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I made an appearance at the end of Glenn Kessler’s fact check on Mark Kirk’s bizarre claim that Nelson Mandela abandoned South Africa’s nuclear weapons program — something we’ve been scratching our heads over for a while.  While I am officially against handing out Pinocchios, maybe this is the kick in the pants Kirk needs to lose the lame slide.

The South African case is really interesting — not just for the precedent, but also for the role of satellite imagery.

The discovery of South Africa’s Kalahari nuclear test site is one of my favorite case studies. The story is that Cosmos 922, a Soviet photo-reconnaissance satellite, photographed the test site on 3-4 July 1977.  The Soviets didn’t like what they saw, then took a second look with Cosmos 932 and concluded South Africa was preparing a nuclear weapons test.
That’s one version. Dieter Gerhardt, a South African military officer later arrested for spying for the Soviets, told Ronen Bergman that he was the source of the intelligence.

Whatever put Moscow on to Pretoria’s tail, the Soviet Embassy delivered, on August 6, 1977 , a letter from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev indicating that South Africa was preparing for a nuclear test, something that would “have the most serious and far-reaching aftermaths for international peace and security.”  Carter wrote back, asking the Soviets for the geographic coordinates.

The United States looked at the site, concluded it was a nuclear test site, and confronted the South Africans with the coordinates and other details.  South Africa’s bomb program was blown.  The scrutiny didn’t stop the program, but the events of 1977 are a good illustration of detection, pressure and so on.  And, in principle, the events of 1977 are now replicable using open source tools.  That’s a big reason that I have always wanted to geolocate the site myself.

I finally got around to it, only to discover that David Albright Paul Brannan,  Zachary Laporte, Katherine Tajer, and Christina Walrond had already done it in 2011.  As it turns out, though, we  used completely different methods.  I used a pair of declassified US documents; Albright et al had used information from the IAEA. We got the same answer, which is nice.  I also learned a few things, some of which may make for an interesting blog post.  You tell me.

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A lot of people are asking how to take measurements and make 3D models from 2D images. If conditions are juuusst right, SketchUp’s Match Photo technique is the way to go. Unfortunately, in our world, conditions are almost never just right, unless you happen to be able to take the photo yourself. Here’s an alternative method using Web Plot Digitizer, which is still free and can scale for as much (or as little) information as you have (keeping in mind a greater margin of error).

A few days ago the DPRK’s state news agency, KCNA released the first images of North Korea’s new submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM). These photos we’re great, but with just sky and water, there wasn’t much context about the size of the missile.

That is until one of our eagle-eyed research assistants, Dave Schmerler, spotted this:

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The Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military power (PDF) describes for the first time, China’s CSS-4 mod 3 missile equipped with multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles. MIRVs! Hans Kristensen noticed the passage and, over the weekend, David Sanger and Bill Broad published a nearly 1000 word piece in the New York Times that includes quotes by several experts including Jeffrey.

Aaron and Jeffrey discuss what China is doing, whether it heralds a change in Chinese nuclear posture and what the US should do in response. Jeffrey also gets in plugs for his two books on China’s nuclear weapons programs, Minimum Means of Reprisal (2006) and Paper Tigers (2014).

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The global nuclear order is becoming more dynamic and unsettled. The top tier is contracting, but at a slow pace. Newcomers feature prominently in the second tier, eclipsing the old-timers. And the newest entrants into the nuclear club either have or seem to want three-digit-sized arsenals – something few envisioned when these late arrivals barged into the nuclear club. A bumpy NPT Review Conference would make matters worse.

There are still two out-sized nuclear powers with roughly equivalent force structure. One is no longer a superpower and its capabilities are very uneven, as is evident by Russia’s modernization programs for missiles and submarines while losing its last functional early warning satellite. Moscow now resorts to nuclear threats and aggressive patrolling – reminiscent of the dark passages of the Cold War. These statements and practices, alongside the Kremlin’s predatory actions in Ukraine, reflect a dangerous mix of weakness and belligerence.

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I was just in New York for a few days and heard some very interesting things about the coming trainwreck at the RevCon. But I wasn’t allowed to repeat any of them!

Lucky us, Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova has written another “Notes from the RevCon” post.  (See her first note here.)

While she was careful to stick to things said in public, published online and reported in the papers, it’s kind of amazing to see it all in one place.

Notes from the RevCon: The Empires Strike Back

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova

I thought my next post would be about the Middle East, but then the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) set Subsidiary Body 1 and Main Committee I on fire, so I’m back to disarmament. (Elsewhere, Main Committee II has been chewing over whether the Additional Protocol is part of the verification standard under the NPT, and the United States’ and others’ proposals on response to withdrawal from the NPT are getting a no-go from the Non-Aligned Movement in Subsidiary Body 3.)

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Intelligence sources have told Bill Gertz at the Washington Free Beacon and Anthony Capaccio and Sam Kim at Bloomberg that North Korea tested its KN-11 submarine launched ballistic missile from a submersible barge, not a Sinpo-class submarine, and that the missile flew only a short period.

Satellite images and open source information seems to support this account.  It is important to note that this does not mean the test was a fake.  This is a normal test to conduct in the early stages of an SLBM program — even if Rodong Sinmun and KCNA are exaggerating a bit.

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Iran has been dominating the news, but the North Koreans have been busy too. Whether it is missile testing, nuclear activities at Yongbyon or new space launch facilities, there is a lot to look at. We use open source tools from satellite photographs to computer models for keeping up with the Kims.

Jeffrey and Aaron discuss North Korea’s new general satellite control center, changes at the Soha launch site, North Korea’s missile testing and changes at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.

Kim Jong Un Visits Newly-built General Satellite Control Centre,” Rodong Sinmun, May 5, 2015.

Nick Hansen, “North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station: Major Upgrade Program Completed; Facility Operational Again,” 38 North, October 1, 2014.

David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, “Yongbyon: A Better Insight into the Status of the 5MWe Reactor,” ISIS, April 29, 2015 (PDF).

Jeffrey Lewis, “DPRK Missile, Rocket Launches,” ArmsControlWonk.com, February 10, 2015.

Jeffrey Lewis, “Don’t Know Where Waldo Went, But Kim Jong Un Was in Wonsan: Geolocating North Korea’s June 26 and August 14 Missile Launches,” 38North, November 3, 2014.

Jeffrey Lewis, “North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons: The Great Miniaturization Debate,” 38North, February 5 2015.

Greg Scarlatoiu and Joseph Bermudez Jr. “Unusual Activity at the Kanggon Military Training Area in North Korea: Evidence of Execution by Anti-aircraft Machine Guns?” HRNK Insider, April 29, 2015 (PDF).

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Michael Krepon noticed that we’ve been silent on the issue of the ongoing NPT Review Conference and had an inspired idea — why not ask my colleague Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova to send us her thoughts from New York, where she is attending.

Gaukhar is great — she is the director of our  program on International Organizations and Nonproliferation. You can follow her tweets from the REVCON at @GaukharM using the hashtag #NPT2015.

Notes from the NPT Review Conference

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova

The Ninth NPT Review Conference kicked off in New York last week without much fanfare. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was there, speaking on the first day, as was Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, along with a number of other ministers, but there was little excitement or positive energy in the room. From their packed nosebleed section, NGOs could see plenty of empty seats behind delegation desks in the grand UN General Assembly Hall.

This lack of excitement is not surprising as, unlike in 2010, we arrive to the 2015 RevCon with the Prague Agenda having decidedly run out of steam, the US-Russian arms control dialogue deadlocked, and Russia’s adventures in Europe prompting many NATO allies to hug nuclear weapons tighter. The Humanitarian Initiative has broad-based support and strong momentum behind it, but it is also a source of tension, with the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) and some of their nuclear allies uneasy about its goals and next steps.

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The United States wants to pivot to Asia, but the Middle East keeps getting in the way. Likewise, India wants to pivot to China, but Pakistan keeps getting in the way. Pakistan matters to India for two primary, interconnected reasons: its home-grown terrorists and its nuclear-weapon programs. The pathway to crisis and war on the Subcontinent begin with the actions of violent extremist groups based in Pakistan. As long as this pathway remains open, deterrence stability does not improve with nuclear modernization programs. Instead, stability is dependent on Indian restraint after severe provocation.

The nuclear competition between Pakistan and India now qualifies as a serious arms race. Since the 1998 tests, when both expressed fealty to credible, minimum deterrence, they have flight-tested fourteen types of nuclear-capable missiles. Both countries have embraced cruise missiles and sea-based capabilities. Pakistan advertises its short-range Nasr missile as being nuclear-capable. If Pakistan’s military leaders have established a requirement for a nuclear-tipped Nasr, they could employ the same logic to produce other types of battlefield nuclear weapons as well.

Both countries have recently flight-tested longer- as well as shorter-range ballistic missiles. India can now reach targets throughout China. Pakistan can reach targets in all of India – and the Middle East. India and China have the means to place multiple warheads atop some of their missiles and to deploy limited ballistic missile defenses. The flight-testing and induction of MIRVs, even on a small scale, would have ripple effects in Pakistan, as would the deployment by India of limited ballistic missile defenses.

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It’s not easy to make nuclear weapons, build missiles to carry them long distances, and to produce highly enriched uranium or plutonium. It’s even harder to keep nuclear weapons safe so they do not detonate except under orders from a National Command Authority. If a single mushroom cloud appears at a time of crisis or warfare because of an accident, inadvertent or unauthorized use, escalation control will be extremely difficult and all of the presumed benefits of nuclear deterrence can be lost.

Nuclear safety and security techniques and practices are designed to prevent these eventualities. Gates and guards and personnel reliability programs help with nuclear security. All states with nuclear weapons employ these practices. Nuclear weapon design features and other safety techniques help provide insurance against accidental, inadvertent, or unauthorized detonations. Nuclear safety and security reinforce each other. Sometimes these categories merge. For example, authorization codes required to arm and use a nuclear weapon — permissive action links — can be considered as essential for both nuclear safety and security. Additional design features, including the use of insensitive high explosives, are required besides PALs to prevent unwanted mushroom clouds.

The United States has a “one-point safety” standard for all of its nuclear weapons. This standard means that the probability of achieving a nuclear yield greater than four pounds of TNT must not exceed one in a million for any event involving the initiation of the warhead’s high explosive at a single point on its periphery. The United States achieved this exacting safety standard after decades of effort, significant investment, and a learning curve derived from nuclear testing.

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