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Oct. 24, 2019
Notes from the Pentagon

Skyfall details blocked
Pro-arms-control officials in the State Department knew for weeks that the deadly nuclear accident in Russia in August involved the Skyfall nuclear-powered cruise missile but held up releasing the information, according to Trump administration officials.

The arms control officials kept the information from being released over concerns that disclosing data on the Aug. 8 accident in the White Sea near the northern Russian town of Nenoksa would dampen prospects for an arms control agreement with Moscow.

One official described the holdup as the result of “good old clientitis” — the tendency of government officials to treat foreign officials they deal with as clients and orient policies in ways that would not upset relations.

Russia engaged in a major disinformation campaign to try to cover up the Skyfall nuclear reactor explosion, which occurred when a crashed missile was salvaged from the seafloor, where it had sat for a year. Seven Russians died when the missile reactor exploded as it was brought out of the water.

Thomas DiNanno, senior official of the State Department Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, first disclosed the Skyfall incident Oct. 10 in a speech to the United Nations, saying Russia has “much to answer for.”

U.S. agencies concluded that the explosion was caused by nuclear reaction during the recovery of the nuclear-powered cruise missile, which had been on the seafloor since a failed test, and took place “in close proximity to a major population center,” he said. The information was withheld for at least six weeks prior to the speech.

A State Department spokesman declined to comment.

Career arms control officials within the State Department are quietly opposing President Trump’s harder line on arms control and have been seeking to place an ally in the vacant post of undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Andrea Thompson, a former aide to Vice President Mike Pence, stepped down from the post last month.

The administration has withdrawn from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) over Russia’s development of a ground-launched cruise missile that U.S. officials said violated the accord.

The next major issue to be discussed is whether to extend the 2010 New START strategic arms treaty, set to expire in 2021.

Administration officials have said extending New START without major revisions is unlikely, and Moscow so far is refusing to include several new “superweapons” announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin in an extended New START.

Those weapons include the Skyfall nuclear-powered cruise missile that, when deployed, would provide a very long-range nuclear strike capability. Others include the Poseidon nuclear-powered and nuclear-tipped drone submarine, the Avangard hypersonic missile, a new heavy intercontinental ballistic missile called the Sarmat and an air-launched ballistic missile called Kinzhal.

The Trump White House’s new approach to arms control seeks to include China and its large force of nuclear missiles in any future strategic arms accord with Russia. So far, China has rejected U.S. appeals to join arms talks.

The administration also has upset pro-arms-control officials by considering a withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty over concerns about Russian aerial spying. The 2002 treaty permits 34 signatory nations to carry out short-notice reconnaissance flights to monitor military forces.

One reason for jettisoning Open Skies, according to U.S. officials, is based on Moscow’s restrictions on overflights of Russia’s European enclave of Kaliningrad. Moscow has deployed advanced missiles in the enclave that threaten NATO allies in the region.

After Russia restricted those flights, the administration restricted Russian flights over the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the missile defense interceptor base at Fort Greely, Alaska, Reuters reported.

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remain one of the most contentious issues in U.S.-Chinese relations, with each side having differing understandings about the weapons transfers to the island state, which Beijing considers a rogue province. China for decades has insisted that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan must diminish and eventually end and claims that the commitment is implicit in the U.S.-Chinese joint communiques.

But the White House recently made public a once-secret memorandum from President Reagan making clear that the 1982 joint communique did not end arms sales to Taiwan.

State Department officials at the time sought to codify U.S. policy. John J. Tkacik, a former State Department official involved in the 1982 communique talks, said the department’s China desk at the time attempted to insert language that would have stated it is not long-term U.S. policy to sell arms to Taiwan and that the sales would “gradually diminish and ultimately cease.”

A major bureaucratic policy fight ensued, and after the attempt to insert the language was reported in The Washington Times, Reagan called then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig to explain it.

Eleven days after the June 14, 1982, story ran, Haig was forced to resign over what he said later were policy differences with the president, including in regard to China and Russia. Reagan, in his diary, later wrote: “Actually, the only disagreement was over whether I made policy or the Sec. of State did.”

The story that exposed the effort was written by columnist Ralph de Toledano and triggered pressure on the administration from Congress. That ultimately led Reagan to write the Aug. 17, 1982 memo to Secretary of George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, a memo that was declassified last month by recently departed National Security Adviser John Bolton.

In the memo, Reagan stated that talks on the communique were premised on a clear understanding that any reduction in arms sales to Taiwan depended on “peace in the Taiwan Straits” and on China’s declared policy of seeking a peaceful resolution of its differences with Taipei, where Nationalist forces fled in 1948.

“In short, the U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan-PRC difference,” Reagan stated. “It should be clearly understood that the linkage between these two matters is a permanent imperative of U.S. foreign policy.”

The first sale of F-16 jets to Taiwan took place shortly after that, and the administration announced in August that it will sell $8 billion worth of new F-16s to Taiwan.

Chad Sbragia, a senior Pentagon official, announced in China this week that the United States is not seeking to “decouple” from its engagement with all things Chinese, according to a defense official.

Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant defense secretary for China, made the remarks at a military forum in Beijing on Monday.

Mr. Sbragia said references to U.S. economic and other disengagement from China at the forum were not accurate.

China has regarded President Trump’s tough policy on trade and other issues as a sign that the United States is sharply shifting its policies toward Beijing.

“I’ll tell you from personal experience that’s not only not official U.S. policy, that’s not even a policy discussion that I hear in my day-to-day business,” Mr. Sbragia said. “That’s not even how we think about that.”

The defense official said that if “decoupling” were the goal, “what you would see on a day-to-day basis would be fundamentally different than what you see.”

Mr. Sbragia said the United States is seeking to rebalance the relationship and noted that both Washington and Beijing say they want to improve stability and avoid crises.

“It’s just the opposite of decoupling. It’s not to pull apart. It’s actually to in some ways deepen those relationships,” he said.

Mr. Sbragia’s remarks were first reported by Reuters and confirmed by the defense official.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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