Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


The 2015 Review Conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, known among wonks as the REVCON, collapsed in acrimony. After weeks of debate over disarmament between the nuclear haves and have nots, the parties failed to agree to a consensus state after Egypt and the United States deadlocked over the details of a long-planned conference on Weapons of Mass Destruction-free zone in the Middle East.

Joining Aaron and Jeffrey to talk about the REVCON is Andrea Berger, the Deputy Director of the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy programme at RUSI.

Gangs of New York: The 2015 NPT Revcon by Andrea Berger

Rate & review the show in iTunes


Sadly, there is no textbook for imagery analysis. I would love to contribute to one someday, but until that becomes an option, here’s the March 1996 Unclassified Photo Interpretation Student Handbook. I picked it up from from a rather unusual meeting on a DC trip and several students lovingly/begrudgingly scanned it for our benefit. It’s an excellent resource for identifying everything from transportation to military installations. You’re welcome!

Searching for silos? 

Read Full Story →


Tense situations that prompt nuclear threats occur when one (or more) of three conditions exist: when the state issuing threats feels weak in some important respects, when other means of suasion are unsuccessful, and when the stakes involved are exceptionally high. Examples abound. Kim Jong-un threatens nuclear devastation when U.S. and South Korean troops carry out joint exercises. The United States resorted to not-so-veiled nuclear threats against China when bogged down in the Korean War. Nikita Khrushchev used veiled threats during the Berlin crisis. (“It is best for those who are thinking of war not to imagine that distances will save them.”) Pakistan employed nuclear threats when both armies mobilized after the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament by extremists based in Pakistan. New Delhi threatened massive retaliation if Rawalpindi resorted to first use.

To threaten mushroom clouds when the stakes are low (see Kim Jong-un, above) devalues the currency. Ditto for repeated threats of mushroom clouds. Multiple nuclear threats are once again emanating from the Kremlin. NATO’s advance eastward and Vladimir Putin’s actions to reassert Russia’s sphere of influence along its periphery are the proximate causes.

Read Full Story →


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.

Read Full Story →


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:

Read Full Story →


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).

Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.


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.

Read Full Story →


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.)

Read Full Story →


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.

Read Full Story →


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,”, 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).

Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes

Direct mp3 download