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Are Nuclear-Armed Nations Entering a New Arms Race in 2024? Experts Weigh In.

Experts worry about a possible nuclear arms race as global instability and the threat of mass destruction loom large.

U.S. airmen install a cable raceway on an intercontinental ballistic missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on February 3, 2014.

Like waking up with a bad hangover, 2024 began with geopolitical headaches and pains from the previous year’s conflicts, chaos and instability. Multiple wars in Africa, Europe and the Middle East; human-caused climate and environmental crises; and concerns about democratic backsliding, economic stress and social unrest marked the beginning of the new year.

In 2024, a record number of national and parliamentary elections portends a consequential, but uncertain year. Amidst compounding crises, the existential threat of nuclear weapons hangs over humanity, like a silent, menacing smog that won’t go away. Currently, five nuclear-armed nations (Russia, Israel, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States) are actively involved in military hostilities with another country.

Today the world’s nine nuclear-armed nations have roughly 12,500 nuclear weapons (including those awaiting dismantlement) and while the overall number has been cut sharply since peaking at more than 70,000 warheads in the mid-1980s, all nine nations are upgrading or modernizing their arsenals. In 2022, they spent nearly $83 billion on nuclear weapons.

As the arsenals of nuclear-armed nations age, if they aren’t being retired and dismantled, they are being replaced, redesigned or otherwise modernized to remain usable. The United States is poised to spend possibly as much as $2 trillion in the next 30 years to modernize its nuclear triad (bombers, submarines, long-range ballistic missiles). All nine nuclear-armed nations are currently expanding or modernizing their arsenals.

With roughly 500 warheads, China’s nuclear stockpile, while still a fraction of the United States or Russia’s, is rapidly growing. Meanwhile, ongoing tensions between nuclear neighbors India and Pakistan, North Korea and South Korea, and China and Taiwan underscore the risk of a nuclear confrontation.

Despite this, John Erath, senior policy director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, says “the possibility of nuclear war is very small,” but hastened to add that the catastrophic dangers and potential consequences of even “limited use” of nuclear weapons cannot be ignored.

In an interview with Truthout, Erath said that Russia is wielding its nuclear weapons in a “very deliberate and controlled manner” as a political tool to dissuade countries from aiding Ukraine. If the war ended in a way in which Russia could claim some measure of victory, that would normalize nuclear blackmail as an instrument of statecraft, providing a powerful incentive to acquire nuclear weapons, Erath said. The Ukraine war’s outcome, he added, could set a pattern for international security dynamics for the rest of the 21st century.

Erath argues, however, that nuclear weapons have limited military value. He says that if Russia — which has shown no reluctance to kill civilians or destroy infrastructure — had a use for a nuclear weapon, it would have used it already. “Ultimately, nuclear weapons are not that useful to achieve military objectives,” said Erath. “Especially if you’re trying to take over somebody else’s territory, or in the case of Gaza, eliminate Hamas and their military facilities. You don’t do that by destroying and irradiating a densely populated area.” Israel’s nuclear arsenal, he noted, did nothing to prevent the October 7 Hamas attack.

Erath encourages more dialogue between nuclear adversaries because “talking is better than simply building more weapons all the time.” Regarding what he called “runaway spending habits of the U.S. government,” Erath said that no matter one’s political orientation, “everybody should agree that we don’t need to be throwing billions more into nuclear weapons.”

Hosting Nuclear Weapons

In the summer of 2023, President Vladimir Putin claimed Russia had deployed short-range nuclear weapons to its ally Belarus, justifying the move by pointing to the United States’ decades-old practice of staging nuclear weapons in five NATO nations. An estimated 100 new B61-12 U.S. nuclear gravity bombs are expected to be deployed on NATO bases, possibly in 2024.

In a recent essay, Tytti Erästö, a weapons of mass destruction senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, examined how Russia’s war in Ukraine is driving militarization and increased support for NATO nuclear deterrence. Erästö outlined Poland’s willingness to join its NATO allies (Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey) in hosting U.S. nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Belarus’s defense minister has suggested his country is prepared to support or enable the use of Russian nuclear weapons. Belarus says the position is meant to deter Poland.

Erästö is monitoring how nuclear “umbrella states” that claim to be protected by extended deterrence may play a role in “dispersal strategy” in which, during times of war or crisis, nuclear weapons could be more easily transferred to different locations, a practice that could lead to the construction of new nuclear storage sites or the restoration of old ones (as is happening now in the United Kingdom). The strategy, Erästö explained, is to complicate targeting for an adversary by making it more difficult to know where nuclear weapons are being stored.

As the idea of using nuclear weapons is being normalized, Erästö told Truthout “the security value of nuclear weapons is being overstated, in my view, and the related risks are being underestimated.” The effort to reassure extended deterrence, she says, “reinforces the illusion that nuclear weapons are essential for European security.” She said there is a lot of misunderstanding around nuclear weapons, including in countries that were formerly very pro-nuclear disarmament.

“The only thing that deterrence really deters is disarmament,” Seth Shelden, UN liaison for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said.

“I think there is this tendency now to see nuclear weapons as a miracle solution to all the complex regional security problems, and I think that’s dangerous because nuclear weapons are actually not such a great deterrent. Threats to use nuclear weapons are not very credible,” Erästö said. Last year, politicians in Russia, North Korea and Israel suggested their countries could use nuclear weapons against adversaries.

Out of Control

China’s rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal, the U.S.’s annual spending increases and nuclear modernization programs, and the growing frequency of nuclear threats globally come as the last remaining arms control treaties have been violated and abandoned. In February 2023, Russia announced it was suspending participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was intended to set limits on U.S. and Russian missiles until early 2026.

Amid the collapse of treaties and ongoing wars, North Korea’s growing missile capabilities and accelerated plutonium production, and the specter of an unconstrained three-way arms race between the United States, Russia and China, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, points to the need for increased diplomacy. “I think we should be looking in 2024 for progress with the U.S. efforts to engage with Russia and China,” Kimball told Truthout.

Beyond these challenges, Kimball says there’s growing concern about the ways in which artificial intelligence (AI) is being applied to military technology and how it could affect nuclear command and control. Kimball told Truthout that AI algorithms are likely to play a growing role in providing information that could influence nuclear decisions made by military and political leaders to assess multiple events and data inputs during a crisis. Kimball says it’s important that the U.S., Russia and China discuss the potential consequences of AI before a crisis emerges.

As concerned nations take preliminary steps toward UN negotiations on the question of a legally binding instrument to regulate AI to ensure humans remain in control of decisions regarding the use of lethal force, discussions have begun in a limited forum called the P5 Process, as the issue grows in importance in the year ahead.

Deterrence Deters Disarmament

Amid an international security environment rife with conflict and uncertainty, Seth Shelden, UN liaison for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, told Truthout that in an atmosphere of deteriorating multilateralism and strained cooperation, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) stands out as a bright spot in which countries around the world are committed to building something that can reduce the risks of nuclear weapons.

With widespread disappointment in recent Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conferences which failed to produce the customary summary or outcome document, the TPNW (also called the “ban treaty”) has gained widespread support from the majority of nonnuclear countries. Entering into force in January 2021, the TPNW prohibits all aspects of development, testing, production, possession, transfer, use or threat to use nuclear weapons. To date, 70 countries have ratified the treaty, including South Africa, Austria, Thailand, New Zealand, Ireland, Fiji, Kazakhstan, Mexico and the Philippines. Additionally, Indonesia, Brazil, and more than 20 other nations around the world are in the process of ratifying the treaty.

In late 2023, at the Second Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW, nonnuclear states challenged the theory of nuclear deterrence, rejecting the framing of security policies based on the threat to destroy humanity. Nuclear-armed nations and their client states dismiss this idea, arguing that the TPNW is counter to their security interests. In response, Shelden said ban treaty proponents ask, “What about our security interests?”

Shelden says the vast majority of the world does not believe that nuclear weapons ensure security, and that wars in Ukraine, Gaza, and elsewhere actually demonstrate that the notion of nuclear weapons preventing conflict is a “fallacious idea.” Rather, they embolden nuclear armed states to proceed with conflicts and violence, said Shelden. “The only thing that deterrence really deters is disarmament.”

The question of whether the 2022 Russian full-scale invasion could have been prevented if Ukraine had nuclear weapons is one being debated within Ukraine even as the war approaches its third year. Ukraine hosted, but did not have operational control over, Soviet nuclear weapons until the mid-1990s.

And while nuclear-armed nations and their client states haven’t endorsed the ban treaty yet, Shelden believes they will eventually. “I can’t predict when exactly … but we know that they will. The question is always: Will they come on board before there’s a great disaster or after?”

Is This an Arms Race?

On the question of whether the world is seeing a new nuclear arms race, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists, said that Russia and the United States are investing heavily in modernizing their forces, but not interested in significantly increasing their numbers, while China is effectively racing with itself. Kristensen described the current dynamic as a “technological race” to build more effective weapons and maintain a military edge while adjusting strategies and policies that reflect overtly hostile relations and strong military competition.

Arms races don’t materialize out of the blue, Kristensen told Truthout. They take time to build up momentum during heightened adversarial periods when rhetoric and strategies are ramped up and operations intensified. Eventually, nuclear states begin to see a need for nuclear weapons. “That is a cause for concern because once you get that dynamic setting in and becoming persistent … that begins to look like a nuclear arms race,” Kristensen said. But he added that increased tensions can also lead to increased pressure to regulate operations and reduce nuclear risks. He suspects that over time, governments in Europe, Asia, the international NGO community, as well as from within nuclear armed states, will press for more proactive policies and reduced risks. Arms control treaties during the Cold War and early post-Cold War period didn’t just happen suddenly, Kristensen said. “They were constructed because people thought there was a serious problem that needed to be regulated.”

The TPNW, he says, is a significant symbol of frustration among nonnuclear countries who feel that the NPT is not making sufficient progress toward reducing nuclear risks. And while nuclear weapons states have been dismissive of the TPNW, calling the treaty ineffective and irresponsible, Kristensen advised them not to ignore the nuclear ban treaty’s 70 state parties, a number approaching half of the 190 nations in the NPT.

As nuclear nations continue to spend billions of dollars to diversify and modernize their arsenals while considering a growing range of scenarios in which they could be used, Kristensen offered a sobering new year’s assessment: “On all these levels, we see nuclear matters moving in the wrong direction,” he said.

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