The Strategist

The Chilling Prospects of Nuclear Devices at Large

12 May, 2014    ·   4431

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar demonstrates why it is essential to enforce a new nuclear non-proliferation regime

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union produced over one thousand tons of weapon grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium. By 1986 its stockpile numbered 45,000 warheads; it was poorly inventoried; spread across the Republics with fissionable material salted away as reserve in shoddily secured warehouses (remembering that it was the nation that was secured). The post break-up Russian governments of Yeltsin and Putin through the nineties and into the new millennium managed to locate and harvest close to 99.9 per cent of the stash leaving 0.1 per cent unaccounted for, which translates to one thousand kilograms of weapon-grade fissile matter somewhere in limbo; adequate material to put together over one hundred, 20 kiloton yield explosive devices. It is not entirely clear what magnitude of unaccounted weapon-grade fissile matter is adrift from the US and NATO stockpile for at the height of the Cold War, they too had amassed a stockpile of over 30,000warheads and an indefinite number of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) deployed on the European front; and they are not telling. After all in the sample year of 1957 three US nuclear weapons were lost in the North Atlantic Ocean whilst ferrying them across in transport aircraft and remain so to date.

In the meantime, China’s Premier Deng Xiaoping through the 1980s into the 1990s promoted and executed an aggressive policy of direct transfer of nuclear weapon technology and launch vectors to reprobate States (Pakistan, North Korea, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia), using North Korea as a clearing house for the deals. The policy has been continued by his successors unrelentingly.
The reasons for this profligate orientation are a matter of conjecture and may have originally reflected balance of power logic in the sub-continental context; to offset and contain Indian comprehensive superiority. While in North Korea’s case, to keep the US and the Pacific allies embroiled in a snare of insecurities. In the Islamic world the motivations have a far more sinister purpose and perilous fallout.

Radical Islam envisages a return to the purity of the Koran and sees the possession of a nuclear weapon not just as a symbol of power and an instrument of deterrence but as a means to destroy and dislocate an order that has so wilfully kept the faithful under political, economic and spiritual subjugation. In this frame of reference, nations that have been singled out for retribution are the US, India and Israel. It is here in these countries that the iniquitous probability of a nuclear device being detonated by radical Islamists looms large. Such an event gives to the non-state perpetuators an amorphous form that can neither be destroyed in armed retaliation nor their credo obliterated from the world of beliefs. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq stand in stark testimony to how rooted dogmas have a conviction of their own that deny change through force of arms. Rhetoric such as ‘rogue States’, ‘war on terror’ and ‘failed States’ raise more problems than provide solutions, for any rational interpretation of the terms will invariably indict the very nations that seek to drag out and drub.

Inquiry exposes the real enemy to be States and non-State actors that proliferate nuclear technologies with no other predisposition than to put the status-quo in disarray or driven by avarice. Global double standards and persistent tendentious views that exist on the subject has already brought selective legitimacy of such transactions and taken the world another step closer to a maverick nuclear detonation. Not only do current policies and attitudes to proliferation generate exceptionably high risks of a nuclear attack but there is an inevitability that is emerging if fissionable materials are globally not secured, retrieved and accounted.

The narrative thus far has suggested that global clashes have moved beyond State to State conflict into a realm where the real threat of apocalypse comes from nuclear weapons in the hands of anarchic groups. These amorphous factions are driven by an ideology that seeks the destruction of what it considers antagonistic to its beliefs. The Nation State, on the other hand, is rationally driven by the will to survive. Perpetuation of the State is a national interest that is held supreme even if it means compromises that may cause profound changes. Radical Islam and its insurgents do not operate under such existential constraints; to them it the constancy of an abstract idea, that of their interpretation of the Koran.

The awkward irony is that the militant Islamist is financed by the same ungoverned trade that has made billionaires out of dubious entrepreneurs. The case of the Glencore uranium mining corporation in Kitwe Zambia is a case in point. The sole owners of Glencore are the Marc Rich family now settled in Zug, Switzerland; the same Mr Rich who was indicted for illicit uranium trading with Iran, Israel and, one can only speculate, with which other entities. He also received a full and well-funded Presidential pardon on Clinton’s last morning in office. The upshot is that the transfer of illicit wealth whether it is through the drug trade, uncontrolled resource access, sale of prohibited materials and technologies, illegal arms trade or as a deliberate policy eventually, in part, funnels its way to the nurturing of radical organisations. What we today stand witness to is the convergence of a parallel source of wealth and diffusing technologies together in the quest for weapon grade fissile materials. The means to dislocate and put in disarray the evolving world order is at hand.

It has been noted that the trio of the US, India and Israel have been declared by radical Islam as primary targets for reprisal and therefore it may be inferred for special nuclear treatment. Counter action must, for this reason alone, be spearheaded by the troika. Four concrete measures are suggested:
• Fissile material: All fissile material globally must be retrieved, inventoried and secured. This must be an obligatory international effort despite the current situation in the Ukraine. Scientists and technicians involved in nuclear weapon design and fabrication must be profiled and political control by respective nations exercised over there movements and affiliations.
• Inspection and safeguards: The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970 along with the Additional Protocol, which gave the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) greater proliferation monitoring powers, was the designated instrument for safeguards. However the treaty has over the years been compromised by the inequities it represented, the discrimination that it promoted and the selective biases that it propagated. What it lacks is teeth to impartially enforce punitive measures against proliferators irrespective of nation. What is suggested is a retooling of the Treaty to make the IAEA the nodal proliferation control agency with mandatory surveillance, intelligence provisions and realistic controls on the production of fissionable material and movement of nuclear weapon technologies.
• Choking the money conduits: Intelligence sharing and coordinated action to shut down ungoverned trade and illicit financial transfers is the key to starving radical organisations. Financial institutions must be obliged to collaborate in the matter.
• China: As noted earlier, China has been the leading proliferator of nuclear weapon technologies and delivery systems. It has over the years transferred nuclear weapons design, provided testing facilities, passed on ballistic missiles along with production facilities and provided material, intellectual, logistic and doctrinal back up to client state nuclear weapon programmes. To some in Beijing the detonation of a nuclear device by Radical Islamists may even be seen as an effective route to upsetting the status-quo and opening the future to its hegemonic designs.

Thus far, the global community has been blind to the dangers of untrammelled nuclear proliferation particularly by China as she supplies ready-to-use WMD technology along with delivery systems to States that are in the tightening grip of radical Islamists. The manner in which Pakistan received a nuclear weapon design package and material support to build nuclear weapons which was then conveyed to Iran, Libya and others is suggestive of a pattern that seeks to deliberately provoke a nuclear incident that can only serve China’s interests. The time is nigh when the trio of US, India and Israel, which have been designated as primary targets of radical Islam, to band together to enforce a nuclear non-proliferation regime that reigns in China.