Global Nuclear Arsenals: Taking Stock of Current Trends

01 Jul, 2014    ·   4537

Ruhee Neog draws from a recent SIPRI report on world nuclear forces


Ruhee Neog
Ruhee Neog
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released its annual data on the global trends and developments in world nuclear forces on 16 June, 2014. In its press release, the SIPRI had this to say: “The data shows that while the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world continues to decline, none of the nuclear weapon-possessing states are prepared to give up their nuclear arsenals for the foreseeable future.”

Where do things stand? What does this appraisal signify for a nuclear weapons-free world, brought back into prominence by US President Barack Obama in 2009?

Status Report
As a concept and on paper, universal nuclear disarmament appears very attractive. However, five years after Obama’s Prague speech on nuclear weapons, with the singular exception of the Nuclear Security Summit process, his call has not had many takers. This is demonstrated by the SIPRI press release. It illustrates, through a table, the cuts in the overall number of nuclear warheads across the world – according to it, they have gone down from approximately 17,270 in 2013 to 16,300 at the beginning of 2014. However, there is no significant visibility of interest from the nuclear weapons-possessing states in nuclear disarmament; in fact, the trend seems to suggest just the opposite. This is predicated largely on the concomitant deployment or announcement of plans to develop new nuclear weapons delivery systems. In addition, India, China and Pakistan continue to expand their existing capacities for the generation of fissile material for military purposes. “Israel appears to be waiting to see how the situation in Iran develops," while "There is an emerging consensus in the expert community that North Korea has produced a small number of nuclear weapons, as distinct from rudimentary nuclear explosive devices."

What Does It Signify?
The US and Russia together account for 93 per cent of the global cache of nuclear weapons, and the reductions that the report takes account of are owing primarily to the cuts achieved under the aegis of the US-Russia Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms of 2011 (New START) and some unilateral actions. President Obama’s Prague speech refocused attention on the abolition of nuclear weapons, but apart from rhetorical flourishes, it has failed to inspire any noteworthy reaction from the other nuclear weapons-possessing states.

This is likely to be the trend for the foreseeable future for several reasons.

The unfortunate fact is that there exist developments that are counter to the reductions achieved by the US and Russia. While the cutback in the number of nuclear weapons is a mean feat by itself, it means little in the context of increasing sources of global insecurity. For example, advancements in delivery systems and missile defence by some states can motivate states with weaker capabilities to also seek modernisation. Perceived irresponsible behavior could also prompt a re-think and/or rationalise national missile defence strategies, such as in the case of the US missile defence after the Russian annexation of Crimea. Conventional asymmetries too provide the necessary justification for an expanding nuclear arsenal, like in the case of India and Pakistan. These developments thus very firmly reaffirm the salience of nuclear weapons despite an overall reduction in their numbers.

Deterrence with a much smaller arsenal is viewed as debilitating for stability by many commentators. Also, given the centrality of nuclear weapons in national security discourses, it is difficult to imagine the longevity of a parallel effort that would be focused on their reduction, and eventual elimination.

“Disarmament presupposes successful non-proliferation,” (Dr Christopher Ford, “Too Little Disarmament, Too Much Non-Proliferation,” session at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, 08 April 2013) and increasing proliferation risks deal it a huge blow.With threats such as nuclear terrorism by non-state/sub-state actors gaining more notoriety, and the reality of outlier states such North Korea following their own nuclear weapons trajectory irrespective of global trends, it has been argued that a legally binding treaty as a follow-on to New START is doubtful. It has also been argued that in any further negotiations between the US and Russia, the (developing) nuclear arsenals of the other possessors would have to be addressed in some manner. Conversely, this has been disputed on the basis of the American and Russian cuts as simply not being sufficient to motivate other states to follow suit.

Thus, while the logic for disarmament and the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons makes immense sense, its prospects, at least in the immediate and near term, seems unsurprisingly bleak.