How Ballistic Missile Defence is Holding Back the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty

Debalina Ghoshal
April 18, 2017

Since the early days of the Cold War, effort has been taken to reduce the stockpile of enriched uranium and plutonium in order to curtail the threat of nuclear weapons and their catastrophic effects. This effort was believed to bring states closer towards achieving disarmament. In 1995, under the Conference on Disarmament, a Committee was established to commence work on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).

The FMCT is an international agreement which was proposed to prohibit the production of the two main components of nuclear weapons – highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium (Pu). The negotiating body was called the “Shannon Mandate”, named after Gerald Shannon of Canada who was the special coordinator and whose main task was to “seek the views of its members… to negotiate a non-discriminatory, multilateral, internationally verifiable treaty.”

The background for this Mandate can be attributed to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 78/57L in 1993, which called for an “Ad Hoc Committee to negotiate a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

The FMCT would be a step forward towards countering the threat of nuclear weapons in international security. However, several factors have become hurdles to the successful implementation of the Treaty. While many reasons such as ‘negative security assurance’ can be factored in to explain the slow progress of the FMCT, this essay argues that the issue of Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) and the related treaty on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) pose challenges to the progress of the FMCT negotiations.

Ballistic Missile Defence is a defensive shield developed by states to track, detect and intercept incoming enemy ballistic missiles, which can carry conventional warheads as well as weapons of mass destruction.

Why states oppose the FMCT

BMD systems are undoubtedly altering regional as well as global security dynamics. A strategy of ‘defence by denial’ makes ‘deterrence by punishment’ an unrealistic strategy, as it could negate a state’s nuclear deterrent capability. Until 1998, China was supportive of the Treaty and also called for setting up of the Conference on Disarmament. This was despite the United States being ahead of Beijing in the nuclear arms race.

However, it was only after the issue of ballistic missile defence grew in prominence in 1998, under the Clinton administration (with the growing nuclear and missile capability of North Korea, Russia and China), that Beijing started to display a loss of interest in the progress of the FMCT negotiations. During the Cold War, Beijing had also opposed the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) sponsored by the United States, even though the SDI did not concern the Chinese then.

China’s apprehensions over America’s BMD and space program are strengthening every day. The US missile defence architecture in the Asia Pacific is viewed by China with suspicion. Beijing argues that the American BMD system in the Asia Pacific would negate the nuclear deterrent capability of China. China fears that any effort to negate the nuclear deterrent capability of Beijing could lead to unprecedented American influence in the region, thereby “consolidating its position as a global hegemon.”

With the recent deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea despite China’s vehement opposition, China has threatened serious consequences for South Korea. Beijing is sure to raise the issue of the THAAD deployment in South Korea during discussions on FMCT.

The US missile defence system along with Beijing’s commitment to nuclear ‘no first use’ are the decisive factors in China becoming a party to the FMCT, since the American BMD system could negate Chinese counter and second strike capability. China, on the other hand, demanded that the United States sign the PAROS, a treaty proposed to limit the size of the American BMD system. But the then US representative at the Conference on Disarmament, Robert T.Grey Jr., referred to the PAROS as “unwise and unrealistic.”

China, however, believes that the issue of FMCT and PAROS are “interrelated”, and that the relevance of nuclear disarmament and PAROS “is no less” than the relevance of FMCT. According to China, these issues should be addressed “as a whole” and excluding either one is “unjustified and unhelpful.”

China aside, Russia too is wary of the American BMD system in Europe, which the US plans to field under the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). Time and again, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and also President Vladimir Putin have questioned the relevance of the BMD program in Europe, especially at a time when the Russians claim that the Iranian nuclear deal is progressing in the right direction.

In fact, Moscow is also wary of a BMD system in North East Asia, given that region’s proximity to Russia. In April 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated, “I don't see any threats from China, I don't see any threats from the East generally, except for one: the missile defense system, which is a global US system and which is being created on US territory [and deployed in] the Europe and the Northeast Asia.”

Despite America’s claim that the EPAA is meant to counter ballistic missile threats from Iran and is not aimed at Russia, Moscow’s anxieties concerning the system have not been alleviated. Amid this concern, Russia too would find it difficult to join the FMCT if the US is unable convince Moscow. With the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s deployment of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in Kalingrad, such as the Iskander missiles, there is limited scope in seeing Russia join the FMCT. The Russians argue that the Ground Based Interceptors (GBI) in Europe would “monitor Russian missile sites and naval operations”

President Putin also expressed concerns that the BMD system in Europe is “only defensive in name” and that they are a “significant component of strategic offensive potential.” Russia’s apprehensions have also resulted in its suspension of the Plutonium Disposition Management Agreement (PDMA) in October 2016 – an agreement that was signed between the two countries, obligating them to eliminate a sufficient quantity of weapons grade plutonium.

In addition, Russia has also threatened to walk out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and both the Cold War superpowers have accused each other of violating the Treaty time and again. On the other hand, the United States in 2001 also withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Amid these violations and the suspension of existing treaties, Russia’s willingness to join the FMCT would be minimal.

Just like China, Russia has also demanded linking the FMCT to the PAROS. The United States, on the other hand, argues that there is no arms race in space and thereby refutes the need for a treaty like PAROS to exist.

Similarly, Pakistan, which has been opposing the FMCT, could also find it difficult to adopt a supportive view of the treaty as it feels threatened by India’s BMD system. Pakistan has viewed India’s BMD system as strategically destabilising. In recent times, reports have also confirmed that Islamabad is enhancing its fissile material stockpile. Pakistan believes that adhering to FMCT norms and regulations would prohibit Pakistan from acquiring substantial capability to neutralise India’s BMD system.

India’s BMD posturing and its support for FMCT

India’s BMD posturing is to buttress its ‘no-first-use’ policy. As ‘no-first-use’ remains an integral component of India’s nuclear doctrine, India’s nuclear deterrence needs to be strengthened by denying its adversaries any offensive advantage, before India launches a counter strike. Also, it can be rightly argued that India’s BMD capability is a result of its effort to keep pace with the BMD program in China, thereby balancing the offence-defence equation between India and China.

India’s stand on FMCT is clear – it supports the Treaty but looks for a specific and effective verification mechanism. In 2009, India made clear that it was willing to join the FMCT but would join “only a non-discriminatory, multilaterally negotiated and internationally verifiable FMCT.” India has, however, never raised the issue of BMD systems in articulating its views on the FMCT. India’s nuclear deterrence is premised on ‘credible minimum deterrence’ and New Delhi believes that nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort. Therefore, India believes that even a humble nuclear arsenal can fulfil the objective of deterrence, despite the BMD system of adversaries.

In 2014, DB Venkatesh Varma, the Indian Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, also reiterated: “Without prejudice to the priority we [India] attach to nuclear disarmament, we support the negotiation in the Conference on Disarmament of an FMCT that meets India's national security interests.”

Beyond doubt, BMD systems are strategically destabilising. They clearly interfere with the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), thereby undermining nuclear deterrence. One of the sophisticated technologies for states to overwhelm an enemy missile defence system is to develop multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), which allow multiple warheads to be fired from one ballistic missile. This would require sophistication in nuclear technology – more specifically, the miniaturisation of nuclear warheads. This would in turn require several nuclear warheads and thus, states developing such technology would find it difficult to join the FMCT.

The United States and Russia already possess MIRV-ed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), while states like China, Pakistan and India are presently working towards developing MIRV capability. Iran is working towards developing Multiple Re-entry vehicles (MRVs). Amid these growing capabilities, the relevance and progress of the FMCT is yet to be seen.

Debalina Ghoshal is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Human Security Studies in Hyderabad, India.