The publication of the News in Brief section of Arms Control Today magazine is a joint project of the Center for International Security and Policy and The Arms Control Association.
OPCW Says Chlorine Used in Syria Attack
International investigators confirmed in March that a chemical weapon was used in an April 2018 attack in Douma, Syria. The Fact-Finding Mission established by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was not asked to identify the responsible party for the April 7, 2018, attack that reportedly killed dozens and injured many more.
Investigators from the OPCW, the implementing agency of the Chemical Weapons Convention, were unable to visit the attack site until about two weeks after the incident. Their report notes there was evidence of tampering at the site, but they were able to conclude that the “toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine.”
Although the mission was not empowered to identify the party responsible for the chemical attacks, the report notes several details at the scene that independent analysts have argued
would be consistent with aircraft use. The Syrian regime has access to aircraft, but no nonstate actors in Syria do. The OPCW has created a new investigative body, the Investigation and Identification Team, to assess who conducted chemical weapons attacks in Syria confirmed by the Fact-Finding Mission. (See ACT, July/August 2018.) The head of the new team has been selected, and the team should be fully operational within weeks, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias told the OPCW Executive Council in mid-March. — ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE
THAAD Sale to Saudi Arabia Moves Forward
The U.S. Defense Department announced March 4 that it recently awarded Lockheed Martin a nearly $1 billion contract to begin work on a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense package for Saudi Arabia. The contract marks the start of a $15 billion deal for the kingdom to receive 44 THAAD batteries, including 360 missile interceptors.
The contract followed November 2018 letters of offer and acceptance between the United States and Saudi Arabia formalizing terms for the sale of the THAAD launchers, missiles, and related equipment. The $15 billion package is part of a larger $110 billion weapons deal that the United States negotiated with Saudi leaders in 2017.
The November letters were exchanged as the United States was under political pressure to reduce defense cooperation with Saudi Arabia following the October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a commentator for The Washington Post, and amid concerns about U.S. support for Saudi military actions in Yemen.
The initial sale was approved by the State Department and Congress in August 2017 and November 2017, respectively, when there was speculation that Riyadh was negotiating to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems. Russian-Saudi talks on an S-400 transfer remain underway this year, according to Alexander Mikheyev, chief executive officer of Russia’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexport. — SHERVIN TAHERAN
U.S., Israel Conduct Joint THAAD Exercise
For the first time, the United States deployed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense battery to Israel for a month-long readiness exercise. The early March exercise served as “a demonstration of the United States’ continued commitment to Israel’s regional security,” said a March 4 statement by the U.S. European Command.
The deployment to southern Israel in the Negev desert was unrelated to a specific event, but helped Israel to integrate the system into the nation’s defenses and “simulate different scenarios,” according to Israel Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus.
Designed to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, the THAAD system uses an X-band radar that Israel has deployed at its Nevatim airbase since 2008.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the THAAD system, noting in a March 4 statement that “together with our defense systems we are even stronger in order to deal with near and distant threats from throughout the Middle East.” The deployment occurs during a push to tighten U.S.-Israeli military cooperation following U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement of U.S. troop reductions in Syria and amid tensions with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israeli missile defense systems also include the Iron Dome system, designed to intercept short-range rockets and artillery shells, and Patriot and Arrow ballistic missile defense systems. Israel is testing an advanced version of David’s Sling, an air defense and tactical missile defense system. — SHERVIN TAHERAN
Open Skies Treaty Flights Resume in 2019
The United States conducted an airborne surveillance mission over Russia under the auspices of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty on Feb. 21, the first routine treaty flight since 2017. Following agreed procedures, all treaty parties received advance notification of the mission, and six Russian officials flew on the unarmed U.S. aircraft “to monitor all phases of the flight,” said Defense Department spokesperson Lt. Col. Jamie Davis.
Last year, there were no regular treaty flights because of a dispute over on-board observers that was resolved in October. There was, however, one “extraordinary flight” on Dec. 6 over Ukraine, requested by Ukraine shortly after a Russian attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea.
The United States has accused Russia of violating the treaty by applying excessive restrictions on surveillance flights over Kaliningrad, a sensitive Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania, but U.S. officials expressed hope that the dispute could be settled. Andrea Thompson, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said on Sept. 18 that Russia has “made overtures that suggest” it could resolve the alleged violation. (See ACT, January/February 2019.)
The Open Skies Treaty, which entered into force in 2002, aims to increase confidence and transparency between the United States, Russia, and European nations by allowing unarmed observation flights over the entire territory of its participants for information-gathering purposes. The 34 parties have yearly quotas on over flights and must make the collected information available to all treaty parties. — SHERVIN TAHERAN
Germany Seeks Control for New Weapons
Potentially dangerous emerging technologies require a new multilateral approach to prevent their misuse, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told at March 15 security conference in Berlin.
“New technologies are far more susceptible to proliferation, manipulation, and misuse than conventional weapons,” he said. “The question is whether we are in control of technology or whether ultimately it controls us.”
Maas outlined a four-part approach “to rethink arms control.” First, citing the risk of automated conflicts escalating quickly out of control, he called for creating rules to ban fully autonomous weapons systems and to require ensure effective human control over all lethal weapons systems. (See ACT, March 2019.)
Second, he urged establishing an international dialogue about the swift advancements and proliferation of missile technology, including to nonstate actors who “already have access to short- range missiles.”
Third, Maas called for “articulating universal behavioral norms and standards in cyberspace” to protect the common interests of the international community.
Lastly, Maas highlighted concerns about the biotechnology sector and announced that Germany would “work to establish a permanent body of experts and scientists under the umbrella of the Biological Weapons Convention” to analyze risks and recommend action. — SASHA PARTAN