Two years ago, I wrote about the thousands of tactical or battlefield nuclear warheads left over from the Cold War.
Today, I can confidently report: they are still out there, uncounted and unseen. There has been almost no progress toward bringing these weapons into the open, or under an arms control treaty.
Both the United States and Russia have made dramatic reductions since the visionary, unilateral initiatives of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in the autumn of 1991, in which they pulled back voluntarily and without a treaty as the great confrontation of the Cold War ebbed. But the story didn't end there.
Today, the United States, which once had 7,300 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, retains about 200 B-61 gravity bombs in five NATO nations. (And there are about 300 non-deployed bombs in the United States, as well as 260 cruise missile warheads which are being phased out.) Russia now has some 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons of various kinds assigned to delivery vehicles, with more awaiting dismantlement. The estimates of Russian stockpiles have been highly uncertain in the two decades since the Soviet collapse.
The fate of these weapons will be in the spotlight again at the NATO summit in Chicago May 20-21, which is expected to approve a new Deterrence and Defense Posture Review. Don't look for a dramatic shift from the status-quo; the allies want to hold onto the nuclear weapons, for now, as a political symbol of the American nuclear umbrella, and perhaps as a chip to be traded in future negotiations. And Russia, too, sees these warheads as a useful bulwark against NATO's edge in conventional or non-nuclear forces (a complete turnabout from the Cold War when it was the West that saw nuclear battlefield weapons as a way to stop a Soviet conventional invasion.)
Tactical nuclear weapons have no significant military utility in these times. A target could be just as easily put in the crosshairs of a highly-precise strategic weapon.
If NATO policy is stuck, then at least the summit should consider a very good suggestion from Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, who has just completed a comprehensive look at tactical nuclear weapons, a report [pdf] chock-a-block with data and valuable insights. Kristensen, who is co-author with Robert S. Norris of the authoritative "Nuclear Notebook" column in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, suggests we create some transparency as a first step to break the tactical nuclear weapons impasse.
"Russia, the United States and NATO do not disclose how many non-strategic nuclear weapons they have or where they are deployed" he writes. "As a result, uncertainty and rumors fuel a debate full of half-truths, exaggerations and worst-case assumptions."
Kristensen points out that keeping the details of tactical nuclear weapons secret is in contrast to the approach taken with operational, long-range strategic weapons, which are accounted for in the New Start treaty data. Also, in 2010, the Obama administration disclosed the size and history of the total nuclear weapons stockpile. Why not do the same with the tactical warheads? In 2011, a group of NATO nations proposed just that: exchanging data between the United States, NATO and Russia on numbers, locations, operational status, command arrangements and warhead storage security. But so far it has not been done.
"The stalemate in non-strategic nuclear weapons cries out for political leadership and bold initiatives. It is important that Russia and the United States take steps to drastically increase transparency. This can be done on a unilateral basis and should include overall numbers, locations, and delivery systems. It should also include verification measures to confirm data that is provided. Increasing transparency is essential because uncertainty creates mistrust, rumors, and worst-case planning.
"Most of what is assumed about Russian non-strategic nuclear capabilities still comes from literature published during the Cold War and in the first years after the demise of the Soviet Union. Since then, the U.S. intelligence community has largely stopped publishing estimates about Russian nuclear capabilities, and Russia has not offered any insight.
To that end, it is important that possible agreements on increased transparency of non-strategic nuclear weapons not be confined to confidential exchanges of information between governments but also benefit the international community."
Operation Upshot-Knothole, May 25, 1953, via Wikimedia Commons
Consider the split-second timing needed to hit a fastball from a major league pitcher, traveling something like 90 miles per hour. The batter must swing at precisely the right moment, within a few milliseconds. Too soon, or too late, and the ball may go foul, too far left or right.
Now consider the split-second timing needed to hit a ballistic missile warhead in space with an interceptor rocket. In order to stop the warhead, the interceptor's "kill vehicle" must be accurate within a few inches, while closing in on the moving target at some 6,710 miles per hour, according to a recent article in Survival by Dean A. Wilkening. If the kill vehicle misses, the warhead gets through. And if the warhead is nuclear, even a small number getting through could be a calamity.
Such daunting physics problems haunt missile defense. The difficulty is even greater if the interceptor must distinguish the real warhead from decoys.
The Cold War showed that building an effective missile defense is exceedingly hard. In 1972, both the United States and Soviet Union signed the ABM treaty to limit defenses. The United States built one system called Safeguard to defend a U.S. missile field in North Dakota.
Safeguard interceptors carried nuclear weapons that would explode in an attempt to block incoming warheads. But it was decommissioned in 1976 after studies showed that it could be simply overwhelmed if the Soviets added more missiles and warheads. The Soviet Union built a system around Moscow with interceptors that were also nuclear armed.
When President Reagan revived the idea of national missile defense in 1983, he appealed to the best scientific minds to solve the physics problems. Reagan's vision put a lot of faith on American superiority in technology, and since then, computing power has indeed taken great leaps forward. The Soviet Union, lacking the technology, responded by planning relatively cheap decoys and countermeasures that could have been used to fool a missile defense system.
At one point, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was told by his own specialists that Reagan's defensive shield could be easily overwhelmed by simply building more offensive missiles and warheads. Fortunately, Gorbachev didn't want another arms race and didn't go down that road.
Since Reagan's time, missile defense has seized the imagination of many conservatives in the United States. Reagan did not want to build a nuclear-armed missile defense, and today's systems are intended to collide directly with the warhead in order to stop it-- a kinetic "hit-to-kill" that is technically challenging. Congress has approved billions of dollars for missile defense, and President Obama is moving ahead with a limited system for protection of Europe. There's also a ground-based system in California and Alaska. The president's Ballistic Missile Defense Review in 2010 concluded that "the United States is currently protected against limited ICBM attacks." Rather, potential threats are regional, such as Iran and North Korea. Both nations have long-range missile ambitions, but it requires years of research, development and testing; failures like the one North Korea experienced recently are common.
At the same time, some fundamental problems remain unresolved with missile defenses. On April 21, the Associated Press carried a story about the latest difficulties, including questions about the adequacy of radars. The article and others have focused on a little-noticed report from the Defense Science Board last autumn which raised the issue of fake warheads and other distractions.
The DSB is a 50-year-old advisory body intended to give the Pentagon guidance about science and technology. In their report, the board said the success of missile defense systems outside the earth's atmosphere is "predicated on an ability to discriminate…the missile warhead(s) from other pieces of the offensive missile complex, such as rocket bodies, miscellaneous hardware, and intentional countermeasures." The importance of doing this reliably, the experts said, "cannot be overemphasized."
They added that detecting a warhead from decoys and junk "is still not a completely solved problem."
They also declared: "If the defense should find itself in a situation where it is shooting at missile junk or decoys, the impact on the regional interceptor inventory would be dramatic and devastating!" In other words, you might run out of interceptors and not stop the warhead. (The exclamation point is included in the original.)
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency responded to the report by saying it has "a program in place to incrementally introduce discrimination capabilities over time," including both radar and infrared color sensors.
So far, there has not been a successful missile defense test against realistic countermeasures.
Professor Ted Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who in the past has cast a critical eye on many aspects of U.S. missile defense, described the problem this way:
The basic problem with discrimination is that the characteristics of objects that can be measured with radars and infrared sensors are not unique and can easily be modified. In order to recognize a warhead you not only need to know what it looks like, but it also needs to look uniquely different from other objects that are not warheads. Making matters yet more complicated, a warhead and other objects can and will look different to a radar or infrared sensor due to changes in orientation relative to the sensor. This results in an array of characteristics that do not result in mathematically unique characteristics that can be used to identify each object, but also results in different estimates which objects are warheads and which are not at different times. It is simply ridiculous to turn these facts of physics on their head to claim that discrimination might be possible at some future time."
A generation ago, Reagan promised that missile defense could make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete. It was a captivating idea, but did not happen then and is not happening today. In fact, an impasse with Russia over possible cooperation on European missile defense has become an unnecessary stumbling block to the next stage of negotiations to reduce our remaining nuclear arsenals. Certainly, the quest for workable missile defense will go on. But it is time to be realistic -- and not romantic -- about the technology and its limitations.
Getty Images/Chung Sung-Jun
Twelve years ago, in October, 1999, the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Only 48 senators supported the treaty, falling short of the 67 required. In the debate, serious doubt was expressed about whether the U.S. nuclear arsenal could be kept safe, secure and reliable without nuclear explosive tests.
At the time, six former secretaries of defense in Republican administrations wrote a letter saying that if the test ban were to be ratified, "over the decades ahead, confidence in the reliability of our nuclear weapons stockpile would inevitably decline, thereby reducing the credibility of our nuclear deterrent."
The six former secretaries also said the relatively young Stockpile Stewardship Program, started in the Clinton administration, "will not be mature for at least 10 years" and could only mitigate, not eliminate, a loss of confidence in the weapons without testing. Although the treaty was rejected, the United States has continued to abide by the test ban.
Today, many fears voiced in the Senate debate have not materialized. That is the core message in an important report issued last week by a nine-member committee of the National Research Council. The panel, which focused on technical issues in the treaty, said the stockpile stewardship program "has been more successful than was anticipated in 1999."
They concluded that "the United States is now better able to maintain a safe and effective nuclear stockpile and to monitor clandestine nuclear-explosion testing than at any time in the past."
That is quite a milestone, and one that I have heard from other sources as well. Bruce T. Goodwin, principal associate director for weapons programs at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told me in an interview last year, "We have a more fundamental understanding of how these weapons work today than we ever imagined when we were blowing them up."
The Stockpile Stewardship Program includes such things as surveillance of the weapons -- taking them apart and checking them. It includes non-nuclear experiments, and periodic life-extension programs for the existing weapons.
There is also a massive supercomputing program to simulate nuclear explosions, which has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1990s. According to the committee's report, the computing capability available to weapons designers "has increased by a factor of approximately one hundred thousand" since 1996. I wrote a story about this for The Washington Post in November. What I found in talking to scientists at Livermore is that they are using some of the world's most capable computers to create realistic models of what happens inside a nuclear explosion, when tremendous pressures and temperatures squeeze metals, including uranium and plutonium, to set off the nuclear blast.
The computer simulations produce a virtual window into what happens in an explosion. "This is millions of times finer than you could ever do in a nuclear test," Goodwin told me. "You could never see this process go on inside a nuclear explosion."
Such progress depends, in part, on the use of hard data from past nuclear explosions. Also, computer simulations are impressive, but they must be validated by modern laboratory experiments. All this is expensive: state-of-the-art supercomputers, advanced laboratory facilities, a modernized infrastructure and the need to recruit and sustain the best and brightest workforce. The committee said funding each of these is essential. But it seems a relatively small price to pay for an end to U.S. nuclear explosions.
We really have come a long way since 1999.
In the Russian government lately, there's been some careless talk about biological weapons.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin published a series of essays about the country's problems as part of his bid to return to the presidency. The essay on national security, published in Rossiiskaya Gazeta on Feb. 20, argued that Russia needs to prepare for threats of the future.
"The military capability of a country in space or information countermeasures, especially in cyberspace, will play a great, if not decisive, role in determining the nature of an armed conflict," Putin wrote.
Then he added:
"In the more distant future, weapons systems based on new principles (beam, geophysical, wave, genetic, psychophysical and other technology) will be developed. All this will, in addition to nuclear weapons, provide entirely new instruments for achieving political and strategic goals."
Putin said Russian needed to be prepared "for quick and effective responses to new challenges."
Putin seemed to be making the general point that weapons which are based on genetically-engineered pathogens -- biological weapons -- could be a future threat. Many others have expressed fears about this as well.
Then, last Thursday, Putin gathered some of his leading cabinet ministers to talk about implementing the ideas in his essays. The Russian government has published a transcript of the session. Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov pledged to come up with a plan to implement 28 tasks set by Putin. Among them, he said:
"The development of weapons based on new physical principles: radiation, geophysical, wave, genetic, psychophysical, etc."
Putin did not react, but he should have stopped this loose talk. "Genetic" weapons -- and more broadly, all biological weapons -- are banned by the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Russia has insisted that it is in compliance and is not working on biological weapons of any kind. (The Soviet Union, in earlier decades, built a massive biological weapons program in violation of the treaty, which it had signed.)
Last December, at the Seventh Review Conference of the treaty in Geneva, the Russian Federation vowed that it "fully and unwaveringly carries out its obligations" and "does not develop, produce, stockpile, acquire or retain" biological or toxin weapons.
Perhaps someone needs to remind the defense minister and the re-elected president.
Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images
Today we are overloaded with threats. In the presidential campaign, in the news media and everywhere you look, warnings are issued faster that we can absorb them. In the flurry of worry, important problems get forgotten. In this election year, in which a Republican candidate has proposed establishing a colony on the Moon, here are five down-to-earth threats that we should be talking about now.
We slurp up energy. About 20 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States today comes from 104 nuclear power reactors. But we have irresponsibly postponed a solution about the waste and spent fuel. The U.S. currently has more than 65,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at about 75 operating and shutdown reactor sites around the country; more than 2,000 tons are being produced each year. Nearly all of spent fuel is stored where it was generated, about three-quarters of it in shielded concrete pools and the remainder in dry casks above ground. A blue-ribbon commission has just finished two years of work on the thorny problem and concluded that a policy which has been troubled for decades "has now all but completely broken down." The panel, chaired by former Rep. Lee Hamilton and former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft declared:
"Put simply, this nation’s failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly and it will be more damaging and more costly the longer it continues: damaging to prospects for maintaining a potentially important energy supply option for the future, damaging to state–federal relations and public confidence in the federal government’s competence, and damaging to America’s standing in the world—not only as a source of nuclear technology and policy expertise but as a leader on global issues of nuclear safety, non-proliferation, and security."
In the 1940s, penicillin and the later discovery of streptomycin saved lives and alleviated suffering. But bacteria, viruses and other pathogens can become resistant to antimicrobial drugs by mutating. We've used these drugs so extensively that we now face a terrifying prospect. In the words of a U.S. government task force, drug resistance now "threatens to reverse the medical advances of the last half century." There is a scarcity of new antimicrobial drugs in the pipeline, which means that many more people may get sick and die because we have no way to fight the germs. The problem is especially evident in hospitals, where methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is creating huge new public health burdens. According to the World Health Organization, about 440,000 cases of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis emerge each year, causing 150,000 deaths. Extensively drug-resistant TB has been reported in 64 nations. And in the last few years, there have been very preliminary reports of a totally drug resistant tuberculosis. The government task force concluded, "There is a critical need for new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tests to treat, prevent, and diagnose infections, including serious and life-threatening infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria."
Ballistic missile defense
Billions and billions of dollars have been spent by the United States in pursuit of Ronald Reagan's vision of ballistic missile defense, and more is to be spent in the years ahead. Yet we don't really know whether it works. As Dean A. Wilkening points out in the current issue of Survival, to be effective, a ballistic missile defense system must be able to protect a given area, and to find and destroy warheads on an incoming missile. Hit-to-kill has been demonstrated on the test range, once a target has been identified. But an aggressor can saturate a defense system by overwhelming it with objects that are or look like incoming warheads. This makes the success of the defense much more difficult.
Wilkening points out that an interceptor rocket needs to hit the target warhead at an accuracy of within several inches while traveling at three kilometers a second. And there are other imponderables: the defender's sensors can be jammed, or the missile defense itself can become a target. In the end, an aggressor's warhead might get through, making the umbrella rather leaky. While technology has improved over the decades, how many more billions of dollars are needed to create a technically effective ballistic missile defense, and is it really worth it? What is the missile threat we are defending against?
The United States is currently building a limited system to protect Europe, intended to defend against an Iranian missile. Russia is worried that a later phase of this program, at the end of this decade, could threaten its strategic forces. Talks on cooperation between Washington and Moscow have reached an impasse, for now. If the disagreement persists, it could threaten a breakdown in U.S.-Russian strategic arms control. Russia has already announced plans to build a giant new liquid-fueled ballistic missile--an ominous hint at what kind of arms race could be on the horizon. Cooperation with Russia now would be a lot more promising than a new competition.
We need to disconnect missile defense from the Reagan mythology that it can make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," and answer hard questions about the threat, and the technology.
Our climate is slow to change -- if we alter it now with carbon dioxide emissions, it impacts the atmosphere for millennia. James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute warns in a forthcoming paper with a number of colleagues that human-made gasses have already raised temperatures and "deleterious climate impacts are growing worldwide." He maintains that our continued determination to extract more and more fossil fuels could "push the climate system beyond tipping points such that amplifying feedbacks drive further climate change that is beyond humanity's control." He adds, "This situation raises profound moral issues in that young people, future generations, and nature, with no possibility of protecting their future well-being, will bear the principal consequences of actions and inactions of today's adults."
Yet, as Steven Cohen and Alison Miller point out in an essay published recently by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the issue is now stalled by partisan gridlock in the United States. They add:
"By its very nature, the climate problem is a tough political issue to bring to the policy agenda. The causes of the climate problem are everywhere; they can't be located, like a point source of pollution or a toxic waste dump can. The impacts of climate change are largely in the future, and they cannot be seen or smelled. The US political system, based as it is on places as well as people, will pay more attention to impacts on a specific location than those that are general--or, in the case of climate change, global."
The very essence of our well-being and prosperity is connectivity. Finance, medicine, education, science, news, national security and culture are all dependent on networks. But in recent years, the networks turned into a vast parallel universe of malicious activity. Attacks, intrusions, thefts, exploits, espionage and disruption are transnational and ubiquitous. Much of it is still hidden. Corporations do not want to admit they have been ransacked (and rarely report it to shareholders or regulators.) The U.S. government, too, stays mum about major cyber attacks. Corporate, government and military cyber security have been cast as intelligence matters—and kept secret.
A cyber war hasn’t happened yet, but a new arms race is taking shape with shadowy proxies and intensive espionage. It is less a classic competition between nations and more a scrum. The contestants change, rules hardly exist, and attacks are difficult to deter, trace or retaliate against. “A nuclear missile heading toward the United States is a little bit easier to detect than a cyber attack,” Gen. Keith Alexander, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command, said at a conference recently. Today, he added, “everyone can be a cyber power. Hackers, terrorists, non-state actors and nation states—it will be hard to distinguish between them.”
The dangers are becoming more evident. The significance of the Stuxnet computer worm was that a carefully-designed cyber weapon was capable of crippling an industrial plant. What if the next version is aimed at an American hospital, or a power grid, or stock exchange that is the lifeblood of the economy? And how does a nation with a robust private sector that depends on networks respond to such threats? In the absence of any restraints, should the United States be competing with others to invent new offensive cyber arms? Do cyber weapons have any deterrence value? Or is there a danger they would backfire as others used the same against us?
What is to be done?
We need to start thinking clearly about every one of these confounding problems, which are wrapped up in science, security, politics, law, economics, engineering and more. The answers aren't simple, but we have plenty of data and good reason to unravel them, not to mention a big stake in the outcome. It is one thing to bemoan the trivial pursuits of presidential campaigns, but quite another to confront the biggest issues of our time.
Getty Images/Christopher Furlong
Since the early days of the atomic age, nuclear weapons have been surrounded in secrecy. Atom-splitting releases some of the most intense energy mankind has ever known, so the protective walls are not surprising. At the same time, as long as nuclear bombs and materials remain a danger, a certain amount of transparency is desirable -- it can help detect a breach.
Twenty years ago, there was genuine fear that a disintegrating Soviet Union would spread weapons or fissile material around the world. After 9/11, the specter of nuclear terrorism grew more intense. So far, we have been lucky--the worst-case scenarios have not happened.
But the nagging concern remains: where might there be a hole in the fence?
This question is behind a new project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-governmental organization co-chaired by former Sen. Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, and Ted Turner, the television mogul, to combat nuclear, chemical and biological weapons threats. The new project, the Nuclear Materials Security Index, is a country-by-country ranking of conditions. It can't replace the work of government sleuths to discover and stop proliferation and smuggling. But it is a very open attempt to hold all countries up to the same yardstick, similar to the Transparency International index of corruption perceptions. The value of such an index is that it can serve as a public early warning system. The NTI project is explained here.
The Economist Intelligence Unit, assisting NTI, pulled together information from sources around the world, and ranked nations in five categories: quantities and sites, security and control measures, global norms, domestic commitments and capacity, and societal factors (such as corruption and political instability.) The ranking looks at all countries, but is particularly important for 32 nations with weapons-useable nuclear materials: highly enriched uranium and plutonium. These countries were judged on the basis of 18 indicators and 51 sub-indicators.
Without harming security, these nations ought to be more open about their nuclear materials, the NTI authors recommend. They point out:
"Today, there is no requirement for a state to publicly declare its weapons-useable nuclear materials holdings for either military or civilian applications, and for those states that have done so, there is no mechanism for verifying those declarations. Nine states, however, voluntarily declare their civilian plutonium holdings to the IAEA. In addition, the United States and United Kingdom have declared their nuclear weapons holdings; both also have released the production history for the HEU and plutonium in their military holdings. These examples show that governments can do more to report their inventories without compromising their national security interests. Such declarations are needed to confidently assess and track inventory trends and to monitor whether inventories are growing or declining."
Transparency is a good cause, but a tall order, and the NTI authors got a taste of this when they approached countries for information. Iran (rank: 30 of 32) and North Korea (rank: 32) were asked to verify what the researchers had found. They didn't answer.
KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images
On February 9, 1988, President Reagan and his top aides met in the White House Situation Room to look at prospects for a strategic arms control treaty with the Soviet Union during Reagan's last year in office. Although Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had come close to a deal on deep cuts at the Reykjavik summit in 1986, they had yet to nail down an agreement.
Reagan had high hopes for a Moscow summit in the spring. He told his advisors to work hard toward a possible arms control treaty, if a satisfactory one could be hammered out. "We should all have our work shoes on," he insisted.
A few months later, on May 23, Reagan and his advisors met again in the Situation Room. At this point, the summit was a week away, but Reagan's advisors were at odds over missile defense. Exasperated, Secretary of State George Shultz declared at one point:
You know, this discussion highlights the fact that we can't get straight internally what we want. How can we possibly negotiate with the Soviets when we can't even articulate to each other what our position is in a meeting like this?
Once in Moscow, Reagan enjoyed an upbeat summit, but did not get a strategic arms treaty, and he left office without it. The following year, the new president, George H. W. Bush, was not in a hurry either. He started his term with a misguided "pause" in dealings with Moscow. Gorbachev was frustrated, and his national security advisor, Anatoly Chernyaev, called 1989 "the lost year." (The treaty wasn't signed until 1991, in the final months before the Soviet collapse.)
Why does this matter? Experience shows that "lost years" are all too common nuclear arms control negotiations. The best results come in those rare moments when national interests align and leaders summon the willpower to make compromises. By that yardstick, it looks like 2012 will be another "lost year." Presidential elections in the United States and Russia mean that leaders in both countries--which hold the lion's share of nuclear weapons in the world--will be preoccupied and cautious.
There's a strange complacency about nuclear weapons. For all their destructive power, we tend to forget about them. The last atomic bomb to be used in combat was more than 60 years ago (although thousands were blown up in tests during the Cold War.) Many people ask: why worry now? Didn't Presidents Obama and Dmitri Medvedev just sign a strategic arms treaty? Yes, they did, bringing the total operational strategic warheads down to 1,550 on each side. But thousands of other nuclear warheads in the United States and Russian Federation--at least 5,000, probably more, both tactical and strategic--remain outside the existing arms control treaties. It would make sense to corral them: get a precise fix on how many are out there, decide whether any must be retained for security, and put the rest on the conveyor belt to oblivion.
But negotiations require compromise, and that's difficult during political campaigns. Vladimir Putin has been weakened by the recent protests in Moscow. Although he is still expected to win the March presidential election, it may not be the best time for making deals with the United States. Likewise, Obama and the Republicans will be in a constant struggle over the next 10 months, hardly a good moment for bargaining with Moscow. In the American campaign, neither Republicans nor Democrats are expected to make nuclear arms control an issue this year; it hasn't cropped up once in the recent Republican debates.
So the next window for negotiations is 2013, at the earliest.
The lost year should be spent mapping out new approaches to eliminating the huge overhang of nuclear weapons from the Cold War, no matter who become the next leaders of Russia and the United States. Already, some policy discussions about the next phase are percolating in both capitals. The backlog of sticky problems between the two powers is growing ever larger, not to mention the nonproliferation challenges elsewhere.
Time to get the work shoes on.
To read the declassified minutes of the 1988 Reagan meetings, go to www.thereaganfiles.com and see the section on National Security Planning Group meetings. The two sessions were No. 176 and No. 190.
Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images
We live in an age of breathtaking advances in the life sciences. Achievements in sequencing, or plotting the genetic blueprint of an organism, have been astounding, and may lead to great benefits in public health and medicine. But biological research can be dual-use: that which improves the lot of mankind can also be flipped around to create disease.
Mother nature does this through mutation. But how serious is the threat that a person would deliberately create a dangerous agent, and harm others with it? Do terrorists, or nations, harbor the intention, and can they summon the capability?
While some diseases occur easily in nature and are highly contagious, others require sophisticated work before they can be used as a weapon, and are probably too difficult for today's terrorist groups, although not for nation-states. The Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan tried to make a biological weapon but failed. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union clandestinely build a massive biological weapons research and production complex. In 2001, five letters carrying anthrax spores were put in the U.S. mail, at least 22 people were sickened and five died. According to the FBI, it was the act of a lone insider in a U.S. military biological defense laboratory. (For a look at bioweapons over the last century, see this article by Milton Leitenberg, senior research scholar at the Center for International Security Studies, University of Maryland.)
Two recent events have rekindled long-standing questions about how far we should go to prevent the deliberate creation and spread of biological agents for use in war and terrorism. There aren't easy answers.
The first event is the just-completed review conference in Geneva for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Signed in 1972 and put into force in 1975, the treaty bans the development, production, acquisition, retention, stockpiling and transfer of infectious disease agents and natural poisons (toxins) for hostile purposes, and the weapons or other delivery systems for them. Unfortunately, the agreement has never had a serious verification mechanism. The treaty failed to stop the Soviet Union, South Africa and Iraq from attempting to build illicit biological weapons programs.
Every five years, a treaty review conference is held in Geneva. On Dec. 7, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first U.S. Secretary of State to address a review conference. She declared that the risk of a bioweapons attack is "both a serious national security challenge and a foreign policy priority" for the United States. "A crude, but effective, terrorist weapon can be made by using a small sample of any number of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment, and college-level chemistry and biology," she declared.
But at the same time, the United States has abandoned efforts to put legally-binding verification measures into the treaty. The argument is that scientific research has advanced so swiftly that traditional arms control measures are obsolete. In 2001, the Bush administration scuttled a negotiation over the previous six and a half years aimed at creating a protocol for improved verification and transparency. President Obama has not changed this position. Clinton told the review conference "it is not possible, in our opinion, to create a verification regime that will achieve" the goal of bolstering confidence that all nations are complying with the treaty. Instead, she called for some "other steps" such as revising the annual reporting system in which countries are supposed to be transparent about potentially dangerous biological activities.
Judging by some preliminary reports from those who attended, the review conference made little or no progress in strengthening the treaty. Five countries -- Pakistan, Russia, India, Iran and China -- largely blocked any major progress. As a result, the conference outcome was to once again kick the can down the road to future meetings.
Consider this: a three-person staff, known as the "Implementation Support Unit," is assigned to work on treaty issues in between the review conferences. A proposal to expand the staff to five people failed to gain support in Geneva. In contrast, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees the 1993 chemical weapons treaty, has a staff of about 500 people. That pact contains tough verification provisions.
How dysfunctional is the biological weapons treaty? There is a reporting system, created in 1987. Each year, nations are supposed to submit a report known as a Confidence Building Measure detailing research, disease outbreaks, legislation and past activities, among other things. In the last year, fewer than 40 percent of signatories to the treaty even bothered to submit the forms. If nations can't lift a finger to do the paperwork, how much effort are they going to put into watching out for abuses?
At the review conference, there was renewed discussion about focusing on the rapid changes in life sciences. Sounds good. But there seems to be little willpower, either in the United States or elsewhere, to do anything about the fact that the biological weapons convention is a toothless tiger.
The second recent event was caused by a laboratory experiment. Researchers led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam modified the H5N1 virus, better known as avian influenza or bird flu. Up until now, the virus has been quite lethal in humans, with a fatality rate of about 60 percent in confirmed cases, but it has not been very transmissible among people. The researchers under Fouchier introduced a number of mutations into the virus that could make it highly transmissible through the air, and they demonstrated this in ferrets, which are considered a good stand-in model for humans in testing influenza strains. The experiment was carried out in a special, high-security laboratory, but it raised a terrifying prospect -- if the modified strain got out, or was created somehow by a person with malevolent intent, it could lead to a devastating pandemic. In announcing his results, Fouchier said he wanted to help prevent just such a deadly crisis: “We now know which mutations to watch for in the case of an outbreak and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late. Furthermore, the finding will help in the timely development of vaccinations and medication.”
The research raised the question of whether the results should be published. (Another study along similar lines was also performed by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and University of Tokyo.) After a review by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, the U.S. government took the unprecedented step of recommending that two prominent journals, Science and Nature, withhold key details of the research, so that it would not fall into the wrong hands.
Understandably, this is a thorny problem. Scientists chafe at restrictions which could stifle discovery and innovation, potentially hurting society more than helping it. The results of the Fouchier research could be valuable to those combatting influenza, a virus that mutates rapidly and can pose a real threat to populations. Some experts suggested that it be distributed on a need-to-know basis. The secrecy is worrisome, but it might also be prudent in this case. Paul Keim, chairman of the science advisory board, told ScienceInsider, "I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one." He added, "I don't think anthrax is scary at all compared to this."
Similar worries were touched upon last year by a U.S. presidential commission studying developments in synthetic biology, which involves using engineering techniques to create new biological parts or devices, or re-designing existing ones. More regulation is not necessary at this time, the panel said, but synthetic biology should be watched closely. Separately, efforts are being made in the United States to improve the monitoring of biological research by scientists, companies and government. Yet much of it remains voluntary. What happens if a real rogue actor comes along and breezes right past the voluntary roadblocks?
At the same time, it is impossible to put this remarkable and fast-moving science under lock and key. These are not nuclear warheads. Biological research can be carried out in small laboratories the size of a garage and agents carried in a test tube that fits in a shirt pocket. We need to encourage the science, without forsaking security. It will require new thinking. We're not there yet.
AFP/Getty Images/Kenzo Tribouillard
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.