Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


The 2015 Review Conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, known among wonks as the REVCON, collapsed in acrimony. After weeks of debate over disarmament between the nuclear haves and have nots, the parties failed to agree to a consensus state after Egypt and the United States deadlocked over the details of a long-planned conference on Weapons of Mass Destruction-free zone in the Middle East.

Joining Aaron and Jeffrey to talk about the REVCON is Andrea Berger, the Deputy Director of the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy programme at RUSI.

Gangs of New York: The 2015 NPT Revcon by Andrea Berger

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Tense situations that prompt nuclear threats occur when one (or more) of three conditions exist: when the state issuing threats feels weak in some important respects, when other means of suasion are unsuccessful, and when the stakes involved are exceptionally high. Examples abound. Kim Jong-un threatens nuclear devastation when U.S. and South Korean troops carry out joint exercises. The United States resorted to not-so-veiled nuclear threats against China when bogged down in the Korean War. Nikita Khrushchev used veiled threats during the Berlin crisis. (“It is best for those who are thinking of war not to imagine that distances will save them.”) Pakistan employed nuclear threats when both armies mobilized after the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament by extremists based in Pakistan. New Delhi threatened massive retaliation if Rawalpindi resorted to first use.

To threaten mushroom clouds when the stakes are low (see Kim Jong-un, above) devalues the currency. Ditto for repeated threats of mushroom clouds. Multiple nuclear threats are once again emanating from the Kremlin. NATO’s advance eastward and Vladimir Putin’s actions to reassert Russia’s sphere of influence along its periphery are the proximate causes.

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I made an appearance at the end of Glenn Kessler’s fact check on Mark Kirk’s bizarre claim that Nelson Mandela abandoned South Africa’s nuclear weapons program — something we’ve been scratching our heads over for a while.  While I am officially against handing out Pinocchios, maybe this is the kick in the pants Kirk needs to lose the lame slide.

The South African case is really interesting — not just for the precedent, but also for the role of satellite imagery.

The discovery of South Africa’s Kalahari nuclear test site is one of my favorite case studies. The story is that Cosmos 922, a Soviet photo-reconnaissance satellite, photographed the test site on 3-4 July 1977.  The Soviets didn’t like what they saw, then took a second look with Cosmos 932 and concluded South Africa was preparing a nuclear weapons test.
That’s one version. Dieter Gerhardt, a South African military officer later arrested for spying for the Soviets, told Ronen Bergman that he was the source of the intelligence.

Whatever put Moscow on to Pretoria’s tail, the Soviet Embassy delivered, on August 6, 1977 , a letter from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev indicating that South Africa was preparing for a nuclear test, something that would “have the most serious and far-reaching aftermaths for international peace and security.”  Carter wrote back, asking the Soviets for the geographic coordinates.

The United States looked at the site, concluded it was a nuclear test site, and confronted the South Africans with the coordinates and other details.  South Africa’s bomb program was blown.  The scrutiny didn’t stop the program, but the events of 1977 are a good illustration of detection, pressure and so on.  And, in principle, the events of 1977 are now replicable using open source tools.  That’s a big reason that I have always wanted to geolocate the site myself.

I finally got around to it, only to discover that David Albright Paul Brannan,  Zachary Laporte, Katherine Tajer, and Christina Walrond had already done it in 2011.  As it turns out, though, we  used completely different methods.  I used a pair of declassified US documents; Albright et al had used information from the IAEA. We got the same answer, which is nice.  I also learned a few things, some of which may make for an interesting blog post.  You tell me.

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A lot of people are asking how to take measurements and make 3D models from 2D images. If conditions are juuusst right, SketchUp’s Match Photo technique is the way to go. Unfortunately, in our world, conditions are almost never just right, unless you happen to be able to take the photo yourself. Here’s an alternative method using Web Plot Digitizer, which is still free and can scale for as much (or as little) information as you have (keeping in mind a greater margin of error).

A few days ago the DPRK’s state news agency, KCNA released the first images of North Korea’s new submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM). These photos we’re great, but with just sky and water, there wasn’t much context about the size of the missile.

That is until one of our eagle-eyed research assistants, Dave Schmerler, spotted this:

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Notes from the RevCon II

I was just in New York for a few days and heard some very interesting things about the coming trainwreck at the RevCon. But I wasn’t allowed to repeat any of them!

Lucky us, Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova has written another “Notes from the RevCon” post.  (See her first note here.)

While she was careful to stick to things said in public, published online and reported in the papers, it’s kind of amazing to see it all in one place.

Notes from the RevCon: The Empires Strike Back

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova

I thought my next post would be about the Middle East, but then the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) set Subsidiary Body 1 and Main Committee I on fire, so I’m back to disarmament. (Elsewhere, Main Committee II has been chewing over whether the Additional Protocol is part of the verification standard under the NPT, and the United States’ and others’ proposals on response to withdrawal from the NPT are getting a no-go from the Non-Aligned Movement in Subsidiary Body 3.)

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Intelligence sources have told Bill Gertz at the Washington Free Beacon and Anthony Capaccio and Sam Kim at Bloomberg that North Korea tested its KN-11 submarine launched ballistic missile from a submersible barge, not a Sinpo-class submarine, and that the missile flew only a short period.

Satellite images and open source information seems to support this account.  It is important to note that this does not mean the test was a fake.  This is a normal test to conduct in the early stages of an SLBM program — even if Rodong Sinmun and KCNA are exaggerating a bit.

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Notes from the NPT REVCON

Michael Krepon noticed that we’ve been silent on the issue of the ongoing NPT Review Conference and had an inspired idea — why not ask my colleague Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova to send us her thoughts from New York, where she is attending.

Gaukhar is great — she is the director of our  program on International Organizations and Nonproliferation. You can follow her tweets from the REVCON at @GaukharM using the hashtag #NPT2015.

Notes from the NPT Review Conference

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova

The Ninth NPT Review Conference kicked off in New York last week without much fanfare. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was there, speaking on the first day, as was Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, along with a number of other ministers, but there was little excitement or positive energy in the room. From their packed nosebleed section, NGOs could see plenty of empty seats behind delegation desks in the grand UN General Assembly Hall.

This lack of excitement is not surprising as, unlike in 2010, we arrive to the 2015 RevCon with the Prague Agenda having decidedly run out of steam, the US-Russian arms control dialogue deadlocked, and Russia’s adventures in Europe prompting many NATO allies to hug nuclear weapons tighter. The Humanitarian Initiative has broad-based support and strong momentum behind it, but it is also a source of tension, with the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) and some of their nuclear allies uneasy about its goals and next steps.

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Safe Nuclear Weapons

It’s not easy to make nuclear weapons, build missiles to carry them long distances, and to produce highly enriched uranium or plutonium. It’s even harder to keep nuclear weapons safe so they do not detonate except under orders from a National Command Authority. If a single mushroom cloud appears at a time of crisis or warfare because of an accident, inadvertent or unauthorized use, escalation control will be extremely difficult and all of the presumed benefits of nuclear deterrence can be lost.

Nuclear safety and security techniques and practices are designed to prevent these eventualities. Gates and guards and personnel reliability programs help with nuclear security. All states with nuclear weapons employ these practices. Nuclear weapon design features and other safety techniques help provide insurance against accidental, inadvertent, or unauthorized detonations. Nuclear safety and security reinforce each other. Sometimes these categories merge. For example, authorization codes required to arm and use a nuclear weapon — permissive action links — can be considered as essential for both nuclear safety and security. Additional design features, including the use of insensitive high explosives, are required besides PALs to prevent unwanted mushroom clouds.

The United States has a “one-point safety” standard for all of its nuclear weapons. This standard means that the probability of achieving a nuclear yield greater than four pounds of TNT must not exceed one in a million for any event involving the initiation of the warhead’s high explosive at a single point on its periphery. The United States achieved this exacting safety standard after decades of effort, significant investment, and a learning curve derived from nuclear testing.

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Metadata: MetaUseful & MetaCreepy

One of the easiest and most useful methods for an open source analyst is to extract metadata from imagery.

Metadata is data that is often included with an image, such as the time it was taken, the type of camera that was used, and yes, if you are lucky — GPS coordinates. This data is useful for photographers, those who like to stalk cats, and people like us: geolocators and myth-busters. Read Full Story →


The IAEA’s Conclusion About Turkey

But what are nuclear scientists in Turkey actually doing?

Not for the first time, when Barack Obama declared April 2 that the greater Middle East has no real alternative to a nuclear accommodation with Iran, advocates of the “cascade of proliferation” theory warned us that Turkey’s future would be nuclear-armed.

In fact, kibitzers on both sides of the Iran divide routinely include Turkey in their quiver of arrows on the basis of a common assumption. Neocons claim that Turkey would “not be far behind” Saudi Arabia in a Middle East nuclear arms race if there’s an Iran deal. Some who instead favor diplomacy likewise fret that, without a deal, Saudi Arabia will get nuclear weapons first, and then will come Egypt and Turkey.  Not only in Israel, where the proliferation domino theory is mainstream, has the view become commonplace that Turkey is heading toward nuclear latency.

Away from the op-ed pages, during the 2015 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference last month I had conversations in which serious people with government intelligence backgrounds asserted that Turkey’s military is all about keeping open or even exercising an option to make nuclear weapons. During a track-1.5 meeting in Moscow three months before, someone who has been in and out of the United States government also put Turkey on the short list of usual suspects.

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