Barack Obama's two speeches opening his second term--the Inaugural and the State of the Union--contained only the barest of mentions about reducing nuclear weapons and dealing with the legacies of the Cold War that still haunt us. Perhaps now is not the time. Certainly, these efforts take more than just a whim. They take enormous political willpower, and not only in the United States, but also in Russia and elsewhere.
Hopefully, the coming months will clarify whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has any interest at all in negotiations. Right now, the signs are not very good.
At the same time, if the president doesn't talk about an issue, if he doesn't build political support, then it will fade. That is why his recent speeches were disappointing. Obama has a lot he could talk about, even if the conditions are not particularly auspicious for negotiation. If he stops talking about nuclear issues, then support will diminish in Congress and in public opinion, and he won't have the political foundation for success if and when conditions change.
In March, 2011, the president's national security advisor, Thomas Donilon, delivered a keynote address at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference. At that point, two years had elapsed since Obama outlined his vision of a world without nuclear weapons in Prague. Those two years were "exceedingly productive," Donilon declared.
"Despite this progress, however, we will not rest on our laurels. And I can tell you with certainty that President Obama won’t. Despite the many pressing global challenges that are competing for his attention, he has directed us to keep up the momentum and lay the ground work for additional progress."
"… we’re making preparations for the next round of nuclear reductions. Under the President’s direction, the Department of Defense will review our strategic requirements and develop options for further reductions in our current nuclear stockpile, which stands at approximately 5,000 warheads, including both deployed and reserve warheads. To develop these options for further reductions, we need to consider several factors, such as potential changes in targeting requirements and alert postures that are required for effective deterrence."
"Once it is complete, this review of our strategic requirements will help shape our negotiating approach to the next agreement with Russia, which we believe should include both non-deployed and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. A priority will be to address Russian tactical nuclear weapons. We will work with our NATO allies to shape an approach to reduce the role and number of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, as Russia takes reciprocal measures to reduce its nonstrategic forces and relocates its nonstrategic forces away from NATO’s borders."
"In advance of a new treaty limiting tactical nuclear weapons, we also plan to consult with our allies on reciprocal actions that could be taken on the basis of parallel steps by each side. As a first step, we would like to increase transparency on a reciprocal basis concerning the numbers, locations, and types of nonstrategic forces in Europe. We will consult with our European allies and invite Russia to join with us to develop this initiative."
"Achieving the next round of strategic arms reductions will be an ambitious task that will take time to complete. No previous arms control agreement has included provisions to limit and monitor non-deployed warheads or tactical warheads. To do so will require more demanding approaches to verification. We are ready to begin discussions soon with Russia on transparency and confidence building measures that could provide the basis for creative verification measures in the next round of U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reductions."
Since Donilon's speech, a lot of work has been completed in government, including the military. Planning, doctrine, targeting -- all of it has been reviewed and discussed. The bottom line is that further reductions could be negotiated without weakening our nuclear deterrent. Supposedly there are memos which are almost ready for the president's approval -- or perhaps have already been signed. But the president has said nothing about it. All this work has been in secret. And there it rests.
If Obama didn't want to talk about that, he might have mentioned nuclear testing. The latest blast by North Korea is a good time to remind people that the rest of the world has stopped nuclear testing. Obama might have delivered a pitch for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was signed by the United States but rejected by the chamber in 1999. At the time, there were doubts about whether it was possible to understand the behavior of nuclear weapons without periodically blowing them up. Now, we know, thanks to the stockpile stewardship effort and computational physics, that it is possible. The president has pledged his support for the treaty in the past, and the United States is not testing. But in his recent speeches, Obama didn't mention the treaty once. Why?
If the president could not bring himself to discuss testing, what about taking land-based nuclear-armed missiles off launch-ready alert? This is one place where risky Cold War practices could use some updating. Candidate Obama promised to do this in 2008--a step best taken jointly with Russia. The president seems to have abandoned the idea in 2010 with the Nuclear Posture Review. But it remains important. A detailed and careful study has just been published by United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, authored by Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists and Matthew McKinzie of the Natural Resources Defense Council. You can find it here.
By the way, would someone please slip this into the president's briefcase to remind him of what a good idea he once had? And stopped talking about?
Getty Images/John W. Adkisson
In his first inaugural address, President Obama made this pledge: "With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming plant." In his second address, the president again returned to climate change -- but dropped the nuclear threat. He didn't mention it once.
Perhaps it is not fair to read too much into this. But there's been a strange silence about nuclear arms control lately. It has largely been ignored in the public discussion of priorities for the president's second term.
No doubt, there will be plenty of arcane details discussed at confirmation hearings for Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretaries of state and defense, respectively. But what about the president? Does he still believe in his vision of "a world without nuclear weapons," described in the Prague speech of April, 2009?
Last year, election campaigns in the United States and Russia meant a lost year for nuclear arms control. Now, the campaigns are over, but the prospects are still cloudy, at best.
The weapons haven't gone away just because we stopped talking about them. The United States and Russia still have the largest nuclear arsenals in the world. While there are serious concerns about Iran and North Korea, about India and Pakistan, among others, keep in mind the huge differences in scale. The arsenals of the United States and Russia are about 16,200 warheads, while the other countries in the world are estimated to have about 1,100 nuclear weapons combined.
The president's first-term New Start treaty with Russia established very important verification procedures, but it provides for only modest reductions in the two nation's stockpiles, down to 1,550 warheads on each side, after seven years. It was a stepping stone, but ought not to be Obama's last step.
A lot of thought has gone into the next moves, both inside the administration and outside. Scholars and non-government strategy groups have spent months coming up with detailed, useful reports about how to rein in the nuclear danger. This informal staff work is valuable, and ready.
For a roadmap of the possibilities, see "The Opportunity: Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Arms," by Steven Pifer and Michael E. O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. The book is a sober, fact-filled assessment of the choices that Obama now faces. "Why pursue nuclear arms control when the cold war is more than twenty years in the past?" they ask. "Arms control is not and should not be considered an end in itself. It is a tool that, properly applied, can strengthen and enhance the security of the United States and America's allies." They offer seven arguments for additional nuclear arms control. Among them: to put under legally-binding, verifiable treaty agreements all those nuclear warheads which are currently outside the treaty system, both in the United States and Russia.
Another solid piece of work on this theme is the report "Trimming Nuclear Excess: Options for Further Reductions of U.S. and Russian Nuclear Forces," by Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, published last month. Kristensen says, "There are indications that, although U.S. and Russian reductions are continuing, both countries are becoming more cautious about reducing further… both countries are now investing huge sums of money in new nuclear weapon systems that are designed to operate toward the end of the century. Unless new unilateral reductions take place or significant arms control agreements are reached, large nuclear forces could be retained far into the future."
Yet another significant source of thinking about a new agenda is contained in Global Zero's U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission report of last May. The commission was chaired by retired Gen. James Cartwright, included Hagel, and the study was directed by Bruce Blair. The report provides a series of illustrative steps in which the United States could reduce its nuclear arsenal to a maximum of 900 total nuclear weapons, while increasing the warning and decision time. The report also envisions bringing in all the nuclear weapons powers for the first time for multilateral negotiations to limit nuclear arms.
But with all this intellectual firepower, why has the debate seemed to grow silent?
Vladimir Putin is one reason. Since returning to the Russian presidency last year, he has championed new laws intended to push back against pro-democracy protestors in the streets, and in some cases, against American influence on Russian society and politics. Most damaging of all, Putin rammed through the Russian legislature a bill that forced the abrogation of a bilateral agreement, which had just come into force a few weeks earlier, on adoption of Russian children by American parents. This was Putin's angry retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, legislation approved by the United States Congress and signed by the president that imposed visa and other restrictions on Russians believed to be involved in serious human rights abuses. The adoption bill seems to mark a nadir in recent relations between the two countries. Mistrust is again on the rise--corrosive mistrust.
One can only imagine the chorus of protests that Obama would face with another arms control treaty. It does not take a cynic to envision a Republican senator asking the question: If the Russians could so abruptly abrogate an agreement on adopting children which they negotiated carefully over a year's time, how can they be trusted to stick to an agreement on nuclear weapons? It is a very tough question to answer.
My own response to that is that nations don't have friends, they have interests. A treaty is a contract, and contracts are made to protect interests. It is in the interest of both the United States and Russia to avoid a nuclear catastrophe--an accidental launch, a loose nuke, a terrorist attack. Both countries possess thousands of nuclear weapons that are still not covered by any treaty, not subject to verification nor, in some cases, is the quantity even known to each other. These excess weapons are a legacy of the Cold War and really serve no useful military purpose today. Getting these warheads sorted out and locked down is in our national interest. Doing so should not be seen as a favor to Putin.
However, arms control does not exist in isolation from other issues roiling the relationship. It is hard to negotiate with Moscow or sell to Congress an agreement on something so consequential and difficult if there is an abundance of mistrust. Obama and Putin may need to reset the reset with Russia before they can do anything more on nuclear arms control.
I think Obama personally wants to do more, but much depends on Putin and how he sees Russia's interests when it comes to strategic weapons. In Moscow, there are some who think that despite the steady retirement of aging weapons from the Cold War years, Russia can modernize its arsenal, and doesn't really need another arms control agreement with the United States. For Putin, the question really boils down to whether he wants to spend heavily on that modernization, and whether he can sustain that resource drain, given other demands. The Russians are talking about building a massive new liquid-fueled, multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile. Do they really need it? Putin's actions since returning to office suggest he is heading toward a Fortress Russia, a more isolated, go-it-alone approach.
But these things tend to oscillate, and could swing in the other direction yet again.
Although Obama didn't mention nuclear danger in his speech, he has a very full inbox on his desk of possible initiatives and decisions.
The president's Nuclear Posture Review of 2010 must be implemented. For more than a year, staffs have been working on memos about how to execute the decisions from that document and what guidance the president ought to give the Pentagon. His decisions could set a path for future reductions in nuclear arsenals--potentially deep cuts, if he choose to go that way. But so far there has been only silence from the White House about this.
The president has called for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but he did not submit it to the Senate in his first term. Many of the technical objections raised in 1999 when the Senate failed to ratify the treaty have been overcome in the stockpile stewardship program. Is the president ready to spend some political capital and wage a fight for the treaty?
Missile defense remains a thorny obstacle to arms control negotiations with Russia. The president could apply some creative thinking here to overcoming Moscow's concerns, which are largely focused on later stages of the U.S. missile defense plan, five to seven years from now. The near-term problem is that no negotiations on reducing offensive weapons will get to first base until there's some common understanding on missile defense. If the U.S. missile defense program is not a threat to Russia's strategic deterrent, how do we make that case in a persuasive way that permits arms control talks on offensive weapons to move ahead?
As I have argued earlier in FP, the president ought to consider a bilateral agreement with Russia to take nuclear-armed missiles off launch-ready alert.
And it is worth keeping in mind that two large categories of nuclear weapons are still uncovered by treaty-- the smaller or tactical nuclear warheads in Russia, and the strategic warheads kept in reserve since the end of the Cold WAr by the United States. No one knows precise numbers, but there are several thousand of these weapons that should be counted, verified and brought under treaty. That's a worthy goal for a second term.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama promised in his 2008 campaign to embrace the idea of "de-alerting," or taking U.S. strategic nuclear weapons off high alert. In one of his position papers, Obama said:
The United States and Russia have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. Barack Obama believes that we should take our nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert -- something that George W. Bush promised to do when he was campaigning for president in 2000. Maintaining this Cold War stance today is unnecessary and increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. As president, Obama will work with Russia to find common ground and bring significantly more weapons off hair-trigger alert."
The term "hair-trigger" is evocative, but imprecise. There are safeguards against a reckless hair-trigger launch. Perhaps a better way to put it is "launch-ready alert." Today, some U.S. strategic forces -- nuclear-armed land-based and sea-based missiles -- are still on launch ready alert. From the time a president gives the order, it is about four minutes for land-based and 12 to 15 minutes for sea-based missiles to fly.
This is an anachronism, left over from the Cold War, when rapid response was considered essential for deterrence. In an earlier post, I described some of the debate about it.
Once in office, Obama hesitated to keep his promise, probably on advice from the military. His first major study of nuclear weapons issues, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review [pdf], concluded that the "current alert posture of U.S. strategic forces – with heavy bombers off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs on alert, and a significant number of SSBNs at sea at any given time – should be maintained for the present."
At the same time, the posture review found that "efforts should continue to diminish further the possibility of nuclear launches resulting from accidents, unauthorized actions, or misperceptions and to maximize the time available to the President to consider whether to authorize the use of nuclear weapons."
Now, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright (ret.) has headed up a new study by Global Zero that calls for de-alerting the nuclear forces, as Obama had pledged. One of the co-founders of Global Zero, Bruce Blair, has also championed the idea of de-alerting for many years.
The study suggests we need far fewer nuclear warheads than exist today, down to 900 total, with half of them in reserve. It calls for "a de-alerted operational posture requiring 24-72 hours to generate the capacity for offensive nuclear strikes, thereby relieving the intense pressure on nuclear decision-making that currently exists." The goal, the study says, would be to keep all bombers and missiles -- the delivery vehicles -- separate from the nuclear warheads in peacetime. Instead of four minutes for missiles and 12 minutes for subs, there would be a much longer window in which the weapons would be put back together.
Cartwright, who retired as vice-chairman of the chiefs last year, has gone further in backing de-alerting than did the administration in the 2010 review. The Joint Chiefs are known to harbor misgivings about de-alerting, fearing that once the delays are built in, there would be an incentive for an adversary to rapidly restore the ability to shoot first.
When I asked Cartwright about this, he noted that he's not suggesting de-alerting in isolation, but rather in tandem with deep cuts in nuclear warheads in both the United States and Russia, making it unlikely that either side could launch a decapitating first strike, and therefore making launch-ready alert unnecessary. Both countries would have to agree to a verified de-alerting scheme, he said.
An interesting tidbit: the Global Zero study says the United States and Russia currently maintain about one third of their forces on high alert, while the other two-thirds need 24-72 hours to reach launch-ready status. So, we're part of the way there--but not all the way.
De-alerting made sense when Obama proposed it the first time. One hopes he hasn't forgotten.
Getty Images/Michael Smith
The situation was perilous. When Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, was attempting to muster support to deal with loose nukes in the imploding Soviet Union in November, 1991, he faced skepticism in Congress. A recession was brewing and many senators were hesitant to support legislation that would send money overseas. Nunn overcame those doubts with the help of a Republican, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, who this week lost a GOP primary race and will leave the Senate after six terms. In the recent campaign, Lugar's opponent said he cooperated with Democrats too often. But as the following story illustrates, bipartisanship proved essential in the face of danger--and in the creation of perhaps the most successful foreign policy initiative by Congress in a generation.
Adapted from my book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (Doubleday, 2009):
With his own eyes, Nunn had seen the chaos on the streets of Moscow, and he knew of the potential for nuclear ccidents and proliferation, but the politicians in Washington seemed oblivious to the dangers. Some senators told Nunn they could not explain in one-minute sound bites why they should support his legislation, so they would not vote for it. Nunn went to the Senate floor November 13, 1991 and tried to break through the mood of indifference with a powerful speech. He said that even after the strategic arms treaty signed earlier in the year, the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union, including the republics outside of Russia, still had fifteen thousand nuclear warheads to destroy, and needed help. “Unfortunately, nuclear weapons do not just go away when they are no longer wanted,” he said. The Soviet Union was short of storage space, transportation, dismantlement plants and equipment for radioactive materials handling. Nunn had learned these details from Viktor Mikhailov, the deputy minister of atomic energy, who visited Washington and pleaded for help.
“Do we recognize the opportunity we have today during this period in history and the great danger we have of proliferation, or do we sit on our hands and cater to what we think people want to hear in this country?” Nunn asked. “What are the consequences of doing nothing?”
Nunn wondered what kind of one-minute explanation his colleagues would need if the Soviet Union fell into civil war like Yugoslavia, with nuclear weapons all over. “If helping them destroy 15,000 weapons is not a reduction in the Soviet military threat, why have we been worrying about these 15,000 weapons for the last 30 years? I do not see any logic here at all,” he said. The United States had spent $4 trillion during the Cold War, so $1 billion to destroy weapons “would not be too high a price to pay to help destroy thousands and thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons,” Nunn insisted.
“We have the opportunity for an unprecedented destruction of the weapons of war,” Nunn declared. Yet he warned, “We are going to sleep—to sleep—about a country that is coming apart at the seams economically, that wants to destroy nuclear weapons at this juncture but may not in the months and years ahead.”
“Are we going to continue to sit on our hands?” he asked. Faced with opposition, Nunn then pulled back the legislation.
Hours later, Alexander Yakovlev, the architect of Gorbachev’s perestroika, spoke with senators in the Capitol at an early-evening reception, impressing on them the urgency of the crisis. Two days later, Nunn relaunched his efforts. Two top officials of the Institute for the Study of the United States and Canada—Andrei Kokoshin and Sergei Rogov—were both at that moment in Washington. The institute had long been a meeting point between American and Soviet experts on defense and security issues. Nunn invited them to a small lunch, to which he also brought Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a leading Republican voice on foreign affairs. At the lunch, Kokoshin and Rogov warned that power was slipping away from Gorbachev by the minute, and that in a “worst-case scenario,” nuclear weapons could be caught up in the struggle for power among the Soviet republics. This was a volatile, dangerous situation, they said, urging America to “wake up.” Lugar told journalist Don Oberdorfer of The Washington Post that the lunch with Kokoshin and Rogov was “a very alarming conversation.”
On November 19, Ashton B. Carter, the Harvard physicist, came to Nunn’s office for a brainstorming session, along with Lugar; William J. Perry of Stanford University, who had been examining the Soviet military-industrial complex; David Hamburg of the Carnegie Corporation of New York; and John Steinbrunner of the Brookings Institution. Carter drove home the point that a Soviet collapse, now clearly visible from the daily news reports coming out of Moscow, was an immense security threat. “This is completely unprecedented,” Carter recalled saying. “Never before has a nuclear power disintegrated.”
The next day, November 20, Lugar announced his support for immediate action on legislation in a floor speech. He decried the “quarrelsome” mood in Congress in the face of “strategic danger” to the country. “Nuclear weapons do not simply fade away; they must be disabled, dismantled and destroyed,” he said.
On November 21, at an 8 A.M. breakfast, Nunn brought sixteen senators from both parties to the Senate Armed Services committee room, where the trillions of defense spending had been authorized over the years. He told them what he had seen in Moscow and turned the floor over to Carter, who delivered a presentation without notes. Carter said command and control over nuclear weapons could not be isolated from the troubles of society. “It’s not something that you can take for granted, that it’s all wired up in some way, and it will be okay,” Carter recalled telling the senators. The clarity of his presentation had an instant impact. The addition of Lugar was critical. Within days, Nunn and Lugar had turned around the Senate and gathered the votes for new legislation to set aside $500 million to deal with the Soviet nuclear dangers.
Visiting President Bush at the White House, Nunn and Lugar found him ambivalent. “I remember that he wasn’t saying no,” Nunn said. “He just was very cool to the whole idea. I think he was sensing the political dangers of it.” While Bush stood on the sidelines, Congress moved swiftly. The Senate approved the Nunn-Lugar bill by a vote of 86–8. Later, the total was reduced to $400 million, and it passed the House by a voice vote.
Nunn and Lugar took a gamble with history. Skeptics suggested it would be best to let the former Soviet Union drown in its own sorrows—to go into “free fall.” Nunn and Lugar did not agree. They helped Russia and the other former Soviet republics cope with an inheritance from hell. It was never going to be easy for a country so turbulent as Russia to accept the hand of a rich and powerful rival, and it wasn’t. Suspicions, delays, misunderstandings and errors were abundant in the years after the Soviet collapse. But overall, given the immense size of the Soviet military-industrial complex and the sprawling nature of the dangerous weapons and materials, the Nunn-Lugar gamble paid off.
And the gamble showed that bipartisanship can get things done.
The latest Nunn-Lugar scorecard of weapons dismantled and destroyed is here.
Nunn and Lugar in 2007/ David E. Hoffman
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.
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
One of the unsolved mysteries of the A. Q Khan nuclear proliferation network is whether there was another nation that benefited, beyond Iran, North Korea and Libya. Khan, the metallurgist who played a key role in Pakistan's quest for the atomic bomb, acknowledged selling equipment and plans that could be used for nuclear weapons to these three countries, but, by some accounts, he and his associates also referred to a hidden "fourth customer."
Now, Joshua Pollack, an expert on nonproliferation whose work has appeared in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the ArmsControlWonk.com blog, and the Nonproliferation Review, has written an article with a surprising suggestion: the fourth customer might have been Pakistan's bitter rival, nuclear-armed India.
In a piece just published in Playboy, Pollack lays out some evidence that the Khan network's wares--including the key features of centrifuges needed to enrich uranium to higher levels for a weapon--may have found their way to India.
Pollack reports that India's efforts to buy centrifuges in 1997-1999 and again from 2003-2006 offered clues to the source of their technology. The hints were contained in advertisements published in newspapers, and documents which India gave to potential suppliers. According to Pollack, the centrifuge design which India sought is "recognizable to the trained eye" as one that "almost mirrors" a design that Khan stole from a European firm in the 1970s and which he later used to build centrifuges for Pakistan.
A centrifuge spins at extremely high speed to separate out the rare isotope uranium that is necessary to build a bomb. The rotor tubes of the centrifuges used by India are narrower and thicker-walled than the Khan designs, according to Pollack, but "are designed along the same distinctive lines: a single tube of maraging steel with a bellows formed directly upon it, not manufactured as a separate component." The bellows is an accordion-like crimp in the tube that helps it remain intact at super-high velocities and under great stress from vibration. Pollack said India is one of only three countries in the world believed to be using centrifuges of this type at this time, and the other two are already known to be Khan's customers. He also reports that India's centrifuge design has small differences from the Khan type "that seem to make it more susceptible to failure."
Pollack also says that others in Khan's illicit network--including Gerhard Wisser, a German living in South Africa--sold technology to India, with or without Khan's knowledge. Pollack notes a partial admission by Khan, documented in the memoirs of former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf: "There is a strong possibility that the Indian enrichment program may also have its roots in the Dubai-based [Khan] network and could be a copy of the Pakistani centrifuge design." Musharraf pardoned Khan in 2004 after Khan publicly confessed his role in setting up the proliferation network.
What might have been Khan's motive for selling nuclear equipment to Pakistan's arch-foe? Pollack argues that Khan was always on a quest for personal glory. He drew large sums of money from the nuclear sales, which helped him to become a prominent benefactor and philanthropist in Pakistan, something of a national hero. Pollack points out how Khan has rationalized his illicit dealings, saying that Iran and Libya probably couldn't master the technology anyway, and that North Korea already had a bomb design and plutonium, so it wouldn't make that much of a difference. India, too, already had a nuclear weapon.
Pollack's piece does not prove that India was buying from the Khan network, but it keeps alive the question of who was the mysterious "fourth customer."
AFP/Getty Images/Rizwan Tabassum
What's the value of a nuclear warhead today? Not the monetary value, but as a deterrent?
Nuclear explosions are frightfully destructive, and that's the point: to inspire fear, to deter an adversary. Atomic bombs still appeal to some nations and terrorists, making proliferation a constant risk. Fortunately, there are fewer nuclear warheads in the world than during the Cold War; down from about 60,000 to about 22,000 today, most of which remain in the United States and Russia. But the deterrent value of the arsenals isn't what it used to be. Both the U.S. and Russia face new threats -- terrorism, proliferation, economic competition, pandemics -- for which these long-range or strategic nuclear weapons are of little value.
AFP/Getty Images/Robin Utrecht
In remarks on Russian television today, President Dmitri Medvedev has turned up the heat in the long-simmering talks on missile defense. Medvedev voiced impatience with the United States, saying the negotiations are not making progress toward a common approach.
Why now? Medvedev has one eye on the calendar: the Russian parliamentary election is Dec. 4. The ruling United Russia party has been losing steam in the opinion polls and Vladimir Putin has already announced he intends to return to the presidency next year. Voters are yawning. Surely, Medvedev has made the calculation that a toughly-worded reprimand to the United States and NATO will play well.
President Obama has embarked on a phased, limited missile defense in Europe which the United States insists is not aimed at Russia, but rather at Iran. Medvedev said he doesn't believe it, and Russia fears that over the next decade the system could be used to undermine its own strategic nuclear deterrent. Russia has demanded legal guarantees from the United States, but the answer, so far, has been "no." Medvedev complained that Russia faces a "fait accompli" as the U.S. system is built. The Medvedev text is here.
Medvedev announced a series of potential counter-measures to a missile defense system, mostly things that have been floated before, such as new weapons which might penetrate any missile defense or disable it. Medvedev said "these measures will be adequate, effective and low cost." No doubt, they will be. The technical challenges to missile defense -- hitting a bullet with a bullet in outer space -- can be enormous, and have been daunting since the 1980s when President Reagan first dreamed up his Strategic Defense Initiative, the idea of a global shield that he promised would make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."
Medvedev's latest message may be motivated by domestic politics and negotiating tactics, but it is also a reminder that even a small missile defense system is going to be a nettlesome sticking point with Moscow. Next year, one hopes, Russia and the United States will find a way to cooperate on missle defense, and move beyond it to deal with the large agenda of unfinished business in nuclear arms control. It is a lot more urgent and important.
Update: A good post on what it all means from Pavel Podvig.
Getty Images/Sasha Mordovets
In the Oct. 17 edition of The New Yorker, there's an exceptionally good piece about the Fukushima nuclear accident by Evan Osnos. Among the many revelations are testimonials from workers who grappled with the crippled nuclear reactors after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Osnos describes their heroic efforts to open vents to exhaust the hydrogen that was building up inside the reactor vessels. One vent was partially opened before the workers had to retreat due to high radiation levels. The hydrogen, which had escaped into the reactor building, later exploded.
It's a nightmare to manage a crisis of such magnitude. Not only was there a nuclear disaster; the country suffered death and destruction from the tsunami. But I was struck by the surreal, reassuring statement made that first evening by the government spokesman: "Let me repeat that there is no radiation leak, nor will there be a leak." In fact, this was the second-worst nuclear accident in history, after the Chernobyl disaster of April-May 1986.
There are major differences between the accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. But in all three cases, such misleading statements were issued at the outset, contributing to deep public mistrust later on. On the morning of the Three Mile Island accident March 28, 1979, the utility, Metropolitan Edison, put out a statement that the plant had been “shut down due to a mechanical malfunction,” saying “there have been no recordings of significant levels of radiation and none are expected outside the plant.” In fact, extremely high levels of radiation had been recorded inside the plant.
Chernobyl, in the closed Soviet system, was even worse. The authorities waited for two days and then issued a statement that revealed almost nothing: "An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, damaging one of the reactors. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. The injured are receiving aid. A government commission has been set up." The Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov said the Kremlin pronouncements on Chernobyl were "couched in terms that might have been used to announce an ordinary fire at a warehouse."
Not surprisingly, in Japan after Fukushima, government credibility plummeted. Osnos found distrust to be "astonishingly pervasive" and notes that a poll in late May showed that more than 80 percent of the population did not believe the government's information about the nuclear crisis. There are all kinds of implications of this mistrust; one of them is that some Japanese are debating whether to obey the government's evacuation plans. The country is still heavily reliant on nuclear energy, too, and public confidence will be sorely tested in the months ahead as decisions are made about whether to bring back on line those reactors idled for stress tests.
Osnos concludes that for all that went wrong before the meltdowns, "the fundamentals of Japan's open society served it well in the aftermath," with elected officials issuing evacuation and safety warnings, parliament launching investigations, and the Japanese press chronicling "a raging national debate about the future." One hopes there will be more thorough and detailed reporting like this article, too, helping document what went wrong, and spreading the word -- before the next nuclear crisis.
Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images
When we think of nuclear warheads, we imagine those cone-shaped, threatening weapons perched atop missiles, ready to be launched, or bombs loaded aboard airplanes. These are known as operationally-deployed strategic weapons. But there are other strategic nuclear warheads that are not deployed, sitting in storage in both the United States and Russia. In fact, each country has several thousand of them. They are not covered by any treaty, and not checked by verification. There is no public accounting of the exact numbers.
Here’s a chance for President Barack Obama to take a lasting step toward his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. It’s time for both countries to get rid of these excess warheads.
The U.S. warheads were put in a reserve, or “hedge,” in 1994. This was only about three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and not long after Boris Yeltsin had prevailed in a violent confrontation with hardliners in parliament. William Perry, then the defense secretary, said on Sept. 20, 1994 the hedge was necessary because of a “small but real danger that reform in Russia might fail.”
Well, we are 17 years beyond that. While reform in Russia has been very rough and incomplete, it certainly did not turn into the worst-case scenario that Perry worried about.
The nuclear hedge is still around. Why?
Getty Images/Alex Wong
Remember that computer outage last October at a nuclear missile launch control center? Now, according to the Air Force Times, an investigation has pinpointed the cause.
It was a loose circuit card.
The newspaper reports the card had not been properly locked into place after maintenance work, and was knocked out of place by heat and vibration.
The outage affected 50 nuclear-armed Minuteman III missiles at Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, last Oct. 23. The disruption lasted 59 minutes. The newspaper quotes Lt. Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for the Global Strike Command at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, as saying that the outage was in the 319th Missile Squadron of the 90th Missile Wing.
Each launch control center has primary responsibility for 10 missiles, but redundancies built into the system allow each center to electronically maintain the status and command and control over all 50 missiles in a group, he said.
Thomas compared the communication to a BlackBerry constantly connected to its server to check for e-mails. The launch control centers are continuously checking and updating data including temperature, alert status and security situation for each missile.
About 1:35 a.m. Oct. 23, the disruption caused the communication to get garbled.
“The system was still up, there were still queries pinging and occurring, but what was happening was like if your cell phone was breaking up; it was not ideal,” Thomas said shortly after the incident occurred. “The suspect launch control center was apparently trying to communicate on top of the other launch control centers trying to communicate.”
During the incident, the crew on duty used cameras to check the 50 missiles and sent crews out to inspect the missiles. There was no evidence of tampering, intrusion or damage at any of the 50 sites.
The investigation recommended improvements in hardware and procedures, the newspaper added.
No doubt, there will be breakdowns in any complex machinery like this. It is inevitable. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, the failure of a simple computer chip once triggered a false alarm when Jimmy Carter was president. Another time, the insertion of a training tape into a slot set off a mistaken alarm.
But why in these times are missiles still on launch-ready alert, ready to go within four minutes of an order from the president? This is a legacy of the Cold War, and no longer makes sense. The United States and Russia should build in a delay, say a few hours or a day, before missiles could be launched. This “de-alerting” would have to be done by both sides, and would have to be verifiable. But it would give us an extra margin of safety the next time a simple computer card decides to come loose.
Russia's parliament has approved the New START treaty. The Senate has ratified it. You might think that it's time to stop worrying about The Bomb, arms control and all that mind-numbing stuff from the Cold War. You know: Mutual Assured Destruction, Dr. Strangelove, the Evil Empire. It's all been tossed into the trash bin of history, right?
While the new treaty is a small step in the right direction, there will still be as many nuclear warheads in the United States and Russia uncovered by this treaty as those which are covered. The treaty limits each side to a total of 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, for a total of 3,100. But it does not cover several thousand Russian tactical nuclear warheads, about 500 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, nor the U.S. strategic reserve, about 2,000 warheads, not deployed, which are being kept on hand, just in case.
So before everyone in the stadium gives the new treaty a big cheer, keep an eye on what's lurking in the parking lot. That's the next problem for arms control: make sure there are no weapons out of bounds, beyond the playing field, where they can escape verification.
Now that the New Start treaty has been ratified by the Senate, is nuclear arms control exhausted? If it was so difficult for President Obama to win Senate approval of a modest reduction in strategic weapons, should we just forget about anything more ambitious?
Hardly. Look beyond the minute-by-minute political handicapping that dominates Washington, and the next steps, over a period of a few years, are evident.
The Russians have several thousand tactical or short-range nuclear weapons. The United States has only about 500, of which fewer than 200 are based in Europe. Meanwhile, the United States has several thousand inactive strategic nuclear weapons, in a "reserve" or hedge, which was created at the end of the Cold War.
Neither the Russian tactical nuclear weapons nor the U.S. inactive strategic warheads are covered in the New Start treaty. Both suffer from lack of transparency.
So, the next big step is a Grand Bargain, an idea that has been floated in the last year or two by some smart thinkers on nuclear policy. First, the United States and Russia combine all these nuclear weapons into one category, a single bucket, and stop separating them into strategic and tactical. Each is a nuclear bomb, and while some are bigger than others, experts have long suspected that the use of a lower-yield tactical nuke could easily trigger retaliation with something bigger and more devastating. So let's count them all as warheads to be negotiated.
Next, the United States and Russia hammer out a deal to cut the number in half, or go even deeper. The key is that each side could decide on its own how to get there. We would probably reach the goal by giving up some of those strategic nukes which are stored in our reserves; the Russians could get there by giving up the same amount of their tactical warheads.
What could make this work is that it would involve weapons that are largely "offline," and not part of the immediate, day-to-day deterrent. (The Russian tactical weapons are deployed to some extent, but the bulk of them are probably in storage.) Also, each side would actually be trading a cut for a cut. Naturally, there are some uncertainties. Would Russia would be willing to forego a chunk of its tactical nukes, which seem to have more value to them today in a period when their conventional forces are relatively weaker? Would the United States finally relinquish a big part of the strategic reserve?
The answers may not become apparent for a while, but it would be a mistake to abandon nuclear arms control now. The process is not exhausted.
A new WikiLeaks cable plunges us right back into that mysterious calculus of warhead counting: how many nuclear weapons do we really need to remain secure in today's world?
The New START treaty would limit the United States and Russia each to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, operationally deployed. The treaty doesn't include thousands more strategic warheads in a U.S. reserve, and thousands more on top of that, the smaller tactical nukes, most of which are in Russia. One strong argument for ratification is that it will pave the way for a follow-on treaty that could reduce both these outlying stockpiles.
In a recent posting, I pointed to a couple of new studies which suggest that we would be secure at far lower levels of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, perhaps down into the hundreds on each side. The just-published cable indicates that some in the Pentagon are thinking along similar lines, if not quite as radical. Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller briefed NATO allies about the Nuclear Posture Review on July 16, 2009, and the cable describes his remarks. (The posture review was being drafted then, and has since been issued; the New START treaty was being negotiated then, and has since been signed.) Miller told the allies that a range of 1,500-1,700 strategic warheads on each side was "militarily sufficient."
But he added that risks to "military sufficiency and to robustness" would come only if the level went below 1,300 warheads.
That's 250 warheads lower than the current treaty. Miller added that "future warhead reductions by the Russians would allow the U.S. to consider going lower."
There's a truth lying in plain sight here: The only reason we stick by these higher levels is because the Russians stick by these higher levels. Neither the United States nor Russia faces the kind of confrontation for which the weapons were built. There's no military purpose, no security gain to the higher levels. President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review, issued earlier this year, admitted as much: "each still retains more nuclear weapons than necessary for stable deterrence."
The Cold War is long over. But our mindset is somehow locked in the past. We are still thinking "arms race" instead of looking squarely at today's threats and true needs.
It's time for some new thinking. If a top Pentagon official could tell the NATO allies more than a year ago that 1,300 warheads would be sufficient militarily, there ought to be no hesitation about New START -- and moving beyond it.
The new WikiLeaks documents show that Iran has been hunting for missile technology all over the world, seeking to buy gyroscopes, jet vanes and metals, and perhaps whole missiles from North Korea. But Iran also has experienced great difficulty building longer range missiles. Why? Some clues can be found in one of the most interesting documents just released, a briefing that Russian officials gave their American counterparts on Iran's progress, or lack of it.
A summary of the Dec. 22, 2009 meeting was marked "secret" but tumbled out on Sunday in the reams of memos released by WikiLeaks and major news organizations. Fourteen Russian and 15 U.S. government officials compared notes that day about missile threats from Iran and North Korea.
Judging by the summary, it was a lively back and forth, during which the Russians claimed the threat from Iran's missiles is not as great as some have predicted in the United States. The size and nature of the threat is important because it undergirds the U.S. plans for a multi-billion dollar ballistic missile defense system.
The Russians were prepared to talk "seriously" with the U.S. group, the summary says. Their message was Iran is struggling to lengthen the range of missiles that could carry heavy loads, such as a one-ton nuclear warhead, that might threaten the region or beyond. The Russians said their basic conclusion is that "Iran's ballistic missile program continues to be directed toward developing combat ready missiles to address regional concerns," not targets like the United States.
This was also the assessment made in May by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
In the December meeting, there was a sharp disagreement about the U.S. claim that North Korea sold to Iran a batch of 19 missiles, known as the BM-25. The transfer was first reported publicly in 2006; the BM-25 missile is supposedly based on a Soviet naval ballistic missile design, the R-27, known in the West as the SS-N-6. This missile was first developed in the 1960s and later modernized; it was in service in the Soviet Union until 1988. Iran has not tested any of the missiles it imported. The U.S. officials speculated that Iran may have purchased it to reverse-engineer the technology (although North Korea has been known to ship parts, expertise and manufacturing facilities as well as the missiles themselves.) The U.S. officials said photos of the Iranian space launch rocket, the Safir, show an engine which looks like the one on the R-27, as well as fuel tanks and welds that resemble it. The U.S. officials said they had received "direct evidence" of the missile transfer from North Korea to Iran.
But the Russians strongly dismissed the BM-25 as a mirage, according to the summary. They said Iran would not have purchased an untested missile, and they doubted whether it even existed. "For Russia, the BM-25 is a mysterious missile," the summary says. "Russia does not think the BM-25 exists." They asked why North Korea would sell an untested missile; the Americans responded: for cash.
Both the Russians and Americans acknowledged the limitations of Iran's older, liquid-fueled missiles, based on the Soviet Scud and its modifications, including the Shahab-1, Shahab-2 and Shahab-3. Both sides also seemed to agree that the Safir is not a military threat because of the small size of the payload.
The key issue is Iran's pursuit of more modern and powerful solid-fuel missiles that could hit medium-range targets, such as those in the Middle East or Europe. Iran has been working on such a missile, called the Sajjil-2, which it has flight tested. (See my earlier post about it.) In the meeting, U.S. officials were more worried about this than the Russians, who said Iran continues to stumble with solid fuel technology. "In Russia's view, Iran appears to be having very serious problems with engine development," the summary says. U.S. officials countered that Iran has a decade of experience with short-range missiles using solid fuel, importing equipment from China, and could now extend it to larger missiles.
The Russians said Iran was a long way from building intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the United States. "Russia said its bottom line is that Iran lacks appropriate structural materials for long-range systems, such as high quality aluminum," the summary says. "Iran can build prototypes, but in order to be a threat to the U.S. or Russia, Iran needs to produce missiles in mass quantities, and it lacks materials sufficient for the type of mass production needed to be a security threat. Russia further noted that the technology for longer-range missiles is sophisticated and difficult to master."
At another point, the Russians said they think the North Koreans are working on a new, 100-ton capacity rocket engine using older technology, clustering the motors or stacking them. But Russia said the technology hasn't been actually spotted.
AFP/Getty Images; from Iran's ISNA agency, the two-stage solid-fuel missile, Dec. 16, 2009
Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker has posted online his report (pdf) from a recent visit to North Korea in which he was shown a new uranium enrichment facility. This is an important development. North Korea previously had taken the plutonium route to building a bomb. Now, it appears they have turned to uranium. Is the new facility really intended to make low-enriched uranium, fuel for a reactor to provide badly-needed electricity, as the North claims, or are they pursuing highly-enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons? There's no conclusive answer, but Hecker's report is worth reading. He's a skilled expert who has made previous trips to North Korea and knows the technology. He describes a tour in which he saw a modern facility with centrifuges needed to enrich uranium to higher levels. Hecker says there are a host of new questions, but one thing is certain, "these revelations will cause a political firestorm."
The first look through the windows of the observation deck into the two long high-bay areas was stunning. Instead of seeing a few small cascades of centrifuges, which I believed to exist in North Korea, we saw a modern clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges all neatly aligned and plumbed below us.... The control room was astonishingly modern. Unlike the reprocessing facility and reactor control room, which looked like 1950s or 1980s Soviet instrumentation, this control room would fit into any modern American processing facility.... I expressed surprise that they were apparently able to get cascades of 2,000 centrifuges working so quickly, and asked again if the facility is actually operating now--we were given an emphatic, yes. We were not able to independently verify this, although it was not inconsistent with what we saw.... A North Korean uranium enrichment program has long been suspected. I believe they started early, perhaps in the 1970s or 1980s, but then did not try to accelerate the effort until their dealings with A. Q. Khan in the 1990s. However, the 2,000-centrifuge capability significantly exceeds my estimates and those of most other analysts.
Update: The Institute for Science and International Security has some interesting satellite photos here.
How many nuclear warheads are there still remaining in the world today? Five thousand? Ten thousand?
Would you believe 22,500?
Now, consider this: the New START treaty on strategic weapons, which is pending ratification in the Senate, would restrict each side to 1,550 warheads, or a total of 3,100 in both the United States and Russia.
Do the math. This treaty is not taking a big bite out of nuclear arsenals. If approved, there will still be more than 19,000 nuclear weapons in the world. And most of them will still be in the United States and Russia: tactical nuclear weapons (not covered by this treaty) and strategic weapons in reserve (also not covered) as well as warheads that are offline, waiting for dismantlement.
In other words, there is still a ton of work to do. What's odd about the current debate on whether to ratify New START is that no one really is arguing that we need so many nukes. No one can point to the threats that will be deterred. Indeed, now that the Cold War has ended, it is clear we have an overhang of weapons, far more than we need. They are like old clothes stuffed in our closet, and we just won't get around to facing the fact that we will never wear them again.
The current debate over New START is misplaced. The treaty is good for verification and continuity; the right thing to do is ratify it, and get moving to the next phase, which ought to get us to far fewer weapons. Smart roadmaps are already available. A surprisingly good stack of scholarship has come out recently on how we can reach that destination. These reports deserve to be read, not just thrown into a file drawer.
President Obama's Nuclear Posture Review acknowledged the nuclear overhang. The United States and Russia "each still retains more nuclear weapons than necessary for stable deterrence," the report says. This is a document intended to set nuclear policy for the next five to ten years, endorsed by the military leadership. They get it: we could go lower.
Then there's an important essay in the Sept.-Oct. issue of Foreign Affairs, which is based on extensive computer modeling. The five authors, including three from Russia with deep experience in Soviet and Russian nuclear forces, show that it is possible to get down to 1,000 warheads without weakening security on either side. Another report which endorses one thousand as a goal came out this week from the Council on Foreign Relations.
Also, take time to read the article in Strategic Studies Quarterly (pdf) in which three Air Force thinkers concluded that "America's security can rest easily" on a comparatively small nuclear force. The United States, they wrote, could "draw down its nuclear arsenal to a relatively small number of survivable, reliable weapons dispersed among missile silos, submarines, and airplanes." They said such a force might number only 311 nuclear weapons. They get it, too.
For another perspective, read the report last year by the Federation of American Scientists, which calls for a change in the nuclear targeting strategy that would also be a step toward much lower levels of weapons.
And for a vision of a world without nuclear weapons, read the Global Zero action plan, a phased approach that would start with the United States and Russia and then draw in the other nuclear weapons powers.
All of these reports face squarely the reality that times have changed, and the nuclear arsenals need to change too.
When it was first approved by Congress, the Nunn-Lugar legislation was aimed at securing the weapons of the collapsing Soviet Union -- nuclear, chemical and biological materials left over from the Cold War. Much work has been done over the last two decades, and now the program is expanding its horizons, with an emphasis on finding and containing biological threats. They're calling it Nunn-Lugar Global.
Next week, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and a group of Pentagon officials head to Africa, where they are planning to talk to governments about securing dangerous germs. Lugar was the original co-author of the legislation with former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.)
They'll be inspecting laboratories in Kenya and Uganda. The labs are working on infectious disease diagnosis and treatment; the concern is that they may lack sufficient security, given the lethal potential of the pathogens inside. Lugar said in a statement that he hopes to build cooperation with the governments to upgrade security -- and put the bad stuff under a tighter seal. "Deadly diseases like Ebola, Marburg and Anthrax are prevalent in Africa," Lugar said. "Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are active in Africa, and it is imperative that deadly pathogens stored in labs there are secure."
The Pentagon officials who will be travelling with Lugar include: Andy Weber, assistant to the secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs; Ken Handelman, acting assistant secretary for global strategic affairs, and Kenneth A. Myers III, director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
AFP/Getty Images. A doctor inspects a patient in Uganda after an Ebola outbreak in 2007.
Last weekend there was a computer failure of some kind at the F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming that took 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles temporarily off-line. As described by Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic, it appears to have been a breakdown in a launch control center computer that controls about five missiles; the failure then cascaded to others. The incident was serious enough to warrant a briefing up the chain to the commander in chief, President Obama.
The military said the incident lasted about an hour and that it did not decrease Obama’s ability to control the weapons. There are 150 Minuteman III missiles on the base.
These weapons systems are hugely complex, and snafus have happened before. The failure of a simple computer chip once triggered a false alarm when Jimmy Carter was president. Another time, the insertion of a training tape into a slot set off a mistaken alarm.
The real question to be asked at a moment like this should be: why are these missiles on launch-ready alert, ready to go within four minutes of an order from the president? This alert status for land-based missiles is a legacy of the Cold War and one that makes no sense now that the superpower confrontation is over. One of the simplest moves that the United States and Russia could make toward a safer world today would be to build in a delay, say a few hours or a day, before the missiles could be launched. This “de-alerting” would have to be done by both sides, but it might let everyone breathe a little easier on those weekends when a computer decides to take a holiday.
Update: Bruce Blair has an good explanation for what happened in a comment to Page van der Linden's post at ArmsControlWonk.
The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, says in his just-published memoir, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, that President Bill Clinton’s White House lost the "presidential authorization codes" for launching a nuclear strike, and they were missing "for months." Shelton writes, "This is a big deal—a gargantuan deal -- and we dodged a silver bullet.”
Shelton says the system "failed" and asks "how in the hell could we have lost the codes and not known it?"
It sounds quite alarming, but there's a big gap here. Shelton’s account is oddly imprecise about a process that is supposed to work like clockwork.
The United States has just completed a big clean-out of highly-enriched uranium from nuclear research reactors in Poland, shipping more than 1,000 pounds of spent fuel to Russia. That’s approximately enough to make 18 nuclear bombs. The operation, run by the National Nuclear Security Administration of the Department of Energy, in cooperation with Poland, was one of the largest in recent years, and took five shipments over 12 months. (One of the very first such operations, back in 1994, known as Project Sapphire, removed about 1,330 pounds of HEU out of Kazakhstan.)
Here's the official statement from the NNSA. There is a good overview piece in Nature, which makes an important point that was also evident last spring at the nuclear security summit: the difficulty in such operations is not just hustling the nuclear material off to a safe harbor. Much of it is contained in research reactors, and those scientists working with the reactors think they have an important purpose. In the case of Poland, the United States is preparing to convert the reactors to low-enriched uranium and supply the new fuel at a cost of about $70 million. The removed HEU was first brought to Poland more than 30 years ago by the Soviet Union.
President Barack Obama has pledged to lock down all vulnerable nuclear materials in four years. It is going to be a tough deadline to meet. The best overall look at vulnerable nuclear materials continues to be the annual report, Securing the Bomb [pdf].
National Nuclear Security Administration
It is amazing how much misunderstanding was generated by Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, a missile defense plan he once proclaimed would make nuclear weapons obsolete.
We now have the complete text of a National Security Decision Directive 119, signed by Reagan on Jan. 6, 1984, the first presidential order launching the missile effort. An earlier version of NSDD-119 had been released only in part.
What's interesting about this document is the part that was redacted. The secret that had to be kept included this paragraph:
There is also growing concern over a potential Soviet breakout from the ABM Treaty. Evidence of Soviet efforts to develop a ballistic missile defense capability makes it incumbent on the U.S. to do its utmost to acquire its own strategic defense options as one possible response to a Soviet breakout.
Well, the Soviets were nowhere near a breakout of the ABM Treaty, and they were a lot closer to a breakdown. They had tried but largely failed to master the advanced technologies needed for an effective missile defense shield. The U.S. fears of a breakout were exaggerated.
Both sides share the blame for some deep Cold War misperceptions of each other on missile defense. There’s more here (in a piece for Arms Control Today.)
Thanks to Jason Saltoun-Ebin, author of The Reagan Files, for finding the full text of NSDD-119, and to the George C. Marshall Institute for posting the earlier version.
Jason Saltoun-Ebin; George C. Marshall Institute
Lots to read this fall. Here are three new books:
The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB (PublicAffairs)
By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
The authors bring hard-digging, fact-based journalism to an aspect of Russia that has been hard to document and understand. The New Nobility shows how Vladimir Putin expanded the reach and resources of the successors to the Soviet KGB, and examines their performance as a new elite. The book raises plenty of questions about why the services have not been more successful at security in an age of terrorism, given their favored status, with revealing chapters on the Nord Ost theatre siege, and the Beslan school massacre. They also document the use of the security services to pursue scientists and opposition political figures. A surprising chapter is the story of the hidden underground subway system, which has its own security service. Borogan recalls going down through a ventilator shaft -- a good metaphor for their deep dive into this murky world. They come back to the surface with a book that is sober and probing. (Full disclosure: I gave the authors some editing advice.)
The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons (Knopf)
By Richard Rhodes
Rhodes set the gold standard for nuclear history with The Making of the Atomic Bomb almost 25 years ago. In his latest volume, he examines what happened to nuclear weapons after the Cold War by looking not so much at Russia, but elsewhere around the globe. There is a strong focus on Iraq, where Rhodes chronicles the efforts to dismantle Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program in the 1990s, and then explains how the intelligence about WMD was so badly exaggerated leading up to the war in 2003. It is an important story that's been told before, but Rhodes injects a fresh sense of outrage. He also offers intriguing and contrasting accounts of nuclear decision-making in South Africa and North Korea, chapters relevant to today's proliferation conundrums. At the start of the book, Rhodes says he set out to understand "how the dangerous post-Cold War nuclear transition was managed, who its heroes were, what we learned from it, and where it carried us." While the title suggests dusk of the atomic age, the book is actually a reminder that we have not come close to the twilight of the bombs.
Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of The Cold War in Europe (Central European University Press; another in the Cold War reader series of The National Security Archive.)
Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton, and Vladislav Zubok, eds.
This book is the kind that you can open at any page for an instant immersion in one of the most critical years of the last century, 1989, when the Cold War ended in Europe. The "masterpieces" of the title are 122 original documents which tell the story in words as they were actually spoken and written. The documents make great reading, especially the transcripts of Mikhail Gorbachev's conversations with European leaders. The volume also contains key diplomatic cables, including Ambassador Jack Matlock's perceptive three-part cable from Moscow on the future of the Soviet Union in February; Soviet Politburo transcripts; CIA estimates; and diary entries. All are accompanied by explanatory introductions. The book offers astute and enlightening essays by the editors, and the transcript of the 1998 Musgrove conference, a retrospective on the end of the Cold War. On any reference shelf, this one will be pulled down often, again and again.
What are nuclear weapons good for? In the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the answer was simple: deterrence. We put Moscow at risk of destruction to prevent our own annihilation. A 1984 television advertisement for Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign warned Americans to be wary, saying the Soviet threat was out there somewhere, “a bear in the woods." But today, the Soviet Union is gone--and there's an urgent need to re-examine the concept of deterrence.
The bear? Well, Dmitry Medvedev was wearing blue jeans during his visit to Palo Alto last week. The Russian president read his speech aloud at Stanford University from an iPad and signed up for Twitter. He was attempting to drum up support for building a Russian equivalent of Silicon Valley in a town outside of Moscow. If he manages to succeed at this feat, will the town be put on the target list for U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles? Let's hope not.
In fact, both countries still have thousands of ballistic missiles on launch-ready alert based on a concept of deterrence that is out of date. Last week, a group of Russian and American specialists sat down to talk about the future of nuclar arms control, and many of them touched on the need to rethink deterrence. The session was sponsored by the PIR Center, a think-tank on security and nonproliferation issues in Moscow, and the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation supporting efforts to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
Barack Obama got off a good line at his press conference with Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. Obama noted that Medvedev had just opened a Twitter account, and added, "I have one as well, so we may be able to finally throw away those ‘red phones’ that have been sitting around for so long."
No, Mr. President. It is not a good idea to throw away the hotline to Moscow and use Twitter instead. But your comment is another reminder of important business that has eluded both the United States and Russia for too long -- reducing the possibility of misunderstanding over a missile launch.
The United States still maintains about 1,000 nuclear-armed missiles on launch-ready alert, in silos and on submarines, and Russia may have even more. If given a warning of a missile attack, a president would have only minutes to decide how to respond. In the digital age, we should be able to find a way to ease this dangerous situation and give a president more time to avoid a terrible mistake. Here's an earlier article about the dangers.
Obama acknowledged the problem in his Nuclear Posture Review, issued in April. The president decided not to change the current alert status of U.S nuclear missiles. But the report said "efforts should continue to diminish further the possibility of nuclear launches resulting from accidents, unauthorized actions, or misperceptions and to maximize the time available to the President to consider whether to authorize the use of nuclear weapons."
Unfortunately, an agreement in 2000 between the United
States and Russia to set up a center to monitor ballistic missile and space
launches never got off the ground. The center would be a good first step and it
is something tangible Obama and Medvedev can do to ease the danger. It
mentioned by the presidents this week, but cries out for action. As long as
nuclear missiles remain on alert, we need more than a tweet to the Kremlin.
Update: In a joint summit statement on "strategic stability," Obama and Medvedev said they are committed to setting up this missile monitoring system, and that experts would meet "soon" to work on it. The statement is here (in pdf). Let's hope they have more success than the last attempt a decade ago.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN
Sai Thein Win
A former Army major has courageously parted the curtains on what looks like secret efforts at missile and nuclear activity in Burma. Sai Thein Win delivered to a dissident group, the Democratic Voice of Burma, a fascinating cache of color photographs and personal recollections that reinforce the suspicion that the generals who run the country have launched a primitive quest for nuclear weapons.
Looking at the evidence, retired United Nations weapons inspector Robert E. Kelley wrote: “Photographs could be faked, but there are so many and they are so consistent with other information and within themselves that they lead to a high degree of confidence that Burma is pursuing nuclear technology.” Kelley’s report, co-written with Ali Fowle of Democratic Voice of Burma, can be found here, and a discussion of the technical side at Arms Control Wonk.
Aside from the revelatory nature of the materials, what’s so interesting about Sai Thein Win’s cache is that he decided to bring it out. He reminds us that despite the very best technology in intelligence and monitoring -- satellite imagery and listening devices -- there’s tremendous value in the eyewitness account of a participant in a closed state like Burma, also known as Myanmar.
Some of the snapshots inside the Burmese program -- pieces of equipment, drawings and such -- could never have been captured by a satellite. Sai Thein Win was not a nuclear expert, but a missile engineer, and in some cases he is reporting on overheard conversations or trying to puzzle out bits and pieces of evidence. Nonetheless, the generals who rule the country must be just fuming.
Photo: DVB, DEMOCRATIC VOICE OF BURMA
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.