Countries including the UK have entered a new arms race, with growing stockpiles of more advanced weapons
India successfully tests its long range nuclear-capable missile, as an arms race with nations including the UK, US, Russia and China continues to accelerate (Photo: Pallava Bagla/Getty)
By Taz AliOctober 24, 2021 7:00 am
Since the end of the Cold War, major powers across the globe made huge efforts to reduce their nuclear arsenals in efforts to ensure the world is safer from weapons of mass destruction that could wipe out entire cities.
But now, those countries including the UK have entered a new arms race, with growing stockpiles of more advanced weapons and smarter technology allowing missiles to evade defence systems, all of which experts fear could lead to a nuclear war.
“We’re in a new, multipolar nuclear arms and strategic technologies race, including the rush to weaponise space,” Lyndon Burford, a visiting research associate in the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London, told i.
He said there were multiple new risk factors, with technologies such as artificial intelligence and increasing political instability in major nuclear-armed countries.
“That could lead to nuclear war, with devastating global humanitarian, economic and ecological effects,” Dr Burford warned.
The nuclear arms race has accelerated in recent years, with the US, Russia, North Korea and China testing nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles which can potentially evade early warning systems and are harder to track.
Last month, the US and UK announced they will help Australia build a new fleet of nuclear submarines, as part of a trilateral alliance known as Aukus to counteract the influence of China.
It prompted warnings from the UN’s nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Aukus may spark off another race for nuclear submarines by other states, and that a team has been established to explore the deal’s safety and legal implications.
Matt Korda, a senior research associate for the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), told i that campaigns to modernise weapons were driven by a “global competitive environment that is being embraced by all of these nuclear arms states”.The nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine Knyaz Vladimir, or Prince Vladimir (Photo: Lev Fedoseyev/Getty)
“It’s classic arms race behaviour, states are improving their own capabilities and then their competitors are responding to those improvements by developing systems to offset those advantages, and then the other states have to exceed those capabilities,” he said.
Dr Korda said the main driving force behind the recent nuclear missile tests was countries reacting to changing threat perceptions around them. “They’re trying to build new systems to offset their vulnerabilities,” he added.
Dr Korda argued that the arms race has shown how the military theory of mutually assured destruction (MAD), in which a nuclear attack by one superpower would be met with an overwhelming nuclear counter-attack, thus acting as a deterrent to nuclear warfare, has been thrown out the window.
If nuclear states are building their way to invulnerability, for example with hypersonic missiles that are specifically designed to change course during flight and evade defence shields, this goes against the MAD theory that aims to keep mutual vulnerability between nations.
People in Seoul, South Korea, watch a news programme reporting North Korea’s missile launch earlier this week (Photo: Lee Jin-man/AP)
“It’s pretty concerning,” Dr Korda said. “It seems a lot of states are expanding the role of nuclear weapons in their doctrine to include an emphasis on nuclear war fighting.”
He said it was “baffling” that the US Air Force lieutenant general Thomas Bussiere, deputy commander of the US Strategic Command, which oversees the nuclear arsenal, said China will soon surpass Russia as the top nuclear threat to the US.
“Not least because of the several thousand warhead disparity between Russia and China – Russia has roughly equivalent numbers to the US, around 5,000 or 6,000, meanwhile China’s number is in the mid-300s.”
The UK’s Integrated Review into the future of the country’s foreign, defence and security policy, published in March, states that Russia will “remain the most acute direct threat to the UK”.
Mr Korda said the review also contained a “subtle threat” against Iran, which does not have nuclear weapons but has been enriching uranium. After stating that the “UK will not use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 1968,” the review adds: “This assurance does not apply to any state in material breach of those non-proliferation obligations”.
Even as the pandemic devastated lives and economies around the world, the world’s nine nuclear states continued to increase spending on such weapons to a total of $72.6bn in 2020, an increase of $1.4bn from the previous year.
“This is a massive drain on public resources globally and a massive threat,” Kate Hudson, general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) told i.
“The very dangerous thing is that nuclear strategies have moved beyond the idea that we’d never use them, that they only exist as a deterrent. Now so-called ‘usable nukes’ are being developed and use postures outlined.”
She said the rise of China is perceived by western powers as a threat to its economic supremacy. “China is a global power economically in terms of its economic strength and capacity to aid the development of other countries, it’s not a global military power.CND activists hold a die-in protest at HMNB Clyde, home the Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)
“The US identifies China as a threat to its pre-eminence. What we are seeing now is the intensification of US militarisation in the Pacific.
“I assume that with the kind of build up against them, having not wanted to go into massive military spending, China will be doing more because of this intensification of activity by other great powers in what can essentially be seen as their backyard.”
Earlier this year, world-renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough told the UN Security Council that climate change is “the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced”, and few major powers would disagree with him.
Consequently, experts have called into question the reasons why nuclear-armed states are spending billions on weapons they are saying will never be used.
“The enmity created by nations threatening each other with indiscriminate, mid-20th century weapons of mass destruction prevents development of global solidarity and trust we so desperately need to address critical 21st century challenges like the climate crisis and pandemics,” said Dr Burford