Above: AVC Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas G. DiNanno inspects a Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launch facility at Minot Air Force Base, N.D, June 2019. AVC participation in nuclear deterrence assurance dialogues with key U.S. allies underscores our mutual defense commitments. Photo courtesy of AVC
By Rachel Wolff and Tyronda Brown
In the early morning hours of April 4, 2017, witnesses in the town of Khan Shaykhun in Syria reported hearing an explosion. Moments later, those who were in the streets experienced searing pain in their throats and eyes as the air filled with a colorless, odorless gas: sarin. Victims of this barbaric and unconscionable attack began to foam at the mouth and turn blue as their airways were restricted by the chemical. By the time the air cleared, nearly 100 people, many of them children, had been killed, and more than 300 others were injured.
This heinous act carried out by the Assad regime on the Syrian people required a clear reaction from the international community. In addition to taking prompt and direct military action, the United States played a key role in reinforcing the taboo against chemical weapons use in the wake of the indiscriminate and horrific attack. Any use of a chemical weapon is abhorrent, and the Chemical Weapons Convention bans the use of sarin as a chemical weapon. The Department of State’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC) worked alongside interagency partners and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to evaluate the evidence and circumstances of the attack. Through this effort, the United States, along with France and the United Kingdom, led a broad international coalition in condemning both the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons and those who enable and defend it.
Holding others accountable for their treaty violations is central to AVC’s work. AVC was at the forefront of efforts to expose and hold accountable the Russian Federation for its material breach of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which, since 1987, has eliminated an entire category of nuclear weapons from the arsenals of both the United States and the former Soviet states. The Russian Federation has worked to covertly develop, test and field missiles with a range that violate the treaty, allowing Russia to target European allies with nuclear warheads, and led to the U.S. decision to withdraw from the treaty. Exposing this violation was a critical element in marshaling international support for the U.S. decision to withdraw. This allowed the U.S. to maintain national security and the security of U.S. allies.
Russia’s material breach of the INF Treaty, in addition to China’s deployment in East Asia—free of treaty constraints—of the type of theater-range missiles that the United States has not developed, tested or fielded since 1987 leaves the U.S. at a serious disadvantage.
As the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review states, “The United States is committed to arms control efforts that advance U.S., allied and partner security; are verifiable and enforceable; and include partners that comply responsibly with their obligations.”
Against this backdrop of strategic rivals that often disregard existing treaty obligations or those who are reluctant to join the United States at the negotiating table, AVC must identify changing norms and technologies that pose new threats to, or open new opportunities for, transparency and stability through arms control agreements and arrangements. AVC’s mission is more relevant than ever, but these are not the only challenges that the bureau faces.
AVC deals with a plethora of nuanced and complex issues: chemical and biological weapons concerns, strategic nuclear weapons compliance and verification, nuclear arms reduction and fissile material production cut-off, nuclear testing, as well as some of the military aspects of Arctic and space policy, missile defense and conventional weapons in European conflicts. AVC staff face constantly shifting national security issues on a daily basis. This complex analysis and policy formulation is made possible thanks to the dedication and devotion of Foreign Service and military officers and civil service employees, including science, technology, and political-military experts. The bureau helps to build international support for effective verification and compliance enforcement. These efforts have resulted in unanimous support from NATO Allies for America’s position on the INF Treaty, as well as ensuring that there is no impunity for the use of chemical weapons. AVC works these issues all around the world, with members of the team located everywhere from Washington to offices in Geneva, The Hague and Vienna. Emerging technologies in warfare, rising states and non-state actors who are not constrained by existing agreements or arrangements, as well as violations of long-standing agreements or arrangements, have put AVC at the forefront of efforts to counter these developments in order to maintain the national security of the United States and its allies.
Given the growing need for modernized arms control instruments and the important work done in enforcing them, AVC is always looking for bright minds interested in playing a major role in addressing emerging security challenges in an ever-changing international order. To stay up to date with AVC, follow them on Twitter @StateAVC.
Rachel Wolff is an intern and Tyronda Brown is a Foreign Affairs officer in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance.