Powerful nations are prepared to use nuclear weapons first. This is why their proliferation is worrying analysts
The world is “drifting into one of the most dangerous periods in human history”, according to a leading security research centre, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). At the root of its concern is that, though the number of nuclear warheads is still far lower than during the Cold War years, nuclear modernisation and development programmes in the nine nuclear-armed states are leading to an expansion in the number of warheads held.
The numbers are small, according to the SIPRI Yearbook 2023: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, just 86 more warheads than in January last year in a global inventory of 12,512. So why the concern? Who has the warheads and why is the number increasing rather than decreasing?
The great majority are held by Russia (4,489 warheads) and the United States (3,708), followed by three middle-ranking states: China (410), France (290) and the UK (225). These countries are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and also signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They were allowed in as members back in 1968 on the condition that they worked towards nuclear disarmament – but there’s fat chance of that.
As well as these five, there are four more states with nuclear weapons: Pakistan (170 warheads), India (164), Israel (90) – though it has never acknowledged having them – and, most recently, North Korea, assessed by SIPRI as now having 30 warheads. Out of SIPRI’s estimated global total of 12,512 warheads, it believes 9,576 are in military stockpiles ready for use, meaning that they are either fitted to missiles or available as bombs to be delivered by aircraft.
Most of the additional new warheads have been added by China (60) and Russia (12), with Pakistan and North Korea both adding five and India four.
Given that it would only take a dozen or so nuclear warheads to wreck a country, it seems nonsense to talk about the ‘need’ for more than 10,000 weapons. And it’s worth remembering, for context, that back in 1985 the United States was reckoned to have 23,500 warheads and the Soviet Union 39,200. This was during the Cold War days of ludicrously massive ‘overkill’.
Many of the superpowers’ weapons at that time were later withdrawn, with most of them now dismantled, and there was the added hope at the end of the Cold War that the cutbacks would continue, and the pace of warhead development would slow. But the opposite is happening now.
More recently, the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibitions or Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) gave some hope. Voted in by the majority of all UN member states in 2017 and requiring 50 states to ratify it, this was achieved, with the treaty entering into force just over two years ago. Already, 92 member states, almost half the UN membership, have signed it and 68 have ratified it after approving it within their domestic legal systems. In view of this, why do SIPRI analysts, along with many other peace researchers, still have concerns?
There are several reasons.
The TPNW is a strong treaty in that signatory states must not design, develop or manufacture nuclear weapons of any sort, nor must they allow nuclear-armed states to base their own weapons on their territory. But none of the nine nuclear states have signed up to it, or shown any sign of doing so. Neither have those states that allow foreign nuclear weapons to be based on the territories, including the half dozen European states that host US nuclear weapons, or Belarus, with Russian nuclear weapons.
Most of the states that have signed or ratified the treaty are not so-called ‘big powers’, even if some have leaders who speak out readily against nuclear weapons, while all of them demonstrate an opposition to a nuclearised world – in marked contrast to the postures of the actual nuclear-armed states and many of their close allies.
If anything, the attitude among nuclear-armed states has hardened, with the UK being an example. Just two years ago, the Johnson government declared that it would no longer be transparent about the size of the UK nuclear arsenal and its number of deployed warheads or missiles. Increased global tensions were cited as the reason, but it was a change in what had previously been an informal cross-party agreement to be more open.
More generally, despite what some may suggest, many nuclear-armed states are prepared to use nuclear weapons first, and even use them against states that do not have their own nuclear weapons. NATO has maintained a clear first-use policy since 1968; the UK even deployed two types of nuclear weapon to the South Atlantic during the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War; and Putin, of course, has implied that there are circumstances where Russia would threaten nuclear use in the current war in Ukraine.
One of the clearest implications of the near-cavalier attitudes of nuclear-armed states to fighting ‘small nuclear wars in faraway places’ came shortly after the end of the Cold War, when nuclear-armed states on both sides of the divide had to decide on their way ahead.
In 1991, US Strategic Air Command produced the Reed Report on the future nuclear posture for the country. According to a leaked draft, its terms of reference stated that “the growing wealth of petro-nations and newly hegemonic powers is available to bullies and crazies, if they gain control, to wreak havoc on world tranquillity”.
The report called for a new nuclear targeting strategy that would include the ability to assemble – in the words of Navy News and Undersea Technology back in 1992 – a “Nuclear Expeditionary Force… primarily for use against China or Third World targets”. There were indications that just such a capability, for what was called “adaptive targeting” – being able to re-target a nuclear missile very quickly – existed within a year of the Reed Report being delivered.
The Reed Report’s terms of reference, with its use of the words “bullies and crazies”, may be in highly colloquial language, but it is merely using a style of writing to say what others might avoid saying – a view of the place of nuclear weapons in strategic thinking that is realistic yet a thousand miles away from the typical public belief that peace is maintained through deterrence by mutually assured destruction.
It also explains why the likes of analysts at SIPRI have concerns about the continuing threat from nuclear weapons. It may be more of a risk of ‘small wars in faraway places’ than a sudden global cataclysm of the Cold War era, but such a scenario has its own huge dangers.
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