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Analyzing China’s August 7, 2014 Hypersonic Glider Test

James Acton, Catherine Dill and Jeffrey Lewis

September 3, 2014

By a lake in an Inner Mongolian desert, about 200 km south-east of Ordos—the oft-described ghost city that hosted the Miss World contest in 2012—lies a Chinese resort called the Bulong Hu Hot Springs Resort (布龙湖温泉度假区). On August 7, at about 11am, tourists in the resort were presumably doing what tourists at a lake-side spa do. Maybe a young couple from Beijing was soaking in the hot springs, enjoying a luxurious end to a hot and dusty trek around Inner Mongolia. Perhaps a retiree from Ordos, bored of watching Miss World highlights on Good Morning Ordos, was enjoying the relative excitement of fishing on the lake. Maybe a shepherd was grazing his sheep in the cultivated land just outside the resort. What we can safely assume is that none of them knew what was, almost literally, about to hit them.

The noise—a thundering crash—must have been the first terrifying indication of what had happened. Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about what they saw because some of them photographed it: huge clouds of red smoke billowing up from the desert. Someone even got near enough to the crash site to take photos of it. Even to his or her (presumably) untrained eye, it must have been clear that the debris littering the area was from some sort of a rocket.

These cell phone images appeared online almost immediately. However, they seem to have been suppressed and quickly vanished from the Chinese websites where they first appeared.  But this is the internet, so nothing can be deleted.

Almost immediately, Chinese internet sources connected the rocket with a test of what the Pentagon calls the WU-14—a hypersonic glider, launched by a rocket, that China is known to have tested at least once before, in January 2014. (Technically, the term “WU-14” probably refers to the whole package of booster and glider, but it’s become the glider’s de-facto name).

Bill Gertz, of the Washington Free Beacon, picked up on these rumors and on, August 19, published a somewhat alarmist article, which appears to have been largely based on Chinese internet sources—although he also reported that two anonymous U.S. officials had confirmed that the test did involve the WU-14. Three days later, the South China Morning Post reported that the test was a failure. Chinese internet sources had said the same thing but Gertz did not, implying that such debris was to be expected.

It turns out that there is a wealth of open-source information about the August 7 test. It has allowed us to find the exact location of the crash site, and to make several important observations about what happened that day in a remote part of Inner Mongolia: the WU-14 hypersonic vehicle was almost certainly tested, but the test was probably a failure. More generally, our analysis indicates that the Chinese hypersonic glider program is probably significantly less ambitious than the U.S. Advanced Hypersonic Weapon—a U.S. hypersonic glider that was tested 18 days after the WU-14 and also failed.

Geolocating the Crash Site

The rocket debris appears to have fallen in an inhabited area of Inner Mongolia.  Yes, there are people there.  Why are you laughing?

The debris clearly shows a Chinese booster marked with “China Aerospace” (中国航天).  Some debris appears to be an engine, possibly a YF-22 that one might find in the second stage of a Long March booster. Moreover, the plumes of red smoke are probably the N2O4/UDMH propellant used in the first two stages of all Long March rockets (See 3:13-3:18). They indicate that there were substantial amounts of unburned fuel on board when, as planned or otherwise, gravity got the better of the rocket.

Chinese social media postings provided good descriptions of location of the crash site, provided one is familiar with the lower-order levels of Chinese administrative units in Mongolia.  Or has access to Wikipedia.

中文 English Administrative Level
内蒙古 Inner Mongolia Province
鄂尔多斯 Ordos (E’erduosi) Prefecture
鄂托克旗 Etuoke Qi County
布龙湖 Bulong Hu Local place name

“Hu” means “lake” – there aren’t so many in the Gobi Desert.  (Ok, it’s technically the Ordos Desert. The Gobi is nearby.)

Many of the pictures of the debris and cloud appear to have been taken by a single user who was near the crash site and then apparently relocated to the Bulong Hu Hot Springs Resort.  Rocket propellant is extremely toxic so it’s not surprising that, according to social media accounts, authorities moved to relocate residents and tourists from the crash site and to the resort.  More surprising is that locals were able to take images that were later posted online.

The Bulong Hu Hot Springs Resort is a recently constructed eco-tourism site boasting thermal baths and other amenities.  It’s well-described online, including in the local news, and the architect’s website. Here is an image of the resort, which shows the distinct architecture of buildings.

Schematics of the resort also show plans for boat docks, although most of these had not been constructed at the time satellite images were taken.

Other images of the Bulong Hu Hot Springs Resort.  No, we have no idea what’s with the dinosaurs.

The three images of the plume were clearly taken at this resort – one outside the front gate, one from the grounds looking east across the complex, and a series from the lake – perhaps by the same person.  In all three images, the shape of the red plume is similar suggesting they were all taken from approximately the same vantage point.  The images are consistent with accounts that suggest the photographer or photographers, may have been evacuated from near the crash site.  Perhaps someone took additional photographs of the plume when entering the resort, then again on the grounds, and finally then went down to the boat dock to take a series of images not obscured by the resort buildings.  Or perhaps there were multiple photographers.

The first image is possible to match with moderate confidence.  The paved highway is relatively unusual in the area.  Moreover, along the right side of the road, vegetation has been planted in straight lines running along the road.  In satellite imagery, this feature is visible in front of the main entrance to the Bulong Hu resort.

We can match the second image with high-confidence. The unusual design of the buildings—especially the domes–is a signature of the resort. Moreover, the relative location of the buildings in the image matches the layout of the Bulong Hu Resort.

The final series of images, taken from the dock, can be matched with moderate confidence. The docks were not constructed at the time satellite images were taken, although schematics show plans for them. The shape of the docks in these schematics is a good match for the shape in the ground-truth images. The dock in these images, moreover, appears to be a temporary structure – the side of the dock is lined with tires to soften the impact of boats against the dock. Some images of the resort show what may be temporary boat docks.  Still, the presence of a lake large enough for boats in the desert is a relatively unusual feature.

Taken together, the images suggest that the crash site is a few kilometers east of the Bulong Hu Resort.  We can further use the line of site from three slightly different images to triangulate the likely crash location.

The first image has a line of sight directly down the paved road.  The second image looks directly east across the compound, facing the westernmost building.  The third series of images are taken from the  lake, with the resort buildings just off frame.  The approximate location of the crash site is roughly 6 kilometers east of the Bulong Hu Resort or 38°55’16″N, 107°34’54″E.


Analyzing the Drop-zones

The Notifications to Airmen that China issued to warn pilots (or at least the male ones) of falling debris are another source of information on the test. There’s no official source for cancelled international NOTAMs, but we obtained them from two independent sources: KKTT’s blog and In addition to closing part of an international air route, China declared two keep-out zones, shown as yellow boxes on the map below.

First off, it’s clear that the launch site was the Taiyuan Space Launch Center (known by the US intelligence community as Wuzhai, which is where the WU in WU-14 comes from) and not the Jiuquan Space Launch Center, as originally reported. Subsequent media reports corrected this error, but the correct launch site is immediately obvious from the location (and orientation) of the keep-out zones. For good measure, there are also pictures on Chinese websites of a space launch from Taiyuan at the right time. Besides, an eastward launch of a glider from Jiuquan makes no sense since the glider would be aimed towards heavily populated areas.

Drawing further inferences is complicated by the fact that there were almost certainly other areas—in addition to the two keep-out zones shown in the picture—where debris was intended to fall. If the launcher was a two-stage rocket, as seems likely and has been reported by those who track launches, then you’d probably expect four keep-out zones: two for the rocket stages, one for the shroud, and one for the glider. Hell, even if we’re wrong and the launcher was a one-stage rocket (a retired DF-3 painted in civilian colors, anybody?), it would still most likely result in three keep-out zones.

In analyzing the limited information that we do have, it’s perhaps easiest to start by pointing out an obvious interpretation that’s probably wrong: that the eastern keep-out zone is the first-stage drop-zone and western keep-out zone is for the second stage. Drop-zones for rocket stages generally get larger the further downrange they are. Since the western keep-out zone is significantly smaller than (and a different shape from) the eastern one, it seems unlikely they correspond to the drop-zones for the two stages.

Instead, we think it’s likely than the western keep-out zone is the intended target, and the eastern keep-out zone is probably—but not definitely—the intended final resting place of the second stage.

There are two reasons for associating the western keep-out zone with the intended target—as others before us have done. First, it’s relatively compact in size (especially perpendicular to the flight path), suggesting that whatever was supposed to land there was guided. Second, it doesn’t make sense for the target to have been much further downrange because the landscape rapidly becomes mountainous (which would severely complicate ascertaining the exact landing place of the glider).

The association of the eastern keep-out zone with the second-stage drop-zone is more tentative. First off, the crash debris shows what looks like an engine for a second, not first, stage, although this is far from conclusive. Moreover, when the United States has conducted boost-glide tests, the first stage of the booster has been launched almost vertically, resulting in a first-stage drop-zone less than 100 km from the launch site. The rocket is then pitched over rapidly to flatten the trajectory. (“Why?” I sense you are wondering. Lisbeth Gronlund and David Wright’s discussion of the aerodynamic loading for “shaped” versus “symmetrical” depressed ICBM trajectories may contain the answer.)

If the Chinese booster followed a similar trajectory, then the eastern keep-out zone, which is about 600 km downrange, is probably the second-stage drop-zone. That said, we can’t entirely rule out the possibility that this keep-out zone is actually associated with first stage or the shroud.

The center of both keep-out zones and the launch site lie, almost perfectly, along a straight line—the red one in the picture—which is the most probable intended flight path. The crash site lies about 5 km south of this line, suggesting that the rocket lost control and deviated from its intended trajectory before crashing. However, another possibility is that the flight path was curved (after all, one of the big purported benefits of gliders in their midcourse maneuverability) and the crash site, in fact, lies on it. The blue line shows a notional representation of what such a flight path might look like.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to say much about the rocket’s trajectory; there are too many unknowns to model it. One intriguing possibility suggested to us is that the rocket’s second stage could have been used to drive the glider downwards to increase its speed—much as Jonathan McDowell tells us the Russians apparently do when testing new ICBM re-entry vehicles (more). This maneuver would help explain why a normally reliable booster, such as the CZ-2C, might fail (as, for reasons explained below, it appears to have done). But it bears emphasizing that the available evidence is also consistent with more conventional trajectories and doesn’t allow a conclusion to be drawn about the rocket’s trajectory during the second-stage burn.

A final observation is that the crash site lies someway outside the one declared drop-zone, raising an important question: Did the rocket crash short of this drop-zone (implying some sort of a failure), or did the rocket debris fall where it was supposed to, in an undeclared drop-zone? While we can’t rule out either possibility, it seems unlikely that the debris fell in an undeclared drop-zone. An air traffic route (the green line on the map) passes within 40 km of the crash site, and a search for NOTAMs within just two nautical miles of the desert spa generates hits related to that air route. This suggests that if rocket debris was supposed to land where it did, China would have declared a drop-zone there.


So what?

Here are three conclusions and some food for thought.

The launch’s purpose was, almost certainly, to test a hypersonic glider. This is hardly news—but we can present concrete evidence for this conclusion. First off, space launches, with one notable exception, are oriented eastward to take advantage of the rotation of the earth. China follows this practice and its westward launches are generally missile tests. Moreover, we can be pretty sure that China tested a hypersonic glider on January 9, 2014. A senior U.S. official has said so unequivocally. And, the Chinese government has acknowledged it too—albeit more equivocally. Thanks to we have the keep-out zones for that test. Actually, I should say keep-out zone, because there was only one—but it was identical to the eastern keep-out zone for the August 7 test. This strongly suggests that the two tests were of the same thing, that is, the WU-14. (Why there was only one keep-out zone for the January test is a mystery.)

The August 7 test was probably a failure. There are three pieces of evidence that support this conclusion. First, it’s unlikely that rocket debris would be intended to fall inside a zone featuring several development projects within a few kilometers, including a holiday resort. Second, there was a lot of fuel left in the rocket stage (or stages) that crashed near the desert spa. Third, the crash site lies outside the declared drop-zone (and it seems likely that China would have declared a drop-zone around the desert spa had debris been intended to land there).

None of these reasons is, by itself, conclusive. But together they would seem to confirm what “two sources close to” the Chinese military reportedly told the South China Morning Post –  the test was a failure. Moreover, if the test did indeed fail, it appears very likely that the failure was caused by a booster problem and that the glider was probably not deployed. (Remind anyone of any other recent hypersonic glider tests?)

The WU-14 appears to be significantly less ambitious than the U.S. Advanced Hypersonic Weapon. The location of the probable target zone for China’s August 7 test implies that the intended range was about 1,750 km and provides the first real evidence about the capability of China’s hypersonic glider. To put this range in perspective, the U.S. Advanced Hypersonic Weapon was successfully tested over a range of 3,800 kilometers in November 2011. The plan for the more recent failed American test, on 25 August, was to test the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon across a range of over 6,000 km and for it maneuver hundreds of kilometers cross-range. By contrast, the planned flight path for China’s most recent test appears close to completely straight.

It therefore appears as though the United States has a distinct lead in hypersonic glider technology, which is not surprising given the long history of U.S. efforts in this field. But, it does run contrary to a growing media narrative of China surpassing the United States. Exhibit A: the unsubstantiated claim that China’s glider can travel at twice the speed of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon.

Finally, some food for thought: what is the significance of China’s use of a liquid-fueled booster?

Given China’s increasing use of solid-fueled ballistic missiles, the use of a liquid-fueled rocket for a boost-glide test came as a surprise—at least to us. Here are two possible explanations. First, if China’s glider is a bit overweight, liquid fuel may be necessary to achieve the required speeds. (Because liquid fuels generally have a higher specific impulse than solid fuels, a given quantity of liquid fuel can typically accelerate an object to higher speeds than the same mass of solid fuel).  Russia uses a liquid fueled booster, for example, to achieve the speeds necessary to simulate an ICBM reentry for its nuclear warheads.

A second possibility—which is not mutually exclusive to the first—is that China may be planning to deploy the glider on liquid-fueled missiles. This would be interesting because China’s liquid-fueled missiles are used exclusively to deliver nuclear weapons —possibly suggesting that China’s glider is intended to ensure that China’s nuclear weapons can evade US missile defenses. Indeed, at a hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on January 30, 2014, Lee Fuell from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center testified as much. He didn’t give a reason—but perhaps he was thinking about propellants.


Give it a second to load the map.

As I suspected, some of North Korea’s recent “MLRS” tests are more likely tests of the solid-fueled SS-21 Toksa SRBM.  The missile in question is an extended-range SS-21, that may eventually be dubbed the KN-10. The Chosun Ilbo reported that North Korea was developing such a missile in October 2013.

Based on the images from the 14 August launch, I’ve geolocated both the launch and impact sites.  I’ve embedded the findings.  Tell me what you think.



I have a new column at Foreign Policy, as well as a podcast with Aaron Stein, on China’s testing of hit-to-kill technologies against satellites and ballistic missiles. I’ve been trying to figure out where Arms Control Wonk fits in between my columns for Foreign Policy and 38North, on one hand, and Twitter on the other.  Stuff like this I guess.

One detail that has cause confusion is the so-called “Korla Missile Test Complex.” According to a State Department cable released by Wikileaks, China conducted the January 2010 missile defense test using an interceptor fired from Korla. There are no previous open source references to this site. (Those cables are located here and here.)

I was going to find the site. Chinese language blogger “KKTT” beat me to it. KKTT identifies a site located at 41°32’16″N 086°22’19″E as the Korla Missile Test Complex. I believe that is correct.  It is close to the Chinese city of Kù’ěrlè (库尔勒) or Korla.

You can get a good look at in Google Earth. The site has three main areas: a support base and two launch pads — I’ll call them A and B.

A few points.

First, I looked through catalogues of satellite imagery. China constructed the base between March 16, 2009 (no base is visible) and the November 27, 2009 (all major features are visible.) Here is a pair of images from March and December 2009. That would suggest the site was purpose built for SC-19 testing. That’s probably why we haven’t heard about it before.  It’s new.

Second, I checked the Digital Globe/GeoEye catalogue against the dates of the possible launches from Korla.  There is an image from January 27, 2013, which will almost certainly show the SC-19 on the pad.  (As a nice little detail, other images from January 2013, just before the test, show one of the launch pads has been plowed clean of snow, presumably in advance of the test.  We’ll probably order the January 27, 2013 image.  Someone should check Astrium.  (My plug-in is crashing.)  Here are the dates for which I looked: January 11, 2010; September 25, 2010; January 27, 2013; and July 23, 2014.

Note that the September date is inferred from NOTAMs.  I can’t find a decent historical database of Chinese NOTAMs, but I bet that might reveal a few more launches from Korla. A picture of the site from September 25, 2010 might confirm that a test occurred.

In the meantime, here is snow clearance a few days before the January 2013 launch at Launch Pad A.  Launch Pad B is buried in snow.

Third, I don’t know who runs the site.  It is probably the  General Armaments Department, but I don’t see any open source references in sources like the Directory of PRC Military Personalities to missile test facilities near Korla.  If the Korla Missile Test Complex is a GAD facility, then I would expect it to have a base number in the 30s unless it is attached to an older, existing element.  I am not sure whether personnel live elsewhere near Korla or deploy for short periods of time.

Update | 11:08 am PST There are a bunch of other interesting sites around Korla that I didn’t mention.  Sean O’Connor identifies more in  a piece for Jane’s that I had missed. I’ll further update when he has a chance to send the stuff along.


Well, I am off to Paris.  But before I go, I want to mention something that is puzzling me.

You undoubtedly noticed that Rodong Sinum (Korean|English) carried a story about Kim Jong Un attending test launches of ”newly developed ultra-precision tactical guided missiles.” The story contained three not very helpful images.

According to Yonhap, a South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff official said something that doesn’t make any sense to me:

“Their range is some 190 kilometers, and we are now looking into exactly what type of rockets North Korea fired,” a JCS official said, noting that the North’s 300-millimeter multiple rocket launcher KN-09 has a similar range.

Another news site quotes  Yonhap quoting an official saying “Our analysis of its trajectory and other details led us to believe that what North Korea fired off yesterday was the 300-millimeter multiple-rocket launchers. North Korea appears to test-fire them to extend its range further.” US officials were more circumspect, stating in public that they were “still evaluating the available information to identify the exact type of projectile” and privately telling Barbara Starr the rocket was not new.

If the rocket really traveled 190 km, it is not a 300 mm artillery rocket.  The natural comparisons for such a rocket, which North Korea is developing are the Russian BM-30 Smerch, a Chinese knock-off, or Pakistani Hatf IX/Nasr.  All three of these systems have a range more like 60 km.

On the other hand, a 600 mm missile like the US ATACMs or Russian SS-21 Tochka might reach that range. (The SS-21C tops out at 120 km, but it could be range-extended.)  North Korea started testing and deploying an indigenous SS-21 in 2006 and 2007.  Two leaked cables (NSFW!) contain the text of papers that the US circulated about MTCR members describing the missile as “a new solid propellant SRBM based on the SS-21 SRBM. This new missile – called the Toksa by the United States — has a range of 120 km with a payload as large as 500 kg.”  (I think we are teasing them with Toksa/Tochka.) North Korea paraded the Toksa in 2012. The provenance of the Toksa is unclear.  Dan Pinkston notes there are both reports suggesting either Russia or Syria is the source of North Korea’s SS-21s.

Based on the images released by North Korea, we can tell the test involved a solid-fueled rocket– solid-fuels produce bright and smoky plumes like the one you see — but that’s all.

Unfortunately, the image of the rocket is too blurry to determine whether it is a BM-30 or an SS-21.  Also, one image contains what may be tarp-covered launchers in the background, but again they are too blurry to identify.

At some level, it doesn’t matter.  North Korea is developing both BM-30 and SS-21 clones, to say nothing of anti-ship cruise missiles like the Kh-35.  It’s possible the range is “90-100″ kilometers not 190 kilometers.  Then it’s a Smerch.  If its 190 km, then I think its more likely a Toksa.

A related note.  South Korean media reports continue to describe the new 300 mm MLRS rocket as the KN-09.  The US has released exactly one slide that suggested the KN-09 was a coastal defense cruise missile, not an artillery rocket. It would be very nice if someone in Dayton or Huntsville could let us know the proper designations for these missiles. (Of course, people make mistakes.  One of the leaked cables describes the Toksa as a “modified Silkworm” which is bizarre.)

For now, I am just going to use the Russian designations like BM-30 Smerch, SS-21 Tochka/Toksa, and Kh-35 preceded by “North Korean.”


One of the nice things about the silliness that ensued following my pair of articles for 38North on the North Korean Kh-35 is that I discovered a bunch of new people doing open source work.  We’ve known about the Arkenstone, Open Source IMINT, RAJ47, Michael Madden and others forever, but I am happy to come across Scott LaFoy, Andrew Haggard and the Oryx Blog among others.  (Oh, the perils of a list.  I’ve surely ommitted someone worthy of inclusion.)

Having just finished a talk at Wilton Park on the promise of open source analysis, I am delighted that the field is thriving so well.  Along those lines, I’ve asked  Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans from the Oryx Blog to contribute a guest post.

They wondered if anyone was interested in North Korean anti-tank missile showing up in the Middle East. Me me me!  Although I am nuclear guy, it is important to remember that AQ Khan forged a lot of early business ties selling conventional armaments, including anti-tank weapons, around the world.  North Korea’s arms trade is pretty interesting, even the conventional bits.

So, you should totally read this post.  Then check out  Oryx Blog. And marvel, for a moment, at the information feast this modern world provides the open source analyst.

North Korean anti-tank missiles in the Middle East

Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

North Korea, well known for its ballistic missile programme, depends on its foreign relations to provide currency that allows the regime to maintain control over the country. Exports of ballistic missile and even nuclear technology to countries such as Egypt, Syria, Iran and Myanmar have been much reported and draw a lot of attention from international observers. However, aside from delivering both conventional and strategic weaponry to sovereign states around the world, it appears North Korean anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) are now also showing up in the hands of what have been branded as terrorist organizations by the USA, a development which shows a broadening involvement of the DPRK in the arms trafficking market.

Imagery of a fighter loyal to the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, shows him operating an indigenous variant of the 9K111 Fagot, designated the Bulsae-2 in North Korean service. The al-Qassam Brigades is likely to have received the missiles from North Korea via Iran through an elaborate network of smugglers and backdoor channels ranging from Sudan to the Gaza Strip. This likely happens in a similar fashion to how this is done with other transports: after delivery to Port Sudan, the weaponry is transported overland to the Gaza Strip via Egypt, as was supposed to be done with the the delivery onboard the Klos C, which was intercepted by the Israeli navy near the coast of Sudan in the Red Sea.

More launchers and missiles have popped up in the inventory of the Al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades, which seceded from Hamas because of political differences. It is unknown whether other conventional armament was delivered alongside the ATGMs, but North Korea is also known as a major producer of MANPADS and rocket-propelled grenades, making it plausible some of these were exported as well.

To further support this theory: in December 2009, a North Korean arms shipment aboard an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane was discovered and seized by the Thai authorities immediately after landing in Bangkok. The cargo, which was marked as consisting of oil-drilling equipment, contained thirty-five tons worth of rockets, surface-to-air missiles (MANPADS), explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and other weaponry. Another similar shipment was impounded in the United Arab Emirates a few months earlier (July 2009). A large quantity of shipments to both Hamas and Hizbullah is believed to have been transferred unnoticed. With North Korea being a lead player in the arms trafficking business, ways of transport and smuggle routes are always evolving.

North Korea’s role is thus limited to being the manufacturer of the systems. Yet, even though both Iran and North Korea maintain the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy, it can be assumed North Korea has full knowledge of the destination of the Bulsae-2s. But with North Korea’s sole interest in this deal being the money, that shouldn’t be a problem.

The 9M111 wire-guided missile uses semi-automatic command to line of sight (SACLOS) to make its way to the target and can penetrate up to 460mm of armour, depending on the variant and target. Upgraded variants, including the 9M113 missile used by the 9K111-1 Konkurs system, can also be fired by the same launcher (with the exception of the earliest variant), providing cross-platform compatibility for both the 9M111 and 9M113 missile series. The DPRK is known to have received the 9K111 system from the Soviet Union first in 1988, a deal which supposedly continued with the Russian Federation until 2010 and entailed the delivery of some 4500 systems. Due to the interchangeable nature of the missiles, it can’t be said for certain whether or not only the 9K111 Fagot or also the 9K111-1 Konkurs was delivered. However, there is no known Korean designation for the 9K111-1 Konkurs, and the Bulsae-3 is most likely an unrelated system.

The North Korean launchers differ in a few key areas. Most notably, the optics have been extensively modified. While the operator’s scope of the 9P135 (the lower scope in above picture) is similar to the operator’s scope on the Bulsae-2, the scope auto-tracking the missile (the upper scope in above picture) has been swapped for two separate smaller optics. The way this works is unknown, as is whether or not it constitutes an up- or downgrade over the original design. Lastely North Korea appears to manufacture their own distinctly shaped batteries, which likely does not affect the quality of the system.

Special thanks to @PFC_Joker




Princeton has a proposal that would allow Iran to transition, over time, to more capable centrifuges operated in a multilateral framework.  There have been responses by ISIS (David Albright, not the terrorist group!) and Mark Fitzpatrick at IISS. My colleague at Monterey Institute, Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, has decided to add his two cents in a guest post.

Comments on the Princeton Group Proposal for the Two-Stage Strategy for Iran

Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress

The Current Dead-Lock

It is important to remember the historic progress that made since January under the JPOA between the P5+1 and Iran and the Frameworks for Cooperation that followed between the IAEA and Iran.

Iran has suspended its enrichment of near-20% UF6, has blended down or converted to uranium oxide most of the near-20% UF6. The IAEA has daily access to centrifuge plants and regular access to other nuclear sites, and finally has an updated DIQ on the IR-40 heavy water reactor at Arak. On the other hand, Iran has escalated its enrichment of near-5% enriched UF6 (although, this is allowed under the JPOA) and outstanding questions related to Iran’s possible military aspect of the Iranian nuclear program remain. However, the JPOA in all its success has left the most difficult problem until right at the end, that is, defining the extent of the enrichment capacity mutually acceptable to all parties.

Iran has stated in the past that it requires enough enrichment capacity to be able to fuel the Bushehr reactor, a 915 MWe reactor requiring at least 100,000 SWU/year to provide the required 27 t 3.5% enriched fuel. This is at least an order of magnitude more than Iran currently has installed. The P5+1 wants to limit the possibility of a breakout scenario where either Iran expels inspectors or Iran develops clandestine facilities to further enrich existing UF6 to weapons grade, convert to a metal and manufacture into a warhead. The P5+1 express the risk of Iran to develop a bomb in terms of a “breakout time,” the time that it takes to accomplish the task. Arguably, the most difficult step in the process is enriching the UF6 to weapons grade. The United States has argued that a 2-month breakout time corresponds to the current capacity, which the P5+1 is negotiating to extend to 6-12 months significantly curtailing the current capability.

The effort of a centrifuge plant to separate a certain quantity of uranium to a certain enrichment is expressed in terms a unit called the Separative Work Unit (SWU). Milestones to reach a certain goal such as developing enough weapons grade uranium to produce a bomb is quantified as 1500-1600 SWU depending on the enrichment of the waste UF6. Each centrifuge contributes a certain quantity of SWU/year toward the milestone and adding up all the centrifuges operational is a measure of how long it will take to get to a certain milestone. Think of a centrifuge program like a vehicle moving along a road to get to a certain destination. The more centrifuges, the faster the vehicle will go and the sooner it will get to the destination. The problem is that the enrichment requirement for a bomb is far smaller than the enrichment that Iran says they need which is the principle reason for the current deadlock. Iran sees enrichment as their right as a non-nuclear weapon state subject to the NPT, while the P5+1 considers that Iran’s past violations of UN security resolutions preclude that right. Because of this disagreement, the negotiations are now at a standstill and the risk is high that the July 20th deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement will not be met.

Princeton Proposal to Resolve Crisis

The group from Princeton University’s Science and Global Security has come up with a potentially face-saving solution to the crisis. They propose a two-stage solution, where in the first stage Iran has the opportunity to demonstrate the peaceful nature of their program under stringent safeguards in preparations for the second stage. The first stage has the following features:

  • Phase out IR-1’s which are very low efficiency machines compared to IR-2m’s currently installed for testing at Iran’s centrifuge plants. The advantage of this is that the number of centrifuges necessary would decrease by about the same as the ratio of the separative capability of the centrifuge machines. The true capability of the various centrifuges is not precisely know and this makes it difficult to determine with certainty the size of these centrifuge plants for different scenarios.  The fact that the number of centrifuges would be less for higher capability centrifuges also means that this potentially makes these centrifuge plants easier to hide. However, destroying the IR-1’s (as suggested by ISIS June 12th response to the Princeton proposal) in favor of a smaller number of IR-2m’s would make safeguarding the facility easier to manage. If this proposal were to work it would be important to synchronize bringing IR-2m’s into production with the destruction of a number of IR-1’s that equates to the same number of total SWU.
  • The second aspect of this first stage is to let Iran continue to develop advanced centrifuges (IR-4, IR-5 or IR-6) in a safeguarded facility. Then once, sufficient testing and development has been done, produce them for commercial scale operation, but rather than installing them store the centrifuges in parts, perhaps even in a third country. Swiftly detected if taken out of storage, these components would be under strict safeguards. The authors point out that to assemble these parts into centrifuges and balancing them would then take at least another 6 months in a breakout scenario. This may be a long enough time to organize an appropriate response to the violation if it occurs. The centrifuges would be installed once the legitimate need arises.
  • Iran should ratify the Additional Protocol as well as follow all the safeguards and transparency measures in the JPOA.

The second stage of the Princeton proposal would be to setup a multilateral enrichment facility at which point more centrifuges stored in components under safeguards could be installed. This facility could provide fuel for the Bushehr reactor as well as other reactors planned to be built in Iran. The time when such a facility would be implemented would need to be decided through negotiation and should be subjected to conditions.

A Promise is Not Enough

A treaty between the P5+1 and Iran could establish a consortium where Iran promises not to enrich or reprocess outside of the consortium, an agreement that the countries that makeup URENCO have already committed to. The advantage is that this further compartmentalizes enrichment where activities can take place and any activity outside of these locations would be an immediate violation. The facilities would be operated as a perimeter portal site which would be continuously monitored. The other advantage of this proposal is that this approach from the point of view of Iran still justifies the large funds expended on the Iranian enrichment program making it easier for Iran to sell domestically. A multilateral enrichment plant probably does not make much sense economically for low capability machines such as the IR-2m or even higher generation machines, but it does allow Iran to save-face, which may to them be more significant than economic gains. Others have suggested that a multilateral enrichment agreement is the wrong approach stating that:

“winning the right to enrichment and international support for a nuclear programme after successfully defying the demands of the Security Council and the IAEA Board, however, is hardly a model one would wish to see emulated.”

In the past, Geoffrey Forden and John Thompson, formerly of MIT, proposed a similar option for a multilateral enrichment facility to solve the Iranian crisis. They recognized that a multilateral enrichment facility would only work if there were a way not only to detect cheating but also, crucially, to respond to it immediately. For example, they proposed a self-destruct mechanism for centrifuges, an extra circuit to cause an additional torque on the rotor causing the centrifuge “to crash catastrophically.” Ironically, at the time they proposed this idea, Stuxnet, the malware that destroyed 1/5th of Iran’s centrifuges was in its infancy. For additional safeguards, one could imagine coupling this self-destruct mechanism to an automatic trigger. The trigger could be in-line enrichment sensors such as CEM  (continuous  enrichment monitoring) and CHEMO (cascade header enrichment monitor) on UF6 piping to and from the centrifuge cascade hall. Currently, these systems are tuned to 20% enrichment as a threshold, but they could be set to less than 5% enrichment. The advantage of an automatic self-destruct mechanism of such a system is that the blame lies with the plant operator if the centrifuges self-destruct. These systems would be protected, not by tamper-indicating devices, but by tamper-triggering seals that trigger a set of actions that damage equipment. So that tampering with the seal to access the device would risk severe damage to the system. It is a different concept from tamper-indicating devices and admittedly does allow for the possibility of very costly mistakes, so safeguards would need to be in place to warn the unintentional operator that a mistake has been made.

Other ideas might be to co-locate the centrifuge facility with a conversion facility to UO2 or U3O8 so the the material is immediately converted after enrichment. In this way, the UF6 is never stored in the form of UF6  for a long period, and the conversion plant is tuned to the throughput of the enrichment plant. Of course, the UF6 could be converted back to UF6 but this adds an extra step and requires not only transporting the material outside of the facility but requires a clandestine facility that would convert the material back into UF6.  If the entire facility is operated as a portal monitoring system then transportation of UF6 out of the facility would be difficult to accomplish.

Another idea from the Fordon-Thompson Proposal learned from experience on inspecting Iraqi WMD sites is to track Iranian experts in centrifuge design. The authors point out:

“Through  their  frequent inspections  in Iraq,  weapons  inspectors got  to  know who  was  important  and  capable  so  that  when  those people moved to other facilities red flags were raised, especially  when  several  with  complementary weapons production skills were present… Iranian technicians and scientists working at the joint facility would, almost by definition, become the local experts on enrichment. Western technicians would be working side-by-side with the Iranian technicians and scientists  and  would  come  to  know  their  skills  and capabilities.”

Tracking known experts could be done in more overt ways as an agreed component of the proposal where devices continually monitor the location of these experts. This would however be very intrusive for the scientists and engineers and will probably be unacceptable. The point of this is to isolate and compartmentalize the activities to just the areas where the enrichment sites are and where the centrifuges are being built. As the authors point out:

“Thus, any new covert facility  would  have  to  start  from  scratch  and without much of the information and skills they have so painfully and expensively—both in money and in political baggage—learned since February 2006.”

Don’t Expect 100% Verification

One of the challenges of the Princeton proposal and other similar proposals is to verify that enrichment is not performed clandestinely elsewhere in the country. This is a difficult task because the concern would be that upgrades to better centrifuges would mean that it would be easier to hide a centrifuge plant, which would be modest in size, but would be large enough to produce a bomb.

However, this is a fundamental problem with the concept of verification, that is, 100% verification is simply unattainable, just as it is impossible to have a detector with no uncertainty. Furthermore, a cost-benefit analysis is always done on what is financially feasible for a verification protocol and what is not. Often this fact is not understood placing unreasonable demands on detecting cheating in verification regimes. Recognizing that 100% verifiability is not possible, former U.S. Ambassador Paul Nitze coined the term “Effective Verification” as the measure by which an inspection regime should be judged, which can be summarized as:

“If the other side moves beyond the limits of the treaty in any militarily significant way, we would be able to detect such violation in time to respond effectively and thereby deny the other side the benefit of the violation”

The positions on both sides are becoming more and more entrenched, face-saving solutions, such as Princeton’s proposal are ways of getting to a compromise, but the agreement must have teeth beyond the safeguards in the JPOA. A promise to not enrich is not enough. The safeguards arrangements need not be 100%, but the program must be effectively verifiable. This means that violations should be detected before any militarily significant advantage is attained or breakout time is reached.

Finally, just because 100% verification is not feasible, that does not mean that the agreement is not effectively verifiable, besides national technical means there are other ways of detecting violations. If one thinks somebody is lying, one looks for any sign, any inconsistency, that indicates evidence of a lie. This is why indicators like the past possible military dimensions of Iran’s program, careful scrutiny of bookkeeping records, and analysis of the status of its missile program become important to understand Iran’s intent. This will be important for understanding developments in the past, now, and for decades into the future. Of course, the devil is in the details with all of these proposals, and details will need to be wrung out in careful negotiations.

A note from the founding publisher: Jeffrey here. I wonder about the time we spend on such proposals.  Don’t get me wrong — the ideas are completely sensible.  But I sometimes think they are efforts to find technical solutions to an ultimately political problem.

Readers know that I am skeptical of emphasizing breakout as a measure of any agreement. The real danger is that Iran will build covert facilities.  For my part, I suspect that any deal will ultimately leave Iran with a lot of capability to breakout at declared sites or, more likely, to deploy centrifuges at covert sites. I support technical efforts to resolve such problems, but there is always some irreducible risk that arises from the hostility between Iran and many other countries. In Iran’s case, it’s likely to be a large, irreducible risk.

The best we can hope for, I suspect is a political solution that offers Iran compelling benefits to remain inside the nonproliferation regime, monitored in such a way that the Supreme Leader concludes a covert site will probably be detected. Even such an agreement might have a no better than 50/50 chance of working over the course of, say, a decade. But that might be the limit of our power.  We can shape the Supreme Leader’s preferences, but that’s about it.  If he ultimately wants a bomb, he’s going to get one, whether we bomb the heck out of Iran or not.

The important thing is not to let the best be the enemy of the good.  The final deal with Iran will be far from perfect. But if it offers a reasonably verifiable gap between the Supreme Leader and the bomb, along with real benefits that entice Tehran to comply, the Obama Administration will have done a competent job.  Others will argue, in that charmless Washington way, that they would have gotten a better deal.  Don’t believe them!  And, even if you do, don’t get suckered by the promise of a deal that is not on offer. You know what they say about your grandmother’s testicles. Our choices will be limited — the deal, an Iranian bomb, or a war.  Like it or not, it won’t be much of a choice. JGL


Greetings from Wilton Park.

I am sitting here next to the Big Swede himself, very occasional contributor Andreas Persbo. He says tjenare.

Did you know the UK nearly let the Soviets see inside a Blue Danube nuclear warhead in 1961?  Talk about transparency!

The context was test ban negotiations between the United States, United KIngdom and Soviet Union in 1960. It’s an interesting little story.

Black Boxed Bombs

The United States wanted to negotiate a test ban that permitted both “peaceful nuclear explosions,” as well as a limited number of additional nuclear explosions to better understand the seismicity of underground nuclear explosions under the “seismic improvement program”.

Not surprisingly, the Soviets believed this would allow the United States to develop and stockpile new nuclear weapons.

True to the American character, Washington earnestly proposed a totally unworkable pool of US, UK, and Soviet nuclear weapons that would be “black boxed” — set aside in advance of the treaty under some impartial authority that would make them available for limited purposes. The US contribution would most likely have been some number of Mark VII warheads.  The Soviets said they weren’t interested in contributing to such a pool, but would insist on the blueprints for any US or UK warheads in the pool and the right to look inside to confirm the warheads matched the designs.

The United States balked at that idea, although the Eisenhower Administration appears to have briefly considered letting the Soviets look inside a gun-type device.  If you are interested in more detail, I recommend William E. Ogle, An Account of the Return to Nuclear Weapons Testing by the United States After the Test Moratorium 1958-1961 pp.170-177 and The Making of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1958-1963,William Burr and Hector L. Montford, editors, August 8, 2003.

Blue Danube

The Washington had a better idea: Maybe the Soviets would be satisfied with seeing a British nuclear weapon?

US officials were not willing to give up on additional explosions to calibrate seismic monitoring capabilities, but believed Congress would never allow the Soviets to peek inside a US nuclear weapon. Some US officials thought Congress might be persuaded if the US had reciprocal access to a Soviet weapon, but Moscow wasn’t interested in contributing to the pool.

Hence, the idea of using British weapons. The UK was prepared to make available a British weapon for the pool, allowing the Soviets to inspect the warheads. Is it too soon to make a Klaus Fuchs joke?

The story is recounted in some detail in British Nuclear Weapons and the Test Ban 1954–1973 by John Walker.  (See especially pp 145-157.)  Since we’re operating under the Chatham House Rule, I couldn’t possibly confirm that it was John Walker who mentioned it in the meeting. Walker writes:

The MOD told the Foreign Office on 22 February 1961, shortly before the Foreign Office Minister of State went to Washington to discuss testing issues, that in the last resort, after the US had proved itself quite unable to overcome its present difficulties over the safeguards issue, and if as a result the Geneva talks were threatened with collapse, it would favour offering a UK device as a means of breaking this impasse.  However, this offer would be limited to the UK’s first generation nuclear weapon, Blue Danube, while safeguarding the security of ancillary equipment.

Although Blue Danube was still in service, it was a simple and extremely large device that would soon be retired.

As it turns out, the Soviet Union broke the moratorium in August 1961. With that, there was no longer to any requirement to let the Soviets peek inside a US or UK nuclear weapon. The three parties eventually negotiated a limited test ban that prohibited nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, outer space and under water — but not underground.  That would have to wait until the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which has yet to enter-into-force.

What is interesting to me, though, is that the UK almost let the Soviets do it — and at the height of the Cold War, no less.  That is worth remembering when people get the vapors about the UK-Norway Initiative or other efforts to verify warhead dismantlement.


Gessner “Gave Them All of It” Anyway

Speaking of Klaus Fuchs — at the same time the United States was reluctant to disclose design information on the Mark VII to the Soviet Union, a US army nuclear weapons technician was doing quite a bit to, er, enhance the transparency of US nuclear weapons designs including the Mark VII.

George John Gessner, an Army private, completed an 18 week course in the Army Ordnance Nuclear Weapons School at Sandia in September 1960 to qualify as a nuclear weapons maintenance specialist. “As part of the Sandia course [Gessner] was instructed on the internal construction and firing system of the Mark VII nuclear weapon, and the design and operation of the 280-millimeter and 8-inch gun-type nuclear weapons,” the 10th Court of Appeals wrote, “the information he eventually transmitted to the Russians.”

It seems Gessner became underwent a religious conversion and became quite worried about nuclear war.  He related a plan to his fellow soldiers to plant a nuclear weapon at the United Nations to hold world leaders hostage until they agreed to some sort of international peace treaty.  He eventually went  AWOL in December 1960, traveling to Mexico City where he visited the Soviet Embassy and disclosed design information about three US nuclear weapons.  He eventually made his way to Panama, where he was arrested.

Gessner confessed after an Army Chaplain urged him to “come clean with the Lord.”  Gessner blurted out “I gave them all. I gave them all of it.”  Apparently, Gessner forgot that while he might have given his soul to the lord, his ass still belonged to the US Army. Gessner was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, but was released in 1968 after a court concluded his confession had been coerced.   As best I can tell he died in Texas in 1974.

Strangely, no one in any of the US or UK documents mentions that many designs they wanted to keep secret had been, at least in part, compromised by espionage.


Hey, look, the Government of Burma has officially responded to a pair of articles by Catherine Dill and I describing  a suspect defense facility near Pauk:

Speaking on May 15, U Ye Htut said he strongly objected to report.

“But I do not think we need to pay attention to such a small organisation,” said U Ye Htut, who is also the Deputy Minister of Information. 

“Every country is improving their national defences and the United States and United Nations have had nothing to say about our weapons factory at Pauk,” he said.

I think we’ve got their attention.  Wait until they read our coming rundown on the North Korean missile facility near Minbu, followed by the revelation of several new facilities.

The short version is this:  One of Burma’s ruling Generals, Thein Htay, controls something called the Directorate of Defense Industries.  The US Treasury Department has sanctioned Thein Htay and DDI for its ties to North Korea.

DDI seized a bunch of farmland and razed a village near Pauk to build a giant defense factory.  When reporters published a story based on interviews with locals, the government arrested the journalists and seized all copies of the magazine.  Burma refused to say what the facility is — other than to say it is none of anyone’s business — and the reporters are still in jail.

Burma signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993.  Despite repeated promises to do so, Burma has still not ratified the CWC.

And despite repeated promises to the Obama Administration to cut off cooperation with North Korea, DDI’s facilities have dramatically expanded since 2009.

I don’t know whether the facility near Pauk is a chemical weapons plant as locals allege, but I can’t imagine a country acting more suspicious than Burma in the past few months.

You can read our articles – an CNS analysis of satellite images of the site and a Foreign Policy essay on why we ought to care – or listen to Aaron Stein and I discuss the matter in a podcast.


Catherine Dill and I have published a pair of articles concerning allegations that Burma’s generals are building a chemical weapons facility near a place called Pauk.  The article published on the CNS website analyzes satellite images of the site, while the other in Foreign Policy explains why we ought to care.

The short version is that the facility at Pauk is one of a number of sites being built by the Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI), which is believed to be responsible for the arms trade with North Korea.  The Obama Administration has largely neglected nonproliferation concerns, understandably calculating that democratization in Burma would take care of the relationship with North Korea, as well as any illicit weapons programs.  That argument is lot harder to make now, especially given the Burmese government’s detention of the journalists who original reported the story.  Burma’s North Korea and nonproliferation problems show that some Burmese generals remain a law unto themselves, which is really a democratization problem.

In the coming weeks, we’re going to write more about Burma — revisiting some known DDI facilities, revealing some new ones.   The take-away, though, is simple:  Since the Obama Administration began to engage Burma to encourage a transition to democratic , the Directorate of Defense Industries has expanded.    If the Obama Administration wants to sustain its engagement with Burma, it has to make nonproliferation concerns a real priority.

That starts with insisting that Myanmar ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (instead of making repeated promises to do so).

I always enjoy the comments here at ACW, so I wanted to share the information and see what folks had to say.


My friend and colleague at Monterey, Philipp Bleek, has been growing weary of the frequent mischaracterization of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, particularly as its relates to Ukraine’s renunciation of nuclear weapons.

He was kind enough to share his weary reflections based on a new article he’s published, the work of our mutual colleague Jeffrey Knopf, and the very strange notion of actually reading the text of the Memorandum.

Reading the (not so) fine print


Why Ukraine wasn’t a nuclear power in the early 1990s and the West has no legal obligation to come to its aid now

Philipp Bleek

Following Putin’s Crimean land grab and ongoing mischief in eastern Ukraine, Kiev’s mid-1990s decision to give up the nuclear weapons on its soil after the collapse of the Soviet Union has suddenly gotten a lot more attention. But armchair pundits have been mischaracterizing both Ukraine’s early-1990s nuclear capabilities and the commitments it received in exchange for giving them up.

The fact that Ukraine never had operational control over the weapons in its possession is often ignored. While it had physical control, it’s not clear former Soviet military personnel would have executed Ukrainian launch orders, and regardless Kiev lacked the codes to overcome the permissive action links, electronically encrypted locks to prevent unauthorized use. (Conversely, Ukraine might have been capable of impeding a Russian attempt to launch nuclear weapons on its soil.) As negotiations over the weapons’ status dragged on into the mid-1990s, Western intelligence agencies were reportedly concerned that Ukraine was making efforts to gain operational control over the weapons, but no reports have emerged that it was successful in doing so. And when Ukraine publicly suggested it might seek operational control, Russia made clear this would constitute an act of war.

It’s possible Ukraine might eventually have managed to obtain control over the weapons. But at a minimum the frequent characterization of Ukraine (as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan) as nuclear-armed states that chose to disarm misses some key nuances. (Relatedly, a fellow policy wonk in Kiev reports that rumors are circulating that Ukraine covertly retained some tactical nuclear weapons that might come into play now. That seems highly implausible, if admittedly difficult to conclusively rule out.) And even if Ukraine had somehow managed to hold onto nuclear weapons, it’s far from clear they would have helped rather than hurt in the current situation. During the political instability after President Yanukovych fled to Russia in February, command and control of those weapons would presumably have been uncertain—much as it was in the Soviet Union during the 1991 coup against Gorbachev—and Moscow would have had substantial motivation to intervene aggressively to ensure the weapons were secure. (Founding publisher Jeffrey Lewis has a lengthier discussion here.)

As for the purported treaty commitment to come to Ukraine’s aid, that appears to be based on a misreading (or non-reading) of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that extended guarantees to Ukraine in exchange for its joining the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state. Signed by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom (with France and China, the other two NPT nuclear weapons states, separately making similar commitments), the document was part of the price Ukraine demanded in order to join Belarus and Kazakhstan in transferring nuclear weapons on their soil after the collapse of the Soviet Union to Russia, a diplomatic coup for the Clinton administration, eager to prevent the emergence of new nuclear-armed states.

A lot of folks, including apparently a former British ambassador to Moscow, now seem convinced that NATO’s failure to respond more robustly to Russia’s crass annexation of Crimea, and perhaps more of Ukraine in the coming weeks, violates commitments the United States and United Kingdom made under the agreement. One gets the impression that many of those opining about the Budapest Memorandum haven’t read it, despite the fact that it’s readily accessible online, only a few hundred words long, and written in what passes as exceptionally clear language in the often arcane world of international law. At the risk of being snarky (and what fun is an Arms Control Wonk blog post without a little snark?), it’s tempting to cite Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous query after the Clinton administration failed to foresee the 1998 nuclear tests India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) conducted shortly after winning election and consistent with their published election manifesto: “Why don’t we learn to read?”

In that spirit, let’s review the key points of the Budapest Memorandum (there are only six, condensed a little here, available in their full glory at the various links above). Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom all committed to:

1) Respect the independence, sovereignty, and existing borders of Ukraine;

2) Refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and pledged that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the UN Charter;

3) Refrain from economic coercion;

4) Seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to assist Ukraine, should it be threatened or attacked with nuclear weapons;

5) Not use nuclear weapons against Ukraine unless attacked by Ukraine in association or alliance with a nuclear-armed state;

6) Consult if a situation arises that raises a question concerning these commitments.

That’s it. Russia is pretty clearly in violation of its end of the bargain (though Moscow argues the West is the violator for having “indulged a coup d’etat” that ousted President Victor Yanukovich). Washington and London have obligations to consult with Moscow—of which they’ve been doing plenty—but it’s hard to read any further obligations into the agreement.

Russia’s cavalier disregard for Ukraine’s sovereignty is doubly troubling because it sets a rather unhelpful nonproliferation precedent. There is something close to consensus among scholars and policymakers that security guarantees—the more robust sort, anyway—do play a key role in dissuading countries from pursuing their own nuclear arsenals (shameless plug, I have a just-published article that seeks to bolster that consensus). Whether and to what degree lesser guarantees, of the sort Ukraine received and the nuclear weapons states have extended to non-nuclear weapons states in the context of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, aid nonproliferation efforts is more contentious.

To the extent that such lesser assurances matter, the precedent of Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and perhaps more of Ukraine in the coming weeks, in blatant violation of its commitments in Budapest, seems unlikely to encourage future countries mulling giving up nuclear or other potential deterrent capabilities. But arguably neither did NATO’s military support to the effort to topple Gaddhafi not long after he agreed to renounce his nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs (though it’s worth emphasizing that in Gaddhafi’s case those capabilities weren’t very robust).

Ukraine’s leaders in the mid-1990s, and for that matter Gaddhafi’s regime more recently, were presumably under no illusions about how binding commitments they received were. But leaders in Kiev, and perhaps also Tripoli, appear to have calculated that even less-binding commitments would have some political effect. As my colleague Jeffrey Knopf, who has published some of the most thoughtful scholarship on security assurances, pointed out in response to an earlier draft, future nonproliferators may not be willing to settle for so little.