Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


I was discussing reports of a new Russian sea-launched cruise missile with my colleague, Nikolai Sokov.  He has a number of thoughts about what is going on, so I was delighted when he offered to write them up. There are a lot of really interesting things in Nikolai’s piece.

One comment — I remain undecided about the idea that the alleged Russian INF violation arises from a ground-based test of a sea-launched cruise missile. The new information, though, does seem to bolster that case, at least a bit, but my intuition is that it is a new ground-launched cruise missile.  In any event, its a discussion worth having.  And this is a really great start.

Bill Gertz, New Russian SLCM, and the True Nature of Challenge to US and NATO

 Nikolai Sokov

A few days ago Bill Gertz alerted the public to a new Russian sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM), SS-N-30A, known in Russia as Kalibr. The new supersonic missile, he said, was tested last month and is ready for deployment. It could reach targets across Europe and represents a threat akin to SS-20 intermediate-range missiles, which the Soviets deployed in the late 1970s – early 1980s and which were eliminated under the 1987 INF Treaty. “A cruise missile variant also is being developed that officials said appears to violate the 1987 Intermediate­ Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty”, he added.

The disclosure is very interesting, but not particularly informative. The missile is not new – it has been in testing mode for seven years, if not longer, and is based on an even older SLCM. It is not exactly supersonic. The quote above is misleading: all versions of Kalibr are cruise missiles; Gertz probably meant a test flight from land-based launcher, which is the likely reason for the American accusation that Russia is in violation of the INF Treaty. And, although the reported capacity of Kalibrs to reach targets across Europe from submarines is a concern, he missed a significantly greater challenge stemming from the recent versions of that missile.


One Happy Kalibr Family

The history of Kalibr is complicated and designations in Russian open sources are contradictory. Here is a short, simplified version.

Kalibr is a new-generation SLCM, which is based on a Soviet long-range SLCM known as Granat, which, in turn, was a Soviet response to the American Tomhawk (TLAM-N). After the breakup of the Soviet Union, when Russian defense industry began to actively seek foreign markets, Novator design bureau, which produced Granat, created a new family of SLCMs. The first to be publicly unveiled was Kalibr 3M-14E, which could have been mistaken for a brand new missile because it was much smaller than Granat. The smaller size achieved two purposes: first, the new anti-ship missile had to fit into standard NATO torpedo tubes (which are shorter than the Soviet standard) and it had to have a range less than 300 km to remain under the MTCR-mandated limit (Granat had the range of 3,000 km). Reportedly, in 2006 3M-14E Kalibr missiles were sold to India.

3M-14E at MAKS-2011 exhibition

Novator did not stop there and eventually created a whole family of cruise missiles: in addition to 3M-14E, it also advertises 3M-54E and 3M-54E-1. These three missiles are part of systems known as Klub-S (for submarines), Klub-N (for ships), and Klub-M (land-based anti-ship missiles for coastal defense); Novator also offers a Club-A system for aircraft. All these missiles have the declared range below 300 km, which is natural for weapons intended for export. Designation “E” traditionally denotes the export version of weapons systems.

Part of the Kalibr family, however, is intended solely for “domestic consumption” (known as 3M14, 3M54, and 3M541) and their ranges are many times greater (some sources use the “E” designation for missiles not intended for export, which is an obvious mistake). Depending on the source, their range is either 2,600 km or 1,500 km; some hypothesize that the longer range is associated with missiles equipped with nuclear warheads while conventionally armed Kalibr SLCMs have the 1,500 or somewhat greater range.

Kalibr 3M-54E1

All these missiles are subsonic with one important exception: the last stage of the three-stage 3M54 can accelerate to three times the speed of sound 20-40 km before the target (3M541 is a shorter, two-stage subsonic missile that has a more powerful warhead). Acceleration helps penetrate ship defenses and builds inertia to penetrate the body of the target ship. Although all these cruise missiles were initially developed as anti-ship (including basing on submarines, surface ships, and on shore for coastal defense), they have recently also been given capability against targets on land.

Kalibr missiles are designated as high-precision and can travel a complex trajectory with up to 15 turns along the path. For example, if the target ship is on the other side of an island, the missile(s) will fly around that island to reach it.


Element of Conventional Deterrence

Kalibr missiles are reported to have dual (nuclear and conventional) capability. The Russian Navy has always stubbornly insisted that it needs nuclear anti-ship missiles to balance the overwhelming power of US Navy and there is no reason to believe it will completely abandon nuclear capability; there is also no reason to believe that it has abandoned the political obligation of Russia under the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNI) to store warheads for non-strategic nuclear weapons on shore, even though in 2004 Moscow declared that it no longer considered itself bound by PNIs.

Conventionally armed Kalibr SLCMs deserve much more attention then the “nuclear side” of the family. They fit very well the goal of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons that was proclaimed in the 2000 Military Doctrine and has been confirmed in its subsequent (2010 and 2014) versions. The value of precision-guided long-range conventional strike assets has been amply demonstrated by the United States in a series of limited wars since 1991. Unlike nuclear weapons, their conventional counterparts are usable and, if necessary can be credibly threatened against a potential opponent.

It appears that the geography of planned deployment of Kalibrs reflects the emphasis on conventional capability. They will be deployed on Project 885 (Yasen) SSNs; they will also be deployed on diesel Varshavyanka-type submarines; there are plans to arm with them Shchuka B-class submarines of the Northern Fleet. Certain categories of surface ships, such as the Project 1155 “large anti-submarine vessel” will also be refitted with these missiles, as well as two large heavy cruisers, including Petr Veliki, Project 1150 destroyers, and the future Project 11356M frigates. Of greatest significance perhaps is the decision to equip missile ships of the Caspian Fleet with Kalibr missiles; moreover, Caspian ships have already flight-tested them several times from different ships.

Test of Kalibr missile from Grad Sviyashsk missile cruiser in the Caspian Sea, 2013

Overall, the Northern, the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Fleets can hold at risk wide swaths of territory in Europe and the Middle East, perhaps reaching as far as parts of the Persian Gulf region. Even assuming the range of conventional Kalibrs at 1,500 km, the reach is truly global. The vast majority of countries within that range do not have nuclear weapons of their own or US nuclear weapons in their territories. Thus, Russia cannot threaten them with nuclear SLCMs, but conventional SLCMs are a whole different ball game.

The new strategic situation goes well beyond the gloomy, but, in truth, pretty timid warnings of Bill Gertz. This is not just about Europe and perhaps not necessarily about Europe: Moscow is on the path toward breaking the US monopoly on conventional long-range precision-guided strike weapons. Kalibr is not the only class of such weapons: Moscow has already started deployment of a dual-capable Kh-101/102 air-launched cruise missile and plans to develop and deploy a liquid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile that, some reports suggest, will be primarily intended for conventional warheads (given the long and successful history of Soviet liquid-fuel ICBMs, this project will hardly encounter any challenges except financial).

Of course, large-scale deployment is still mostly plans. Development of Kalibr family systems has been completed, but deployment takes time and money; the latter is in particularly short supply these days. Thus, the security challenge should be judged as potential, but worth serious consideration. A response in kind would amount to an arms race. Arms control tools seem infinitely preferable, but that would mean breaking one of the long-standing taboos in American arms control policy – putting long-range conventional strike assets on the table. This option remains possible while Russia has not yet embarked on large-scale deployment of the new family of systems; once it has moved reasonably far along that way, it will lose interest in arms control.


Really Sneaky: The Worst Side of Kalibr

The worst news about the continuing improvement and upgrades of the Kalibr family is its new launcher. Russian missile designers apparently have imagination that is allowed to run amok. They have put a launcher with four Kalibr missiles into a standard shipping container that cross oceans by hundreds of thousands loaded onto standard commercial vessels.

Kalibr launcher in a shipping container

Available pictures show two classes of Kalibr missiles in shipping containers – the “export” (shorter) version and also the longer missiles with greater, “non-export” range. In effect, this means that any vessel carrying standard shipping containers that approaches a “country of interest” of the Kremlin could be carrying long-range cruise missiles capable of sinking ships or striking targets on land. Similarly, any part of Russian coastline that appears unprotected can all of a sudden feature anti-ship missiles brought by inconspicuous trucks in inconspicuous shipping containers.

Just imagine what Bill Gertz would have written had he known about this unorthodox basing mode…


Kalibr and the INF Treaty

Deployment of Kalibr missiles with capability to strike land targets in seas around Europe (including the Atlantic), indeed, could defy the purpose of the 1987 INF Treaty, which eliminated all land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km. There is no escaping that, however. It was, after all, the United States and NATO that ensured during INF that sea- and air-launched missiles should be excluded from that Treaty. It was the United States that successfully insisted during START I talks that long-range nuclear SLCMs should be subject only to rudimentary unverifiable confidence building measures and that conventional long-range SLCMs are completely exempted from it. The tables have turned. US monopoly on these assets has lasted two decades and is now on the verge of its end. If one throws into the picture long-range ALCMs and short-range Iskander systems that reach almost the entire Poland and perhaps also a piece of Germany from Kaliningrad Oblast (a Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania), the emerging Russian conventional and potentially nuclear capability looks particularly impressive.

Kalibr has apparently affected the INF Treaty in another way – it was the likely source for the recent US accusation that Russia is in violation of that Treaty. US government has only revealed that the reason for the accusation was a test of a long-range ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM); such missiles are prohibited by the INF Treaty. Russia has denied any wrongdoing and demanded details, which the United States refused to provide (probably to avoid disclosing methods of intelligence gathering). At the center of the controversy is probably a flight-test of an R-500 short-range ground-launched cruise missile for Iskander system from Kapustin Yar range in May 2007. Even then, that test gave rise to speculations that it could have been the test of one of long-range Kalibr-family SLCMs. If the latter is the case, then the situation becomes complicated.

Under the INF Treaty, Russia has the right to flight-test SLCMs from land provided that it is conducted “at a test side from a fixed land-based launcher which is used solely for test purposes and which is distinguishable from GLCM launcher” (Article VII, paragraph 12). The test was certainly from an official test range; the launcher was without doubt not a GLCM launcher (all those were eliminated long time ago). It all boils down to two questions: was this a fixed launcher and was this a launcher that is used exclusively for flight tests?

Indeed, if the 2007 test was for one of Kalibr missiles, a controversy seems possible given the long-standing tradition of Russian defense industry to pay little attention to international agreements. In the past, that propensity created more than one head-ache for both the Foreign Ministry and the military. Is it possible that designers chose not to mess with a unique launcher for a SLCM and used the same that was later used for R-500? The public will not know until US and Russian officials move beyond the current stage of mutual recriminations and graduate to discussing technical details. In any event, it remains possible that Kalibr family had something to do with yet one more source of contention between the two countries.


I am delighted that my article on the modernization of the uranium mill at Pyongsan is getting so much attention.

I do, however, have to register a small reservation — partly about the  coverage but mostly about my own role in it.  I study nuclear weapons, so I am first and foremost interested in what the operation of the uranium mill means for North Korea’s nuclear programs.  It is natural that I would focus on the possibility that the modernization of the mill means more North Korean nuclear weapons, which is a definitely a bad thing.

But it is also a speculative thing — North Korea might someday use those nuclear weapons to kill people or it might maim or kill people in conventional provocations that it would not have undertaken with a small stockpile of nuclear weapons.

What is definitely happening, though, is that North Korea is dumping the tailings from the plant into an unlined pond, one surrounded by farms. That’s not a hypothetical harm.  That’s actual pollution that is harming the health and well being of the local community.  I often complain that nuclear nonproliferation doesn’t get enough attention, but like any security issue nuclear war gets loads more attention than “small” harms like environmental pollution and human health.

Of course, those aren’t small harms to the people who are being poisoned. Nor is this harm speculative. Over time, small or not, these harms accumulate. One of the problems in public policy, as I see it, is that we give short shrift to small harms but very real harms.

I did include a paragraph about the environmental harm posed by the mill, one that highlighted the clean-up effort at Sillamäe in Estonia. My friend Cheryl Rofer worked on the Sillamäe site remediation. I can heartily recommend the book she edited with Tönis Kaasik, Turning a Problem into a Resource: Remediation and Waste Management at the Sillamäe Site, Estonia (Springer, 2000).

But my mention of environmental issues was only a few words.  I am sure those people working on these really, really important issues will feel slighted. Well, before they have a chance to feel that way, I wanted to an issue an open invitation for suggestions about how I might do better next time.  As I am writing this, I’ve thought of a number of things I might have done differently. I am ready to hear more.


The Defense Department released a Law of War Manual in June that says some interesting things about how the United States views legal questions about the use of nuclear weapon.

Legal perspectives are terribly important in the United States. I observe that the United States tends to think about nuclear weapons in a far more legalistic manner than other states, whether friend or foe.  I was in one meeting where an American participant talked about the legal constraints on a President contemplating the use of nuclear weapons when a French colleague laughed.  ”We would throw the lawyers out the room!” he said.  That struck me, since of course in the United States that would mean the President would have to throw himself out of the room.

For the past couple of years I’ve been working on a big idea that looks at how the United States might alter its approach to nuclear deterrence, one that is rooted in legal questions about military necessity and the use of nuclear weapons.  But I am getting ahead of myself!  There is still the issue of the June 2015 Law of War Manual.

Fortunately, Dr. Heather Williams (@heatherwilly) has kindly agreed to send along a very useful analytic summary.

Nuclear Weapons and the Law of War Manual in Six Points

Heather Williams, King’s College London

While we were all distracted by the Iran deal (see last nine ACW posts), the US Department of Defense released its Law of War Manual back on June 12, 2015. Heavily footnoted legalese may not seem quite as gripping as the down-to-the-wire drama of negotiations in Vienna, but there are some good nuggets in there with respect to the legality of nuclear weapons use and nuclear deterrence. This comes after a controversial NPT Review Conference in May, and legal justification for nuclear weapons runs up against increasing pressure from some states in the humanitarian impacts initiative for a nuclear weapons ban.

Much of the Manual is based on the 1977 Additional Protocol I (AP I) to the Geneva Conventions (not to be confused with the IAEA Additional Protocol); however, the United States never signed up to AP I, nor does AP I apply to nuclear weapons. At first glance, the Manual only devotes two pages and 373 words to nuclear weapons. But did I mention the footnotes? Those two pages contain an additional 1034 words in the footnotes, but, more importantly, the 1996 ICJ Advisory Opinion is heavily featured throughout the entire Manual.

Here are some highlights:

1. Non-nuclear weapon states cannot impose customary international law when it comes to nuclear weapons. Interests of nuclear armed states take precedent because they are “specially affected.” A footnote on page 32 cites the ICJ Opinion: “Evidence of a customary norm requires indication of ‘extensive and virtually uniform’ State practice, including States whose interests are ‘specially affected.’ … With respect to the use of nuclear weapons, customary law could not be created over the objection of the nuclear-weapon States, which are the States whose interests are most specially affected.”

2. Non-use of nuclear weapons does not translate into customary international law. This is because lack of use is not the result of a legal opinion or ruling, and, to cite the 1996 ICJ Opinion, “if nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945, it is not on account of an existing or nascent custom but merely because circumstances that might justify their use have fortunately not arisen.”

3. As long as nuclear weapons exist their use would be “authorize-able”, or justifiable, unless there was a legal prohibition with the support of nuclear-armed states (see point 1): “Like other aspects of the law of war, the rules relating to weapons are generally characterized as prohibitive law forbidding certain weapons or the use of weapons in certain instances rather than positive law authorizing the weapon or its use. The lawfulness of the use of a type of weapon does not depend on the presence or absence of authorization, but, on the contrary, on whether the weapon is prohibited.”

4. Nuclear weapons use would not necessarily be disproportionate. This is where things get interesting because it is talking about specific conditions of use, rather than nuclear weapons in the abstract. As part of the ICJ case, the United States submitted a statement, which is cited on page 314: “Whether an attack with nuclear weapons would be disproportionate depends entirely on the circumstances, including the nature of the enemy threat, the importance of destroying the objective, the character, size and likely effects of the device, and the magnitude of the risk to civilians. Nuclear weapons are not inherently disproportionate.” If nuclear weapons were used in response to a nuclear attack, for example, that would be proportionate, assuming similar yields and targets.

5. Nuclear weapons use would not be illegal based solely on the humanitarian and environmental effects. International law prohibits “asphyxiating, poisonous, or other gases, and all analogous liquids, materials, or devices’. However, if these effects are a by-product rather than the primary intent of a weapon, that weapon could still be considered legal: “the rule is understood only to prohibit weapons whose prime, or even exclusive, effect is to poison or asphyxiate. Thus, for example, smoke, flame, napalm, conventional explosives, and nuclear weapons are not covered by this rule, even though these weapons may produce asphyxiating or poisonous by-products.” These humanitarian and environmental effects should not be ignored, but rather consideration should be given to the specifics of potential use and how to minimize collateral damage in the extreme conditions when nuclear weapons would be used.

6. Nuclear weapons use would not necessarily be indiscriminate, another contention of just war proponents: “There is no general prohibition in treaty or customary international law on the use of nuclear weapons…. nuclear weapons must be directed against military objectives. In addition, attacks using nuclear weapons must not be conducted when the expected incidental harm to civilians is excessive compared to the military advantage expected to be gained.” Again, this raises more interesting questions about targeting and whether or not lower-yield nuclear weapons would be more humane.

Still with me? If so, let’s talk about what is not in the Manual, namely a discussion of arms control treaty obligations- a rather strange omission for a document on international law. The Manual acknowledges US non-proliferation responsibilities, along with agreements to reciprocally reduce its arsenal, but on p. 394 it says, “Some of these agreements may not apply in times of war. Guidance on nuclear arms control agreements is beyond the scope of this manual.” Fair enough, but then p. 925 engages in a discussion about the specifics of the Outer Space Treaty so it seems like an attempt to deflect difficult questions about disarmament. On that note, most noticeably absent is any mention of US commitments to “general and complete disarmament” under Article VI of the NPT. One possible explanation for this is that the Manual is about the laws of war rather than treaty law, which could be discarded in times of war and “supreme national interest”- a fine line, indeed.

Proponents of a nuclear weapons ban are likely to pick up on the following point on p. 72: “Certain prohibitions and certain other rules in the law of war that reflect customary international law have been described as reflecting ‘elementary considerations of humanity.’ These ‘elementary considerations of humanity have been understood to be ‘even more exacting in peace than in war.’ Thus, these legal standards, at a minimum, must be adhered to in all circumstances.” And herein lies the heart of the debate between nuclear deterrence, which requires a credible threat of use of nuclear weapons, and humanitarian approaches to war. Ideally, the humanitarian impacts initiative would provide a forum for diverse discussion of these issues and seize the opportunity provided by the release of the Law of War Manual.



I’ve got a new column up at Foreign Policy on the Iran deal. Sadly, while we made this nice graphic, we couldn’t use it. So, I am sharing it with you here, dear readers.

I also think you should read Michael Krepon’s series on the deal: 1, 2.


I am getting punchy waiting for an Iran deal.  In case you are confused/annoyed/amused by the interchangeable use of E3/EU+3 and P5+1.


Gaukhar is back with the third and final installment of her posts from the 2015 NPT REVCON.  If you are interested, we’ve also posted two podcasts in the NPT REVCON Follies, one with Gaukhar and another with Andrea Berger.

The RevCon of Our Discontent: The Post Mortem

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova

 Have you forgotten all about the RevCon and me? I’m sorry. I think my brain tried to block out the memory of four weeks in New York, but shame (and Jeffrey) got me back to writing. Because it’s been a while, you get a longer post and a supplementary timeline of the RevCon’s last week.

The NPT Review Conference’s last week was devoted to last-ditch and closed-door negotiations to formulate different parts of the draft final text. A group of about 20 states was negotiating on disarmament at the Algerian Mission, while chairs of Main Committees II and III were leading attempts at the UN to agree on nonproliferation, safeguards, nuclear security, export controls, response to withdrawal, and other issues. Neither the disarmament group nor any of the committees could reach consensus, so on Wednesday evening, the RevCon President took over to put together a compromise proposal, a non-negotiable “take it or leave it” draft final document. Its disarmament part came out earlier than others, on Thursday morning. The full version was delayed until 2 am on Friday morning, reportedly because of the continued efforts to agree on the text regarding steps towards the establishment of a Middle East WMD-free zone. (Here’s my more detailed timeline of the last week.)

Here I Am, Stuck in the Middle (East) with You

As you all know now, on May 22, the RevCon concluded without a consensus agreement on the final document. Although the RevCon was dominated by disarmament debates, it was ultimately the Middle East that brought it down, as the United States and the United Kingdom (oh, and yes, Canada) rejected the draft text’s provisions on the Middle East WMDZ conference. The move probably shouldn’t have surprised most delegations, so why did it? The Middle East always had a high potential to wreck this RevCon and was expected to be a contentious issue, but it was not at the center of the debates throughout the conference. After the initial unveiling of the sides’ respective positions, the conversation disappeared almost entirely behind the scenes, and the later in the RevCon it got, the harder it was for the outsiders to assess the situation.  So when the issue emerged from thick fog on the last day of the conference, many genuinely didn’t know what to expect.

Egypt showed up at the RevCon with a big gun, though mostly pointed at its own feet.  The “Arab paper” (and its twin “NAM Middle East paper”) contained a number of eyebrow-raising demands.  The paper requested the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) to convene the conference on a Middle East WMD-free zone within 180 dys of the RevCon closing, eliminated both the facilitator’s role and the preparatory multilateral consultations on the agenda and the outcome of the conference, and indeed prescribed what the outcome should be. Not only were those conditions unacceptable to the United States, even some of the Arab delegations were uncomfortable with the paper. A number of Non-Aligned states weren’t psyched, either, but chose not to pick that particular battle.

Russia, who seemed to have decided that the one thing they really cared about at the RevCon was the Middle East, played “the good NPT depositary” to the Arab states and kept trying to come up with compromise proposals. The Russian Middle East paper and subsequent Subsidiary Body 2 Chair’s draft text remained fairly close to the Egyptian position, but returned the preparatory consultations and introduced the possibility of a designated/special representative to lead the process (though after the treatment Ambassador Laajava got, who would want a job the description of which apparently includes getting kicked in the shins for all your trouble?). It’s not clear how happy Egypt was with either proposals, but I heard they were happy to keep pushing for their position.

The RevCon President’s final proposed text went the furthest in meeting the US condition that all states in the region, including Israel, agree to the agenda and outcome before the conference is convened. While it still had a deadline for the conference and the UNSG as the convener, it also stipulated that regional states should engage in consultations to agree on the conference agenda by consensus, and that any decisions emerging either from the preparatory process or from the conference should also be made by consensus. At the same time, the UNSG, the NPT depositaries, and other states were to ensure that the conference isn’t postponed, creating ambiguity about whether the conference would have to be convened by March 1, 2016 even without a consensus on the agenda.

My boss has been to many more NPT meetings and knows better, so he was skeptical that the United States would accept the Middle East text. However, the significant delay in the release of the draft final document created an impression that the Middle East consultations that ran late into the night on Thursday had resulted in some kind of an agreement. Since there were no plenary sessions on Friday morning, most states had limited opportunity to gauge the US and others’ opinions, and the US delegation wasn’t exactly walking around broadcasting its displeasure with the text. As I understand, Egypt also didn’t make it clear to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that there in fact had been no agreement on the Middle East. (Perhaps Egypt did genuinely expect the United States to accept the draft?) Instead, both Egypt and Iran, though touting an appropriately tough line on disarmament throughout the RevCon, at the end were prepared to sell a dead cow argue for the acceptance of the final document in spite of discontent with the disarmament part. A number of people were unpleasantly surprised in the end, while Russia—the Budapest Memorandum and INF treaty violator and nuclear weapons modernizer—got to ride out of it all on a white horse.

Where does it all leave us on the Middle East WMD-free zone? It might well be back to the drawing board now, to the 1995 Middle East Resolution, which, inexplicably, Egypt seems to prefer today over implementing the 2010-recommended steps.  Which is a shame, really, considering it was a hard battle to get the 2010 agreement, and, slow as the process may have been, the consultations led by the Finnish facilitator were starting to show progress. In their closing statement, the United States indicated they are still up for implementing the 2010 mandate, if everyone plays by the consensus rule. That would require a change in the current Egyptian position, and who knows when that might happen? Barring any significant changes in a variety of states’ behavior, it seems that the subject will remain a thorn in the NPT review process’ side.  If states allow it, future RevCon outcomes will continue to hang on the issue where the majority are but observers, unable to seriously influence the process and results.

Nuclear Disarmament: The Almost-Outcome

RevCon failures are not joyous occasions, but I have a feeling a number of the non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) weren’t particularly heartbroken to lose the disarmament part of the draft final document. Some delegations were probably relieved because the US move spared them the need to either block the document themselves or explain the acceptance of a disarmament text they found disappointing.

The text tabled on May 21 was not a product of agreement in the small group that negotiated at the Algerian Mission, but the RevCon President’s (with the help of other conference officers) attempt at a compromise language on the basis of those negotiations. Though not without progressive elements, the proposed text fell short of many NNWS’ expectations. The draft mentioned the humanitarian impact a good number of times, but didn’t give the initiative the strong endorsement the majority of the NNWS sought.  The joint statement on behalf of 159 states was only noted (rather than welcomed), along with the 26-nation statement, and the P5 statement. On the other hand, the text emphasized that concerns about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use “should continue to underpin” nuclear disarmament efforts and lend them urgency. Urgency, however, wasn’t very evident in the text on further measures, as in most instances the “urging” was directed at the Conference on Disarmament, so famously paralyzed.

The one important area where the document urged the NWS to act was in addressing the risks of accidental use of nuclear weapons. Otherwise, the NWS were mostly called upon or encouraged to implement measures they were asked to implement before (or at least consider implementing, such as reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons). The call for greater transparency got beefed up with a request for reports in 2017, 2019, and 2020, and recommendations on specific reporting categories. Luckily for China and Russia, though, reporting under specific categories was to be considered “without prejudice to national security,” and you know how threatening transparency is to China’s security in particular.

Finally, to answer the calls for effective (legal) measures for nuclear disarmament, the draft document recommended that the UN General Assembly establish an open-ended working group (OEWG). The suggested mandate for the group was to identify and elaborate effective measures to fully implement Article VI, which could include legal provisions but also “other arrangements.” The provision over which some of the NNWS stumbled, though, was the recommendation that the OEWG operate by consensus, promising another frustrating search for the lowest common denominator.

You Can’t Always Block What You Want

All in all, the disarmament text was easy enough for the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) to accept, and it placed on the unhappy NNWS the burden of rejecting the outcome and sinking the conference. I can’t know for sure that none of the NNWS delegations had a rejection text ready at the last plenary, but my impression is that no NNWS was in the position to block consensus, nor was there any collective action in the works.

Ironically, some of the states were likely willing to hold their fire to allow for the agreement on the Middle East. More broadly, however, the near-outcome reflects both the reluctance of individual states to bear the political cost of wrecking a RevCon and the limited ability to organize and block consensus jointly. Theoretically, as the largest NNWS group NAM has the greatest potential to block any outcome they don’t like, but in practice, it can rarely mobilize like that. Moreover, current NAM chair Iran, as I noted before, has been preoccupied with other matters, and leading a NAM revolt at the RevCon was the last thing they needed ahead of the last month of the P5+1 negotiations.

The states leading the Humanitarian Initiative, for their part, might have felt they had made a clear and loud enough point without blocking the final document. The humanitarian dimension is a central element of the disarmament debate now, not likely to simply dissipate if the NWS ignore it long enough. The issue of collective action, however, remains a serious question for the Humanitarian Initiative going forward, in the context of broader questions about its future.  On the RevCon’s last day, Austria announced that 107 states had endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge (formerly known as the Austrian Pledge), committing to pursue efforts to “stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate” nuclear weapons. It’s an impressive number, reflective of the pent-up frustration and hunger for new approaches among the NNWS, but what are the 107 actually prepared to do? Would they indeed take the risk of establishing a new process to ban nuclear weapons, as many in civil society argue they should, or prefer to stick to existing structures and keep trying to exert pressure there?

I noted in my second post that at this RevCon, NPT parties looked to be approaching the point of irreconcilable disagreement on the legitimacy of nuclear weapons and the humanitarian imperative of disarmament. For now, it seems both sides were willing to step away from that line, but the fact that, the Middle East aside, the final document was most likely going to be adopted doesn’t mean that they have overcome their differences in any substantive way. The first Preparatory Committee session of the next NPT review cycle is not until 2017, but states will have to face each other and those differences much sooner than that.

There might be room for more humanitarian impact conferences, especially if the NWS engage more substantively on such issues as the risk of use of nuclear weapons. But there is also a risk of turning the HINW conferences into another institution where everyone ritualistically repeats their well-known positions, and I’m sure states are wary of that. The OEWG remains an option for furthering the conversation on implementing Article VI, though I’d expect the Humanitarian Initiative states to push for a more ambitious mandate than what the draft final document recommends. The differences that were papered over in the RevCon’s draft final document, including the OEWG mandate and rules of procedure, will likely then come to the fore again at the UN First Committee in October.


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.


Declassified Documents

Thanks to mandatory declassification –and the excellent work of the National Security Archive’s Bill Burr and Jeffrey Richelson — there are a bunch of declassified documents relating to Kalahari Test Site.  I used two in particular to geolocate it.

* Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Special Projects Division, South Africa: Motivations and Capabilities for Nuclear Proliferation, September, 1977.

* Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Special Projects Division, Geology and History of the Kalahari Drill Site, Proliferation Group Quarterly Report, January – March 1978  (June 1978)

The first document was prepared in rush following the Soviet allegations about the site.  It suffers for the haste in which it was prepared. The second report, which makes use of open source information ,is more limited in scope, but very interesting.  It also includes some satellite images.  These images, or at least their reproduction, is terrible (see the top of the post).  But it does contain some very important details spelled out in the text: the name and relatively location of two “nearby wells.” One is “Niete Min, 7.3 km N10°W from the drill site” and another is “Hop Hop, 13.3 km N25°W from the drill site.”

Both locations appear in the database of NGIA place names, which makes for short work.  The location, distance and heading of both sites agree reasonably well the sites identified by Albright et al as Shaft 2, which was the object of interest in the 1978 report.  Shaft 2 is located in the vicinity of  27°45’32″S, 21°27’43″E

The 1977 report describes other aspects of the site,  which allows us to piece together the whole place:

  • A so-called “head frame” over what was Shaft 1. (27°45’56″S,  21°28’6″E)  This is approximately 1 km from the drilling underway at what would become Shaft 2. The “head frame” was later replaced in the 1980s by a building referred to as a “shade” pictured right. The “shade” is now long gone.
  • A concrete pad that was considered as a possible “tower site”  for an atmospheric test. This is located 2.8 km SSE of the probable head-frame, as described in the 1977 document. ( 27°47’18″S,  21°28’52″E)
  • The support camp ( 27°50’25″S,  21°35’52″E) and the airfield (27°50’5″S 21°37’50″E). The description of the support area (72 m high antenna and about 720 m2 of housing) and the length of the airfield (1600 m) both match, of course.

The nomenclature in the reports can be a little confusing at times, but after a while it all makes sense. There are some errors in the 1977 report.  But fortunately, we have a post-apartheid site visit from the IAEA to clear things up.



Albright et al, on the other hand, had a map drawn by the IAEA, along with a video released by the South Africans. And before you think that made it easy on them, the map is terrible.  There is no compass to warn you that North is inexplicably off to one side, the placement of the roads is impressionistic at best and the author seems to have transposed the locations of the first and second shaft. Other than that, it is a model of verisimilitude!  One benefit of my having found the site through a different method is that it supports Albright et al‘s various suspicions about inaccuracies in the map.

The video wasn’t much help either.  Lots of blurry shots of flat, featureless terrain. Yay. There is still some value to the ground truth images, but it is pretty limited.

What the video is good for, though, is dealing with a special problem.  Shaft 2 apparently never received a head frame, shade or other identifying structure — possibly because of the post-1977 pressure.  The South Africans just buried it.  That meant, when it came time to disable it, the IAEA and South Africans had to find it again.  Albright et al note that there is an area with ground scarring that seems like the probable location of Shaft 2.  The video is useful in confirming that, yep, there aren’t any obvious signatures that can allow for better geolocation.  The spot Albright et al picked is also consistent with the location described in declassified documents, when there were drill rigs, equipment and other structures on site.

We also, thanks to the IAEA, have a location for the second shaft relative to the first — “780 meters from the first one and 80 meters from the road.”  That is also consistent with the earlier US claim the two sites were about 1 km apart.  Without more identifying information our location for Shaft 2 is an approximate one, but it is accurate even if it is approximate.



The fun of doing an exercise like this is that you learn a lot about methods, as well the program itself.

The 1977 US intelligence estimate, prepared in the rush following the Soviet revelation, made a pretty embarrassing mistake.  The author (or authors) got the depth of the test shafts wrong — estimating the depth of the first shaft at 150 m based on the size of the head frame and the depth of the second shaft at a mere 77.5 meters based on the number of casing segments visible at the site.  This led to speculation that any South African nuclear test of respectable yield would crater due the shallow depth of the shafts.

This is one thing I’ve learned.  If you have a conclusion based on a single signature — like the number of casings — and that conclusion further requires that you assume a foreign nuclear program is staffed by utter morons, you may have misidentified the pertinent moron.

The 1977 estimate was totally wrong.  The actual depths of the shafts were 385 and 216 meters. The South Africans were not morons.  The IAEA actually measured them on site.

And lest you think I am beating up on the intelligence community, the author of the 1978 report did much better — and did it with open source data about the local geology!  The author(s) of the 1977 report missed something very important — the site was sand only down to about 75 meters, after which it was granite. Someone looked it up! (See: PJ Smit, “The Karoo system in the Kalahari of the northern Cape Province” Ann. Geol. Surv. S. Afr, 1972.  Only $33!)

In other words, the casings were just for the first 75 m or so of sand.  After that, the shaft kept going, drilled down into the granite.  The 1978 report looked at the number of drilling days and got a very wide estimate (190-345 m) of shaft depth.  Then, the 1978 report adds the  site had ordered six cutters for drilling granite — and returned one unused in December 1977. Each drill set can drill 22.9-30.5 meters. 75 + (5 x 30.5) = maximum shaft depth.

The author estimated the depth of the second shaft at between 169-227 m.  The measured depth was 216 m. That’s pretty damned good work, if you ask me.

There is a second mystery that I think we can clear up.  What is this thing?

A few people have noticed that it looks like the “shade” over Shaft 1, but doesn’t quite match.   I haven’t been able to track down the provenance of the image either, although Carey Sublette may know. (Update | See below.) Notice it has only two doors, not three.  And it is rectangular, not square.  It can’t be the shade the over Shaft 1. My initial I think it was a “shade” located on the concrete pad at  27°47’17″S,  21°28’52″E, about 2 km south of Shaft 1. There is an outline on that pad that matches the shape of the building.  When oriented properly, the roads and vegetation also match. I would say with moderate confidence that, like the other shade, it was probably built in the 1980s, then torn down and replaced with the structure now visible.

I am mildly shocked that the South Africans didn’t do a better job of camouflaging the site.  The author of the 1977 report was shocked, too. “One of the unusual aspects of the Kalahari site is that no attempt has been made to prevent the site’s discovery by airborne or satellite reconnaissance.”  It is one thing to read it; another thing to see it.  Some of the signatures visible in 1977 are no longer apparent, but others are.  Why did they do that?

The author of the 1977 report speculates that the South Africans did not care about international scrutiny, but their subsequent actions suggest otherwise.  The South Africans seemed surprised they got caught.  And, in the 1980s, the constructed the “shade” over Shaft 1 to hide future test preparations from prying spy satellites or red Commodore’s with cameras.

It is an enigma.  The South Africans apparently didn’t even bother to close the airspace over the site.  In October 1977, the US military attache cabled back that the airspace was open over the site, which tended to suggest it was not for nuclear testing.  The US intelligence community apparently took full advantage of this lapse.  In April 1979, the South Africans discovered that the US had outfitted an embassy aircraft with a secret camera to photograph sensitive sites while it ferried US diplomats around the country.  They expelled three U.S. military attaches from the country.  One U.S. official laughed off the expulsion as Pretoria ”catching a couple of attaches doing what they are paid to do.”  (See: “Spy in the Sky Flap,” Newsweek, April 23, 1979.)  But the South Africans weren’t smiling.

That’s a useful lesson.  In theory, countries can do all sorts of things to defeat analysts, whether of the open source sort or the more traditional kind.  But sometimes they don’t.  It might be too expensive or cumbersome.  Or maybe they just didn’t think about it.  Or maybe they did and decided that the obfuscation might be detected more easily than the wrongdoing.  Whatever the reason, the 1977 detection of the South African nuclear test site in the Kalahari is a really interesting case.

Update | On the provenance of the black-and-white image of a shade at the Kalahari Test Site.  Carey Sublette email to say that the image was probably from Burrows and Windrem, Critical Mass.  Sure enough, the image is there and credited to The Johannesburg Star. I have a hunch that the photograph was taken during a visit to the site, which appeared as Mark Stansfield, “Terrain of Destruction,” The Sunday Star, March 28, 1993, page 27.  The full text is available via FBIS, but no pictures sadly.  Life sucked before the internet!  Based on the story told by the reporter, it would seem that the site personnel took the reporter to the wrong building.


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.)

Weeks two and three of the RevCon are allocated to the work of the Main Committees (one each for every “pillar” of the NPT) and their Subsidiary Bodies (SBs). As in 2010, the RevCon established 3 SBs this year: SB 1 to deal with nuclear disarmament in a forward-looking manner, SB 2 on regional issues (that is, Middle East), and SB 3 for balance (“all other issues,” including Article X). On May 8, the chairs of the Main Committees and Subsidiary Bodies began submitting their draft reports, and the discussion of those texts started on Monday.

MC I and SB 1 were always the ones to watch, but the show so far has exceeded expectations. As discussed in my previous post, there’s a serious diversion of views on disarmament and the way forward, and bridging those gaps is not just a matter of a language fix, however carefully crafted. Given the developments with the humanitarian initiative since 2010, and the views expressed by the majority of NPT parties in the first two weeks, the humanitarian dimension was a significant part of the first SB 1 draft report.  No, the whole report was not about the humanitarian issues only, but concern about the humanitarian impact and the associated need to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use were woven throughout the text. But most problematically for the NWS and allies, the draft report opened the door for states to consider options for a legal framework for nuclear disarmament – not quite the call for negotiating an instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons that many states wanted to see, but a bridge too far for the NWS and allies.

No one expected the NWS to particularly like the draft report, but boy, did they hate it. And how did they propose to improve the text? As befits great powers, some of the NWS reportedly went straight to the RevCon President, before the discussion of the report even started, requesting to axe SB 1 altogether (not that she has the authority to do it). Their idea was to forget this unfortunate incident with the draft forward-looking SB report ever being produced and proceed with negotiations only in Main Committee I, solely on the basis of draft text submitted by the MC I Chair. The beauty of the MC I report is that it was supposed to focus on the review of implementation of disarmament provisions of the NPT and past RevCon decisions, including the famous 2010 Action Plan, but the first draft contained only trace amounts of assessment of such implementation and a whole lot of noting and recalling of past pronouncements. (Yes, I monitored the Action Plan implementation for four years. No, I’m not bitter.) The MC I document still dared to reference the humanitarian initiative, in no less than four paragraphs, but at least there was nothing on legal frameworks.

Putting the content aside, the tone and intensity of the commentary delivered by the NWS in the past several days have been striking. The five appeared shocked that the SB1 draft contained the views and proposals they opposed, and so prominently at that. I mean, haven’t we told you there is no need for a legal framework for nuclear disarmament, and step-by-step is the only way forward? It’s one thing to ask for more arms reductions and transparency for decades, but to suggest that our weapons should be banned? And why do you people keep insisting on your concerns when you’ve been clearly told that we already know all there is to know about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons? From there, the solidarity script falls apart a bit, as some NWS – e.g. the United States – say that humanitarian concerns already underpin everything they do, while France, when they can bring themselves to pronounce the word “humanitarian,” says the humanitarian impact has nothing to do with anything.

France has been saying all kinds of interesting things, actually, such as, there is no risk of accidental use of nuclear weapons. None. Zero. Stop talking about it. Also, as far as France is concerned, there has been no new information, no new findings about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons “for decades.” (They are not alone in asserting this, but others are less public about it.) China, in the meantime, has concentrated its ire on Japan, fiercely rejecting the latter’s invitation of political leaders and experts to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Historical grudges and Japanese imperial army’s WWII atrocities were all part of the intensely awkward exchange that apparently made the front pages of the Japanese media.

SB 1 Chair Ambassador Benno Laggner survived the charge, with many a delegation expressing support for his work, and came back on May 12 with a revised draft, which was being discussed as I was writing this post on Wednesday. The draft is significantly weaker on the humanitarian dimension, and though it’s still not weak enough to make the NWS happy, at least they seem prepared to continue negotiations. It’s the humanitarian initiative folks’ turn to push back, and they are doing so, especially on the exclusion of a reference to the unacceptability of use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances. The text that replaced it says it’s “in the interest of the very survival of humanity that the near seventy-year record of non-use of nuclear weapons be extended forever,” which many interpret as an implicit endorsement of indefinite possession of nuclear weapons. In any case, it sounds like a strange celebration of not committing a mass murder since the last time we did so.

So does it all spell a RevCon failure to agree on an outcome? Improbable as it may seem, the NWS might yet decide to cut their losses and accept strong endorsement of the humanitarian concerns, in exchange for dropping references to the need for a legal framework for nuclear disarmament (in the near future). That would be a much weaker outcome than many states desire, but might still be a significant enough reflection of the change in the thinking and the debate to make it worth accepting. It would be a crack in the dike, and states could then use it to keep up the pressure and the sense of urgency into the next NPT review cycle. There is still more than a week of the RevCon left to look for that compromise.

But if there is indeed no agreement, does it matter so much, given the treaty’s history of surviving failed conferences every other cycle? Failures might have even been useful sometimes: Mexico sank the 1990 RevCon over the comprehensive test ban, and in 1995, the promise of CTBT was one of the keys to securing the indefinite NPT extension. It may be comforting to think in those terms, but this time, the failure might mean that we have reached the point at which the differences are irreconcilable. Unlike in years past, this disagreement would not be about next steps and their relative priority as much as it would be about the legitimacy of nuclear weapons and policies envisioning their use. Would state parties be able to come back from that in five years and once again agree on common principles and the way forward? The NWS might be willing to wait it out. However, can they really imagine that in five years, 150+ states would be willing to return to status quo ante and re-accept the parameters of the debate centered on security perceptions and needs of the five? Perhaps they should give it some careful thought.



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.

In fact, it would be strange if the North Koreans did not conduct such a test before moving to a full flight test. The United States and Soviet Union, as well as other states like India, all conducted such tests.  Here are a picture and a schematic of a Soviet submersible barge known as PSD-4.

One of my colleagues, Dave Schmerler, noticed something very interesting.  Although all of the images released by Rodong Sinmun and KCNA were carefully cropped to give the impression that the launch was from a submarine, one of of the images in the larger set broadcast on television was not so carefully handled.  One can see the ship used to tow what I presume is a submersible barge.  I’ve stitched two images together so you can see what I mean. The presence of a surface ship so close to the ejection and launch basically rules out the possibility that the launch was from a submarine.


Dave also noticed — as have others including Joe Bermudez and H.I. Sutton at Defence Blog — that GoogleEarth has satellite images of Sinpo from December 2014 and March 2015 showing a submersible barge that looks a lot like PSD-4, the Soviet one mentioned above. The March image also includes a shot of a Sinpo-class submarine with what looks like two launch tubes and ship that looks very similar to the one apparently towing the barge above.  I am really looking forward to Joe’s article, which 38North is publishing today. (Update, 12:52 PST | I’ve added a link to Joe’s piece, which is as always very good.) Meanwhile, Melissa Hanham and Dave are busy measuring and modeling.

There is another important detail — the missile seems to have flown only a hundred meters or so.  Again, this does not mean the test was a fake. It is normal to conduct an ejection test, followed by only a partial burn of the missile’s fuel. This is an image of a US Polaris missile breaking up in flight a few seconds after ejection and launch.

While this test looks like a failure, it was not.  It was one of a series of tests where the Navy ejected the missile and then burned a small amount of fuel.  The test is well described in contemporary news accounts. Here are a pair of stories from the May 9 and  June 7, 1958  editions of the Chicago Tribrune.  These stories report on tests that are analogous to the test conducted by North Korea — ejection tests followed by a short burn of the missile.  One can see Navy officials claiming the missiles were intended to break up once the small amount of fuel was exhausted, with the reporter not quite believing them.  In hindsight, though,  it seems the Navy was being truthful — later reporting is brutally honest about the first six Polaris launches, all of which failed.

As I say, I think this is a real milestone in a real program.  But it does raise the question of how quickly North Korea might conduct a full-range flight test (or something close to it) and how quickly they might deployed such a capability.

The pace of US flight testing in the 1950s was quite intense — following the tests in May and June — and there are some other tests in here — the US attempted a flight test in September 1958.  While there were many failures, the Polaris was in service by 1961. The US Naval Institute has a nice timeline. India, too, conducted a similar test in 2008 — but India’s program proceeded at a much more leisurely pace. India’s Sagarika SLBM did not enter service in 2013. Where North Korea ends up, I don’t know.  I have a hunch, since Kim Jong Un is so closely connected with the program, that the pace of testing will be relatively brisk by North Korean standards — at least as long as Kim Jong Un stays in power. I don’t think a flight test by the end of the year is out of the question.

I do expect such a test eventually.  While Rodong Sinmun and KCNA certainly exaggerated this particular test, I don’t think it is quite right to suggest the entire program is fake.  North Korea has been developing this capability for some time and the recent test is yet another step in that direction. As Josh Pollack noted when looking at a picture of Kim Jong Un attending the test, “There’s no point in questioning if the N.Korean SLBM test was real. You can’t photoshop that shit-eating grin.”




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.

Before the conference started, the United States had already been messaging that it (and the NPT) can well survive without a consensus outcome document—either anticipating a resolute nyet to everything, or trying preemptively to undercut the leverage of non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) prepared to crash the RevCon over nuclear disarmament and particularly the humanitarian dimension. And for at least one other usually active participant—Iran, priorities this year are elsewhere: Zarif (or any other Iranian representative, for that matter) did not even deliver a national statement at the General Debate. After speaking on behalf of NAM on the opening day, he dedicated most of his time to meetings on the P5+1 talks, and this week, theIranian delegation is busy negotiating the text of the joint comprehensive plan of action at the EU Mission in New York.

“This is going to be a long RevCon”

In the three-act RevCon drama, General Debate is the time for opening monologues—stating beliefs and expectations and setting the stage for the negotiations to follow. As expected, last week’s speeches highlighted large gaps between states’ positions on nuclear disarmament—and not only between nuclear and non-nuclear-weapon states, but also among the latter. The Middle East WMD-free zone issue is another major source of contention, though the cast of dramatis personae there is much smaller.

The Middle East probably requires a separate post, but let’s just say that the Arab states are profoundly unhappy about the failure to convene a regional conference on the zone and believe the blame lies anywhere but with the Arab states. They are particularly unimpressed with the co-conveners’ (Russia, UK, and U.S.) performance and request now that the UN Secretary-General convene the regional conference within 180 days of the RevCon conclusion. The UN Secretariat wants this as much as a root canal, but they are at the mercy of state parties. The co-conveners, for their part, would like to have another go at implementing the 2010 decisions and convening the conference “as soon as possible” (but please no deadlines). As one of the people in the thick of all this commented to me, “This is going to be a long RevCon.”


NNWS dissatisfaction with the progress on nuclear disarmament isn’t new, but there are a couple of common threads in the debate this year. For example, concerns about the ongoing and planned modernization by the NWS of their arsenals featured quite prominently in the opening statements. Most non-nuclear-weapon states judge modernization as evidence of long-term commitment to retaining nuclear weapons rather than eliminating them, and as contrary to both NPT Article VI and Action 1 of the 2010 document. It does not help that most NWS insist they cannot stop loving the bomb any time soon, what with nuclear weapons guaranteeing their security, sovereignty, and freedom of action.  And in this dangerous, unpredictable world, beatings will continue until morale improves nuclear weapons will be retained until the global context and security situation change.  Furthermore, Russia and France recently discovered the part of NPT Article VI they like the most, and at least one of them suggests that the discussion should be focused on general and complete disarmament rather than nuclear.

The most remarkable and persistent common thread, however, is the humanitarian dimension: a new development in the NPT discourse since 2010. Speaker after speaker last week expressed concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, and welcomed the three humanitarian impact conferences that took place in Norway, Mexico, and Austria in 2013 and2014. It is evident that the majority of NPT states want the humanitarian imperative to be reflected in the final document in stronger terms than it was in 2010, but specifics vary from state to state, and group to group. (Here’s what 15 states think, for example.)

Some NNWS see the humanitarian dimension as a call to action to prohibit nuclear weapons in the near term, while others caution about “shortcuts” and emphasize the need to engage the nuclear-weapon states. Reflective of divisions among the NNWS themselves, the RevCon heard two joint statements on the humanitarian impact—one on behalf of 159 states, and another on behalf of 26. The major difference between the two is that the former insists that nuclear weapons shouldn’t be used under any circumstances. The NWS are in such a bind they couldn’t even agree to use the word “humanitarian” in their joint statement (thanks, France) and downgraded the consequences from “catastrophic” to “severe.” Including a strong endorsement of the humanitarian imperative in the RevCon final document thus would likely require an epic battle, but the states leading the Humanitarian Initiative appear ready for a fight.

Closely linked to the humanitarian discourse is the question of where we go from here on nuclear disarmament, and whether that motion would be step-by-step or completed in anyone’s lifetime at all. Commonly described as “the only realistic way” by several state parties, the step-by-step approach is criticized more than ever at this RevCon. It is perceived by many as an excuse for inaction, exacerbated by the NWS description of the 2010 Action Plan as a “long-term roadmap,” from which NPT should not deviate. The counter-trend is the call for “closing the legal gap” with regard to the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Most prominent is the Austrian Pledge to pursue “efforts to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.” Well over 70 countries now support the pledge, including all of Latin America and the Caribbean. The New Agenda Coalition has requested that the RevCon seriously discuss legal approaches to measures to achieve nuclear disarmament, including a convention or a ban. It is hard to imagine that such discussion will get very far at this RevCon, given the outright NWS opposition, but a number of states have indicated implicitly or explicitly that the prohibition of nuclear weapons should be pursued with or without the NWS.

In the NPT games, non-nuclear-weapon states traditionally feel that the odds are ever in the favor of their nuclear-armed counterparts: after all, they hold the weapons, and since you cannot very well force them to disarm, for any idea or proposal to advance in the NPT context, the five need to be on board. Well, there was something of a mockingjay whistle ringing around the UN General Assembly Hall last week. Is there a revolt brewing? Will the fire catch on? I’ll keep you posted as it develops.