Broken Arrow News: Russia and Saudi Arabia

By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow

There’s a lot going on in nuclear weapons news, all around the world. It’s already a challenge to stay on top of the daily headlines about North Korea and Iran. To help you stay up-to-date on nuclear issues everywhere else, we at the Center are starting up Broken Arrow News: a weekly summary of all the news related to nuclear weapons and nuclear security—and not about North Korea or Iran. In U.S. military lingo, a “broken arrow” refers to a incident involving the loss of a nuclear weapon. Here, we’re bringing you the nuclear weapons news that’s been ‘lost’ in the last week.

The first installment is a review of nuclear news from the entire month of May. There’s a lot to cover, so we’ll be posting this one in sections. After this, we’ll be posting a weekly summary. You can find all of these posts on our Nukes of Hazard blog.


Putin’s nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed cruise missile crashed in four out of four tests

On March 1, Vladimir Putin announced a number of new Russian nuclear weapons systems designed to evade and undermine U.S. missile defenses during a dramatic address to Russia’s Federal Assembly. As the Washington Post reported, some of the announced new systems had been monitored by American analysts for years, while others — in particular, a nuclear-powered cruise missile with “infinite” flight range — appear to be facing serious technical challenges.

Doubts about the feasibility of Putin’s nuclear-powered cruise missile may prove to be well-founded: according to reporting by CNBC on May 22, a recent U.S. intelligence report indicates that the cruise missile has been tested four times and crashed each time. According to anonymous sources cited by CNBC, the most successful test of the missile lasted just over two minutes, and the missile flew 22 miles before crashing.


Russia may arm its Poseidon underwater drone with a thermonuclear warhead

In addition to the new Russian weapons systems announced in March, the UK Defence Journal reports that Russia is planning to arm its Poseidon underwater drones, which are currently under development, with thermonuclear warheads. Citing an unnamed source “in the Russian defense sector,” the article indicates that Poseidon drone will be able to carry a single warhead with up to 2 megatons of explosive yield and is designed to “destroy reinforced naval bases of a potential enemy.” The Poseidon drone will be carried by a new specialized submarine currently under construction and will reportedly join the Russian Navy during Russia’s current State Armament Program for 2018-2027.


Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia pursues nuclear energy cooperation with United States, others

 Saudi Arabia has recently become focused on developing a large nuclear energy program. The country seeks to build a nuclear energy capacity of 17.6 gigawatts at a cost of over $80 billion by the year 2032, in what could be one of the largest-ever investments in nuclear energy. The United States is among the ten countries that have been in talks with Saudi Arabia about potentially selling nuclear technology for use in the program, but nonproliferation analysts are concerned by Saudi Arabia’s insistence on being able to enrich nuclear material and potentially reprocess nuclear fuel. (Facilities used for fuel enrichment and reprocessing are a weapons proliferation concern because they can be repurposed to produce material for nuclear weapons.)

There has been a lot of discussion about whether the United States might sign a nuclear cooperation agreement – or 123 Agreement – with Saudi Arabia that permits a Saudi enrichment and reprocessing capacity. Advocates of nuclear nonproliferation have been pushing for any such agreement to include the nonproliferation “Gold Standard” – based on an agreement signed with the United Arab Emirates – which would prohibit Saudi Arabia from engaging in any fuel enrichment or reprocessing within its territory. On Thursday, May 24, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Trump administration is insisting on the gold standard in a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia.

This is good news, but we’re not quite out of the nonproliferation woods yet: there is still the possibility that the Saudis may not need to sign a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. The United States is required by law to have a formal nuclear cooperation agreement with a country before certain U.S. nuclear components – those considered “significant from a nuclear weapons standpoint” – can be exported to that country. Many of the nuclear reactor designs being considered by Saudi Arabia include one or more of these components, meaning that the United States would need to sign a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia even if the country awards its contracts to a non-American company. However, one reactor under strong consideration by the Saudis is the South Korean KEPCO APR 1400, which could potentially be manufactured without using any restricted U.S. nuclear components – sidestepping the legal need for a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. That possibility is particularly concerning given the lax terms of the nuclear cooperation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Korea, signed in 2011.

The Congressional approval process for a U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement requires that Congress have 90 days in continuous session to review the terms of the agreement after it is submitted by the State Department. As of today, Congress is scheduled to be in session for less than 90 days in the remainder of 2018, so we probably won’t see a U.S.-Saudi Arabian nuclear cooperation agreement come together in 2018. In the meantime, it’s worth keeping a close eye on Saudi Arabia as it moves forward in the process of soliciting and evaluating bids to build its nuclear reactors.


Saudi Arabia again signals intent to pursue nuclear weapons if Iran acquires them

On May 9, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir told CNN that “if Iran acquires a nuclear capability, [Saudi Arabia] will do everything we can to do the same.” This statement reaffirms remarks made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a March interview with CBS. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), Saudi Arabia is committed to never pursue nuclear weapons, but recent public comments by officials have raised concerns that their commitment to nuclear nonproliferation may be conditional. The Trump administration is facing criticism for failing to publicly respond to Saudi Arabia’s repeated threats of proliferation, especially as the United States continues to seek a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia. In fact, the White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said that the Trump Administration has no “specific policy announcement” about the Saudi statements.