UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only)

New Analysis: US Missile Defense Tests Lack Realistic Decoys

Rumor has it that the administration’s Missile Defense Review (MDR) may finally be released this week. As policy makers discuss its recommendations and consider expanding US missile defenses in various ways, they should have a realistic view of the capability of these systems—and their limitations.

There have been 18 intercept flight tests of the Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD) system through 2018. Contrary to some claims, these tests have not demonstrated that the missile defense system would be successful in intercepting incoming warheads under realistic conditions.

The primary purpose of the tests has been to demonstrate “hit to kill,” that is, to test the ability of the missile defense kill vehicle to home on the target warhead and physically collide with it. Yet the system has succeeded in doing this in only half the tests overall, and only 40 percent of the latest 10 tests, so the record is not improving.

Moreover, none of these tests have included realistic decoys and other countermeasures that the system would be expected to face in a real attack—including an attack from North Korea. So the effectiveness of the defense against a real-world attack would be even lower than the 40 to 50 percent seen in the tests.

Fig 1. The balloon decoy used in early tests appeared about six times brighter than the reentry vehicle to the kill vehicle’s sensor and was therefore easy to distinguish (Source: UCS)

Some of the 18 intercept tests have included decoy balloons to test whether the kill vehicles can distinguish the mock warhead from other objects. However:

  • The decoy balloons and other objects used in the tests have been designed to look very different than the warhead, so have been easy to distinguish;
  • Information about the different appearance of the objects is given to the kill vehicle in advance, so that it can recognize which object is which;
  • Decoys that prove difficult for the kill vehicle to distinguish have not been used in subsequent tests.

This new analysis (and summary) discusses each of the GMD intercept tests and describes the decoys used in each of them.

What this makes clear is that the GMD tests have not demonstrated the ability of the GMD system to successfully discriminate objects the kill vehicle might see in a real-world attack.

The Long-Overdue Missile Defense Review Expected (Again) This Week

Where’s the Trump administration’s hugely delayed Missile Defense Review? The latest rumor is that it will be released this coming Thursday, and that seems plausible (but I wouldn’t hold your breath).

The review was congressionally mandated in the FY17 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and was originally expected in late 2017. Then it was expected around the February 2018 release of the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review. After that, it was expected in May. Now, it is more than a year late, and what it says remains a mystery.

When will we see it?

Delayed again? Photo by Roey Ahram, 2011.

We’ve been told that an initial version, shepherded by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Rob Soofer, was completed and briefed to some members of Congress in late 2017. But when Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood took office in January 2018, he required an extensive rewrite with a much more aggressive approach. The Trump administration’s diplomatic overtures and warming relations with North Korea became a second complication. Releasing a document that focused on the increasing threat resulting from successful North Korean long-range missile tests could undermine that budding relationship.

As far back as October 2018, officials publicly stated that the review was completed, but the Pentagon and the White House have been unable to agree to release it. Most recently, it was rumored that the Pentagon wanted to release it when then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke at the Reagan National Defense Forum in December 2018, but the White House nixed that idea for reasons unknown. (We also know that many Hill staff have not been briefed on the current version and are as in the dark as we are.)

What’s in a title?

The Obama administration completed its Ballistic Missile Defense Review in February 2010. The current effort is meant to be more expansive. Congress has asked for a review of US capability, policy, and strategy to defeat missiles, including “left of launch” options that would stop missiles from being developed or launched in the first place, as well as passive and active, kinetic and non-kinetic measures. This “missile defeat” policy would cover not only ballistic missiles but also is mandated by Congress to cover cruise missile and maneuvering hypersonic missiles. So the term “ballistic” will almost certainly be dropped and “defense” will probably become “defeat.”

What will it say?

The Missile Defense Review likely will call for expanding current theater and strategic ballistic-missile defense systems and developing new systems to defend against such threats. It may even endorse developing new systems to defend against new classes of threats. We recently posted a briefing paper giving some background and highlighting what we will be looking for when it’s released. Take a look.

The review is late, but even without a new high-level mandate the FY19 budget request already significantly increased funding for existing missile defense systems. Congress also has gotten ahead of the administration and added requirements in the FY19 NDAA for the Pentagon to scope and develop new systems, including space-based missile defenses and drone-based interceptors.

Whether or not the missile defense review appears, the upcoming defense budget request will reveal Trump’s priorities in these areas. Indeed, the then-Deputy (now Acting) Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan stated back in October that, even if it is not published, the Missile Defense Review will inform the Trump administration’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget request that is supposed to be released in early February.

However, there will be one new factor whether or not the review is released: With new Democratic leadership in the House, the administration is likely to face much more skepticism than it did in recent years. The Pentagon should not expect blank checks (or wild ideas for space-based defenses) going forward.

Okinawa’s Burden

The author with Gov. Masahide Ota in his office at the Okinawa Peace Research Institute in April, 2017

China isn’t the only country tearing up precious coral reefs to build new military outposts in the Pacific. Just before the new year holiday, in order to fulfill obligations to the US military, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began covering the coral reefs of Henoko Bay with landfill.

It’s the latest move in a decades old struggle between the people of Okinawa, who don’t want another US military base on their tiny island, and the central government of Japan, which agreed to construct the massive new Henoko facility under the terms of a controversial agreement with the United States. US military bases already occupy nearly a quarter of the 466 sq. mi island, which is home to approximately 1.5 million people. Three quarters of all US military bases in Japan and over half of the US military personnel stationed in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa, which accounts for less than 1% of Japan’s total land mass. 

Legacy of US Military Occupation

The huge US military footprint in Okinawa is a product of post-war US-Japan relations. US forces took the island in the closing months of World War II in one of the most gruesome and costly battles of the Pacific war. Of the estimated 200,000 people killed during twelve weeks of fighting between US and Japanese forces, 120,000 were Okinawan civilians, many of whom were pressed into military service or encouraged to commit suicide by a depleted Japanese military that knew it was on the verge of defeat. Imperial officials did not expect to hold the island, but sought to fight a costly war of attrition that would discourage a US invasion of Japan’s main islands. The strategy worked. The horrific consequences of the Battle of Okinawa influenced President Truman’s deliberations about the potential costs of invading Japan.

The perception that Tokyo sacrificed Okinawans to spare the Japanese continues to define the island’s relationship with the rest of Japan. In a conversation in his office in Naha, the revered former governor of Okinawa, Masahide Ota, a survivor of the battle, told me the people of the island were far less angry at the invading American soldiers than they were at the Japanese officials who condemned them to senseless death.

Ota also noted that in the early days of the US occupation many Okinawans hoped the United States would return at least some of the autonomy they lost when Imperial Japan annexed the island in 1879. Unfortunately, according to Ota, the US occupation government showed little regard for Okinawan rights.

The new post-war Japanese government imposed limitations on US military activity in the main islands, including prohibitions on bringing US nuclear weapons into Japan. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff responded by concentrating US forces, including US nuclear forces, in Okinawa. The chiefs sought to hold on to the island indefinitely in order to preserve their freedom of action, and US nuclear deterrence, in the Pacific. It took enormous pressure from the Japanese public to force political leaders in Tokyo and Washington to negotiate an agreement that returned sovereign control of Okinawa to Japan in 1972.

Ever since, the people of Okinawa and their elected representatives have been fighting with the government in Tokyo to recover at least some of the land appropriated by the US military. They argue that if these US bases are really necessary to defend Japan–a claim many Okinawans doubt–then the burden of hosting them should not fall so heavily on the people of Okinawa. At the very least, any new US military facilities, like the new construction at Henoko, should not be built in Okinawa.

Glimmer of Hope

A new Japanese government, led by a new Japanese political party, assumed office in the fall of 2009. For the first and only time since the end of World War II, a set of Japanese leaders from a political party other than the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won control of the government at the polls. They campaigned on the promise of establishing a more balanced relationship with the United States that would allow Tokyo to exercise greater independence over Japan’s foreign and military policy. Yukio Hatoyama, who led the party to victory and became its first prime minister, promised to renegotiate the controversial agreement over the new US military facility in Okinawa. Stopping construction of the new US base was a central issue during the campaign.

US Asia experts in the Obama administration found the Hatoyama government’s desire for a more balanced relationship “unwelcome” and “disturbing.”  Defense Secretary Robert Gates refused to dine with the new prime minister during a trip to Tokyo shortly after the election. President Obama refused to renegotiate the base agreement. Relentless US criticism of Hatoyama’s government, and its failure to deliver on a key campaign promise, contributed to his decision to resign less than a year after his historic election.

Despite this setback the people of Okinawa continued to try to stop the base. The provincial government used legal and administrative regulations to prevent construction. Demonstrators, many of them elderly villagers, impeded progress by lying down in front of massive earth moving vehicles. But the Abe government, under pressure from the US military, used highly questionable interpretations of the law to override the legal and administrative prohibitions enacted by the provincial government. The prime minister replaced local police with rent-a-cops from other regions of Japan who were more willing to beat the elderly demonstrators protesting outside the base. Abe also used a new national security law and increased control of the Japanese press to limit and shape reporting on the base issue.

Given the increasingly formidable obstacles at home,  Okinawan governmental and non-governmental organizations turned to the international community for support. They made their case to block the base and invalidate the US-Japan military agreements that mandate its completion to special rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council. They also enlisted the support of US environmental organizations to call attention to the harmful impacts of the construction in Henoko Bay and filed suit against the US Department of Defense to try to stop construction.

Most recently, Okinawan heritage groups in the United States organized a series of demonstrations and petitioned the White House in an effort to alert US lawmakers to an upcoming referendum meant to demonstrate the extent of local opposition to the new base. The hope is that a new and more progressive US Congress might take action in support of Okinawan democratic rights to determine their own fate and preserve Okinawa’s environment.

Uphill Struggle

US lawmakers routinely pass resolutions and enact laws to support the human rights of various aggrieved populations around the world, but they’ve been conspicuously quiet on the question of Okinawa. Last year I accompanied former primer minister Hatoyama as he pleaded with several powerful members of the House and the Senate to take action to stop the base. Most responded to his entreaties with mild surprise or polite indifference. Members of Congress with an interest in US Asia policy who take the time to travel to Japan routinely confine their fact finding to meetings with the defense and foreign policy officials in Tokyo who are pushing the base construction forward.

Those same Japanese officials praised a Trump administration nuclear and defense posture that may impose an even a greater burden on the people of Okinawa. Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba told a US congressional commission that preparing to re-deploy US nuclear weapons in Okinawa is a reasonable next step. US advocates of abrogating the INF Treaty are discussing deploying US land-based intermediate range missiles on the island. Okinawan hopes to shoulder less of the burden of the US military presence in the Pacific need to overcome not only the intransigence of Abe’s LDP, but a new push by US defense and foreign policy professionals to build up US forces in the region.

Record Number of Satellites in Orbit

An updated version of the UCS Satellite Database has been posted. Including launches and deactivations through November 30, 2018, the Database includes information on about 1,957 active satellites. That is 71 more than our previous release last July.

We are trying to set a regular rhythm of thrice-yearly updates, which is slightly less frequent than in that past. One reason it’s going more slowly is the sheer number of satellites launched, as launching and operating smaller and cheaper satellites has become increasingly viable.

Five years ago, each new update included twenty or thirty new satellites. Currently we are adding between 100-200 new satellites each update (with 26 pieces of information for each). The net number of active satellites doesn’t increase this quickly because we are also removing satellites as they deorbit or become inactive.

Since we are just almost across the 2,000 satellite line, I was curious to go back and see how the total satellite numbers have grown over time. I plotted the total number of active satellites for each of the 38 database updates we’ve produced since 2005.

We’ve been producing the database for about 13 years. About halfway through, we hit the 1,000 satellite mark; in other words it took around 6 ½ years to get from 800 to 1,000 satellites. There were plenty of launches, but also plenty of deactivations. (You can see the lists of satellites added and deleted over this whole period in our Changes to the Database document. We just add on the new information at the top of the list.) It only took the next 6 1/2 years to go from 1,000 to nearly 2,000.

The growth in number doesn’t map directly to growth in on-orbit capacity. Much of this growth is driven by launches of large numbers of smaller, less capable satellites. Currently, there are at least 470 satellites on orbit with a reported launch mass of 10 kg or less. In the January 1, 2012 database, we listed 21 such satellites. (NB: We don’t have reported masses for 7.5% of the satellites in the database.) About 500 satellites with masses greater than 2,500 kg are currently active on-orbit. So roughly a quarter of satellites have launch masses of 10 kg or less, and about a quarter have masses of 2,500 kg or greater.

Of course, numbers of satellites don’t tell the complete story about capability. The most massive satellites, schoolbus-sized classified military imaging satellites, are enormously capable, much more so than toaster-sized smallsats. As we move into the small satellite era, a better metric for on-orbit capability of a country, for example, will probably be total on-orbit mass or on-orbit power. We will keep trying to get more complete data on these parameters.

Memo to Congress: America Already Has Low-yield Nuclear Warheads

The Trump administration plans to build new “low-yield” nuclear weapons that would be launched from Trident submarines. Its rationale? It insists they are needed to counter Russia’s low-yield weapons.

This plan has resulted in a lot of confused—or perhaps deceptive—verbiage on the part of some of our elected officials. They seem not to know or neglect to mention that the United States already deploys a wide array of low-yield nuclear weapons.

Or it could be that they have their own set of alternate facts?

Alternate Facts in the House

For example, on May 22, Mike Roger (R-Ala.), who chairs the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, laid out his reasons for supporting the new warhead. Discussing the possibility of a Russian attack with low-yield weapons, he said:

“…[W]e have to understand Russia has this capability. … I think one of the reasons they don’t believe we would respond is we don’t have the capability [emphasis added] to do it without all-out nuclear war. They have to understand that we can, with precision, do exactly what they would do to us.”

Given Roger’s position in Congress, you would expect him to know quite a bit about US nuclear weapons. Yet he seems to believe that the United States has no low-yield nuclear weapons, so that the only US option would be to use its regular-size nuclear weapons and start an all-out nuclear war. (He also seems to believe that using low-yield nuclear weapons could not itself lead to an all-out nuclear war, but let’s ignore that for now.)

Alternate Facts in the Senate

More recently, Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who was then serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, weighed in with a November 29 op-ed on The Washington Post website, “Why America needs low-yield nuclear warheads now.” He and his co-author Michael Morell, who is a former deputy director and acting director of the CIA, argue that the United States needs the new low-yield Trident warhead “because a high-yield, long-range U.S. response to Russia’s first, limited use of a low-yield nuclear weapon against a military target is not credible. The Russians believe we are not likely to risk a global thermonuclear war in response to a ‘tactical’ nuclear attack by them.”

Again, the claim is that if Russia were to use low-yield nuclear weapons, the United States would have only two options: no response or launching a global thermonuclear war by using its regular- size weapons.

Again, given the responsibilities and experience of these two men, one would expect them to know a fair amount about the US arsenal. Yet they seem not to know—or at least don’t acknowledge—that the United States has other options because it already deploys a wide array of low-yield nuclear weapons, and has for decades.

The Real Facts

Exactly what low-yield weapons does the United States have in its arsenal?

The B61 bombs—which include 150 deployed at US air bases in six NATO countries—have variable explosive yields. The lowest available option has an explosive power of 0.3 kilotons of TNT—just 2 percent of the yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The bombs also can be set to a yield of 1.5, 10, 45 or 60 kilotons.

The United States also deploys air-launched cruise missiles with yields of 5 to 150 kilotons.

The United States is upgrading these weapons to extend their lifetimes for several decades and to add improvements, such as greater accuracy.

The planned new warhead—the W76-2—will have a yield of 6.5 kilotons and will replace some of the existing 100-kiloton W76 warheads on US submarines. It would add yet another weapon to the low-yield nuclear arsenal that our elected officials apparently don’t know exists.

You have to admit, though, the W76-2 will nicely fill in the gaping hole between 5 and 10 kilotons in the figure below.

Fig. 1 (Source: UCS)

China in Focus #22: Wither Engagement?

Chinese Astronaut Yang Liwei discusses international cooperation in space exploration at the 2018 Galaxy Forum in Beijing.

US China policy is changing. One well-informed observer put it this way in a recent conversation on Twitter: “There’s currently a great deal of consensus in the US for not just more competition with, but also separation from, China.” 

Another claimed this “growing anti-China sentiment” has been “building for years” and is now being shaped into a “whole of society response” based on a “deep antipathy towards China” that “will probably be impossible to change.” The president of a leading US think tank recently argued America’s supposed new “China fixation” can and should be harnessed “to rally elected leaders around a program of American strength and renewal.”

Cultivating enmity towards others is a lousy way to try to renew oneself. Raising the specter of foreign enemies to create domestic unity is a recipe for war.  Attempting to separate the people of the United States from a fifth of humanity is a fool’s errand in this era of climate change, technological interdependence and the accelerating integration of human societies, economies and cultures.

The concept of globalization was not conceived as a policy option but as a description. One cannot be for or against it any more than one can be for or against describing the color of the sky as blue. No matter what our respective governments do, Chinese ideas and actions will affect American lives and vice versa. They cannot be walled-off and contained. They can only be engaged.

How to engage China is the appropriate question for US policy makers, who should keep in mind that China is more than its government, and that its government is more than the small number of leaders who occupy its highest offices.

By any measure, since the United States recognized that government and normalized relations with its multitudinous subjects, the United States has affected Chinese society and culture to a far greater degree than China has affected American society and culture. Indeed, one can interpret the Sisyphean efforts of China’s senior leadership to mediate the relationship by attempting to restrict access to ubiquitous information as an indicator of the direction and magnitude of Chinese social and cultural change.

It is hard to see how US policies that encourage widespread general antipathy towards China by punishing its entrepreneurs, harassing its scientists and doubting the good intentions of its citizens with the express aim of driving a wedge between the two countries benefits anyone except, perhaps, the few senior Chinese leaders who would also prefer to put a little more distance between the two societies and cultures.

It is equally hard to understand why US pundits and policy-makers appear to be in awe of the supposed power of Chinese leaders who seem to be terrified of their own subjects. The cacophony of US voices raising alarm about the rise of China may want to consider the possibility that the upper echelon of the Chinese Communist Party spends so much effort trying to project strength because it understands the inherent weakness of any government responsible for meeting the needs and managing the expectations of 1.4 billion people. That may be why China’s new National Security Commission is more focused on what is happening inside China’s borders than beyond them.

The described US consensus for greater separation is based on the highly questionable assumption that engagement failed. That assumption is based on an unadvisedly narrow benchmark.

The decisions on China policy US elites made in the 1970s, 80s and 90s were premised on the hope, if not the expectation, that China’s communist government would either change its ways or fail. US corporate elites agreed to onerous Chinese impositions in exchange for access to Chinese markets, including demands to transfer technology, because they assumed those impositions would be short-lived. US political elites went along with their corporate patrons because they assumed China’s communist government would either become more open or collapse. The Chinese Communist Party not only survived engagement with its ideology and practices intact, it presided over decades of increasing prosperity.

Ripping apart the social, economic and cultural relationships that bind Chinese and Americans together won’t make us less interdependent. The world is too small for 1.4 billion producers and consumers to go about their business without impacting the lives of everyone else on the planet, including Americans.

China’s new CRISPR babies is an example worth contemplating. Would it be better or worse to have a relationship so fraught with fear and mistrust that our scientists, philosophers and policy-makers cannot talk constructively about the consequences of how advanced technologies like this are employed?

Moreover, there’s no guarantee separation will accomplish what engagement did not. Promoting American hostility towards China, much less making it the political cornerstone of American unity and renewal, is unlikely to produce a more open Chinese regime.

US elite hopes to fundamentally change China’s government may be unrealized.  But the US government has managed to engage it for the last forty years and the enormous space that created for everyone who is not in government to engage each other has benefited both societies and economies. This interaction has contributed to making East Asia one of the most peaceful and productive regions in the world. That’s a much better benchmark for measuring success or failure.



Nuclear Weapons, President Trump, and General Mattis

Many people trusted that Secretary of Defense Mattis would be able to rein in the dangerous impulses of his erratic boss who, as commander-in-chief, has the authority to order the use of military forces—including nuclear weapons.

Indeed, General Mattis may have privately assured some members of Congress that he would get into the loop to restrain President Trump if it looked like a nuclear crisis was brewing. So people are naturally worried that Mattis’ resignation will put Trump back in full control of US nuclear weapons.

But regardless of what Mattis may or may not have told members of Congress, the secretary of defense is not in the decision chain for a nuclear launch and has no ability to stop a launch order from going through. Perhaps Mattis could have talked Trump out of ordering an attack in the first place, assuming he knew the president was considering such an attack, but he had neither the legal authority nor the ability to prevent one from being carried out.

(Source: Dept. of Defense)

The fact is that the US president has sole and complete authority to order a launch of nuclear weapons. No consultation with military or political advisors is necessary.

It’s just the president’s finger on the button, and no one gets a veto.

One Phone Call is All it Takes

To order the use of nuclear weapons, the president would simply call the Pentagon’s “War Room,” read a code to an officer to confirm that he or she is indeed the president, and specify what targets to attack. (If the president is not at the White House or other location with secure communication, he or she would use the so-called nuclear football to order the use of nuclear weapons.)

After confirming the president’s identity, the War Room would send an encrypted launch order directly to aircraft pilots, the underground crews that launch land-based missiles, and/or the submarine crews that launch submarine-based missiles. This whole process would take only minutes and does not involve anyone else in the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense Mattis might only find out after the fact.

Nuclear-armed aircraft would take some time to prepare for takeoff and reach their targets, meaning in principle there may be time for the secretary of defense to intervene and order the planes to return to base. It would be illegal and the pilots would likely ignore the order, but it would be physically possible. Some fraction of US submarine-based missiles could be launched within about 15 minutes of receiving an order, which may or may not be enough time for someone to attempt to intervene.

However, it would likely not be physically possible to intervene in the launch of US land-based missiles. These 400 missiles are kept on high alert and it would only be a matter of minutes from the presidential order to when missiles would leave their silos.

(Keeping these missiles on high alert results in another significant risk—a US launch based on a false alarm. The United States keeps these weapons on hair trigger alert to maintain the option of launching them quickly on warning of an attack—before they could be destroyed by incoming warheads. However, there have been numerous false alarms in the past and this danger remains. Because it takes only 25 minutes for a long-range missile to travel between the United States and Russia, the timeline for making a launch decision a very short and the president would have only a few minutes to be briefed, confer, and make a launch decision.)

So while people might hope that someone like Secretary Mattis could rein in the president’s dangerous impulses, there is essentially nothing Mattis or anyone else could do to stop a launch they thought was not justified.

The Real Problem: US Policy

While the current president has highlighted the risks inherent in this system, the problem is far bigger than President Trump. At its core, the problem is US nuclear weapons policy.

The policy must change.

The United States should:

Will Japan Try to Save the INF Treaty?

US President Ronald Reagan and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone meet at Camp David in 1986.

President Trump said he plans to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. US National Security Advisor John Bolton implied the government of Japan already agreed.

Not long after Bolton’s statement, Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters the Abe government needed to discuss the fate of the treaty with US officials before commenting. Six days later US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Tom DiNanno and Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia Marc Knapper arrived in Tokyo for a three-day dialog on US extended deterrence guarantees for Japan. The fate of the INF treaty was on their agenda. What did Japanese officials tell the Trump administration?

Japanese advocates for nuclear arms control and disarmament should be concerned about the consequences of INF withdrawal. So should anyone worried about the risk of nuclear and conventional missile strikes against Japan.

If the United States abrogates the INF treaty it may deploy ground-based intermediate range missiles in Japan. Russia and China may take measures to counter those deployments. This would weaken Japanese security, and Japanese citizens could find themselves at the center of a new arms race in East Asia.

Concerned US and Japanese citizens deserve to know if the Japanese foreign ministry is doing anything to save the INF Treaty before Trump makes an official announcement.

Little Cause for Hope

The Abe government has been notably pro-nuclear. Japanese foreign ministry officials applauded the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which called for re-deploying low-yield nuclear weapons in Asia. They successfully lobbied the Obama administration to make US nuclear weapons available in Asia aboard dual-capable aircraft.

Moreover, Takeo Akiba, the current Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, told a US congressional commission on the US nuclear posture that “some quarters” in Japan want to revise the three non-nuclear principles to allow for the transit and storage of US nuclear weapons in Japan. In response to a direct question from former US Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Akiba replied that he thought building a nuclear weapons storage site in Okinawa “sounds persuasive.”

These statements and the Foreign Ministry’s long record of attempts to obscure discussion on the transit of US nuclear weapons through Japanese territory provide little reason to hope Mr. Akiba or Mr. Kono will oppose Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty.

Moreover, they will most likely insist that their dialog with US officials on the subject remain confidential, making it difficult to learn what they told US officials during the extended deterrence dialog. That’s unfortunate. Greater transparency could promote a more informed public debate on the treaty. Prime Minister Abe’s passive role in the fate of the INF Treaty stands in sharp contrast to the active efforts of former Prime Minister Yusuhiro Nakasone to influence the decisions of President Ronald Reagan throughout the negotiations that led to the treaty.

Nakasone’s Concern

The push for the INF treaty emerged in the late 1970s in response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, a new road-mobile missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers that could carry three nuclear warheads. US and NATO negotiators were exclusively focused on the threat to Western Europe. Nakasone personally intervened to remind Reagan that the new Soviet SS-20 deployments were also a threat to Japan. If the United States abrogates the INF Treaty it will free Russia to deploy new nuclear-capable nuclear missiles that can strike US military bases in Japan.

US analysts and officials pushing to scrap the treaty want to deploy new conventionally armed ground-based missiles in Asia with ranges that are currently prohibited by the INF. They claim it is necessary to increase US conventional superiority over China even though Chinese military professionals already recognize US nuclear and conventional superiority. Regardless of the merits of that argument, Russia may feel the need to deploy new nuclear-armed missiles to counter the new US deployments in Japan.

The combination of the Abe government’s support for redeploying US nuclear weapons in Asia, Mr. Akiba’s willingness to allow the construction of nuclear weapons storage sites in Okinawa and the Foreign Ministry’s unwillingness to discuss its recent dialog with the United States provide ample reason for Russian military planners to wonder if the new US intermediate-range missiles deployed in Japan could be armed with nuclear warheads.

China’s Reaction

The relatively small size of China’s nuclear arsenal, especially when compared to the nuclear arsenal of the United States, suggests Chinese military planners are unlikely to significantly alter China’s nuclear weapons modernization program in response to a US abrogation of the INF Treaty. China’s primary concern is the survivability of their nuclear arsenal. Ground-based intermediate-range missiles based in Japan might be able to reach father into China’s interior than the conventional air- and sea-based options currently available, but the impact of that extended reach is unlikely to be great enough to convince Chinese strategists that a rational US president would risk Chinese nuclear retaliation by attempting to wipe out China’s nuclear forces in a pre-emptive strike.

While there may be no significant impact on Chinese thinking about nuclear weapons or its nuclear modernization program, US-controlled conventionally armed ground-based intermediate-range missiles deployed in Japan would become targets for conventional Chinese missile strikes in any major military confrontation with the United States. This could draw Japan into armed conflicts not directly connected to its defense. And Japanese consent to those deployments would undermine the strategic intent of Abe’s recent outreach to China.

US abrogation of the INF Treaty would weaken Japan’s national security, especially if Japan agrees to deploy US ground-based intermediate-range missiles on its territory.

Given the questionable benefits and probable costs, concerned US and Japanese citizens deserve to know more about the current discussions between the Foreign Ministry and the Trump administration before a final decision is made.

China and the INF Treaty

Some US analysts and officials argue the United States should withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty because it prevents the United States from responding to China’s deployed short and intermediate range ground-based missiles. They argue the United States should abandon a bilateral arms control agreement intended to prevent Russia from threatening Western Europe to make it easier for the United States to threaten China.

These are dubious arguments. The US nuclear arsenal is more than 10 times larger than China’s and Chinese military strategists already believe the United States possesses conventional military superiority.

The push for the INF treaty emerged in the late 1970s in response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, a new road-mobile missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers that could carry three nuclear warheads to Western European targets from eastern Soviet Union bases. The missile could reach targets in many other parts of the world, including Asia, but that was not a concern. At one point during the negotiations the United States and NATO were willing to let the Soviets continue to deploy some SS-20s if they moved them far enough east to be out of range of many Western European targets. Japan’s prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, was so angry that US and NATO negotiators were sacrificing his country’s security concerns that he personally pressed President Ronald Reagan to take that option off the table.

As discussions were proceeding, the United States and NATO simultaneously moved forward with plans to deploy hundreds of nuclear-armed, ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing II ballistic missiles in Western Europe to restore a perceived balance of nuclear forces that Soviet SS-20 deployments had upset. That balance could be achieved by either limiting the number of Soviet missiles with the treaty or increasing the number of new US-NATO missiles. Public opposition to the proposed US-NATO deployments helped tip the scales in favor of negotiations.

One of the reasons Asia was not a concern to US INF negotiators is there was no comparable imbalance between US and Chinese nuclear forces. The United States possessed significantly more then and still does today. 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 (deployed and reserve) and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make approximately 5,000 more.

China could deliver 75 to 100 of those nuclear warheads to targets in the United States via ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and a maximum of 60 more on its soon to be 60 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). It can deliver 50 to 100 more nuclear warheads to targets in Asia with nuclear-capable intermediate-range missiles. 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 United States also currently deploys 452 nuclear gravity bombs and 528 nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles. China does have several hundred nuclear-capable cruise missiles, but US intelligence agencies believe they are assigned conventional missions. Even if they were assigned nuclear missions, the balance of nuclear forces would remain heavily skewed in favor of the United States.

So, scrapping the INF threatens to upset the balance of nuclear forces with Russia in Europe in order to widen an already large US nuclear advantage over China in Asia.

Since that’s an obviously bad trade, US analysts and officials who tie the fate of this decades-old US-Russia nuclear arms control agreement to China may be more worried about balance of conventional forces. If that’s true, the question for President Trump is whether acquiring the freedom to target China with this class of conventionally armed missiles is worth giving Russia the freedom to target both Western Europe and Asia with the same class of nuclear-armed missiles.

Before he makes up his mind, Trump should know that the current conventional military balance between the United States and China does not inspire much confidence among Chinese military strategists. In China’s most recent assessment, US conventional military capabilities in Asia are consistently described as far superior to the capabilities of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The only Chinese generals who talk with some enthusiasm about a future military conflict with the United States are the political officers who appear on television and write propaganda pieces to buck up the troops and assuage the general public.

Chinese generals with actual military responsibilities are not at all optimistic about the outcome of a conventional war with the United States. They say they’ll fight if US politicians give them no other option, by supporting independence for Taiwan, for example. But the idea that China is a rising military power preparing to kick the US military out of Asia is a uniquely US perception based more on highly questionable theories of international relations than objective assessments of Chinese military capabilities or intentions.

China has been spending a consistent 2 percent of its annual gross domestic product (GDP) on its military every year since 1988. Because China’s annual GDP has grown significantly over the past several decades, Chinese military spending may be narrowing the conventional military gap to the same degree the growth of China’s economy is narrowing the economic gap. China’s per capita GDP has ballooned from a paltry $283 (in current US dollars) in 1988 to a little more than $9,000 today. That’s an impressive achievement. The per capita GDP of the United States went from $21,483 to $61,690 in the same period.

How much China’s economic growth has allowed its leaders to close the conventional military gap is very difficult to assess. One thing that should be clear, however, is that comparing totals of one class of armaments—ground-based missiles—is meaningless. There are many discrete capabilities that must be considered in assessing the conventional military balance between China and the United States, including the quantity and quality of aircraft, naval vessels, space assets, cyber skills and the education and training of troops. That last category is the one brought up most frequently in personal conversations with Chinese military professionals. Consistent with the traditional Maoist view that people, not munitions, determine the outcome of wars, the gap in the quality of the average soldier is the benchmark Chinese military strategists worry about the most, and Chinese military officers work most diligently to close.

The INF treaty is a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia intended to do one thing and one thing only: preserve nuclear stability between the two nations that account for more than 90 percent of all the nuclear weapons in the world. US concerns about Russian violations of the treaty may be legitimate. But China does not possess any constellation of nuclear weapons that threatens to upset the balance of nuclear forces in Asia, which is very heavily weighted in favor of the United States and will continue to be for the indefinite future, despite China’s nuclear weapons modernization program.

Withdrawing from the INF treaty and forgoing the preservation of nuclear stability with Russia because of concerns about improvements in China’s conventional military capabilities is unwarranted, especially since Chinese military professionals believe they still lag far behind.