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Editor’s note:  I am holding to my commitment to make three blog posts a week, no excuses.  But my post today will be a short one.  So, to make up for that, here is the Managing the Atom’s Nick Roth answering the question …

What is the Future of Nuclear Security Cooperation between the US and Russia?

A guest post By Nick Roth, aka that guy ->

This week’s Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague was understandably overshadowed by the continuing international response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. One aspect of the Ukraine crisis that deserves more attention is how the current standoff will impact the future of nuclear security cooperation between the United States and Russia.

Although the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit achieved a great deal, the global nuclear security effort can only progress so far without Russia as an active participant. Russia was the most prominent of the handful of countries that didn’t sign on to a single “gift basket” at the summit. Did it commit to physical protection standards at least as strong as those recommended by the IAEA and to hosting a peer review of security practices?  Nope.  What about a commitment to securing Category I radioactive sources according the IAEA’s code of conduct for radiological security? Not at this time, thank you.

As my co-authors and I describe in our new report, Advancing Nuclear Security: Evaluating Progress and Setting New Goals, although Russia has made tremendous progress in securing its nuclear weapons and materials, because of the size and far-flung locations of Russia’s stockpile, Russia still presents one of the most significant challenges to reducing the global risk of nuclear terrorism. Russia has the most highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium of any country and the most HEU research reactors in the world. There is also a significant risk of insiders stealing nuclear material from its nuclear facilities. Not bringing Russia along in the nuclear security summit process is like trying to cure obesity in America, while ignoring fast food restaurants.

At the moment, Moscow does not appear to be ready to address outstanding questions about its nuclear materials and facilities. Russia’s nuclear security progress statement in The Hague ignores many major concerns. For example, it states: “There are no nuclear materials or facilities in Russia the level of physical protection of which gives ground to concerns. An effective nuclear safety and security system has been built and is maintained in Russia.”

We know, however, of numerous nuclear security shortcomings at Russian facilities. For instance, there are questions about whether security at nuclear sites is adequately funded. We also know of cases of corruption where senior managers at Russian HEU and plutonium processing facilities embezzled millions of dollars; where a government official who was responsible for conducting nuclear security inspections was taking bribes; or where even the former Minister of Atomic Energy was stealing millions of dollars. Russia’s statement does not address the potential for a threat within nuclear facilities or provide any details about allocating resources for nuclear security.

The message from Russia that there is nothing to worry about has become increasingly common over the last several years and indicates a declining interest among its leaders in working with the US to secure its nuclear stockpile. This was evident when Russia welcomed the expiration of the old Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction umbrella agreement last year. This attitude is also reflected in Russia’s statement in The Hague, which mentioned an interest in cooperating only on programs “aimed at supporting and strengthening the capacities of third countries in the field of nuclear security”—a welcome offer the United States should pursue, but only one element of nuclear security cooperation that should be much deeper and broader.

It is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect Russia to be a happy participant at an international summit when it is being isolated by much of the international community and branded a pariah. One could even argue that, despite its dispute with the United States and Europe, Russia’s participation in the summit is a positive sign that its officials understand addressing transnational threats like nuclear terrorism requires cooperation between states. The problem is determining how countries can work with Russia on this issue.

If they want to move the nuclear security ball forward, the United States and Russia need to find new and creative ways of recommitting to cooperation. The United States should move away from its paternalistic approach and engage with Russia as a true partner. We should be holding regular workshops to exchange ideas about how best to address problems that both sides face; regular visits to comparable key facilities in each country; and working together to minimize the number of locations where nuclear weapons, HEU, or separated plutonium ex­ist.

The United States must also recognize that cooperation is a two-way street, and our actions have an impact on how Russia and other countries perceive and portray US commitment on the issue–even if that portrayal is self-serving. Russia’s statement at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit noted that “the non-participation of certain States with large inventories of nuclear materials in these fundamental international legal instruments inhibits further steps on elaboration and adoption of new international legal documents and political commitments in the field of international cooperation on nuclear security and safety.”

The “certain states” here of course refers to us. When the United States does not take action on international initiatives, especially ones it spearheaded the negotiations of, it provides convenient cover for other countries to do the same. The United States has still not ratified the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) or the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT), which require parties to criminalize acts related to nuclear terrorism. The implementing legislation for these ratifications continues to languish in the Senate because of a policy dispute between two Senators that should be resolvable with high-level engagement from the White House.  Failing to ratify these two agreements undermines US leadership on nuclear security.

Finally, there is a real risk that current tensions could further erode the already diminishing US support for working with Russia on nuclear security. We are already seeing members of Congress opposing programs that help Russia protect its nuclear facilities. The US policymakers must try to resist the temptation of placing lasting security above short-term political gain. Reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism can only be achieved by maintaining and continually improving security systems over the long haul. If the US fails to sustain its cooperation on nuclear security with Russia, there is a real risk that progress made over the past twenty years could be undone.


Prospects for international cooperation on securing nuclear material in Russia look bleak right now, but there could be a path forward. The fact is that the United States and Russia were not cooperating on nuclear security for the past twenty years because they were close allies; they were cooperating because it was in both countries’ national security interests to do so. Despite current tensions, this dynamic has not changed. What needs to change is the way both countries approach nuclear security cooperation.


I’ve been mulling a post over the recent North Korean launches of Scud and now Nodong missiles, but I want to draw attention to a wrinkle that’s been neglected — North Korea’s new 300 mm artillery system.

Some of the tests of the short-range rockets in recent weeks may have been tests of a new 300 mm artillery system, according to “military authorities” quoted by Chosun Ilbo:

“Military authorities here tentatively concluded that short-range projectiles North Korea fired into the East Sea on Feb. 21 were not missiles but 300-mm multiple rocket launchers.”

These may have been — may have been — the same launched that narrowly missed a Chinese airliner. Well, I should be careful about “narrowly missed” — this might be the  South Korean Defense Ministry stirring up trouble. North Korea does seem to have neglected to file a NOTAM, which is not nice. Seeing the deep anger in China over  MH370, Kim Jong Un has to think he dodged an artillery shell there.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)  Lips and teeth or not, Kim Jong Un does not want to shoot down a Chinese airliner.

If DOD previewed this system in either the North Korean Military Power Report (aka Military and Security Developments involving the DPRK) or Congressional testimony, I missed it. But the best explanation of the possible comparisons for this system that I’ve seen comes from John Grisafi writing at NK

There are two likely origins of this new MRL system. The more likely one is that the North Korean military and weapons industry developed it domestically by improving upon existing designs such as the 240mm MRL and copying and incorporating any components they may have acquired from other countries. North Korea has had some success developing its own weapons, including several missiles and the 170mm Koksan gun artillery system. The other possibility is that North acquired such a weapon system from another country, such as China, Iran, Syria or others – likely years ago – and has since copied and modified the design for domestic production. Either way, the weapon likely is based at least partially on similar MRLs of other countries, such as the Russian BM-30 Smerch, the Chinese PHL03 and A-100, and Iranian Fajr-5 and Falaq-2 rockets. Regardless of how they did it, North Korea has demonstrated they now have a form of rocket artillery with more than double the range of any other MRL previously in their military.

In case you are wondering about the Russian and Chinese comps for the system, here are pictures of the BM-30 and PHL03. I’ve seen reports that China sold the A-100 to Pakistan.

 So, why would North Korea do this?  After all, DOD asserts that modernization of North Korea’s conventional forces has been grudging:

North Korea is making some efforts to upgrade its conventional weapons. It has reinforced long-range artillery forces near the DMZ and has a substantial number of mobile ballistic missiles that could strike a variety of targets in the ROK and Japan. However, we assess that the DPRK’s emphasis will be to leverage the perception of a nuclear deterrent to counter technologically superior forces

There are two possibilities that leap to my mind.  The first possibility is that Pyongyang knows all this bluster about turning Seoul into a Sea of Fire with long-range artillery is, well, bluster.  Roger Cavazos has actually tried to count launchers, count emplacements, estimate rates of fire and draw range circles for the DPRK artillery force.  Although the expected casualties from an artillery barrage are nothing to sneeze at, Roger’s work suggests that the DPRK’s conventional artillery isn’t quite as formidable as popular rhetoric would suggest.  Range is a major issue, something a 300 mm projectile helps out with.

Second, there is always the disquieting assertion by Pakistan that it has developed nuclear artillery. I’ve been skeptical of Pakistani claims because a few hundred millimeters is pretty slim for an early generation nuclear weapon.  North Korea might be interested in nuclear artillery, might try even if the system is unreliable and isn’t above stretching the truth for effect.  After all, North Korea also paraded a truckload of weirdos carrying chestpacks marked with radiation symbols through Pyongyang. The Strategic Rocket Force started life as the Artillery Guidance Bureau.  Who knows.  It’s something to ponder.


A few disarmament posters by Robert Wout, better known as Opland.

Many of my colleagues are attending the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (My friend @MilesPomper is tweeting up a storm for #NSS2014.) It is normal for the assembled heads of government to bring “housegifts” — tangible accomplishments to improve nuclear security that will paint their countries in a positive light.

The opposite incentive is present too, as demonstrated by the Dutch group “Disarm.” (Can you figure out what they want?) Four activists broke into Volkel Airbase, posting pictures of shelters (original in Dutch) where US nuclear weapons are believed to be stored (see right). This is very similar to a series of intrusions several years ago at Kleine Brogel Airbase by a Belgian peace group. (1|2|3)

The incursions would seem to demonstrate the 2008 finding by the Air Force Blue Ribbon Review of Nuclear Weapons Policies and Procedures that “most sites [in Europe where US nuclear weapons are stored] require significant additional resources to meet DoD security requirements.”

At the time, the Dutch rejected the finding, even though they were singled out for criticism. (“[O]ther locations have the challenge of working with unionized security personnel.”)  Despite the claims that everything was fine, the United States made additional security investments and did the usual PR thing.  Here is a boss picture of US and Dutch troops entering a hangar as part of a security exercise.  Take that, hippies.

So where the hell were these guys when the hippies showed up?  Obviously, things are not all fine and dandy at Volkel.

Whether or not you support the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe, isn’t it time to consolidate the remaining weapons at two US airbases where they can be properly secured?  I continue to be amazed that the repeated security breaches don’t generate public pressure for the removal of the weapons — well, other than in the United States Air Force which keeps sending up trial balloons about taking the money to make the F-35 nuclear capable on spending it on their precious bomber.


There is an interesting question about where the protestors actually went.  The only image shows Shelter 532.  There are a couple of maps floating around (1|2).  They mark certain bunkers as having a WS3 vault, although I don’t know why they think they know that, and the maps are blurry enough that its hard to make out the bunker numbers.  But I think shelter 532 is  here: 51.661713, 5.712177

Try putting that into Google Earth, however, and you’ll be disappointed. The maps have certain areas blanked out, marked “Intern Gebruik Defensie” (“Internal Use Defense”). The providers of satellites images, too, engage in interesting redactions.  Google (Maps and Earth) blur the entire airbase.  Bing and Nokia reduce the resolution and black out the areas that correspond to the areas that are blanked out on the map and marked Internal Use Defense

Yandex maps, though, shows the NATO airbase in full resolution.  Here is a sampling of how different sites present satellite images — Google Maps, Bing and Yandex:

In addition to the black spot drawing a terrorist’s interest to protecting a sensitive part of Volkel, Bing and Here reduce the resolution of the base.  Here is a shot of the end of that blurring:

Other people have complained about the censorship in these images–especially the Dutch who, thanks to the use of TerraImaging satellite, seem to get all sorts of things blurred like the Royal residence.  I would simply point out that blurring or blacking out certain areas is absurd.  It doesn’t protect against Dutch euro-hippies (see below), let alone terrorists.  It does, however, protect against the public scrutiny necessary to force Dutch and other allied officials to meet their obligations to protect the weapons.  Secrecy often results in worse security.


One of the fascinating things is this shot of the runway, blurred or not, showing an orange plane!

This is the Dutch F16 demonstration team, which alternates between Volkel and Leeuwarden Airbase every two years.

Here are two more shots of the orange F-16

The second photo is interesting because, as Hans K has noted, you may be able to see the WS3 vault in the floor behind the aircraft.

Last note — the Dutch shelters are shaped funny.  Most aircraft shelters, like the ones at Kleine Brogel are semi-circular.  The Dutch ones are peaked. A triumph of Dutch design I suppose.



Yeah, that’s a weird title, huh?  Well, it’s a weird idea.  Bear with me.

Over the course of my writing, teaching and corresponding about China’s nuclear forces, I kept stumbling over the same question: Why does China insist on calling the Second Artillery, China’s nuclear-armed missile force, the “core force” for China’s deterrent?

“Core force” — and other similar phrases — imply the possibility of nuclear operations by the Chinese Air Force or  Navy, even if China relies on the Second Artillery’s land-based missiles for the old minimum means of reprisal (or assured retaliation, if you prefer).  Indeed, some training materials like Science of Second Artillery Campaigns make reference to joint nuclear operations. It seems impossible to imagine this is entirely anticipatory.

But the United States intelligence community pretty clearly thinks China’s lone Xia-class nuclear submarine never became operational and that no Chinese aircraft have nuclear delivery as a primary mission. Of course, this may change once the new Jin-class SSBN is operational. I think nuclear-armed H-6 bombers, on the other hand, are less likely, but can’t rule them out.  But, again, these haven’t happened yet, and it is hard to believe that China would use language like “core” force in an entirely anticipatory sense.

So, I’ve always wondered: Why does Beijing uses the “core force” language and the refer to “joint” nuclear operations?

I’ve come to think that the answer lies in the Chinese notion of “trial operational deployment.”  Which sounds strange, and informs the title of the blog post.


Trial Operational Deployment

In December 1980, China deployed two DF-5 ICBMs in silos. Yes, all of two. The full deployment of three brigades totaling 18 DF-5s didn’t occur until the mid-1990s. (May 1995, according to one source.)

Why bother with two measly silos? In an alarming situation, two ICBMs are better than nothing. And Beijing viewed the international security situation in the 1970s as alarming. “To Beijing, the situation in the late 1970s was alarming,” John Lewis and Hua Di wrote, “The Soviet Union seemed to be on the offensive and prevailing, while the United States was retreating and losing. On October 30, 1979, Marshal Nie Rongzhen … directed the urgent deployment of all available strategic weapons systems, saying that though a bit backward in performance, [the DF-4 and DF-5 missiles] would still be better than ‘millet plus rifles’ in fighting a war.”

The phrase “millet plus rifles” is a reference to favorite remark of Mao about the relative unimportance of weaponry in deciding the outcome of a conflict, especially when compared to ideological factors. Here is an example from Mao in 1955:

We have an expression, millet plus rifles. In the case of the United States, it is planes plus the A-bomb. However, if the United States with its planes plus the A-bomb is to launch a war of aggression against China, then China with its millet plus rifles is sure to emerge the victor. The people of the whole world will support us. As a result of World War I, the tsar, the landlords and the capitalists in Russia were wiped out; as a result of World War II, Chiang Kai-shek and the landlords were overthrown in China and the East European countries and a number of countries in Asia were liberated. Should the United States launch a third world war and supposing it lasted eight or ten years, the result would be the elimination of the ruling classes in the United States, Britain and the other accomplice countries and the transformation of most of the world into countries led by Communist Parties. World wars end not in favour of the warmongers but in favour of the Communist Parties and the revolutionary people in all lands. If the warmongers are to make war, then they mustn’t blame us for making revolution or engaging in “subversive activities” as they keep saying all the time. If they desist from war, they can survive a little longer on this earth. But the sooner they make war the sooner they will be wiped from the face of the earth. Then a people’s united nations would be set up, maybe in Shanghai, maybe somewhere in Europe, or it might be set up again in New York, provided the U.S. warmongers had been wiped out.

Hence the image atop this post, which is a modern interpretation of a painting by the artist Shi Lu, entitled Millet Plus Rifles.
Mao’s point, and Nie’s, is that, as you know, you go to war with the Army you have. According to Lewis and Hua, the Chinese had a name for this notion of initial operational capability —  ”trial operational deployment.”


Nuclear-Capable Aircraft

China conducted nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere through 1980, something that caused Beijing a lot of political grief. (In fact, China’s opposition to the Limited Test Ban Treaty is a large part of how “no first use” came to be a major diplomatic position for Beijing. But you’ll have to buy the book for that story.)

China tried reasonably hard to move testing underground as soon as feasible, but despite a number of underground nuclear tests, China continued atmospheric testing throughout the 1960s and 1970s. As a stop-gap measure, China conducted  atmospheric nuclear tests using retrofitted bombers and specially manufactured fighter aircraft. Dropping nuclear weapons from aircraft introduces some risk into tests. A test in 1979 failed when the parachute failed to open; here is a pretty cool first-person account in Chinese.  On the other hand, airbursts reduce the amount of radioactive fallout, which helps reduce the political fallout.  For Beijing, the added risk of testing from aircraft was worth the political benefits.

China Today: Aviation Industry, an official account of Chinese aircraft industry from the 1980s, describes in some detail the program to modify aircraft to serve as assets for the nuclear weapons testing program. China retrofitted  one H-5 bomber, (probably) one H-6 bomber, and several Q-5 aircraft.  Here are some comments on each program:

  • “In order to cooperate with the development and test of the atomic bomb the Bureau of Aviation Industry assigned the Xi’an Aircraft Factory a task in 1963 to retrofit a H-6 aircraft assembled by the Harbin Aircraft Factory in 1959 into a nuclear weapon carrier.”
  • “In September 1967 the government assigned a task for retrofitting the H-5 into a nuclear carrier which could be used both for nuclear test and operational missions.”
  • “In order to support nuclear test the Nanchang Aircraft Factory completed the manufacture of several nuclear weapon carriers which were derived from the basic Q-5 in 1970.”

There is a curious little phrase — “a nuclear carrier which could be used both for nuclear test and operational missions.”

Operational missions? Really? Just one aircraft?  (The reason I think it was only one aircraft is that the Harbin Aircraft Factory completed the retrofit with “intense work over half a year.”)

Who the hell was going to fly that thing to Moscow, Major Kong?  (I know, the range is a stretch.  Work with me here.)

I find it curious that China would consider a lone H-5 bomber as an operational capability.  Then again, I suppose in an emergency,  just like two ICBMs, one bomber would be better than “millet plus rifles.”

The H-5 conversion predates the term “trial operational deployment,” which didn’t come around until 1974, according to Lewis and Hua, but it’s the same idea.


Xia-Class SSBN 

That brings us to China’s lone SSBN for much of the past thirty years — the Xia-class SSBN. (China has a new fleet of three SSBNs just waiting for their shiny new SLBMs.)

In October 2013, Xinhua showed off nuclear submarines, including the Xia-class SSBN.  This struck me as strange, since the Xia-class submarine rarely leaves port and the United States has never considered it an operational platform. To bring targets into range, the Xia would have to sail long distances. Zhang Aiping, according to John Lewis and Hua Di, ridiculed the notion that it would sail as far as the Persian Gulf to bring Moscow into range. After all, Major Kong is already assigned to the H-5 bomber.

Yet we have the Xia-class SSBN in Xinhua, accompanied by approving remarks by military analysts. “China says it has a no first use nuclear weapons policy,” Xinhua quoted a military officer named Yin Zhuo saying, “Nuclear submarines can effectively deter and fight back against those who want to launch nuclear attacks on China. It can reduce the danger of nuclear war.”

Just like the two ICBMs in the early 1980s or the one retrofitted H-5 bomber, the one  Xia-class SSBN is better than millet plus rifles.


Trial Operational Deterrence

So, this was a pretty anemic triad in the early 1980s — a couple of ICBMs, one submarine and one bomber. Sure, China had larger theater forces, but the overall force was very, very small.

The Chinese built a number of test assets that neither we nor they consider “deployed.” The difference is that the Chinese think they get some measure of deterrence even from test assets.

The notion that test or developmental assets  – whether it is two ICBMs in silos, an H-5 bomber or an SSBN that never leaves port — might confer some measure of deterrence might seem very strange. In Western academic literature, we tend to think the period when new nuclear forces are under development is the moment of maximum danger for a nuclear aspirant — a small number of provisional assets might be said to invite attack, not deter it. The Chinese, on the other hand, seem to think that even the most limited capability helps out. You just add it to the millet plus rifles and go.

From an American perspective, we would place little reliance on test assets. “You fight how you train” is a popular bit of wisdom. Sending forces with little training and no operational experience on a long, one-way journey to retaliate against a nuclear attack would seem, to a American perspective, like a fool’s errand. Our arms control treaties even make special provisions for test assets because, you know, they aren’t part of the “real” force.

Then again, maybe the Chinese are right. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union attacked China, despite Beijing’s prolonged period of vulnerability. Looking at declassified US intelligence estimates, we gave the Chinese credit for far more nuclear bombers than they probably manufactured. Perhaps the Chinese are right to think that deterrence depends far less on details like readiness, training, and operational plans than we think in the United States.

Regardless of who is right, Beijing’s references to other nuclear forces seem to refer to the possibility that it might press into service the Xia-class SSBN or aircraft modified for nuclear weapons testing in emergency.  It’s an interesting notion, one that colors how I think about the 1969 Sino-Soviet crisis — but that’s a conversation for another day.

For now, I think it’s sufficient to note the history of Chinese trial operational deployments, even if they don’t always formally go by that name. China does not have a capital-T Triad on this basis — they don’t think of it that way, nor do we — but understanding the Chinese attitude toward developmental systems helps illustrate a broader point about how Chinese leaders have thought — or at least acted as though they thought — about nuclear weapons.  Possession, or perhaps mastery, is the key, with other details like numbers, posture, or even readiness given less emphasis.  That’s a broader mindset that helps explain why Chinese leaders have tended to treat strategic stability as a foregone conclusion, despite their own relatively small and vulnerable forces.


There is something unsettling about seeing a Confederate flag fluttering above a nuclear test site.

No, this isn’t some alternate history where the South rises again, armed with nuclear weapons.  It’s a (cropped) image after the October 1964 Salmon shot — one of the pair of nuclear tests conducted in the Tatum Salt Dome in Mississippi.

Arms control wonks will know that the United States conducted a pair of tests to examine Albert Latter‘s notion that a state could “decouple” nuclear tests by conducting them in large chambers.  You will sometimes see a decoupling factor of 70 in salt — that comes directly from the Sterling shot inside the Salmon cavity. I don’t want to revisit the decoupling debate here, other than to note that the National Academies and others have  discussed decoupling at length.

Project Dribble is enjoying a resurgence because David Allen Burke has written a new history of Atomic Testing in Mississippi: Project Dribble and the Quest for Nuclear Weapons Treaty Verification in the Cold War Era.

Burke noticed, and explains, the presence of the offending item:

A large Confederate flag flew overhead, beneath which an unknown airman had reenlisted several days before.  The flag had been raised not by locals but by imported Dribble personnel, as a good-natured joke and a salute to local hospitality.  Other souvenirs marked Station 1A, including a sign bearing a defiant southern slogan left “by an AEC wag.” … At the Dribble test site near Purvis, Mississippi, on October 22, 1964, in keeping with the spirit of the flag and the sign, the South did rise again — by approximately four inches.

Oh, the amusing Confederate battle emblem! So funny.  Guess what else happened in October 1964?  Sheriff Lawrence Rainey found himself being escorted into the Federal Courthouse in Meridian, Mississippi.  Here is a picture of Rainey outside the courthouse, followed by a slightly more famous image.

Rainey would be one of 21 men the FBI arrested for the June 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, well for violating their civil rights by murdering them. (He was acquitted.) In case you are wondering, the murders happened about two hours away, near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Oh, that hilarious Confederate battle flag.  It does make an awfully nice symbol of local hospitality, though.

There is apparently some declassified color footage of Project Dribble.  I can’t find it at the moment, but some of it is used here.  I bet there is a color shot of that Confederate battle flag, flapping in the wind.


It’s pretty hard to find the Project Dribble site in satellite images, largely because the tree line has changed so dramatically (something that also bedevils Civil War battlefields). Ground zero is located at: 31.14229°N 89.57001°W (Wikipedi has the correct ground zero, which I learned the hard way.)

You can see the changes starting with a 1964 image, followed by shots from 1996, 2007 and 2013:


Apologies for the nonexistent blogging as of late — I wrote a book! (More on that later.) Writing takes an enormous amount of time, which is to say pretty much every second that doesn’t involve chasing two tiny lunatics around the house. I also got sucked into a huge number of massive projects, none of which I have any funding for — Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, you name it. So, I’ve been busy.

But I am back. And I hope to start churning out new blog posts based on the past six months of intellectual “investment.” Here we go with the first one — the Hagap (하갑) Underground Facility in North Korea.


Hagap Underground Facility

One of the big questions is where North Korea’s other centrifuge facilities might be located. I can’t answer that for sure, but I’ve spent a lot of time squinting at a large underground facility near Hagap, located at:  40° 04′ 48″ N, 126° 10′ 56″ E.

This facility is noted in Wikimapia, but there is quite a bit about it in open-source materials that deserves to be collected all in one place. This is that place. The site isn’t always mentioned by name, but it comes up again and again.

As best I can tell, the underground facility near Hagap was a matched pair with the better-known UGF near Kumchangni (Kumchang-ri). The United States detected construction at both around the same time. As best I can tell, the United States intelligence community concluded the UGFs at Hagap and Kumchangni were both nuclear-related because the same engineering unit that built both had also worked on Yongbyon. (Although the gas-graphite reactor and reprocessing line at Yongbyon are aboveground, there are lesser-known tunnels that raised Swedish eyebrows once upon a time.) Other details, I would argue, were then fitted around that general connection. (Mike Chinoy describes some of the ancillary details in an excerpt from Meltdown.)

The earliest mention I can find of Hagap in the press is in January 1998 – several months before Kumchangni. Someone leaked a DIA report to Eric Rosenberg of the Hearst Washington Bureau asserting (on the basis of very little evidence as far as I can tell) that although the ”function of this site [at Hagap] has not been determined, but it could be intended as a nuclear production and/or storage site.”

Behind closed doors, the leak played out as a sort of prologue to the Kumchangni fiasco. It seems someone also leaked the report to Congressional Republicans, who sand-bagged Madeleine Albright in a July 1998 closed hearing. New York Times reporter James Risen later described the scene:

Witness this incident, not previously disclosed: Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright had just completed an upbeat, top-secret briefing for the House leadership in July 1998 on the Clinton administration’s dealings with North Korea when one lawmaker posed the question he had been waiting to ask:

What was Dr. Albright’s assessment of a recent intelligence report suggesting that North Korea had built a storage installation that housed components for nuclear warheads? And how long had she known about the report?

Dr. Albright, according to several people who were present, replied that she had learned of the evidence just two weeks earlier. In a startling departure from the united front that top administration officials usually present to Congress, Lt. Gen. Patrick Hughes, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, immediately contradicted the secretary of state.

“Madame Secretary, I have to correct the record,” said General Hughes, whose agency had produced the report, according to others who were there. “You were briefed on that intelligence a year ago.”

Hagap stayed quiet, possibly because a nuclear-weapons storage site wouldn’t violate the 1994 Agreed Framework in quite the same way as an underground reactor or reprocessing facility. So, about a month later, in August 1998, the New York Times had a front-page story about the other underground facility, the one near Kumchangni: NORTH KOREA SITE AN A-BOMB PLANT, U.S. AGENCIES SAY. This triggered an intense period of diplomacy, ultimately resulting in a US visit to the facility. Turns out, it could not hold a reactor and was really not well-suited for a reprocessing facility, either. (The layout was just too weird. More on that in a bit.)

After Kumchangni, there wasn’t much interest in trying again, particularly with a facility that probably didn’t violate the terms of the agreement.



Then, in 2002, the United States intelligence community figured out that the North Koreans were buying LOTS of aluminum tubes — enough for thousands of centrifuges. Combined with other evidence from the Khan network, the United States intelligence community began to suspect that North Korea’s centrifuge program was moving past basic R&D. This is an important distinction — both the Clinton and Bush Administrations thought the North Koreans were cheating with gas centrifuges to enrich uranium; what changed in 2002 was the assessed scale of the cheating. (I summarized this in a post a few years ago.)

Suddenly, Hagap was very interesting again. Press reports claimed the United States intelligence community was interested in three sites: a complex with tunnels near Yeongjeo-ri”(영조리) located at 41°21’48.67″N, 127° 3’58.12″E, the Academy of Sciences in Pyongyang, and — always listed first — our friend, the large underground facility near Hagap. (A defector report that places centrifuge operations near Huichon may refer to Hagap — Huichon is less than 20 km up river.)

Joby Warrick wrote a story that hinted Hagap was the main site, but he couldn’t get anyone to confirm that on the record. Another reporter tried a different approach with then-Deputy SecState Richard Armitage:

MR. ARMITAGE: It is our view, and what we’ve spoken publicly about is Yongbyon, which has a possibility of reprocessing the 8,000 rods of spent fuel — and we don’t quite know the exact status of Yongbyon — and another highly enriched uranium facility.

Q You think there is another one?

MR. ARMITAGE: And that’s what we have talked to the North Koreans about.

Q Right. Is it the Hagap facility?

MR. ARMITAGE: I don’t even remember the name. I don’t know.

Q And you — you said –

MR. ARMITAGE: If I knew it I wouldn’t tell you, but I –

Nice try. On the other hand, a “defense official” told Inside Defense that “U.S. intelligence analysts do not believe the Hagap complex is part of North Korea’s uranium enrichment effort” adding that “U.S. surveillance efforts have detected ‘articles of an historical or archival nature’ being moved into the underground facility.” For awhile, some people fingered Hagap as a site for high-explosives testing — although focus for that activity eventually moved to a place called Yongdoktong (sometimes Youngdoktong). I don’t know whether testing moved, or just our focus. One sometimes see references to Hagap as a nuclear test site, which I think is a corrupted reference to testing of conventional high explosives for an implosion design.

In the end, the facility remained a mystery — as Barbara Demick wrote:

The facility in Chagang, known as Hagap, has been known to U.S. intelligence since 1996 and suspected of being variously a reprocessing facility, a high-explosives test site or even an underground nuclear reactor. But Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea military analyst for the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., says more recent information suggests that it is merely a vast underground archive for the ruling Korean Workers’ Party.

Ultimately, the US intelligence community decided that maybe there was no centrifuge facility after all — until the collapse of the Six Party Process in April 2009. The North Koreans built a new gas centrifuge plant at Yongbyon so fast — they showed it to Sig Hecker in November 2010 — that most of us assume this wasn’t their first.


Revisiting Hagap

It is worth revisiting the construction timeline of Hagap. Honestly, the completion of the facility looks pretty consistent with large procurements in the 2001-2002 time period. Here are shots from 2000, 2007, 2009 and 2012:

Moreover, the facility underwent a second expansion after 2009 — just as Yongbyon ramped up. There are a number of buildings that appear nestled in the valleys just to the east of the facility. Here are shots from 2009 and 2012:

It’s impossible to know if this is the centrifuge facility, or just a giant warehouse for statues of various Kim family members, but its easy to see why it is so interesting.

One possible explanation is that tunnels make us crazy — every time we think North Korea is up to something (which is basically always), we imagine that something is happening deep underground near Hagap.  It’s become the Area 51 of North Korean underground facilities, a canvas for every conspiracy theory that comes along.  There are a bunch weirdos who think aliens attended Kim Jong Il’s funeral.(I’ll just link to the debunking.) I am sort of bummed they didn’t have Kang stay over at Hagap.

The other possibility, though, is that it really is something — but we just don’t know what that is because the debates about Kumchangni and the uranium enrichment program are really proxies for a broader debate about our North Korea policy that doesn’t permit too much pondering of the evidence, interesting though it is. I can’t tell you that Hagap houses another enrichment facility. But just ruminating on the debate seems suggest some interesting things about our own domestic political debates.


Kumchangni Revisited

So, let me close with a really unusual idea.  What if North Korea originally intended Kumchangni to house centrifuges?

When the US teams visited Kumchangni, it became clear the site was not going to be a reactor and probably not a reprocessing plant.  Here are the findings from the US team that visited:

– The site at Kumchang-ni does not contain a plutonium production reactor or reprocessing plant, either completed or under construction.
– Given the current size and configuration of the underground area, the site is unsuitable for the installation of a plutonium production reactor, especially a graphite-moderated reactor of the type North Korea has built at Yongbyon.
– The site is also not well designed for a reprocessing plant. Nevertheless, since the site is a large underground area, it could support such a facility in the future with substantial modifications.
– At this point in time the U.S. cannot rule out the possibility that the site was intended for other nuclear-related uses although it does not appear to be currently configured to support any large industrial nuclear functions.

The issue was the layout of the facility, which was weird. Here is one account of the series of narrow tunnels in a grid:

The 14-member U.S. inspection team that was ultimately allowed to visit in late May was forced to walk past a line of barking German shepherds before entering the site. Intimidation? But then they were free to walk through the six miles of empty tunnels, taking photos and videos. The tunnels were in a grid pattern: four running north to south and 17 running east to west. The east-west chambers were about 40 feet wide and about 20 feet high. The walls were unfinished and there was no equipment.

Was the site an elaborate decoy? Not likely, said one U.S. official. It took thousands of North Koreans about a decade to build it. An underground shelter? Also unlikely; there were no signs of amenities. Could it be adapted for nuclear energy material reprocessing? It would need drainage; otherwise radioactive material would spread throughout the facility.

“We don’t know what it’s supposed to be,” said one U.S. official.

You have to use your imagination, but what they are saying is that the complex consisted of 17 halls, each 12 meters wide and a little less than 500 meters long. Let’s assume the facility is a square — then it looks something like this with about 100,000 square meters of floorspace (17 tunnels that are each about 12 x 500).

So let me just wonder aloud — or in print, I guess — does that look like it might have been for centrifuges? The footprint is much larger than, say, either underground enrichment hall at Natanz (which are 190 x 170 m each, and constructed in a cut-and-cover fashion).  The last finding — “cannot rule out the possibility that the site was intended for other nuclear-related uses although it does not appear to be currently configured to support any large industrial nuclear functions” — is pretty wishy-washy. A lot depends on what “currently configured” means, I guess.  Whatever Kumchangni was supposed to be, we never found out.

The DPRK, by the way, didn’t exactly deny that the facility was nuclear — or promise that it never would be.  KCNA quoted the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stating that “The visit proved objectively that the underground facility in Kumchang-ri is an empty tunnel, not related to nuclear development at all. As a result, it was clearly proved once again that we have been sincerely implementing the Geneva agreed framework. The point is for what the tunnel in Kumchang-ri will be used. This depends entirely upon the attitude of the U.S. side concerning the implementation of the DPRK-U.S. agreement reached in New York.”

That statement looks rather different, in hindsight.

I don’t mean to suggest that I am persuaded that Kumchangni was for a centrifuge program, any more than I am convinced Hagap was built for that purpose.  But I do think that the history of these two facilities is interesting and worth setting down in one place, largely because I suspect we haven’t heard the last of them.



Two of our graduate students review Chinese-language materials to shoot down that silly story from a few weeks ago about China giving Ukraine a nuclear umbrella.


That’s Not What Xi Said!

 By Catherine Dill and Jonathan Ray

Catherine Dill is a research assistant at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Jonathan Ray is a former MIIS student and now Research Analyst at Global Commercial Insights LLC. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of any organization.

Last month, Miles Yu of The Washington Times asserted that China made a “pledge to protect Ukraine under its nuclear umbrella.” His claim is based on an incorrect translation that turns a routine diplomatic pledge made by all nuclear weapons states, including the United States, into a sinister Chinese plot.

Yu based his misleading story on a joint statement issued on the treaty of friendship and cooperation signed on December 5th by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Washington Times’ translation of the relevant segment reads:

“China pledges unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the nuclear-free Ukraine and China further pledges to provide Ukraine a nuclear security guarantee when Ukraine encounters an invasion involving nuclear weapons or Ukraine is under threat of a nuclear invasion.”

Yu goes on to write that “China’s official media, including Xinhua and Global Times, touted the deal with the headline ‘China Pledges Nuclear Umbrella to Protect Ukraine.’”

A nuclear umbrella!  This comes as quite a shock, given that a staple of Chinese diplomacy over the past fifty years has been an outright hostility to so-called “nuclear umbrellas.” Western analysts occasionally suggest that China offer a nuclear umbrella to states like North Korea or Pakistan to persuade them to give up the bomb. Each time, Chinese officials or experts explain patiently that “China is not a country that provides nuclear umbrellas to other countries.”

Yu’s story, however, is based on an inaccurate translation and misrepresents the bulk of reporting in Chinese media outlets. A correct translation of the complete segment, as provided in Chinese by Xinhua and translated by the authors, is the following:

The Chinese government assesses that Ukraine unilaterally renounced its nuclear weapons, and as a non-nuclear weapons state (NNWS) joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), signed July 1, 1968. In accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 984 and the Chinese government’s statement on providing security assurances to Ukraine on December 4, 1994, China pledges unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear Ukraine, and under the conditions of Ukraine suffering an invasion using nuclear weapons or suffering the threat of this kind of invasion, to provide Ukraine with relevant security guarantees. (相应  can also be translated as “appropriate” or “corresponding.” )

The Chinese statement mentions the “relevant” security guarantees (相应安全保证), specifically United Nations Security Council Resolution 984 and China’s negative security assurance.  What China offered Ukraine was a negative security assurance—a promise not to use nuclear weapons against it—as well as the standard positive security assurance that all nuclear weapons states offer under United Nations Security Council Resolution 984 to come to the aid of states coming under nuclear attack.

These positive and negative security assurances are standard fare.  In theory, the United States offers the same assurances to the vast majority of countries around the world, including states with whom we have less than warm relations such as Cuba. The nuclear weapons states, including China and the United States, made or reaffirmed these pledges in 1995 as part of the diplomacy to secure support for the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

So, for example, in 1995 all the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) agreed to United Nations Security Council Resolution 984, pledging assistance to any state suffering “aggression with nuclear weapons” or the threat from nuclear weapons.  All of the nuclear weapons states, including the United States and China, made “negative” security assurances to refrain from threatening non-nuclear weapons states with nuclear weapons.  The United States pledge was heavily qualified at the time (although the Obama Administration has since issued a “clean” negative security assurance for all states in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.)  China’s individual statement was free of such reservations, stating that under no circumstances would China use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapons state or party to a nuclear weapons free zone.

The most recent joint statement simply states the obvious – that China’s blanket negative and positive security assurances to all non-nuclear weapons states also apply to Ukraine.  After Ukraine, as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan, returned their Soviet nuclear weapons to Russia, each state signed a memorandum in Budapest with the US, United Kingdom and Russia that reiterated the standard security guarantees to all three. (Belarus|Kazakhstan|Ukraine) “ Later, China and France joined its provisions in the form of individual statements.” China issued its statement to Ukraine in December 1994.

This simply is not a nuclear umbrella. China’s 1995 statement relating to the NPT, which is available in English as well as Chinese, explains that were a non-nuclear state to suffer a nuclear attack, China would “impose strict and effective sanctions on the attacking State.” The statement makes clear that the security assurance “shall not in any way be construed as endorsing the use of nuclear weapons.” If someone attacks Ukraine with nuclear weapons, the Chinese will send a sternly worded letter.

Yu’s representation of Chinese media is also misleading. Some state-media outlets initially did report the story with ambiguous headlines, although the text of the stories was clear. We located Xinhua, Global Times, and other reprints titled “China-Ukraine Joint Statement: China Pledges to Provide Nuclear Security Guarantee to Ukraine [中乌声明:中国承诺向乌克兰提供核安全保证].” Each article provided text of the joint statement, but did not mention, let alone “tout” as Yu writes, a nuclear umbrella. Perhaps Yu can produce a single article that supports his interpretation, but this does not fairly represent the state-media coverage overall.

On the other hand, the announcement produced the predictable flurry of inaccurate commentary among bloggers and general media outlets. Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television, one of the few private broadcasters in mainland China, ran articles such as “China For the First Time Announces to Pledge Nuclear Umbrella to Non-Nuclear State [中国首次宣布向无核国家提供核保护伞]”, “Beijing Exhibits Nuclear Strength, Pledges to Protect Ukraine [北京展核实力 承诺保护乌克兰]”, and similar videos.

State-media responded by making clear that these were misrepresentations of the text. Xinhua interviewed Wu Dahui (吴大辉, Director of Tsinghua University’s Eurasia Strategic Research Center), who called the “nuclear umbrella” a “pure and simple misinterpretation.” The Global Timesran an article titled “China Giving Ukraine a Nuclear Umbrella is a Misunderstanding, and Not the Same as the US [中国给乌克兰核保护伞是误解   与美国非一回事].” The article makes the same points we’ve made—that China’s negative and positive security assurances are related to the 1995 pledges and do not constitute a system of extended deterrence.

So, is China providing Ukraine a “nuclear umbrella?” Well, that’s not what Xi said.


I’ve been meaning to write something about the back-and-forth over claims that Russia is violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but just haven’t had time.  My colleague, Nikolai Sokov, has sent along his thoughts on the issue.  I hope to join the discussion in the comments.

Allegations of Russian Arms Control Cheating are Unfounded, But a Good Reason to Revisit Treaty Options

By Nikolai N. Sokov

Reports about alleged Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty have surfaced once again—this time in an article published by the Daily Beast.[1]

The article generally rehashes arguments voiced during the previous wave of similar allegations raised last summer, predictably, by Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz, who has a long history of writing anonymously-sourced articles painting Russian (and Chinese) military activities in the most sinister light.[2]

The allegations concern tests of a new Russian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)—the RS-24 Yars-M (designated by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO as the SS-27)—as well as an older Topol ICBM (SS-25) at a range below the 5,500 kilometer cut-off that defines strategic land-based systems. These tests were cited as evidence that Russia was seeking to circumvent the INF Treaty, which bans US and Soviet land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km (upon the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia became a party to that treaty).

Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution and Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists refuted these allegations last summer with excellent legally- and technically-grounded responses.[3] They noted, among other things, that the range of a weapon system under all US-Soviet/Russian treaties is defined as the maximum range and that nothing prevents the parties from testing their missiles at ranges below that maximum; since the Yars has a maximum range above the cut-off (it was tested previously at a range of 5,800 km, according to Kristensen), it is clearly falls under the legal definition of a strategic weapon. Pifer added that, during the INF Treaty negotiations, the Ronald Reagan administration assumed the Soviets would reallocate some of their ICBMs to targets in Europe, but that did not prevent the United States from signing the treaty.

It is not completely clear why the Daily Beast decided to revive the issue. Perhaps it’s because an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which was proposed last June by ten Republican senators led by Senator James Risch (R-ID), has successfully avoided motions for cloture, the latest time on November 21 by a vote of 51-44. The Risch amendment requires the administration to provide, within sixty days, information about “compliance and consistency issues associated with the INF Treaty, including a listing and assessment of all Ground Launched Russian Federation Systems being designed, tested, or deployed with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers,” as well as information sharing (and withholding) within NATO with regard to the INF Treaty.[4] It is difficult to see how such a report—if it adheres to the facts—could say anything but “Russia complies,” but we might be in for yet another round of the same debate next year if the amendment remains part of the bill.

While the allegations made by Gertz are unfounded on legal or technical grounds, it might make sense to look a bit beyond them in preparation for a possible new round of accusations and counter-accusations (which Russia can mount, too). In particular, there are two sets of issues.

The first concerns how the current approach to the definition of ranges emerged and whether it might make sense to change it to avoid similar conundrums in the future. Second, apart from the specific allegations, is there a reason to be concerned about continued Russian adherence to the INF Treaty, especially in the view of repeated statements by a small but influential number of Russian officials about the desire to abrogate it?

Definitions of Weapon Systems: A Cold War Legacy

The vast majority of definitions used in arms control treaties were created during the Cold War; in fact, the definition of an ICBM was perhaps the first such definition and emerged during the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) negotiations (the SALT I agreement was signed in 1972). The preoccupation of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia during two decades of negotiations was the maximum capability that could be launched in the first strike by the other party. If a missile could be loaded with ten warheads, it would be counted against treaty limits as carrying ten warheads rather than the actual number (START I counted all Soviet SS-18 ICBMs as carrying 10 warheads even though some of them were only deployed with one). If a missile could fly from one continent to another, it was considered strategic regardless of whether it could be used on shorter trajectories (both states had many other systems specifically designed for shorter ranges, so why worry?).

Granted, this principle was not always applied consistently. For example, SS-18 had been tested with 12 warheads, but was normally deployed (and counted against treaty limits) with ten, while the Trident II D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in the United States was tested with fourteen warheads but deployed (and counted) with eight. Still, by and large, both parties were primarily concerned about the full strength of a theoretical first strike and hence tended to pay more attention to longer ranges and higher numbers of warheads.

After the end of the Cold War, the United States and, to a much more limited extent, Russia, began to “download” delivery vehicles (i.e., deploying weapons systems with fewer than the maximum or agreed number of warheads), which, for the United States, became the primary means of reductions. As a result, when the 1991 START I Treaty expired in 2009, the treaty-accountable number of US warheads was approximately double the actually deployed number.

The 2002 Moscow Treaty and the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) moved to a new principle of warhead accounting—from the maximum to the actual number (as a result, the two states’ delivery vehicles can carry many more warheads than the limits established by treaty texts). The same was not done, however, with regard to missile ranges—we still categorize missiles by their maximum range. Definitions have simply been transferred from one treaty to another: for ballistic missiles they have not changed since 1972. Should we now consider establishing a lower limit as well to avoid a repeat of the Yars incident?

Although theoretically possible, such a move would be too complicated to be practical. To begin with, it is next to impossible to differentiate between a failed flight test and a test to a reduced distance. No one can give assurances that all tests will be successful, especially tests of new missiles: Russia’s Bulava SLBM program has seen almost half of its flight tests fail. In fact, the most recent failed test—in which the missile barely left the submarine—could have classified the missile as tactical, if one followed the logic of those who accuse Russia of violating the INF Treaty. The only result of such an attempt would be unending bickering between the United States and Russia over whether a particular test was a failure or a prohibited type of launch.

Moreover, any attempt to revise the definition of ballistic missiles could not be limited to land-based systems. For example, it is likely that Russia might want to revise the definition of SLBMs. The cut-off range is currently only 600 km, a figure agreed to under SALT I when states still had first-generation SLBMs with very short ranges. But all existing SLBMs have ranges comparable to those of ICBMs. Hans Kristensen describes a test of Trident II D-5 in March 2006 along a compressed trajectory to a distance of 2,200 km, although it is typically tested to the range well over 7,400 km. Under the existing legal standards, this is still a strategic distance, but Russia can be expected to seek the establishment of a minimum distance for SLBMs, too, to prevent the United States from continuing these tests. Trident II launches with compressed trajectory have been a concern for the Soviet Union and now Russia for well over two decades, and it is only logical to expect Moscow to raise that issue once Pandora’s box is opened.

Common sense suggests that existing definitions should not be touched or reinterpreted at least until a new treaty can be negotiated. Claims about technical violations are nothing new, and in the vast majority of cases they generate little attention. For example, throughout the fifteen-year history of START I inspections, Russia claimed it was unable to confirm that the number of warheads on US Trident II D-5 SLBMs did not exceed eight, which could be construed as a violation (the US Navy insisted on special procedures for these inspections, in contrast to the procedures the Air Force used for ICBMs, which did not give rise to controversies). In spite of that, START I was successfully implemented and allegations did not preclude the negotiation of new treaties.

Is There a Future for the INF Treaty?

A much more serious question is the future of the INF Treaty, which some in Russia consider a relic of the Cold War and fundamentally unfair because it only applies to two states. It is well known that in 2005 and 2006, Sergey Ivanov, a close associate of Vladimir Putin and at that time the minister of defense, raised the prospect of Russia withdrawing from the INF Treaty at meetings with US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; according to Russian reports, Rumsfeld did not immediately reject the possibility.[5]

Moscow had two arguments to support that proposition, and both are made today. First, many states, including in the vicinity of Russia, have developed or are working on intermediate-range missiles, which was not the case when the INF Treaty was negotiated. Although Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Iranian, and Israeli programs might be of limited concern to the United States (except when affecting its allies) they are an immediate and serious security concern for Moscow.

It is also worth recalling that when the Russian military began for the first time to voice displeasure with the INF Treaty in 2000-01, some high-level military officials hinted that they needed conventional rather than nuclear payloads on intermediate-range missiles. In other words, they did not advocate a nuclear capability and saw such missiles in a strategic context radically different from the one in which the 1987 treaty was negotiated (i.e., an Asian instead of a European threat).

The second argument is the 2002 US withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. According to Russian logic, if the George W. Bush administration could abrogate a Cold War treaty, based on the perception that it constrained US ability to respond to new, post-Cold War challenges, Moscow was entitled to take similar steps.

In 2007, the United States and Russia jointly tabled at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva a draft of a multilateral INF Treaty that was intended to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, the prospects of serious negotiations on that initiative are close to zero: states that have or are developing intermediate-range missiles have displayed no interest in banning them. Shortly thereafter, Russia abandoned the idea of abrogating the INF Treaty, likely as a consequence of the Russian Air Force’s deployment of conventionally armed air-launched cruise missiles and also the prohibitive costs of developing and producing a new generation of conventional intermediate-range missiles.

The issue is not completely closed, however, and Russian officials have raised the prospect of withdrawing from the INF Treaty from time to time. The effort is still spearheaded by Sergey Ivanov—currently the head of the presidential administration—who remarked in June 2013, during the high point of the allegations in the United States about Russian violations of the INF Treaty, that it should be abrogated. He conceded that he understood US support for the treaty—the United States, he said, “could only use [these weapons] against Mexico and Canada,” but the Russian security environment is different.[6] These proposals, however, continue to lack sufficient domestic support and the prospect of Russian withdrawal from the INF Treaty does not appear plausible.

Conclusion and Forecast

US allegations about Russian violations of the INF Treaty are not only counterproductive for continued engagement of the two states in discussion of further reduction of nuclear arms, they also demonstrate a lack of understanding of the realities of the Russian political process. If proponents of developing and deploying new intermediate-range missiles succeed in mobilizing domestic support, a political decision about withdrawal can be made quickly and without much hesitation. The US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty provides a convenient precedent, which Moscow can use at will.

In other words, Russia does not need to find clandestine ways to circumvent the INF Treaty. The tests of Russian ICBMs to ranges shorter than 5,500 are in all likelihood exactly what Russia has unofficially claimed: tests of new warheads designed to penetrate US missile defenses. The Sary Shagan test range in Central Asia, to which missiles were launched during the tests in question, has been engaged in missile defense research since at least 1960s, and from that perspective it made sense to use it instead of moving all the hardware to the other test range on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

In the longer term, however, the future of the INF Treaty remains uncertain and the issue has little or nothing to do with the United States, NATO, Japan, or other US friends and allies. This is primarily about the emerging strike capability of states to the south of Russia—many of the same states whose programs serve as a justification for US and NATO missile defense programs. Unlike the United States, however, Russia also seeks a comparable strike capability, in addition to its already active missile defense programs. Today and in the near future this capability is supported by air-based assets. Only time will tell if ballistic missiles will be used to augment this capability. At a minimum, the remaining uncertainty warrants a renewed effort to push through a multilateral INF Treaty, whether completely banning these missiles, like the bilateral US-Russian 1987 treaty did, or at least limiting them and providing greater transparency for these systems.


Nikolai N. Sokov is a Senior Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.


[2] Bill Gertz, “Russian Aggression: Putin Violating Nuclear Missile Treaty,” Washington Times, June 25, 2013.

[4], “S. Amdt. 2176 to S. 1197,” November 19, 2013.

[5] For details see Nikolai Sokov, “Russian Military Debates Withdrawal from the INF Treaty,” WMD Insights, October 2006, pp. 30-33.

[6] “Dogovor po RSMD ne Mozhet Deistrovat Beskonechno, Zayavil Ivanov” [The INF Treaty Cannot Remain in Force Indefinitely, Declared Ivanov], RIA-Novosti, June 21, 2013.


Reader Chris Camp, who submitted as essay on disarmament “winners and losers“, has been thinking about the curious tale of Red Mercury lately.  He sends along this dispatch:

The curious tale of Red Mercury

by Chris Camp 

In the lore of any field there are stories that, while not driving the narrative forward, give it flavor and keep it interesting. In the nuclear arms field some of my favorites are the history of the term SCRAM, or Safety Control Rod Ax Man; literally a guy with an ax standing by to cut the rope (!) holding the one control rod (!) to shut down the first nuclear reactor if it got out of hand. Another is the theoretically-possibly-but almost-certainly-not-really first man-made object in space from the Plumbob Pascal A test in 1957. And then there is the strange tale of red mercury.

Red mercury doesn’t actually exist, which makes it the perfect substance for con-men since it’s properties can become whatever your customer wants them to be. Want to build a nuclear weapon without having to get those pesky fissionable fuels? Of how about you need to enrich uranium but can’t get centrifuge parts? Or perhaps you want a perfect radar-evading stealth paint? Maybe you need a highly accurate guidance system for your second hand SCUD missiles. Whatever the need, Red Mercury is the answer.

The story seems to have begun in the late 1980s in the then Soviet Union. News articles began popping up in Soviet newspapers about a mysterious substance which was used in multi-stage nuclear weapons. One article in Pravda described it as:

“[A] super-conductive material used for producing high-precision conventional and nuclear bomb explosives, ‘Stealth’ surfaces and self-guided warheads. Primary end-users are major aerospace and nuclear-industry companies in the United States and France along with nations aspiring to join the nuclear club, such as South Africa, Israel, Iran, Iraq, and Libya.”

The reports of course never really got around to mentioning what this substance was or how it worked, but it created a market. It is now commonly believed that the articles were planted for exactly this purpose by the KGB or later FSB as part of a nuclear sting operation. The articles served to create an artificial demand for a fictional material, and by looking at who was demanding it you could see who was interested in a cheap bomb. One of the rules of disinformation is that it has to be plausible, and in this case it has been reported, by our own Mark Hibbs as well as others, that “Red Mercury” was the soviet codename for lithium deuteride, the thermonuclear fuel in modern bombs.

Of course, these things tend to take on a life of their own, and red mercury did so with a vengeance. Western newspapers picked up the story and next thing anyone knew buyers all over the world were asking for the mysterious substance. Demand created supply and soon, for the right price, your friendly local mobster could get you a vial of red powder, possibly radioactive, that would solve all your problems. A 1997 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists described the situation this way:

“The asking price for red mercury ranged from $100,000 to $300,000 per kilogram. Sometimes the material would be irradiated or shipped in containers with radioactive symbols, perhaps to convince potential buyers of its strategic value. But samples seized by police contained only mercury(II) oxide, mercury(II) iodide, or mercury mixed with red dye — hardly materials of interest to weapons-makers.”

Every serious authority on the subject including the IAEA and Lawrence Livermore National Labs said quite clearly that no such substance existed, but that did nothing to diminish the demand, and possibly even increased it. The original sting seems to have worked better than anticipated with prospective buyers and sellers being arrested in several countries including the UK and Turkey. In the British case the sting was carried out by a tabloid reporter posing as a fake Sheik.

The twist in this story comes from Samuel Cohen, who was a physicist with RAND corporation and is sometimes known as the father of the neutron bomb. Cohen was an interesting character who claimed that in in 1979 he received a peace medal from the pope for his invention of the neutron bomb. In 2003 he wrote an article for Financial Sense in which he states:

“The new material is known as a ‘ballotechnic’ explosive, even though it does not actually explode in the conventional sense of the word. It was developed in Russia and became popularly known as ‘red mercury.’ When President Boris Yeltsin took over the helm of the new Russia, in a secret directive he authorized the sale of red mercury on the international market. Sometimes the price was very high. Sometimes fake versions of it were offered to gullible buyers. The United States may have been one of these.

“One very interested country which had a long history of purchasing Russia weaponry was Iraq. Russia helped Iraq develop chemical and biological weapons and Russian advisors were in Baghdad advising Saddam at the time of the first Gulf War. Only recently the two countries signed a multi-billion dollar oil field development contract.”

The editorial goes on to describe red mercury being used to produce “pure fusion” weapons in which the secondary is directly compressed by the red mercury without the use of a fissionable primary. The article is still available online at

Despite being 25 years old, the curious tale of red mercury continues. In 2009 a rumor began circulating in Saudi Arabia that Singer sewing machine needles contained red mercury which could be detected using a cell phone. Prices jumped by as much as a thousand times as people scoured the markets with their cell phones looking for the elusive substance. A more tragic twist comes from southern Africa where it was rumored that land mines contained red mercury and a number of people were killed trying to extract it from abandoned munitions. It has been reported that the rumor was started by arms dealers to sell off excess inventory to the unsuspecting public. The wikileaks cables mention a number of cases of people walking into embassies trying to sell plutonium and red mercury to officials there.

Red Mercury probably holds the record as the most influential material that never existed, and serves as a reminder of two universal truths: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” and “There’s a sucker born every minute”.


A few weeks ago — ok, maybe longer — I commented on an interesting proposal (that I nevertheless disagree with) by Crispin Rovere and Kalman Robertson to prohibit low yield nuclear weapons. I agued (“Size Doesn’t Matter“) that I didn’t agree with the problem as framed, didn’t think the treaty could be verified and, in any event, thought entry-into-force of the CTBT would be a better use of our time and energy.

Rovere and Robertson asked for the opportunity to respond, which I think is quite reasonable:

Size Matters 

Crispin Rovere and Kalman A. Robertson

The following is our response to Jeffrey’s challenge to our study and its conclusions. We apologise for this taking some weeks, Crispin has been lost in the internet black hole of the DPRK for much of that intervening period, and has only just rejoined the technological landscape.

Jeffrey critiques our study in precisely the right way, asking what problem we are trying to solve, examining our proposed solution, and then comparing it to the possible alternatives.  He posits that low-yield nuclear weapons are not uniquely dangerous, that a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons with design yields below five kilotons would not be an effective way of dealing with them anyway, and that universalisation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty would achieve the desired result.

We shall frame our response to these arguments in precisely the way that Jeffrey so excellently presented them…


1.         What problem are we trying to solve?

We are concerned about the perceived usability of nuclear weapons, and we argue that low-yield weapons are more ‘usable’, on aggregate, than other kinds of nuclear weapon. Unlike nuclear weapons of higher yields, low-yield weapons make nuclear conflict more likely by weakening the firebreak that separates conventional and nuclear war. As the yields of nuclear weapons approach those of conventional weapons, the probability of conventional conflict escalating to the nuclear level increases.

It is true, as Jeffrey argues, that in the case of the United States the retention of low-yield weapons within its arsenal may not greatly increase the probability of America conducting a nuclear first strike. This is due to America’s overwhelming conventional superiority, because the contingencies in which the United States would consider a nuclear strike are likely to require higher yield weapons (see pages 36-37 of the full study).  Nevertheless, U.S. possession of low-yield weapons causes non-nuclear armed states to apprehend the risk of their use in counter-proliferating strikes and they may respond accordingly by developing their own nuclear arsenals. Indeed it is for these very reasons that low-yield weapons are utterly pointless for the U.S to possess, and yet they are distinctly dangerous for other states such as Pakistan and Russia to retain. It is therefore in America’s interests to support the restriction of these weapons in a multilateral framework – precisely where the proposed treaty comes in.


2.         Does our proposal solve this problem better?

 Jeffrey is concerned that “if the Russians build these things, they will do so not for deterrence but because they plan to use them.” If this is true, then Jeffrey is right – it doesn’t matter what treaty is in place because we’re all going to be in a nuclear war.

But this is not typically why states pursue low-yield weapons. Rather, low-yield weapons are sought principally in order to deter conventionally powerful rivals. In other words, they are designed specifically as first strike weapons, to be used against conventional forces. Jeffrey is sceptical of Pakistan’s claims to be developing low-yield artillery, but even if they aren’t, India apprehends that Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine incorporates first strike scenarios involving low-yield weapons and is responding on that basis.

On verification, Jeffrey states that ‘in order to verify that no state possesses nuclear weapons of a certain yield, very intrusive measures would be necessary’. That would be true if the aim was to eliminate the technological possibility that a nuclear-armed state possesses nuclear weapons of low yield. But this is not the role of adequate verification.

In any nuclear arms control agreement, adequate verification means that, if a nuclear-armed state commits a militarily significant violation, it will be detected in sufficient time for other parties to take action that will effectively neutralise any resulting military advantage. If any nuclear-armed state violates a treaty banning low-yield weapons, it gets at most a marginal discernible advantage, immediately neutralised by the higher yield weapons held by potential rivals and/or the legal mechanism of the treaty. Consequently, verification requirements are almost vanishingly small.

Indeed, there are many treaties in international law that achieve their objectives without intrusive verification mechanisms. This is for one obvious reason – there is nothing substantial to be gained through a violation. The Anti-Personnel Landmine Convention, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons have all created effective bans and yet they do not have any intrusive verification measures. Conversely, the NPT has stringent verification requirements (by way of IAEA safeguards) because there is a great incentive for some states to pursue nuclear weapons and their clandestine acquisition has profound consequences for the security of others. A treaty prohibiting low-yield weapons sits firmly in the former category because any state that has them, or gives them up, also has larger strategic alternatives.

To explain why, we can take Jeffrey’s Russia example. In a conventional conflict with the United States, Russia may calculate that the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon would not result in escalation to the strategic level, and that the United States will instead respond in-kind with low-yield weapons of its own. This could arguably benefit Russia, as its nuclear forces are far more capable than its conventional forces vis-à-vis the United States. But if a treaty prohibiting low-yield weapons were in place, then not only would such an attack be condemned by the international community, Russia would also be aware that America’s only option for retaliation would be to escalate. This understanding would no doubt factor seriously into the Russian calculus when deciding whether to cross the nuclear threshold in the first place. In other words, a treaty prohibiting low-yield weapons strengthens America’s nuclear deterrent, irrespective of whether Russia cheats by developing low-yield weapons.

It is through this lense that the verification issue must be viewed. Jeffrey makes the clever quip about “Frank Miller’s head exploding when he learns that we’re going to let the Russians examine all the electronics in our nuclear weapons.” Of course that’s not what we recommend, we simply say that any verification measures specifically for existing variable-yield weapons will depend on the electronics, and this may be the subject of separate negotiations between the states that possess them. For the reasons articulated above, the verification requirements are going to be modest, and will really depend on whether a state may have confidence that parties to the treaty aren’t deliberately fielding weapons that are specifically designed for nuclear first strike against conventional forces.

It is reasonable to assume that many thermonuclear weapons in advanced arsenals have primaries that, if they could be separately detonated without boosting, would result in a low-yield explosion (because such primaries tend to contain relatively small quantities of fissile material). This is an integral part of the physics of thermonuclear weapons and in this sense “swapping hydrodynamic codes”, to use Jeffrey’s expression, would indeed be worse than useless as a verification measure.

The fact that a state may have the capacity to detonate the unboosted primary of an otherwise high-yield weapon, such as an SLBM, to produce a low-yield nuclear explosion is unlikely to be a significant issue since no state could use it to deter a conventional attack without also openly violating the treaty.

3.         …than other, more likely outcomes? (such as entry-into-force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty)

Leaving aside the question of whether it is more likely or not, Jeffrey’s assertion is that universalisation of the CTBT would more effectively deal with the problems we seek to solve than the treaty we propose.  Although Jeffrey is right to point out the importance of the CTBT, and makes a good recommendation regarding confidence building measures at old Russian and US test sites, we must respectfully disagree with his assessment that the CTBT can substitute for a treaty prohibiting low-yield weapons.

To revisit the beginning, the problem we are trying to solve is as follows: to ensure the firebreak that exists between conventional and nuclear war is not undermined by the proliferation of low-yield weapons. The CTBT does not meet this objective.

Nevertheless, both a treaty prohibiting low-yield weapons and the CTBT multilateralise the arms control process in a manner that allows continued progress to be made on other arms control initiatives. Our proposed treaty actually makes the universalisation of the CTBT easier to achieve because it reduces incentives to test new low-yield designs. There is no reason why these two initiatives should not be pursued together, and we have previously written on the imperative of securing entry into force of the CTBT here, and here.

Jeffrey begins his critique of our proposed treaty by saying “it’s probably a bad idea”, but nothing in his argument actually suggests that it is. At most, he argues that it isn’t worth the political effort required, and on that point we differ, since taking non-strategic nuclear weapons into account in a multilateral framework is almost certainly a requirement for continued progress on nuclear arms control elsewhere.

We welcome the discussion that this proposal has generated, for it draws attention to the specifics of low-yield weapons in the broader arms control discourse. We believe that the introduction of low-yield weapons into unbalanced and unstable strategic rivalries carries greater risks of nuclear conflict than strategic weapons, which hitherto dominated nuclear arms control.