The State Department has released the unclassified executive summary of its annual arms control report. Foggy Bottom is required by statute to submit the report to Congress each year and the unclassified version is a distillation of longer, classified analyses that aren’t released to the public. Much of the report is usually unsurprising. But there are almost always at least a few revelations, and this year’s report is no different.
Don’t let the dry bureaucratic text fool you—the report outlines some of the most pressing security challenges Americans face today and will have to continue worrying about in the future. No interest is more vital than safeguarding the U.S. from an attack utilizing a weapon of mass destruction. And the report provides a useful overview of how the world’s most dangerous nations—from global powers such as China and Russia to rogue states including Iran and North Korea—continue to develop the deadliest weapons mankind has ever known.
Let’s start with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
China advances on nukes.
Perhaps the most intriguing paragraph in the report concerns China’s Lop Nur nuclear weapons site and the possibility that the CCP has been conducting low yield tests there. The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Gordon first reported on these passages on Wednesday.
The State Department claims the Chinese “maintained a high level of activity” at the site “throughout 2019” and may be preparing to operate it “year-round.” The report’s authors point to China’s “use of explosive containment chambers, extensive excavation activities at Lop Nur, and lack of transparency on its nuclear testing activities.”
Regarding the lack of transparency, Foggy Bottom reports that China has been “frequently blocking the flow of data from its International Monitoring System (IMS) stations to the International Data Center operated by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization.” This move raises “concerns regarding [China’s] adherence to the ‘zero yield’ standard adhered to by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France in their respective nuclear weapons testing moratoria.”
In other words, the State Department insinuates—but does not outright allege—that the CCP may be conducting low-grade explosives tests. This obviously has potential ramifications for future nuclear weapons negotiations and international compliance monitoring.
The CCP quickly dismissed the State Department’s report. During a press conference on Thursday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, accused the U.S. of “fabricating” such issues. The U.S. has been “posturing as a judge or referee to criticize other countries’ arms control and non-proliferation measures and [stylizing] itself as a model,” Zhao sneered. He went on to portray China as the truly responsible international actor, denouncing America’s approach to diplomacy, arms control, and related matters under President Trump’s “America First” agenda. (There are many reasons to be skeptical. Among them: Zhao is the same senior official who suggested on Twitter that the U.S. Army might be responsible for bringing the coronavirus epidemic to Wuhan.)
China’s nuclear-related activities aren’t the only area of concern. The State Department reminds readers that the U.S. “does not have sufficient information to determine whether China eliminated its assessed biological warfare (BW) program,” as is required under the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). In past analyses, the U.S. concluded that China retained parts of its programs and never really came clean about its “offensive” biological capabilities.
Russia’s nuclear tests, chemical weapons, and nerve agents.
The U.S. thinks the Russians may be gearing up for additional low-yield nuclear tests of their own that could also circumvent the Kremlin’s notification commitments under the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which is intended to cap the yield of such experiments and provide other safeguards. The section of the State Department’s report dealing with this issue is somewhat murky, reflecting the unknowns. Other sections are straightforward, including clear language regarding Russia’s SSC-8 SCREWDRIVER, a missile that violates the Kremlin’s previous commitments to avoid possessing, building or testing a ground-launched cruise missile “with a range capability of 500 kilometers (km) to 5,500 kilometers.”
Not all of Russia’s problematic weapons require an intermediate-range missile for delivery. The State Department continues to assess that Russia was indeed responsible for the March 4, 2018, assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal. The U.S. “certifies that Russia is in non-compliance” with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), pointing to the attack on Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who served as double agent for the British.
U.K. intelligence reportedly recruited Skripal in the mid-1990s. After Skripal’s double role was discovered, he was tried and convicted on espionage charges in his home country. He received a 13-year sentence in 2006, but the U.K. and Russians swapped spies in 2010. Skripal went to live in Britain.
That could have been the end of the story, but Vladimir Putin couldn’t let it go.
Skripal and his daughter suddenly became ill in March 2018, after they were poisoned with a suspected exotic nerve agent. They survived, but with health complications. As the New York Times reported weeks after the assassination attempt, British and American officials were “struck by the symbolism of the attack,” because there “were many ways the former spy could have been killed.” These same unnamed Western intelligence officials told the Times that they suspect Putin’s assassins knew the nerve agent would be traced back to Russia, thereby making it clear to current and former spies that the Kremlin would never forgive treason.
The State Department also got the message and hasn’t forgotten it. Foggy Bottom cites the attack on Skripal as evidence that the Russians retain “an undeclared chemical weapons program.”
Russian-supported chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
The State Department also expresses “concerns regarding Russian assistance to the Syrian Arab Republic regarding the regime’s use of chlorine against Douma in April 2018.” The Syrian Arab Republic is, of course, Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which denies using weaponized chlorine. Despite Assad’s and Putin’s denials, the U.S., British, and French governments carried out punitive airstrikes on Assad’s forces after the attack.
The online world is a fever swamp with respect to the events at Douma, in part because of Russian disinformation. The Russian government has accused the U.K. of working with insurgents to stage the incident. The Russians have also alleged that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has cooked its investigatory books, even though the watchdog initially avoided assigning culpability. The latter charge picked up steam after two OPCW inspectors questioned the organization’s findings in personal writings, which were then leaked online.
The OPCW launched its own internal investigation of the matter in July 2019 and released its findings in February. The OPCW concluded that neither of the purported whistleblowers was well-positioned to offer their supposedly superior conclusions. One of the two inspectors played only a “minor supporting role in the investigation of the Douma incident” and “did not have access to all of the information gathered,” including “witness interviews, laboratory results, and analyses by independent experts.” The second inspector “never left” the group’s “command post in Damascus,” because he hadn’t “completed the necessary training required” to visit the site at Douma. He “separated from” OPCW in August 2018—that is, before the “majority” of the investigative team’s “work occurred.”
You can debate the merits and efficacy of the punitive airstrikes. The Syrian insurgency is riddled with jihadists, including al-Qaeda-affiliated groups that are not acceptable allies or partners for the West. The whole conflict is a multifaceted mess, with Assad committing non-chemical atrocities on a regular basis.
There’s little doubt in my mind that Assad and his benefactors have conducted a series of low-grade chemical weapons attacks on the Syrian population. These chemical weapon bombings didn’t begin or end in Douma. According to the new report, the State Department “assesses” that the Assad regime has used “chemical weapons against the Syrian people every year since” its accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013. That accession was brokered by then Secretary of State John Kerry with the Russians in order to force the Syrian regime to turn over or destroy its entire chemical weapons program. While part of the regime’s chemical weapons architecture was accounted for, the agreement wasn’t nearly as effective as Kerry initially imagined. The State Department points to a separate chemical bombing in Kabana, Latakia, in May 2019 as another example of the ongoing campaign. The OPCW has documented still other suspected chemical weapons attacks as well.
The rogue states.
The State Department’s new report contains other observations that are unsurprising, but still worth repeating. North Korea’s ongoing “nuclear activities make clear that it also has not adhered to its commitments … to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs,” the report notes. Of course, Kim Jong-un has also resisted President Trump’s charm offensive, which is intended to cajole the North Korean leader into cooperation.
In early 2018, an elite team of Israeli spies absconded from Iran with a cache of nuclear-related research materials. In a statement of the obvious, the U.S. surmises that the Iranians “may have maintained this information at least in part to preserve technical expertise relevant to a nuclear weapons capability, and potentially to aid in any future effort to pursue nuclear weapons again, if a decision were made to do so.” The Iranians continue to block access to two suspect sites that the IAEA wishes to inspect, and they haven’t explained “particles of chemically processed uranium” that were discovered “at an undeclared location in Iran.”
The report also outlines various concerns regarding Iran’s and North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons programs, too. None of these issues are close to be resolving anytime soon.
It’s a dangerous world and this summary of the State Department’s new report only scratches the surface of some of the potentially devastating threats America and its allies face.
Photograph of nuclear-capable ICBMs in China by Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images.