The nuclear threat is back


Picture of Götz Neuneck
Götz Neuneck

Götz Neuneck is Physicist and Deputy Director of the Institute of Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg

For many, a new age of conflicts and low-level yet bloody wars has begun by revealing ‘new’ transnational threats such as uncontrolled migration, terrorism, civil wars or emerging cyberattacks. Additionally, new actors such as an ascending China and a reinvigorated Russia are playing a bigger role in the search of a new world order for the 21st century. Would that automatically mean that older threats can be put in the dustbin of history? Or, in other words, is nuclear deterrence of irrelevance to the threats of 2016?

If we look to recent developments, the contrary is sadly the case. Former US defence secretary Bill Perry has stated that ‘the probability of a nuclear calamity is higher today’ than during the Cold War, warning that ‘we are starting a new arms race’. Russia’s prime minister Dimitry Medvedev said similarly at the Munich Security Conference that US-Russian relations have ‘slid back to a new Cold War’. A sober look at the numbers and doctrines of nuclear-weapons states confirms the unfinished business and increasing risks of nuclear deterrence.

Although the amount of nuclear weapons has reduced significantly, the estimated number worldwide is still 16,000, with Russia and the US possessing 95% of them. Just 100 would be enough to end life on our planet in an instant. Neither nuclear superpower has fulfilled its obligation under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty ‘to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament’, thus threatening the integrity of the treaty.

The estimated number of nuclear weapons worldwide is 16,000. Just 100 would be enough to end life on our planet

Tactical nuclear weapons are still deployed in five European NATO countries and stored by Russia in higher numbers – approximately 2,000 – mostly to offset the superiority of NATO conventional forces. All P5 nuclear-weapons states are modernising their nuclear arsenals. The debt-laden US government wants to spend $1 trillion in the next three decades for new submarines, bombers and cruise missiles. After a decade’s break, the Russian government is testing and renewing its own deterrent triad as well as resuming its heavy bomber flights. France and the UK also want to update their nuclear submarines, and China’s stock of nuclear warheads is multiplying.

The US State Department accuses Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which contributed significantly to stabilising European security after 1989 by removing US and Russian ground-launched, intermediate-range nuclear missiles from European soil. Russian concerns, meanwhile, are related to NATO’s evolving regional ballistic missile defence. Russia sees the BMD system’s open-ended development as the main obstacle for further nuclear reductions. Major arms control treaties such as the INF treaty or the Treaty on Conventional Forces are waning, and no substitutes are under way. European efforts must be redoubled to reform the eroding arms control architecture in and around Europe.

Proponents argue that nuclear deterrence worked during the Cold War by threatening ‘unacceptable damage’ on the enemy’s homeland. Nuclear weapons have indeed never been used since 1945, but this argument is neither a guarantee of their continued disuse nor a wise template for future politics. Moderate opponents claim that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is preventing a nuclear attack, and hence, the current arsenals must be reduced drastically. The rising ‘humanitarian initiative’, an alliance of more than 150 UN members, argues that nuclear weapons are the most devastating weapon humanity has ever devised, and should be banned sooner rather than later. Scientific studies have confirmed the major global impact that a nuclear strike would have on climate and food production. No responsible government could order their use without betraying all humanitarian values.

Some in Washington, Warsaw and Berlin are already arguing that NATO should consider deploying new nuclear forces in Europe

Careless practices in nuclear weapons management have occurred on all levels of decision-making and military command. The list of accidents – and close calls – due to miscalculations, miscommunications or technical errors is already long, ranging from nuclear bomber crashes and sunken submarines to the near use of nuclear strikes during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and other scares in 1983 and 1995. During the Cold War, major incidents were prevented by self-restraint and a lot of luck. Nuclear deterrence also has its limits as a peacemaker for conventional wars, as conflicts have been fought even between nuclear-armed states. Former US state secretary Colin Powell said in 2010 that ‘the one thing I convinced myself of, after all these years of exposure to the use of nuclear weapons, is that they are useless.’

Non-NPT countries India and Pakistan are conducting an unlimited nuclear arms race, showing that as long as states feel threatened by nuclear weapons, or an opponent’s conventional superiority, they will continue to invest in their military nuclear programmes. North Korea and Iran have been the latest cases of states conducting nuclear weapons research. Fortunately, the 2015 Vienna agreement with Iran created an effective mechanism to block Iranian acquisition and development of a military nuclear programme, thus halting a potential nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed in 1996, into force or reaffirming a global nuclear test moratorium would reduce the proliferation dangers in Asia and the Middle East, but unfortunately neither the US nor China have ratified this important agreement.

Nuclear deterrence obviously doesn’t pose any answer to Europe’s greatest challenges of all – the refugee crisis, lingering financial problems and the re-emergence of nationalism

Nuclear terrorism by a non-state actor, which would encompass a deliberate attack on nuclear facilities or the construction of a simple nuclear device, is also a serious danger. But it can be prevented by introducing standard security measures and by protecting and eliminating fissile materials globally.

Russia and the US are setting the course for a new arms race, which would have a momentous impact on Europe’s future. Some in Washington, Warsaw and Berlin are already arguing that NATO should reopen the ‘nuclear dossier’ and consider deploying new nuclear forces in Europe. Nuclear deterrence is on the rise again, even though it’s clear that new nuclear weapons have done nothing to address Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Nuclear deterrence obviously doesn’t pose any answer to Europe’s greatest challenges of all – the refugee crisis, lingering financial problems and the re-emergence of nationalism – but instead costs huge sums of money, increases threat perceptions and deteriorates relations between East and West.

In times of crisis, new arms control initiatives and measures, such as establishing a crisis mechanism between nuclear-armed states to prevent incidents and strengthening early warning, are desperately needed. New negotiations for key arms control treaties, or a treaty to cease the production of weaponisable fissile materials, must be revived as well as the introduction of nuclear-weapon free zones. For this, a systematic dialogue with Russia on all future challenges for strategic stability is overdue. The US and Russia could set up a programme of future constraints needed to create better conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons. New institutional arrangements for verification and enforcement will have to be established for this to succeed. The history of arms control includes a long list of applicable measures for confidence building, restraint and effective reduction steps. Still missing, though, is the political will.

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