Threats of Nuclear Conflict: A Global Review – Part 2

By Scott L. Montgomery and Thomas Graham, Jr. - 13 January 2020
Threats of Nuclear Conflict: A Global Review – Part 2

The first part of this essay outlined several major concerns regarding nuclear threats that have emerged in the new century, with a focus on Pakistan and India. In Part 2, we take up global issues once more but with more discussion of what makes them the source of specific concern today. Part 3 of this series will then examine threats real, emerging, and possible in other parts of the world, including Russia and the U.S. Our hope is to provide readers with a concise and accurate portrait of the risk landscape for nuclear conflict as humanity enters the third decade of the new century.

We emphasize that for many reasons this landscape is dynamic and difficult to predict. Political factors, such as the rise of Mr. Putin in Russia and Mr. Modi in India, the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., and the ascent to power of Kim Jong Un in North Korea, have together helped greatly alter the nuclear scene since 2010. Specific examples include Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Iran Nuclear Deal, nuclear weapons and missile testing by North Korea, and the statement by Turkish President Recep Erdogan that he “cannot accept” remaining a non-nuclear weapons state. Such factors, unsurprisingly, have tended to significantly increase the risks we face today, not reduce them. It is fair to say that, more than any time since the end of the Cold War, the international domain has become a territory roamed by specters of distrust, fear, rivalry, and geopolitical ambition. It is not a time for complacency or faith in good intentions.

Overall, decay of the post-WWII global order, and with it the weakening of liberal democratic mores and institutions, are making for a more conflict-oriented world at present. Effects related to nuclear risk are not difficult to foresee in such an environment, through their rapid appearance has been unexpected and deeply upsetting. A new unwillingness to negotiate limits and reductions to arms is one such effect, a worrisome one. But there exist more global impacts, including on states that do not have such weapons. The potential for such nations to experience an elevated sense of threat is higher in the shadow of rising rivalry, even hostility, among states with nuclear arsenals. The question of security thus looms large for all. 

New Issues for Nuclear Security

Certain factors that contribute to a landscape of elevate risk are decidedly new. Among them is the effort by warhead states to “modernize” their arsenals. As noted in Part 1, these programs today go well beyond simply maintaining and upgrading weapons that already exist. They involve replacing many of these with more reliable versions and improved targeting capabilities. For a number of weapons states, such programs will also add autonomous systems and artificial intelligence (AI) whose specific impacts on security are difficult to assess but will continue to evolve.

Tactical, or short-range (“battlefield”), weapons are a particular concern. The reasons for this are simple. These are nuclear weapons that seem to have the greatest chance of being used in a non-nuclear situation, e.g. countering imminent defeat by an overwhelming conventional force. The Pentagon’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review mentions this overtly, attributing it to a presumed Russian strategy of “escalate to de-escalate” (using a tactical weapon to turn the tide of a conflict, with the enemy unwilling to launch a nuclear response and risk all-out war and total destruction). Experts argue this is a misperception of Russian strategy. Yet the willingness of U.S. officials to employ such an idea as a reason for re-introducing such weapons to its own forces is worrisome. Tactical nuclear arms were completely eliminated from the U.S. army, navy, and marine corps in the 1990s and 2000s. Fearful re-arming, based on misrepresentations of threats, defines a disquieting aspect of the new era.

Another technology that will expand a country’s nuclear strike capability is the nuclear-armed hypersonic vehicle, capable of flying at many times the speed of sound while remaining maneuverable. This combination of speed and maneuverability makes such a weapon nearly impossible to defend against at present. Russia, China, and the U.S. are directly competing to introduce versions into their arsenals. In late 2019, Russia made the first public announcement of actual deployment of a long-range (intercontinental) system (Avangard) estimated to be capable of Mach 20+ speeds (>15,000+ miles/hr). Both Russia and China unveiled lower-speed (~Mach 6-10; 4,600-7,700 miles/h), intermediate range versions a year earlier. The U.S., meanwhile, is reportedly “playing catch up.”

Public discussions of hypersonic weapons echo those at the birth of the Cold War arm’s race, not without reason. Yet they often overlook other issues specific to today’s landscape. It is a foregone conclusion, for example, that this technology will be a “must have” for other weapons states— India, Pakistan, perhaps North Korea, Israel. India already has such a program underway, and it is therefore certain that Pakistan, in some form, does also. Hypersonic weapons are a disturbing addition to the nuclear landscape and provide much fuel for fear in security circles. Yet part of their larger impact may well be to energize still further the perceived need by national and military leaders for more funding, more innovation, and overall re-mythification of nuclear weapons themselves.

The hypersonic dilemma fits into another trend. This is the spread of the nuclear triad concept as a standard for real nuclear security (“triad” refers to the capability for launching nuclear weapons via land, sea, and air, maximizing second-strike, or “response,” capability). Since 2010, India, Pakistan, China, and North Korea have all been working towards building their own triads. This stands in direct contrast to decisions by both England and France, two of the original five weapons states, who decided in the 1990s they would only rely on submarine- and aircraft-launched missiles. Expansion of the triad as a goal today reflects a perception of increased threat, yielding a response that only makes such threat more real and global.

Another risk factor that has arisen recently relates to cybersecurity. This means not only threats to command and control systems but the potential for cyber-espionage and use of false information as a weapon targeting systems operators or the general public. Recent studies on this realm of risk highlight the conclusion that nuclear weapons states are not prepared for the new era of cyberthreats. One reason is that this era has arrived more quickly than anticipated. Another is that possible threats are more diverse, due to the ever-increasing penetration of digital technology into all parts of a weapons system—planning, early warning technology, communications, modes of delivery (e.g. missiles), plus the weapons themselves. A third reason for concern is the level of sophistication already shown by rival states, particularly Russia and China, for gaining unauthorized access. Preventing such access is a clear requirement for the U.S. in particular. This should be equally true for companies that build, provide software, and service nuclear weapons, as well as military offices involved in related procurement, monitoring, and other relevant work.

Overall, experts view the advent of digital technology as adding a new stratum of security concerns because of increased avenues for disruption and for miscalculation. This has led some to even question the utility of a nuclear deterrent in the future. In the words of a report released by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI):

If ultimately we cannot be confident that systems will work under attack from a sophisticated opponent, and if we cannot have full confidence in our ability to control nuclear weapons systems, what does this say about the continued viability of nuclear deterrence? In an age of cyberwarfare, has the nuclear deterrence strategy that helped guide the West and the Soviet Union through the Cold War become dangerously obsolete? Should our nuclear policies and force deployments be changed to mitigate the potential consequences of cyberattacks?

What Future, Diplomacy?

Such questions are amplified by challenges related to proliferation. Increases in most of the world’s arsenals, after decades of global reduction, define one such challenge. Such increases raise the sense of vulnerability in non-weapons states and also signal that weapons states are more likely to use their arsenals, whether in subtle or overt fashion, as tools of foreign policy.

Since 1998, moreover, three nations have overtly tested nuclear weapon designs, Pakistan, India, and North Korea. This has raised the number of weapons states by 50%--from 6 to 9. India had tested its first nuclear device in 1974, but international alarm and outrage, not least from other warhead states, along with diplomatic pressure from the U.S., convinced the government not to weaponize the design or any other until much later. This did not happen until the 1990s. Both India and Pakistan conducted and ended their overt testing in 1998. North Korea, on the other hand, became a de facto nuclear weapons state at some point between 2013 and 2016. Successful tests were conducted in these years, with two detonations in 2016 (a separate section on this country’s arsenal will be included in Part 3 of this essay).

Attempted diplomacy over a 20-year period to halt and reverse the DPRK’s nuclear program eventually failed. Unknown for much of this period was North Korea’s program to help Syria build a copy of the DPRK’s own plutonium-producing reactor, an effort that came to a halt when Israeli war planes destroyed the partially built facility in 2007. Diplomatic failure has been turned into a further victory for North Korea by first-time visits from a sitting U.S. president, Donald Trump, whose attempts at personal diplomacy have realized little, if any, progress except to elevate the status of the DPRK itself. Despite the severe economic sanctions leveled on the country by the U.N. and U.S., the dream of its founder, Kim Il Sung, that it become a nuclear weapons state has now been realized.  

This worry is part of a larger context related to Mr. Trump’s administration. Except for North Korea, it has shown small interest in arms control and related negotiations. Indeed, it has been more eager to weaken and eliminate existing treaties than to improve or replace those that previously existed. Such defines a radical departure from the past, particularly under Republican presidents. One of the most important agreements of the last 50 years, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), for example, was signed by President Reagan with Mikhail Gorbachev. Other important arms reduction treaties were signed by President’s George H.W. Bush (START I, negotiated under Reagan) and George W. Bush (SORT).  

Mr. Trump on the other hand, having abandoned the Iran nuclear deal in 2017 and the INF treaty in 2019, has also announced he may walk away from New START as well. This is the only remaining arms control treaty in existence. Such a negative precedent sets the stage for a new nuclear arms race between Russia and the U.S., thus providing a strong rationale for other warhead states to follow suit.

Until the Trump presidency, the U.S. actively embraced negotiations to reduce nuclear risks worldwide. By turning his back on such leadership, Trump has effectively weakened this trend and made America appear less trustworthy. In comparison, Russia’s president, Mr. Putin, has provided reasons both for both anxiety and hope. Though, recalcitrant about Russia’s failure to abide by INF rules, he has said Russia is ready to extend New START, which is due to expire in February of 2021.

Trump has mentioned the idea of a revised New START that would include other warhead states as well, especially China. Yet the logic behind this is weak at best. China’s arsenal (~300) is many times smaller than that of either Russia or the U.S., so there is no incentive for it to reduce or constrain its stockpile unless these nuclear superpowers were willing to slash their own arsenals by more than 90%. This seems rather unlikely, even if, as claimed by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in early 2019, China intends to double its stockpile in the next decade. Thus, making Chinese participation a precondition for any attempt at a revised New START-type treaty would be to court yet another failure in nuclear diplomacy.

The status of arms control is thus one of considerable uncertainty. More than five decades of effort to limit and reduce the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons is in decay. This reflects the erosion of diplomacy in general and the strengthening of assertive nationalism in weapons states.

Hopeful Signs?

In spite of such risks and concerns, it would be wrong to portray the nuclear security landscape as wholly a domain of doom. Some experts have seen in this new period an opportunity to learn, reflect, and adapt. The world, for instance, has been witness to an enormous reduction in the total number of nuclear weapons that continued for more than 30 years. Central aspects to this success were a series of negotiated programs for dismantlement and related verification. One of the largest of these successful programs, “Megatons to Megawatts”, for which one of us (Graham) served as a negotiator, also involved eliminating bomb fuel itself. The agreement involved a commercial arrangement, with Russia downblending highly enriched uranium (>90% U235) from thousands of warheads to low enrichment levels (<5%), the result being purchased for use in U.S. civilian reactors. The 20-year agreement (1993-2013) was conceived and announced under a Republican U.S. President, George H.W. Bush, and carried out by two Democratic administrations (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama) and another Republican one (George W. Bush). All of this makes for a useful precedent.    

It is also apparent that weapons technology will change over time. As a result, treaties need to be designed more flexibly to more fully account for the changes this will bring or, perhaps, to place limits on those changes. Even with occasional updates, arms control agreements hammered out in one historical period, such as the Cold War, may become less relevant or helpful as the world passes into very different circumstances. New ideas have been proposed for future agreements. One example involves:

the concept of “the freedom to mix”—to set an absolute limit on [the number or total yield of] missiles for each state… and then allow states to decide which configuration of missiles they will retain toward that limit. This “flexibility” is a feature of the New START Treaty…[and] allows states to trade off the precision of apples-to-apples comparisons for flexibility and transparency—both of which ultimately stand to increase security and lower uncertainty.

This would mean that a state can judge the effectiveness of its deterrent against that of its rival(s). The verification regime (with inspections) would be similar to those of the past, allowing each government to be well informed as to what the other state has in its stockpile. This lowers the chance for a massive weapons build-up in secret.   

Another positive outcome of the past three decades has been the public exposure of a black market in nuclear technology, run by the so-called Khan network. For two decades, Pakistan’s A.Q. Kahn (who gave Pakistan its first nuclear weapon using stolen designs for enrichment equipment), proved that a non-state actor could create such a market and smuggle such technology to countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya. The Khan story has been widely described and much discussed, though not all its details are known. For more than 20 years, the network continued to operate at the same time that Khan was building Pakistan’s own weapons’ capability, thus posing questions about government involvement. It does appear Khan was given a “blank check” for his operations, which amounted to a license to proliferate.  

Exposure of this activity greatly embarrassed Pakistan and put the world on notice. The country has since put in place much stricter export controls for nuclear materials and technologies. It also requested advice from the U.S. and Japan in this process and for training personnel involved in monitoring and regulatory work. Perhaps just as important, Pakistan knows that illegal trade and smuggling are now among the reasons for surveillance of its nuclear facilities and personnel by foreign nations, including the U.S. More generally, it is widely appreciated today by governments and official bodies that scrutiny related to the possible spread of nuclear technology must be vigilant at all times and that new methods of detection and tracking are needed. In fact, R&D funding in this area has increased significantly, both with regard to technologies and fissile material. None of this provides certainty that proliferation, whether involving state or non-state actors, will no longer occur. Yet a more alert world is a step in the right direction.  

One final question deserves notice. Can it be said that a universal taboo exists against any military use of a nuclear weapon? The evidence—75 years of no such use after Nagasaki, despite many military conflicts involving nuclear armed states—implies this is the case. Or, rather, that it has been the case up to now. Can the world, then, rely on this unwritten, non-negotiated, yet seemingly effective prohibition? Does the idea of becoming the country that breaks this taboo, that history will forever hate and malign, still restrain leaders everywhere? We would suggest, given the landscape of risk now facing humanity, that the only sane answer going forward is an unqualified no. 

(Please see here for Part 1 of this essay)



U.S. Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr. is internationally known as one of the leading authorities in the field of international arms control and non-proliferation agreements involving nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Amb. Graham has been involved in the negotiation of every major arms control and non-proliferation agreement from 1970 to 1997, including the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks ( START), the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks ( SALT), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ( CTBT), and the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces ( INF) Treaty, and has participated in nuclear talks with more than 100 countries.

Scott L. Montgomery is an author, geoscientist, and affiliate faculty member in the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle. He has 25 years' experience in the energy industry, where he worked on projects in many parts of the world. His many technical publications include papers, monographs, articles, and textbooks, mainly focused on cutting edge hydrocarbon plays, technologies, related impacts and issues.

Image: Mike McBey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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