Strategic Space

Living Dangerously: A New Nuclear Arms Race

14 Jul, 2022    ·   5823

Dr. Manpreet Sethi analyses contemporary realities driving the arms race and considers opportunities to arrest its development

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS

A re-run of the nuclear arms race is staring us in the face. And, it is taking place in new circumstances. Today’s nuclear reality is starkly different from what the well-known nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling had described in 2009. He wrote, “There is no sign that any kind of nuclear arms race is in the offing—not, anyway, among the current nuclear powers. Prospects are good for substantial reduction of nuclear arms among the two largest arsenals, Russian and American. That should contribute to nuclear quiescence... Except for some ‘rogue’ threats, there is little that could disturb the quiet nuclear relations among the recognized nuclear nations.”

The nuclear landscape has changed dramatically in just a little more than a decade. What is the contemporary nuclear reality that is driving this new nuclear arms race? Can the trend be arrested? And when and where could such attempts best be made?

New Drivers, New Race

The once-upon-a-time bipolar nuclear world has today morphed into one marked by the presence of a number of nuclear-armed states. These form multiple adversarial dyads; some even elongate into strategic chains. So, changes in nuclear capabilities, postures or doctrines in one state trigger a cascading impact on not just another state, but on many others. Severely stressed inter-state relations are resulting in nuclear modernisation based on worst case assumptions. As induction of new technologies like hypersonics and cyber takes place, nuclear armed-states seem to opt for creating ambiguities and entanglement with the deployment of dual-use delivery systems. Instead of clarity on nuclear and conventional systems, their intermingling is preferred—ironically, for the risks it generates. This is believed to enhance deterrence.

Meanwhile, another prominent feature of today’s nuclear arms race is that it is being run on the twin track of offensive and defensive systems. This is something that the 1972 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) Treaty had tried to arrest by stopping the unchecked deployment of defensive systems and anchoring deterrence in the idea of mutual vulnerability. But the abandonment of the ABM Treaty in 2002 resulted in an offence-defence tussle. Advances in US ballistic missile defence (BMD) technology and deployments has led Russia to repeatedly declare its intention to develop “invincible weapons.” The Avangard and Poseidon are examples of those efforts. China too seems to have decided to move towards a rapid expansion of its nuclear warhead numbers, as well as significant improvements in the penetrability, accuracy, and mobility of its delivery systems. There are also reports that it could adopt launch-on-warning postures to signal a higher degree of readiness. These developments race ahead in an environment bereft of all arms control measures, except for New START. No new agreements are on the anvil. Rather, the military industrial complex appears to be driving the arms race. And the P-5 seem to be drawing apart, driven by hyper-nationalist domestic politics.

One more disconcerting new reality that might emerge in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a breakup of the long-held consensus on non-proliferation. Some non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) have expressed disquiet at the manner in which a nuclear Russia invaded a non-nuclear Ukraine. NNWS that face a hostile relationship with a nuclear weapon state (NWS) could begin to believe that their security, too, demands the possession of nuclear weapons.

Overall, the perception of the value of nuclear weapons appears to be on the ascendant. And, the prospects for both vertical and horizontal proliferation could grow. This, then, would further exacerbate the risk of nuclear use. The growing popularity of strategies that favour low-yield nuclear weapons to fight a ‘limited nuclear war’ could result in the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) with delegated command and control. This could raise the risk of accidental use due to miscalculation amidst the fog of war. These worrisome and challenging issues dot today’s security environment.

Can the Arms Race be Arrested?

Unfortunately, the possibilities of arresting the nuclear arms race appear dim. A P-5 statement at the start of 2022 that reaffirmed that a “nuclear war cannot be won and should not be fought” has sunk without a trace. Instead, it exhibited the superficiality of the five NWS’ projected unity.

The starting point for any change, however, can only be through dialogue. Direct, straight talks can help clear misperceptions. But the possibility of these taking place looks near impossible given the differences amongst the P-5. These are being further widened through the release of documents that tend to describe the other in adversarial tones. For instance, the US National Defense Strategy issued earlier this year, as well as the recently released NATO Strategic Concept, paint Russia and China as enemies. NATO has vowed to undertake the “biggest overhaul of our collective defense deterrence since the end of the Cold War,” as described by its Secretary General. It is likely that the delayed US Nuclear Posture Review will echo similar thoughts. So most likely will China’s White Paper on National Defence, whenever its next iteration is released.

The problem with this situation is that when documents talk to each other, rather than individuals, the language can be particularly harsh. When two people dialogue looking each other in the eye, there is scope for rapprochement. This goes missing in the case of documents, since they also pander to domestic constituencies, and hence can be more combative.

For dialogue to take place, one also needs the ‘right’ kind of leadership. National leaders with a more-than national vision, who are cognisant of the dangers of nuclear weapons and the risks of inadvertent use from adopting risky postures and policies, can be exhorted towards statesmanship on nuclear arms control. But no such leaders appear on the horizon as of now. Realistically speaking, for the arms race to be arrested, visionary leaders must speak to each other, share their sense of nuclear risks, and find it mutually beneficial to take the necessary steps.

Possible Opportunities

The nearest meaningful opportunity that could be used to make a difference will be the NPT Review Conference (NPT RevCon) in August 2022. Five NWS and nearly 190 NNWS will come together to mark 52 years of the NPT. If the states parties wish to remain invested in this Treaty, then the NWS must provide reassurance to their own counterparts as well as to the NNWS by adopting strategies that tend to reduce the value of nuclear weapons. Mutual assurances accompanied by tangible measures could temper the nuclear arms race. A positive note struck at the RevCon could change the mood and be leveraged in other forums such as the Conference on Disarmament. It would also be useful if the leaders of the US and China initiated a bilateral nuclear dialogue. Meaningful outcomes at that level would have an effect on nuclear issues around the world.

Lastly, it needs reminding that as weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons are completely distinct. Any attempt to ‘conventionalise’ them—by suggesting that small nuclear weapons, low in yield, few in number, and against military targets can be used without repercussions— would set states down a slippery slope.

The nuclear arms race needs to be arrested right away for the sake of the entire world. Some countries may be able to financially afford running and even winning this race. But the dangers that accompany this exercise would make everyone a loser—including even the winner of the race.


Dr. Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.