Michael KreponNuclear Dangers: Now What?

What can the Obama Administration hope to accomplish to reduce nuclear dangers during the last quarter-pole of this presidency, especially after being drubbed in the mid-term elections? Quite a lot, actually.

The big “get” remains a nuclear deal with Iran that leaves Tehran far more poorly positioned to sprint to a nuclear arsenal than the cartoon depiction of the problem that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used to school the UN General Assembly in September 2012. The more likely scenario of concern, as James Action has written, isn’t breakout, but “sneak-out.” Outlier states seeking the Bomb usually don’t try to break out in heavily monitored locales; they are more likely to do this in hidden spaces. Nonetheless, the terms of public debate have been framed in terms of breakout from agreed constraints at facilities with known coordinates under heavy scrutiny. By this yardstick, ongoing negotiations have already reaped significant gains, and could yield far more if negotiations succeed.

We shall, of course, see, whether a deal can be struck, and, if so, what the final numbers, plumbing configurations, and fissile material off-loading arrangements will be. Then it will be possible to determine how much better off the United States, Iran’s neighbors, and the State of Israel will be than is currently the case under the interim agreement or, if negotiations break down, with an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program. We shall also consider how much access any deal reached allows for foreign inspectors and sensors to look into dark corners.

Even if a negotiated web of constraints and monitoring measures makes everyone concerned about Iran’s nuclear capabilities far better off than with the interim agreement or with no deal at all, the Obama Administration is still likely to have a donnybrook on its hands. The outcome  will be more consequential than the next strategic arms reduction agreement – whenever it comes to pass. If Prime Minister Netanyahu decides to do everything in his power to torpedo a deal that the Obama Administration determines to be sound, verifiable, and in the national security interests of America’s friends and allies, the tear in U.S.-Israeli relations might become irreparable. Even if Netanyahu decides to avoid a momentous clash, his surrogates on Capitol Hill will still be up in arms, equating friendship with Israel with support for the Netanyahu government’s actions and rhetoric, no matter how ill-conceived.

A second accomplishment in the last two years of the Obama presidency would be a basket of new pledges and deliverables for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, a signature Obama initiative. Russia’s absence from the next summit is disappointing, but need not preclude useful steps taken by others.

A third major accomplishment would be a signing ceremony at the United Nations for an International Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations. Securing this achievement would require a shift in the administration’s timid position of “leading from behind” the European Union on this initiative, which has yielded little by way of tangible results. The Code of Conduct has always been a Big Idea, since reducing dangerous actions and confrontations in space are directly related to reducing nuclear dangers here on Earth. But the Obama Administration has treated it as small potatoes. I will continue to test the patience of ACW readers on this subject in subsequent posts.

A fourth major accomplishment would be a successful NPT Review Conference in 2015. Here, as in the negotiations with Iran, definitions of “success” require parsing. In past NPT RevCons, success has been measured by a Consensus Final Document — a yardstick that empowers the most recalcitrant states. My definition of success is a review process that (1) reinforces existing norms that have progressively diminished the value of nuclear weapons for major powers; (2) makes it harder for new states to acquire nuclear weapons; and (3) makes it easier for states in full compliance with the NPT’s obligations to garner the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology.

The biggest threats to the NPT’s well-being are proliferation concerns in the Middle East, South Asia, and Northeast Asia. The P-5 are obligated to fulfill their end of the NPT’s grand bargain — to pursue nuclear disarmament – and four of the five have done just this. It is nonetheless painfully true that negotiations between Washington and Moscow on a follow-on to New START are moribund, both clearly retain excessive stockpiles, and strategic modernization cycles are now gearing up in Russia, to be followed in due course by those in the United States.

Washington and Moscow could take initiatives prior to the RevCon to strengthen the NPT, separately or in tandem, even while remaining at loggerheads over other issues. Hans Kristensen and Stan Norris estimate that 2,700 warheads in the U.S. stockpile are awaiting dismantlement, with another 3,500 in Russia. One way to strengthen the NPT would be for Washington and Moscow to pledge that, for every warhead they refurbish through life-extension programs, they would commit to dismantling one or more old warheads. Pledges to do so could be effectively monitored through voluntary, reciprocal transparency and confidence-building measures, without giving up warhead design information.

If this is too hard, or if this would entail lengthy negotiations, both countries could immediately pledge to step up the pace of warhead dismantlement while negotiating suitable trust-and-confidence-building measures. And if this is still too hard, I would not give the Kremlin a veto over steps that make sense for the United States. As Hans has painstakingly chronicled, warhead dismantlement has slowed to a crawl in the United States while plans and programs to increase the number of life-extended warheads are moving forward. Linking warhead dismantlement to refurbishment might be a useful placeholder while awaiting the next round of strategic force reductions. Otherwise, the Obama administration is without checks and balances against domestic opponents who champion U.S. strategic modernization programs while being dead set against nuclear negotiations and treaty ratification.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    The two NPT goals, “(2) makes it harder for new states to acquire nuclear weapons; and (3) makes it easier for states in full compliance with the NPT’s obligations to garner the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology” are somewhat in conflict.

    Among other things, limits on ostensibly “peaceful” uranium enrichment or plutonium processing need to be tightened. Any nuclear use with proliferation potential should be made to pass a cost-benefit economic test (not a “national prestige” test) to weed out the pretended peaceful uses that are of no genuine peaceful benefit.

    In view of global warming and nuclear proliferation threats, the “benefits” of NPT might be revised and broadened to include access to all forms of energy, with emphasis on non-nuclear energy, non-fossil-fuel energy, energy efficiency, etc. The narrow emphasis on nuclear energy as a “benefit” of the treaty is counter-productive.

  2. John Hallam (History)

    The best and most effective single thing Obama could do to reduce nuclear dangers is to follow the recommendation of the L22 resolution on Operational Readiness of Nuclear Weapon systems, adopted 163-4 with 10 abstentions, and lower the operational readiness of US land-based ICBMs, thereby increasing presidential decision-making time. Oh, and he’d be honouring an election promise, too.

    • Jon Davis (History)

      This could easily be accomplished within New START by deploying 240 slbms with 400 W88 and 1,100 W76, 10 B-2A, 40 B-52H and keeping 454 Minuteman III in a non-deployed state along with 10 B-2A and 6 B-52H.

  3. ArkadyRenko (History)

    I would argue that the Iranian deal is the most critical point of the Arms Control agenda in the next two years. If the Iranian deal succeeds, then the rest of the arms control agenda can proceed. If the Iranian deal fails, either by not being completed or by being so weak that Iran can violate with impunity, then nuclear arm control is undermined for a generation. Perhaps this should be the focus of a blog post: what are the outcomes of an Iranian nuclear deal: success, failure, or equivocal.

    The danger is that the need for a deal will overcome concerns about the strength or weakness of the deal. President Obama’s need for Iranian help against ISIS and desire for a legacy capping treaty may lead him into a bad deal. The Israeli’s are making noise about this (and have earned pre-emptive attacks from the administration), but they have influence in DC through the US public’s general like for Israel. I would be very surprised if Israel’s position was very different from the Saudi, Turkish, or Egyptian position. The method of response to the deal will be different between the four countries, but I think that the substance will be similar. So your comment, in my opinion, falsely divides Israel vs US & its allies; in the case of a bad deal, the divide will likely be Israel + old Middle East Allies vs. US, Europe, and Russia.

    As for the rest, the major question is if Putin wants to engage the West any more on arms control. If Putin does not want to engage and he continues Russia’s expansionist aggression in Ukraine, then arms control becomes difficult to justify. Here, the threat is that Arms Control proponents continue to advance their objective through various international forums even as the world changes to render those forums obsolete. That, again, undermines the authority of the Arms Control community.

  4. Jon Davis (History)

    I like the idea of dismantling inactive warheads as new warheads are refurbished. I also think that we need to focus arms control efforts on tactical nuclear warheads. We should begin to focus on zero tactical warheads between the US and Russia before tackling something as large as Global Zero. We also need to bring Russia back into the INF. The US and Russia can rely entirely on their strategic deterrents even though Russia is saying they need to withdraw from the INF because of China and other regional nuclear powers having these capabilities.

    • anon (History)

      Dismantling these weapons may make you feel good, but it’s hardly progress. It is inconceivable to me that DOD would incorportate retired weapons, which are surveyed for safety only, back into the stockpile, even if NNSA is retaining components for the planetary defense against asteroids.

    • Jon Davis (History)

      The inactive stockpile is there to enable DOD to bring back weapons into the deployed stockpile as they see the need for whatever reason. This is why dismantling them and removing them from the stockpile entirely is a good idea. A step towards reducing the overall stockpile must come first from the hedge stockpile and the inactive warheads slated for retirement.

    • anon (History)

      Agree, Jon, but retired weapons and inactive weapons are not the same thing.

    • Jon Davis (History)

      I’m not saying they are the same thing. What I am saying is that we need to reduce the total warhead arsenal by completely destroying warheads that are not operational or a minimum hedge. This does not mean partially disassembling them so that later they can be reassembled while still calling them retired. It means taking all the components and destroying them along with the pits. Furthermore, work needs to be done on the pit inventory. Why is it that we need 14,000 pits in storage?

  5. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Tom Nichols has his own take on what a Republican Congress and a Democratic President might do together on arms control. http://nationalinterest.org/feature/atomic-amnesia-hey-gop-congress-dont-forget-about-americas-11663?page=show

    His suggestions: Ratify the comprehensive test-ban treaty, declare a policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons, and withdraw tactical nuclear arms in Europe. Although he is not optimistic, he thinks these three might be feasible.