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.