agreement.
  4. Eliminate the ICBM force. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that $149 billion could be saved between 2017–2046 if the ICBM force was eliminated immediately, and that $120 billion could be saved over this period if the ICBMs were eliminated at the end of the Minutemen IIIs service life.44 In the unlikely event that future SSBN vulnerabilities arise and it is determined by national decision-makers that a backup to the SSBN force is required, a more survivable ICBM basing option could be developed and deployed. However, it is important to note that this would likely involve a mobile ICBM, which would likely cost more to acquire than the GBSD.


Without a technically valid explanation for how an adversary could imagine it is possible to destroy the U.S. SSBN force, the land-based ICBMs are redundant for deterring nuclear attacks on the United States. Their location and vulnerability also hold at risk millions of American lives that no adversary would be required to threaten if the ICBMs did not exist. And because they require a “launch under attack” alert posture to be survivable, should be considered an unacceptable backup to SSBN vulnerability. ICBMs are also unnecessary for time-sensitive targets and counterforce targeting requirements must be satisfied without them in the event of a nuclear war.

Perhaps most importantly, ICBM vulnerability may attract a preemptive nuclear attack in an escalating conflict that U.S. opponents believe will inevitably escalate to the nuclear level or that threatens their lives, regimes, or other vital interests. These motivations are consistent with both U.S. and Russian nuclear counterforce doctrines which posit that it is better to be attacked with fewer weapons rather than more. Growing confidence in counterforce capabilities against fixed silo-based ICBMs only heighten this risk.

Lastly, a new ICBM with enhanced capabilities officially supported for the purpose of penetrating the modernizing missile defense systems of U.S. opponents and improving counterforce kill probabilities is unnecessary and potentially destabilizing. The range of countermeasures that can overwhelm missile defense systems are extensive and already accessible for inclusion on current weapons, and steps that indicate the United States may be motivated to develop disarming first-strike capabilities could accelerate a technological arms race that increases the chances of nuclear use.

The public debate over the new Nuclear Posture Review and start of the GBSD program provide an opportunity to reevaluate the least valuable leg of the U.S. nuclear triad. Given the confluence of growing budget pressures, unnecessary risks, and diminishing benefits of maintaining the ICBMs outlined here, U.S. interests would best be served by deciding to significantly reduce or eliminate them.


1 Lauren Caston, et. al., “The Future of the U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Force,” RAND Corporation, 2014. http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1210.html

2 Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “United States Nuclear Forces, 2017,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Volume 73, 2017, pp. 48–57. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.2016.1264213

3 William J. Perry, “Why It’s Safe to Scrap the ICBMs,” New York Times, September 30, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/30/opinion/why-its-safe-to-scrap-americas-icbms.html

4 Kingston Reif, “New ICBM Replacement Costs Revealed,” Arms Control Today, March 2017. https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2017-03/news/new-icbm-replacement-cost-revealed

5 Kingston Reif, “Price Tag Rising for Planned ICBMs,” Arms Control Today, October 2016. https://www.armscontrol.org/ACT/2016_10/News/Price-Tag-Rising-for-Planned-ICBMs

6 “Approaches to Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017–2046,” U.S. Congressional Budget Office, October 2017, p. 2. https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/115th-congress-2017-2018/reports/53211-nuclearforces.pdf

7 Unless it is revised or replaced, the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, which includes caps on military spending through the end of the decade, will force a significant scaling back of the Trump administration’s defense budget proposal over the next five years. An aging population, increased interest payments on the national debt, and projected increases in healthcare costs will only add to pressures for assigning priorities in defense spending after the BCA expires.

8 The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) stated that while the strategic nuclear submarines (SSBNs) were the most survivable leg of the triad, all three legs must be maintained as a hedge against potential future technical problems or vulnerabilities.

9 Passive acoustics relies upon detecting the sound emitted by submarines, whereas active acoustics involves the generation of sound and detecting its reflection from them.

10 Richard Garwin, “Will Strategic Submarines Be Vulnerable?” International Security, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Fall 1983), pp. 52–67.

11 Ibid., p. 66.

12 Donald C. Daniel, Anti-Submarine Warfare and Superpower Strategic Stability, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press), 1986, p. 23.

13 Eugene Miasnikov, “Can Russian Strategic Submarine Survive at Sea? The Fundamental Limits of Passive Acoustics,” Science & Global Security, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1994), pp. 213–251.

14 Tom Stefanick, Strategic Antisubmarine Warfare and Naval Strategy, Institute for Defense & Disarmament Studies, (Lexington and Toronto: Lexington Books), 1987.

15 See Bryan Clark, The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Affairs, 2015); James Holmes, “Sea Changes: The Future of Nuclear Deterrence,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 72, No. 4 (July 2016), pp. 228–233; and Bryan Clark, “Undersea Cables and the Future of Submarine Competition,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 72, No. 4 (July 2016), pp. 234–237; Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The New Era of Counterforce,” International Security, Volume 41, Issue 4, (Spring 2017), pp. 9–49.

16 Kristensen and Norris, “United States Nuclear Forces, 2017.”

17 Ibid.

18 The 14 Ohio-class SSBNs operate out of two bases in Bangor, Washington, and Kings Bay, Georgia, with around eight to 10 at sea at any given time and typically five on “hard alert” in patrol areas. The bombers are organized into three bases: Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Assuming only eight SSBNs are at sea, the U.S. nuclear deterrent is then distributed over only 13 targets. See Kristensen and Norris, “United States Nuclear Forces, 2017.”

19 Thomas C. Schelling, “Abolition of Ballistic Missiles,” International Security, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Summer 1987), pp. 179–183.

20 “Launch on warning” is a launch in response to a sensor indication of an attack on the continental United States, while “launch under attack” is a launch after a high-confidence determination of a massive attack. Because “launch under attack” requires more time to reach that higher level of confidence, a decision about whether to launch with this option must be made in a shorter time for ICBMs to survive the incoming attack. The definitions for these launch postures are approximately those provided by the Air Force, as mentioned in Richard L. Garwin, “Launch Under Attack to Redress Minuteman Vulnerability,” International Security, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Winter, 1979-1980), pp. 117–139.

21 U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services, To Conduct a Confirmation Hearing on the Expected Nomination of Mr. James N. Mattis to be Secretary of Defense, 115th Cong., 1st sess., January 12, 2017.

22 If the circular error probable (CEP) of an 800 kt warhead from a Russian ICBM is 200 m, the single-shot kill probability (SSKP) against a U.S. Minuteman III silo is 0.88. If the CEP = 150 m (still a conservative estimate and less accurate than the U.S. Minuteman III), the SSKP is 0.98.

23 William Daugherty, Barbara Levi, and Frank von Hippel, “The Consequences of “Limited Nuclear Attacks on the United States,” International Security, Volume 10, Number 4, Spring 1986, pp. 3–43.

24 This is also likely true because a Russian nuclear attack today on U.S. ICBMs would require the use of warheads with a yield of 800 kt–the most common yield among Russian ICBMs—not the 500 kt modeled in Daugherty, Levi, and von Hippel, “The Consequences of “Limited” Nuclear Attacks on the United States.”

25 Schelling, “Abolition of Ballistic Missiles.”

26 Ibid., pp. 180–181.

27 This danger exists on the U.S. side as well.

28 Ibid., p. 180.

29 Senate ICBM Coalition, “The Enduring Values of America’s ICBMs,” December 2016. https://www.hoeven.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/ICBM Coalition White Paper December 2016 - final.pdf

30 U.S. Governmental Affairs Committee, Evaluation of the U.S. Strategic Triad, S. Hrg. 103-457, (1994). U.S. General Accounting Office, The U.S. Nuclear Triad: GAO’s Evaluation of the Strategic Modernization Program (plus 8 classified volumes), GAO/TPEMD-93-5, (1993). http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO/T-PEMD-93-5

31 Ibid.

32 It deserves mention that the ICBMs receive some support for their potential use as first-strike counterforce weapons. Because one never knows how a nuclear exchange may begin, however, ICBMs cannot be used in counterforce targeting unless the United States is willing to commit to a “launch under attack” posture or the decision arises in a conflict to use them first before any warning of an incoming attack. The psychological effect that the presence of ICBMs may have on an adversary in contributing to nuclear deterrence due to their potential use as first-strike weapons is not necessary given the absence of any technically valid rationale for how an adversary could preempt massive retaliation by the SSBNs. Their presence is more likely to contribute towards convincing an adversary that the United States is about to launch a disarming first-strike–thereby increasing the chances of nuclear use–and as mentioned, their vulnerability only adds to the chance that they will be attacked first in an escalating conflict.

33 “Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report: Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure, and Posture,” Global Zero, May 2012 http://www.globalzero.org/files/gz_us_nuclear_policy_commission_report.pdf

34 These numbers were taken from the report “Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report: Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture,” Global Zero, 2012, and numbers for Russian and Chinese nuclear missile silos were obtained from Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Russian nuclear forces, 2017,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 73:2, 115–126, and Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Chinese nuclear forces, 2016,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 72:4, 205–211. Three warheads were added to each total in the Global Zero report for warheads covering North Korea, Iran, and Syria to make the total number of warheads add up to 1,150. China may not currently have as many as 75 ICBM silos, but it could have more than this in the future.

35 It deserves mention that there is no meaningful difference in kill probabilities between ICBMs or SLBMs against the strategic targets of U.S. adversaries and that SLBMs are able to reach any target within range of the ICBMs.

36 U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Armed Services, Hearing on National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 and Oversight of Previously Authorized Programs, 114th Cong.,
2nd sess., March 2, 2016.

37 George N. Lewis, Theodore A. Postol, and John Pike, “Why National Missile Defense Won’t Work,” Scientific American, August 1999.

38 Eliminating 50 silos at each of the three ICBM bases reduces the total number of ICBMs to 300 and not 250 because there are currently 50 empty silos that contain no ICBMs. This recommendation assumes that these empty silos were eliminated along with 100 others that contain ICBMs.

39 “Approaches to Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017–2046,” p. 37.

40 Ibid., p. 48.

41 Caston, et. al.,“The Future of the U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Force.”

42 Todd Harrison, “Options for the Ground-Based Leg of the Nuclear Triad,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 2017. https://www.csis.org/analysis/options-ground-based-leg-nuclear-triad

43 “Approaches to Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017–2046,” p. 30.

44 Ibid., p. 37.

Ryan Snyder is a nuclear physicist and was previously a Visiting Research Fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is now a researcher with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research based in Geneva. The views expressed here are those of the author.



Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the plan to overhaul the nation’s nuclear arsenal is the replacement program for the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, the land-based leg of the nuclear triad that also includes submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers.

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U.S.-Russian Arms Control At Risk: An Assessment and Path Forward


By Maggie Tennis
January 2018

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In March 2017, Gen. Paul Selva, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) that Russia had deployed a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) violating the “spirit and intent” of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.1 Selva warned the committee that Russia is “modernizing its strategic nuclear triad and developing new nonstrategic nuclear weapons.” His testimony illustrates the new normal of U.S.-Russian relations, wherein historic nuclear cooperation is profoundly at risk.

Russia’s alleged INF Treaty violation has soured already strained relations between the world’s largest nuclear powers. Yet, the United States and Russia continue to share a common interest in ensuring nuclear stability worldwide. Together, the countries possess over 90 percent of the planet’s roughly 15,000 nuclear weapons. This power carries a responsibility to rejuvenate cooperative initiatives that reduce nuclear risks dating back to the depths of the Cold War.

To effectively evaluate the opportunities and challenges involved in that objective, U.S. policymakers must understand Russia’s current nuclear force policy and strategy. This policy paper examines Moscow’s nuclear doctrine, capabilities and modernization efforts, the status of U.S.-Russian arms control treaties, and the primary obstacles to cooperation. It concludes by offering a set of recommendations for both mitigating threats to strategic stability and resuming a productive U.S.-Russian arms control dialogue.


The longstanding tradition of U.S.-Russian dialogue and cooperation to reduce the dangers posed by nuclear weapons—dangers that their rivalry and possession of nuclear weapons created—has been critical to global security and the health of bilateral relations in general. Indeed, during the Cold War, collaboration on nuclear matters was often the only tether holding the relationship together. The global nonproliferation order is weakening. It cannot afford continued noncooperation between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

Current pressures on the U.S.-Russian relationship

Perhaps the greatest source of tension between Moscow and Washington is a fundamental difference of perspective on the post-Cold War European and international order. The Kremlin views its loss of superpower status following the Soviet Union’s collapse, and subsequent exclusion from international decision-making, as a root cause of many global problems. Under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, the country is focused on regaining regional and global influence. Russian possession of nuclear weapons is a crucial component of these ambitions.

Moscow feels entitled to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space at the same time that Washington maintains an orbit in Europe through NATO and its European alliances. As part of a quest to strengthen its influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Russia is expanding and deepening its information warfare and foreign economic activities to further weaken Western liberal democracy in these regions. There is clear evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as well as in recent elections in France, the Netherlands, and Germany, with the intention of swaying the vote in favor of nationalist, populist candidates sympathetic to Russia.

Furthermore, Moscow is supporting pro-Russia authoritarian and oligarchic-style regimes and political movements throughout Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia. Perceived attempts by Washington to interfere in that zone are sure to have exacerbated tensions with Moscow. An example is the eastward expansion of NATO, which Russia fears perhaps more than any other geopolitical threat.

Russia’s most recent military doctrine, published in 2014, explicitly identifies NATO expansion as a major threat to Russian national security. Russia has viewed the eastward expansion of NATO as a menace since before the Soviet Union fell—and especially since the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo. Moscow is highly critical of U.S. intervention in past conflicts in the Balkans and Middle East, and remains suspicious that NATO intends to destabilize incumbent regimes in the post-Soviet space. The Kremlin directly blames Washington for inciting uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine, and the Middle East.

In Ukraine, Moscow blames the Obama administration for encouraging the Maidan revolution and views U.S. policy toward Crimea as hypocritical. In Syria, Russia and the United States have disagreed on a range of issues, including the use of airspace, the future of the Bashar al-Assad regime, Syria’s use of chemical weapons, Iran’s role, how to fight the Islamic State, and which parties to the conflict constitute terrorist organizations.2

Finally, Moscow has amplified its muscular military signaling in recent years. In Ukraine and Syria in particular Russia has exercised nuclear sabre rattling and dangerous brinksmanship. Both countries have engaged in increased military exercises and force buildups on the NATO-Russia border.3

Arms control is not dead, but it’s wounded

Arms control is an area where Russia and the United States must cooperate, despite numerous tensions in their relationship. Yet, disagreements over treaties, missile defense, and approaches to nonproliferation have created additional challenges.

The INF Treaty is at the center of a significant and ongoing arms control treaty dispute between Moscow and Washington. In 2014 the United States accused Russia of testing a GLCM that violates that agreement. Then, in 2017, Washington alleged that Moscow had deployed the system. The Kremlin denies the allegations, and instead accuses the United States of violating the agreement. Mounting distrust on the treaty threatens to affect other hallmark agreements, such as the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Agreement Treaty (New START).

New START requires that the United States and Russia each reduce their strategic nuclear forces to no more than 1,550 deployed warheads, 700 deployed delivery systems, and 800 deployed and non-deployed delivery systems by February 2018. The treaty is slated to expire in February 2021 but can be extended for another five years by mutual agreement by the two presidents. Since New START went into force in 2011, bilateral talks on further reductions have been put on hold amid a litany of U.S. and Russian disagreements in both the nuclear and non-nuclear realms.

Moscow is troubled by the expansion of U.S and NATO missile defenses, particularly the Aegis Ashore system in Romania and another planned site in Poland. While NATO argues that the intention of the system is “to protect European NATO allies, and U.S. deployed forces in the region, against current and emerging ballistic threats from the Middle East,” Moscow views the system as directed against Russia.4 Moscow’s perception is underscored by the fact that U.S. missile defense deployment planning did not change following the achievement of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which curtailed the Iranian nuclear threat.

On the U.S. side, there is concern that Russia is lowering its threshold for nuclear use, thereby increasing the potential that regional conventional conflicts could escalate into catastrophic nuclear collisions. While it is certainly possible to interpret Russian nuclear doctrine in this way, American and Russian analysts debate whether Moscow has indeed incorporated limited strikes as part of its official military doctrine.

Despite these irritants, past cooperation between the two powers on New START and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit and roll back Iran’s emerging nuclear program indicates that future cooperation is possible.5 However, statements by the Trump administration suggesting that the United States might pull out of the JCPOA, as well as withholding a certification to Congress tied to the deal, have seriously harmed this potential and led Moscow to question Washington’s commitment to arms control and nonproliferation.

Furthermore, the bilateral risk reduction enterprise is under siege. Since the end of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow have worked in partnership to combat the threat posed by non-state actor access to nuclear weapons, but recently that collaboration has stalled.

Trump-era developments

Immediately following Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, some believed that U.S.-Russian relations would rebound due to Trump’s admiration of Putin, his stated desire to improve ties, and Putin’s clear preference for Trump over Clinton. Yet, evidence of Russian election interference and support for Assad in Syria soon led Trump administration officials to expand their criticisms of Moscow. Congress has taken additional steps to put economic pressure on Moscow and constrain the president’s ability to engage.

Trump has yet to articulate a clear policy toward Russia, including on arms control. In January 2017, the administration announced plans to conduct a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, posture, and planning. The release of this document, called the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), is expected in February 2018. While Trump has expressed a desire to improve relations with Moscow, and on occasion professed that global nuclear weapons inventories should be significantly reduced, he has also publicly pledged to strengthen and expand U.S. nuclear capabilities. In a January 2017 phone call with Putin, Trump reportedly denounced New START and rebuffed Putin’s suggestion to extend the treaty.

In May 2017, White House and Kremlin officials stated that they would pursue resumed talks on strategic stability. The two sides held a first round of talks on September 12 in Helsinki, Finland, led by Thomas Shannon, undersecretary of state for political affairs, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, but the specific agenda has not been disclosed, nor has a date for the next round of talks been scheduled.

Congressional action could undermine U.S. relations with Russia

Republican hawks in Congress have introduced provisions that could jeopardize key arms control treaties, including the INF Treaty and New START. In an attempt to counter Russia’s INF Treaty violation, the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would provide funding for research and development on a new U.S. road-mobile GLCM with a range prohibited by the treaty.6

Nuclear policy of the Russian Federation

Russia published its most recent military doctrine in 2014. Although it discusses nuclear weapons and use, it is not meant to be the last word on Russian nuclear policy.

What the latest military doctrine says

The most recent version of Russian military doctrine identifies the past, present, and future expansion of NATO, and NATO activities “in violation of international law,” as a primary threat to Russian national security. Other main threats include the “creation and deployment of strategic missile defense systems,” which the doctrine argues “violate the balance of forces in the nuclear-missile sphere,” and the “deployment of strategic non-nuclear systems” and precision weapons. The document also references the weaponization of space and cyber and electronic warfare.7

Although Russia’s military doctrine demonstrates a view of the United States and NATO as aggressors in an evolving security environment, it also highlights the value of the arms control architecture and exhorts the military to “conclude and implement agreements in the area of nuclear-missile arms limitation and reduction.”8

The doctrine states that the purpose of Russia’s nuclear forces is to serve as a broad deterrent, and adds that Russia reserves the right to use:

“nuclear weapons in response to use against it and (or) its allies of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, as well as in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is
under threat.”9

Earlier versions of the doctrine described a lower standard for nuclear use, which prompted debates on concepts of de-escalation and pre-emption.10 There is now a near consensus view in Washington that Russian doctrine includes a so-called “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, whereby Moscow would use nuclear weapons on a limited basis to bring a conflict with a conventionally superior opponent to a halt.

Yet, the 2014 version does not mention de-escalation or legitimize pre-emptive strikes, and it is vague or silent about many aspects of nuclear use, including the scale of a nuclear response to an existential threat. It also does not include a no-first-use declaration, a policy Moscow abandoned in 2000.11

What the Russian government is saying and doing

The words and actions of the Kremlin and military officials provide additional context and insight into Russia’s military doctrine. In recent years, officials have emphasized the role of nuclear weapons in Russian defense strategy. Many recent prominent Russian military drills have included simulated nuclear strikes, including the September 2017 Zapad exercises, which featured two tests of the RS-24 Yars intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Kremlin leaders frequently draw attention to the strength of the arsenal in their public statements and, on occasion, have referenced it when issuing warnings to the West, such as the time Putin praised Russian nuclear weapons and said, “it’s best not to mess with us.”12 In 2009, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said, “we will certainly resort to using nuclear weapons in certain situations to defend our territory and state interests.”13 The 2003 Report of the Defence Ministry of the Russian Federation, known as the “Ivanov Doctrine” after then Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, defined de-escalation as “forcing the enemy to halt military action by a threat to deliver or by actual delivery of strikes of varying intensity with reliance on conventional and (or) nuclear weapons.” The state press also regularly features headlines announcing the augmentation or improvement of an aspect of the nuclear arsenal.

These statements generate confusion among analysts as to whether Russia is truly lowering its threshold for nuclear use. Such ambiguity may ultimately be Moscow’s objective.

What analysts think about Russian doctrine

Western analysts frequently speculate on the conditions that would prompt Moscow to employ nuclear weapons. As noted above, military doctrine states that an existential threat would prompt Russia to employ its nuclear arsenal. However, it is unclear precisely what conditions Russia considers as constituting a threat to the existence of the Russian state, or how to measure the circumstances that would motivate Russia to escalate a conflict with limited nuclear strikes.14 Paul Bernstein, senior fellow for the National Defense University Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction, wrote in a 2016 report that Russia likely views any conflict involving NATO as posing an existential threat.15

Alexander Velez-Green of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) argues that rapid technological advances, which “give far greater advantage to the side that escalates first,” have made it likely that Moscow would consider a first strike in a conflict situation.16 After analyzing Russia’s robust nuclear modernization program, some analysts note that many of its systems being upgraded have the capabilities needed to carry out “limited nuclear strikes against both military and non-military targets of value to the Western Alliance.”17 Russia has also improved its advanced non-nuclear capabilities, including theater-range precision strike systems,18 which could indicate a “pre-nuclear level of deterrence.”19

Then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work testified before Congress in 2015 that Russian nuclear doctrine contains a de-escalation strategy.20 But because the concept of de-escalation is not mentioned in public military doctrine, analysts debate whether the concept is formally part of Russian nuclear policy.

Eldridge Colby, currently Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, argued in a 2016 report for the Foundation for Strategic Research that Russia’s possession of the capabilities necessary for limited nuclear strikes, coupled with reports of limited nuclear strikes in recent military exercises, signal that Russia is lowering its nuclear threshold.21 Although de-escalation is not explicitly mentioned in military doctrine, the fact that senior military officials often reference the concept suggests it is part of Russian defense planning.

Conversely, Olga Oliker, senior adviser and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, argues that because the purpose of military doctrine is to apprise adversaries of intention, it would be only logical to mention a lowering of threshold in the document if that were truly Moscow’s intention.22 Beyond doctrine, Oliker writes that there is “unconvincing” evidence that Russia invokes such a strategy, instead arguing that Moscow is more concerned with reminding the world that Russia has the power and capabilities to escalate—without actually intending to do so. The point is to keep NATO and Washington on their toes.23 Oliker says that recent Russian military exercises are meant “to test the readiness and command and control of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces,” and not as a “preparation for tactical use.”24

Russian nuclear capabilities in 2017: current status and modernization plans

While it is difficult to make a precise assessment of the size and composition of Russia’s nuclear stockpile, experts have been able to provide estimates using New START aggregate data and data from monitoring sources. Analysis from Hans Kristensen, Robert Norris, and Pavel Podvig indicate that, as of 2017, Russia owns a total military stockpile of operational forces of 4,300 nuclear warheads. Of these, 1,960 are deployed on ballistic missiles and at heavy bomber bases, and 500 strategic warheads and 1,850 non-strategic warheads are in storage.25 The military’s Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF) manages ICBMs, the Navy manages sea-based systems, and the Aerospace force manages air and missile defense systems.

Modernization plans and the State Armaments Programme (SAP)

Russia has pursued a major upgrade of its nuclear forces over the past decade. The vast scale of the program seems designed to counter perceived threats from the United States and NATO and maintain strategic stability.26 The program includes an emphasis on modernizing strategic nuclear and aerospace defense forces. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said in 2017 that the military would “continue a massive program of nuclear rearmament, deploying modern ICBMs on land and sea, [and] modernizing the strategic bomber force.”27

Russia commenced the State Armaments Programme 2020 (SAP-2020) in 2011 to expand and upgrade the technology of the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces from 2011-2020. The stated goal of the SAP-2020 is to modernize 70 percent of Russian arms and equipment by 2020. But sanctions on Russia, a punishment for Russian aggression in Ukraine, have slowed the Russian economy­—and with it, progress on the SAP. Despite economic concerns, Russia is modernizing all three legs of its nuclear triad.28 In a 2017 speech before the Ministry of Defense, Putin extended the deadline to 2021. In this address he stated that the Russian nuclear triad was 79 percent modernized, and that by 2021 ground-based nuclear forces would be 90 percent modernized.”29

Russia frequently justifies its nuclear force posture by signaling a need to defend against U.S. missile defense and conventional strike capabilities and keep up with the pace and scope of U.S. nuclear modernization. Russian Foreign Ministry Director of Nonproliferation and Arms Control Mikhail Ulyanov remarked in 2014 on ongoing U.S. modernization plans, declaring that Russia would “take corresponding countermeasures to ensure our security.”30 Regarding modernization, it should be noted that the Russian program began before that of the United States.

Putin said in 2016, “It is necessary to strengthen the combat potential of the strategic nuclear forces, primarily for missile systems capable of and guaranteed to overcome the existing and future missile defense system [of the U.S.]”31 Russia is building new ICBM systems equipped with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) and maneuverable warheads to counter the U.S. missile defense program.

Budget and cost estimates of Russia’s nuclear program

According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Russia plans to spend approximately $28 billion by 2020 on upgrades to its strategic nuclear triad. The budget for SAP-2020 was initially planned with a much higher GDP growth rate than was actually achieved. When oil prices fell from the expected $50 per barrel to under $35 per barrel and GDP stalled, the military was forced to make budget cuts of up to 10 percent for each ministry. These cuts hampered modernization plans.32 At the same time, the defense budget continues to grow at a higher rate than the national GDP, likely due to the lobbying power of the Russian defense industry and the government’s strong commitment to modernization.33 However, U.S. defense spending still far outpaces that of Russia.

Russia announced plans to spend approximately 20.7 trillion rubles ($704 billion) on the SAP-2020 in 2011, although Western analysts believe 19 trillion rubles to be a more realistic figure.34,35 First Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin, who oversees the SAP, said that the bulk of the funding would go to developing eight nuclear-powered strategic submarines equipped with the Bulava missile system, modernizing ICBMs, purchasing precision weapons, and building a heavy-liquid ICBM.36 By 2015, Russia had procured only 30 of 400 desired ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), two of eight desired ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), 11 of 56 S-400 missile defense systems, and two of 10 desired Iskander-M tactical ballistic missile brigades.37 Actual Russian spending in 2015 for the nuclear complex was roughly 44 million rubles. In 2016, it was 46 million.38

The Defense and Finance Ministries put forward competing proposals to fund the SAP-2025 for the years 2018-2025. The Defense Ministry proposed a 24 trillion ruble budget, while Finance proposed a budget of half that amount, at 12 trillion.39 The two ministries will need to reconcile these figures to produce a budget for approval.40

The intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force

As of March 2017, Russia’s stockpile includes an estimated 316 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) carrying 1,076 warheads. Russia is increasing its arsenal of ICBMs equipped with multiple warheads, possibly to account for a smaller ICBM force than that of the United States. By the early 2020s, most mobile Russian ICBMs are expected to carry ballistic missile payloads containing multiple warheads.

The Russian ICBM force includes the Topol (SS-25), Topol-M (SS-27 Mod 2), RS-24 Yars (SS-27 Mod 2), UR-100NUTTH (SS-19), and R-36M2 (SS-18). The latter two are the oldest ICBMs in the arsenal. The R-36M2 is likely to remain in service until 2022, when it will be replaced by a new silo-based liquid-fuel ICBM, called Sarmat. Development of the RS-24 Yars began after the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) expired in 2009. It is a MIRVed variation of the Topol-M. The RS-26 Rubezh (no SS- designation), Sarmat (no RS- or SS- designation), and Barguzin are in development.41

The Russians are retiring Soviet-era ICBM systems in order to gradually replace older systems with newer systems by the early-to-mid 2020s.42 The new ICBMs are MIRVed, road-mobile, and silo-based—mainly variants of the Topol-M/RS-24 Yars missile. The road-mobile RS-26 Rubezh is planned for deployment in late 2017 and the Sarmat will replace the RS-20V in 2019 or 2020, although it is behind schedule. The Sarmat is expected to be a liquid-fueled missile equipped with as many as 10 MIRVs, and may carry a hypersonic maneuvering warhead. It will be able to attack U.S. targets by multiple trajectories, thereby allowing it to overcome U.S. missile defense systems.43

The Defense Ministry had announced the development of five regiments of a rail-based ICBM, called “Barguzin.” Testing was planned for 2019, and deployment, by 2020.44 Each regiment was to contain six missiles. An ejection test was reported in November 2016.45 However, it was reported in December 2017 that the program had been canceled.46

The ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) force

The Russian force contains 11 operational submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) across three classes, including the Delta III and Delva IV classes, with a total of 176 missiles carrying 768 warheads. Each submarine can carry 16 SLBMs, for a total of almost 800 warheads. Russian SLBMs include the R-29R (RSM-50, SS-N-18 Stingray), R-29RM Sineva (RSM-54, SS-N-23), RSM-56 Bulava (SS-N-32), and, according to some sources, a version of the RSM-54 known as the R-29RMU2 Lanier.

Russia is developing eight Borey-class submarines to replace the ageing Delta III and IV submarines in the mid-2020s, three of which have already been built. The first three are Borey and the additional submarines are Borey-A. The fourth submarine will be introduced in 2019 and the last should join the fleet sometime in 2021. Each will be loaded with sixteen Bulava SLBMs carrying up to six warheads per missile.47

The bomber force

Russia maintains a bomber force of approximately 68 aircraft. Only 50 of the deployed nuclear-cable bombers carry assigned nuclear weapons. Of the estimated 68 planes, approximately 25 are TU-95 MS6 (Bear-H6) long-range bombers, 30 are TU-95 MS16 (Bear-H16) long-range bombers, and 13 are Tu-160 (Blackjack) supersonic long-range bombers. They are capable of carrying nuclear air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). As strategic heavy bombers they are subject to New START limitations. The Russian air force also operates a multipurpose medium-range supersonic bomber, the Tupolev Tu-22M, which is considered a tactical nuclear delivery platform for various types of cruise missiles. It is not limited by New START.48

Russia is reportedly replacing its current fleet of Tu-95’s, Tu-160’s, and Tu-22M’s with a new generation of strategic bombers by the early 2020s. These fleets are being upgraded to increase their conventional capabilities. In 2015, the Defense Ministry revealed plans to resume production of the Tu-160M2, an upgrade to the Tu-160, in the mid-2020s.49 It reportedly signed a $103 million contract to upgrade three of the 10 Tu-160 bombers slated for modernization.50 Over the next decade, Russia is also developing a new generation bomber called the PAK-DA.

Nonstrategic nuclear weapons

The Russian nonstrategic arsenal totals 2,000 weapons, including short-range surface-to-surface missiles, air-to-surface missiles and bombs, nuclear-armed torpedoes, depth charges, and surface-to-air missiles for air defense. At least 760 warheads are used by the Russian Navy.51 About 570 nonstrategic weapons are used by the air force.52

Moscow currently has a far larger arsenal of non-strategic weapons than the United States, although Moscow might say that it is more accurate to count U.S. non-strategic weapons in combination with those of France and the United Kingdom, thus reducing the asymmetry. None of these forces are limited by treaties. The Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, co-chaired by former Secretaries of Defense William Perry and James Schlesinger, found this imbalance to be “worrisome to some U.S. allies in Central Europe.”53

Russia is developing dual-use systems, weapons that can be deployed in nuclear and conventional variants. Both the Kalibr sea-based cruise missile, which has an intermediate range, and the Iskander ground-based ballistic missile represent this type of weapon. Moscow is nearing full deployment of the potentially nuclear-capable Iskander-M system, which comprises short-range ballistic and cruise missiles, to replace Tochka-U missiles.

According to Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project, the development of dual-use systems is worrisome from a stability perspective. He writes that the systems are capable of “blurring the line between nuclear and nonnuclear weapons.”54 The U.S. European Command 2017 Posture Statement declared that “Russia’s fielding of a conventional/nuclear dual-capable system that is prohibited under the INF Treaty creates a mismatch in escalatory options with the West.”55

Early-warning system upgrades

Russia is upgrading its strategic force support systems, such as early-warning launch detection satellites and ballistic missile early-warning radars. The SAP called for as many as 10 new early-warning satellites by 2020. These had fallen behind U.S. capabilities after the Soviet collapse.56 Three new early-warning radars were planned to become operational in 2017 as part of an upgrade program to Russian early-warning systems. Russia began deployment of a new early-warning space-based system, known as EKS, in 2015. Satellites of these systems can transmit information in real time to command centers at western and eastern locations.57 According to Shoigu, in 2017 Russia will achieve full coverage of its perimeter through a “continuous radar field of warning systems for missile attack on all strategic air and space directions and on all types of trajectory of ballistic missile flights.” This achievement is a result of the three new radars beginning combat duty, as well as upgrades to three older radars.58

Russia’s missile defense capabilities and modernization

Despite Moscow’s fierce criticisms of the U.S. missile defense program, Russia is expanding and upgrading its air and missile defense systems. Russia exports many of these systems abroad. The A-135 ballistic missile defense system has been operational around Moscow since 1995, after replacing the 1970s-era A-35 Galosh system. Russia operates several families of air defense systems, each consisting of multiple variants and upgrades. These include the S-300P, S-300V, and S-400 systems. The S-500 system is in development.59

The S-300P (SA-10 Grumble/ SA-20 Gargoyle) is comparable to the U.S. Patriot PAC-3 system. The PMU-2 version introduced the 58N6E2 missile, which is capable against short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs).60,61

The S-300V (SA-12/SA-23) is also comparable to the U.S. Patriot PAC-3 system. It can intercept both SRBMs and MRBMs. An unknown number of systems were deployed to Syria beginning in 2015.62

The S-400 “Triumph” (SA-21 Growler) was designed as an upgrade to the S-300 family. It entered service in 2007, but production has been slow. The system is purportedly capable of intercepting ballistic missiles with a range of around 3,000 km; however, the intercept would have to take place in the atmosphere, making its defense capabilities limited. An unknown number of these systems are deployed in Syria.63

The S-500 “Prometheus” is in development to be a comprehensive anti-ballistic missile system that works in conjunction with the S-400. This system extends the engagement envelope of Russian air defenses beyond an altitude of 30 km, making it an “air / space defense system.” It is currently undergoing testing. Russian defense officials claim that the system will be capable of defending against ICBM attacks.64

The A-135 Moscow missile defense system was designed to protect Moscow. It comprises the Radar Don-2NP, a stationary, all-around, multi-purpose surveillance centimeter-range radar station, the command-and-control center, shooting complexes including 12-16 silo launchers of anti-missiles, and high-speed 53T6 interceptors that operate at the terminal trajectory phase and are nuclear-armed.65 The A-135 is aimed at intercepting ICBMs and SLBMs. The system’s upgrade project, called the A-235 Nudol, will employ a new, conventional version of the 53T6 missile with a longer range and higher accuracy.66 As part of the missile defense system, Russia has located 68 nuclear-tipped ballistic-missile interceptors near Moscow. For comparison, the United States deploys 44 anti-ballistic missile interceptors in Alaska and California.67,68,69

Obstacles to arms control

The INF Treaty dispute

The INF Treaty required the United States and Soviet Union to eliminate and permanently forswear all nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The treaty led the countries to destroy a total of 2,692 short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles by the 1991 deadline.70 Yet, beginning in 2014 Washington has accused Russia of violating the treaty by testing, and as of 2017, deploying, a GLCM with a prohibited range.

The Trump administration says the Russian system of concern is the SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile, which, according to the U.S. government, uses the Russian designator 9M729. Because Washington has not been transparent to the public about the violation, very little is known about the noncompliant system. Some have speculated that it is a ground-based version of the Kalibr missile, while others believe that the illegal missile is a follow-on to the R-500/SSC-7 Iskander missile. The SSC-8 is likely capable of targeting major European and east Asian cities, respectively, from Russia’s far western and eastern bases.71

Analysts have suggested various possible rationales for Russia’s development and deployment of the noncompliant system. Analysts point to a desire to enhance theater strike capabilities, increase the survivability of its forces, and destabilize NATO. Moscow’s concern over a security environment in which other nuclear-armed countries are not party to the INF Treaty may also be fueling the violation.72 That disadvantage is a main reason why Moscow has sought to multilateralize the INF Treaty.

In addition to denying U.S. allegations, Moscow has raised its own concerns about Washington’s compliance with the agreement. Russia charges the United States with the following practices: placing a missile defense launch system in Europe that can be used to fire cruise missiles, employing targets for missile defense tests that have similar characteristics to treaty-prohibited intermediate-range missiles, and developing armed drones that are seemingly equivalent to ground-launched cruise missiles.

In November 2016, the United States called a meeting of the Special Verification Commission (SVC), an implementing body established by the INF Treaty to resolve compliance issues. The meeting in Geneva was attended by Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States. There, the United States provided detailed information to Moscow about its allegations of Russian noncompliance.73 The meeting yielded little progress toward resolving the compliance dispute. A second meeting of the SVC took place from December 12-14, 2017, but little information from that session has so far emerged.

The 2017 State Department compliance report repeats past accusations of Russian treaty noncompliance. It claims that the United States has provided Russia with information on the offending missile, such as details regarding the internal designator for the mobile launcher chassis, names of companies involved in developing and producing the missile and launcher, history and coordinates, and documented Russian efforts to obfuscate the program.74 The Russian Foreign Ministry responded to that report by reiterating a complaint it has made in the past that Washington had provided only “odd bits and pieces of signals with no clarification of the unfounded concerns.”75

Washington’s reluctance to provide explicit detailed evidence—including evidence it claims to have already given to Russia—has stymied productive discussion around resolving the compliance dispute. Ultimately, compliance concerns only heighten feelings of distrust on both sides. Without a solution for adequately addressing each side’s concerns—and returning Russia to compliance—it will be difficult for Moscow and Washington to make progress on other arms control issues.

On December 8, 2017—the 30th anniversary of the signing of the INF Treaty—the Trump administration announced what it called an integrated strategy for dealing with the Russian violation. The strategy reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to preserving the treaty and said the United States would (1) continue efforts to seek a diplomatic settlement of the Russian violation, including through the Special Verification Commission; (2) begin research and development on options for conventionally-armed intermediate-range ground-launched missile systems; and (3) impose economic sanctions on Russian entities that had taken part in development and production of the SSC-8.76

To extend or not to extend New START?

Aggregate data from September 2017 demonstrates that Russia has decreased its deployed strategic warheads by 235 in the past 12 months. Russia now has 501 deployed delivery systems and 1,561 deployed strategic nuclear warheads—only 11 warheads over the New START limit of 1,550 warheads.

Both countries are on track to fulfill New START limits by the February 5, 2018 implementation deadline, and there are no indications of either side straying from their obligations. In December 2017 Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov confirmed that Russia would meet its New START limits on schedule.77 As the deadline approaches, Russia has signaled interest in commencing talks on extending the treaty. The Trump administration has yet to respond to these overtures.

Trump’s ambivalence toward New START and efforts by Congressional Republicans to link its extension to resolution of the INF Treaty dispute mean that the treaty could expire in 2021 with nothing to replace it—a dire result.

Third-Country nuclear forces

Although other nuclear-armed countries have arsenals amounting to less than five percent of the size of the Russian and American arsenals, Russia still seeks the institution of limits on these arsenals and the inclusion of other nuclear countries in the arms control regime. In fact, even during INF Treaty discussions, Moscow strongly advocated for extending negotiations to UK and French forces, and continued to call for the inclusion of France and the United Kingdom in subsequent arms control talks with Washington.78 In 2013, the Kremlin advocated for the multilateralization of future arms reductions. At the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2015, the Russians stated that multilateral negotiations among all nuclear-armed states are necessary to make progress on disarmament.79 Russia has yet to table a specific proposal for expanding the arms control process.

The United States does not believe that the relatively small size of third-country nuclear forces warrants inclusion in the next round of arms reductions. It is possible that the United States would be open to multi-lateralization in the future, if and when the size of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals has been more significantly reduced. But at the present time, this issue is yet another on the list of disputes hampering U.S.-Russian cooperation.

U.S. missile defense in Europe

Russia has expressed strong objections to U.S.-NATO missile defense systems in Europe. Moscow worries that the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) could challenge the strength of Russia’s nuclear deterrent, especially after future modernization projects are completed.

Putin remarked in 2016 that “we were assured that the missile defense system and its European segment were designed to protect against Iranian ballistic missiles. However, we know that the situation with the Iranian nuclear issue was resolved…and nevertheless, work on a [U.S.] missile defense system continues.”80 Kremlin officials have also claimed that U.S. missile defense systems lower the threshold for nuclear use. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in 2017, “the anti-missile umbrella may increase the illusion of invulnerability and impunity and lead to temptation of taking unilateral steps in the resolution of global and regional problems, including the reduction of threshold of nuclear weapons use.”81

Incentives for Russian engagement on arms control

The current tensions in the U.S.-Russian relationship would seem to preclude agreement on a major new arms control accord in the near term. But resuming an arms control dialogue with Washington should be attractive to Moscow for many reasons.

First, participating in arms control efforts with the United States cements Russia’s status as a great power. By being party to treaties that enshrine Russia and the United States as equal actors, Russia can portray itself as a global influencer on par with the United States.

Secondly, the verification provisions contained in treaties like New START allow Russia to monitor U.S. nuclear forces and then factor that knowledge into nuclear planning. If Washington and Moscow were to fail to agree to extend New START, Russia would likely be displeased with the loss of limits and transparency on U.S. forces.

Thirdly, active participation in the arms control regime benefits Moscow during a time of economic uncertainty and unrest at home. Arms control reduces the need to finance expansive nuclear modernization projects, which frees funds for use elsewhere.

Finally, Russian military doctrine explicitly declares a commitment to arms control and nonproliferation. To be true to its doctrine and legacy of bilateral nuclear cooperation, Russia must reengage with the United States on nuclear risk reduction.

Recommendations for U.S. policy

The poor state of the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship demands prioritizing measures that are feasible in the near-term in order to build a productive, durable dialogue on arms control. These measures include improving the NATO-Russian relationship, resolving the INF Treaty dispute, and extending New START. Ultimately, engaging in meaningful talks on strategic stability between the United States and Russia must be a priority for Washington if it wishes to heal its nuclear partnership with Moscow.

Strengthen the NATO-Russia relationship

Russia is undeniably anxious about the expansion and conventional force superiority of NATO, which may be driving increased Russian sabre rattling, emphasis on nuclear weapons, and even the decision to test and deploy a GLCM prohibited by the INF Treaty. The NATO-Russian question begs for resolution.

Reviving and expanding channels for NATO-Russian communication could mitigate Russian unease. Communication is essential in order to prevent dangerous military incidents, especially in the Baltic region where tensions are extremely high. Preventing incidents will help to prevent unintended escalation—a critical need, given concerns about the possible Russian use of nuclear strikes to turn the tide of conventional conflicts. Establishing direct military contacts and independent bodies that assess and respond to military confrontations could help prevent conflict.82

Russia and NATO must implement mutual restraint measures, such as those laid out in the NATO-Russia Founding Act (NRFA),83 which could alleviate concerns on both sides of the border. The NRFA should be reviewed and updated to address current needs. The NATO-Russia Council is one possible forum for dialogue, but it might be more useful to establish a similar body that is solely focused on nuclear-related matters. Either way, it is critical that there be a space for Russian and NATO representatives to openly discuss the factors affecting security and strategic stability.

The two sides should prioritize options to resolve destabilizing force imbalances, particularly in the common border area. Their discussions should also explore regulations on tactical nuclear weapons, which have not yet been included in the bilateral arms control process. NATO could also reaffirm its commitment under the NRFA to carry out defense activities by “ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.” Finally, a decision by Washington to unilaterally reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal could push Moscow to reevaluate the size and scope of its next SAP.84

Resolve the INF Treaty dispute

The preservation of the INF Treaty is a crucial safeguard against the advent of a destabilizing arms race in the region. Therefore, Washington and Moscow must urgently address their disagreement regarding the treaty compliance of both countries. The United States should prioritize a diplomatic approach while working to ensure that Russia does not gain a military advantage from its violation.

The Deep Cuts Commission, a group of nuclear experts from the United States, Russia, and Germany, recently published a plan of action for addressing the INF Treaty dispute.85 The plan requests that Russia allow U.S. experts to examine the disputed Russian GLCM. If the United States concludes that the missile is indeed violating the treaty, the paper recommends convening the SVC or a similar independent panel of U.S. and Russian experts to discuss destroying the illegal missiles and launchers to return Russia to compliance.

The Deep Cuts Commission proposal suggests that Washington address Moscow’s concerns over U.S. compliance by negotiating revisions to the treaty language to account for drones and the use of booster stages in target missiles for ballistic missile defense. To satisfy Russian concerns, the authors recommend that the United States alter the land-based version of the Mk-41 launcher to clearly differentiate it from the Mk-41 systems placed on U.S. warships, and institute transparency mechanisms that allow Russia to verify that the launchers in Romania and Poland only contain SM-3 interceptors.

If the INF Treaty does collapse, Washington must ensure that Russia shoulders the blame. This means avoiding steps—such as building a new U.S. missile—that would simultaneously raise red flags among NATO allies and enable Russia to claim that the United States is cultivating nuclear instability.

Extend New START as soon as possible

Given the value of New START to U.S., Russian, and global security, the Trump administration should waste no time in accepting Russia’s offer to extend the treaty. If the treaty is allowed to lapse with nothing to replace it, there will be no limits on Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. Furthermore, the United States will lose the important monitoring and verification measures that allow Washington to keep an eye on the size and composition of Russia’s nuclear stockpile.

The deterioration of the U.S.-Russian relationship has only increased the value of New START. By verifiably capping U.S. and Russian deployed nuclear forces, the treaty bounds the current tensions between the two countries. This is especially important because other key pillars of the U.S.-Russian arms control architecture, like the broader bilateral relationship, are under siege. Failing to respond to Moscow’s invitation to discuss an extension of New START would be a major missed opportunity to ensure continued stability and predictability in the strategic relationship.

Make the most of strategic stability talks

During the Cold War, the Americans and Soviets understood “strategic stability” to mean a security environment in which neither side had an incentive to launch a nuclear first strike. To achieve that end, they collaborated on implementing measures to govern strategic nuclear weapons, missile defense, and air defense.

It is urgent that Washington and Moscow resume such discussions, beginning by agreeing on a shared definition of “strategic stability” to meet the current threat environment. To do so likely entails expanding the agenda of the talks, which should feature key arms control agreements, namely the INF Treaty and New START, as well as missile defense, third-country nuclear forces, and advanced conventional weapons. Without a renewed commitment to strategic stability talks, it will be difficult to improve nuclear cooperation between Russia and the United States.

The first round of renewed U.S.-Russian strategic stability talks began September 12, 2017 in Finland. Following the meeting, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that “the discussions provided both sides with an opportunity to raise questions and concerns related to strategic stability and also to clarify their positions on that matter.” The two delegations agreed to continue implementing New START arms reductions to meet the February 2018 deadline. Conversations focused on extending New START will need to follow quickly if such an extension is to be achieved.

It is important that this round of talks yield other rounds in the near future. Although Lavrov commented pessimistically in October 2017 that the global community should not expect “considerable results in the foreseeable future”86 from the U.S.-Russian strategic stability talks, the very resumption of dialogue is a significant step forward. An important outcome of the talks would be a reaffirmation by the leaders of Russia and the United States of the 1985 declaration made by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”


The United States and Russia must commit to continual dialogue if they wish to address the different perceptions and misperceptions on both sides of the relationship that are harming nuclear cooperation. Even in the bleakest moments of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow were able to cooperate on arms control. If both countries put aside their differences to embark on further nuclear force reductions, they could reduce threats and save billions of dollars. Healing relations and enhancing national and global security requires productive discourse and true dedication to reducing nuclear weapons.

Washington cannot control Moscow, but it can formulate smart policy in regard to its nuclear forces and diligently seek tough and pragmatic cooperation with the Kremlin. To make that possible, the Trump administration must articulate a clear policy toward Russia, as well as strategies to reduce nuclear risks. Congressional support will be necessary to achieve these goals. Rather than hasten the unraveling of several longstanding nuclear risk reduction efforts, the Trump administration and Congress should maintain and reinforce existing arms control and nonproliferation measures.

Finally, American and Russian officials must tone down harsh rhetoric and capitalize on issue areas where they do agree. Unfortunately, the internal politics and foreign policies of both countries continue to shrink potential areas of cooperation. But the relationship has weathered hazardous tensions and even near-catastrophes in the past, with Washington and Moscow able to maintain nuclear cooperation during their darkest days. Today’s leaders must learn from their predecessors and prioritize nuclear risk reduction, or face a more uncertain and dangerous future.


1 Michael Gordon, "Russia Has Deployed Missile Barred by Treaty, U.S. General Tells Congress," The New York Times, Mar. 8, 2017.

2 Rajan Menon, "What’s Russia Doing in Syria and Why," Huffington Post, accessed September 7, 2017. Mythili Sampathkumar, "Syria war: Tensions between America and Russia escalate as countries clash over drones and airspace," Independent, June 20, 2017. Bryony Jones and Nic Robertson, "Syria talks: What Russia and the US agree and disagree on," CNN, Sep. 8, 2016.

3 Thomas Frear and Denitsa Raynova, "Russia-West Military Incidents: Skirting the Law," European Leadership Network, December 7, 2016.

4 "What You Need to Know About Aegis Ashore Romania," U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/ U.S. 6th Fleet, May 11, 2016, http://www.c6f.navy.mil/news/what-you-need-know-about-aegis-ashore-romania

5 Kelsey Davenport, Daryl G. Kimball, and Greg Thielmann, "Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle: The Join Comprehensive Plan of Action," Arms Control Association Briefing Book, August 2015, https://www.armscontrol.org/reports/Solving-the-Iranian-Nuclear-Puzzle-The-Joint-Comprehensive-Plan-of-Action/2015/08/Section-3-Understanding-the-JCPOA

6 Kingston Reif, "Hill Wants Development of Banned Missile," Arms Control Today, December 2017.

7 "The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation," December 25, 2014.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Olga Oliker, "Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine: What We Know, What We Don’t, and What That Means," Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 2016.

11 Serge Schmemann, "Russia Drops Pledge of No First Use of Atom Arms," The New York Times, Nov. 4, 1993. Vladimir Mamontov, "Меняется Россия, меняется и ее военная доктрина (Russia is changing, and its military doctrine is also changing," Izvestia, Oct. 14, 2009.

12 Colin Freeman, "Vladimir Putin: Don’t mess with nuclear-armed Russia," The Telegraph, Aug. 29, 2014.

13 David Nowak, "Russia reserves right to conduct preemptive nuclear strike: Say US, NATO pose threat of aggression," Boston Globe, Oct. 15, 2009.

14 Paul Bernstein, "Countering Russia’s Strategy for Regional Coercion and War Workshop Report," National Defense University, March 2016. Elbridge Colby, "Russia’s Evolving Nuclear Doctrine and its Implications," Center for a New American Security, January 12, 2016. https://www.frstrategie.org/publications/notes/russia-s-evolving-nuclear-doctrine-and-its-implications-2016-01

15 Paul Bernstein, "Countering Russia’s Strategy for Regional Coercion and War Workshop Report,"National Defense University, March 2016

16 Alexander Velez-Green, "The Unsettling View from Moscow: Russia’s Strategic Debate on a Doctrine of Pre-emption," Center for a New American Security, April 27, 2017.

17 Elbridge Colby, "Russia’s Evolving Nuclear Doctrine and its Implications," Center for a New American Security, January 12, 2016, https://www.frstrategie.org/publications/notes/russia-s-evolving-nuclear-doctrine-and-its-implications-2016-01, Dave Johnson, "Nuclear Weapons in Russia’s approach to conflict," Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique, November 2016.

18 Johnson, 2016.

19 Bernstein, March 2016.

20 Adm. James Winnefeld and Robert Work, Statement Before the House Committee on Armed Services, June 25, 2015.

21 Colby, 2016. https://www.frstrategie.org/publications/notes/russia-s-evolving-nuclear-doctrine-and-its-implications-2016-01

22 Oliker, 2016.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris,"Russian nuclear forces, 2017."

26 Mark B. Schneider,"Russian Nuclear Weapons Policy," RealClearDefense, April 28, 2017. 

27 Schneider, 2017. Putin urges Russian navy to prioritize nuclear force buildup," New China, April 26, 2017.

28 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency,"Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations.""Рогозин заявил о подготовке новой госпрограммы вооружений к сентябрю (Rogozin announced the preparation of a new state arms program by September)," Lenta, July 3, 2017.

29 President Vladimir Putin, Address at expanded meeting of the board of the Ministry of Defense, December 22, 2017.

30 Alexei Druzhinin,"Russia developing new nuclear weapons to counter ‘potential threats to military security’ from NATO," National Post, Jan. 24, 2015.

31 President Vladimir Putin, Address at expanded meeting of the board of the Ministry of Defense, December 22, 2016.

32 Steven Pifer,"Pay Attention, America: Russia Is Upgrading Its Military," The National Interest, Feb. 3, 2016. Science and Technology Committee,"Russian Military Modernization," NATO Parliamentary Assembly, October 11, 2015.

33 Gudrun Persson et al.,"Russian Military Capability in a Ten-Year Perspective—2016," Swedish Defence Research Agency, December 2016.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid. Yuri Gavrilov,"‘булава’ к концу года (Bulava by the end of the year)," The Russian Newspaper, Feb. 25, 2011.

36 Gavrilov, 2011.

37 Science and Technology Committee,"Russian Military Modernization," NATO Parliamentary Assembly, October 11, 2015.

38 Gudrun Persson et al., 2016.

39 "СМИ: Минобороны требует увеличить вдвое финансирование вооружения (Media: Defense Ministry demands doubling the financing of weapons)," Red Line, July 4, 2016. Keir Giles,"Assessing Russia’s Reorganized and Rearmed Military," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 4, 2017.

40 Gudrun Persson et al., 2016.

41 Correspondence with Pavel Podvig. Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris,"Russian nuclear forces, 2017.""Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: Russia," Arms Control Association Fact Sheet, updated March 2017, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/russiaprofile. U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency,"Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations," 2017

42 Hans M. Kristensen,"Russian Nuclear Weapons Modernization: Status, Trends, and Implications," Federation of American Scientists, September 29, 2014.

43 Ibid. Kristensen and Norris, 2017. Malcolm Davis,"Russia’s New RS-28 Sarmat ICBM: A U.S. Missile Defense Killer?," The National Interest, Feb. 15, 2017. Shannon N. Kile and Hans M. Kristensen,"Trends in World Nuclear Forces, 2016," Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), June 2016.

44 Pavel Podvig,"Flight tests of Barguzin rail-mobile ICBM are said to begin in 2019," Russian strategic nuclear forces blog, Jan. 19, 2017. Schneider, 2017."Russia to Conduct Flight Tests of Missile for ‘Nuclear Train’ in 2019," Sputnik, Jan. 19, 2017.

45 "Эксперт: Ракета БЖРК «Баргузин» успешно стартует с железнодорожной платформы (Expert: Barguzin BZHR rocket successfully starts from the railway platform)," Defence.ru, Nov. 21, 2016.

46 Pavel Podvig,"Barguzin rail-mobile ICBM is cancelled (again)," Russian strategic nuclear forces blog, Dec. 4, 2017.

47 Kristensen, 2014. Kristensen and Norris, 2017.

48 Kristensen and Norris, 2017.

49 Kristensen, 2014. Kristensen and Norris, 2017.

50 "Russian Defense Ministry Signs $100 Mln Deal to Overhaul 3 Tu-160 Bombers," Sputnik, July 26, 2013.

51 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency,"Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations."

52 Kristensen and Norris, 2017.

53 William J. Perry and James R. Schlesinger,"America’s Strategic Posture: The Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States," United States Institute of Peace, 2009.

54 Pavel Podvig,"Blurring the line between nuclear and nonnuclear weapons: Increasing the risk of accidental nuclear war," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 3, 2016. Amy F. Woolf,"Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons," Congressional Research Service, February 21, 2017. Matthew Kroenig,"The Renewed Russian Nuclear Threat and NATO Nuclear Deterrence Posture," Atlantic Council, February 2, 2016.

55 United States European Command, EUCOM 2017 Posture Statement, March 23, 2017.

56 Kroenig, 2016.

57 Pavel Podvig,"Early warning," Russian strategic nuclear forces blog, Aug. 15, 2017."Шойгу: по периметру России создано сплошное радиолокационное поле систем предупреждения" (Shoigu: a continuous radar field of warning systems has been created along the perimeter of Russia)," Defence.ru, Dec. 22, 2016.

58 Pavel Podvig,"No gaps in early-warning coverage as three radars to begin combat duty in 2017," Russian strategic nuclear forces blog, Dec. 23, 2016.

59 "Основная продукция военного назначения (Major military products)," Концерн ВКО «Алмаз – Антей. http://www.almaz-antey.ru/catalogue/millitary_catalogue/

60 Correspondence with Pavel Podvig

61 "Основная продукция военного назначения (Major military products)," Концерн ВКО «Алмаз – Антей. http://www.almaz-antey.ru/catalogue/millitary_catalogue/

62 "Основная продукция военного назначения (Major military products)," Концерн ВКО «Алмаз – Антей. http://www.almaz-antey.ru/catalogue/millitary_catalogue/

63 Correspondence with Pavel Podvig

64 Ibid.

65 Dmitry Gorenburg,"Valdai Club 3: Touring the Don-2N Radar Facility," Russian Military Reform blog, June 2, 2011.

66 Pavel Podvig,"Russia Tests Nudol Anti-Satellite System," Russian strategic nuclear forces blog, April 1, 2016.

67 Hans Kristensen,"Targeting Missile Defense Systems," Federation of American Scientists, July 19, 2007.

68 Alex Lockie,"Why Russia’s ballistic-missile defense works and the US’s kinda doesn’t," Business Insider, July 21, 2017.

69 "The last frontier of defense: what is strategic missile defense in Russia capable of," Ria Novosti, March 30, 2017.

70 "The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty at a Glance," Arms Control Association Fact Sheet, updated June 2017. https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/INFtreaty

71 Steven Pifer,"Multilateralize the INF Problem," Brookings Institution, Marcy 2017.

72 Paul N. Schwartz,"Russian INF Treaty Violations: Assessment and Response," Center for Strategic and International Studies, Oct. 16, 2014.

73 "The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty at a Glance," Arms Control Association Fact Sheet, updated June 2017, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/INFtreaty

74 U.S. Department of State,"2017 Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments," April 2017.

75 Maggie Tennis,"INF Dispute Adds to U.S.-Russia Tensions," Arms Control Today, June 2017.

76 U.S. Department of State,"Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance Factsheet INF Treaty: At a Glance," Dec. 8, 2017.

77 Steven Pifer (@Steven_Pifer)."Amb Antonov says #Russia will meet New START limits, which take effect in Feb 2018. New START = positive item on troubled US-Russia agenda." Dec. 1, 2017, 5:35 PM. Tweet.

78 Steven Pifer and James Tyson,"Third-Country Nuclear Forces and Possible Measures for Multilateral Arms Control," Brookings Institution, August 2016.

79 "Nuclear Disarmament Russia," Nuclear Threat Initiative Factsheet, updated Apr. 6, 2017. Pifer and Tyson, 2016.

80 President Vladimir Putin, Address at Expanded Meeting of the Defence Ministry Board.

81 Tom O’Connor,"Russian Officials Say U.S. Global Missile Defense Could Lead to Nuclear War in Europe," Newsweek, Apr. 27, 2017. Olga Oliker,"U.S.-Russian Arms Control: The Stakes for Moscow," Arms Control Today, May 2017. Alexey Arbatov,"The Hidden Side of the U.S.-Russian Strategic Confrontation," Arms Control Today, September 2016.

82 Wolfgang Richter,"Sub-regional Arms Control for the Baltics: What is Desirable? What is Feasible?," Deep Cuts Commission Working Paper no. 8, July 2016.

83 "Founding Act," North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), May 27, 1997, last updated Oct. 12, 2009.

84 Kingston Reif and Victor Mizin,"A Two-Pronged Approach to Revitalizing U.S.-Russia Arms Control," Deep Cuts Commission Working Paper No. 10, July 2017.

85 Hans Kristensen, et al.,"Preserving the INF Treaty" Deep Cuts Commission Special Briefing Paper, April 2017.

86 Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference, October 20, 2017.


The global nonproliferation order is weakening. It cannot afford continued noncooperation between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

Country Resources:

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.

Resuming Negotiations with North Korea


By Elizabeth Philipp
2016 Scoville Fellow
June 2016

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The window of opportunity to prevent North Korea from fielding nuclear-armed ballistic missiles is closing. Diplomatic engagement with North Korea has been scant in recent years. In response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, the United States and other countries, through actions of the United Nations Security Council and independent policies, have adopted an approach of increasing political and economic isolation. Yet, during this time, Pyongyang has improved its nuclear weapons capability quantitatively and qualitatively.

The next presidential administration must prioritize reviewing and renewing Washington’s diplomatic approach to North Korea. With each successive nuclear and missile test, North Korea advances its knowledge and consolidates its capability. History has shown that it is far easier to convince North Korea to negotiate away a military capability it does not yet possess. Washington’s stated primary concern is a North Korean nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Pyongyang will achieve this capability if it is not reined in through a diplomatic agreement or understanding. Once Pyongyang achieves this status, the security balance in Asia will be disrupted and U.S. diplomats will be hard-pressed to convince North Korea to abandon the capability.


The window of opportunity to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear-armed ballistic missile systems is closing and Washington should explore every serious diplomatic overture from Pyongyang.

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North Korea’s Nuclear Threat: How to Halt Its Slow but Steady Advance


By Greg Thielmann
February 2016

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In the first five weeks of 2016, North Korea twice defied UN Security Council resolutions designed to stem its pursuit of nuclear weapons. On January 6, it conducted its fourth underground nuclear test; on February 7, it launched a satellite into space for the second time. These two events provided a vivid reminder that North Korea continues to make progress mastering the technology needed for developing long-range ballistic missiles and arming them with nuclear warheads.

U.S. leaders have long sought to formulate and implement policies that would secure a denuclearized Korean peninsula, but these efforts have not been successful. U.S. political commentary on North Korea vacillates between taking at face value the regime’s exaggerated claims of technological prowess and reducing its leadership to cartoonish stereotypes.

A clearer understanding of North Korea’s motives and the current status of its nuclear and missile programs can lead to a more realistic strategy for enhancing U.S. security. That strategy would involve using enhanced sanctions as leverage for achieving a halt in North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing and production of fissile material, but this can only happen through negotiations.


In the first five weeks of 2016, North Korea twice defied UN Security Council resolutions designed to stem its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

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Iran Nuclear Policy Brief: An Effective, Verifiable Nuclear Deal With Iran


By Kelsey Davenport & Daryl Kimball
July 2015

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The P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have finalized a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran that will verifiably block Iran's pathways to nuclear weapons development--the uranium-enrichment route and the plutonium-separation route--and guard against a clandestine weapons program. We assess that the final agreement will be a net-plus for nonproliferation and will enhance U.S. and regional security.

This two-page Iran Nuclear Policy Brief examines the key provisions and benefits of a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran.


Updated: We assess that the final comprehensive nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran will be a net-plus for nonproliferation and will enhance U.S. and regional security.

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Understanding the North Korean Nuclear Threat


By Greg Thielmann
May 2015

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As the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference continues in New York, the international community's failure to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to North Korea looms large. Unlike the four of the world's nine nuclear-weapon states that have shown some progress in reducing their nuclear arsenals, North Korea is working hard to expand its arsenal and make it more credible. Unlike six of the nine, which have either ratified the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or maintained a testing moratorium since the treaty was concluded, North Korea has conducted three underground nuclear tests, the only state to do so during the last 17 years.

Unlike the three nuclear-weapon states that never became parties to the NPT, North Korea signed the treaty, declared it was withdrawing, later pledged to denuclearize, and then reneged on its commitment.

The North's nuclear program today is out of control and accelerating, damaging both the NPT and international stability. Addressing this grim reality begins with an objective assessment of North Korea's actual nuclear capabilities and an acknowledgment that the Obama administration's "strategic patience" approach is not working.

Washington and Beijing must step up their efforts to revive the six-party process with the near-term goal of freezing Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, taking care to manage potential spoilers, Russia and the U.S. Congress.


As the 2015 NPT Review Conference continues in New York, the international community’s failure to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to North Korea looms large.

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