Nuclear Non-Proliferation: An Illogical Non-starter

Just as there is nothing to be gained by the US from attacking either Canada or Mexico with nukes, there is nothing to be gained by ANY country from attacking any other country with nukes. Indeed, one might extrapolate that to the folly of all wars

By Anil Madan

When the world’s five great nuclear powers, the US, USSR, Britain, France, and China, arrogated to themselves the right to be the only nuclear powers in the world, the scheme was doomed to fail. It became readily apparent that if Mainland China were to be a nuclear power, India could not stand by. And if India were to be armed with nukes, Pakistan could not stand by. Hemmed in by its Arab neighbours who had declared it their aim to destroy the Jewish state, Israel could not stand by. So it was that in due course, India and Pakistan became nuclear states and Israel as well despite the lack of an official acknowledgment of membership in the society of nations with nukes.

Living dangerously with nuclear weapons in the world’s hot spots. Pic – The Japan Times

South Africa disassembled its nuclear arsenal before it joined the NPT or Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Brazil had a program for the development of nuclear weapons but aborted it. Whether Brazil had nuclear weapons is now a moot point, but it certainly has the technology.

North Korea has already demonstrated repeatedly that it has nuclear weapons and indeed, brags about having intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering them. Iran is on the precipice of possessing nuclear weapons if it doesn’t already have them.

Aside from South Africa and Brazil, the only other instances of countries voluntarily giving up nuclear arsenals are the former Soviet Republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine which transferred their stocks to Russia. Perhaps the Ukrainians now wish they had not done so, but it is unclear whether Ukraine would have developed the capability of using its nukes on neighbouring Russia.

Iran had agreed to give up developing nuclear weapons. The point is arguable. Certainly, many people in the US and Israel’s leadership believed that the Iran Nuclear Deal was a bad idea from the get-go. Threats from Iran’s Supreme Leader and his underlings to destroy Israel and wipe it from the face of the earth, give no comfort.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Nuke has shown the world that possessing and testing nukes is a way to get attention. What is entirely surprising is that more countries have not developed nuclear arsenals.

That may be about to change. Leaders of countries seem to speak more freely about using nuclear weapons as President Putin and Dmitry Medvedev the Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of Russia and who formerly served as both President and Prime Minister of Russia, have done. Kim Jong Nuke routinely threatens the use of nuclear weapons against South Korea, Japan, and even the US. Pakistan’s leaders have, from time to time, spoken of the inevitability of nuclear conflict with India.

Putin too has boasted of having hypersonic missiles that can defeat Western defenses.

Most recently in September, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman said the kingdom will obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran does so first. And the Israeli Heritage Minister was suspended by Netanyahu after saying in reply to a question whether Israel might drop an atom bomb on Gaza, that it was one option.

A new round of proliferation

A new round of proliferation is already underway and there are no signs that it can be contained.

In February 2023, a year after his invasion of Ukraine, Putin announced that Russia was suspending participation in the new START nuclear arms reduction treaty. That treaty allows the US and Russia, each to deploy no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and a maximum of 700 long-range missiles and bombers. Additionally, each can conduct up to 18 inspections of strategic nuclear weapons sites every year to ensure the other is not in breach of the treaty’s limits. Inspections had been put on hold in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic but talks on a resumption of inspections scheduled to take place in Egypt in November 2022 were postponed by Russia.

While maintaining that he wants to preserve the new START treaty, Putin has insisted that British and French nuclear warheads be included in the total allocated to the US. For Washington, this is a nonstarter. Mind you, neither side needs 1,550 warheads to destroy the other. 

But abandoning the treaty poses risks. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that Russia has 5,977 total nuclear warheads and the US has 5,428.

The treaty limits the number of warheads that can be deployed per missile. Without the treaty in place, each side could increase the number of deployed warheads from 1,550 to 4,000. With that many warheads, the temptation to use a lot in an initial strike — whether a first strike, or a response to an attack — increases because of the perceived risk of “use or lose.”

Over the years, the lessons learned during the Cuban Missile Crisis have seen both the US and the USSR, and then its successor, the Russian Federation act with considerable restraint and good sense to limit the testing and proliferation of nuclear weapons. That bit of common sense also appears to have exhausted itself. Just last month, the Russian parliament revoked Russia’s ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. This does not necessarily mean that Russia will conduct nuclear tests, but it certainly opens the possibility that Russia will supply nuclear weapons technology to other countries which may conduct such tests.

The fear expressed by security experts was the follow-on effect was likely to be a nuclear arms race among China, India, and Pakistan. As predicted, and sadly so, that is coming to pass.

For years, China has refused to engage in bilateral or multilateral talks with the US and Russia, to limit nuclear warheads. Its position seems to be that because it has a very small number of warheads in comparison to the thousands possessed by Russia and the US, it would be at a disadvantage if it were to discuss reductions in its strategic warheads from such a low level compared to the holdings of potential adversaries. The illogic of China’s position has led it to undertake an expansion of its warhead stockpiles and construction of new silos to hold missiles. Never mind that it could have insisted that the US and Russia make meaningful reductions so that the overall threat would be reduced.

But there is another calculus at work here and indeed, it is derived from the calculus that will spur both India and Pakistan to build additional stockpiles of nuclear warheads. Simply put, China feels vulnerable to a strike from either Russia or the US because it would then be unable to defend itself against the country that did not strike.

So also, in the trilateral grouping of China, India and Pakistan. Each country considers itself vulnerable to a follow-on strike by the third country.

A glimmer of hope

The Pentagon recently reported that China has significantly increased its nuclear stockpile over the past year to 500 operational nukes. And China’s planned increases will lead to a doubling or more of its arsenal by the end of this decade, and 1,500 by 2035. China is also developing new capabilities in intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as hypersonic missiles.

In the midst of this dismal news about nuclear proliferation, there is a glimmer of hope. When President Xi and President Biden meet in San Francisco later this month, the subject of nuclear arms control will be on the agenda.

Perhaps it is too much to ask, but surely China and the US both recognize that neither has anything to gain by attacking the other with nuclear weapons or otherwise. The economies of the two countries are heavily interdependent and by destroying the other, each would be destroying a significant chunk of its own economy.

And there is, of course, the horror of a nuclear winter that prominent scientists Carl Sagan and Richard P. Turco predicted would follow any widespread use of nuclear weapons. Although Dr Turco has backed off the theory, he maintains that although he had never believed that nuclear winter alone could wipe out humanity: ”My personal opinion is that the human race wouldn’t become extinct, but civilization as we know it certainly would.”

The grave danger here is that China’s proliferation will spur India and Pakistan on to building more nuclear warheads and missiles of their own. In May of this year, Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr. of the Hudson Institute, discussed this issue in a review of Ashley Tellis’ book ‘Striking Asymmetries’. China and Pakistan have a sort of ill-defined close relationship due to fear of their mutual rival and foe, India which feels itself sandwiched between two hostile powers. Until recently, they viewed their nuclear weapons primarily as political instruments, not as tools for actual warfighting. All three adopted a “minimum deterrent” nuclear posture, maintaining the lowest number of nuclear weapons necessary to inflict unacceptable damage to their adversaries’ key cities even after suffering a nuclear attack.

So, given these fears, how to explain that they have not all rushed to build larger arsenals? The explanation is that consistent with this strategic view, the three countries maintained only a fraction of their arsenals on high alert. Instead, they stored their weapons deep in “safe” locations. The idea was that there was no need for an immediate response to an attack. That would come eventually, days, weeks, or even months later. There was no need to invest heavily in early warning systems or failsafe deployment.

It is not clear why China has abandoned this approach. Perhaps it is Xi Jinping’s desire to join the Big Boys Club.

For India, the risk is that if China expands its nuclear strike capability to the point of disabling an Indian response, the only choice is to build more nukes to keep pace with China. And if India does that, so will Pakistan. That country’s armed forces are no match for India’s forces and therefore, it will feel compelled to counter any conventional threat of overwhelming Indian force with a nuclear strike. Lost in all this is a lack of comprehension that India has nothing to gain by attacking Pakistan.

Both Putin and Xi might do well to take a lesson from Canada and Mexico, the next-door neighbors of the United States. Neither has felt threatened by the American arsenal of nukes to deploy their own nuclear weapons. Just as there is nothing to be gained by the US from attacking either Canada or Mexico with nukes, there is nothing to be gained by ANY country from attacking any other country with nukes. Indeed, one might extrapolate that to the folly of all wars, but one step at a time. Perhaps President Xi’s willingness to discuss the subject with President Biden allows for some hope that common sense has not completely fled the scene.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 10 November 2023

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