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Modernization, New Weapons and The Risks to International Security

Viewpoint by Sergio Duarte

The writer is Ambassador, former High Representative of the United Nations for Disarmament Affairs and current President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs

Photo: B-2 Stealth Bomber To Carry New Nuclear Cruise Missile. Source: Federation of American Scientists

NEW YORK (IDN) — “Reliance on nuclear weapons for [deterrence] is becoming
increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.”
    George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn
Wall Street Journal op-ed, January 4, 2007

"It is becoming clearer that nuclear weapons are no longer
a means of achieving security; in fact, with every passing
year they make our security more precarious."
    Gorbachev, Mikhail, The Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2007. [2021-04-16]

Along the decades following the advent of nuclear weapons, several bilateral and multilateral agreements in the field of arms control were concluded, all with the declared objective of increasing international security. Chief among those is the 1970 Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)[1] which recognized five countries as possessors of such weapons. Later, four other nations that are not party to the NPT acquired atomic military capability.

Although important for limiting the dissemination of nuclear arms to an even larger number of countries, the NPT did not establish hindrances to the growth and technological improvement of existing nuclear arsenals. All states that had acquired those weapons, in particular the two larger powers—Russia and the United States—went on to increase the size and the might of their armament. The number of nuclear weapons in the world at the height of the Cold War reached the staggering figure of 70.000, 95% of which in the hands of those two nations.

Bilateral instruments

Starting from the 1980’s the United States and the former Soviet Union sought to cooperate to reduce their nuclear arsenals. In 1987 a treaty between both countries known as the INF[2] entered into force, by which they agreed to prohibit the deployment, production and testing of intermediate range ballistic and cruise missiles. However, after mutual accusations of non-compliance, the United States announced in 2019 the suspension of its obligations under it and were immediately followed by Russia. Washington proposed to include China in a future trilateral arrangement of limitations, but Beijing maintains its opposition to this initiative arguing that there is a great disparity in the size of its nuclear forces and those of the two other states. Thus, the production, testing and deployment of missiles of the kind described in the INF are not subject to any quantitative or qualitative restrictions.

In the beginning of the current century, developments such as the obsolescence of the armament and the cost of its maintenance, together with the lessening of tensions between the two largest nuclear powers contributed to the celebration of a historic agreement between Washington and Moscow to limit and reduce the number of strategic[3] warheads and vectors that each one could possess. Known as New START, this agreement was concluded in 2009.

Drastic reductions resulted in the destruction, dismantlement or retirement of a large number of nuclear weapons in both countries. Although there is no independent verification system, it is believed that the total number of such weapons in the two nations[4] is at present around 14.000. Atomic armaments in the other nuclear armed countries are estimated at 320 for China, 290 for France, 215 for the United Kingdom, 160 for India, 160 for Pakistan, 90 for Israel and 40 for The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea[5].

Upon announcing the decision of his administration to negotiate the New START agreement with Russia, President Barack Obama stated the intention of his country to “seek the security of a world without nuclear weapons”. However, in order to ratify the agreement, the American Senate demanded a significant increase in the financial resources aimed at enlarging and intensifying the ongoing programs of modernization of the existing nuclear arsenal. For its part, Russia continued the implementation of programs for the improvement of its own arms while some of the other nuclear states kept adding new weapons to their stocks.

The upsurge of the climate of hostility, mistrust and competition among nuclear-armed states in the second half of the 2010-2020 decade almost caused the collapse of New START, which was ultimately extended for five years a few days before the deadline for its expiration in February 2021. The limits agreed in 2009 were maintained and new reductions are expected in the future, an outcome that still seems remote.

Such limits, however, apply only to strategic weapons. None of the existing international instruments in the field of arms control actually prevent “modernization”, a euphemism under which, despite the agreed quantitative reductions, the main powers engage in the refinement of the destructive power of their weapons, both nuclear and conventional. They also work to extend the life and reliability of the warheads without resorting to explosive tests. To justify this this posture, each side points to the need to counter the efforts of their rivals[6].

New Technologies

Based on such arguments, the armed nations have intensified in the last few years the development and application of new war-fighting technologies, especially those aimed at the improvement, testing and production of vectors able to carry both nuclear and conventional payloads. These technologies encompass hypersonic missiles, attack systems by nuclear propulsion and unmanned vehicles (drones). They also made possible, among other advancements, qualitative progress in the speed and precision of the weapons, miniaturization of components and remote sensing.

Hypersonic missiles operate at speeds above Mach 5. Their velocity and evasive capacity make defense by existing systems almost impossible. According to specialized publications, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States is developing a hypersonic missile and may very soon be able to deploy it.

Another possibility is a “long range strategic cannon” that can fire projectiles at speeds several times that of the sound. Russia, for its part, has been conducting operational tests of the hypersonic missile systems Avangard, Tsirkon and Kinzhal, based on land, sea and air, while China is experimenting with the Xingkong missile.  These systems are able to operate with nuclear and conventional payloads.

Hypersonic vehicles armed with conventional explosives and using high precision guidance systems may, for instance, destroy or disable in a short span important elements of the military infrastructure of the enemy and prevent, by virtue of their speed, the timely setting off of the anti-missile systems.

Although an attack of this kind with conventional charges would probably not have a direct impact on land based strategic forces protected by reinforced underground silos, it would leave to the adversary the onus of deciding whether to respond with its nuclear forces and most certainly would provoke retaliation in kind. The possibility of quick escalation toward an all-out nuclear exchange shows the risks involved in the use of resources such as those[7].

According to officials from the department of Defense, the United States are at a disadvantage in this field and need to step up the efforts to produce a new cruise missile to be launched from submarines, in response to the development of the Russian system Poseidon, which is already undergoing operational tests in Arctic waters. The Poseidon is a torpedo, or unmanned submarine drone, with a high stealth capability and armed with conventional or very powerful nuclear warheads.[8]

Powered by a mini nuclear reactor, it can operate at a depth of 1.000 meters with speed up to 100 knots. Russia is also completing the development of the Burevstnik system, a nuclear-powered cruise missile with a practically unlimited range and unpredictable trajectory. When mentioning the plans for the production of this new weapon, President Putin deemed it “invincible’ against existing defensive systems[9]. However, American specialists have been skeptical about the operational worth of these new Russian weapons.

Cutting edge technologies of unmanned systems, both aerial and submarine, have allowed countries with different degrees of advancement to develop vehicles capable of transporting nuclear or conventional weapons with greater autonomy. Aerial vehicles of this kind, or drones, have been used in conventional conflicts in Syria, Irak, Lybia and Nagorno-Karabakh, to mention only a few.

It is not known whether they have been used in tests to carry nuclear or launch nuclear weapons. According to some commentators, the United States is interested in an unmanned version of the new strategic bomber B-21, which should enter into service in the middle of the current decade. Drones could also be used to disseminate biological or chemical agents over enemy territory.

Usually, such vehicles travel at a lower speed and altitude than cruise missiles and carry lighter payloads, but new versions with features similar to those of missiles are said to be under development. Their main advantage is not to rely on human operators on board, thus reducing casualties among the attackers.

An emerging technology currently in the stage of research and development by the United States, Russia and China is the use of artificial intelligence to allow drones to coordinate their action in extended missions by using “swarms”,[10] with effects potentially similar to that of weapons of mass destruction. At the current stage of technology, it is not considered possible in the foreseeable future to program drones to distinguish between combatants and civilians. This has raised concern in several quarters, particularly in humanitarian non-governmental organizations which advocate the complete prohibition of fully autonomous lethal systems.

At the same time, there are ample opportunities for the commercial use of drones in a huge variety of civilian jobs as their range payload and speed increase, ensuring their continuing technological development alongside their military uses. The increase in the effectiveness of unmanned aerial vehicles is expected to bring advances in remote sensing technology by means of electromagnetic spectrum associated with the already frequent use of photographic reconnaissance and submarine acoustics in order to maximize resolution and penetrate different forms of camouflage.

The possibilities offered by the future development of systems that utilize the special properties of certain physical entities, or quanta, are also worth mentioning. Quantic computers are able to solve certain problems faster and with greater precision than traditional computers; quantic sensors are more reliable and accurate than GPS’s and communication with quantic keys is safer than current digital systems, adding attractiveness to the weapons that relies on them.

Other areas of research such as nanotechnology and the weaponization of outer space, including the use of offensive satellites as well as cybernetics must also be recalled. Offensive applications of cyber technology threaten to disable internal communication structures that are necessary for the smooth functioning of a vast array of national and international communications, banking, health and transportation networks, among others.

There are also fledgling technologies of “additive manufacture”, that is, the production of objects with the use of a device similar to current printers through the addition of layer upon layer of materials, according to a computer-generated model. Press accounts inform that American companies, such as Raytheon, have been able to produce missiles using this method and that others had similar success in creating spare parts and other components of missiles.

However, it would be harder for non-state actors to obtain weapon of mass destruction from computer program since some materials simply are not available for or amenable to 3D printing. It would thus be impossible to produce a complete nuclear, chemical or bacteriological weapon by plugging a computer to a printer, although such a procedure could be feasible with regard to some components.


The current process of erosion of the main arms control instruments, both multilateral and bilateral and the apparent inability to establish a constructive dialogue aimed at disarmament, together with the ongoing qualitative and quantitative expansion of arsenals and of research and development laboratories and other facilities, has lowered the normative and practical barriers against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction[11].

At the same time, the increase in rivalry and mistrust among the armed countries spurred the competition for military applications of new technologies such as those described above. On the other hand, the emergence of state actors able to defy the military preeminence of the main powers has led others to explore more attentively their own possibilities and to examine—albeit timidly—alternatives to the dependence on American might to enhance their security[12]. This sparked fears of emergence of new nuclear-capable states.

It must also be taken into account that technological advancements, many of which are no longer exclusive to the most armed countries, are blurring the distinction between nuclear and conventional operations, while emerging technologies become more accessible. All those factors increase the risks of potential escalation toward the use of nuclear weapons in a future conflict. 

In order to ensure the permanence and credibility of international arrangements aimed at maintaining stability and to allow for their evolution into formulations able to offer greater security to all members of the international community it will be necessary to stimulate dialogue and multilateral cooperation centered on the elimination of nuclear weapons.

This must be done with a view to negotiating and adopting instruments to regulate the military use of cutting-edge technologies. At the same time, new paradigms of peaceful coexistence among nations must be devised and developed. The constant effort of the five countries anointed by the NPT to seek to legitimize and perpetuate their exclusive standing as “nuclear states” intensifies the underlying danger of trivializing and accepting the current world nuclear status.

To a certain extent this has also been the case with the nuclear countries not recognized by the NPT, such as India, Pakistan Israel and North Korea. India enjoys the support of several counties for its inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a condition also claimed by Pakistan. Few voices in the West question or criticize the possession of nuclear weapons by Israel[13].

Moreover, some sectors of opinion in the United States do not seem as adamantly opposed as before to the prospect that North Korea keeps its place as a second-rate nuclear power as long as stabilization agreements in Northeast Asia can be adopted. As for Iran, at the time of the preparation of this article there were some indications that the JPCOA could be revived as an instrument of restraint of the nuclear program of the Islamic Republic, but developments in the last few days seem to point to further difficulties. It is however too soon for a realistic assessment. On this issue, it is useful to recall the explicit posture of Saudi Arabia with regard to the possibility of acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran as well as the vehement condemnation by Turkey of the discriminatory regime imposed by the NPT, albeit implicitly and until now without a concrete consequence[14].

The panorama of risks and uncertainties in the field of international security sketched above unfolds at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic impact is being felt on many aspects of the life and interaction among nations with a strength and magnitude hitherto unknown in recent history. Among its most negative consequences are the exacerbation of the trend to egocentrism and self-absorption on the part of those that enjoy better conditions and their reluctance to share scientific and financial resources with the remainder of the international community. 

Just as the means to ensure security, the most powerful seek to appropriate the means that they believe can afford them protection from the virus. This protection, however, is illusory and will be short-lived if sought by way of excluding others. It is well known that in order to be effective measures such as vaccination must encompass the whole or the largest portion of the population in the shortest delay possible.

For this reason, and in spite of contrary political trends, evidence shows that effective control of the global health emergency to the benefit of the international community as a whole requires more coordinated management of the pandemic and more cooperative use of the world scientific and technical capabilities.

By the same token, the insecurity and instability fueled by the unbridled search of new means of destruction must be countered by greater cooperation among nations for the adoption of effective disarmament instruments and the strengthening of collective security. The ceaseless development of new, more powerful, faster and more lethal weapons does not ensure security. Weapons that seem to bring military superiority will be constantly neutralized by rivals, in a stubborn competition in which there cannot be winners—and the losers will not be only those involved in the conflict, but the whole of humankind. [IDN-InDepthNews — 16 April 2021]

Photo: B-2 Stealth Bomber To Carry New Nuclear Cruise Missile. Source: Federation of American Scientists

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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[1] All member states of the United Nations are party to the NPT, except India, Israel, Pakistan and the DPRC. The treaty does not contain precise disarmament clauses: all parties undertook “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”. Such negotiations, however, have never occurred.  

[2] The INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty) was the first international instrument that abolished an entire category of nuclear weapon systems, mandating the destruction and the end of production and testing of missiles with a range between 500 and 5.500km. It also established mutual verification procedures.

[3] Weapons of intercontinental range based on the territories of their owners are considered “strategic”.

[4] Russia’s limit is 6.375 warheads, of which 2.060 await dismantling; the limit for the United States is 5.800, including 2.000 to be destroyed.

[5] Hans M. Kristensen and Shannon N. Kile, SIPRI, August 2020.

[6] The most recent review of the American “Nuclear Posture”, of 2018, states that “While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction. [These countries] added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenals, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior, including in outer space and cyberspace. For its part, the 2020 Russian document “Basic Principles of the State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence” says that nuclear deterrence applies to countries or military coalitions that consider the Russian Federation as a potential adversary and that possess nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, or forces with a significant combat capability”.

[7] According to the American “Nuclear Posture,” nuclear weapons are intended, among other objectives, to deter “nuclear or non-nuclear attacks”. Russia abandoned the “Non-first Use” doctrine in 1993 and reserves the right to use those weapons “in case of aggression with atomic or conventional weapons in which the very existence of the state is jeopardized”.

[8] Estimates of its explosive power vary from 450kt. to several Mt. President Putin recently stated that a total of four such submarines with nuclear propulsion will be built, two for the Arctic seas fleet and two for the Pacific fleet.

[9] The Diplomat, March 2, 2018, and The New York Times, 6 February 2019.

[10] A recent article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reports that the massive proliferation of drones is inevitable and is already a reality.

[11] For instance, a few weeks ago the United Kingdom announced its decision to increase to 260 the maximum number of nuclear missiles that may be carried by its four Trident  submarines.

[12] Public opinion movements in some European countries have voiced opposition to the permanence of foreign nuclear forces in their territories. Minority groups in those countries and in Japan and South Korea advocate the acquisition of indigenous nuclear military capability.

[13] Tel Aviv continues to maintain its policy of not confirming nor denying possession of nuclear weapons.

[14] Officials in the Saudi government have stated that the country will acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does the same. On 4 September 2019 Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan said that “Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But (they tell us) we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept”