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Pompeo Opens the Door to Deep US Nuclear Cuts (Or Large Chinese Increases)

April 10, 2019: Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley questions Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about new nuclear arms control negotiations with China.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Trump administration wants China to join negotiations on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The treaty, which caps the number of deployed US and Russian nuclear warheads at 1550 each, is scheduled to expire in 2021.

China has a no first use policy and is believed to store its warheads separately from its missiles. Under the definition of the current treaty, China would therefore have zero deployed weapons.

It is difficult to believe Pompeo seriously considered the implications of Chinese participation in the New START treaty. If China were to become a party to the agreement, it would expect to be treated as an equal. There would need to be common limits on the number of warheads and launchers each country would be permitted to retain and deploy.

Making China subject to the same restrictions as the United States and Russia would present both countries with a very difficult choice. They would have to decide whether to reduce their numbers of deployed warheads to zero or to allow China to engage in a massive nuclear build up to match US and Russian numbers. They could agree to change the terms of the treaty to include both deployed and stored warheads, which would capture China’s warheads, but then it would also capture the additional 2,000-3,000 warheads that both the United States and Russia have in storage. US and Russian negotiators would then need to find a way to eliminate an even larger disparity in numbers between their countries and China.

A Quick Look at Those Numbers

China currently has a few hundred nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make several hundred more. The United States has 4,000 nuclear warheads (active and reserve) and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make approximately 5,000 more. Current US estimates indicate China can deliver about 140 of those nuclear warheads to targets in the United States with its approximately 80 ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and 60 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The United States could deliver as many as 800 nuclear warheads on its 400 ICBMs and a maximum of 1,920 warheads on its 240 SLBMs. The US arsenal also currently includes 452 nuclear gravity bombs and 528 nuclear-armed cruise missiles that are delivered by aircraft. China does not currently deploy any of its nuclear weapons on aircraft.

The current New START agreement caps the total of US and Russian deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers equipped to carry nuclear weapons at 700. Assuming new negotiations produced a 50% reduction in those numbers—a result many nuclear arms control experts would justifiably herald as a stunning success for the Trump administration—China would be allowed to add several hundred ICBMs and SLBMs to its current arsenal

A significantly larger Chinese nuclear arsenal doesn’t sound like a very good outcome for the United States or its Asian allies.

So What was Pompeo Thinking?

One possibility is that the secretary thinks China’s nuclear arsenal is much larger than it actually is, perhaps due to misinformation circulated in Washington a few years ago.

Not long after Pompeo won his seat in Congress an adjunct professor at Georgetown University submitted a Pentagon-funded report suggesting China had approximately 3,000 nuclear weapons buried in a network of tunnels. The study received a favorable review from the Washington Post and gained some currency on Capitol Hill.

But the study was very poorly done. Its conclusions were based on spurious Chinese sources found by Georgetown undergraduate students using keyword searches of public Chinese websites. Their professor, Phillip Karber, misrepresented a collection of general questions about China’s nuclear arsenal posted on personal Chinese blogs as a secret Chinese military document stating China’s nuclear arsenal was ten times larger than current US estimates.

Peter Navarro, one of the leading voices on China within the Trump administration, cited Karber’s numbers in one of his books. He also claimed China’s leaders were so confident in the success of their nuclear modernization program that they were willing to start a nuclear war, a claim that appears to have influenced the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which suggests China would resort to nuclear first use if it were losing a conventional war with the United States. It’s possible Pompeo’s thinking has been influenced by this kind of talk in the White House.

The next time Secretary Pompeo appears before Congress, someone should ask for his views on the size of China’s nuclear arsenal and his assessment of the Chinese policies guiding how and when it might be used.

Another possibility is that the secretary is using the requirement of Chinese participation to try to diminish expectations for an extension of the New START treaty. Lack of Chinese inclusion was one of the principal reasons cited by the Trump administration in its decision to withdraw from the INF treaty. There is no indication Pompeo approached China about joining the INF treaty or participating in negotiations on the New START treaty. Perhaps that’s because he assumes China isn’t interested.

China’s Response

China consistently rejects multilateral arms control negotiations. It prefers international negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations. So trilateral talks with Russia and the United States are unlikely. However, Chinese arms control experts often point out that China would be willing to enter into multilateral nuclear arms control negotiations when the United States and Russia reduce their numbers to levels approximately the same as the rest of the nuclear weapons states, which hover in the middle hundreds rather than in the thousands.

Chinese President Xi Jinping should seize the opportunity presented by Pompeo’s remarks to engage the United States on Chinese participation in New START talks that would result in dramatically lower limits on the size of US and Russian nuclear forces. Chinese arms control experts seem prepared to tackle the difficult technical issues involved in the verification of an agreement on deep nuclear cuts. They’ve been discussing verification issues at international arms control conferences ever since China signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996.

Secretary Pompeo may not have intended to open the door to substantial nuclear reductions, but Xi would be remiss if he let this opportunity slip by without at least making an effort to further the discussion.

North Korea’s Missiles and the US-NK Summit

In April 2018, shortly before last June’s summit with President Trump, North Korea announced it was discontinuing its flight testing of ballistic missiles. For over a year now, it has not conducted any missile tests.

This represents a big change. In the five years 2013 to 2017, North Korea launched more than 80 flight tests of 10 different missiles, or an average of 16 flight tests per year. In 2017 alone, it launched 20 tests of seven types of missiles, including the successful launch of two different long-range missiles.

(Source: U.S. govt.)

That testing led to big advances in its missile program.

As of 2015 the longest range missile it had successfully tested was the Nodong, with an estimated range of about 1,300 km (800 miles). In November 2017 it successfully tested an intercontinental-range missile with a range ten times that long—13,000 km (8,000 miles)—enough to reach most or all of the United States.

How Important is a Ban on Flight Testing

We know a lot about North Korea’s missile flight tests over the years because you can’t hide a missile fired through the atmosphere. The United States has satellite sensors and radars that detect and track those tests essentially anywhere in the world.

Missile flight testing is needed for several reasons:

  1. To develop new missiles
  2. To proof-test and determine the reliability of missiles that are being built
  3. To train soldiers to use missiles in combat.

Stopping flight testing limits all three of these.

Countries typically test a new missile dozens of times before deploying it. Even though North Korea had one successful launch of its Hwasong-15 ICBM in late 2017, it has little idea whether a second test would be successful. These are very complicated mechanical systems and you need repeated testing to discover the possible failure modes and understand their probabilities.

For a missile to be militarily useful, you want to know how reliable it is. And you want to understand how likely it is to blow up on the launch pad before you decide to put a nuclear warhead on it.

In addition to this, North Korea hasn’t demonstrated a working reentry heat shield on a long-range trajectory. As long as it’s willing to accept low accuracy—which it would be if it plans to target large cities—developing a working heat shield doesn’t require advanced technology. North Korea should be able to solve this problem with time, but it is unlikely to consider these missiles militarily useful without actually demonstrating the technology on a flight test. A ban on testing keeps it from doing that.

While some press reports have said that following its one successful flight test of its Hwasong-15 ICBM, North Korea is working to mass produce it, I don’t believe they would do that. Preventing further flight tests would prevent this missile from becoming militarily useful. It would also limit operational training of military troops with its missiles.

So preserving North Korea’s ban on flight tests is an important security measure. And as noted above, a ban on flight testing has the advantage that it is completely verifiable with existing sensors.

What Does the Current Test Ban Cover?

When Kim announced the end of flight tests in April 2018, he said:

“no nuclear tests and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK now. … We will discontinue nuclear tests and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire from April 21.”

So while North Korea has not flight tested any missiles in the past 15 months, it only announced it would stop testing long-range missiles—those with ranges longer than 5,500 km (3,500 miles). That includes the Hwasong-14 and 15 missiles.

A ban on testing long-range missiles would leave North Korea the option of continuing to develop and test intermediate and shorter range missiles. That includes the Hwasong-12, which may be able to reach US military bases in Guam. Banning only long-range flight tests would also allow North Korea to train soldiers with its existing shorter range missiles, which can reach targets in South Korea and Japan.

A key goal of the upcoming summit and future US-North Korean negotiations should be to formalize the testing ban, to make it permanent, and to extend it to cover shorter range missiles. The United States should also press for a ban on engine tests, and make clear the flight test ban includes satellite launches.

North Korea has not yet taken irreversible steps toward ending its missile program. But it has taken meaningful steps that would have been unthinkable as recently as 2017, and that suggests an openness to further steps that would be more meaningful. That would significantly advance security interests of the United States and its allies in the region.

Achieving these steps is likely to require a phased step-by-step process. There are a set of potential steps the United States could take as part of the negotiations. These include discussions of a peace treaty or new security arrangement in the region, scaling back military exercises that the North sees as threatening, and selective easing of sanctions.

A verified ban on flight testing, of course, is just a step. The ultimate goal should be to stop further missile development and production at all levels, and to eliminate existing missiles—and that is what the United States should be working for. But that will require North Korea to feel secure enough to agree to these steps, which would include intrusive verification measures. That is not going to happen overnight and will require reciprocal steps by the United States.

It’s worth noting that the United States has had a lot of hands-on experience with verifying the elimination and non-production of missiles over the past 30 years through the verification measures of the INF Treaty, which it recently announced it was leaving.

What about Reports that North Korea is Continuing to Build Up its Missile Sites?

North Korea has taken several steps that are consistent with its statement about discontinuing nuclear and missile tests. In May 2018 it destroyed the entrances and some of the tunnels at its nuclear test site. In July it dismantled some facilities at one of its main missile test sites. While these steps were done without international inspectors present and could be reversed, they are interesting steps that are consistent with a willingness to end testing.

More recently there have been press reports of satellite images that show Korean missile bases that had not been publicly identified earlier, and show that North Korea has been continuing its ongoing work at some of these sites. These send a different message.

But these reports shouldn’t derail negotiations. It’s useful to have more information about these sites as part of the public discussion, but it’s important to recognize that these “secret” sites have long been known and are being monitored by US intelligence.

Moreover, there is nothing in the negotiations so far that has obligated Pyongyang to stop work on these bases or dismantle them. Working to get agreement on such steps is an important goal for the upcoming summit. If the United States sees those steps as important, it should decide what it is willing to put on the table to get them.

Don’t Scapegoat China for Killing the INF Treaty. Ask it to Join.

September 23, 2016: Chinese UN Representative Liu Jieyi votes in favor of a UN Security Council resolution on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) urging all parties to push for the treaty’s entry into force.

The Trump administration recently announced it intends to walk away from an important agreement that reduces the risk of nuclear war—the INF Treaty. US officials said concerns about China were an important factor in deciding to scrap a nuclear arms control pact intended to last in perpetuity. But there is no evidence the Trump administration consulted Chinese leaders about its plans to withdraw or the concerns that supposedly made it necessary.

The Soviet Union and the United States negotiated the bilateral agreement in the mid-1980s during an especially tense period when both sides were upgrading their immense nuclear arsenals. Wide-spread public protests in Europe and the United States helped push both governments to agree to eliminate at least one class of weapons: ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 miles.

Contemporary US critics of that agreement, including US National Security Advisor John Bolton, argue the United States must quit the treaty because China is not subject to the same restriction. That’s a dubious justification for tearing up the treaty, although persuading China to join has obvious value. Unfortunately, getting Chinese leaders to the negotiating table is a tough sell when, from their perspective, the entire US defense and foreign policy establishment is chomping at the bit to fight a new Cold War in Asia. But it’s only impossible if, like Mr. Bolton, you never really bother to try.

There is good reason to believe China is not opposed to arms control negotiations or unwilling to make significant concessions to arrive at an equitable agreement.

The Peril and the Hope

Even before atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of the scientists and a few of the politicians who understood the long-term implications sought to impose international controls. They recognized these weapons were different. As horrible as the last war had been, a war fought with nuclear weapons would be far worse. No nation or coalition of nations could win such a war. The entire planet might become inhabitable. Human civilization and most of the living things on earth could perish, forever.

China came late to the nuclear table but the impact of the weapons on the scientists who developed them was similar. Hu Side, a former director of China’s nuclear weapons lab, wrote, “I’ve seen the mushroom clouds rise, felt the earth and mountain massifs shake and experienced the shock of the tremendous energy released by a nuclear explosion. It is precisely because of these experiences that I particularly understand why national decision-makers determined our country’s nuclear weapons were a defensive measure for strategic deterrence.” It may lack the poetry of Robert Oppenheimer‘s “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” but the sentiment is the same. Nuclear weapons are too powerful to be used to fight a war.

Until the late 1990s the nuclear arms race and efforts to stop it grew in tandem. Scientists rallied the public to restrain the self-destructive behavior of military and political leaders addicted to antiquated approaches to war and peace. But over the last thirty years the will to control the nuclear arms race has weakened while the addiction to antiquity has grown much stronger. This is especially true in US-China relations, where the most influential idea guiding US officials is “the Thucydides trap” and Chinese leaders propagandize “the Great Chinese Renaissance.”

The Beginning of the End

Ironically, international nuclear arms control began to die when China finally embraced it. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was the first international nuclear arms control accord China helped to negotiate. For decades, the Chinese Communist Party viewed nuclear arms control as vehicle for preserving the advantages of the Soviet Union and the United States. China lagged far behind in the nuclear arms race. By the time the negotiations reached their final stage China had conducted 47 nuclear tests and possessed several hundred nuclear warheads.  The United States had conducted 1067 tests and possessed approximately 15,000 nuclear warheads. Nevertheless, China signed the treaty.

After the Clinton administration failed to convince the US Senate to ratify the CTBT, progress in international nuclear arms control ground to a halt. Negotiations on a treaty to ban the production of the materials used to make nuclear warheads were cut short. The United Nations Conference on Disarmament (UNCD) became paralyzed; unable to reach a consensus on how to start negotiations on any arms control agreement.

The Bush administration made things exponentially worse when it unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The 1972 agreement was based on the common sense notion that both the United States and the Soviet Union would be safer if they limited missile defenses so that neither side would feel compelled to build new nuclear-armed missiles to overwhelm those defenses.

President Obama gave a nice speech in Prague and his administration managed to preserve the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiated in 1991. But in order to get this New START agreement ratified Obama promised the Senate he would allow them to spend more than a trillion dollars to upgrade the entire US nuclear arsenal. And he steadfastly refused to even discuss a suggestion Chinese arms controllers felt was important: beginning talks in the UNCD on a new international agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space.

China does not look at nuclear arms control in isolation. Some forms of conventional weapons technology, like those involved in missile defenses, anti-satellite weapons and long-range conventional precision strike weapons impact Chinese decisions about the size and composition of its nuclear arsenal.

Back from the Brink

The most important thing about all forms of international arms control negotiations is that they bring adversaries together to talk. Dialogue builds trust. Trust that the other side isn’t trying to trick you into agreeing to something to gain an advantage. Trust that the other side respects you and is seeking an equitable agreement that reduces anxiety and the risk of war.

China has a small number of nuclear-armed ground-based intermediate range missiles that would fall under the original INF Treaty limits. But it also has a much larger number of conventionally armed missiles in this class that seem to be the major concern of US advocates of withdrawing from the treaty. Figuring out how to negotiate an expanded INF Treaty that would require China to dismantle them would introduce a number of new and difficult issues to resolve, but it could also lead to some very productive conversations on how to build trust and preserve the peace in East Asia.

Sadly, I suspect US advocates of killing the INF Treaty have no intention to talk to China about joining it, but if the United States wanted to open negotiations China is likely to put forward a few conditions.

First and foremost, the discussion on intermediate-range missiles would have to take place in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament. China must not be the only target of concern. Most if not all of the other nations that possess this class of weapon would have to be included. Chinese leaders prefer international rather than bilateral or multilateral forums for arms control negotiations. It’s not an unreasonable preference, and it predisposes Chinese negotiators to accept the general principle that restrictions should apply to everyone.

Unlocking the UNCD will be difficult because decisions are made by consensus—a norm for negotiations many cultures prefer. Consensus may require discussion of other arms control issues. Recent history suggests preserving peace in outer space may be one of them. Agreeing to begin discussions does not commit the United States to a particular outcome. It just creates an opportunity to talk. So broadening the agenda to satisfy all of the attending parties is not unreasonable either.

Finally, international arms control negotiations are not an apples-for-apples, oranges-for-oranges kind of thing. They’re an apples-for-my-pick-from-the entire-produce-aisle sort of thing. Different countries choose to rely on different weapons for all kinds of reasons, like geography. Because of its huge land mass and its concerns about the assemblage of conventional US forces on its periphery, China sees conventionally armed ground-based intermediate range missiles as an especially effective countermeasure. It’s invested decades of effort and substantial financial and technical resources in developing and deploying those missiles. Asking China to give them up is going to cost the United States something in return.

If the United States were serious about wanting China to join the INF Treaty, it would be talking with Chinese arms controllers about changes the United States might be willing to make in exchange for surrendering what Chinese military planners see as one of their most valuable military capabilities. There is no indication such a discussion has ever taken place. Until it does, China cannot be blamed for the US decision to kill the INF Treaty.