The Beginning of a New Nuclear Arms Race?

Published in the Hindustan Times on January 13, 2022

Mixed signals emerging in 2022 reflect the challenge in dealing with rising nuclear risks in an increasingly polarised world. On the face of it, the January 3 Joint Statement by the leaders of the five nuclear-weapon States (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races should have been a matter of global relief. However, statements and actions by the US, Russian and Chinese leaders indicate growing tensions and the beginnings of a new nuclear arms race with rapidly receding prospects of any arms control.

The Statement reiterated the declaration made by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and underlined that nuclear weapons “serve defensive purposes.” The five leaders also committed to create a security environment “more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Yet, the message failed to convey a new found sense of commitment for nuclear disarmament. First, four other states possessing nuclear weapons (India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan) were missing because they hadn’t been invited to join. Second, the statement was a collection of pious homilies, at odds with ground reality.

The Statement was intended for the 10th Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and only the five are party to the NPT; the other four are not because of a quirky arbitrariness that the NPT only recognises a nuclear weapon state if it exploded a bomb before January 1, 1967! The conference thrice postponed thrice and scheduled to begin on January 4, but Omicron intervened. The statement was negotiated by diplomats and released as planned.

The following day, reality intervened rudely as Chinaese President Xi Jinping signed off on the annual mobilisation order for the military for 2022, instructing “the armed forces to closely follow the evolution of technology, warfare and rivals, better combine training with combat operations, to develop an elite force capable of fighting and winning wars.” Simultaneously, China declared that it will continue to modernise its nuclear arsenal while urging the US and Russia to reduce their stockpiles.

It is true that Russia and the US have approx. 6000 weapons each compared to China’s modest arsenal estimated at 350 warheads. However, from satellite imagery of at least four new missile storage sites being developed, testing of a hypersonic glide vehicle capable of fractional orbital bombardment and larger ICBMs and SLBMs, the Chinese arsenal is expected to double by 2027 and treble by 2030.

Russia too has been modernising its nuclear arsenal for a decade. New ICBMs, Topol and Yars, are being deployed and Sarmat, capable of going over the South Pole, evading US missile defences, has been tested. In addition, Russia has deployed a hypersonic missile Zircon, is in the process of deploying a hypersonic glide vehicle Avangard, and testing a nuclear-powered torpedo to be used by underwater drones. Russia has maintained a large stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons (2000-4000 bombs) giving rise to apprehensions about early use in a conflict.

The last US Nuclear Posture Review in 2018 announced a significant shift by recommending an increase in the types of weapons in the arsenal as also in their potential role, reflecting new strategic rivalries. The Review retreated from the earlier goal of seeking to limit the role of nuclear weapons to the sole purpose of deterring nuclear attacks; and instead, widened it to hedge against emergence of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic threats and to prevail against both nuclear and non-nuclear strategic attacks. For this, the US is developing more flexible and tailored nuclear options including low-yield weapons.

Ahead of the US-Russia Strategic Stability Talks that began this week in Geneva, Russia has presented two parallel draft texts, to the US and NATO, aimed at securing legally binding security guarantees. Shifting the focus away from Ukraine, Russia is demanding an undertaking about no eastward expansion of NATO, withdrawal of US nuclear forces from Europe and restricting NATO forces to its 1997 boundaries. This has sent reverberations all through Europe, making the 14 east European and Baltic states more eager to cling to the US nuclear umbrella.

Meanwhile, US warships continue exercises in the western Pacific, undertaking more Freedom of Navigation Operations through the South China sea even as Chinese aircraft violate the Taiwan ADIZ with growing impunity. The announcement of AUKUS with US and UK joining up to provide nuclear powered submarines to Australia, a non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT, is directed at growing Chinese assertive behaviour.  

This reality is not lost on the other parties to the NPT and this is why 86 of them have signed on to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that entered into force in January 2021. These countries are concerned about growing nuclear risks and unhappy that the NPT’s five nuclear powers have not undertaken any meaningful steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. The nuclear powers like to pretend that the TPNW doesn’t exist, setting the scene for a contentious Conference whenever it takes place.

NPT is not the only arms control treaty under strain. ABM treaty and the INF Treaty between US and Russia are already history. Both these countries have exited from the Open Skies Treaty. The CTBT has not entered into force after 25 years.

The real reason is that the old arms control model was a product of the Cold War reflecting a bipolar world. The challenge now is to create an arms control model that reflects the reality of today’s multipolar world.

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NPT’s Midlife Crisis

Published in The Korea Times on June 16, 2021

In March 2020, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) turned fifty. The tenth Review Conference (RevCon), originally scheduled for April and May, was postponed to January 2021 and is now tentatively planned for August 2021.

The NPT is often described as the cornerstone of the global nuclear order. It is among the most widely adhered to global treaties. All countries except four (India, Israel, and Pakistan never joined, and North Korea withdrew in 2003) are parties to the NPT. Despite its enviable record, a sense of disquiet and uncertainty surround the RevCon and its future.

Any global order needs two enabling conditions: a convergence of interests among the present major powers to define a shared objective and an ability to package and present it to the world as a global public good. The conditions for nuclear order and the NPT were no exception.

In 1963, only four countries (the United States, France, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom) had tested a nuclear device when U.S. President John F. Kennedy sounded the alarm that by 1975 there could be as many as twenty countries with nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union shared similar concerns. This convergence of interests between the two Cold War adversaries enabled the NPT negotiations.

To make nuclear order attractive as a global public good, it was packaged as a three-legged stool: nonproliferation, obliging those without nuclear weapons to never acquire them and accept full-scope safeguards; disarmament, requiring the five countries with nuclear weapons (the United States, China, France, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom) to negotiate the reduction and eventual elimination of their nuclear weapons; and peaceful use of nuclear energy, guaranteeing non–nuclear weapons states full access to peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology.

Since the NPT was concluded, only the four countries outside the NPT have acquired nuclear weapons, bringing the total number of nuclear weapons states to nine, far fewer than Kennedy feared in 1963.

Among the oft-cited successes of the NPT is the dramatic reduction in the number of nuclear weapons from a peak of over 70,000 warheads in early 1980s to around 14,000 at present, with the United States and Russia accounting for over 12,500 of them. However, these reductions were a result of bilateral negotiations between the United States and Russia, reflecting the state of their relations. No negotiations have ever been held within the NPT framework. In fact, during the first fifteen years of the NPT, the U.S. and Soviet arsenals increased from below 40,000 to over 65,000, making it clear that the nuclear disarmament leg of the NPT was being ignored as the United States and Soviet Union embarked on a nuclear arms race.

Some claim that the NPT helped strengthen the taboo against nuclear weapons. However, a closer examination of recently declassified papers indicates that since 1970, there have been over a dozen instances where the United States and Soviet Union came close to initiating a nuclear exchange, many of which were based on system errors or misperceptions about the intentions of the other.

Today, the nuclear taboo is being challenged as major nuclear powers undertake research and development (R&D) for more usable low-yield nuclear weapons. Ballistic missile defense, hypersonic systems that carry both conventional and nuclear payloads, and growing offensive cyber capabilities further blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons.

The NPT has reached the limits of its success as far as the proliferation objective is concerned. Further, its packaging as a balanced three-legged stool stands exposed as a wobbly, one-legged stool, for the NPT delegitimized proliferation but not nuclear weapons.

The clearest reflection of this growing frustration among the non–nuclear weapons states party to the NPT was the humanitarian initiative spearheaded by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society to negotiate a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was concluded in 2017 and entered into force in January 2021, making it the only multilateral nuclear treaty to emerge since the NPT fifty years ago. Each of the TPNW’s eighty-six signatories and fifty-four ratifying states are members of the NPT in good standing.

For the first time, an NPT RevCon will take place with a new, unignorable divide between states that rely on nuclear weapons (or nuclear-armed allies) for their security and states that believe nuclear weapons are a threat to global security and accept that the NPT cannot be the route to nuclear disarmament.

However, the five nuclear weapons states party to the NPT are convinced that the TPNW undermines the NPT even though the TPNW’s 140 signatories and ratifiers provide legitimacy.

Other divisive political challenges for the RevCon include Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was unilaterally discarded by the Donald Trump administration; a push by non–nuclear weapons states for substantive reductions in nuclear arsenals; lack of progress on the 1995 initiative for the Middle East as a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction; a U.S. push for universal adherence to the International Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol; and North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, among others.

For the last fifty years, a substantive consensus outcome has been the criteria for a successful RevCon. Yet anticipating the difficulties of a consensus, the NPT supporters are suggesting that the definition of a successful outcome should be reconsidered.

However, such an approach is at best a temporary resolution. Any permanent resolution would lie in accepting the limitations of the NPT and seeking to join the TPNW proponents in a constructive dialogue. This needs imaginative approaches and a shift from the zero-sum model of negotiation to a win-win outcome, preserving the NPT while looking beyond it. A mindset change is necessary for the NPT to overcome its midlife crisis.

Rakesh Sood is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, India, and a member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). This is an abridged version of the paper originally published for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Council of Councils Tenth Annual Conference. His article was published in cooperation with the APLN (www.apln.network).

https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2021/06/197_310524.html

The NPT’s Midlife Crisis

My Background Memo for Council of Council’s Annual Conference, May 24-25. 2021

In March 2020, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) turned fifty. The tenth Review Conference (RevCon), originally scheduled for April and May, was postponed to January 2021 and is now tentatively planned for August 2021 amid continued monitoring of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NPT is often described as the cornerstone of the global nuclear order. It is among the most widely adhered to global treaties. All countries except four (India, Israel, and Pakistan never joined, and North Korea withdrew in 2003) are parties to the NPT. Despite its enviable record, a sense of disquiet and uncertainty surround the RevCon and its future.

Shaping of a Global Order

Any global order needs two enabling conditions: a convergence of interests among the present major powers to define a shared objective and an ability to package and present it to the world as a global public good. The conditions for nuclear order and the NPT were no exception.

In 1963, only four countries (the United States, France, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom) had tested a nuclear device when U.S. President John F. Kennedy sounded the alarm that by 1975 there could be as many as twenty countries with nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union shared similar concerns. This convergence of interests between the two Cold War adversaries enabled the NPT negotiations.

To make nuclear order attractive as a global public good, it was packaged as a three-legged stool: nonproliferation, obliging those without nuclear weapons to never acquire them and accept full-scope safeguards; disarmament, requiring the five countries with nuclear weapons (the United States, China, France, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom) to negotiate the reduction and eventual elimination of their nuclear weapons; and peaceful use of nuclear energy, guaranteeing non–nuclear weapons states full access to peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology.

Evaluating the NPT

Since the NPT was concluded, only the four countries outside the NPT have acquired nuclear weapons, bringing the total number of nuclear weapons states to nine, far fewer than Kennedy feared in 1963. By this measure, the NPT has been enormously successful, even though it has no means of dealing with these four states.

Among the oft-cited successes of the NPT is the dramatic reduction in the number of nuclear weapons from a peak of over 70,000 warheads in early 1980s to around 14,000 at present, with the United States and Russia accounting for over 12,500 of them. However, these reductions were a result of bilateral negotiations between the United States and Russia, reflecting the state of their relations. No negotiations have ever been held within the NPT framework. In fact, during the first fifteen years of the NPT, the U.S. and Soviet arsenals increased from below 40,000 to over 65,000, making it clear that the nuclear disarmament leg of the NPT was being ignored as the United States and Soviet Union embarked on a nuclear arms race. 

Some claim that the NPT helped strengthen the taboo against nuclear weapons. However, a closer examination of recently declassified papers indicates that since 1970, there have been over a dozen instances where the United States and Soviet Union came close to initiating a nuclear exchange, many of which were based on system errors or misperceptions about the intentions of the other. Even today, with some nuclear weapons maintained on hair-trigger alert, the risk of an accidental or inadvertent nuclear exchange remains.

Today, the nuclear taboo is being challenged as major nuclear powers undertake research and development (R&D) for more usable low-yield nuclear weapons. Ballistic missile defense, hypersonic systems that carry both conventional and nuclear payloads, and growing offensive cyber capabilities further blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons.

Challenges Before NPT RevCon

The NPT has reached the limits of its success as far as the proliferation objective is concerned. Further, its packaging as a balanced three-legged stool stands exposed as a wobbly, one-legged stool, for the NPT delegitimized proliferation but not nuclear weapons.

The clearest reflection of this growing frustration among the non–nuclear weapons states party to the NPT was the humanitarian initiative spearheaded by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society to negotiate a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was concluded in 2017 and entered into force in January 2021, making it the only multilateral nuclear treaty to emerge since the NPT fifty years ago. (The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty was concluded in 1996 but is yet to enter into force after twenty-five years, indicating its political infirmity.) Each of the TPNW’s eighty-six signatories and fifty-four ratifying states are members of the NPT in good standing.

For the first time, an NPT RevCon will take place with a new, unignorable divide between states that rely on nuclear weapons (or nuclear-armed allies) for their security and states that believe nuclear weapons are a threat to global security and accept that the NPT cannot be the route to nuclear disarmament.

However, the five nuclear weapons states party to the NPT are convinced that the TPNW undermines the NPT even though the TPNW’s 140 signatories and ratifiers provide legitimacy.

Other divisive political challenges for the RevCon include Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was unilaterally discarded by the Donald Trump administration; a push by non–nuclear weapons states for substantive reductions in nuclear arsenals; lack of progress on the 1995 initiative for the Middle East as a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction; a U.S. push for universal adherence to the International Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol; and North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, among others.

Redefining Success

For the last fifty years, a substantive consensus outcome has been the criteria for a successful RevCon. Yet anticipating the difficulties of a consensus, the NPT supporters are suggesting that the definition of a successful outcome should be reconsidered.

The NPT record indicates that no consensus was reached in 1980, 1990, 2005, and 2015. In 1995, despite the failure to reach consensus on a comprehensive final document, the critical objective of an indefinite and unconditional extension of the NPT was achieved (it had an original duration of twenty-five years). Some use this outcome to argue that a consensus final document need not be a true measure of success. Conversely, the 2000 and 2010 RevCons reached consensus after difficult negotiations, but none of the agreed steps or recommendations were ever implemented. Even these past agreements are unlikely to be endorsed today. The convergence of interests among the major powers has broken down, removing the basic political pre-condition for any progress.

Nuclear weapons–dependent states suggest setting a lower bar for a successful outcome. Merely holding a conference should be enough, according to some, as this would avoid the acrimonious and time-consuming negotiations that create undue expectations. However, such an approach is at best a temporary resolution. Any permanent resolution would lie in accepting the limitations of the NPT and seeking to join the TPNW proponents in a constructive dialogue. This needs imaginative approaches and a shift from the zero-sum model of negotiation to a win-win outcome, preserving the NPT while looking beyond it. A mindset change is necessary for the NPT to overcome its midlife crisis.

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Why The World Needs Nuclear Deterrence 3.0

Published in The Straits Times (Singapore) on 15th January, 2021

            When Trump leaves office and Biden takes over, humanity should breathe a huge sigh of relief. Trump is the only recent President to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. In August 2017, Trump warned North Korea, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen…” Even as President-elect, Trump had already put the nuclear option on the table. Responding to a question on whether he would rule out using nuclear weapons, in April 2016, he said, “Would there be a time when it could be used? Possibly. Possibly.” This is one reason why the Doomsday Clock, established in 1947 by a group of scientists who developed the first nuclear weapons but now wanted to convey the risk it posed to humanity, was calibrated in 2020 to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to a global catastrophe that it has ever been. 

            Despite this stark warning from the Doomsday Clock, many nuclear strategic experts tell us that we should feel more secure. After all, the nuclear taboo has held since 1945 despite the Cold War. US-USSR/Russia arms control agreements have helped reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles from nearly 65,000 in late-1970s to less than 15,000. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that entered into force in 1970 for 25 years with about 50 states was extended indefinitely in 1995 and is the most widely accepted treaty, with 190 adherents.

            The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) may well be the most universal treaty but it has reached the limits of its success. The five nuclear-weapon-states party to it (USA, Russia, UK, France and China) blithely ignore their responsibility for nuclear disarmament, convinced that NPT legitimises their possession of nuclear weapons and the four non-NPT countries (Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea) have built weapons for their own security reasons. Indeed, in a direct violation of the spirit of the NPT, Trump said blithely to Bob Woodward, “I have built a nuclear – a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before. We have stuff that you haven’t seen or heard about.” William Lambers, a nuclear weapons specialist, has observed that “while for over 60 years presidents in both parties worked to reduce nuclear weapons and the likelihood of their use, Trump has begun unravelling these efforts.”

Pacts in the past

Deterrence 1.0, which governed the US-Soviet Union nuclear rivalry during the Cold War, was characterised by arms control agreements and efforts to curb global proliferation. Deterrence 2.0 characterised the post-Cold War era of unipolarity, when the US largely determined the global nuclear agenda. The US strengthened its Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) system, which was intended to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons. However, this had an unintended consequence as China and Russia embarking on their own – India and Pakistan, that never signed the NPT and North Korea, after announcing its withdrawal from it.

In the current changed political reality, old instruments of US-Soviet arms control and non-proliferation no longer work. Secondly, new developments in cyber and space technologies as well as hypersonic missiles and missile defence systems are challenging old deterrence equations. In Covid terminology, the challenge has mutated and old prescriptions do not help. Today’s politics is marked by growing major power rivalry, sharpening nuclear multipolarity. More usable weapons and blurring of the nuclear-conventional line creates a permissive scenario, raising the likelihood of the non-use taboo being breached. Old arms control agreements are under strain and some (such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and the Treaty on Open Skies) have collapsed.

Restoring nuclear sanity

The stage is set for Deterrence 3.0 except that this time, it is not a ‘known-unknown’ but an ‘unknown-unknown’.

Indications are that US President-elect Joe Biden is inclined towards the Russian proposal to extend New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). This treaty lapses on 5 February 2021. This will provide some breathing room. But, will this be enough to restore nuclear sanity? Traditional arms control and non-proliferation believers believe ‘Yes’ but the Doomsday Clock indicates otherwise. Bridging this gap is necessary and while it does not mean discarding old instruments or treaties, it does mean realising their limitations in today’s nuclear world.

This is why the world needs Deterrence 3.0.

Deterrence 3.0 has to create a new consensus for a multipolar nuclear world, a world not of nuclear parity but asymmetry in terms of both sizes and nature of arsenals. This asymmetry in turn exacerbates mistrust, where some countries believe that ambiguity and unpredictability strengthens their deterrence. Such need to preserve ambiguity makes cooperative verification difficult, especially when cyber and AI developments are heightening risks of an accidental nuclear collision.

The Biden administration therefore provides an opportunity to step back from the Trump Administration’s hyperbole of ‘fire and fury’. We should use this opportunity to create a platform where the nine nuclear-weapon-states can at least meet, have intensive discussion and agree that preventing the use of nuclear weapons is a shared responsibility. They should also exchange views on how to step back from escalatory postures; and share experiences on fail-safe, critical and secure communication channels to be employed in times of crisis. Deterrence 3.0 recognises that nuclear weapons cannot be wished away. What is critical is to reduce their salience in security doctrines and ensure that they are never used.

Two approaches

There are two complementary approaches, one doctrinal and the other technical. The first is the policy of no-first-use. In other words, nuclear weapons would be used only for retaliatory purposes. This diminishes the role of nuclear weapons.

The second is de-alerting or increasing the lead-time between the decision to use a nuclear weapon and the time that it takes to implement the nuclear strike. The issues of hair-trigger-alert (which enables nuclear weapons to be launched in minutes) and highly centralised control has been the subject of debate and discussion in the US in recent years.

             In Asia, where several nuclear weapons states are locked in decades-long conflicts, Deterrence 3.0 is crucial in ensuring that conflicts do not escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. This includes China and India, as well as nuclear flashpoint regions such as South Asia and the Korean Peninsula. In the India-China context, the nuclear dimension has never surfaced because both countries maintain a no-first-use policy. However, in South Asia, both India and Pakistan have experienced many close shaves: Kargil in 1999, the terrorist attacks on the Indian Parliament (2001) and in Mumbai (2008), and the latest incident in Pulwama, Kashmir, in 2019, leading to the crash of an Indian jet in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Given these close shaves, the world must once again focus on the dangers of an accidental nuclear exchange.

The goal of Deterrence 3.0 is to ensure that once again, the Doomsday Clock is recalibrated far away from midnight. We will all sleep better when that happens.   

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