By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow
China announces that it has conducted more than 30 anti-aircraft drills in South China Sea
On Friday, June 15, Beijing announced via state media that the Chinese military has conducted anti-aircraft drills in the South China Sea, using drone targets to simulate an aerial attack on unspecified islands in the area. The report in the official PLA Daily newspaper did not give details of when the drills were conducted, but indicated that the drones had been sent out “several hundred times” in more than 30 drills conducted to date.
The signal from China is the latest development in the showdown between the United States and China in the South China Sea area, coming t10 days after the United States flew a B-52 bomber capable of carrying nuclear weapons near disputed islands.
Notably, the announcement came just one day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his first trip to Beijing since taking office in April. Pompeo visited the Chinese capital on Thursday, June 14 to brief top Chinese officials on the U.S.-North Korea summit that had taken place earlier that week. According to a statement from the State Department, Pompeo also used the opportunity to raise concerns about China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea, saying that “those actions increase tensions, complicate and escalate disputes, endanger the free flow of trade, and undermine regional stability.”
In response to diplomatic developments with North Korea, Japan cancels evacuation drills planned for this week
Japanese officials on Thursday said that Japan plans to suspend its planned civilian evacuation drills, including drills in nine prefectures planned for Tuesday, June 26, in light of diplomatic developments with North Korea, including the recent U.S.-North Korea summit.
Japan first began conducting the civilian evacuation drills in March 2017 in response to the heightened missile threat from North Korea. (By late September last year, North Korea had conducted 22 missile tests—all launched towards Japan, with several tests flying over Japanese islands.) The drills have been conducted in more than 20 towns and cities since then.
The officials indicated that the suspension of future drills will depend on continued reduced tensions with North Korea. Further, the government’s plan to install U.S.-made Aegis Ashore missile interceptors to defend against North Korea’s ballistic missile capability remains unchanged.
How Trump and three other U.S. presidents protected Israel’s worst-kept secret: its nuclear arsenal
Last week, a fascinating article in the New Yorker provided a surprisingly detailed look at the role played by the last four American presidents in maintaining Israel’s decades-long “policy of ambiguity” regarding its nuclear weapons.
The origins of the agreement between the United States and Israel dates back to 1969, when President Richard Nixon met with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and reached an “unwritten understanding”: in exchange for an Israeli commitment not to declare, test, or threaten to use its nuclear weapons, the United States would refrain from pressuring Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which was one year old at the time. This understanding established the still-operational U.S. policy of making no comment with regards to Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.
The understanding did not remain unwritten forever. In 1991, during the George H. W. Bush administration, discussions of a possible weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East increased Israel’s concerns about a potential shift in U.S. policy toward the Israeli nuclear arsenal. Under subsequent U.S. presidential administrations, Israel sought a more concrete assurance from the United States in the form of a signed letter promising that future arms control initiatives by the United States would not affect Israel’s “deterrent” capabilities. President Bill Clinton signed the first such letter as part of an agreement to secure Israel’s participation in the 1998 negotiations with the Palestinians. Since then, every U.S. president has signed some version of the letter: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.
During both the Obama and Trump administrations, Israeli leadership pressed the newly-inaugurated president to sign an updated version of the letter early in their term. According to the New Yorker account, Israel’s insistence on getting the letter signed quickly left Obama aides surprised and confused. Trump’s aides also felt blindsided, and some responded angrily to the heavy-handedness of the Israeli request.
In the Israeli view, the letters signed by successive U.S. presidents represent a perpetual commitment not to pressure Israel regarding its nuclear arsenal. However, former U.S. officials quoted in the New Yorker indicate that Washington has viewed the letters as less broad in both scope and duration, saying the letter’s meaning “was more ‘We accepted the Israeli argument that they’re not going to disarm under current conditions in the Middle East’,” rather than an enduring promise to never ask Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.
India and Pakistan
New arsenal estimates released: Pakistan has more nuclear warheads than India
Last Monday, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released its annual Yearbook assessing the current status of nuclear arsenals, disarmament, and international security. The yearbook includes an up-to-date estimate of the number of nuclear warheads possessed by each of the nine nuclear-armed states. This year, Pakistan is estimated to possess 140-150 nuclear warheads, compared to 130-140 in the Indian arsenal. The disparity is fairly consistent with estimates from 2017, which estimated that Pakistan possessed 130-140 warheads, compared to India’s 120-130.
Pakistani media have reported on the new SIPRI report’s release using the headline “Pakistan has more nuclear warheads than India,” reflecting Pakistan’s laser-like focus on India when it comes to nuclear weapons. The headline also reflects the unique role of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, which functions as a source of national pride as well as security.
Over last two years, Russia upgraded nuclear weapons storage site in Kaliningrad
Last week, a new analysis by Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists indicated that Russia has carried out a major renovation of a nuclear weapons storage site in Kaliningrad, about 30 miles from its border with Poland. According to satellite images, the renovation took place over the last two years. The site was previously renovated between 2002 and 2010. Kristensen notes that the site appears to be an active nuclear weapons storage facility, but details about the operational status of the site — including what types of nuclear warheads, if any, are stored there — are unclear. Shortly after Kristensen’s analysis was posted, the story was reported by a number of media sources, including The Guardian and CNN.
Top Navy officer: land-based forces should take over missile defense of Europe, Asia
On June 12, the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson indicated that the Navy should no longer be tasked with conducting ballistic missile defense patrols, and that the mission of defending Europe and Asia from ballistic missile attack should be reassigned to land-based forces. The unusually straightforward remarks, given during an address at the U.S. Naval War College, were reported in DefenseNews last week:
“Right now, as we speak, I have six multi-mission, very sophisticated, dynamic cruisers and destroyers ― six of them are on ballistic missile defense duty at sea. And if you know a little bit about this business you know that geometry is a tyrant. You have to be in a tiny little box to have a chance at intercepting that incoming missile. So, we have six ships that could go anywhere in the world, at flank speed, in a tiny little box, defending land. It’s a pretty good capability and if there is an emergent need to provide ballistic missile defense, we’re there. But 10 years down the road, it’s time to build something on land to defend the land. Whether that’s Aegis Ashore or whatever, I want to get out of the long-term missile defense business and move to dynamic missile defense.”
MOX battle continues in the courts: new actions filed by DOE seek to negate injunction
If you haven’t been following news related to the MOX fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina, please see our summary posted last week — it’ll help you make sense of this week’s update.
The long-awaited termination of the mismanaged MOX fuel fabrication project is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit, with the state of South Carolina suing the Department of Energy (DOE) in an attempt to prevent MOX construction from being halted. In the latest development, the DOE filed two actions on Friday, June 15 that seek to negate the effects of the preliminary injunction recently granted to South Carolina.
The injunction, which was granted on June 7, would prohibit the DOE from ending construction work on the MOX facility as planned, requiring that the “status quo” of construction continue while the lawsuit is pending. In response, the DOE has filed to appeal the injunction, and has also filed a request for the injunction to be set aside while the appeal is heard. As of Friday, June 23, it is not yet clear when the appeal might be heard in court.
In its appeal, the DOE argued that the injunction was granted despite a lack of evidence to support South Carolina’s claim that cancelling the MOX project would turn the Savannah River Site facility into a de facto dumping ground for weapons-grade plutonium. The appeal also argues that continuing construction of the MOX facility will interfere with the National Nuclear Security Administration’s plan to repurpose the Savannah River Site facility for plutonium pit production.
Analysis of the ongoing legal battle by advocacy group Savannah River Site Watch suggests that the DOE is likely to win this fight in the end, and MOX’s time may soon be up. Hopefully, we’ll get some solid answers in the coming weeks or months.
As negotiations with North Korea loom, top nuclear expert leaves White House
Last week, the Washington Post confirmed the departure of Andrea Hall, until now the National Security Council’s top official on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The departure of Hall, a well-known expert on WMDs, comes at a vital moment as the Trump administration prepares to begin detailed negotiations over the fate of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Hall first joined the National Security Council in 2016 under President Obama. In the Trump administration, her role included leading a major interagency initiative tasked with the denuclearization of North Korea. In the last few months, there’s been some buzz in the nuclear policy community suggesting that Hall might soon leave the administration, but this was not confirmed until last week.
Hall’s role has been taken over in an acting capacity by Maj. Gen. Julie Bentz, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering and has significant experience working with nuclear policy. Maj. Gen. Bentz has served on the staff of National Security Council three times prior to her current position. She most recently served as vice director of the military’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. As the Washington Post notes, “[it’s] unclear why Bentz was appointed only in an acting capacity.”
John Bolton traveling to Russia this week to discuss potential Trump-Putin meeting
On Thursday, June 21, a spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin confirmed prior reports in Russian state media that U.S. national security advisor John Bolton would be visiting the Russian capital the following week. Shortly after the Russian confirmation was reported in U.S. outlets, the planned meeting was also confirmed by the White House via a tweet by National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis, which indicated that Bolton will be visiting “to discuss a potential meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin.” The Russian spokesman has declined to rule out the possibility that Bolton could meet with Putin himself this week.
The Wall Street Journal first reported on June 1 that the United States was “in early talks” for a potential summit between Trump and Putin, according to senior administration officials with knowledge of such planning.