New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Challenges of the Nonproliferation “OODA Loop”


Below are remarks Dr. Ford delivered in his official capacity -- as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation at the U.S. National Security Council -- to an event for Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) Public Policy Fellows on September 7, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Good evening, and thanks to Henry Sokolski for his kind invitation.  I’m pleased to meet the latest crop of Public Policy Fellows, and to say a few words about why it’s so important for bright policymaking staffers in the U.S. Government to seek out and obtain a good grounding in issues of nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear energy.

From my perspective as Special Assistant to the President and the fellow in charge of the WMD and Counterproliferation Directorate at the National Security Council, you’ll get no argument from me that these are important issues that present critical challenges for the future.  It’s vital that the public policy community meet these challenges in creative and effective ways – especially because our collective track record, so far, is so mixed.

On the one hand, the global nonproliferation regime has helped confound dire predictions made in the early 1960s that our world today would be one in which a great many states had nuclear weapons.  Mercifully, that proliferated world has not arrived, and for this we owe much to nonproliferation efforts applied over the years – unilaterally, bilaterally, and multilaterally, including through a range of fora such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

On the other hand, it is also true, as the saying goes, that mistakes were made.  During the “Atoms for Peace” era of the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, we were a little too incautiously enthusiastic in our efforts to help other countries benefit from the peaceful use of nuclear technology.  Efforts to promote nuclear power led both the United States and the USSR to transfer significant amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to partner governments overseas for use in nuclear reactors.  Only later did it apparently occur to policymakers that shipping potentially weapons-usable uranium all over the place wasn’t really such a great idea, and we began working to try to repatriate this material and convert reactors to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel that cannot so readily be used in weapons.  Fortunately, efforts by the U.S. Department of Energy to help fix this problem by repatriating and converting such materials have been an unqualified nonproliferation success.  Just last week, in fact, the Department removed HEU from a research reactor in Ghana and transported the material to China, which had originally supplied the fuel and reactor.  This was a very important step not just because it reduced the amount of material out there, but also because it marked the first time that we have been able to involve China in remediating such problems.

So clearly it’s possible both to get the answer wrong, but also possible to learn from this and undertake very valuable course corrections.  But we obviously still face challenges.  .  Not so long ago, in order to prevent the creation of new, so-called “virtual nuclear weapons states” – that is, countries with the ability to produce fissile material usable in nuclear weapons, and which thus have acquired the technical “option” of overcoming what has traditionally been the most significant obstacle to building nuclear weapons – it was U.S. policy to prevent the transfer of fissile material production technology to any new state.  We still hope to slow or prevent such transfers, but with the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal reached with Iran, the United States was willing to countenance just such material production in the hands of a government that had flagrantly broken its nonproliferation obligations for many years.  As a result, even though the nuclear deal seems temporarily to have limited Iran’s capabilities so that it cannot presently produce enough material for a weapon in less than 12 months’ time, we now face the challenge of managing long-term proliferation threats from a country whose fissile material production we have unfortunately helped legitimize, and upon which key nuclear constraints will start to sunset in 2026.

On the whole, the world appears to have faced special nonproliferation challenges since the end of the Cold War.  There has long been an assumption in some circles that our showing ever more progress on nuclear disarmament is critical to ensuring nonproliferation cooperation.  The Obama Administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), for instance, declared that “[b]y demonstrating that we take seriously our NPT obligation to pursue disarmament, we strengthen our ability to mobilize broad international support for the measures needed to reinforce the nonproliferation regime and secure nuclear materials worldwide.”

Worryingly, however, it was precisely in the post-Cold War era – when the superpowers were making the most progress in reducing their nuclear arsenals, to the point that today our holdings stand at only 13 percent of their Cold War peak – that nonproliferation challenges became especially acute.  If one believes the arguments frequently made in recent years about our need to do more on disarmament in order to elicit nonproliferation cooperation from other states – an idea that showed up prominently in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, for instance – one might have expected such dramatic disarmament movement to have catalyzed an era of nonproliferation successes, but the era of sweeping nuclear weapons reductions during the decade after the 1994 NPR actually saw three additional countries (Pakistan, India, and North Korea) test and openly possess nuclear weapons, and two more (Iran and Libya) undertake secret nuclear weapons programs facilitated by a worldwide proliferation network (that of A.Q. Khan) trafficking in uranium enrichment technology and nuclear weapons designs.  Correlation does not necessarily imply causation, of course, but it is striking that as actual disarmament progress moved into high gear, proliferation problems dramatically accelerated.  Today, these setbacks are in some sense being compounded by the development of intercontinental range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of delivering the nuclear weapons that proliferation of fissile material production know-how in the 1990s helped make much more likely.

Worse still, the international community’s track record in addressing remedial measures to such proliferation is not very good.  It’s not even so much that we are bad at detecting emerging proliferation threats, though that has always been, and remains, a real challenge – though we’re better at it than the conventional wisdom would have things.  It’s more that we are especially bad at fixing such problems even once it’s very clear that they exist.  Detecting is hard, but enforcement is apparently even harder – and the nonproliferation regime is all too frequently only able to muster responses that are “too little, too late.”

I once wrote an essay looking at this compliance enforcement problem through the prism of the “OODA loop” concept developed years ago by John Boyd of the U.S. Air Force, who hypothesized military action as an iterated process by which an actor observes its environment (“O”), orients itself within that environment (“O”), decides what to do (“D”), and then acts upon the basis of that decision (“A”).  (Hence the acronym: “OODA.”)  For him, it was a critical locus of military advantage to be able to act “inside” an enemy’s OODA loop – that is, to do your own observing, orientation, decision-making, and action-taking faster than your adversary can do his.  If you can, you will probably be able to shape his environment faster than he can react coherently to you, and that can be the key to victory.

From this perspective, the history of the post-Cold War period suggests that proliferators have hitherto been operating well inside the collective OODA loop of the global nonproliferation regime.  U.S. officials had known for a long time that Iran was seeking to develop nuclear weapons, for instance, and we even said so publicly in a report by the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) at the end of the George H.W. Bush Administration.  Iran’s illicit uranium enrichment effort became widely known in 2002, when the facility at Natanz was publicly revealed for the first time.  It’s possible that robust international sanctions and other pressures might have persuaded the regime in Tehran to change its strategic course at that point.  Indeed, U.S. intelligence officials believe that Iran did actually suspend work on nuclear weaponization in 2003 for fear of suffering a fate similar to what Saddam Hussein’s Iraq then faced for what had been believed to be its WMD work – though of course Iran paused but did not completely stop the associated fissile material production work it had initiated as part of its effort to develop nuclear weapons.

Instead of imposing pressures upon Iran that might have elicited a real change of course at the time, however, the international community fought with itself and dragged its feet.  It was not until February 2006 – three and a half years after the Natanz revelations – that Iran was actually referred to the Security Council, and the first U.N. sanctions were not imposed until December 2006.  Despite assessing as early as 1991 that Iran was trying to develop nuclear weapons, even the United States only officially found Iran in violation of NPT Article II in 2005.

To be sure, we finally managed to get enough sanctions on Iran, in conjunction with our international partners, to get Tehran to the nuclear negotiating table in 2012.  Had we put that kind of pressure on Iran much more quickly – say, in 2002 or 2003 – we might perhaps have seen really decisive results.  But by the time that pressure materialized, however, it wasn’t 2002 or 2003 anymore, and Iran had invested vast additional amounts of time, energy, money, and political capital in its enrichment program.  As it was, all the pressures that we and our partners could muster by the mid-2010s were only enough to get Iran, with the JCPOA of 2015, temporarily to suspend the rapid forward progress in uranium production that it, by that time, had underway.  Iran, although substantively set back by the JCPOA, is now treading water, waiting for the JCPOA’s key programmatic restrictions to “sunset,” and unless something is done to make such limits more enduring, it will again be building out large-scale fissile material production in a few years’ time.

Iran, in other words, seems to have been inside the OODA loop of the nonproliferation regime all along.  We managed to get significant pressures imposed upon it in response to its violations – at least for a while, before nuclear pressures were lifted under the JCPOA – but never enough soon enough.  It might be true that a certain amount of pressure would have done the job at a certain point in time, but by the time we managed to get everyone on board to impose that pressure, Iran’s program had moved on – and that amount of pressure wasn’t sufficient anymore.  We’ve repeatedly found ourselves behind the curve.

A similar story can probably be told about North Korea, which managed to cheat on its commitments under the NPT, the 1992 North-South denuclearization agreement, and the 1994 Agreed Framework by developing nuclear weaponry – and to build up its missile capabilities in violation of multiple, legally-binding Security Council resolutions – at a rate that has hitherto clearly exceeded the rate at which the international community has been able to exert pressure to stop it.  We are attempting to break that cycle now, but so far, at least, that proliferator has also operated “inside the OODA loop” of the nonproliferation regime, to potentially disastrous effect.  These are races that we cannot continue to allow to be won by the proliferators, but the international community has not yet shown itself fleet enough of foot to turn things around.  It badly needs to do so.

That’s a depressing litany, to be sure, but it’s also why I’m so pleased to see bright folks trying to learn more about – and move their careers more into – the nonproliferation business.  The nonproliferation community needs innovative answers and new initiatives, for past ones have too often proven inadequate.  I am glad for your interest in this field, for the world has need of all the energy, intelligence, grit, determination, and wisdom you’ll be able to provide.  Thank you for your interest in this arena, and good luck in your studies.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, nor those of the U.S. Government.
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