Open thread: the global nuclear arms race

2020-01-28

in Bombs and rockets, Politics, Security

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.

{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan January 28, 2020 at 11:45 am
. January 28, 2020 at 2:23 pm
. January 30, 2020 at 2:03 pm

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.

https://nationalpost.com/opinion/david-j-bercuson-why-well-see-more-and-more-carriers-on-the-high-seas

. February 4, 2020 at 11:33 am

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.

. February 19, 2020 at 5:11 pm

The Senseless Danger of the Military’s New “Low-Yield” Nuclear Warhead

The weapon’s smaller destructive power does not mean a smaller risk of catastrophe.

. May 22, 2020 at 2:06 pm

Arms control experts concerned by Saudi nuclear reactor push | News | Al Jazeera

https://www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/arms-control-experts-concerned-saudi-nuclear-reactor-push-200521155658787.html

. June 19, 2020 at 9:12 pm

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.

https://www.economist.com/china/2020/05/23/donald-trump-wants-china-to-join-a-nuclear-weapons-pact

. July 2, 2020 at 1:20 am

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

. July 14, 2020 at 4:17 pm
. July 18, 2020 at 7:53 pm

‘National pride is at stake.’ Russia, China, United States race to build hypersonic weapons | Science | AAAS

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/01/national-pride-stake-russia-china-united-states-race-build-hypersonic-weapons

. August 2, 2020 at 5:50 am

UK lobbies US to support controversial new nuclear warheads | Nuclear weapons | The Guardian

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/01/uk-trident-missile-warhead-w93-us-lobby

. August 5, 2020 at 5:42 am

UN report warns against N Korea’s ‘miniaturised’ nuclear devices

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/08/report-warns-korea-miniaturised-nuclear-devices-200803231134201.html

. August 6, 2020 at 6:55 pm

U.S. Examines Whether Saudi Nuclear Program Could Lead to Bomb Effort – The New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/05/us/politics/us-examines-saudi-nuclear-program.html

. August 12, 2020 at 6:58 pm

South Korea is building its first aircraft carrier … complete with US-made F-35B fighter jets – CNN

https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/12/asia/south-korea-aircraft-carrier-intl-hnk-scli/index.html

. September 16, 2020 at 11:54 pm

US plans big expansion of navy fleet to challenge growing Chinese sea power

Defence secretary promises future fleet including unmanned ships that will focus on Indo-Pacific region

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/17/us-plans-big-expansion-of-navy-fleet-to-challenge-growing-chinese-sea-power

. September 18, 2020 at 5:24 pm
. October 1, 2020 at 5:33 pm

Trump plans nuclear arms race with Russia for his second term.

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/09/trump-new-start-russia-nuclear.html

. October 6, 2020 at 11:10 pm

Trump administration orders assessment on bolstering nuclear warheads as talks with Russia stall – POLITICO

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/28/trump-russia-nuclear-deal-talks-422736

. October 20, 2020 at 6:48 pm

Nuclear arms treaty: Hopes rise for breakthrough on US-Russia deal – BBC News

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-54619751

. October 24, 2020 at 2:32 pm

Pentagon estimates cost of new nuclear missiles at $95.8B

The Pentagon has raised to $95.8 billion the estimated cost of fielding a new fleet of land-based nuclear missiles to replace the Minuteman 3 arsenal that has operated continuously for 50 years

. October 24, 2020 at 5:38 pm

US urges countries to withdraw from UN nuke ban treaty
By EDITH M. LEDERER
October 21, 2020

. November 8, 2020 at 10:35 pm

Grossi predicts a dozen new nuclear countries by 2030

A “solid group” of 10-12 countries building nuclear power plants for the first time will emerge in the next decade, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told OECD Nuclear Energy Agency Director General William Magwood in a WebChat last week.

. November 18, 2020 at 1:09 am

Saudi minister says nuclear armament against Iran ‘an option’ | Middle East | Al Jazeera

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/17/saudi-minister-wont-rule-out-nuclear-armament-over-iran

. November 22, 2020 at 4:23 pm

US formally withdraws from Open Skies Treaty that bolstered European security – CNNPolitics

https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/22/politics/us-withdrawal-open-skies/index.html

. November 26, 2020 at 12:22 am

China’s H-20 stealth bomber will give PLA ‘truly intercontinental’ strike capacity, says report | South China Morning Post

https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3111374/chinas-h-20-stealth-bomber-will-give-pla-truly-intercontinental

. February 1, 2021 at 7:38 pm

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.”

. March 5, 2021 at 2:12 pm

Replacing Trident could take the UK-US ‘special relationship’ to “new heights” – BBC News

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-56256173

. March 6, 2021 at 8:47 pm

“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.”

https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/05/china/china-world-biggest-navy-intl-hnk-ml-dst/index.html

. March 6, 2021 at 8:58 pm

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.

. March 11, 2021 at 10:34 am

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.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/10/turkeys-nuclear-dilemma

. March 11, 2021 at 7:44 pm

‘Cold war-era weapon’: $100bn US plan to build new nuclear missile sparks concern | Nuclear weapons | The Guardian

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/10/cold-war-era-weapon-100bn-us-plan-to-build-new-nuclear-missile-sparks-concern

. March 16, 2021 at 11:25 am

Cap on Trident nuclear warhead stockpile to rise by more than 40% | Trident | The Guardian

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/15/cap-on-trident-nuclear-warhead-stockpile-to-rise-by-more-than-40

. March 16, 2021 at 9:07 pm

The Nuclear Option | Foreign Affairs
Slowing a New Arms Race Means Compromising on Missile Defenses

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2021-02-22/nuclear-option

. April 16, 2021 at 2:52 pm

Ukraine may seek nuclear weapons if left out of NATO: Diplomat

Kyiv’s ambassador to Germany calls on the transatlantic security alliance to grant Ukraine long-sought membership.

. April 26, 2021 at 10:54 am

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.

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/israel/2021-04-26/israel-and-iran-are-pulling-united-states-toward-conflict

. May 5, 2021 at 6:47 pm

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.

https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/11/18/the-significance-of-an-interceptor-missile-launched-from-an-american-warship

. May 5, 2021 at 7:21 pm

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.

. May 5, 2021 at 7:23 pm

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.

. May 5, 2021 at 7:33 pm

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
Director-general
International Committee of the Red Cross
Geneva

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

https://www.economist.com/letters/2021/02/18/letters-to-the-editor

. May 5, 2021 at 7:37 pm

America’s ICBMs are ageing. Does it still need them?
Joe Biden has vital decisions to make about the future of America’s nukes

. May 20, 2021 at 2:03 pm

Concerns grow over China nuclear reactors shrouded in mystery | Business and Economy News | Al Jazeera

https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2021/5/19/concerns-grow-over-china-nuclear-reactors-shrouded-in-mystery

. May 20, 2021 at 2:04 pm
. May 20, 2021 at 2:38 pm

Plans to raise cap on Trident nuclear warhead stockpile may breach United Nations treaty | The Scotsman

https://www.scotsman.com/news/defence/plans-to-raise-cap-on-trident-nuclear-warhead-stockpile-may-breach-united-nations-treaty-3241481

. June 9, 2021 at 3:54 pm

Iraq plans nuclear power plants to tackle electricity shortage | Business and Economy News | Al Jazeera

https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2021/6/8/iraq-plans-nuclear-power-plants-to-tackle-electricity-shortage

. June 10, 2021 at 7:10 pm

Nuclear weapons spending swelled $1.4 billion amid pandemic: report | The Japan Times

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/06/07/world/nuclear-weapons-spending/

. July 1, 2021 at 5:25 pm

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.

. July 13, 2021 at 3:25 pm

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.

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