Verifying Absence of Nuclear Weapons: Looking Back To Look Forward During the UN First Committee Meetings

By Christine Parthemore

Every year for a month, the UN First Committee holds a series of meetings. This year’s are currently in progress, running from October 5 to November 5. The body deals with disarmament issues, among others, so in recent years I and others in the CSR family have commonly spent part of early October at First Committee side events. As we look ahead in our work on reducing weapons of mass destruction threats, it is useful to flash back to some of what we’ve briefed in First Committee gatherings in the past. 

In October 2018, I joined UNIDIR’s First Committee side event on “Evidence of Absence: Verifying Removal of Nuclear Weapons.” This event shared important work by UNIDIR’s Pavel Podvig, Ryan Snyder and Wilfred Wan exploring in depth the concept of verifying the absence of nuclear weapons from specific sites.

When nuclear-armed nations like ours pivot to concerted work in shaping the future of arms control, this concept will be an important option for developing verification regimes and for trust-building among countries. In my remarks, which I am sharing here as prepared, I shared my thoughts on this concept and spoke of the example of nuclear armed cruise missiles—a pressing issue for reducing nuclear risks, and a type of nuclear weapons for which verifying evidence of absence would be a helpful means of reducing miscalculation that conventional cruise missiles carry nuclear warheads: 


Remarks by Christine Parthemore at “Evidence of Absence: Verifying Removal of Nuclear Weapons,” October 18, 2018

Thanks to UNIDIR for including me in today’s discussion, and to all of you for joining.

First, I’d like to commend the excellent work in the new report being presented today. As it describes, concepts for verifying the absence of nuclear weapons in specific locations and circumstances add very useful options as we think about nuclear weapon reductions and other stabilizing measures.

While there has been good work focused on verifying warhead dismantlement, verifying the absence of nuclear weapons links more closely to what I see as the most important and perhaps more politically feasible near-term possibilities in arms control.

I believe the concept of verifying absence of nuclear weapons is especially important for the redeployment or reductions in non-strategic nuclear weapons — and weapons systems for which countries possess nearly indistinguishable conventional and nuclear systems.

In this category, of high interest to my work and those of many of my US and international counterparts are nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

These types of nuclear weapons carry unique risks, whether they are launched by ground, sea, or air. First, there is a significant ambiguity challenge — if a nation sees cruise missiles incoming launched from a country that has both nuclear and conventional variants, there is no way to determine whether they are under nuclear attack. This increases the risks of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation.

For air launched cruise missiles: They are difficult to detect, and they are extremely difficult to defend against. Among other things, this raises concerns that these weapons can play unique roles in taking out key nodes in another country’s deterrent, such as command and control hubs.

The rhetoric tied to nuclear cruise missiles has also shifted in recent years to describing them more in terms of warfighting than deterrence. When we hear discussions of so-called escalation control and winnable nuclear warfighting in Europe or Asia, often nuclear-armed cruise missiles are the specific weapons being described.

Cruise missiles are also a key part of one of the major current tensions between the United States and Russia: the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

For these reasons and more, I and many others are extremely concerned that these nuclear weapons present unique dangers and threaten strategic stability even more than others. 

However, nuclear cruise missiles also present unique prospects in arms control.

Only 3 countries currently have known nuclear-armed cruise missile programs: the United States, Russia, and France. The United Kingdom made an overt decision not to have nuclear cruise missiles for the same concerns I’ve cited.

Russia has long recommended finding multilateral approaches to expand INF and to broaden arms control in general. Our current Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, Chris Ford, has made similar comments as well.

Creating an end to nuclear-armed cruise missiles, including potentially by expanding from the INF treaty, is one possible way to do this. Depending on circumstances, the narrow focus may make agreements more feasible so long as their impact on broader strategic calculations is well accounted for.

We are also at an inflection point regarding this class of nuclear weapons. We are in the early phase of determining whether the world continues the existing path of reducing nuclear cruise missiles or sees a potentially great expansion in them.

Via the INF treaty and Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, past US and Russian reductions in nuclear cruise missiles have been significant and stabilizing. Unfortunately our countries may be on a path to reversing this progress.

The United States is now in the early stages of planning to increase our stocks of nuclear-armed cruise missiles and expand the capabilities of these weapons. The current plans include bringing back the previously-retired sea-launched nuclear cruise missile and developing new, more capable air-launched nuclear cruise missiles.

Early this year President Putin indicated that he may expand this class of weapons for Russia as well.  And together, we must resolve the INF treaty impasse to prevent a new expansion of intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles, including with potential nuclear capabilities. 

Due to several factors it faces, there is growing concern that India will create a nuclear variant of one of its highly capable cruise missile systems. If it does, it is difficult to foresee China and Pakistan continuing to hold back from developing them as well.

Between the inherent ambiguity concern, the presence of other tactical nuclear weapons in the region, and questions regarding some of these countries’ doctrines for nuclear weapons use — now would be an important time to more seriously explore how introducing nuclear cruise missiles to South Asia can be avoided.

To be clear — this issue is not a simple one, and I make no claim that an end to nuclear cruise missiles would be easy. But I am encouraged that there is promise in continuing to game out how this may be achieved based on my years of conversations with government officials and experts from nearly all nuclear weapons possessing countries and non-nuclear weapons states

And there are many variations of what an end to this class of nuclear weapons could look like:

Any combination of relevant states could negotiate an agreement focused specifically on the avoidance or elimination of nuclear-armed cruise missiles. An agreement this narrow in scope would likely be somewhat similar to the INF treaty.

For the United States and Russia, there is a chance that nuclear cruise missiles could be included in bilateral treaties that follow on New START. If the United States continues its current plan to bring back nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles, they may then be included in a future treaty. Any follow-on treaty would also very likely have to address the current bomber counting rule and include specific measures for capping or eliminating nuclear air-launched cruise missiles.

Because a new broad, bilateral treaty is likely longer into the future, it is also worth exploring ways that an end to nuclear cruise missiles may begin with political commitments to avoid developing them or cap or eliminate existing stocks — hopefully legally binding mechanisms would follow once these weapons are made less salient.

It is worth noting that this is not a new subject. Capping or eliminating various nuclear cruise missiles were considered in past treaty negotiations—and we did it with INF. We’ve already seen movements to consider eliminating these weapons in official and unofficial channels, including its being raised in NATO discussions.

I commend Sweden and Switzerland for raising the topic in the Open-Ended Working Group and hosting a First Committee side event on the subject in recent years, as well as the UN’s attention to the subject. They’ve shown the valuable role of non-nuclear weapon states and international organizations in advancing new ideas for nuclear risk reduction. 

Back to verification — If any nuclear weapons possessing countries decide not to develop or to relinquish nuclear-armed cruise missiles, verification regimes will almost certainly need to include measures to verify the absence of nuclear capabilities — or verify that cruise missiles in specific locations are only conventional. 

U.S. and Russian technical experts have long proved that it is feasible to verify arms control arrangements focused on nuclear armed cruise missiles. Our countries have conducted joint experiments in this regard. For decades we’ve had protocol concepts that involve combinations of confirming warheads are conventional in designated facilities and tagging them as such, challenge inspection options, and other measures that could be taken in combination.

Put simply: we know that verifying the elimination of this class of nuclear weapons to a high degree of confidence is achievable.

To conclude, of course, this focus on nuclear cruise missiles forms just one example. We need to develop many pathways for limiting and reducing nuclear weapons. How to verify any arrangement is always a leading question — especially by those who wish to halt progress in arms control and disarmament.

This is very important work, and there is much value in concepts for verifying the absence of nuclear weapons in creating new, creative options for progress in arms control and nuclear weapons reductions. I think this report is an important step in making sure political leaders cannot use verification as an excuse to stall in exploring ways to tangibly reduce nuclear risks.

Thank you. I look forward to the discussion.


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