U.S. Remarks to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) Subsidiary Body 5 Session on Transparency in Armament
Advisor to the U.S. CD Delegation Michael Aho
May 26, 2022
As Prepared for Delivery
As with the previous session of Subsidiary 5 in March, today’s session covers a wide range of issues, including “comprehensive programme of disarmament,” “transparency in armament,” and “confidence building measures.” My remarks today will focus on the second of these – “transparency in armament” – which has gained greater importance with the challenging geopolitical situation the international community currently faces.
The TIA initiative arose at the end of the Cold War, when many of us questioned the relevance of a multilateral security agenda that focused exclusively on weapons of mass destruction and failed to address conventional weapons. The violent conflicts of the 1980s and Saddam Hussein’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Kuwait in 1990 pushed the international community into action. We had to balance the notion of the need for a system of transparency with the sovereign rights of states to defend themselves.
The negotiations were complex but succeeded as the UNGA adopted Resolution 46/36L, “Transparency in Armaments” on December 6, 1991. In doing so, we created a two-track process. The first track established the UN Register of Conventional Arms (the UNRoCA).
The second called for the CD to take up the subject.
By any measure, the UN Register has been a resounding success in its 30 years of operation, establishing a global norm of transparency and accountability in military matters and reinforcing civilian control of the military. Since its establishment in 1992, more than 170 countries have reported to the Register at least once, and it is estimated that its reporting captures more than 90% of the international trade in conventional arms.
Unfortunately, the CD has not been able to do its part. Our task was to “address as soon as possible, the question of interrelated aspects of the excessive and destabilizing accumulation of arms, including holdings and procurement through national production, and to elaborate universal and non-discriminatory practical means to increase openness and transparency in this field” and to “address the problems of, and the elaboration of practical means to increase, openness and transparency related to the transfer of high technology with military applications and to weapons of mass destruction.” We have utterly failed to address these issues.
Unfortunately, the very issues that led to the creation of the TIA initiative are as relevant today as they were then. We are once again witnessing the brutal and unprovoked attack by one UN Member State on another.
President Putin’s unprovoked and brutal war against Ukraine, a war in which Belarus has been complicit, has been accompanied by an astonishing deluge of lies and disinformation propagated by Russia – and unfortunately, echoed and amplified by some other countries. This includes denying plans to invade prior to the war, accusing Ukraine of the types of war crimes committed by its own forces, or the preposterous allegations of biological weapons-related assistance to Ukrainian labs.
We also have witnessed the continuation of Russia’s pattern of using aggressive, provocative rhetoric regarding its nuclear forces and means of delivery, which is both irresponsible and contradicts Russia’s own affirmation of the principle that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. For example, last month, on the occasion of an ICBM test, President Putin himself boasted that: “This truly unique weapon will force all who are trying to threaten our country in the heat of frenzied, aggressive rhetoric to think twice.” So, while there was an important element of transparency in Moscow providing advanced notice of this launch, consistent with relevant arms control and risk reduction mechanisms, the rhetoric reduced the risk reduction value of the that transparency. Similarly, Moscow’s recent comment that it will not use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine is a welcome assurance, but Russia’s pattern of words not matching deeds have created a trust deficit that requires them to reverse that trend and offer transparency to avoid unnecessary escalation of tensions.
The absence of transparency, especially during times of heightened conflict and tension, increases the possibility of a destabilizing cycle of escalation driven or accelerated by misunderstanding and miscalculation, which can have catastrophic results. It is indisputable that transparency is one of the cornerstones of effective arms control and disarmament measures and the broader promotion of greater international security for all. This is especially true as it relates to nuclear weapons.
In October last year, as a tangible demonstration of the U.S. commitment to transparency, the United States presented data which documented our own record of continued progress in the steady reduction of our nuclear stockpile, in line with the disarmament goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States released its aggregate number of active and inactive warheads in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile from 2018-2020. These numbers demonstrated that we have reduced our nuclear weapons stockpile by approximately 88% from its maximum in 1967.
The United States also applauds similar efforts by the United Kingdom and France to promote transparency in nuclear arms, including notably the former’s briefing to the CD in March 2021 on the results of its “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Foreign and Development Policy.”
When we released our data last year to demonstrate our transparency and to bolster the global non-proliferation regime, we called on Russia and the PRC to also commit to provide similar transparency on their stockpiles. Unfortunately, neither country has heeded this call.
The PRC’s continued lack of transparency is particularly alarming. Beijing claims it only seeks a “minimum deterrent,” but refuses to define what that means. Apparently, that “minimum” requires far more nuclear weapons than the PRC now has, given the remarkable and worrying
build-up of its nuclear arsenal. The PRC – by far the least transparent of the NPT nuclear-weapon states parties – aims to modernize, diversify, and expand its nuclear forces. It is investing in, and expanding, the number of its land, sea, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces. The PRC is also increasing its capacity to produce and separate plutonium by constructing fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities that could be used to support the expansion of its stockpile. What else would explain the PRC’s refusal to join the other four NPT nuclear-weapon states in adopting voluntary moratoria on the production of fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons? The accelerating growth of the PRC’s nuclear stockpile may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027. The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030. Despite PRC obfuscation, this rapid build-up has become more difficult to hide and highlights how the PRC is deviating from decades of relative restraint. The PRC’s nuclear build-up and the accompanying silence on its plans and intentions raises serious questions about its commitment to disarmament and reinforces the importance of pursuing dialogue and practical measures to reduce nuclear risks.
The question we should all ask ourselves is, why this troubling lack of transparency about this massive expansion of the PRC’s nuclear forces? While China accuses the United States of having a “Cold War mindset” in brushing off questions seeking transparency into its actions, China seems to be the one motivated by old Cold War thinking that we all hoped was behind us. Only the PRC leadership in Beijing can provide the critical transparency necessary to answer questions about its force build up. Unfortunately, the PRC seems dedicated to deflection rather than transparency. The PRC is avoiding the international community’s condemnation while continuing its self-serving narrative as a responsible nuclear power and champion of multilateral arms control and disarmament. Its actions have eroded the credibility of that narrative. Those actions move the world farther away from the ultimate objective of ridding itself of nuclear weapons. So, for any country that truly embraces the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, it is incumbent upon them to join in calling upon the PRC, as a first step, to be transparent about the size of its nuclear stockpile and its plans for future expansion. As U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, said last October, “transparency helps to build trust and confidence in arms control regimes and reduces the risk of nuclear miscalculation.” To do otherwise, is to put one’s head in the sand and ignore what is happening right in front of our eyes.