Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


Arms Control has boom and bust cycles. We’re now going through very tough times. They remind me of the Carter administration. As Yogi Berra has said, it feels like déjà vu all over again – only Obama’s challenges are more severe. This time, instead of a sclerotic Kremlin leadership bungling into Afghanistan – the graveyard of great power follies – Obama faces a brazen Kremlin leader who seeks to upend the post-Cold War order on NATO’s doorstep.

In tough times, it’s good to remember this timeline: eight years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty. I don’t expect a reversal of this magnitude in my lifetime, but I do expect U.S.-Russian relations to stabilize eventually. The challenge now is to respond effectively to adversity, to reassure friends and allies, to minimize losses, and to position ourselves for future gains.

President Carter was as committed to reduce nuclear dangers as President Obama. In both cases, their ambitions were whittled down by domestic constraints and a deteriorating international environment. In my view, Carter was more ambitious than Obama. This is what he said about a world without nuclear weapons in his inaugural address:

“The world is still engaged in a massive armaments race designed to ensure continuing equivalent strength among potential adversaries. We pledge perseverance and wisdom in our efforts to limit the world’s armaments to those necessary for each nation’s own domestic safety. And we will move this year a step toward our ultimate goal–the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this Earth. We urge all other people to join us, for success can mean life instead of death.”

Carter tried to cap the strategic arms race, sought to negotiate a comprehensive test ban and pursued arms control in space. Obama has offered only passing references to ratifying the CTBT and contracted out an international code of conduct for space to the European Union.

Obama spoke eloquently about a world without nuclear weapons in Prague, with the appropriate caveats. He then focused on securing a verifiable regime for deeper strategic arms reductions. Carter convinced the Senate to consent to the ratification of the Panama Canal treaties and was then stymied on SALT II. Obama managed ratification of New START, after which he was caught between the rock of Vladimir Putin and the hard place of Senate Republicans.

Both Presidents were confronted with the Kremlin’s use of force across international borders. Carter began the program of covert assistance to the “mujahedeen,” which was ramped up considerably during the Reagan administration. Obama is now contemplating what more is needed to help the Government of Ukraine.

Obama’s strategic instincts are to clean up inherited messes, to not swing for the fences in complex circumstances, to settle for singles and doubles, and above all, to avoid stupid, costly mistakes. Obama’s caution abroad — with the exception of a risky decision to employ Special Forces in Pakistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden — is understandable after a presidency of painfully excessive reactions. But an excess of caution when negative events snowball turns virtue into liability. Obama is now faced with hard choices as his batting average drops.

According to William Manchester, President John F. Kennedy sent 400 Green Berets to South Vietnam after telling his inner circle, “We have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place.” Obama now has to decide how to make U.S. power credible in Ukraine and elsewhere around Russia’s periphery, as well as in the Middle East, without making a mistake like JFK’s.

Of those who now question Obama’s steel, the most important are Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Just as Nikita Khrushchev took the measure of JFK at Vienna in 1961 and discerned a President who could be pushed around, Putin seems to have concluded that the door is open to carving out a protectorate for Russian-speaking people, real and imagined, in southeastern Ukraine. In my view, Ukraine deserves more help than tougher sanctions to counter Putin’s moves. Xi Jinping will be watching this high-stakes contest to figure out his next steps in the South and East China seas. China, like Russia and the United States, is also ramping up its military capabilities in space.

Arms control always rides in the back seat of geopolitics. A strenuous response to Putin’s adventurism will have negative repercussions on arms control for the near term. The absence of a strenuous response will have negative repercussions over the long haul. Successful outcomes depend on cooperation among major powers and U.S. leadership which, in turn, depends on bipartisan support and a willingness to take risks. Leadership without followership leads nowhere; followership is coaxed by leveraging others to make stabilizing choices and dissuading them from dangerous ones. The Obama administration has not had the benefit of bipartisan support and hasn’t done well in leveraging desired outcomes.

Large geopolitical challenges are but the leading edge of systemic weaknesses in the nuclear order. U.S. leadership at the 2015 NPT Review Conference has been harmed because Senate Republicans, in their obduracy in all things hinting of arms control, have yet to confirm the U.S. Ambassador. Avoiding further damage depends on enough stakeholders having the wisdom not to rock a boat that is leaking. The process of strategic arms reduction will probably be stalled for longer than advocates care to admit, and the pursuit of abolition at a time when major powers are either at loggerheads or testing each other becomes surrealistic.

Other regional crucibles are heating up. The young leader of North Korea is ambitious and seems to be disregarding Beijing’s messages. A nuclear deal with Iran could be losing ground to patchwork fixes. The prelims are underway for another nuclear-tinged crisis on the subcontinent, even as Pakistan’s civilian government faces extraordinary challenges. Secretary of State John Kerry has his hands full and Obama is without persuasive emissaries to deal with new crises.

Under these circumstances, preserving as much as possible of the arms control infrastructure becomes a sound baseline strategy. I’ve written previously about moving forward with provisional application of the CTBT’s monitoring regime while awaiting entry into force. Time can be well spent trying to forge norms with China for responsible behavior in space and at sea. And as President Obama shores up Ukraine and reassures friends and allies, he would be wise to bring new fire fighters aboard who have standing on both sides of the aisle.


What is the status of China’s and the United States’ hypersonic weapons programs? What can open source tell us about China’s most recent rest? What happened at Kodiak Island? Are hypersonic weapons destabilizing? And why were Jeffrey and James searching for resorts in Mongolia?

Today, Jeffrey and Aaron speak with James Acton, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, about hypersonic weapons.

Jeffrey, Aaron, and James discussed a number of articles and tweets during the podcast:

James Acton, “Silver Bullet: Asking the Right Questions about Prompt Global Strike,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013.

James Acton, “The Arms Race Goes Hypersonic,” Foreign Policy, January 30, 2014.

James Acton, “Target?,” Foreign Policy, May 6, 2014.

Drew Herman, “Failed Rocket Launch in Kodiak Under Investigation,” August 26, 2014.

As always, you can subscribe to the (now better sounding) Arms Control Wonk Podcast on iTunes.


For the second year in a row, a PSA regarding the Isodarco conference!

since 1966
Italian Pugwash Group
International School on Disarmament and Research on Conflicts
28th Winter Course on:
ANDALO (TRENTO) – ITALY    -    7 – 14 January 2015
Directors of the Course: Paolo Foradori (School of International Studies, University of Trento, Italy)
Tariq Rauf (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Sweden)

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Our nuclear future would take a significant turn for the worse if Beijing and New Delhi begin to mimic Cold War thinking about the utility of nuclear weapons. So far, they haven’t. New Delhi waited 24 years in between nuclear tests, and Beijing took about as long to begin sea trials of second-generation ballistic missile-carrying submarines. Both have issued “No First Use” declarations, focused on economic metrics of national influence, and generally dealt with nuclear deterrence in ways that are hard for Washington and Moscow to comprehend. Their parallel nuclear postures are all the more remarkable because they have fought a limited war over a longstanding border dispute. Can the uncommon strategic constraint of these two rising powers continue? Important tests lie ahead, like those facing Washington and Moscow in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

One test will be whether China, and then India decide to place multiple warheads atop their new long-range ballistic missiles. Given the small number of nuclear powered SSBNs China plans to build, the small number of ballistic missiles they can carry, and concerns about the effectiveness of U.S. anti-submarine warfare capabilities, it would not be surprising if Beijing moved toward multiple maneuverable or independently-targetable warheads at sea. And if at sea, then perhaps on land. With more warheads, plus improved guidance capabilities, counterforce options could become more interesting. A second test is whether China and India will go beyond technology demonstrations toward limited ballistic missile defense deployments.

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Are NATO based nuclear weapons an advantage in a dangerous world? Or are they an expensive and obsolete weapon that undermine NATO burden sharing? Is NATO divided about US nuclear weapons in Europe? Are the weapons secure? Are Euro-Hippies a threat to world peace?

Today, Jeffrey and Aaron discuss Brent Scowcroft, Stephen Hadley, and Frank Miller’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post about US nuclear weapons based in Europe.

Jeffrey and Aaron discussed a number of articles, videos, and images during the podcast:

Brent Scowcroft, Stephen Hadley, and Frank Miller, “NATO-based nuclear weapons are an advantage in a dangerous world,” The Washington Post, August 17, 2014.

Jeffrey Lewis, “Activists Breach Security at Kleine Brogel,” Arms Control Wonk, February 4, 2010.

Jeffrey Lewis, “Yes, It’s the Other Area,” Arms Control Wonk, February 6, 2010.

Jeffrey Lewis, “Another Kleine Brogel Bombspotting,” Arms Control Wonk,  October 8, 2010.

Jeffrey Lewis, “Release the Hounds!,” Arms Control Wonk,  October 22, 2010.

Jeffrey Lewis, “Security Lapse at Volkel,” Arms Control Wonk,  March 24, 2014.

Jeffrey Lewis, “A Steal at $10 Billion,Foreign Policy, September 5, 2012.

As always, you can subscribe to the (now better sounding) Arms Control Wonk Podcast on iTunes.


Give it a second to load the map.

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

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



Original Caption: “Professor Bernard Brodie conducting a class.” September 1946. Walter Sanders, photographer.

It’s been awhile since I’ve steered aspiring wonks and ACW readers to the virtues of reading Bernard Brodie’s first take about the Bomb. Brodie made some incorrect predictions, but on the whole, nobody was more prescient about the nuclear future, and no-one wrote more gracefully about nuclear dilemmas. Brodie used the word “deter” before it became common parlance. Check out his essays in in The Absolute Weapon (1946), from which these quotes are taken:

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

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

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

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What are the implications of the spread of hit-to-kill? What are the differences between ground based missile defense interceptors and anti-satellite weapons? Why is China continuing to develop ground based anti-satellite weapons? Why did the US feel the need to shoot down its own satellite, USA-193, in February 2008? And what are the implications of the spread of hit-to-kill for space security?

Today, Aaron and Jeffrey talk about anti-satellite weapons, the spread of hit-to-kill, and the need for a general code of conduct for ASATs.

Jeffrey and Aaron discussed a number of articles, videos, and images during the podcast:

Jeffrey Lewis, “They Shoot Satellites, Don’t They?,” Foreign Policy, August 8, 2014.

George Kulacki and Jeffrey Lewis, “Understanding China’s Antisatellite Test,” The Nonproliferation Review, vol. 15, no. 2 (2008).


Gray-haired readers of ACW will remember when the acronym RSVP was treaty-related. During the first term of the Reagan administration, arms-control opponents compiled a long list of the Kremlin’s treaty violations and circumventions, real or imagined. They then commissioned studies on how to respond. RSVP became shorthand for Responding to Soviet Violations Policy.

The question arises once again after the Obama administration’s finding that the Kremlin has violated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. There has been no shortage of suggestions how to respond.

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