Monday, June 8, 2015

The Nuclear Club

Reversing Humanity's Folly

World Nuclear Weapons Map: “Nine countries in the world possess a total of 16,300
nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia account for 94 percent of them. Since their
peak in the mid-1980’s, global arsenals have shrunk by over two-thirds. More countries have
given up weapons and programs in the past 30 years than have tried to acquire them. The
direction is positive, but when you are fleeing a forest fire it is not just direction but speed
that matters. Ploughshares Fund is committed to reducing nuclear threats before it is too late,”
the nuclear monitoring group says.
Image Credit & Source: Ploughshares Fund

There are nine nations that have nuclear weapons; these are, in order of acquisition: United States (1945), U,S,S.R., now Russia (1949), United Kingdom (1952), France (1960), China (1964), India (1974), Pakistan (1998), North Korea (2006) and Israel, who has not officially declared it has successfully tested a nuclear device, although it likely did so in 1979 with the aid of South Africa.

There are also nuclear warheads stored in five other nations: Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey, part of the 28-nation NATO alliance. “As of mid-2014, the authors estimate that there are approximately 16,300 nuclear weapons located at some 98 sites in 14 countries,” say Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in “Worldwide deployments of nuclear weapons, 2014.”

Only the first five nations, the five permanent members of  the United Nations Security Council, are signatories to the the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran, a signatory nation to NPT, might become the tenth member of this “nuclear club.” There are negotiations currently underway in Vienna between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the five permanent members and Germany); the purpose is to reach a final agreement, by June 30th, to limit Iran’s nuclear program to non-military use. Thus, one of the stated aims is to “persuade” Iran to not pursue membership in the nuclear club.

The concern is that if Iran does develop a military nuclear program, this might set off a nuclear arms race in the middle east, with, for example, Saudi Arabia looking to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent against its regional rival, Iran. It is important to note that other states have initiated nuclear programs in the past, only to abandon them for various reasons [see The Council on Foreign Relations; 2006].

There has been a lot of hyperbole and emotional language revolving around Iran developing nuclear weapons, if this is indeed their intent, and, moreover, what this would mean to regional stability, if it does go ahead. Given that we are not privy to the talks, we have little confirmed information other than what reports are released to the public. Sparse information—the lacuna of knowledge—leads to great speculation. These journalistic reports, often lacking facts and context, are more often than not interpreted through the lens of special interests, national interests and partisan political views, thus making them in large part unreliable. Few people hold the expertise or have sufficient facts to offer an informed opinion.

Here is what we do know. The Ploughshares Fund says that nine nations possess more than 15,000 nuclear weapons (although not all are operational). The two largest nuclear arsenals remain in the hands of the U.S. and Russia, which have more than 90 per cent of the world’s arsenal. These numbers are calculated by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Federation of American Scientists, and endorsed by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN):

United StatesThe first country to develop nuclear weapons and the only country to have used them in war. It spends more on its nuclear arsenal than all other countries combined. 7,200 warheads
RussiaThe second country to develop nuclear weapons. It has the largest arsenal of any country and is investing heavily in the modernization of its warheads and delivery systems. 7,500 warheads
United KingdomIt maintains a fleet of four nuclear-armed submarines in Scotland, each carrying 16 Trident missiles. It is considering whether to overhaul its nuclear forces or disarm. 215 warheads
FranceMost of its nuclear warheads are deployed on submarines equipped with M45 and M51 missiles. One boat is on patrol at all times. Some warheads are also deliverable by aircraft. 300 warheads
ChinaIt has a much smaller arsenal than the US and Russia. Its warheads are deliverable by air, land and sea. It appears to be increasing the size of its arsenal at a slow pace. 250 warheads
IndiaIt developed nuclear weapons in breach of non-proliferation commitments. It is increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal and enhancing its delivery capabilities. 90–110 warheads
PakistanIt is making substantial improvements to its nuclear arsenal and associated infrastructure. It has increased the size of its nuclear arsenal in recent years. 100–120 warheads
IsraelIt has a policy of ambiguity in relation to its nuclear arsenal, neither confirming nor denying its existence. As a result, there is little public information or debate about it. 80 warheads
North KoreaIt has a fledgling nuclear weapons programme. Its arsenal probably comprises fewer than 10 warheads. It is not clear whether it has the capability to deliver them.<10 warheads
Total15,700 warheads
Source: Federation of American Scientists 2015

Although the numbers vary slightly from different sources (i.e., the variance results from a lack of transparency in some nations, and a difficulty in precisely establishing the number of weapons deployed and the number stored), we can say with certainty that there are a lot of warheads, many of which are more powerful and destructive than what was dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima during the Second World War.  As I have written previously, it would be better if there were no nuclear club, if such a club would be disbanded for lack of membership interest.

The point of this article is not to focus so much on Iran, but on the two largest and original members of the nuclear club: the U.S. and Russia. It comes back to these two superpowers, and whether they can find a way to keep negotiating a substantial reduction of their nuclear arsenals, as they have been doing since the 1970s (as well, see here for timeline of agreements). Good progress has, until recently (the last few years), been made in negotiations between these two nations, and it is important that relations remain cordial, if not friendly.

It is important that there remains a climate of trust and goodwill. Under such conditions, it is possible that humanity can reverse its folly. If this can be achieved, the world would be noticeably safer. If not, my fear is that this club will grow larger in the years to come.

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