A New Nuclear Arms Race

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Until a few years ago, it seemed as if the issue of nuclear weapons, the grave threats posed by it to the civilization, had been managed successfully, if not completely. The nuclear stock piles of the United States and Russia had been reduced drastically from their Cold War highs, and various arms control agreements had put restrictions over the use of intermediate and long range systems. But, with the decision of the Trump administration to withdraw the US from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, all the previous efforts might go into vain.

The progress over the nuclear arms race was not just limited to the US & Russia. Libya was also persuaded to abandon its nuclear ambitions; Israel had thwarted Iraqi & Syrian nuclear developments; and South Africa relinquished its small nuclear arsenal. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed by Iran which constrained her from acquiring the essential prerequisites of nuclear weapons. Likewise, tough sanctions were imposed by the United Nations on North Korea which forced her to abandon its modest programme on nuclear weapons. All such efforts had equally contributed to restrict the use of nuclear weapons in combat for over three quarters of in the past century, since nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan by the US to hasten the end of World War II.

The INF Treaty was a landmark deal signed between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on 8th December 1987. This treaty marked a new beginning to the end of the Cold War. INF and subsequent agreements such as Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, led to the dismantling of thousands of nuclear weapons. The INF Treaty prohibited both the nations’ from possessing, producing or flight testing of land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and missile launchers with ranges between 500-5500km. The ban was applicable to weapons with nuclear as well as conventional warheads but did not covered sea- based or air-based missiles. According to the treaty, it was agreed that both the nations will destroy their respective nuclear warheads followed by a mutual inspection. The number of nuclear weapons had drastically reduced from the Cold War highs of 70,300 nuclear warheads in 1986 to approximately 14000 by mid-2019. Also it must also be noted that out of the 14000 estimated warheads, only 9500 were in military service and the rests were awaiting dismantlement. However, though the count over these nuclear warheads were rapidly reducing, climate research shows that only 100 weapons detonated on cities could bring an end to the civilization. And standing at this point when more such reductions of nuclear warheads were very necessary, the US formally withdrew itself from the treaty on 2nd August 2019 alleging Russia of violating some of the treaty’s provisions. In answer to this, just the following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his speech that their answer will also be symmetrical. As the US had declared suspension of their participation in the treaty, hence it will automatically suspend the participation of Russia also. And as the US said that they would start with new research and development, so will Russia be doing the same.

Moreover, the US has heightened risks stemming from Iran by exiting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The accord that concluded in 2015 was imperfect. Most of its significant constraints would only last for 10-15 years, and there were no limitations over Iran’s ballistic-missile development. But still it had restricted nuclear activities of Iran and permitted international inspections. Now, as the US has gone out of JCPOA, Iran has slowly started escaping many limits as per the agreement. And in sometime later we might hear that Iran has also started producing nuclear weapons and has entered into nuclear weapon race with other nations.

This is how a nuclear arms race begins. A nuclear arms race is an arms race competition for supremacy in nuclear warfare between two or more countries. The countries invest huge amount economic resources in science and technology to develop large number of nuclear warheads. Having nuclear warheads is advantageous for respective countries in two ways – first it threatens enemy countries over huge destruction on their land and second it acts a nuclear umbrella and neutralizes nuclear war threats from enemy countries. The focus of new arms race seems to be less on traditional nuclear armed missiles, but more on precise hypersonic missiles (those that travel five times the speed of sound or more) equipped with conventional warheads. Hence, if one by one all the countries start building or re-building their nuclear arsenals, the consequence might become as disastrous as end of the civilization. The unit of measurement of a nuclear warfare is ‘mega-death’. Therefore ‘ten mega-deaths’ would mean deaths of ten million people.

Once a nuclear race starts between two or three nations, it will start including more regional powers like Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in developing or acquiring nuclear weapons of their own. Turkey has already alienated itself from many of its allies and has pointed towards developing nuclear weapons and missiles regardless of what Iran does.

On the other side, North Korea has already moved far ahead of Iran. It has already procured large number of nuclear weapons & missiles and also has tested such missiles that can even reach the US. Simultaneously, it is also developing sea-based or submarine-launched nuclear weapons. It sounds unrealistic that after having so much advancement in the field of nuclear weapons, North Korea is will stop moving further for more advancement and denuclearize. More importantly, Kim Jong is of opinion that only nuclear weapons have the capability of ensuring survival of his regime. This belief of Kim Jong is strengthened by what Ukraine had experienced by accepting security deposits from Soviet Union in exchange for giving up nuclear weapons. Ukraine was invaded by Russia after 25 years.

Now as North Korea progresses with its nuclear weapons development, in coming next few years it will possess a significant arsenal which in all possibilities will pose serious threat to the United States. Simultaneously, at North Korea progress with nuclear advancements, the neighbours of North Korea will also feel the need of possessing nuclear weapons given the North Korean threat on one side and on the other their diminished confidence of relying on the US for protection.

Leaving behind North Korea and Russia, another significant threat that the US faces is the expansive land-based intermediate range missile forces of China that threatens American naval ships which are deployed in the Western Pacific and also targets the US military bases in Japan. Chinese missiles possess vulnerable threat to American military present in the pacific waters. This in turn undermines the credibility of the US security commitment to its Asian allies.

In the past, we have seen several instances where China has refused to join US- Russia arms control agreements. The pace at with Pakistan is developing or procuring its nuclear weapons is also a direct threat over India. India and Pakistan have a history long conflict and both have now become nuclear states. Deterrence cannot be assumed. It is quite easy to imagine that Pakistani supported terrorist attack on India, more precisely on Kashmir, leading to Indian retaliation, which might prompt Pakistan to use their nuclear weapons because its conventional military forces are just incompatible in front of India’s. Simultaneously, there are also major possibilities of breakdown of command and control of weapons and one or more devices finds their way into the hands of the terrorists. Therefore, considering China’s interests over nuclear weapons and Pakistan’s incompetency, India will be left with no other option but not to join any such treaties that would take away its current nuclear deterrent in form of the medium-range Agni missiles.

Too Early To Conclude

What is critically worrying from the above analysis is that a race on nuclear weapons might trigger a preventive war. Though such wars were avoided since the end of World War II, but the rising presences of multiple nuclear arsenals in different pockets of the world are increasing the temptation among many countries of taking the first strike in a crisis situation. “Use them or lose them” has a huge potential for instability & conflict when capabilities remain insufficient to absorb an attack but still be capable of meting out the devastating retaliation required for effective deterrence.

The Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty which came into force on 5th March 1970 have proven quite robust in last fifty years. It has prevented export of critical technologies, control, arms, sanctions, and strength of alliances that offer countries security. By doing all these it became successfully in restricting the number of countries owning nuclear weapons to nine – The US, Russia, The UK, France, Israel, China, North Korea, India, and Pakistan. But with nuclear technology increasingly becoming available, arms control unravelling amid renewed great power rivalry, has been weakening alliances as the US pulls back itself from the world, and the fading memories of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, we are yet again entering into a dangerous period. This new nuclear arms race or using such weapons brings in a vulnerable threat to the global stability. It remains to be seen how intelligently and with efficacy the global leaders tackle this emerging challenge.

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