Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


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.


Yesterday, the two us — Jeffrey Lewis and Jende Huang — discussed AQ Khan’s residence in the upscale E-7 neighborhood of Islamabad, where he lived for many years including the period he was under house arrest.  Today, we turn our attention to his lake-side villa.

Khan’s lake-side villa played a central role in the unflattering profile of Khan by William Langewiesche that appeared in The Atlantic (“Wrath of Khan”) and Atomic Bazaar. Langewiesche argued that Khan built the lake house “in blatant disregard of the law” to demonstrate his power and status.  Khan disputed the account, calling it total rubbish.

Ok, but where is it?

Langewiesche’s piece in the The Atlantic says that the lake house was “about a mile from the navy’s sailing club, clearly in sight on the lake’s far shore” in an area called Bani Gala. If you type in “AQ Khan” into Google Earth’s search function, one of the result is “Dr AQ Khan House.

Close, but not quite right.

The home sits at the intersection of Palm and, well, “AQ Khan Road.” That would seem to be a good candidate for Khan’s lake-side villa. This photo of houses along the water, taken by Colin Cookman on 23 April 2009 and titled “The House that Nuclear Proliferation Built,” will be awfully helpful.

The large house, identified in Google Earth, probably does not belong to Khan.  It belongs to his next-door neighbor. There are a few pieces of evidence.

First, we have this 1995 photo provided by Simon Henderson (posted to Twitter by @micah_morrison) that shows Khan with his wife on what appears to be a red brick patio that sits along the lake.

The photograph posted by Colin Cookman shows the red brick patio (with gazebo) belongs to the more modest house just to the right of the large one identified as Khan’s in Google Earth. The red brick patio is also visible in satellite images.

Notice, too, the houses under construction to Khan’s left. The two closest are excellent matches for the neighbors next to the house with the lake-side brick patio.

Langewiesche provides a second clue, noting that “The most noticeable place is next door to Khan’s. It is under construction, and showy in the style of an international hotel. Khan’s house by comparison seems modest now … Khan’s garden, which slopes to the shore and was once his pride, is growing wild. He has a little speedboat beside a private dock, but it is open to the rain and is slowly swamping, settling nose-down into the water. Langewiesche published his account in November 2005, having “recently” traveled to Pakistan.

This 2004 image shows that the house marked “Dr. AQ Khan House” was under construction in 2004 – it is clearly Khan’s “showy” neighbor.

And, although this isn’t the greatest satellite photo, one can clearly see Khan’s speedboat, sitting at the dock in this 2005 image.  The neighboring house is still under construction and you could persuade me that Khan’s garden looks a bit overgrown.

Given the red brick patio, the boat dock and the construction timeline of the neighboring houses, AQ Khan’s lake-side villa is the one located at: 33°42’31.20″N,  73° 8’37.68″E

One question.  Starting in March 2009, in one satellite image after another, there are a bunch of cars parked in the driveway and, on many occasions, in the field across the street from Khan’s house. What are those doing there?

A further, small detail catches out notice.  In 1999, Celia Dugger wrote in the New York Times that Khan retained an “imposing brick house in Bani Gala, with a fountain on the front lawn, topped by a playful stone fish.”  The outlines of the fountain is visible in the satellite images. Whereas Langewiesche sees “a weekend house that drained … sewage into the water of the poor” as a metaphor for Kahn’s power and arrogance, the fountain reveals something less sinister and vaguely ridiculous– the petty vanity of the nouveau riche as depicted in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle :

Jeffrey Lewis is the founding publisher of Arms Control Follow him on Twitter: @armscontrolwonk

Jende Huang is a candidate for a Masters in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Monterey Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @jendehuang


Where does AQ Khan live?

Well, he has at least two houses in Islamabad – a lake-side villa in Bani Gala that was the subject of controversy as detailed by William Langeweische in The Atlantic and home in the E-7 neighborhood of Islamabad where he spent much of his house arrest. He is rumored to have been connected to additional homes, including properties in the E-7. As a knowledgeable commentator once asked, “Can anyone give a credible and, preferably, checkable list of the houses he owns?”

Well, that’s a tall order.  But the two us — Jeffrey Lewis and Jende Huang — have at least located his two main residences.  Let’s talk today about the home in E-7, where he served his house arrest.  We’ll talk about the lake-side villa tomorrow.

Like many business travelers, AQ Khan must have enjoyed returning home — in this case, to the house he built in Islamabad the late 1970s. It was from this “relatively modest, standard Islamabad house with few obvious signs of extravagance,” Khan oversaw his far-reaching proliferation network.

Islamabad is a planned city built starting in the 1960s, and is divided into five zones. A.Q. Khan’s neighborhood, E-7, sits at the foot of the Margalla Hills, at the northern edge of the largely residential Zone 1. The neighborhoods in Zone 1 are typically 2km x 2km squares, but E-7—an upscale enclave where many diplomats live—is shaped like a triangle, a sliver compared to adjacent neighborhoods.

Although one might expect Khan’s house to be difficult to locate, he has actually been quite open about his address. It’s listed on his CV, among  other places. Reporters have given the address of the home as Hillside Road, which forms the northern border of E-7. Google maps isn’t much help, nor have our friends in Mountain View sent a Street View car to Islamabad. Fortunately, Pakistani real estate companies, wanting to provide their potential clients with information about their future homes, has published the master plan for E-7.

There it is. Lot 207 lies near a creek on the northwestern part of E-7. Matching that location with satellite imagery, gives us this house, with the U-shaped driveway facing Hill Side Road:  33°43’40.01″N,  73° 2’38.76″E

That’s Khan’s house, right in the middle.  The image is from 2009, although it hasn’t changed much over the years.

This location agrees exactly with the location given by a knowledgeable commentator, SH, at Arms Control Wonk in 2008.  SH added that Khan’s “house (with a swimming pool) backs onto another street. The house to the immediate east is his former (rented) guest house – there is gate allowing direct access. This building is where his security guards are now based. Down the alley/road at the rear, accessible via another gate from his garden, were two other rented houses he was formerly associated with – one is where one of his daughters used to live (but doesn’t any longer). Another was his former guest house, before he started renting the house next door to where he lives.”

Lots 217 and 218 are good candidates for the two rented houses, although we cannot confirm this. Maybe SH can. House 218 is now a restaurant.  House 217 is a woman’s clothing boutique.  If Lewis makes it to Islamabad, he knows where he is going for dinner and shopping for the Mrs.

The satellite images match perfectly pictures of Khan at home, celebrating the end of his house arrest.  As you can see from these two pictures of a jubilant AQ Khan being released from house arrest, he has a semi-circular red brick driveway, one that is partially covered with a portico.

We expected to see outward signs of security.  According to Rob Crilly in The Telegraph in 2013, Khan’s house since 2011 has been  ”…ringed by uniformed police officers with AK-47s. Roadblocks control traffic, floodlights illuminate an area of scrub that has been cleared of trees and machine gun positions have been dug in all around.” Looking at satellite imagery  – images from May 2011 and June 2012, four images from September 2012, another image from December 2012 and three more images from January 2013 — we see, well, nothing. No roadblocks, no police vehicles, no recently cleared scrub and no machine gun positions. We contacted Rob Crilly on Twitter a couple of times, but he hasn’t responded yet. [Another colleague noted that the roadblock is located at Hillside and 10th. That spot is usually in the shadow of a tree, but on some days it looks like there may be some sort of obstruction there.]

Considering the scope of his illicit activities – and the rather ugly end some of his colleagues met – we would have expected  Khan to keep a lower profile.  Guess not!

Tomorrow, the lake-side villa that caused so much commotion.

Jeffrey Lewis is the founding publisher of Arms Control Follow him on Twitter: @armscontrolwonk

Jende Huang is a candidate for a Masters in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Monterey Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @jendehuang


This is the spot where the Defense Threat Reduction Agency eliminated Albania’s chemical weapons stockpile.

I’ve spent the last few weeks ruminating on the challenges of finding a third party to accept Syria’s chemical weapons.

Most Syria’s stockpile is in bulk form (mustard and precursors for sarin and VX.) The current plan is to consolidate the precursors at a site near one a port such as Latakia or  Tartous, then ship the materials to a third country for destruction by mobile assets like the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System.  Norway recently declined to be that third country. Others have made it clear they are not interested.

One of the challenges, I think, is relates to a larger problem in implementing our nonproliferation policies.  We’re good at doing the parts we like, but we often leave behind a mess.  As a result, states that cooperate on nonproliferation issues aren’t always left feeling good about having cooperated.

Consider the case of Albania.

In 2002, Albania announced that it had discovered 16 tons of Chinese supplied chemical weapons dating to the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha at a bunker near Qafëmollë (sometimes rendered as Qaf Molle).  Here are some pictures of the bunker and the munitions, which is located at:  41°20’43.36″N,  19°57’21.90″E

Tirana appealed for help.  (Matthew Tompkins has questioned the veracity of the “discovery” story although that does not change our timeline or Tirana’s experiences.)

It took a while, including an attention grabbing visit by Joby Warrick of the Washington Post, who ultimately wrote a pair of Washington Post stories on the discovery and disposition of Albania’s chemical weapons stockpile, with a nice image of a guard near a (now demolished) pill box. Joby gives excellent driving directions to the site, by the way. That story upset the locals, but seemed to do the trick in Washington. A few years later, Senator Lugar would be encouraged not to say too much about the process for fear the natives might get restless.

The United States, thanks to the leadership of then-Senator Richard Lugar, ultimately paid for security at the site, including fences and armed guards, as well as for deployment of a mobile incinerator. DTRA contracted with Eisenmann AG  for the incinerator unit and URS to manage the project.   (The incinerator was placed in a tent on a concrete slab next to the building and several underground bunkers.)

The United States, according to Bob Mikulak, ultimately “contributed over 45 million dollars to assist the Republic of Albania in eliminating 16.6 metric tons of chemical weapons agents at Qaf Molle, destroying 100 percent of its stockpile in a verified manner” by July 2007.

Sadly, that’s not the end of the story.  Here we pick up the story based on cables from Wikileaks.  What about all the hazardous waste?

The Albanian Ministry of Defense had agreed to take it, planning to construct a hazardous waste storage facility with assistance from the European Union.  That process went nowhere. The US complained to the Europeans, but the EU canceled the project in the wake of local opposition.

The hazardous waste sat in containers on the concrete pad.  The containers started to leak.  In late 2007-early 2008, the US hired an environmental remediation firm, Savant Environmental, “who determined the problem was worse than originally thought. Many of the containers were leaking salts of heavy metals, primarily arsenic, lead and mercury. In addition, the conexes were not waterproof, and since contaminated components had not been properly cleaned before being put into the conexes, condensation and water leakage were dissolving some of the contaminants and causing them to leak out onto the ground.”

Savant Environmental repackaged the waste and placed it in 20 shipping containers.  There it sits, visible from space.  Good for twenty years.  Well, fifteen now.  Ish.

Those containers are still sitting on the concrete pad, out in the open.  Here is a satellite image from August.

It’s hard to say about security on site.  I don’t see any evidence of security, but perhaps the guards get dropped off by bus or there are electronic alarms.  Still, the site seems relatively unprotected.  Someone posted a picture from 400 meters up the road on August 2011, which looks to be the remains of the rest of the base connected to the chemical weapons storage site.  Things look pretty deserted to me, beyond some basic fencing and signs saying “keep out.”

The stuff isn’t a chemical weapons threat any more, of course, but it is an environmental hazard.  Just sitting in some shipping containers.  (Did you know they were called “conexes”?)

I raise the issue because it reminds me to the saga of the M/V Mochegorsk – the cargo of Iranian munitions seized in Cyprus that later exploded.  We aren’t always so great on the follow-through when it comes to nonproliferation, especially once the strictly national security part is over.  I realize that individual states have to take some responsibility, but if we’re going to argue that nonproliferation is shared interest we can’t say the hazardous waste from chemical weapon demilitarization or disposing of seized munitions aren’t part of our shared responsibility.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I am criticizing the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which did more than anyone else in this saga save for maybe Dick Lugar and staff. They can’t do it all, for goodness sake. And lord knows, pressing for US assistance to Albania didn’t help Lugar win his primary.  It would be nice if the Europeans stepped up on the construction of a hazardous waste facility in Albania or the Chinese agreed to make amends for selling a nasty government some nasty weapons. Or even the Russians, for propping up Joe Stalin’s buddy. I know Wikileaks hates the United States, but those leaked cables suggest Washington worked harder than any other country — even if the US wasn’t perfect all the time.  The Italians complained about the risk from the site, but what did they offer?

Maybe Albania is no worse off than if it had left the chemical weapons rotting in the bunker, slowly poisoning the hillside — but that setts the bar pretty low. If we want to persuade states to take, for example, Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, it would help if Albania’s story had a happy ending. And we — not just Americans, but everyone who cares about nonproliferation — should take special care that whatever country takes Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile isn’t left regretting that decision.

Cables from Wikileaks: The Italians are annoyed. Eisenmann AG suffers some setbacks. Senator Lugar visits. Explaining delays to Germans. We tell the EU to step it up. Albania has a hazardous waste problem. Things at Qafemolle are worse than we thought. Albania still has a hazardous waste problem. This is all the Chinese’s fault.

I’ve also got a nice little annotated .kmz file, but I haven’t put it up yet.



One of the nicest things about relocating to Monterey is that Avner Cohen, a colleague from my days at the University of Maryland, has relocated too. Avner, like me, is a lapsed philosopher with a deep interest in nuclear weapons — there is probably no one who knows more about the Israeli nuclear weapons program.  Well, no one who can talk, anyway.

Avner’s knowledge is based on decades of research.  Now, that material is available to other scholars.  Avner donated to the Woodrow Wilson Center his research materials — tens of thousands of pages of copies of archival documents, countless press clippings, and hundreds of hours of oral history interviews — that form the basis for his books, Israel and the Bomb and The Worst Kept Secret. Some of these materials are now online.

As part of the announcement process, Avner wrote an op-ed for the New York Times.

I am pleased to note that Avner also accepted my suggestion to collect all the wonky bits that might not interest a general reader in a long-form piece for the blog.  You are in for a real treat.

How Nuclear Was It? New Testimony on the 1973 Yom Kippur War

Avner Cohen[1]

Two weeks ago the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP), which is housed at the History and Public Policy Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., released the first installment from my personal archival collection, known now as the “Avner Cohen Collection,” on its digital nuclear archive web site.

The key item in this release is a video interview (as well as a written transcript) which I made in 2008 with the late Azarayahu ‘Sini’ Arnan, a former senior advisor in the Israeli government, who provides a dramatic eyewitness description of a closed-door ministerial consultation in which Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir overruled Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, halting preparations to ready the country’s nuclear weapons for a possible demonstration during the 1973 War.[2] This interview upends conventional assumptions that Israel was very close to using nuclear weapons in this conflict (or even threatened to use nuclear weapons) and provides unique insight into how the Israeli government came to this decision.

On the day of the release, which coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, the New York Times published an op-ed piece I authored about the Sini interview.[3] It was in this context that my colleague Jeffrey Lewis suggested that I should write something for this blog that will go beyond what I already said in the New York Times and elsewhere. Almost with no hesitation I told Jeffrey, sure, I’ll do something. That something will try to discuss the nuclear dimension of the 1973 War beyond what was discussed before, and it will also be homage to this great blog that for some time I have had the desire to be a contributor.

So here it is and I hope it will stir some further discussion.


Ever since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, for some four-odd decades, there have been outstanding and lingering questions on the war’s nuclear dimension. What exactly happened in Israel on that front during the war? How close really was Israel to the nuclear brink? If indeed Israel conducted nuclear-related activities on the ground, as is commonly believed, what was the purpose and the target of those activities?

Then there is a higher layer of questions, more historiographical in nature: What is the place of the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the context of the nuclear age? Can we plausibly compare the nuclear situation in 1973 with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962? Which was more dangerous?

Over the last four decades a certain “mythology” has been built over the issue. Soon after the war, rumors started to spread that Israel had indeed come close to the nuclear abyss. There were anonymous tales about bomb or bomb components being rushed to Israeli air bases as well about missile alerts.

Time magazine was the first to elevate those rumors to the level of published claims. According to an unsigned story on April 12, 1976, in the early phases of the war Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered the assembly and arming of 13 nuclear bombs. The story suggested that it was that specter of nuclear escalation that led U.S Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to act firm and fast to provide Israel with the most massive weapons airlift in history. A few years later American playwright William Gibson used this alleged episode in developing his 1988 one-actress Broadway play Golda’s Balcony. [The play was turned into a film in 2007, with Valerie Harper—who in the 1970s played Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show—portraying Golda Meir. Here’s the trailer:

[Avner, this movie looks terrible -- Ed.]

Subsequently, others have followed and elaborated further on that nuclear lore.  Seymour Hersh is probably the author who provided this mythology its loudest voice.  In his 1991 book The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy, in a chapter entitled “Nuclear Blackmail,” Hersh added further details and extra drama to this mythology. He made a reference to an unnamed “Israeli official,” someone who served in the prime minister’s office, who confided to him that the decision “to arm the weapons…was reached easily.” That someone also told him that the nuclear issue dominated Golda Meir’s war cabinet meeting on the late morning of October 8.[4]

According to Hersh, following a briefing by the nation’s nuclear chief, Shalheveth Freier, the ministerial forum decided to “arm and target the nuclear arsenal in the event of total collapse” and also to “inform Washington of its unprecedented action,” demanding that Washington initiate an “emergency airlift” to supply Israel with the arms and ammunition required to continue waging an “all-out war effort.” According to Hersh, Israel used the nuclear alert approved on October 8th as “nuclear blackmail.” [5]

Since the publication of Hersh’s book, other [non-Israeli] authors have followed that general narrative, academics and journalists alike, such as Martin van Creveld, Walter Boyne, Walter Isaacson, Richard Sale, and others.  Like Hersh, these authors rely either on unnamed sources or appeal to rumors. One exception was William Quandt, the NSC point man for Middle East issues during the 1973 War, who confirmed openly in 1991 that the United States government did pick up “something” during the war that indicated that Israel had placed its Jericho missiles on some sort of alert.

Over the four decades since the war, the nuclear lore about 1973 has turned into an urban legend: nobody knows how exactly it originated and who the real sources were, but it is commonly believed as true or near-true. I call this lore (rumors/claims/conjectures) a “mythology” because they could not be traced to any identifiable source, Israeli or otherwise, who could directly and openly confirm any of those reports. Mind you, Quandt’s testimony, vague as it was, was not about nukes but rather about missiles.[6]


Not only are there no positive identifiable confirmations to any of those allegations, but at least two prominent Israelis, figures who were in a position to know, took the effort to openly and firmly deny Hersh or other Hersh-like claims. The first was the late Shalheveth Freier (1920-1994), Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission head during the 1973 War, and the official who was mentioned by name in Hersh’s account.  After the publication of The Samson Option, Freier sought vigorously and publicly to discredit Hersh’s narrative in any possible platform, especially those factual claims that were about him. While Freier refused to provide a positive account of his own, and was even unwilling to detail his specific reservations, he was adamant that Hersh’s account was false. I saw Freier in action on this crusade at least twice.

The second Israeli to deny openly Hersh’s account was the late Professor Yuval Ne’eman.  Ne’eman was a former Israeli Minister of Science and Acting Chair of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (both positions were held under Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the early 80s), who served during the war as Moshe Dayan’s personal liaison in strategic communications with the United States. In an article titled “The USA-Israel Connection in the Yom Kippur War” that was published in a Center for National Security Negotiations (CNSN) Occasional Paper (based on a lecture that Ne’eman gave in a small CNSM meeting which I helped to arrange in Washington D.C. in February 1996), Ne’eman made a point to totally discredit Hersh’s “nuclear blackmail” narrative and provided a very vague and partial account of his own on the Israeli nuclear dimension of the 1973 War.

Against this background of absence and denial the interview which I conducted in 2008 with my friend, the late Arnan “Sini” Azaryahu, just ten months prior to his passing, stands up as distinct, revealing, and intriguing. None of what Sini told me during that interview was new to me. In fact, I had heard it all from him before and sometimes more than once, including his testimony on Dayan’s nuclear proposal in the 1973 War. When I arrived in Israel in January 2008 and learned that Sini’s physical health had deteriorated, I hired a videographer and rushed to his home in order to preserve those precious memoirs. Sini understood my interest and cooperated.  My purpose on that day was simple: to record those extraordinary testimonies that I otherwise feared would be lost forever. I knew that on those nuclear-related incidents Sini might have been the last surviving individual who had witnessed that history in its making.[7]

In particular, I was interested in saving Sini’s testimony on two key historical events, this 1973 war nuclear encounter and a key nuclear decision by Ben Gurion in 1962. Both episodes involve fateful moments in Israel’s nuclear history that have otherwise left almost no trace in the public record, either in documents or in other oral testimonies. This particular 12-minute interview segment concerns one such episode: the story of the small ministerial consultation that took place in Prime Minister Golda Meir’s office on the early afternoon of the second day of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The content of the interview is now in the public domain, so I will not repeat it here one more time.  Instead, in line with Jeffrey’s invitation, I use this space to address some of the open and intriguing issues involving this testimony.  I start with the two broad issues—overall significance and the fundamental limitations of oral history—and then I move to some particular issues:

The Overall Significance 

Minister Yisrael Galili’s first words to Sini as he sees him when the ministerial meeting adjourned, “something like that never happened to me before,” reveal how unprecedented and extraordinary that encounter was. Never before were Israeli leaders asked to activate the nation’s nuclear weapons for a possible demonstration. Never before had the minister of defense believed that Israel was fighting for its life as a nation and fast approaching an apocalyptic moment. This is a testimony about that kind of extraordinary moment.

Its significance ties in with the issue of credibility. It is the first and only testimony made by a credible, identifiable source regarding a discussion of the nuclear issue at the level of the Israeli war cabinet. As such the testimony challenges the nearly four-decade old “mythology” cited earlier alleging that Israel “almost” reached the nuclear brink during the 1973 War. At the very least it questions the Hersh-inspired narrative by which Israel was very close to actually using nuclear weapons, or that Israel used its nuclear assets as a strategic tool to pressure or even “blackmail” the United States to begin an airlift to Israel with a massive amount of military supplies. This mythology, which was never backed up by direct evidence and is considered by many as true, is now seriously questioned.

Not only does Sini’s testimony question the old narrative, but it suggests a new narrative, a narrative that acknowledges the nuclear dimension but colors it with the hue of nuclear restraint. In essence, even during the darkest hours of the 1973 War, when Israel’s hold on the Golan Heights appeared to be slipping away, the Israeli national leadership, and most significantly Prime Minister Golda Meir, were not willing to consider even a modest proposal to take action and prepare the nation’s doomsday weapons for a possible demonstration.

Oral History and the Fragility of Human Memory

As dramatic and powerful as it is, this is one oral testimony from one human source. Even if the core of the testimony is historically accurate and sound—and I believe it is—it is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive. At best, it is a snapshot of one particular historical encounter. We do not know really what preceded it or what followed, nor do we know about relevant decisions and activities that took place at other, lower-level but nuclear-relevant junctions.

I interviewed Sini in 2008, when he was 91 years of age and thirty-five years after the events in question. I was aware of that. As is common in oral history, there is an epistemic gap between the testimony’s core and periphery: while the core—e.g., an encounter, an event, etc.,—tends to remain vivid and sharp years later, the periphery—context, background, etc.—tends to be foggy, often reincorporated with and embedded into other personal recollections and/or pieces of public knowledge. These are standard features of human memory. Oral testimony, at its best, is a snapshot of one dramatic moment, not more.

This is so true about Sini’s testimony. While the core is in focus—Dayan’s nuclear proposal, substance and style—the periphery is blurry and personal. Sini could not nail down the exact day and the time that the event took place. It was I, not Sini, who concluded that the encounter must have taken place on the second day of the war, Sunday, October 7, in the afternoon. He wasn’t specific about the content of the meeting as a whole, and some of what he said was untrue.

Indeed, since the interview I’ve gained access to the original minutes of the ministerial meeting that preceded his testimony (those minutes were formally declassified and released in 2010 by the Israel State Archive), and they show that in the meeting, contrary to Sini’s recollection, there was no discussion about sending Minister Chaim Barlev to the Northern command; that discussion took place in another meeting.

The General Context 

Though Sini’s knowledge (and/or memory) of the preceding memory is fragmentary and even inaccurate on some peripheral aspects of the situation, ultimately those minutes provide fantastic background which help us understand Dayan’s proposal.  As expected, the encounter that Sini describes is not included. One can safely surmise that neither Dayan nor the other ministers would have dared to discuss the nuclear issue while the minutes were being recorded.

The background of the meeting, particularly Dayan’s state of mind, is the key to understanding his nuclear proposal.[8] On the previous morning, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s “Mr. Security” and hero of the 1967 Six-Day War had been so confident of Israel’s military ability to defend itself that he opposed mobilizing the entirety of the nation’s reserve force, despite intelligence reports indicating an imminent Arab military assault. Less than a day later, after visiting both front-lines, Dayan had been transformed into a prophet of doom. In a number of well-documented episodes earlier that day, Dayan murmured about the demise of the “Third Temple,” a reference to the modern state of Israel.

With this state of mind, Dayan entered the conference room at the prime minister’s office, where Meir was anxiously waiting his arrival from Sinai to hear his assessment of the military situation. According to the official minutes, ten people attended the meeting: Golda Meir, the three senior ministers constituting Meir’s war cabinet (Dayan, Allon, and Galili), and six other senior staff and personal aides. Contrary to Sini’s testimony, Chief of Staff General David Elazar was not present when the meeting started; he joined towards the very end.

The meeting began at 2:50 PM as Dayan started with his assessment of the military situation. He began by noting that overnight Israel had lost its lines on both frontiers. Israel could not hold its few isolated posts along the canal and it must cut its losses by retreating to new defensive lines on both the Golan and in the Sinai. “Those posts that we can evacuate, we should evacuate; those who we cannot evacuate, they will stay, even surrender. We should tell them: we cannot reach you out; try to break out [to us] or surrender.”

Dayan also predicted that Jordan would soon join the battle against Israel. He read the situation as an all-out war in which the invading Arabs forces would not stop. “The fight is over the entire land of Israel. Even if we withdraw from the Golan Heights, this would not solve anything.”  There were already hundreds of casualties and he expected many more.

Neither Dayan, nor anyone else in the room understood the situation beyond knowing that it was national nightmare. Prime Minister Meir said at one point, “there is no reason why they [the Arabs] would stop . . . they already tasted blood,” and Dayan continued her thought, stating that the Arab forces intended “to conquer Israel, to eliminate the Jews.” Minister Allon continued, “Moshe is right. In this situation there is no other way.” This exchange highlights that Dayan was not the only one who believed at that point that this was a war of survival; they all fell into that kind of outlook.

When Prime Minister Meir reminded the forum that the full government was about to convene for a formal session in less than in an hour, Ministers Galili and Dayan proposed to postpone that meeting to 9 PM. Prime Minister Meir adopted the suggestion and announced that until then they would continue with informal consultation. At that point (4:20 PM) the formal meeting ends, the forum was adjourned, and the minutes stop. Chief of Staff Elazar and non-essential staff left the room, leaving the prime minister with her three senior ministers. There is no one to take the minutes of the rest of the conversation. It is now that Sini’s encounter takes place, an encounter that probably was deliberately designed not to be included in the regular minutes of the meeting.

The Nuclear Context

Probably the major difficulty in interpreting Sini’s testimony is the lack of knowledge and clarity on the Israeli nuclear situation at the time. This applies to both the size and status of the nuclear inventory, as well as on the organizational structure and the command and control procedures that governed the system.

On the former issue, the size and the status of the arsenal, it is plausible that on the eve of the 1973 War Israel had a small nuclear inventory of weapons, say, between ten to twenty first-generation fission (PU) weapons (roughly, Nagasaki-type). One could speculate further that most of the inventory was in the form of aerial bombs (probably configured for the Mirage) and some were early prototypes of missile warheads for the Jericho I (which in October 1973 was apparently not yet operational). One could also assume that Israel probably kept its atomic stockpiles unassembled, where the nuclear cores were probably kept separated in a special facility run by the civilian nuclear agency (IAEC and not by the IDF). Hence, to assemble and arm the aerial bomb safely would be probably a lengthy, complex operation that required a small group of dedicated and trained personnel. To get the personnel and to conduct the operation is something that could easily have taken over half a day, possibly longer.

On the latter issue, while it is commonly known that the nuclear agency is under the command of the prime minister, it is less known what the exact role of the Minister of Defense is in running and overseeing the nuclear system, either at times of peace or war. Presumably Israel developed a version of its own of the “dual key” command and control system (which apparently was in rudimentary form prior to 1973) that requires the active participation of both functionaries in mobilizing and activating nuclear weapons. The fact that nuclear weapons infrastructure must include non-nuclear organizational entities under the control of the Ministry of Defense makes the situation even more complex. While some fundamental documents and procedures relating to the principles of command and control must have been in existence in 1973, it is unclear how detailed or vague they might have been. In any case, we do not know what kind of authorities the prime minister and the minister of defense need to have in order to activate the system on their own, individually or jointly, and to what extent they were required to bring such requests to the higher ministerial forum.

The result is that a great deal of the governance context to understand Dayan’s proposal is unclear. Can the prime minister instruct her nuclear chief to take steps to prepare for a nuclear demonstration? It is very probable. Indeed, one can assume that Prime Minister Golda Meir, being ex-officio in charge of the nuclear agency, had already been in touch with Shalheveth Freier, her nuclear chief, on key issues requiring her approval or knowledge after the war had broken out, the day before. For example, as Ne’eeman noted, the prime minister must have approved earlier a decision to shut down the country’s nuclear reactors. Additionally, the prime minister had likely received some kind of a status report in written or oral form on the readiness of the nation’s nuclear inventory. But the early afternoon of the 7th was probably the first time that Freier was summoned to the war ministerial forum with the expectation that he would or could receive Meir’s approval to Dayan’s request, and would possibly brief the prime minister and her senior ministers on the operational aspects of the proposal.

It is clear from the testimony that the proposal was Dayan’s idea, and that he arranged for Freier’s attendance, but many other procedural issues about Freier’s attendance remain unclear. What was the exact purpose of Freier’s summoning? Who formally summoned Freier to attend the meeting, given the fact that Dayan had returned from the Sinai just minutes earlier? In any case, it is implausible that Dayan could or would have summoned Freier on his own without approval or consultation with Meir.

Furthermore, it remains unclear when and how Prime Minister Meir first learned about Dayan’s nuclear ideas, what her initial reaction to his proposal was, and whether Meir personally asked Freier to attend the meeting. It is also unknown what kind of communication, if any, took place between Freier and Dayan (and/or their respective offices) prior to the meeting.

As Sini suggests, Meir had probably been aware of Dayan’s thinking, perhaps from meeting face to face just prior to the formal meeting. Yet her original reaction to his nuclear proposal is unclear. It seems that she could have approved the proposal on her own authority—it appears as though she had the authority to do so—but she did not want to, and instead left Dayan’s request to the ministerial forum. Was the role of the forum merely consultative, with the ultimate decision lying with the prime minister? Alternatively, one would think that Meir could have endorsed Minister of Defense Dayan’s proposal and presented it as her own request—this would have made a huge difference to the members of the war cabinet—but apparently Meir did not endorse Dayan’s proposal, and left it to him to present it as his own idea. Indeed, it is not clear from the testimony whether Dayan asked only for the prime minister’s approval or whether he actually asked for the forum’s approval.

Furthermore, we know almost nothing about how the Israeli nuclear command and control system worked in 1973, if indeed Israel had any rigid formal procedures. It is unclear to what extent decision-making on the nuclear question was covered by well-defined procedures that articulated the division of labor and authority among the prime minister, the minister of defense and the cabinet. Sini does make a brief reference in his testimony to a “double key system,” a command and control system requiring approval from both the minister of defense and the prime minister in order to activate nuclear weapons. In any case, we have neither factual nor procedural clarity on any of these issues.

Dayan’s Nuclear Proposal 

So what did Dayan actually have in mind when he proposed to the prime minister that Israel should prepare for a “nuclear demonstration”? There are many outstanding questions involving the specifics of Dayan’s proposal and its underlying technical and strategic context. Analytically, one could divide those questions into two groups: first, the specifics of Dayan’s proposal (what exactly he proposed to do); and second, the state of Israel’s actual nuclear capabilities, that is, the capabilities required making Dayan’s proposal feasible.

On the former subject, all that we know from Sini’s testimony is that Dayan proposed that Meir would order Shalheveth Freier, the nation’s nuclear chief, to initiate “preparations” towards a “nuclear demonstration”—explicitly a demonstration, not to use against any targets—to save precious time (“half a day”) should the need become imminent and necessary. Beyond this, we know nothing; all else is mere speculation. Still, it is interesting to consider what a “nuclear demonstration” might have involved and whether the suggested timeframe of 6–12 hours was realistic. Israel was presumably capable of conducting an underground detonation of a weapon with a yield on the order of Hiroshima or Nagasaki (~20kt). However, even with a pre-drilled testing facility, the setup time required would have probably exceeded the half-day timeframe, without even considering the political uncertainties involved in conducting an underground test in time of war. Moreover, even if an underground demonstration could have been carried out, there would be serious doubts about its effectiveness on the Egyptian and Syrian governments and little to no indication that it would have applied sufficient pressure to cause a cessation of hostilities. Such a demonstration makes very little strategic, logistic or political sense.

A far more effective demonstration within Israel’s technical capabilities and the suggested timeframe would have been one or more high altitude bursts over unpopulated areas of Syria, Egypt or both. Such blasts would be conducted at a time (probably shortly after dark) to make the demonstration visible in the capital cities of Cairo and Damascus, thereby avoiding any debates that might have been associated with an underground demonstration and ensuring extreme public pressure on the Syrian and Egyptian governments.

Furthermore, it is highly likely that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) had a small group of pilots pre-trained on nuclear missions in French Mirage aircraft (used to avoid conflict with the commitment Israel had given that its US-supplied aircraft were not to be used for nuclear weapons missions) and the necessary adaption kits for nuclear payloads ready to install very quickly. The IAF presumably would have been able to rapidly move weapons, configure the Mirage aircraft for nuclear strike missions, assemble pilots pre-qualified for nuclear missions, organize escorts, and brief and launch such demonstration missions within 6 to 12 hours.

Given the situation, one can safely suggest that Dayan’s idea was probably to prepare logistically and organizationally for a high altitude aerial burst over a desolate area. It would require the IAF and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission working closely with one another to assemble a handful of weapons for the demonstration. Presumably, all those issues should have been explained to the forum in Freier’s briefing, but that presentation was never authorized, and was consequently never delivered. Dayan’s proposal was killed before it even had a chance to be discussed.

In the final analysis, Dayan’s nuclear idea was a declaration of despair. Had Israel conducted a nuclear demonstration in the middle of the war, would it have been understood by all as an anguished decision of last resort? Although it could be argued that such a demonstration strategy might have forced Egypt and Syria to pause hostilities, Israel would have been seen as weak and effectively defeated by resorting to the use of nuclear weapons. Would it have been in the Israeli interest to convey such a message? Could a military situation be envisioned where such a move would make sense? Furthermore, such a demonstration would have unleashed an immediate nuclear arms race in the region, in addition to the inevitable near-term international condemnation and demands for Israeli disarmament.

While we do not know what exactly triggered Dayan’s nuclear proposal or how much time and thought he put into it, we do know that Dayan was in a state of acute shock by the afternoon of the second day of the war; some even describe it as near breakdown. It is evident that his nuclear proposal reflects a gloom and doom state of mind.

Final Thoughts

It is important to recognize that Sini’s testimony is so far the only direct and credible Israeli eyewitness testimony on the nuclear dimension of that war. There is still a great deal unknown.

One primary reason for the general obscurity of the subject is Israel’s code of silence on all nuclear matters. Given the culture of secrecy and the institutional censorship in Israel on all nuclear issues, it is not surprising that the nuclear dimension of the war has remained undocumented.

Sini’s testimony is novel. It contradicts, if not flatly refutes, the Hersh narrative and instead offers a much more nuanced and restrained story. It acknowledges that the 1973 war had a nuclear dimension, but that dimension was much more minor and contained than previously believed. Even a “just in case” preparatory proposal was ultimately ruled out by Prime Minister Meir and her trusted political advisors. Dayan’s nuclear proposal went nowhere.

Sini’s testimony reveals that the Israeli leadership, with the notable exception of Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, recognized the danger of the nuclear brink during the1973 war and refused to approach it. In that meeting, Israel discovered its own commitment to the nuclear taboo.

[1] Special gratitude to my graduate research assistant, Shane Mason, who provided assistance for this post, including helpful editing and proofreading.

[4] I always suspected that Hersh’s source was the Eli Mizrachi, one of Golda Meir’s office aides, a man that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin did not trust and soon after he took office he fired him from the prime minister’s office. Shortly after, sometime in the late 1970s Mizrachi left Israel and immigrated to the United States.  Rumors spread for years that Mizrachi left Israel under the cloud of a security investigation, and he was suspected of leaking information to the United States.

[5] On pp. 225-226 of The Samson Option, Hersh repeatedly claims that the infamous cabinet meeting took place on October 8th. As you will see here in the official minutes of that exact meeting ( the nuclear issue is not mentioned. Likewise, it would have been unlikely for the nuclear option to emerge on the 8th, as the leadership started the day optimistic about the success of Israel’s pending counteroffensive. Here also are minutes from a cabinet meeting the following day, October 9th (

[6] Quandt was unaware that, in 1973, the Jericho missiles were not fully operational for a nuclear role. This is a telling oversight by Quandt and, presumably, the rest of the U.S. intelligence community responsible for the Middle East.

[7] Many people who knew Sini well realized that he held a treasure trove of historical tales in his mind and that they must be somehow preserved. Ultimately, Ora Armoni interviewed Sini about his life and based on those conversations she wrote Sini’s biography. The book was published in 2008 shortly before he died. [See, Ora Armony, "Haver v'ish sod: Sichot im Sini" ("Friend and Confidant: Conversations with Sini"), Hakibbutz Hameuchad and Yad Tabenkin, 254 pp, 2008] However, in those interviews Sini did not feel comfortable elaborating on those sensitive episodes in Israel’s nuclear history. Those issues remain unexplored.

[8] Here are the minutes of the meeting on October 7th (Hebrew-only)