This site examines the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War international security environment, which faces emerging and constantly evolving threats from state and non-state actors alike. Specific topics discussed include arms control; deterrence; civilian nuclear power; South Asian nuclear strategy and power balance; nuclear terrorism; and the role of the United States in nonproliferation.


The Fallacy of the Indo-US Nuclear Cooperation Deal

In 2005, India and the US reached a landmark agreement in which the United States would provide burgeoning India with civilian nuclear power technical assistance and expertise. In return, India would place its civilian nuclear facilities under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In 2007, that deal was crystallized, and its text was released to the public. Then at the end of 2008, President Bush and Prime Minister Singh signed the agreement, which then entered into force.

Now, in the way of implementing that deal, New Delhi and Washington announced yesterday that they have reached an agreement that would allow India to reprocess used nuclear material.

Here's the problem with the above statement: these reprocessing activities would yield plutonium, which can then be used to build nuclear weapons. One of the main points of the bilateral Indo-US deal was to curb proliferation on the South Asian subcontinent, so this most recent development seems counter-intuitive and regressive. And using civilian nuclear capabilities for military purposes wouldn't be a first-time venture for New Delhi. After all, India did the exact same thing over 30 years ago when it used civilian nuclear material to build its first bombs.

Remember that, in order for the 2005 deal to be pushed through with a country that is not a signatory to the NPT, significant exceptions had to be made. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a nuclear export-control organization formed in the 1970s partially in response to India's testing of a nuclear weapon, granted key exemptions to India to allow it to conduct bilateral nuclear trade with the US. Read the press statement from the US-India Business Council on the NSG decision here.

As India has signed bilateral deals now with the US, with France and with Russia, it is absolutely critical that such activities as reprocessing should be checked, not encouraged. Here's a good quote from Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists:
"At a time when nuclear terrorism and proliferation concerns are only increasing, the United States should be doing everything it can to stop existing reprocessing, not facilitate more."
India has, by its own account, joined "the club." It is virtually "in" with the recognized nuclear powers. The Bush-Singh deal in 2005 was, in this writer's opinion, a flawed, myopic and disastrous agreement. But now that it has been put in place, further agreements like this reprocessing deal will only serve to highlight the inefficacy of the current non-proliferation regime. At a time when India and Pakistan (both nuclear-armed) are still deadlocked over peace talks and continue to operate outside the 1968 NPT, it is crucial that positive and encouraging steps be taken to curb proliferation in measurable and verifiable ways.

A reprocessing deal is not a step forward -- it's two steps backward.


Is the New START Treaty Enough?

Edit, March 27, 2009, 8:12 pm: Thanks to the good folks over at Demagogues and Dictators, the following article is published on that site as well. Check it out here.
After many arduous months of tough negotiations between the US and Russian teams, Presidents Obama and Medvedev have finally agreed to a new follow-on treaty to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I (START I), which formally expired in December 2009. The fact sheet is available here. And, noting this is very a propos, exactly one year and three days after Obama's 2009 speech in Prague, Obama and Medvedev will meet in that same city to formally sign the "New START Treaty".

This is all well and good, and given the delicate interests of both parties and the tenacity of the negotiating teams, the results are satisfactory. But are the agreed-upon cuts really substantial enough? Let's take a look at the numbers:
  • 1,550 warheads, including those on deployed ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles). This is a 74% reduction from 1991 levels.
  • A combined limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.
  • A separate limit of 700 deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.
First things first: I've highlighted the words "combined" and "separate" because to me, this doesn't make much sense. It isn't intuitive. I'm wondering how this distinction, which seems to be very subtle and ambiguous, will really be made.

Second, and more importantly, let's look at that first big number: 1,550 warheads each. EACH. Sure, it's a good start, and certainly a significant cut from 1991 levels. But in this writer's humble opinion, over 3,000 nuclear weapons between the US and Russia is still way too many. Here's why:

In December 2006, scientists who worked with Carl Sagan in the 1980s on the "nuclear winter" theory took a hypothetical (though realistic) scenario in which India and Pakistan, engaged in a limited regional nuclear war, detonated a total of 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons on the South Asian subcontinent.

The results of their analysis showed that while immediate fatalities would hover around the 20 million mark, the radiation, soot and debris resulting from the nuclear exchange would create a global cooling effect, affect rainfall levels, destroy agricultural crops and yield at least one billion deaths worldwide from starvation alone. A good synopsis of this study, with links to more detailed information, can be found here.

These are the results from just 100 nuclear weapons being exploded, each at Hiroshima-size levels. The US and Russia are now agreeing to a combined number of warheads that is more than 30 times that (and don't forget that both countries' strategic warheads have destructive powers 10 to 30 times that of Hiroshima's "Little Boy"). If even one nuclear warhead was used on a city in Russia or the US, the resulting nuclear exchange (justified under the basic sovereign right to self-defense) would be unfathomably devastating.

If you ask me, these cuts aren't good enough. Moreover, as Julian Borger at the Guardian says, "the real question now is whether both sides have the stamina to carry on cutting arsenals." The NPT Review Conference is coming up in May, and this writer is privileged to be a delegate to the event. Undoubtedly, the international community, particularly non-nuclear weapons states and activist groups, will be looking to Russia and the US to continue the momentum and make additional deep cuts as they pave the road towards Global Zero.

The White House is calling this the "New START Treaty." If you ask me, that just isn't encouraging enough.


Agnis, Prithvis and Suryas, Oh My!

Yesterday's Global Security Newswire featured two worrying related stories that have me thinking about nuclear security on the South Asian subcontinent.

In the first, India test-launched a short-range ballistic missile called the Prithvi-2, and although the test itself failed, it was indicative of India's continuing efforts to create a missile defense shield against perceived threats from neighboring Pakistan and China, both of whom have collaborated with each other in the past (this is mentioned briefly by Jeffrey Lewis on his blog today at, which in turn is in reference to today's Washington Post article on AQ Khan).

In the second article, India's Defense Research Development Organization (DRDO) is continuing efforts to develop a long-range cruise missile, the Agni-5, and the government plans to test that early next year. Meaning India, undeterred by the failed Prithvi test, will still continue developing its short-, medium- and long-range capabilities against perceived and potential threats, both near and far. They're even working on a proper ICBM, the Surya, to add intercontinental capability to their arsenal.

I fear for the subcontinent, really I do. It is true that despite their bitter 63-year relationship, India and Pakistan have had the occasional breakthrough. Yet in the past year since the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, any positive relations have been overshadowed by renewed mistrust, obscure intelligence reports, questionable military moves and dubious intents. It certainly doesn't help that AQ Khan has been up to no good in Pakistan. Despite his constant complaining on how much his movements are restricted by his nation's government, and regardless of how much he tries to push blame for his actions onto others, he still was pardoned by Musharraf in 2004, and he was finally released from house arrest last year. His presence, writing and actions are doing nothing to mitigate Indo-Pak tensions.

India's continuing investment into missile defense R&D is understandable, from New Delhi's perspective. But building up a missile defense shield is only going to strain Indo-Pak relations further.


Enlarging the North Korean Pie

Happy Hump Day! It has been a while since my last post, and I'm thinking today of North Korea.

I've been doing a lot of research into mutual US-North Korean concerns in the context of Six-Party Talks. Last week, I had an opportunity to participate in an enlightening simulation, facilitated by Nicole Finneman of the Korea Economic Institute, and although I was given the role of South Korea in the talks, and despite the fact that the actual briefings and negotiations limited the number of issues for all six parties to debate to just three points of contention, I learned so much from that exercise.

Here are my thoughts, broadly speaking: the fundamental concern for the US is North Korea's nuclear weapons program. We see it as a threat to the stability of the region. We have vital strategic interests that we seek to protect. Moreover, by developing its weapons program North Korea is in defiance of international law (think 1968 NPT and numerous UN Security Council resolutions, particularly UNSCR 1874). So the United States, as a permanent member on the Security Council and as the steward of the global nonproliferation regime, has a legal and moral obligation to work with other nations to incite, coerce, pressure and even force the DPRK to give up its weapons.

North Korea's primary concern, however, isn't its nukes program. In fact, those nuclear weapons are actually its only bargaining chip -- and what a hell of a chip, at that. From the North's perspective, the fact that it has a nuclear weapons program is the only thing that has the United States at the table at all. And when you think about it, that's a very accurate perception.

No, the DPRK issue is also the stability of the region. After being locked in a dispute for over 50 years with South Korea over the 38th Parallel border (that war, legally, is still ongoing), and with a desire to join the fold of the international community -- to "come in from the cold," so to speak -- the DPRK sees its nukes as the only leverage it has to get from other nations the things it really needs: food, economic aid, energy assistance. North Korea has a bitter history with Japan, doesn't trust its southern brethren (missiles aimed right at Seoul), and feels pressure from the United States to disarm. Combined with the constant threat of internal collapse, my feeling is that North Korea's already acute fear of isolation from the international community has only become further exacerbated in the wake of heightened tensions over an upcoming joint US-South Korea military exercise. So it's important, above all else, that North Korea find security and stability on the Peninsula.

Interesting, huh? We (the US and North Korea) actually have common concerns and mutual interests, which should incite us to come together to explore how we can "enlarge the pie," rather than simply decide how to divide a pie of fixed size. One challenge is that while the DPRK has been calling for bilateral US-North Korea talks for a long time, the US has steadfastly refused to negotiate on the side, insisting that any and all talks be done at the hexagonal table. There are other complications as well, of course.

So look for further thoughts on North Korea in the near future, as I explore exactly why the two countries aren't leveraging mutual interests to advance a shared agenda, and how this obstacle can be overcome.