The anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing last week should remind us that there are other sudden catastrophes that can bring far worse suffering than the Covid-19 pandemic. Unlike Covid-19, nuclear weapons were invented by human beings and stocked by them in large numbers. Their capacity to bring death and destruction are so vast that they could, in the process of deterring or punishing adversaries, devastate the perpetrators themselves.
Overwhelmed by Covid-19, the world is simply looking away at the threat by these 14,000 or so weapons, most of them in the hands of the United States or Russia. Given the largely bumbling response to the Covid-19 outbreak, we should worry about the consequences of a nuclear detonation, accidental or otherwise. Last week we got a small preview of that in the ammonium nitrate blast in Beirut which destroyed a significant part of the city. The Beirut blast was the equivalent of a few hundred tonnes of TNT, while the Hiroshima blast had a yield of some 15,000 tonnes.
The Beirut blast was the equivalent of a few hundred tonnes of TNT, while the Hiroshima blast had a yield of some 15,000 tonnes
It took more than a decade for the world powers to realise just how close they came to Armageddon. This was in the Cuban Missile Crisis which we now know was a near run thing. Despite their intense rivalry, the US and USSR realized that there would be no national boundaries limiting the impact of the use of nuclear weapons. So, the first step was the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 that banned tests in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater. The seminal Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 did commit its signatories to the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons, a promise that has been clearly ignored. Most agreements, multilateral, some plurilateral and others purely bilateral, have sought to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war and limit its scope and intensity, but not eliminate its possibility.
In recent times we have seen a kind of backwash as some of the agreements have been unravelling. Beginning with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, from which the US walked out off in 2002, we have seen a quickening pace of arms control agreements coming apart. In 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared he would not be bound by the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) agreement of 1992. A year ago, in August 2019, Trump announced that the US was withdrawing from the INF agreement of 1987, and in May 2020 the US withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty of 1992. The New START agreement of 2011, which limits deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 on each side, will expire on 5 February, 2021 with its extension depending on who wins the US election in November. US President Donald Trump wants a deal which includes intermediate range nuclear weapons and China. But Beijing, which has an arsenal of 290 warheads, had balked. The US interest is in constraining the intermediate range missiles that the Chinese have deployed against the US in the western Pacific Ocean.
So, we are in a world where nuclear weapons remain in abundant numbers, and many states are modernizing their arsenals. Russia has developed an arsenal of what it says are unstoppable weapons, China is modernizing its arsenal at its own deliberate pace.
Where former US President Barack Obama wanted to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US defence policy, Trump wants it to go back to its pre-arms control era strengths. The US, for example, plans to spend an astonishing $1.7 trillion modernizing its arsenal over the next 25 years, and recently, the Trump administration even hinted at a resumption of nuclear tests.
At the same time the diplomatic instruments of controlling their use are atrophying, in other words, arms control is simply not on the agenda of any country. A bigger danger arises from newer technologies such as cyber tools, hypersonic missiles and Artificial Intelligence (AI) which are making the nuclear weapons landscape more hazardous. Then, countries like Russia and Pakistan are becoming more, rather than less dependent on nuclear weapons because of the relative weakness of their conventional forces.
Cyber warfare can be used to mess with the command, control or early warning system of adversaries, hypersonic missiles mean little or no reaction time thus pushing states to adopt hair-trigger “launch on warning” deployments. AI remains the big unknown since its still in the development phase. While AI could help make the right decisions where the speed of response is beyond human abilities, its alleged prowess could also be a hubristic encouragement for aggressive behavior.
Beyond technology is the issue of proliferation. Despite initial promise, the US engagement with North Korea has proved to be sterile. Washington cannot be blamed for the ways of Kum Jong Un, but certainly it bears the principal blame for walking out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to constrain Iranian nuclear weapons. In recent years we have been hearing a great deal of how the Saudis are positioning themselves as hedgers on the issue of nuclear weapons.
India has two nuclear neighbours with whom it has an adversarial relationship. It has not been able to manage any kind of an arms control dialogue with either of them. A promise to start one during the Lahore visit of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in February 1999 became casualty of Pakistan’s Kargil adventure. Yet, as the experience of the US and USSR shows, there is a certain value in dealing even with adversaries when it comes to reducing the possibility of nuclear war.
India already confronts a piquant situation with regard to the development of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) by Pakistan. And now, it may have to deal with a modernized Chinese arsenal featuring hypersonic and MIRVd missiles. At least with China, India shares an official posture of No First Use (NFU). Conventional inferiority has pushed Pakistan to reject such a posture and, indeed, through the development of TNWs, threaten an early use of nuclear weapons in any crisis.
India already confronts a piquant situation with regard to the development of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) by Pakistan. And now, it may have to deal with a modernized Chinese arsenal featuring hypersonic and MIRVd missiles
As of now, the world is overwhelmed in a sea of troubles and the ever-present danger of a nuclear conflict, something that is truly a threat to humanity, is taking a worrying backseat. Indeed, as has been noted, in the past months itself several steps have been taken that serve to undermine the structure of confidence building measures that have sought to impose some level of restraint among states that possess nuclear weapons.
In 1985, following the Reykjavik Summit, US President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev adopted a declaration that stated baldly, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Nothing has happened since, either in terms of technological development or force levels to invalidate that truth.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).
ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.