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A Global Review : Threats o f Nuclear Conflict:

Threats of Nuclear Conflict: A Global Review – Part 1, Global Policy

By Scott L. Montgomery and Thomas Graham, Jr. – 31 October 2019 

Beginning with South Asia, Scott L. Montgomery and Thomas Graham, Jr. introduce a two-part essay taking stock of contemporary prospects of nuclear conflict.

Our world in the second decade of the 21st century approaches the abandonment of cooperation in the realm of nuclear arms control. We have entered a new era of threat that is real, growing, and not in the least accidental. Nor is it due to the dark gods of human nature or the unfavorable fate of having freed the nuclear genii from its bottle.

The new era must be counted part of a deteriorating international order. Within the past five years, this situation has tended to elevate conflict above collaboration, risk above security, and, above all, new weapons above arms agreements. Rising hostility between the U.S. and Russia, the U.S. and China, Russia and NATO, Pakistan and India, North Korea and its neighbors, has effectively brought the risk of nuclear conflict to its highest level in many decades. Efforts by warhead states today to strengthen their arsenals on their own nationalist terms are proving not to dissuade but encourage thoughts of proliferation elsewhere.

Greatly adding to this troubling climate have been actions by the Trump Administration, which has withdrawn and threatened to withdraw from alliances around the world and from multiple non-proliferation treaties. This global retreat has torn holes in what was once considered an essential nuclear umbrella for Europe and parts of East Asia. Most of all, though, open hostility among warhead states makes the world fearful, less secure, and more likely to find reasons for nuclear “self-protection.” After 25 years of post-Cold War progress in reducing nuclear weapons, warhead states are altering course. Ignoring a look in the mirror, they perceive the global landscape as more menacing and are therefore making it so.

Facts and Numbers

At present, the world has approximately 13,890 nuclear warheads. Of these, 9,300 are in military stockpiles, with perhaps 3,600 deployed by operational forces. Half of these are kept on high operational alert.

Though still large, these figures represent an immense reduction from Cold War numbers, whose total went as high as 70,000 in the late 1980s. Such reduction happened because of arms control agreements, mainly between Russia and the U.S., but also involving the post-Soviet nations of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, all of which gave up the weapons that remained on their territory after dissolution of the USSR. One example of a successful agreement was the Megatons to Megawatts program, which, between 1995 and 2013, recycled fuel for as many as 20,000 Soviet weapons so it could be burned in U.S. nuclear power plants. Similarly, the New START treaty between Russia and the U.S., signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in 2010, continued reductions into 2019.

The hopeful message of such programs was, and is, crystal clear: though built for reasons of security, nuclear weapons are a massive threat to human life and society. Reducing their number defines the only true path to increased security in a world where such weapons exist.

Yet that lesson now appears to be unheard. Efforts to continue scaling back the size and lethality of arsenals have ceased. They have even begun to reverse. This is a direct result of nations having launched programs to “upgrade” and “modernize” their weapons. Such are terms that tend to sanitize work that will replace older bombs and missiles with more reliable and precise versions, while adding new, low-yield nuclear weapons that risk lowering the threshold of actual use, especially in battlefield situations. Russia and the U.S., with over 90% of the global stockpile, have been the target of related media attention in the past two years. But a focus here can hide similar efforts underway in China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and France.

Yet the rationality here can, and should, be reversed. At higher reliability and accuracy, significantly fewer weapons are needed, not an equal or greater number. Such would be a potentially effective step toward still further reductions and a less threatening global environment. As non-proliferation experts have long argued—and as President Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbachev both agreed at their 1986 Reykjavik arms control meeting—nuclear weapons are misunderstood as purely a deterrent, being instead the makers of an endangered world where such protection can seem legitimate. 

Working directly against such thinking, however, the U.S. in August 2019 officially walked away from one of the most important arms control treaties in existence. This was the Intermediate Nuclear-Forces Treaty (INF) between the U.S. and Soviet Union signed in 1987, eliminating all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 km. Destruction of these weapons was a major achievement, eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons for the first time and marking a real improvement in security for both European and Soviet-Warsaw Pact countries……….

It is not only the U.S., therefore, that is driving the new era of nuclear insecurity. Though the Trump Administration is especially outstanding in raising the level of hostility and uncertainty, it is not alone in doing so. ……..

South Asia

India and Pakistan sit at the top of concerns about nuclear conflict. The countries have fought three major wars since partition in 1947 and have come close to others at least a dozen times. It is no exaggeration to say that mutual fear and hatred bind these nations as much as separating them. Tensions have continued to rise, especially since the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which were followed by a string of other attacks by Islamic militants, killing many hundreds of Indians and wounding thousands. Antagonism has also grown with the rise to power of the Hindu nationalist BJP party and election of its candidate, Narendra Modi, as prime minister. While Modi sought talks with Pakistan in his first term, these were derailed by the terrorist attack at Pathankot airbase in 2016 and simultaneous assault on India’s consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Confrontation intensified in 2019, when a suicide bombing in Kashmir killed at least 40 Indian security personnel and ignited a military exchange involving air strikes and a dogfight, with an Indian plane shot down and its pilot captured (later released unharmed by Pakistan).  Several months later, tens of thousands of Indian troops entered Kashmir and established what amount to martial law, placing a number of opposition political leaders under house arrest. The government of Prime Minister Modi then announced it was ending the special, semi-autonomous status of Kashmir and adjacent Jammu, revoking nearly all of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and therefore claiming the two disputed territories as part of India. This was done without any negotiation involving Pakistan, which reacted with outrage and threats of violence.


Recent study shows Pakistan has been increasing its nuclear stockpile very rapidly. This is partly due to a “domino” situation that involves China expanding its weapons capability, with India responding to this increase, thus adding a sense of urgency in Pakistan. Neither South Asian country has been forthcoming about how much fissile material it actually has, posing questions about safeguards. Pakistan is known to have  four heavy-water plutonium-producing reactors, three of which have been built since 2009. It also now has two reprocessing plants for removing plutonium from spent civilian reactor fuel.

……. India

India, meanwhile, is countering nuclear build-up on two fronts and building new plutonium production reactors for the purpose. Like Pakistan’s facilities, India’s are not under international safeguards, as the country is not a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. According to officials at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, as many as six new fast-breeder reactors will come online by the early 2030s, greatly increasing the country’s ability to produce weapons-grade fuel……

Though confidential, India’s long-range plans might well involve doubling its current stockpile of 130-140 warheads to create what it considers a reliable deterrent to both Chinese and Pakistani nuclear forces…………


South Asia can thus be described as a delicate imbalance with regard to nuclear threat. While a potential nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia continues to be a nexus of attention, India and Pakistan must be viewed as being in a far greater state of tension and risk………

Today is a new era of political conflict, arms races, and growing tension around the globe. It is an era in which defense officials speak in terms of “usability” and “escalate to deescalate” with respect to nuclear weapons on the battlefield. As we know, however, modern battlefields are not in distant, isolated places. Military bases and facilities, including those with nuclear weapons, are rarely far removed or somehow shielded from populated areas. And, as studies have repeatedly shown, any exchange that involves the destruction of buildings, towns, or cities, would have massive environmental impacts for the entire globe.

A greatly weakened environment for nuclear arms control should be a concern to everyone. At a time when nation-states are becoming less cooperative with one another, more typified by both internal and external political conflicts, the possibility for miscalculation rises no small amount. While Pakistan and India are the focus of related worry at present, they are only part of a larger landscape of nuclear uncertainty whose outlines have again grown dark.

November 4, 2019 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, weapons and war

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