Getting to Zero Update

BASIC has been engaged with two major developments in nuclear weapons policy: U.S. ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and the results of NATO’s summit in Lisbon, including the release of its new Strategic Concept. See below for BASIC’s press releases and for more information on these topics, please scroll down to the sections on Commitments to Arms Control and Disarmament, and Missile Defense.

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U.S. Senate passes New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)

After a prolonged debate over the language in the treaty and overall relations with Russia, the U.S. Senate has provided its formal advice and consent to ratify the New START treaty. The final vote was 71-26. Despite efforts by the Obama Administration to win support from Senator Jon Kyl (Arizona) by providing additional funding for the nuclear weapons complex, the Republican Whip refused to throw his weight behind the treaty. However, enough of his Republican colleagues joined Democrats to surpass the two-thirds threshold required for passage.

Senators offered numerous amendments and statements which drew the debate period out several days longer than the original START ratification process. Senate opponents, led by Senator Kyl and Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), said that the treaty exposed the United States to too much control by Russia over its strategic missile defense plans. (See the Missile Defense section of this update for more information on this aspect of the debate.) They also suggested that Russia would not abide by its end of the agreement and that the verification regime was not substantial enough to make up for these doubts. They raised various other concerns about the treaty’s failure to address Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons, whether the new limits would jeopardize U.S. Prompt Global Strike plans, and harm the United States’ triad of strategic forces and weaken nuclear deterrence.

Senate supporters of New START, led by Foreign Relations Committee heads Senator John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts) and Senator Richard Lugar (Republican-Indiana), argued that the treaty would not restrain the United States’ ability to develop and deploy strategic missile defenses, nor undermine the U.S. nuclear deterrent, and received statements of support from current military leaders, such as Adm. Mike Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, to bolster their case. While all Senate Democrats supported the treaty, many Republicans remained “on the fence” until the final days of the debate and supporters sought to woo them with reminders that New START had recently received endorsements from former high-ranking Republican officials, including George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Colin Powell, among others.

On the final day, Senators proposed two amendments to the resolution of ratification that were passed by voice vote: one that reiterated that the Preamble is non-binding and affirms U.S. disagreement with the Russian unilateral statement on missile defense, and the other one on more quickly funding modernization for the nuclear weapons complex. However, the additional opinions will not require an alteration of the text of New START and thus do not require a renegotiation of the treaty.

A wave of international support for the treaty came ahead of the debate in the U.S. Senate, mostly from allies. During the NATO Summit in November, several Eastern European members of NATO issued their strong support for New START and the Summit’s official Declaration also called for the speedy ratification of the treaty. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen provided his backing at the summit and also in a letter published later in the International Herald Tribune (IHT)/The New York Times. Twenty-five foreign ministers, all from European Union countries, showed their support for the treaty in a letter to the IHT on December 18, writing: “The ratification of New START will strengthen the international disarmament regime and bolster wider efforts going forward to tackle countries who are in breach of their NPT commitments. It will therefore have a positive impact on American, European and wider international security. Its impact on international security goes far beyond Europe – it is global.”

President Dmitry Medvedev welcomed the U.S. Senate’s approval of New START. However, concerns expressed by Senators could lead Russia to take longer than proceeding with near simultaneous ratification of the treaty – an aspiration that had been expressed in the days after Presidents Medvedev and Obama had signed the treaty. Both houses of parliament were expected to begin consideration of the treaty on December 24.

New START would establish a ceiling on the number of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each. The treaty would permit a total of 800 strategic delivery vehicles for each side, and be accompanied by a verification regime.
Further Reading

NATO and Nuclear Weapons

NATO released a new Strategic Concept at its summit in Lisbon on November 19. The new concept was much shorter than the previous strategic document of 1999 – a move that was anticipated. The concept reaffirms NATO’s plans to remain a nuclear alliance, and emphasizes the contribution of strategic forces made by the United States, the United Kingdom and also France (though France remains outside of the Nuclear Planning Group). The new document provides less guidance overall on nuclear issues, and also unlike the previous version, does not specifically back the military or political justification for the controversial retention of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on European soil. About 150-200 U.S. gravity bombs are currently stationed in five European countries. The new concept links reductions in the tactical arsenal to action by Russia: “In any future reductions, our aim should be to seek Russian agreement to increase transparency on its nuclear weapons in Europe and relocate these weapons away from the territory of NATO members. Any further steps must take into account the disparity with the greater Russian stockpiles of short-range nuclear weapons” (paragraph 26).

Allies also inserted new language within the Strategic Concept to reflect efforts to increase NATO’s role in nuclear arms control: “We are resolved to seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in accordance with the goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in a way that promotes international stability, and is based on the principle of undiminished security for all” (paragraph 26).

The Alliance did not follow suit with recent American and British changes in declaratory policy, and instead opted to go with more vague phrasing: “We will ensure that NATO has the full range of capabilities necessary to deter and defend against any threat to the safety and security of our populations. Therefore, we will maintain an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces…” (paragraph 19).

The Summit’s Declaration announces that the Alliance is set to conduct a strategic deterrence and defense review in 2011, which is to include the role of nuclear sharing in assessing force posture.

On a related note, information on diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks matches with previous public estimates of the number of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder had drafted a cable covering a meeting in July 2009 between Defense Department official Jim Miller and NATO political and military permanent representatives in which he used the figure of 180 U.S. tactical nuclear warheads in Europe when speaking about the challenges of encouraging Russia to reduce its larger tactical nuclear arsenal of 3,000-5,000.

Further Reading

Belarus agrees to final removal of highly enriched uranium

Belarus has agreed to give up its remaining stockpile of weapons grade uranium – a decision made public during an announcement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov on the sidelines of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Summit on December 1. About 500 pounds of weapons grade uranium will be transported to Russia where it is to be safely disposed of. Secretary Clinton said that it was a “very important, significant step” by Belarus, which had previously resisted giving up the last of the material. The deal was made in response to U.S. suggestions that it would help Belarus develop civilian nuclear energy based on low enriched uranium, and also to President Barack Obama’s call for securing all nuclear material within four years and an agreement to have Belarus attend the next Nuclear Security Summit, which will take place in South Korea in 2012.


United States

As part of the political bargaining that took place for building Senate support around New START, the Obama Administration agreed to additional funding for the nuclear weapons complex. Senator Jon Kyl (Republican-Arizona) managed to convince the Administration in November to add an additional $4.1 billion beyond previous commitments of an additional $80 billion over 10 years. (Those figures do not include amounts for delivery vehicles.) Near the end of the Senate debate over the treaty, Senator Kyl proposed an amendment to the resolution on ratification to hasten funding for the complex. The amendment passed by voice vote, but the Senator still voted against ratification.

Correspondence from 2009 released by Wikileaks via The Guardian has revealed that a U.S. official based in Caracas said that he did not have serious concerns about the Venezuelan nuclear program. “Although rumors that Venezuela is providing Iran with Venezuelan-produced uranium may help burnish the government’s revolutionary credentials, there seems to be little basis in reality to the claims,” said a cable from John Caulfield, deputy chief of mission. A Venezuelan nuclear scientist told him that the Venezuelan nuclear project was insufficiently supported by the government and was just “political theater.”

Further Reading

United Kingdom

The HM Inspectorate of Constabulary is reviewing whether British nuclear plants and other elements of national infrastructure are secure. A bunker at Sellafield in Cumbria is one of the sites under investigation, which will ultimately hold 100 tons of untreated plutonium. The security weaknesses discovered at the site prompted a wider investigation. The problem was apparently revealed during terrorist threat exercises.

A diplomatic cable released through Wikileaks reveals that during a meeting in 2009 French officials expressed their concerns about British positions on nuclear disarmament. Jacques Audibert, French MFA Director for Strategic Affairs, Security, and Disarmament, told U.S. representative to the NPT, Amb. Susan Burk, that France and the United States should partner more closely within the P5 context to balance a United Kingdom that was considering disarmament. French disarmament and nonproliferation official Martin Briens added that he thought the United Kingdom took disarmament seriously and that it might eventually give up its Trident nuclear weapon submarine fleet. Another leaked cable showed that some British officials were surprised when then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced during his U.N. General Assembly speech on September 23, 2009 that the United Kingdom might move from a fleet of four Trident nuclear submarines down to three, and sought to reassure U.S. contacts that U.K. policy had not significantly changed.

Further Reading


No major progress appears to have been made during the P5+1 meeting with Iran in Geneva earlier in December. The talks were held between the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who was representing the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany. The P5+1 have pushed for Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program until Iran complies with IAEA and U.N. guidelines and resolutions and becomes convinced of the peaceful nature of Iran’s program, whereas Iran contends that it has followed all legal requirements and therefore has a right to continue enrichment. President Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying “there were positive points in [the Geneva] talks.” The parties were expected to head back to the discussion table during the latter half of January in Istanbul.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad removed Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and replaced him with the head of the Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, who took his new position on December 18. The move was thought to stem from President Ahmadinejad’s disagreements with Mottaki. Both President Ahmadinejad and the new Foreign Minister, Salehi, were to attend in Turkey a regional summit on economic cooperation on December 22, and were expected to meet with officials on the sidelines to discuss prospects for negotiations around Iran’s nuclear program.

On December 7, while still Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki announced that nuclear disarmament should be implemented “without discrimination”. However, the news that almost every country neighboring Iran has expressed concerns to the United States about Tehran’s nuclear program, has been seen as highly embarrassing for the regime. Arab leaders such as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia have urged the United States to take pre-emptive military action against Iran. The King suggested that the United States “cut off the head of the snake” while leaders in Bahrain and Jordan have also expressed concerns over Iranian intentions.

Domestic troubles in Iran have been highlighted by the leader of the opposition, Mir Mousavi, claiming that the Wikileaks cables “show our vulnerable situation in the region, a situation fuelled by adventurism.” However President Ahmadinejad immediately refuted the information contained in the cable leaks suggesting that it was a form of “psychological warfare” and that the United States deliberately leaked the information in order to put pressure on Iran.

Iran may still be struggling with the Stuxnet worm that attacked its nuclear facilities. President Ahmadinejad admitted at the end of November that the Stuxnet virus infected Iranian nuclear sites but insisted that it has been dealt with. However, experts have warned that the virus is quite complex and therefore could be difficult to remove.

Two senior Iranian nuclear scientists were attacked with bombs while in their vehicles; one fatally, in separate incidents on November 29 in Tehran. Iran accused Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States of conducting the assassinations, though Catherine Ashton, representing the EU, condemned the attacks. Also, suspicions have been raised about a possible connection with the deadly attack on an Iranian physicist earlier in 2010.
Further Reading

North Korea

Tensions around the Korean Peninsula were expected to intensify again as South Korea was about to go ahead with a round of previously-announced major military exercises that would include live fire. The exercises were intended to serve as a show of force against the North in retribution for its shelling of Yeonpyeong island in which several South Koreans were killed in November.

Shortly before the exercises, on December 20, North Korea had announced that it would welcome back inspectors for the purpose of monitoring its nuclear program, according to Bill Richardson (New Mexico’s Governor, and also Energy Secretary during the Clinton Administration) who was serving as an unofficial envoy during his visit to Pyongyang. The apparent change of policy came after a two month-period of escalating tensions, and also revelations from a U.S. scientist, Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker, who inspected a new enrichment facility at Yongbyon in November and was surprised by the advancement of the North’s uranium enrichment program.

Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the United States, admonished China for not condemning the North Korean barrage on the South Korean island earlier in the month. “China has enormous influence over the North, and therefore they have a unique responsibility…Now is the time for Beijing to step up to that responsibility and guide the North, and indeed the whole region, to a better future”, said the Admiral. A senior U.S. official also accused China of enabling North Korean enrichment of uranium, further straining the relationship between the two nations over the Korean Peninsula. A day later, China did publicly challenge North Korea to keep its offer to let inspectors return to view its nuclear program. On a related note, diplomatic cables that have come out as a result of Wikileaks indicated that China would be willing to “abandon” North Korea.

Further Reading


Syria has been placed under increasing pressure by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United States to open up its suspected facilities to nuclear inspectors. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano had written a letter on November 18th – his first to Syrian officials directly appealing for cooperation. Syria has been under suspicion of trying to build a nuclear weapons program. The IAEA maintains that Syria has not cooperated with inspectors since 2008 and therefore has been unable to examine sites that have been suspected of possible involvement with a military program.

Several U.S. Senators have called on U.S. President Barack Obama to press the IAEA into conducting “special inspections” of suspected Syrian nuclear sites. The letter accused Damascus of failing to cooperate with the IAEA and stated that “If Syria refuses an IAEA request to conduct special inspections, then the United States should urge the Agency’s Board of Governors to find Syria in non-compliance with its IAEA safeguards agreement and refer it to the United Nations Security Council.”

Further Reading

Missile Defense

NATO Summit in Lisbon

During its summit in Lisbon on November 19-20, NATO approved a plan that will facilitate the integration of NATO European countries with U.S. missile defense plans under the “Phased Adaptive Approach” (PAA). The NATO decision is intended “to protect NATO’s populations and territories in Europe against ballistic missile attacks.” A number of controversies preceded the move, which was anticipated to cost between $200-300 million over ten years beyond already-planned NATO missile defense activities, though costs could grow depending on technology and participation that would build upon the decision. France was initially reluctant to back the agreement for fear that it would place too much emphasis on strategic defensive forces at the expense of traditional strategic offensive forces supporting deterrence. Also, Turkey pushed successfully to avoid specifically naming Iran as one of the justifications for the European-based system.

The Alliance’s new Strategic Concept, released during the summit, states that NATO will “develop the capability to defend our populations and territories against ballistic missile attack as a core element of our collective defence,” and “actively seek cooperation on missile defence with Russia and other Euro-Atlantic partners.” (paragraph 18). The Summit Declaration goes into more detail about missile defense, adding that “Missile defence will become an integral part of our overall defence posture” (paragraph 30) and confirming that missile defense will be one of the key topics for examination under the North Atlantic Council’s upcoming strategic deterrence and defense review, which is supposed to take place during the first half of 2011.

Also following on from NATO agreement to participate in the United States’ PAA, the North Atlantic Council is “to develop missile defence consultation, command and control arrangements” by the time of the Defence Ministers meeting in March 2011 and “to draft an action plan addressing steps to implement the missile defence capability” in time for the subsequent Defence Ministers meeting scheduled for June 2011 (paragraph 37 of the Declaration).

During the NATO summit, the NATO-Russia Council held a meeting during which Russia accepted a formal invitation to cooperate with the Alliance in addressing strategic missile defense issues. They agreed to conduct a joint assessment on ballistic missile threats and an analysis on a framework for future missile defense cooperation. However, Russia has made clear that it will recoil if the overall project moves in a direction that leaves Moscow without equal status. While addressing Russia’s parliament about two weeks later, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned, “In the next 10 years, the following alternatives await us – either we reach agreement on missile defense and create a full joint cooperation mechanism, or, if we don’t reach a constructive agreement, a new phase of the arms race will begin.” Russia and NATO also agreed to resume cooperation over theater missile defense, which had been put on hold in 2008 as a result of the Russia-Georgia conflict.

U.S. strategic missile defense system test fails

For the second time in a year, a test of the long-range U.S. missile defense system has failed. During the test that took place over the Pacific Ocean on December 15, the target missile and the intercept missile launched as planned, and the interceptor was successfully deployed but failed to “kill” the mock enemy target. The last successful test of this system was in December 2008. MDA will announce its next test after an investigation into the failure has been completed.

Missile defense dominates U.S. Senate debate on New START

The issue of missile defense became the main topic of heated debate during the U.S. Senate’s consideration of New START. Republican Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain, both of Arizona, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) led the charge, arguing that passing the New START agreement in its current form could limit U.S. options for developing and deploying strategic missile defense systems. Foreign Relations Chairman Senator John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts) led other Senators in rebuffing the claims, pointing out that the only binding constraint in the treaty is the ban on the conversion of already-existing missile silos into missile defense silos – a move that U.S. military officials have said would cost more than construction from scratch, and that the non-binding Preamble merely contained a “truism” about the relationship between strategic offensive and defensive forces.

President Barack Obama also sent a letter to Senate leaders on December 18th to address Senator McConnell’s concerns by affirming that his administration will not hold back on missile defense because of the New START Treaty. An amendment to the resolution of ratification was made reflecting some of these concerns over missile defense before the Senate passed the treaty on December 22, but the changes to the resolution will not require a renegotiation of the treaty.

Further Reading

  • GAO on Missile Defense Plans: Don’t Hold Your Breath
    David Wright, All Things Nuclear blog, Union of Concerned Scientists, December 22, 2010
  • Missile Defense: European Phased Adaptive Approach Acquisitions Face Synchronization, Transparency, and Accountability Challenges
    U.S. Government Accountability Office, GAO-11-179R, December 21, 2010

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