Open thread: the global nuclear arms race

There are several reasons to conclude that the world today is experiencing a nuclear arms race alongside conventional military buildup by many actors and a breakdown of multilateral cooperation.

Partly driven by US ballistic missile defence development, Russia began deploying weapon systems meant to counter them like the Topol-M in the 1990s. Now they are talking about hypersonic weapons and underwater cruise missiles.

China’s nuclear arsenal is developing, including through a rapidly enlarging submarine fleet with the resulting ability to carry out very rapid sub-to-shore SLBM strikes as well as less vulnerability to having land-based weapons and command systems destroyed.

India and Pakistan are also developing their nuclear capabilities, which may be the most threatening in the world because of the short flight times between the countries. Fear that a preemptive strike may destroy their ability to retaliate may be driving both countries to adopt dangerous policies to launch on what they perceive to be an attack and to delegate authority to use nuclear weapons to field commanders.

In the broadest terms, the US development of nuclear weapons in WWII encouraged Soviet weapon development (partly through extensive espionage in the US program) as well as British nuclear weapons after the US cut off cooperation. UK-French rivalry, national prestige, and skepticism about US protection helped motivate the French arsenal and their first test in 1960. Fear of Russia and the US led to Chinese nuclear weapons after 1964, and fear of the Chinese arsenal helped drive India to develop nuclear weapons and test one in 1974. Fear of India led to the current Pakistani arsenal and their test in 1998. North Korean nuclear weapons are partly consequences of fear of the United States, and also the hope they will bolster regime legitimacy and survival. The Israeli arsenal isn’t known to have been tested, and may have been motivated more by fear of being overwhelmed by conventional forces from hostile neighbours than specifically from fear of someone else’s nuclear weapons.

Despite being bound by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty not to do so, all of the long-established nuclear powers have been tempted by geopolitics or profits to share technologies and expertise that helped later nuclear weapon states.

There is now a credible fear that regional nuclear arms races could break out in the Middle East and Asia. There are whispers that Pakistan has promised weapons to Saudi Arabia if Iran ever becomes a nuclear weapon state, and other states in the region may choose the same course. In Asia, South Korea and even Japan may be secretly considering nuclearization, and many other states in the region have the wealth and technical potential to do likewise.

These weapons threaten everyone, not least because accidental or unauthorized launches or detonations are a constant risk. The best thing for the world would be the emergence of a belief that possessing nuclear weapons is a stain on a country’s honour because of their indiscriminately killing power, not a golden demonstration of national prestige. I believe we should fight for a world where these fissile isotopes are put to life-affirming purposes rather than the threat of obliteration, but it’s hard to see the path from here to there while states continue to grow more distrustful about one another and while the capabilities needed to build nuclear arms become more distributed and available.

88 thoughts on “Open thread: the global nuclear arms race”

  1. If anyone is shopping for an aircraft carrier, this is a boom year. Aside from the powerful fleet of American Nimitz-class super carriers, and their smaller fleet of nine “amphibious ready group” carriers that carry both helicopters and F-35 fighters, the Chinese are building a third carrier, the Japanese have two (which they call helicopter carriers but which will carry F-35B naval strike fighters in addition to helicopters), the British have completed two 65,000-ton behemoths, one of which is already undergoing sea trials, the Indians are about to put their first domestically made carrier into service, Russia is planning a second carrier (in addition to their obsolete Admiral Gorshkov) and the French continue to operate their older carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.

  2. US military deploys new type of nuclear weapon seen as key to countering Russia

    Washington (CNN)The US military deployed a new submarine-launched low-yield nuclear weapon, something the Pentagon sees as critical to countering the threat posed by Russia’s arsenal of smaller tactical nukes.

    Several former high-ranking administration officials, however, have said the weapons increase the potential for nuclear conflict.

    “The US Navy has fielded the W76-2 low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead,” John Rood, the under secretary of defense for policy, said in a statement Tuesday.

    The new nuclear weapon is a modification of the pre-existing W-76 warhead, which is used to arm submarine launched Trident II (D-5) missiles, so the new weapon does not add to the total number of nuclear weapons in the US stockpile.

    The new warheads, the first new US nuclear weapon in decades, were first produced in February of last year.

  3. In a recent report by the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, David Santoro, Alexey Arbatov and Tong Zhao, experts from America, Russia and China respectively, suggest ways of breaking the impasse. Mr Zhao, who is a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, says a three-way deal could start with a cap on intermediate-range missiles, where China’s advantage in land-based rockets is offset by America’s edge in air-launched ones. Or it could cover all delivery systems (ground launchers, submarine tubes and bombers) with a reach longer than 500km. All three countries possess these in roughly equal numbers, unlike warheads, of which America and Russia have many more.

    One incentive for China to agree to negotiate is the risk that, if it does not, New start will unravel. Mr Zhao says this would not only end limits to the American arsenal but also shroud it in secrecy. Each of the three countries might then base its actions on worst-case estimates of the others’ forces. That could drag China into a nuclear-arms race with the other two, says Mr Zhao—an economic burden that would be keenly felt by China as its economy slows.

  4. With the cancellation of the Aegis Ashore plan, the adoption of a preemptive strike doctrine has resurfaced in Japan’s missile defense debates. Japan had already announced its own plan to develop hypersonic cruise missiles and hyper velocity gliding projectile weapons that would back a shift into a more preemptive strategic doctrine. Limiting the use of new preemptive strike capabilities to solely Japan’s territorial defense will not be possible for a simple reason: The target destinations of potentially hostile missiles that are still on the ground cannot be determined

    Missile defense in Japan after the Aegis Ashore cancellation | The Japan Times

  5. Nuclear stand-off: can Joe Biden avert a new arms race? | Biden administration | The Guardian

    In his book, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, journalist Fred Kaplantells the story of a simulation carried out by the Obama NSC in which Russia invades one of the Baltic States and fires a low-yield nuclear weapon at a Nato base. Most of the generals in the wargame advocated a nuclear response. But Kahl, then vice president Biden’s national security adviser, spoke up, saying they “were missing the big picture.”

  6. “China’s navy battle force has more than tripled in size in only two decades,” read a December report by the leaders of the US Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.
    “Already commanding the world’s largest naval force, the People’s Republic of China is building modern surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, amphibious assault ships, ballistic nuclear missile submarines, large coast guard cutters, and polar icebreakers at alarming speed.”

  7. Put in a historical perspective, China’s shipbuilding numbers are staggering — dwarfing even the US efforts of World War II. China built more ships in one year of peace time (2019) than the US did in four of war (1941-1945).
    “During the emergency shipbuilding program of World War II, which supported massive, mechanized armies in two theaters of war thousands of miles from home, US shipbuilding production peaked at 18.5 million tons annually, and the United States finished the war with a merchant fleet that weighed in at 39 million tons,” said Thomas Shugart a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former US Navy captain, in testimony before Congress last month.
    “In 2019, during peacetime, China built more than 23 million tons of shipping, and China’s merchant fleet … totals more than 300 million tons,” Shugart said.

  8. Turkey’s nuclear power dilemma

    Turkey’s first Russia-backed nuclear plant has raised issues around its safety and potential for use in building nuclear weapons.

    Istanbul, Turkey – Turkish and Russian officials laid the foundation for the third reactor of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant Akkuyu in the southern coastal city of Mersin on Wednesday.

    The plant’s first reactor unit is expected to be operational in 2023, the centenary of the Turkish Republic, and the remaining units in 2026.

  9. The scenario is an ugly one whose long-term stability may not hold, either because Israel’s real objective is to provoke an Iranian response that would provide cover for an attack on Iran’s facilities or simply because neither country’s strategy is as clever or finely tuned as it imagines. In September 2019, Iran launched a drone attack on the Saudi oil company Aramco, which took half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production offline in a matter of minutes and caught both Riyadh and Washington by surprise. Israel cannot know which of its incremental attacks will incur an Iranian response that could lead to spiraling escalation—and no one knows what level of nuclear enrichment or accumulation of fissile material will trigger an all-out Israeli assault on Iran.

  10. Russia has long held that arms-control talks ought to include not just offensive systems, like bombers and missiles, but also defensive ones which might neuter them. It has been especially irked by land-based Aegis systems built in Romania and Poland. The new test “is likely to have a crushing effect on prospects for new nuclear arms control agreements”, says Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy organisation.

    “It will also provide motivation (or justification) for Russia and China to diversify and grow their nuclear weapons arsenals,” she adds—the logic being that more missiles will be needed to saturate stiffer defences. China is especially jittery as it has relatively few land-based icbms.

    Ms Grego notes that because the sm-3 interceptor can also take out satellites—something America demonstrated in 2008—deploying more of them will have an impact on space security, too.

  11. In democracies like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, nuclear ambitions are tempered by political reality. The Middle East is different. The nuclear deal curtailing Iran’s nuclear programme is collapsing. Even if Mr Biden revives it, many of its provisions expire in a decade. Should Iran at any time look as if it is contemplating going nuclear, Saudi Arabia will not want to fall behind. Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, has few domestic checks on his authority and ambitious plans for nuclear technology. Turkey could well follow.

    If the nuclear order starts to unravel, it will be almost impossible to stop. Hence the importance of acting today. America, China, Europe and Russia share an interest in stopping proliferation. Russia does not want a nuclear Iran any more than America does. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Japan would be among China’s worst nightmares. The Iranian nuclear deal in 2015 showed that rivals can muster a response to proliferation.

  12. Great-power sabre rattling, a sense that some countries get to bend the rules and a reassessment of America’s role as a steadfast ally during the presidency of Donald Trump may all have provoked interest in proliferation. What is more, though the bomb’s spread has slowed, it has never stopped—and proliferation begets proliferation, whatever speed it unrolls at. Iran’s nuclear programme spooks Saudi Arabia. North Korea’s arsenal casts a darkening shadow over South Korea and Japan.

    Polls show that a majority supports either the development of nuclear weapons or the return of the American ones stationed there during the cold war. But extending American deterrence is harder today. For America to use nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula would always have been a momentous decision, but in the past it would not have put millions of Americans on the frontline. Now that North Korean missiles can apparently reach North America, attacking Pyongyang puts New York at risk. Strategic calculations are sensitive to such things, and both South Korea and Japan know it.

    But North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons. And any deal with America which legitimised North Korea’s arsenal in an effort to stop its growth would increase South Korea’s incentive for at least keeping the nuclear option available—a posture known in the nuclear trade as hedging. So would a resumption of North Korean missile tests. Jeffrey Lewis and David Schmerler of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) in California recently published evidence that North Korea was preparing to test a new long-range submarine-launched missile.

    Mr Biden says he will rejoin the JCPOA, in which case Iran has said it will return to compliance. Israel and Iran’s Arab rivals oppose such a revival, just as they opposed the deal in the first place. They see it as legitimising Iran’s nuclear infrastructure while placing only temporary limits on what it can do with it. In 2018 Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, told cbs, an American broadcaster, that the kingdom “does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible”. Mr Fitzpatrick reckons that “Saudi Arabia is the proliferation concern number one around the world.”

    Despite its announced intention of building 16 nuclear-power stations, Saudi Arabia’s nuclear technology remains far behind that of Japan or South Korea. That need not, in itself, thwart any nuclear ambitions it has or develops. In the past, Western intelligence officials were concerned that Pakistan—which is thought to have had its bomb programme financed by Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and 1990s—might supply a complete nuclear device or know-how to the kingdom.

  13. The dangers of nuclear proliferation and confrontation cannot be understated (“Who will go nuclear next?”, January 30th). However, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons represents much more than a means of channelling “the frustration among nuclear have-nots.” It may not magically eliminate the world’s nuclear arsenal, but it does set a moral and legal starting point for long-term efforts towards disarmament, which nuclear powers have an obligation and special responsibility to take up.

    The treaty outlaws the use, development, production, testing and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, formalises a strongly held taboo against their use and fills a legal gap. It provides a further disincentive against proliferation.

    Given that the ultimate goal is to ensure that a nuclear detonation never takes place again, perhaps the treaty’s most obvious effect is the further stigmatisation of nuclear weapons. This makes it less probable that one will be detonated in the future.

    robert mardini
    International Committee of the Red Cross

    You noted that Japan’s development of reprocessing will bring it closer to a nuclear-weapons capability. The situation is significantly worse than you describe. In fact, France has reprocessed 47 tonnes of Japanese reactor plutonium, separating out weapons-usable plutonium and returning 11 tonnes of it to Japan. It now has enough plutonium to produce well above 1,000 nuclear weapons.

    To say that Japan is a latent nuclear power is perhaps an understatement. It is months, not years, from a weapon should it choose to build one. The stockpiling of commercially produced plutonium is a serious proliferation problem.

    bruce goodwin
    Pleasanton, California

  14. China is building more than 100 new missile silos in its western desert, analysts say

    China has begun construction of what independent experts say are more than 100 new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in a desert near the northwestern city of Yumen, a building spree that could signal a major expansion of Beijing’s nuclear capabilities.

    Commercial satellite images obtained by researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., show work underway at scores of sites across a grid covering hundreds of square miles of arid terrain in China’s Gansu province. The 119 nearly identical construction sites contain features that mirror those seen at existing launch facilities for China’s arsenal of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

    The acquisition of more than 100 new missile silos, if completed, would represent a historic shift for China, a country that is believed to possess a relatively modest stockpile of 250 to 350 nuclear weapons. The actual number of new missiles intended for those silos is unknown but could be much smaller. China has deployed decoy silos in the past.

  15. Let’s Not Get Into a Nuclear Arms Race With China

    China’s new missile silos are concerning—but we already have more than enough weapons to counter them.

    Third, even with 120 extra ICBMs, China’s nuclear arsenal is still dwarfed by America’s (and Russia’s). Adding up ICBMs, bombers, and submarines, China right now has about 300 nuclear weapons that could hit the United States. By comparison, the U.S. has more than 2,000 that could hit China. In other words, China’s extra 120 silos, even if they’re all stuffed with missiles, wouldn’t alter the military balance.

    So why is China doing this? Again, the most likely answer is they’re doing it to maintain the ability to strike us with about 300 weapons if the U.S. strikes them first. Most nuclear experts, even those who are hawks, have long thought that China has a “minimum deterrence” strategy—i.e., a strategy of possessing just enough nuclear weapons to deter an adversary from attacking. It could be that the Chinese have simply recalculated how many weapons they need to possess in order to keep deterring the United States under changing circumstances.

  16. Britain is adding nukes for the first time since the cold war

    So why more warheads? One possibility is that Britain is worried about future improvements in Russian or Chinese missile defences that would mean fewer warheads getting through, thus requiring more to be fired in the first place to inflict the same level of damage. Another rationale is that Britain may wish to put more than one submarine to sea in future, hedging against the risk of a breakthrough in technology for anti-submarine warfare, or ensuring that it could target Russia and China, or North Korea, at the same time.

  17. Yin Gang is a veteran scholar of the Middle East at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think-tank. He sets out why the administration of President Joe Biden should believe that China opposes Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even as it seeks to expand Sino-Iranian trade. China has selfish reasons for fearing an Iranian bomb, starting with the dangers of a regional arms race, says Mr Yin, a candid sort. “If there’s a Persian bomb, there must be an Arab bomb and a Turkish bomb,” he says. Though that may not directly threaten China, “If a nuclear war breaks out in the region, how would China do business with it?”

    China’s belief is that even the harshest economic sanctions do not stop countries from developing nuclear warheads, Mr Yin declares over tea in Beijing. He cites North Korea as a prime example. China’s logic is that Iran will have more reasons to behave if America lifts sanctions and allows Chinese, European and other companies to resume legal trade with Iranian partners. That is why China calls on America to do so, and on Iran to resume compliance with the jcpoa’s nuclear curbs. The unblushing self-interest behind those Chinese arguments is actually reason to think them sincere. And the Biden administration appears inclined to heed them, for now. After a high-level meeting in March in Alaska between American and Chinese diplomatic chiefs, Iran’s nuclear programme appeared on a shortlist of areas for potential co-operation. Asked about Chinese plans to expand trade with Iran, a State Department spokesman called opposition to Iranian nukes one of a few “narrow areas of tactical alignment” between his country and China.

  18. China would have good reason to bamboozle others about the precise whereabouts of its missiles. It has long feared that, in a crisis, America could use its large arsenal—or even a new generation of highly accurate conventional missiles—to wipe out China’s meagre forces on the ground. If some Chinese missiles were able to survive such an onslaught, they could be disabled in flight by America’s burgeoning missile defences, including interceptors in Alaska and California. In other words, China’s nuclear arsenal could be rendered useless. America stresses that its missile-defence systems are not directed at Russia, but makes no such commitment about their use against China.

    Mr Acton also argues that because most df-41s would probably have more than one warhead, China would not have enough fissile material to fill all the new silos with them, not least because of competing demand for its use in other nuclear weapons. The country is thought to have stopped producing plutonium in the 1980s. There is little evidence that it has resumed, although new nuclear-power reactors being built in Fujian, a coastal province, could do so in future.

    The discovery of the silo-building projects raises two broader questions. One is whether they will prompt a change in China’s nuclear posture. America and Russia keep some weapons on high alert, ready to launch at a moment’s notice. China does not. But silo-based icbms can be launched more quickly than those on mobile launchers, which have to be erected and, in some cases, fuelled. American officials argue that with plenty of instantly ready missiles to hand, and with the more advanced early-warning radar that China is beginning to develop (with Russia’s help), along with an early-warning satellite already in polar orbit, the country may adopt a policy of “launch on warning”. That means it would be ready to fire missiles at the first sign of a nuclear strike.

  19. South Korea has joined the small group of countries that are able to fire ballistic missiles from a submarine, a technological breakthrough that will alter the strategic balance in East Asia and encourage North Korea to pursue the same goal.

    According to reports from Seoul, a 3,000-tonne Dosan Ahn Chang-ho class submarine successfully carried out an underwater ejection test last week, after similar tests from a submerged launch barge. The missile, the Hyunmoo 4-4, has a range of more than 300 miles, putting all of North Korea within range.

  20. There are geopolitical factors at work, too. The subs have justified the need to master the complete fuel cycle—the process of mining, milling and enriching nuclear fuel—and thus placed Brazil “in the threshold between being a nuclear state and not being a nuclear state”, says Carlo Patti, a professor at the Federal University of Goiás and author of the book “Brazil in the Global Nuclear Order”. That means the country can produce its own nuclear energy, without seeking help from rich countries which, in Brazil’s view, have monopolised such technology on the pretext of non-proliferation. It also means that Brazil could produce weapons-grade uranium if it so chose. Both capabilities are sources of “political and technological prestige”, says Mr Patti.

  21. One way, he believes, is for the U.S. to be more open to limits on missile defenses, which are driving the hypersonic craze. “Over the long term I think we have to think about what kind of arms control we want with Russia and China,” he says.

    If the latest reports of this nuclear-capable long range Chinese weapon are true, the race seems to be speeding up for now. And the Pentagon is doing what it can to keep pace. Last month, it successfully tested its own advanced hypersonic design.

  22. “The PRC has possibly already established a nascent ‘nuclear triad’ with the development of a nuclear capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) and improvement of its ground and sea-based nuclear capabilities,” Pentagon stated in the report.

    It also informed that the country is supporting its nuclear expansion by “increasing its capacity to produce and separate plutonium by constructing fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities.”

    “New developments in 2020 further suggest that the PRC intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force,” the Pentagon also stated in the report that was released on Wednesday.

  23. The stakes extend well beyond Iran. The world’s nuclear order, already perilous, is now at risk of unravelling. Nuclear pacts hammered out in the last century are dated or fraying, as the U.S., Russia, and China modernize their arsenals. The Pentagon estimates that China could have at least a thousand bombs by 2030. The talks with Tehran are designed to prevent a tenth nation—the latest was North Korea, in 2006—from getting the bomb.

    In the Middle East, Israel has had a nuclear weapon since the late nineteen-sixties. Saudi officials have also threatened to pursue the bomb if Iran obtains one. “The Iranian nuclear crisis can’t be viewed in a vacuum,” Kelsey Davenport, of the Arms Control Association, told me. “The broader nuclear order is in chaos.” The collapse of the talks with Iran—Biden’s first major diplomatic foray—would have consequences worldwide.

  24. The Korean peninsula is entering a dangerous new phase in its arms race. North Korea, which resumed testing missiles in 2019 after a brief pause the previous year, has since continued to expand both its nuclear and its conventional arsenal, despite un sanctions that ban it from doing just that. It has focused on new missiles that may be better at evading the South’s detection systems, rather than the intercontinental ballistic sort that could threaten America. Meanwhile the South has been ramping up defence spending and beefing up its own arsenal.

    Three generations of North Korean dictators have sought to build ever more fearsome weapons, seeing this as essential for their survival. The South’s build-up has accelerated more recently, spurred by growing concerns about the durability of the alliance with America and the increasing tension between China and America. Donald Trump, America’s previous president, fuelled those concerns with his isolationist rhetoric and his dim view of alliances. So did the perceived lack of support from America when South Korea suffered a painful Chinese boycott after agreeing to host an American anti-missile system in 2017. Since taking office that year, Mr Moon has worked to make South Korea less dependent on America for its defence.

  25. Brazil might get nuclear-powered submarines even before Australia
    The country has been working on the technology for decades

    Geopolitical factors are at work, too. The subs have justified the need to master the complete fuel cycle—the process of mining, milling and enriching nuclear fuel—and thus placed Brazil “in the threshold between being a nuclear state and not being a nuclear state”, says Carlo Patti, author of “Brazil in the Global Nuclear Order”. That means the country can produce its own nuclear energy, without seeking help from rich countries which, in Brazil’s view, have monopolised such technology on the pretext of non-proliferation. It also means that Brazil could produce weapons-grade uranium if it chose to. Both capabilities are sources of “political and technological prestige”, says Mr Patti.

    For largely the same reason, they make non-proliferation advocates nervous. Brazil once had a secret weapons programme. In 2019 Mr Bolsonaro’s son, a member of Congress, said that Brazil would be “taken more seriously” if it had nukes. Whereas most countries have signed a so-called Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency, a nuclear watchdog, which allows for enhanced inspections, Brazil has long refused to do so, on the basis that nuclear-armed states have not done enough to disarm.

  26. Estimating nuclear proliferation and security risks in emerging markets using Bayesian Belief Networks

    An estimated 28 countries are interested in introducing nuclear power into their electric grid mix. The sudden influx of new nuclear power plants into emerging nuclear energy countries can present further nuclear proliferation and security risks. These risks can be even more prevalent for nations with political instability and limited resources to adequately support a robust nuclear regulatory infrastructure. This paper estimates the nuclear proliferation and security risks associated with the deployment of Generation III + nuclear power plants and Small Modular Reactors to emerging nuclear energy countries using expert judgment in conjunction with Bayesian Belief Networks. On average, Turkey is the most likely to divert nuclear material to develop a nuclear weapon (46% with an rsd of 0.50), divert civilian nuclear knowledge and technology for military use (38% with an rsd of 0.61), and to have their nuclear material stolen by non-state actors (39% with an rsd of 0.65). This is followed by Saudi Arabia at 38% (0.66 rsd), 39% (0.64 rsd), 32% (0.83 rsd), respectively. Reactor type has minimal impact on risk, while nations that pursue domestic enrichment and reprocessing has the greatest impact. In scenarios where emerging nuclear energy countries pursue domestic enrichment and reprocessing, the nuclear proliferation and security risks increase between 16% and 18%, on average. Lower-risk countries that engage in domestic enrichment and reprocessing can have comparable nuclear proliferation and security risks as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

  27. The Russian invasion of Ukraine will only redouble North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s determination to expand his nuclear arsenal. Kim knows that under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union, and he no doubt figures that if Ukraine were still a nuclear power, Russia would not have dared to attack. For Kim, Ukraine’s experience only reinforces the lessons that his fellow dictators in Iraq and Libya learned the hard way: countries that give up their nuclear weapons programs become vulnerable, and their leaders face serious risks of being overthrown and killed.

  28. First there was the bullet train. Now China is exploring a possible high-speed “missile train” that can whizz part of its nuclear arsenal around the country and make it more difficult to track and destroy.

    The research into a so-called doomsday train is a signal that the country is exploring new strategies for war as it modernises its military. The study says that a rail-based launch is harder to detect because the weapons are constantly on the move and any enemy damage to rails by enemy strikes can be quickly repaired,

  29. All told, China is shifting to a “launch on warning” doctrine. Rather than rely on a minimal nuclear deterrent to retaliate after an initial nuclear attack, China would henceforth fire at the first sign of an incoming nuclear strike, even before the enemy warheads have landed. This posture is akin to that of America and Russia, notes James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment, a think-tank in Washington, “but increases the risk of inadvertent launch, such as a response to a false warning”.

  30. Potentially the most important lesson China has learned from war in Ukraine is that the United States will not contemplate direct military intervention against a nuclear-armed opponent. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States took direct military intervention off the table, with Biden warning that “direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III.” Chinese analysts and policymakers have likely concluded that Russia’s nuclear arsenal deterred the United States from intervening and that nuclear weapons create more room for conventional operations. Chinese strategists likely believe that this validates the country’s decision to invest heavily in increasing its nuclear arsenal, which the U.S. Department of Defense recently estimated will reach at least 1,000 warheads within the decade. Moreover, having witnessed Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling, China may conclude that it could deter U.S. intervention on Taiwan’s behalf by raising its nuclear alert level or conducting nuclear tests at the outset of a conflict.

  31. President George H.W. Bush privately ruled out any use of nuclear weapons in the first Gulf war, though he allowed some obfuscation on the subject in public statements. But 28% of the American public told pollsters they were fine with the use of tactical, or low-yield, nuclear weapons against Iraq. Among people told it might save the lives of American troops the number was 45%.

    A follow-up published this February by the original authors and Janina Dill of Oxford University showed that this grim calculus held beyond America. Majorities or near-majorities in Britain, France and Israel were supportive of using nuclear weapons in conflicts with non-nuclear nations if they were more effective than conventional ones. That is not a way people think about something which is truly taboo. “People do not dabble in cannibalism when they are a little hungry; rather they resist until they are on the verge of starvation,” Dr Sagan and Dr Valentino have written. “With nuclear weapons, however, the us public’s preference for nuclear options seems to grow steadily as a function of perceived utility.”

    Yet interest in tactical nuclear weapons has revived in recent years. Russia is thought to have as many as 2,000 of them. The air-dropped bombs which make up the small nuclear arsenal America keeps in Europe can have their yields reduced to very low levels. In 2020 America deployed the W76-2, a low-yield weapon fitted to submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

    America’s justification for this was that it provided a capability to respond “in kind” if Russia used a tactical weapon. This suggests that there are cases where, for messaging purposes, nuclear weapons might have to be used simply because they are nuclear—perhaps because the public would expect a nuclear response to a nuclear attack and find anything less unforgivable. That is the opposite of a taboo.

  32. President Joe Biden came into office seeking to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in American policy. Biden even considered eliminating the ICBM leg of the triad altogether. But that option was scrapped last year, once intelligence agencies determined China was expanding its nuclear-weapons stockpile faster and more aggressively than previously expected. “When you are watching China increase rapidly, looking to triple the number of weapons it has, it did not seem appropriate for the U.S. to unilaterally seek to decrease at this point in time,” an Administration official tells TIME. The view was reinforced after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, during which President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nukes against the U.S. and European allies.

  33. How will America deal with three-way nuclear deterrence?

    It risks a new arms race, not only against Russia but also against China

    Like many nuclear powers, China long adhered to a form of minimum deterrence, whereby a few hundred warheads are deemed sufficient to ensure enough survive a surprise attack to inflict devastating retaliation. In the cold war America and the Soviet Union lived instead by the mad maths of “counterforce”, believing that nuclear war could be won with ever more weapons, many aimed at their foe’s nukes.

    One reason the administration has not done more to reduce the role of such weapons is that China appears determined to increase it. Its nuclear triad is growing apace. It is digging three vast fields with at least 300 silos for icbms. America says its Jin-class submarines have now been armed with JL-3 missiles, able to reach the continental United States from protected waters close to China. China has also deployed the nuclear-capable H-6N bomber, equipped for air-to-air refuelling. Having long kept warheads separate from missiles, China seems to be shifting to rapid “launch on warning” of an incoming nuclear attack, as in America and Russia.

    Hawkish Americans think it is time to rebuild the nuclear arsenal. They include Franklin Miller, a former Pentagon official who helped slash America’s stockpile in the 1980s and 90s by shrinking the bloated target list and removing the “overkill” of using several warheads to destroy a single target. He thinks America should roughly double its arsenal to 3,000-3,500 deployed strategic warheads—within a treaty if possible or unilaterally if not. The aim is to ward off Russia and China simultaneously, because an alliance between the two cannot be ruled out, he says.

  34. The pattern is clear: Russia has dropped out of the forum that monitors compliance with the New START arms-reduction treaty, which Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin extended just two years ago. Both the United States and Russia are developing new versions of all their nuclear-tipped armaments—land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, long-range bombers, cruise missiles, and more. China seems on a course to achieve parity with the two larger powers, tripling the number of its nuclear warheads over the next decade. North Korea keeps churning out more A-bombs and testing new missiles. Iran creeps closer to a weapons-grade enrichment of uranium. South Korean leaders openly talk about possibly building an atomic arsenal too; officers in other technically advanced countries whisper about it behind closed doors.

  35. Not long ago, such ambitions would have been unthinkable. Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the U.S. stopped designing, building, and testing new nuclear warheads. Stockpiles were slashed, labs’ budgets cut, and a highly skilled workforce allowed to dwindle. But after a three-decade break from manufacturing nuclear weapons, the U.S. is getting back into the game. Another arms race may be upon us, triggered by China’s growing ambitions and escalating hostilities with Russia, the world’s other nuclear superpower. Since President Biden took office, both nations have wielded their arsenals to threaten adversaries and coerce neighbors. The last remaining nuclear-arms treaty, known as New START, is set to expire in 2026, raising fears about a new era of unchecked expansion. All nine nuclear powers are scrambling to modernize their arsenals and build new weapons.

  36. European governments are thinking the unthinkable. Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, warns that a failure to keep arming Ukraine could push allies into “their own nuclear-weapons programmes”. Politicians from Germany to South Korea have said similar things. Others talk of “Europeanising” nato and substituting Britain’s and France’s nuclear weapons for American ones, though their combined stockpiles are less than a tenth of Russia’s and their doctrines for protecting the rest of Europe still embryonic. European allies are preparing to take up more of the burden of helping Ukraine, hoping to “Trump-proof” themselves.

  37. This reasoning has led China to perceive a mounting threat from the United States as the gap in power between the two countries has narrowed. A staunch advocate of the notion that the United States is hostile to China’s rise, Xi assigns great geopolitical significance to nuclear weapons as a means of showcasing Chinese power. His predecessors, influenced by China’s traditionally modest nuclear philosophy and with more limited resources at their disposal, exercised significant restraint in developing China’s nuclear capabilities and prioritized qualitative improvements over quantitative expansion. Xi, on the other hand, has elevated the missile force to the status of a full military service, issued specific instructions to expedite nuclear modernization, and boosted both the sophistication and the size of China’s nuclear arsenal.

    Xi’s commitment to nuclear weapons reflects a profound difference in how he perceives such arms as compared with his American counterparts. Rather than aiming to achieve clearly defined military objectives, such as deterring an enemy from undertaking specific military activities, Beijing sees nuclear weapons as symbols of military strength and believes that they wield a particular influence on an adversary’s perception of the power balance. This notion underpins what Chinese officials refer to as the “strategic counterbalance” mission of their nuclear forces—a bid to force the United States to take a more accommodating stance toward China.

  38. Although Saudi Arabia’s current nuclear ambitions are ostensibly for peaceful purposes, civilian programs can be a prelude to military ones. Iran, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, and Syria all clandestinely pursued nuclear weapons programs while pretending to adhere to safeguards. These examples demonstrate the challenges of detecting and preventing covert nuclear proliferation if countries have enrichment capabilities as part of their civilian nuclear programs, underscoring the urgent need for strict verification protocols.

    A civilian nuclear program could facilitate a nuclear weapons program by giving Saudi Arabia dual-use technologies such as fuel rods, reprocessing facilities, and advanced reactor designs. The reactors and uranium-enrichment capabilities would provide the kingdom with the infrastructure and knowledge base necessary for advancing its nuclear capabilities through a diversion of materials or expertise toward military applications. Riyadh could then use its advanced enrichment technologies, such as gas centrifuges, to produce weapons-grade uranium, evading detection by international inspectors through concealment and deception. Saudi Arabia could also separate the uranium isotopes needed for highly enriched uranium within civilian facilities, making it challenging for inspectors to detect the existence of a military program. Enriched uranium necessary to fuel nuclear reactors could also be diverted and further enriched to levels suitable for a nuclear explosion. A Saudi civilian nuclear program would therefore amount to a latent nuclear capability—the technical capacity to proliferate if it desired to do so. With that, Saudi Arabia would join 31 other states, including Brazil, Egypt, Germany, and Japan, that have held this status throughout history.

  39. Over the last five years, the Kim regime has been rapidly expanding its nuclear weapons program. Since his meetings with Trump fell apart, Kim has refused all offers of serious negotiations with the United States and tested new weapons capable of carrying nuclear warheads, including powerful solid-fuel ICBMs and an underwater nuclear weapons system. Pyongyang is also developing hypersonic missiles designed to penetrate U.S. air defenses and a large multiple launch rocket system that, according to Kim, could “collapse” South Korea’s capital and destroy “the structure of its military forces.” Meanwhile, North Korea successfully launched a military reconnaissance satellite in November, and it has vowed to put several more satellites into orbit this year. These launches will give it something it has long desired: more real-time information about U.S. and South Korean military activities on the peninsula.

    Back on earth, North Korea is expanding its uranium enrichment capabilities in order to make more nuclear weapons. Kim has vowed to “exponentially increase nuclear weapons production to realize all kinds of nuclear strike methods.” At a party plenum in December, he called for an increase in the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile, and North Korea’s uranium enrichment site is now bigger than ever. Recent satellite imagery indicates that the country is expanding a suspected nuclear facility near Pyongyang. Meanwhile, intelligence reports suggest it is ready to resume underground nuclear testing at its Punggye-ri site.

  40. Global spending on nuclear weapons is estimated to have increased by 13% to a record $91.4bn during 2023, according to calculations from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican) pressure group.

    The new total, which is up $10.7bn from the previous year, is driven largely by sharply increased defence budgets in the US, at a time of wider geopolitical uncertainty caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war.

    All nine of the world’s nuclear armed nations are spending more, Ican added, with China judged to be the second largest spender with a budget of $11.9bn – though Beijing’s total is well below the $51.5bn attributed to the US.

    Russia is the third largest spender, at $8.3bn, followed by the UK ($8.1bn) and France ($6.1bn), although estimates for authoritarian states or the three countries with undeclared nuclear programmes (India, Pakistan and Israel) are all complicated by a lack of transparency.

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