The number of nuclear warheads decreases, the threat of nuclear war increases

If the total number of nuclear weapons has dropped from about 14,540 five years ago to about 12,705 today, aren't we almost 2,000 bombs safer? (1) Unfortunately, no.

24 June 2022 Friday 12:00
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The number of nuclear warheads decreases, the threat of nuclear war increases

If the total number of nuclear weapons has dropped from about 14,540 five years ago to about 12,705 today, aren't we almost 2,000 bombs safer? (1) Unfortunately, no. In general, these reductions are due to the fact that the US and Russia are dismantling nuclear weapons from the days of the cold war, weapons that are almost retired. As far as disarmament is concerned, the good news ends there.

In fact, the basic figures show that, although the total number of nuclear weapons is decreasing every year, the world is becoming vastly more dangerous. Not only are all nuclear weapon states conducting extensive and costly nuclear modernization campaigns, but the number of nuclear weapons in the world's military arsenals (which generally refers to the number of usable nuclear weapons) is increasing. For example, during the same recent five-year period during which the number of global nuclear weapons fell by nearly 2,000, the number of warheads in global military arsenals increased by some 213.(2)

This trend represents a diametrical reversal of the actions of the nuclear-armed countries in the immediate post-Cold War years, when both the number and role of nuclear weapons in military arsenals were successfully reduced.

With this in mind, this article explores the interrelated factors driving the global regression in disarmament progress, discusses how these factors affect US, Russian, and Chinese modernization programs, and considers how it might evolve in the future. next decade the nuclear arms race.

In January 2022, the leaders of the US, Russia, China, France and the UK jointly reaffirmed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, (3) and reiterated their commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons. However, those statements could be interpreted as somewhat empty words, given that all nuclear weapon states are modernizing their nuclear arsenal, and many of them are also increasing stockpiles of usable nuclear weapons.

What then drives these contradictory policies? There are several intertwined factors.

Nuclear-weapon states are increasingly embracing the “great power competition” framework, which became pervasive in the US under the Trump administration and has since become a guiding perspective of US foreign policy. (4) According to this framework, the world's great powers (including the US, Russia and China) compete across the globe for geographical, economic, political and military spheres of influence. (5) For this reason, these countries seem to believe that the strengthening of nuclear arsenals is a tool that can be used to increase their influence, protect their freedom of action and avoid nuclear blackmail, despite all the declared commitments in favor of disarm.

Many states are reviving or even expanding the role of nuclear weapons (particularly non-strategic nuclear weapons) in their respective military doctrines. Their representatives have often claimed that such deployments are actually seeking to prevent conflict by enhancing deterrence; The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, for example, attempted to justify the development of new non-strategic nuclear weapons by claiming that they would “enhance the flexibility and responsiveness of US nuclear forces.” and in response, above all, to the threat of a "limited" first nuclear use. (6) Those statements have been analyzed and questioned by the defenders of arms control and disarmament, who argue that they subscribe to the failed and dangerous logic of “nuclear war operations”. (7) In any case, the development and prioritization of these new “non-strategic” systems will make it much more difficult for states to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and to pursue significant reductions in the future.

The US, Russia and China are engaged in modernization campaigns aimed at replacing legacy Cold War systems with more modern ones. The terms of these campaigns are conditioned in part by the life cycles of the systems themselves. All military systems have a limited lifespan and therefore require subsystem and component upgrades to ensure weapons perform as intended. Manufacturing entirely new vector systems can take more than a decade; therefore, decisions about whether or not to replace a particular system must be made years (often more than a decade) before the system is deployed. Such inalterability inclines politicians or leaders to be reluctant to propose significant changes to the national nuclear arsenal, such as the withdrawal of a component of a country's nuclear triad. This means that nuclear weapons modernization programs are generally more untouchable than other military procurement programs, insulating the nuclear procurement system in particular from political change.

The political and economic clout of the nuclear weapons industry ensures that legacy nuclear weapons are often replaced by new systems, rather than eliminated altogether. In many nuclear weapon states, decisions on nuclear policy are made by legislators with clear and obvious ties to companies that benefit materially from those same policies. For example, in the US, senator-turned-lobbyist-turned-senator-turned-lobbyist Jon Kyl defended and voted for the Trump administration's W76-2 warhead during his brief second stint in Congress in 2018; however, at the time, Kyl did not disclose that he owned related stock or that until his arrival in the Senate he had been a paid board member of a company that operates the same national laboratory that would go on to develop the new W76-2 warheads. . (8)

In Russia those politico-military ties are even stronger: as Pavel Luzin writes in Russia Matters, “Russian defense companies do not need to spend money on lobbying (as their US counterparts do) because the key people working for them occupy simultaneously senior political positions and already participate in high-level decision-making”. (9) Russian state defense entities often have to navigate a complex web of overlapping stakeholder and client relationships between government officials, legislators, members of the security services, regional governors, and private oligarchs, many of whom have vested interests. in perpetuating the arms race.

In some cases, corporate influence has overwhelmed the national nuclear policy strategy in nuclear weapon states. In the US, for example, industry-backed lawmakers from states that host intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have legally prevented the military from reducing the size of that missile force while raising between 2012 and 2020 about $1.2 million in campaign contributions from ICBM contracting companies. (10)

Those interactions make it clear that the arms race itself is fueled, at least in part, by the tremendous influence arms contractors and lobbyists have over government decisions. The unfortunate result is that, for many nuclear-armed states, much of nuclear policy has essentially become a business decision—and business is booming.

It is becoming increasingly clear that leaders and policy makers must prepare for a world with no verifiable limits on nuclear weapons and their associated means of delivery. Although the Biden administration rescued the latest bilateral arms control treaty between the US and Russia (the New START Treaty or START III) from the brink in February 2021, the prospect of a subsequent treaty remains in jeopardy, among other things due to rising tensions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All other nuclear arms limitation treaties have been violated or dissolved, meaning that if New START expires in 2026 without a subsequent treaty, there will no longer be a limit on the number of strategic warheads and delivery systems deployed by the US. USA and Russia. Both countries will then be free to rapidly load several hundred additional warheads onto their existing delivery systems, dramatically increasing the size of each country's nuclear arsenals. (eleven)

Furthermore, it appears that good faith multilateral efforts to engage in arms reductions have stalled altogether, with states often appearing more interested in blaming and shaming their potential arms control partners than in carrying out conduct negotiations. In June 2020, for example, the US arms control envoy tweeted a photo of Chinese flags draped around an empty negotiating table, with the caption: “China does not show up.” (12) China had not indicated its attendance at that meeting with the US and Russia, and strongly opposed the use of its flag for what he called "an American performance art." (13)

In reality, China has always shown little interest in participating in arms control negotiations, claiming that the US invitation to participate in them is "no more than a ploy to divert attention"; furthermore, he notes that “if the US says it is willing to come down to China's level, China would be happy to participate the next day. But actually, we know that's not going to happen." (14)

Meanwhile, Russia has for years warily asserted that US Aegis Ashore missile defense sites in Poland and Romania are capable of delivering offensive weapons, with President Putin even citing them as a threat just before his invasion of Ukraine. However, when the US offered to discuss the possibility of allowing Russia to verify the absence of offensive missiles at those sites, Russia declined the invitation, probably because Putin had already made the decision to invade Ukraine. (fifteen)

As a result, it is becoming increasingly clear that nuclear-armed countries have little interest in adopting measures that provide an element of transparency and predictability in an otherwise unpredictable world. It seems that unless this dynamic is reversed very soon, we are headed for a world without any gun control.

It appears that nuclear weapons states no longer view disarmament as an urgent humanitarian, environmental, or security imperative. Instead, they increasingly recycle the same highly calculated, abstract language to describe their views; statements such as: “We underscore our desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to advancing disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons in which all enjoy uncompromised security.” (16) Although they sound good on paper, such claims tend to sound somewhat hollow if at the same time there is an increase in the world's nuclear arsenals.

Incidentally, it is increasingly rare to hear officials from nuclear weapons states put forward a coherent justification for pursuing disarmament other than the obligation to do so under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Increasingly, the quest for disarmament is being described in the same language that would be used to describe an obligatory task and not a security imperative. That indicates a lack of seriousness, or perhaps vision, regarding the pursuit of disarmament by nuclear-weapon states. Furthermore, nuclear weapon states seem increasingly to focus on shifting responsibility for disarmament to non-nuclear weapon states, arguing that they must first create the security conditions that make nuclear disarmament possible.

However, the most important factor in the arms race is the role that the defensive systems of nuclear-weapon states have played (and continue to play) in triggering offensive responses from other nuclear-armed states. That dynamic existed throughout the cold war, but has become more acute in recent years with the evolution of nuclear arsenals and missile technologies.

In the early 1970s, both the US and the USSR concluded that their rudimentary defense systems were not a realistic defense against a massive nuclear attack; however, both countries understood that the continuation of such systems could cast doubt on the survivability of both sides' second strike nuclear forces. Realizing that such an action-reaction dynamic could drastically accelerate the arms race, the US and the USSR concluded the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which limited the number of anti-missile defense sites, launchers and interceptors that each part could unfold. At the time, both sides understood that the ABM Treaty was the foundation of the bilateral arms control regime, and that any future strategic arms limitation would derive from the stability provided by the treaty. (17)

However, in 2002, the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty with the justification (18) that it needed to seek anti-missile defenses to combat threats from so-called “rogue states”, a term the US used to describe regional adversaries such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The US withdrawal and subsequent deployment of missile defense interceptors can be considered one of the most impactful strategic decisions of the post-Cold War era, and it had immediate and long-term consequences that are still ongoing.

One of the immediate consequences was that the START II Treaty (which had been negotiated and approved over the decade) never entered into force, as Russian ratification of the treaty was conditional on mutual compliance with the ABM Treaty. (19) START II would have prohibited the deployment of multiple independent target reentry vehicles (MIRVs) on intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would have significantly reduced the destructive capabilities of each country and greatly improved stability in crises. Because START II never entered into force, Russia continues to deploy MIRVs on most of its nuclear-armed ICBMs. (twenty)

Yet it is the long-term consequences of the collapse of the ABM Treaty that are most visible today. In 2000, Putin declared that "mutual reduction of strategic offensive weapons... is only possible if the ABM Treaty remains in force." Repealing it, he continued, will force Russia to “seek an alternative to end its commitments” under START I and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prohibited a whole class of delivery systems. nuclear. (21) Those predictions have come true. Russia violated the INF Treaty for several years with the deployment of its 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile, prompting the Trump administration to controversially withdraw from the treaty altogether in 2019.(22)

In addition, much attention has been paid to Russia's new set of nuclear systems under development, which were publicly unveiled by Putin in March 2018. (23) Those systems include, among others, the Sarmat heavy ICBM with MIRV and penetration aids. ; the Avangard hypersonic glide system; the Poseidon torpedo, with propulsion and nuclear weapons; and the experimental nuclear-powered Burevestnik cruise missile. Some of these systems are still years away from being operational, but others (such as the Avangard) have only recently been deployed. (24)

Although such systems were highly publicized due to their allegedly exotic nature, Putin has argued that they constitute a logical response to the "steady and uncontrolled growth" of US missile defenses. (25) As discussed below, maneuverable missiles are designed to achieve greater precision and to circumvent missile defenses, thereby offsetting any deterrent advantage that may be gained by such defenses.

China reacted in a similar way to the withdrawal of the ABM Treaty by the US and the subsequent increase in its anti-missile defenses. China's nuclear arsenal (although still a fraction of the size of those of the US and Russia) is growing at a rapid rate, and the country is modifying its nuclear posture to increase survivability in the face of improved ballistic missile defenses. of the US and conventional precision strike capabilities.

In 2018, China officially restored its air force's nuclear mission, and is currently building new air-launched ballistic missiles that are believed to be nuclear-capable. It is also nearing completion of building a new generation of ballistic missile submarines, and could end up operating a fleet of 8-10 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). In addition, it is fielding several new land-based ballistic missile systems with different range classes, most of which are highly maneuverable, dual-capable, regional systems. (26)

Perhaps the most significant recent development in China's nuclear arsenal, however, is the ongoing construction of what appears to be some 300 missile silos at three different complexes in northern China. (27) Should it make those 300 silos operational, China would surpass the number of missile silos operated by Russia and approach the number of silos operated by the US, in what would effectively constitute the largest construction operation ever. of silos since the US and Russia established their ICBM forces during the cold war. That decision was most likely motivated, at least in part, by China's desire to bypass US missile defenses. For the same reason, China has also taken steps in recent years to equip both its ICBMs and ballistic missiles with multiple submarine-launched warheads, in order to ensure that they can continue to penetrate missile defense systems. (28)

These qualitative and quantitative improvements in missile defenses are having a huge effect on the nature of the offensive missiles themselves. In short, the weapons that are commonly called ballistic missiles are less and less ballistic. (29)

A ballistic trajectory is simple: the missile is only guided during the initial phases of flight, after which it travels unguided to its target. However, since both the target and the flight path of a ballistic missile are essentially predetermined at the point of launch, it is all too easy to intercept it with increasingly sophisticated defensive systems. For this reason, more and more countries are incorporating forms of guided or maneuverable flight. It is something that can be achieved through various systems such as attitude control modules, after-thrust vehicles, maneuverable reentry vehicles, hypersonic glide vehicles and other types of systems.

Such systems allow modern missiles to alter their trajectories in multiple ways ranging from performing simple corrective trajectory adjustments to performing sustained hypersonic flight on highly maneuverable trajectories. As a result, it is increasingly rare to find a modern ballistic missile (especially from a country with a sophisticated missile program) traveling from launch point to target without any maneuverability beyond the end of its powered flight.

Russia's new Avangard system, for example, is initially powered by a traditional ballistic missile booster, but then follows a highly maneuverable trajectory at hypersonic speeds. For its part, China's DF-21D flies along a traditional ballistic trajectory, but is equipped with a maneuverable re-entry vehicle that could allow it to target moving ships. Can they still be called ballistic missiles?

This revolution in missile maneuverability has caused a mismatch in relation to whether countries consider these capabilities stabilizing or destabilizing for the arms race. In particular, Russia and China view the development of US missile defense capabilities as destabilizing, viewing its new maneuverable missiles as a stabilizing force that restores the strategic nuclear balance. Meanwhile, the head of US Strategic Command has openly called (30) Russia's and China's new nuclear developments destabilizing and has noted that such policies "increase the risk of great power crisis or conflict." Additionally, the 2019 US Missile Defense Review (the most recent iteration of national missile defense policy) has an entire subsection titled “Missile Defenses Are Stabilizing.” (31)

Such discrepancies are likely to have important implications for future arms control negotiations, as both sides will want the other to relinquish their destabilizing capabilities... which are the very systems those countries see as stabilizing. In such a context, the prospects for multilateral arms control between the US, Russia and China are dimming.

However, the US could significantly improve those chances by reinstating restrictions on its own missile defense capabilities. Since deploying them, the US has insisted that its anti-missile defenses are limited to dealing with threats from so-called "rogue countries" and not from their nuclear peers. However, in recent years that critical line of differentiation has been greatly eroded by public statements and demonstrations of advanced capabilities.

In 2016, for example, the US Congress reworded the legislation and described national missile defense as directed “against the developing and increasingly complex threat of ballistic missiles,” replacing the formula that missile defense was intended to address “limited ballistic missile attack.”32 Three years later, the Trump administration’s 2019 Missile Defense Review included an explicit refocusing of US missile defenses to deal with Chinese and Russian hypersonic threats, and Trump himself announced that US missile defense systems are intended to “detect and destroy any missile launched against the US in anywhere and at any time”. (33)

Also, in 2020, the US successfully tested its SM-3 Block IIA interceptor against a rudimentary ICBM target. Immediately after the test, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman stated: “For many years we have been assured by our American colleagues that the interception of Russian ICBMs by American Standard systems, including this modification, was technically impossible. The recent test clearly confirms the falsity of US assurances that the US global missile defense system is not directed against Russia.” (34) While it is reasonable to assume that there is much political posturing on Russia's part in the context of such statements, it is also clear that the test served to validate the fears of Russian and Chinese officials who largely never believed in previous US assurances about the limited nature of its missile defenses. (35)

The US posture on missile defense has been openly evolving for almost two decades, but it has not led to a safer world. To the contrary, the absence of self-imposed limitations on missile defenses has created an economic and political black hole that has made arms control negotiations that much more difficult. To facilitate these, the US could consider conducting a comprehensive assessment of its entire missile defense architecture, carefully calibrating specific targets and limitations, to determine which systems could be subject to limitation, reduction or relinquishment in the future. the framework of a future negotiation.

The imposition of some technological and strategic restrictions on US ballistic missile defenses could open a space for Russia and China to give up elements of their nuclear forces that the US considers destabilizing; given that, in the context of a more limited US missile defense posture, such maneuverable systems (specifically designed to evade advanced missile defenses) would not be necessary to safeguard either country's safe second strike capabilities.

Despite the warmongering tendencies described in this article, one potential factor that could drive countries to negotiate is the economic cost of the arms race itself.

The US, Russia and China are upgrading almost all the nuclear delivery systems in their respective arsenals. In the US, such simultaneous modernization drives have contributed to a surge of spending by the Pentagon over the next decade, with bills for several large nuclear weapons acquisition projects coming due around the same time (projects like the land-based strategic deterrent, the AGM-181 long-range cruise missile, the F-35 fighter, the B-21 bomber, and the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine). Due to their interconnected schedules, these large acquisition programs have been called "fiscal time bombs." (36)

The Pentagon is aware that it is in the midst of a budget crisis. In July 2020, then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein noted in an appearance at the Brookings Institution that “it will be the first time the country has attempted to simultaneously modernize a nuclear capability and an aging conventional capability. The current budget does not allow for doing both.” (37) For all these reasons, it is possible that, in order to balance the budget, the US will be forced to delay or cancel some of its most controversial nuclear modernization programs (such as the new nuclear cruise missile launched from the sea proposed by the Trump administration).

Russia finds itself in a similar situation: it is engaged in multiple simultaneous modernization programs for each of its nuclear weapon delivery systems. In some cases, you are even running parallel acquisition programs for many different systems that meet the same operational requirements. Although largely designed to provide state arms production entities with a long-term workload, that practice has been partially responsible for procurement projects that have been chronically over-timed and over-budget. (38) Russia has already had to delay or cancel some of its proposed delivery systems (including the RS-26 Rubezh ballistic missile and the train-launched ICBM Barguzin), while other critical systems of the Russian nuclear triad (such as the new ICBM Sarmat, the SSBN Borei-A and the Tu-160M) have suffered delays. (39) Furthermore, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has turned out to be much more costly than expected, and Russia will now have to replace much of its conventional warfare assets, which could take precedence over its nuclear modernization programs. (40)

For all these reasons, it is fair to ask whether the countries can afford the nuclear arms race they are promoting. Acquiring, upgrading and maintaining thousands of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery is a very expensive undertaking, and as time goes on and those costs accumulate, it may not be long before countries see giving up some of those developmental systems as more valuable than to manufacture them.

Matt Korda is a senior research associate and project manager for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, where he co-authored the Nuclear Notebook with Hans Kristensen. He is also a research associate in the Disarmament, Arms Control and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Program at the International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Stockholm.



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