The nuclear comeback


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Just a few weeks back in early May, hundreds of diplomats and national security advisors were due to travel to New York for the Review Conference of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This event now takes place every five years, since the Treaty became a permanent commitment back in 2010. The Review Conference is first and foremost an opportunity to assess the implementation of the NPT, evaluating issues such as the nuclear programmes (secret or overt) of Iran and North Korea; or those of the hold out countries that have refused to sign the Treaty (Israel, Pakistan and India).  Yet the meeting in New York also provides an occasion to take broader stock of the global nuclear scene and to determine if we are coming any closer to the ultimate goal of the Treaty (enshrined in its Article 6) of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Yet in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the NPT Review Conference has been postponed until the autumn. This has spared the delegates (at least for now) a predictably depressing discussion of the collapse of the current international arms control regime, and the reversals of efforts to have nuclear weapons play a less salient role in military postures and security policies. The Stockholm International Research Institute (SIPRI) reported last week that the nine nuclear weapons states today possess 13,400 operational nuclear weapons. Last year this stockpile decreased by 465 weapons decommissioned by the US and Russia, but this was due to obsolescence rather than a bilateral disarmament initiative.

The issue is not so much that numbers are set to rise dramatically back towards the 60,000 nuclear warheads that the US and the Soviet Union possessed at the height of the Cold War. It is rather that nuclear weapons are making a comeback as instruments of general deterrence and even war-fighting after a period in which their role and utility were increasingly limited by more restrictive doctrines, essentially confining nuclear weapons to instruments of retaliation after a nuclear attack. Even if it was never universally codified in any arms control treaty, a no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons has become the implicit standard; similar to how most countries refrain from nuclear tests even though the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is still far from entering formally into force.

Today, by contrast, the published nuclear doctrines of the major nuclear powers, such as the US, Russia or France, stress that nuclear weapons could be used in response to highly destructive conventional attacks – even cyberattacks against critical command and control infrastructure – or to prevent incursions onto national territory, or against states that are allied to nuclear powers in a conflict.

It is worrying that at a time when nuclear weapons are back in vogue, there is a lack of transparency on national plans and programmes

Much commentary has focused on the Russian doctrine, as set out last week in Russia’s latest Nuclear Deterrence Policy Guidelines, which indicates a launch on warning posture rather than waiting for a nuclear strike to actually occur before retaliating. Much has been made of Russia’s doctrine of ‘escalate to de-escalate’ in which Russia would use sub-strategic nuclear weapons early on in a conflict to compel an adversary to surrender. Russia claims that it is a defensive move to force an invading army to back off and withdraw, whereas NATO sees this doctrine as one of battlefield war-fighting during a potential Russian attack, and as such similar to the Warsaw Pact doctrine of the Cold War era.

Similar ambiguity is attached to the Indian ‘Cold Start’ doctrine in a possible conflict with Pakistan. Meanwhile, China has published a nuclear doctrine at variance with its actual practice. It claims to want only a minimal deterrent, but in the meantime has expanded its arsenal from 60 to 300 warheads within the space of a decade while investing heavily in longer-range missiles, submarines and space-based capabilities that point to a much greater level of ambition. It is worrying that at a time when nuclear weapons are back in vogue, there is a lack of transparency on national plans and programmes, and ambiguity and diverse interpretations on what key concepts actually mean to the protagonists involved.

A second concern is the rate of modernisation and technological change. Russia has modernised 80% of its nuclear strategic forces since the early 2000s. It has pioneered new hypersonic and glide technologies that allow missiles to travel up to five times faster than classical ballistic missiles and rolled out new weapons such as the Avangard nuclear glide vehicle, the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile (which Russia claims will have a range of over 2000 km) or the theatre range Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile. Russia has also announced an underwater nuclear cruise missile and has been experimenting with nuclear-powered missiles that could be used as an offensive capability in outer space. The US is also now catching up by investing in its own hypersonic programmes and also developing two new intermediate-range (500 to 5000 km) missiles of its own – one cruise and one ballistic – that could be launched from ships or aircraft.

Moreover, the US has for some years already been developing new low-yield nuclear warheads and is extending the life of the B61 gravity bombs which have been stored in Europe as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements. The new missile technologies will force a rethink in traditional missile defence programmes and will further compress decision-making time in crises and conflicts. The proliferation of highly accurate, hypersonic long-range missiles will also add to instability in the sense that targeted countries will not know if incoming missiles are carrying a nuclear or conventional warhead. All of this points to the risks of returning to the action/reaction arms race cycles of the Cold War and previous strategic competitions.

The keystone of nuclear stability is the New START Treaty of 2010 which limits the number of deployed warheads in the US and Russia to 1,950 each

In the past, the development of new nuclear weapon technologies was a powerful spur to negotiate arms control agreements. This was the case in the 1960s and ’70s when the increase in warheads on missiles and strategic bombers led to changes in counting rules and more intrusive verification through technical as well as non-technical means of inspections. This was also true in the move to eliminate intermediate-range missiles with very short flight times (in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987) as well as efforts to constrain missile defences (to reduce the temptation to build more and more missiles to saturate them).

Yet today the nuclear powers (whether declared or, like Israel and Iran, still covert or on the threshold of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability) are rebuilding their nuclear arsenals while dismantling arms control regimes. The US, to use one prominent example, abrogated the ABM Treaty on missile defence in 2006 and the INF Treaty in 2019.

The keystone of nuclear stability, however, is the New START Treaty of 2010, which limits the number of deployed warheads in the US and Russia to 1,950 each, which is down from 6,000 in the first START Treaty of the 1990s. This treaty needs to be extended for a further five years before next February or it will lapse, leaving us with no limits on nuclear development, deployment or testing, beyond the unlikely self-restraint of the main actors. Already the US media has reported that Trump Administration officials have discussed resuming nuclear tests, and the Senate Armed Services Committee has just voted $10mn towards the preparation costs. A US nuclear test is something that will obviously provide cover for others such as North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and India to follow suit.

The value of arms control is not only in the limits it imposes on the numbers of weapons but also the confidence that comes from verification and regular military and diplomatic contacts. To be fair to the US, its allegations that Russia has violated these agreements (in the case of the INF Treaty by testing and deploying an illegal intermediate-range dual-capable missile – SS-C-8 in NATO parlance) have validity. Russia has similarly transgressed other agreements that the US has walked away from (such as the ABM Treaty and more recently the Open Skies Treaty). Yet even taking these transgressions into account, isn’t abrogating arms control treaties nonetheless a form of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’? Might clarifying the details or renegotiating the commitments prove a more practical way forward than simply leaving nothing in their place?

It looks all the same that we are headed towards the second nuclear age where adversaries will look for the decisive technological edge

President Trump has constantly asserted that he will replace bad treaties with good ones, but so far the response has been to fill the vacuum with more weapons rather than more arms control. Trump has insisted that China must join Russia and the US in a new round of strategic arms talks. Yet China has consistently refused to do so, arguing that as Russia and the US have over 90% of the nuclear weapons in the world today, it is up to them to make reductions first. The US position is therefore illogical, as it can hardly wish for China to increase its warhead levels before joining a negotiation only then to have to eliminate most of them; or for the US to have to reduce to only 300 warheads to entice Beijing to join the process. Russia for its part has consistently offered to prolong the New START Treaty for a further five years but has refused to put pressure on China. So we are gridlocked.

Despite this less than rosy picture all is not yet lost. In a few days, the US and Russia will meet in Vienna for a new round of strategic stability talks. Even if there is no formal START Treaty after February, it would be helpful if both sides could agree to abide by the treaty ceilings on warheads and the mix of missiles and bombers, as the US did back in the 1980s for the SALT II Treaty, after the Senate refused ratification. As mentioned earlier, the US and Russia have continued to adhere to the ban on tests. Moreover, the US, Russia, China and the EU have maintained pressure and sanctions on North Korea and Iran, and continue to talk to each other about nuclear safety issues and the prospects in the UN for a Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty. Meanwhile, countries like Sweden and Germany have initiated the so-called Track Two informal dialogues to bring officials and experts together to explore the ground for more transparency and confidence-building. Switzerland has launched a project to see how security in a non-nuclear world could be achieved and the possible steps to get there.

Yet despite these steps, it looks all the same that we are headed towards the second nuclear age where adversaries will look for the decisive technological edge, one that procures either a margin of safety or intimidation over an opponent. This will be a less stable world especially given the larger number of countries with nuclear weapons, which may yet increase further if the US removes its protective nuclear shield over its European and South-East Asian allies, something that is not unthinkable in a second Trump administration. As we rely more on nuclear weapons for our security, the old political fissures in the West between multilateralists and unilateralists will probably re-emerge, together with the anti-nuclear protest movements and their celebrated Easter marches.

The mainstream political consensus behind NATO and European defence could also fracture if the alliance – which is committed in its 2010 Strategic Concept to remaining a nuclear alliance as long as such weapons exist – has to introduce new types of nuclear weapons into Europe as happened with Tomahawk cruise and Pershing 2 missiles in the 1980s. Already certain German social democrats have questioned whether Germany should retain its nuclear sharing role and buy new American F18 dual-capable aircraft for this purpose. At the very least NATO will be compelled to produce a convincing public narrative for its continuing dependence on nuclear weapons and deterrence. This task will not be easy if there no salvation through arms control on the horizon nor prospect of the nuclear-free world that President Obama envisioned in his speech in Prague in 2009.

To answer all these questions, we soon need to bring China into this dialogue, and eventually the UK, France and the other nuclear powers as well

Fears of the reemergence of a nuclear arms race have encouraged advocates of a global ban on nuclear weapons to believe that their hour has arrived. A Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has opened for signature at the UN and so far over 100 countries have indicated their support. The organisation behind the nuclear ban treaty, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The success of this initiative will certainly put pressure on the nuclear powers to justify their retention of nuclear weapons and show more commitment to genuine disarmament, and not just arms control or non-proliferation.

Yet unless the nuclear powers that are driving the modernisation of the weapons join this process – and this seems highly unlikely – the treaty will have little practical result. There are many members of the security community – and I am one of them – who have long believed in the need for nuclear deterrence as a viable war avoidance strategy. So the challenge today is to show how to make deterrence work once more in today’s very different geopolitical environment, at least while we seek to replace it with something better.

When the Cold War ended we were relieved to have survived the golden age of nuclear deterrence with no nuclear holocaust – although there were some close shaves as during the Cuban and Berlin crises in the early 1960s or during the Yom Kippur war in 1973.  We hoped to never again have to grapple with all those thorny issues of nuclear deterrence that kept the nuclear priesthood awake at night and filled many bookshelves. Yet these issues are now back on the agenda.

In the first place, how much is enough?  Do we always need to have the most modern high-tech weapons in abundant quantities to deter adversaries or is a more minimal posture based on older weapons good enough?  How can we ensure communication in a crisis to avoid dangerous misperceptions and misunderstandings? What impact does our deterrence have on the calculus of an adversary and the choices he is likely to make? In other words, how do we know if our deterrence is working?  How do we make our deterrence sufficiently credible (and threatening) to stop our adversary taking dangerous risks while at the same time making our posture predictable and reassuring so that our adversary does not feel cornered or forced to pre-empt?  And of course, once we are back to relying once more on nuclear weapons for our security, how do we begin again the whole process of reducing their role and importance, and their types and numbers, through arms control and disarmament agreements so that we can genuinely say that we have only the minimal number necessary to preserve our security? The US and the Soviet Union managed to work this out more or less successfully during the Cold War but can countries like China, Pakistan, India, Iran and North Korea be relied on to do the same?

Indeed, to answer all these questions, we soon need to bring China into this dialogue, and eventually the UK, France and the other nuclear powers as well. But this will require the US and Russia to set a positive example and lead the way rather than continue the path of seeking to free themselves of all residual nuclear constraints. And the more cooperation we can establish among the nuclear powers at the next NPT Review Conference (when it finally takes place) to prevent other nuclear hopefuls from joining the club in the meantime, the easier this already formidable task will be.

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