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Arms Control Today, News in Brief, December 2019

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.


Japan Downplays Possibility of Hosting INF-Range Missiles 

Japan’s new defense minister downplayed the prospect that Japan might host U.S. intermediate-range missiles formerly banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

In an Oct. 31 interview with The Financial Times, Defense Minister Taro Kono said, “The U.S. doesn’t have non-nuclear missiles that can be deployed yet. Maybe they’re in the phase of development. We have not been discussing any of it.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in August after the demise of the INF Treaty that he would like to see the deployment of U.S. conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia, ideally as soon as possible. South Korea and Australia said at the time that they were not considering such a deployment.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in November continued to rebuke the Trump administration for “dismantling” the treaty, saying that “our American colleagues were only engaged in searching for pretexts to get rid of the INF Treaty.” He also stated that Moscow will not deploy ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles until the United States does.

The Pentagon has stated that it would conduct a test of a ground-launched ballistic missile with a range of about 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers by the end of the year, but the test does not appear to have taken place yet. On Aug. 18, the United States flight-tested a ground-launched cruise missile that would have been prohibited by the INF Treaty.

Signed in 1987, the INF Treaty led to the elimination of 2,692 U.S. and Soviet nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles having ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.—SHANNON BUGOS


CWC States Update List of Banned Chemicals 

After months of wrangling, the 24th conference of states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) agreed on Nov. 28 to update the list of Schedule 1 chemicals banned by the treaty to include the advanced nerve agents known as Novichok.

Novichok was developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War years before the CWC entered into force in 1997. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that it was used in the attempted assassination of Russian spy-turned-double-agent Sergei Skripal in 2018.

Russia initially objected to a proposal from Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States to add Novichok to the list of banned substances but shifted its position after states accepted its alternative proposal to add other types of chemicals to the Schedule 1 list.

The changes to the Schedule of the Annex on Chemicals will enter into force for all states-parties 180 days after the date of the notification sent by the OPCW director-general.

OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias noted in a statement issued Nov. 28 that “this is the first time in its history” that the annex has been updated.

“This is an important development that demonstrates the adaptability of the [CWC] to changing threats while enhancing the OPCW’s ability to remain vigilant, agile, and fit for purpose,” Arias said.—DARYL G. KIMBALL


NRC Will Not Require Drone Defenses 

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced on Oct. 30 that it would not require nuclear power plant operators to defend against drone attacks.

The NRC sets protection requirements for nuclear power plants and has been studying the threat posed by drones for the past two years. In an unclassified summary published in October, the commission concluded that nuclear power plants “do not have any risk-significant vulnerabilities that could be exploited” by drone attacks that would result in “radiological sabotage” or theft of special nuclear material. The NRC said it would continue evaluating the impact of drone technologies.

Edwin Lyman, the acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a Nov. 4 press release that the decision “ignores the wide spectrum of threats that drones pose to nuclear facilities.” He said that the NRC “seems more interested in keeping the cost of nuclear plant security low than protecting Americans from terrorist sabotage that could cause a reactor meltdown.”

No nuclear power reactor worldwide appears to have been attacked by a drone to date, but Greenpeace flew a drone into a nuclear power reactor in France in July 2018 to demonstrate the site’s vulnerabilities.—KELSEY DAVENPORT


Decision on Autonomous Weapons Talks Eludes CCW 

States parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) discussed in November the danger of lethal autonomous weapons systems, often referred to as “killer robots,” but could not agree to begin a formal process of creating a legal instrument to govern their development and use. This is the fifth year in which the topic has been addressed by the CCW, which seeks to control especially harmful or indiscriminate conventional arms.

In the final report of the CCW’s annual meeting, adopted by consensus after considerable debate, the members of the CCW endorsed guiding principles for autonomous weapons that had been drafted in August by a Group of Governmental Experts. These state that international humanitarian law applies fully to autonomous weapons and that “human responsibility for decisions on the use of weapons systems must be retained.”

Some parties, as well as civil society representatives, derided the lack of progress toward a more comprehensive prohibition. Several dozen states are in support of some form of legal framework binding autonomous weapons development and use, and 30 have explicitly supported banning them by treaty, according to the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. The group, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, stated that “pressure is building on states to launch negotiations on a new treaty on fully autonomous weapons without delay.”

The states parties to the CCW agreed that the Group of Governmental Experts will meet again for two five-day sessions in 2020 to continue their discussion on the “aspects of the normative and operational framework” of autonomous weapons. Additional days of discussion are also planned for 2021.—OWEN LeGRONE

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