The Nuclear Landscape – A Rules-Based Disorder

The monster must feed itself. The inevitability consequence of producing destructive weapons is that it is virtually impossible to let go of them

By Anil Madan

We often hear about the so-called rules-based order that governs, or at least should govern, the way in which the world’s nations relate to each other. The principles that the US and its allies would like to see as the most enduring are that all nations will recognize the territorial integrity of other nations, not start wars, and conduct trade fairly and in a free market not manipulated by government subsidies, and perhaps even that countries should have free and fair elections.

Protests against nuclear proliferation. Pic – Council on Foreign Relations

We have seen, of course, that this ideal does not reflect reality, not by a long shot. As Russia has flouted the territorial integrity of Ukraine, as China threatens to violate Taiwan’s, as Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghurs are repressed, as Belarus and many other countries cannot conduct a free election, and as wars, intellectual property theft, manipulated markets, subsidies and the like are common rather than the exception, the rules-based order is a chimera.

To a certain extent, the world can live with that geopolitical mess. Less so, when it comes to nuclear weapons. Here, we have what I call a rules-based disorder. It is no surprise that the world finds itself in a nuclear mess as well as in the geopolitical mess.

If we are to understand why this was destined to happen, we must take a trip back in history to the original five nuclear capable and armed countries, which also happened to be the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Of course, the People’s Republic of China would eventually supplant Taiwan as the holder of that status. Together with a seat as a Permanent Member, came the veto power over UNSC resolutions.

The theory was that the five nuclear powers, the US, Soviet Union, China, United Kingdom, and France, were “entitled” to be nuclear powers and could be counted on to be responsible.

And whenever politicians, or indeed human beings in any endeavour, come up with an artificial construct, there arises a need to “sell” that to the rest of the world. In this case, the sale consisted of three parts. First, there was the idea that the responsible nuclear powers would never threaten any non-nuclear state with such weapons, second that no responsible state would engage in the first-use of nuclear weapons, the so-called first strike or preemptive strike, and finally, the pièce de resistance, which was the non-proliferation treaty, a device designed to ensure that the five nuclear powers would maintain their monopoly, or exclusivity as they liked to call it.

Not unsurprisingly, this construct, hastily and unthinkingly articulated without regard to the existential concerns of India and other countries was not durable. Surely, it was obvious that India would not tolerate a nuclear armed China on its doorstep. And, if India had nukes, certainly Pakistan would not sit idly by. So, China, India, and Pakistan form a deadly triad of nuclear armed nations. The Pakistanis have long feared that India has designs on a territorial conquest of their former land divided by the British in 1947. The fear has been groundless. As a practical matter, India has no need to absorb the problems that Pakistan or Bangladesh would present to an already overstressed and overpopulated nation.

Security guarantees

But getting back to the nuclear issue, South Africa is the only country to have built and then given up nuclear weapons. Why did the apartheid regime build them in the first place? Perhaps as a deterrent against attacks by neighbouring countries seeking to end its apartheid policies. Perhaps simply because it had the resources to do so.

Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan inherited their nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union. Each chose to give them up in return for security guarantees. In Ukraine’s case, those guarantees have proved to be vaporware. One can imagine a certain amount of regret at giving up what might have been a security shield, is felt in Ukraine. Russia has conducted tactical nuclear drills with Belarus and threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons on Ukraine. Whether Russia has carried out its threat and proliferated such tactical nukes into Belarus is unknown.

Israel is widely reputed to have nuclear weapons. One can imagine that faced with hostile neighbours who had repeatedly waged war against it, with the intention of ending its existence, the Israelis sought the reassurance of having a means to defend their country. On the other hand, Israel’s nuclear arms may be intended as nothing more than a deterrent against attacks. This may explain why its surrounding Arab neighbours have given up the idea of attacking Israel, and even Iran, but for its recent direct missile attack — deemed by most experts to have been of little military value — has conducted its campaign against Israel through proxies rather than directly.

North Korea is another case in point. This country is known to have an established nuclear weapons capability and multiple warheads. It is developing missile deployment technologies to deliver warheads and indeed, may already have such capability. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un often speaks to unleashing his arsenal against South Korea, Japan, and the US. Other than longstanding hatred for the Japanese, it is not clear what motivates the hostility toward that country, or indeed, to South Korea. Of course, South Korea is a prosperous, freedom loving nation, the antithesis of everything that the Kim family has built. So, there is resentment. Perhaps there is also a desire to end, once and for all, any idea of unification of the two Koreas. That does seem an unfulfillable dream scenario. As for the US, one can understand the deep resentment at the sanctions this country has imposed. Not the least, having nuclear weapons engenders a sort of recognition often mistaken for respect.

Sue Mi Terry, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a former CIA analyst, who has also served on the US National Security Council (NSC) and the National Intelligence Council (NIC), writes in ‘Foreign Affairs’ that North Korea “has amassed up to 60 nuclear warheads and enough fissile material to build at least six additional bombs every year. More alarming still, these weapons can now most likely reach the continental United States. North Korea already fields long-range missiles capable of hitting the East Coast. It is impossible to know for certain whether it has figured out how to place a nuclear warhead on top of those missiles, but the available evidence suggests that it has.” She counsels that treating the threat of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a non-urgent matter is dangerously misguided.

In another ‘Foreign Affairs’ article, Eric Brewer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear Materials Security Program, and a person who also has served on the NSC and NIC, writes that the Iranian missile strike on Israel took the Middle East on a nuclear turn. As the world awaited Israel’s response, he writes that Iran’s military commander in charge of defending the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites warned that if Israel attacked those sites, Iran would revise its nuclear doctrine. That revision would be to build nuclear weapons in response. Of course, if Iran does so, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said that Saudi Arabia will be forced to get nuclear weapons as well.

Acting responsibly

The rules-based order in respect of nuclear weapons is predicated on the notion that responsible nations will act responsibly. The standoff between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the subsequent strategic arms limitation treaties between the two countries and then with Russia attest to that. But one cannot count on all leaders of all countries to act responsibly all the time. This has been proved time and again in the non-nuclear areas of conflict where countries wage war on each other, attack the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries, violate the civil rights of their own people, fund proxy wars, and engage in predatory economic and trade behaviour.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, there is little room for tolerance of those who ignore the norms and rules of rational and civilized conduct. At the same time, we must recognize that it is not only the budding nuclear club hopefuls, but also countries with established arsenals who see the need to bluster and posture in this arena. As those responsible for guarding against terrorist threats often point out, terrorists have to get it right only once to cause devastation, but the defense against terrorism must be right 100% of the time. So, it is with the task of preventing the use of nuclear weapons.

China has refused to negotiate with Russia and the US on limiting nuclear warheads and missiles. The ostensible reasoning is that because China’s arsenal is only a fraction of the arsenals that the US and Russia possess, it makes no sense for China to speak about cutting back until those countries’ larger arsenals are trimmed. The alternative is for China to build a large enough cache of its own to be treated as a credible negotiator at that three-way talks.

Then, there is the reality that the stockpiles of both the US and Russia are aged and need to be replaced or modernized. Indeed, there are serious questions about whether much of the US arsenal of missiles is reliable and will work as intended.

Russia withdrew from the nuclear test ban treaty and suspended its participation in the New START Treaty. It is not clear whether Russia intends to ignore the limitations on the number of nuclear warheads each nation possesses.

New nuclear arms race

Meanwhile, the world is witnessing what is most likely going to evolve into a new nuclear arms race in Asia among China, India and Pakistan, in addition to impending race among the US, Russia, and China. The first two account for about 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads.

Back in 2015, President Obama backed a plan to spend some $350 billion through 2024. The investment in new nuclear delivery systems, upgraded warheads, resilient command networks and industrial sites for manufacturing related hardware, would also have been directed to maintaining the existing arsenal.

Spending on nuclear weapons is on the increase around the world. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) reported that 2023 saw an increase in spending on nuclear weapons by every country that is nuclear-armed.

The US increased spending on nuclear weapons by 18% to a total of $51.5 billion and China was the second biggest spender at almost $12 billion. Russia, said to be under duress from sanctions and a stagnating economy, nonetheless spent more than $8 billion.

As I have previously mentioned, India is not likely to sit idly by as China enlarges its arsenal, given that Beijing has already announced that it intends to double its stockpile or nuclear warheads by 2030.

India is concerned not only about any first strike capability that China might acquire, but also of the threat of a Pakistani attack following an attack by China. Likewise, Pakistan will not sit idly by as India builds its arsenal. Nor is Pakistan likely to trust China either.

Meanwhile, for the US there is concern about facing two heavily armed nuclear adversaries, Russia already at parity and beyond with the US, and China seeking to achieve Big Boy status at the negotiating table. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that China is building an arsenal of weapons simply to dismantle them as part of a planned future agreement on arms reduction with the US and Russia. Its intentions remain inscrutable.

China’s military spending is, of course, not limited to its nuclear arsenal. China has built a formidable naval presence and control of vast tracts of the South Pacific Ocean is the prize.

The US must also take account of European security concerns. Whether the US will oblige by locating tactical nuclear weapons in the European theater is unknown. Whether it has already done so, is also unknown.

Upgrading nuclear weapons

For perspective, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that there are just over 12,000 nuclear warheads around the world. Almost 4,000 are deployable by either missiles or aircraft. The US has retired about 1,200 warheads and must dismantle them. The US has 1,419 warheads deployed, but Russia has more.

Why would a country need to upgrade its nuclear weapons? There are many reasons. The extant system in the US uses the Minuteman III missiles. These are being replaced by the Sentinel missile. America’s ocean-based part of its nuclear triad involves replacing the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine with the newer Columbia-class subs which are expected to be in service by 2030.

The airborne leg of the triad is also scheduled for upgrades. The old B-2A aircraft will be replaced by the B-21 Raider Stealth bombers. The very large B-52 Stratofortresses will remain in service for now.

Russia’s suspension of participation in the New START treaty may trigger another round in the nuclear arms race.

Other reasons for a spurt of building new weapons include the false sense of national pride that comes from having a nuclear arsenal and from upgrading it, and for Presidents and members of Congress to get projects for their districts. There are, however, some very critical strategic reasons for such upgrades. We have seen American and Europeans stockpiles of arms, weapons, and ammunition depleted because of the need to supply Ukraine. Those must be replaced. The nation also needs to maintain its knowledge base and expertise in engineering and production systems. Knowledge must be transferred to the next generation of workers. And the defense contractors will go out of business unless they have long-term contracts to deliver such systems.

The monster must feed itself. The inevitability consequence of producing destructive weapons is that it is virtually impossible to let go of them. The technology behind these systems is not so complicated that other countries or non-state actors cannot gain access to it. A large part of future defense efforts will involve curbing upstarts and non-state threats.

The race is still underway.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 28 June 2024

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