So what is it? Global abolition or “new and improved” nuclear weapons all around?
A couple of times each year, I talk about nuclear issues with the host of a Sunday morning radio talk show in Boston, and the interview usually ends with this question: “So are you feeling optimistic or pessimistic about our chances of getting rid of nuclear weapons?”
Most recently, a few weeks ago, I said I was on the fence. That I was taking a lot of encouragement from the growing number of non-nuclear-weapon states and civil society groups who have embraced the idea of a global abolition treaty, but that I was disheartened by the relentless modernization of nuclear weapons systems in every single nuclear-weapon state.
This morning I read a sobering new report on nuclear weapons modernization from the Trident Commission of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), and am finding it a little hard to reconstruct the case for optimism. I expect that feeling will pass, but for now, here’s the condensed version of how bad the facts on the ground really are.
The report is called “Beyond the United Kingdom: Trends in the Other Nuclear Armed States” (you can get a copy at BASIC’s website), and it covers all the nuclear-armed states except the UK, which will get separate treatment in a parallel phase of the Commission’s work. Part summary of current arsenal sizes and configurations in each of the other nuclear-weapon states and part projection of budgeted and scheduled new deployments, the report by BASIC consultant Ian Kearns also assesses the priorities and rationales that are driving the expansion of nuclear forces into the middle of this century and beyond.
This is not light or pleasant reading. In fact, as Kearns piles detail onto mind-numbing detail about new generations of ballistic missiles with names like Shaheen, Agni, Jericho, Taepodong, and Musudan; new nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines; new bombers and cruise missiles; new fissile materials production facilities; and new “robust” warheads to be spread among all these “new and improved” delivery systems, a world without nuclear weapons begins to seem like a very remote prospect…and a world in which these weapons get used a lot closer.
How remote? Well, for example, the first of 12 new US nuclear submarines is due in 2029, with another launching every year or so for more than a decade. Russia is building eight SSBNs of its own, which are all also scheduled to be in the water by 2040. Both countries are working on replacement bombers that they expect to be airborne in 2025 or 2035 or thereabouts.
China, which always has its eye on the long term, is building new medium-range and long-range ICBMs and as many as five new nuclear submarines. France, which seems to assume that nuclear weapons are forever as a matter of theology, has finished deploying four new subs and is loading them with long-range M51 missiles, and is modernizing its nuclear bomber fleet.
Pakistan is developing two new cruise missiles, is believed to be developing smaller, lighter warheads—perhaps lots of them—and is doing everything it can to increase weapons-grade fissile material production. India has five land-based missile types, one of which could reach Beijing, has developed a ship-launched cruise missile, and has plans for a five-submarine nuclear-capable fleet.
Israel is extending the range of its missiles, is expanding its fleet of cruise-missile-equipped attack subs, and may be developing an ICBM capability. The DPRK keeps on testing new missiles, including one with as much as a 10,000-kilometer range, although it’s questionable whether North Korea can produce nuclear warheads to fit these delivery systems.
There’s more—much more—and you can brush up on your weapon-system acronyms and on the distinctions between “strategic,” “non-strategic,” “deployed,” “reserve,” and other apocalyptic terms of art by reading the whole report.
Kearns points out that the total number of nuclear weapons in the world has come down substantially in recent years, and that the rhetoric about nuclear disarmament coming out of the US, Russia, and some of the other nuclear-weapon states has improved, but that these modernization programs, across the board, make it clear that old inventory is simply being swapped out for newer, leaner, meaner, permanent arsenals, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. “There is little sign in any of these nuclear armed states that a future without nuclear weapons is seriously being contemplated,” he concludes.