While it is true that the total number of nuclear weapons at world level has decreased significantly compared to the days when the number had peaked, nevertheless in several important ways the actual threat from nuclear weapons has increased in recent times and is increasing . It is very important to recognize this and not go by numbers alone.
According to the latest estimates given in 2020 report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (hereafter referred to as SIPRI) total number of nuclear weapons in the world today is 13400 out of which 3720 are deployed with operational forces. (See Table 1). About 1800 of these are kept in a state of high operational alert.
world nuclear forces, 2019
Deployed Other Total
Country warheads warheads inventory
USA 1 750 4 050 5 800
Russia 1 570 4 805 6 375
UK 120 95 215
France 280 10 290
China – 320 320
India – 150 150
Pakistan – 160 160
Israel – 90 90
North Korea – [30–40] [30–40]
Total 3 720 9 680 13 400
– = zero; [ ] = uncertain figure not included in the total.
Notes: ‘Other warheads’ includes operational warheads held in storage and retired warheads awaiting dismantlement.
All estimates are approximate and as of Jan. 2020.
Source – SIPRI Report 2020
Although the total; number of nuclear weapons at present is significantly less compared to the peak of cold war days, the existing number of nuclear weapons are more than enough to destroy life on earth, both due to immediate and short-term destruction as well as longer-term impacts.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) issues an annual statement which, among other things, reviews whether the threat from nuclear weapons is increasing or decreasing. Its latest report has been issued in 2020 (hereafter referred to as BAS Report). This report which has the endorsement of several leading experts, has taken a clear stand that while the number of nuclear weapons may have decreased, but the actual threat from nuclear weapons is now even more than at the peak of the cold war years.
Giving reasons for this the BAS Report says, “In the nuclear realm, national leaders have ended or undermined several major arms control treaties and negotiations during the last year, creating an environment conducive to a renewed nuclear arms race, to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to lowered barriers to nuclear war. Political conflicts regarding nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea remain unresolved and are, if anything, worsening. US-Russia cooperation on arms control and disarmament is all but nonexistent…The world is sleepwalking its way through a newly unstable nuclear landscape. The arms control boundaries that have helped prevent nuclear catastrophe for the last half century are being steadily dismantled.”
Specificying the failures on the front of important treaties for reducing the nuclear weapon threat, the BAS Report says, “The demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty became official in 2019, and, as predicted, the United States and Russia have begun a new competition to develop and deploy weapons the treaty had long banned. Meanwhile, the United States continues to suggest that it will not extend New START, the agreement that limits US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and that it may withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which provides aerial overflights to build confidence and transparency around the world. Russia, meanwhile, continues to support an extension of New START….The assault on arms control is exacerbated by the decay of great power relations. Despite declaring its intent to bring China into an arms control agreement, the United States has adopted a bullying and derisive tone toward its Chinese and Russian competitors. The three countries disagree on whether to pursue negotiations on outer space, missile defenses, and cyberwarfare. One of the few issues they do agree on: They all oppose the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which opened for signature in 2017.”
This report has warned that the nuclear arms race can accentuate in the coming days, “Without conscious efforts to reinvigorate arms control, the world is headed into an unregulated nuclear environment. Such an outcome could reproduce the intense arms race that was the hallmark of the early decades of the nuclear age. Both the United States and Russia have massive stockpiles of warheads and fissile material in reserve from which to draw, if they choose.”
Another reason for increasing threat is the combination of new hypersonic weapons, and the increasing chances of costly mistakes being made due to misreading of a conventional weapon for a nuclear weapon. As the BAS Report says, “There is increasing investment in and deployment of hypersonic weapons that will severely limit response times available to targeted nations and create a dangerous degree of ambiguity and uncertainty, at least in part because of their likely ability to carry either nuclear or conventional warheads. This uncertainty could lead to rapid escalation of military conflicts. At a minimum, these weapons are highly destabilizing and presage a new arms race.”
The increase of nuclear weapon threat is a part of the wider failure of world leadership to check the most menacing dangers. As the BAS report says, “The means by which political leaders had previously managed these potentially civilization-ending dangers are themselves being dismantled or undermined, without a realistic effort to replace them with new or better management regimes. In effect, the international political infrastructure for controlling existential risk is degrading, leaving the world in a situation of high and rising threat. Global leaders are not responding appropriately to reduce this threat level and counteract the hollowing-out of international political institutions, negotiations, and agreements that aim to contain it. The result is a heightened and growing risk of disaster.”
James Acton, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has listed some dangerous possibilities (i) command and control systems that are used in both conventional and nuclear attacks may result in confusing one with the other, (ii) an increased risk of cyber attacks. If some counter-responses are delegated to autonomous systems capable of retaliating in just milliseconds, the risks increase further.
James Miller, former under-secretary of defence for policy at the Pentagon stated some time back that the development of advanced cyber space, missile-defence, long-range conventional strike and autonomous systems, has the potential to threaten both sides’ nuclear retaliatory strike capabilities, particularly their command and control and that , “the potential of a dispute leading to a crisis, of a crises leading to a war, and a war escalating rapidly, is growing.”
The Economist( January 27 2018) noted in its special report on future wars , the command-and-control systems of nuclear weapons are becoming vulnerable to hacking by new cyber-weapons or ‘blinding’ of the satellites they depend on. A country under such an attack could find itself under pressure to choose between losing control of its nuclear weapons or using them, the journal noted in its editorial.
Meanwhile, it is widely recognised that almost all nuclear weapon powers are modernizing their weapons. As the SIPRI Report notes, “both the USA and Russia have extensive and expensive programmes under way to replace and modernize their nuclear warheads, missile and aircraft delivery systems, and nuclear weapon production facilities…The nuclear arsenals of the other nuclear-armed states are considerably smaller but all the states are either developing or deploying new weapon systems or have announced their intention to do so. China is in the middle of a significant modernization and expansion of its arsenal, and India and Pakistan are also thought to be increasing the size of their nuclear arsenals.”
Hence growing threat of nuclear weapons is one of the most serious survival issues of our times. Protecting our generation and the next generations from the extreme dangers of nuclear weapons should be one of our topmost priorities.
The BAS Report has outlined some of the essential tasks ahead, “US and Russian leaders can return to the negotiating table to: reinstate the INF Treaty or take other action to restrain an unnecessary arms race in medium-range missiles; extend the limits of New START beyond 2021; seek further reductions in nuclear arms; discuss a lowering of the alert status of the nuclear arsenals of both countries; limit nuclear modernization programs that threaten to create a new nuclear arms race; and start talks on cyber warfare, missile defenses, the militarization of space, hypersonic technology, and the elimination of battlefield nuclear weapons.”
The SIPRI Report has summarized some of the recent or ongoing efforts in this direction—“ There were also continued multilateral diplomatic efforts to promote the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which is the first treaty establishing a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons, including their development, deployment, possession, use and threat of use.In December the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on all states that had not yet done so to ‘sign, ratify, accept, approve or accede to the Treaty at the earliest possible date’. …In September 2019 the 11th biannual Conference on Facilitating the Entry into Force of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) was convened in New York. … In November a Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction held its first session at the UN in New York.”
The ultimate aim is not the reduction of nuclear weapons but the complete elimination of these horrible and most destructive weapons. To achieve this goal, a very strong global peace movement should emerge with very strong grassroots work combined with linkages to important decision makers.
The writer is Convener, Save the Earth Now Campaign. His recent books include ‘Protecting Earth for Children’, ‘Earth Without Borders’ and ‘Planet in Peril’.