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News | May 14, 2021

DTRA's Denuclearization Legacy to Remember

By Andrea Chaney

FORT BELVOIR, Va.—Throughout the year 2021, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program is celebrating 30 years of collaboration with foreign partners to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by securing and eliminating chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) material, infrastructure, and expertise.  

To commemorate CTR’s milestone, the Agency will examine significant contributions from CTR’s many programs, among them, the Strategic Offensive Arms Elimination (SOAE). Operating between 1993 and 2015 in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), the SOAE program accounted for the deactivation of 900 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 900 anti-ship missiles, and approximately 700 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. During the deactivation process, SOAE facilitated secure transportation for over 7,600 nuclear warheads from operational sites to more secure RosAtom locations to sotre, disassemble and dispose of. SOAE destroyed approximately 500 missile silos, more than 150 nuclear-capable aircraft, over 30 nuclear-powered ballistic submarines, and more than 3,500 metric tons of chemical weapons agent. 

Today, SOAE continues to support the cooperative elimination of WMD delivery systems, related materials and infrastructure, and has evolved its capabilities and authorities to include disposition and security of interdicted delivery systems and related commodities and expertise. 

A component of Senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) CTR legislation, SOAE was established following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Senators Nunn and Lugar often visited FSU countries, particularly Russia and Ukraine, and assessed a high risk of losing control over large amounts of Soviet WMD material and extensive delivery vehicle stockpiles in the post-Soviet world. Thousands of nuclear weapons and many more components remained outside Russia in the Newly Independent States (NIS). Russia quickly recouped tactical weapons, but retrieving strategic systems in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and to some extent, Belarus, proved a formidable challenge. 

Russia relied on the United States for financial and operational support to meet the then-Soviet Union’s START I commitment to reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal initially from over 13,000 warheads to 6,000 accountable deployed warheads in just seven years. CTR legislation and SOAE authorities provided the vehicle for cooperation. The DoD continued to provide financial and operational support for the elimination of WMDs and strategic delivery systems through CTR’s SOAE program until 2015. This support was necessary for Russia to meet its Moscow Treaty and New START Treaty commitments. In Oct. 2015, the United States noted that Russia had 1,648 deployed warheads, below the Moscow Treaty limit of 2,200 warheads, but above the New Start limit of 1,550 deployed warheads.

“A lot of bases over there did not have the equipment or money to deal with the kind of numbers of missiles we wanted to take out of the silos and process them out of there,” said Jim Reid, a retired Air Force Colonel and senior civil servant now serving in a contracted advisory capacity to CTR. In his decades of experience working CTR programs in the FSU, Reid remarked that building trust among partners was of utmost importance. 

“Thankfully, we had the treaty to lean on and the government signed the agreements,” Reid said. “The military sent the orders down for them to be cooperative with us, but over many visits, the trust built up between us.”

On June 17, 1992, the U.S. and Russia signed an Umbrella Agreement outlining an implementing framework by which the U.S. would support Russia in meeting its START Treaty commitments. By 1993, an Implementing Agreement to support SOAE-specific efforts entered into force and CTR committed $100M for strategic offensive arms elimination in Russia. 

“The Russians left seven bombers behind in Kazakhstan and we agreed to cut them up,” said Reid. “We sent Ukrainians the proper equipment and by 1995, we hired contractors to take on everything; defueling, pulling out missiles, taking them to dismantling facilities, limiting the headworks of their silos,” said Reid. “It was a tremendous effort.”

Reid said they would give their counterparts little projects to start building up their own capabilities and trust.  

“We’d tell them ‘plan for the elimination of your submarine, and we’ll give you $50,000,’” he said. “Or use the money to order the right equipment, then we’ll pay you to get the elimination work done. It was a hand-to-mouth operation at first, but we got rid of a lot of submarine launchers through that process.” 

Reid and his colleagues continued the original elimination work through the early 2000s. When the Global War on Terror changed DoD priorities, SOAE’s traditional mission seemed in doubt. However, SOAE was reinvigorated when SORT and New Start were signed extending work in Russia. In Ukraine, work was extended when the President of Ukraine approached the Obama administration about restarting elimination efforts.  

Mark Heslop, a DoD contractor with nearly two decades of experience implementing SOAE projects in Russia and Ukraine, witnessed this evolution of SOAE firsthand. 

“The big thing in Russia, which I consider a huge win, was eliminating the entire SS-24 rail mobile system,” Heslop said. “One of the few that completely went away, which from a strategic standpoint was a huge success.” Heslop said this was important because the SS-24 had a range of 6,200 miles and each could deliver 10 nuclear warheads to individual targets.

Consistent with Reid’s experience in the 1990s, SOAE needed to constantly build trust as it began new elimination efforts with Russia.

“When we first started going over in 2000, we had meetings with the military officers and they were very staunch and stand-offish,” said Heslop. “The more trips we made, the more interaction, they would let their guard down and we got to know each other in a more positive manner.”

Reid agreed overcoming the distrust was a continuous challenge but the relationships slowly built over time. 

“When we first arrived to some of the bases, we were treated like an on-site inspection team,” said Reid. “It took some time to overcome the fact we weren’t there to do an inspection of their systems. We were there to figure out what they could do with their resources and what they needed help with in order to do the elimination process that was required.”

Heslop and Reid underscored the importance of listening closely to partner needs to not only build trust, but also accomplish the mission.  

“A lot of times the Americans would come over and want to do it their way and push things a certain direction,” Heslop said. “A big lesson learned for me was there was more than one way to get things done. Maybe we wanted to go this way, and my Ukrainian counterpart wanted to go that way, and there was nothing wrong with either direction. Just a different way to arrive at the same point.”

Robert ‘Lloyd’ Bridges, a retired Naval Flight Officer now working with SOAE as a contractor, was one of the last government project managers to implement SOAE efforts in the FSU. Bridges joined the SOAE team in 2007 on active duty with the Navy and managed SOAE projects to dismantle ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) in Russia and eliminate SS-24 solid rocket motors in Ukraine. He said his SSBN projects were unique because he did not have the traditional integrating contractors performing the work. SOAE contracted directly with the Russian shipyards, which exposed Bridges to the importance of people-to-people relationships in the counter-WMD mission.  

“CTR built a facility that enabled the workers to basically strip and recoup the copper wiring that was in the submarine,” said Bridges. “We’re talking miles and miles of copper wire inside a sub. These guys would get all the wiring out, chop it up, seal off the sub and by that point, they were able to self-fund a lot of the things they were doing and they were very proud of their accomplishments.”

Bridges said he made some good friends and built great relationships with a lot of the people associated with his projects. 

“I’m incredibly proud of what we did,” said Bridges. “There is no doubt in my mind that a lot of the success was due to the personal relationships made with our counterparts over there.”

After completing work in the FSU, the SOAE mission set quickly verged on obsolete. Since Kimberly Heyne joined the program in 2018, SOAE has remained postured to support WMD elimination contingencies, but has also evolved along with the counter-WMD mission space to assist partner countries with the disposition of interdicted WMD delivery systems and related materials.

“The work that was done in Ukraine and Russia to eliminate ballistic missile infrastructure made sure SOAE and the U.S. Government would be prepared to do that again in another country,” Heyne said. “A big aspect was to drill down and identify what were the key parts of the ballistic missile program infrastructure and what would we want to target in a cooperative elimination mission and how we would verify that elimination as well,” she added. 

Threat actors seeking to establish or build upon an existing capability to develop WMD systems very often rely upon dual-use commodities. SOAE can provide capabilities to key partners who face recurring instances of interdicting these very technologies. Through its global disposition authorities, SOAE can support these missions anywhere in the world. 

SOAE’s evolution demonstrates DTRA and CTR’s ability to address the most pressing WMD threats that persist from past generations, while also remaining agile to counter emerging challenges with new partners and with new capabilities. 

“We really are the only part of the U.S. Government that is focused on this work,” Heyne said. “There are other organizations that do nuke security, chemical security, bio security; but it’s very unique to SOAE to be focused on the WMD delivery systems mission,” she added. “I think it’s critical to continue that history, that legacy that was such an important part of the early days of CTR.

For more information on SOAE and other programs commemorating CTR’s 30th anniversary, visit and follow DTRA social media platforms using #CTR30.


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