Threats of Nuclear Conflict: A Global Review – Part 1

By Scott L. Montgomery and Thomas Graham, Jr. - 31 October 2019
Threats of Nuclear Conflict: A Global Review – Part 1

Beginning with South Asia, Scott L. Montgomery and Thomas Graham, Jr. introduce a two-part essay taking stock of contemporary prospects of nuclear conflict.

Our world in the second decade of the 21st century approaches the abandonment of cooperation in the realm of nuclear arms control. We have entered a new era of threat that is real, growing, and not in the least accidental. Nor is it due to the dark gods of human nature or the unfavorable fate of having freed the nuclear genii from its bottle.

The new era must be counted part of a deteriorating international order. Within the past five years, this situation has tended to elevate conflict above collaboration, risk above security, and, above all, new weapons above arms agreements. Rising hostility between the U.S. and Russia, the U.S. and China, Russia and NATO, Pakistan and India, North Korea and its neighbors, has effectively brought the risk of nuclear conflict to its highest level in many decades. Efforts by warhead states today to strengthen their arsenals on their own nationalist terms are proving not to dissuade but encourage thoughts of proliferation elsewhere.

Greatly adding to this troubling climate have been actions by the Trump Administration, which has withdrawn and threatened to withdraw from alliances around the world and from multiple non-proliferation treaties. This global retreat has torn holes in what was once considered an essential nuclear umbrella for Europe and parts of East Asia. Most of all, though, open hostility among warhead states makes the world fearful, less secure, and more likely to find reasons for nuclear “self-protection.” After 25 years of post-Cold War progress in reducing nuclear weapons, warhead states are altering course. Ignoring a look in the mirror, they perceive the global landscape as more menacing and are therefore making it so.

Facts and Numbers

At present, the world has approximately 13,890 nuclear warheads. Of these, 9,300 are in military stockpiles, with perhaps 3,600 deployed by operational forces. Half of these are kept on high operational alert.

Though still large, these figures represent an immense reduction from Cold War numbers, whose total went as high as 70,000 in the late 1980s. Such reduction happened because of arms control agreements, mainly between Russia and the U.S., but also involving the post-Soviet nations of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, all of which gave up the weapons that remained on their territory after dissolution of the USSR. One example of a successful agreement was the Megatons to Megawatts program, which, between 1995 and 2013, recycled fuel for as many as 20,000 Soviet weapons so it could be burned in U.S. nuclear power plants. Similarly, the New START treaty between Russia and the U.S., signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in 2010, continued reductions into 2019.

The hopeful message of such programs was, and is, crystal clear: though built for reasons of security, nuclear weapons are a massive threat to human life and society. Reducing their number defines the only true path to increased security in a world where such weapons exist.

Yet that lesson now appears to be unheard. Efforts to continue scaling back the size and lethality of arsenals have ceased. They have even begun to reverse. This is a direct result of nations having launched programs to “upgrade” and “modernize” their weapons. Such are terms that tend to sanitize work that will replace older bombs and missiles with more reliable and precise versions, while adding new, low-yield nuclear weapons that risk lowering the threshold of actual use, especially in battlefield situations. Russia and the U.S., with over 90% of the global stockpile, have been the target of related media attention in the past two years. But a focus here can hide similar efforts underway in China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and France.

To some degree, the “modernizing” of nuclear arsenals was a foregone conclusion for the original five weapons states. Despite maintenance and enhancements, the designs of most weapon systems were 35-40 years old by 2010 (the most recent design in the U.S. arsenal dates from 1989). Newer versions are able to improve the safety, security, and, in some cases, the “performance” of warheads, arguing for actual replacement instead of updates. Coupled with advanced precision targeting that is now possible, a more effective deterrent can, and should, be pursued. So goes the logic.

Yet the rationality here can, and should, be reversed. At higher reliability and accuracy, significantly fewer weapons are needed, not an equal or greater number. Such would be a potentially effective step toward still further reductions and a less threatening global environment. As non-proliferation experts have long argued—and as President Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbachev both agreed at their 1986 Reykjavik arms control meeting—nuclear weapons are misunderstood as purely a deterrent, being instead the makers of an endangered world where such protection can seem legitimate. 

Working directly against such thinking, however, the U.S. in August 2019 officially walked away from one of the most important arms control treaties in existence. This was the Intermediate Nuclear-Forces Treaty (INF) between the U.S. and Soviet Union signed in 1987, eliminating all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 km. Destruction of these weapons was a major achievement, eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons for the first time and marking a real improvement in security for both European and Soviet-Warsaw Pact countries.

But beginning in 2015, the U.S. accused Russia of being in violation of the treaty, which Russia denied, then returned the accusation. Rather than trying to forge a new agreement, the Trump Whitehouse simply withdrew. Russia then declared it would build new missiles prohibited by the INF, essentially challenging the U.S. to do the same. Meantime, missiles of similar range are being actively pursued by Pakistan, India, North Korea, and China. Added to this has been Trump’s abandonment of the non-proliferation agreement with Iran (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) and his complete inability to make a deal with North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

A decade ago, things looked quite different from today. President Obama spoke of a world free from nuclear weapons and signed the New START treaty, which reduced American and Russian warheads by nearly a third. But as the saying goes, that was then. By his second term, Obama supported a large-scale upgrade in nuclear forces, as both Russia and China had such programs underway. China, in particular, has been growing its arsenal along with expanding the types of weapons it includes.  

It is not only the U.S., therefore, that is driving the new era of nuclear insecurity. Though the Trump Administration is especially outstanding in raising the level of hostility and uncertainty, it is not alone in doing so. Trump himself has spoken of the need for more inclusive agreements that involve China, in particular. Yet no ideas or proposals have appeared, and there is no small doubt among experts about whether the U.S. can or will come up with a feasible plan to extend or replace New START when it expires in 2021. If that agreement fails without something to replace it, no strategic arms-control treaty will exist between Russia and the U.S.

Given these realities, it seems a good time to review and summarize in non-technical language the risks, threats, and dangers that now stalk the nuclear landscape. In other words, what keeps non-proliferation experts up at night, and caffeinated during the day.

South Asia

India and Pakistan sit at the top of concerns about nuclear conflict. The countries have fought three major wars since partition in 1947 and have come close to others at least a dozen times. It is no exaggeration to say that mutual fear and hatred bind these nations as much as separating them. Tensions have continued to rise, especially since the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which were followed by a string of other attacks by Islamic militants, killing many hundreds of Indians and wounding thousands. Antagonism has also grown with the rise to power of the Hindu nationalist BJP party and election of its candidate, Narendra Modi, as prime minister. While Modi sought talks with Pakistan in his first term, these were derailed by the terrorist attack at Pathankot airbase in 2016 and simultaneous assault on India’s consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Confrontation intensified in 2019, when a suicide bombing in Kashmir killed at least 40 Indian security personnel and ignited a military exchange involving air strikes and a dogfight, with an Indian plane shot down and its pilot captured (later released unharmed by Pakistan). Several months later, tens of thousands of Indian troops entered Kashmir and established what amount to martial law, placing a number of opposition political leaders under house arrest. The government of Prime Minister Modi then announced it was ending the special, semi-autonomous status of Kashmir and adjacent Jammu, revoking nearly all of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and therefore claiming the two disputed territories as part of India. This was done without any negotiation involving Pakistan, which reacted with outrage and threats of violence.


Recent study shows Pakistan has been increasing its nuclear stockpile very rapidly. This is partly due to a “domino” situation that involves China expanding its weapons capability, with India responding to this increase, thus adding a sense of urgency in Pakistan. Neither South Asian country has been forthcoming about how much fissile material it actually has, posing questions about safeguards. Pakistan is known to have  four heavy-water plutonium-producing reactors, three of which have been built since 2009. It also now has two reprocessing plants for removing plutonium from spent civilian reactor fuel.

Given these facilities, estimates of Pakistan’s production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) suggest it could build more than 100 new warheads in the next 5-7 years, beyond the 140-150 it currently has. If India similarly increases its arsenal, which is more than likely, while China does the same (also viewed as probable), the three countries together would approach the same number of deployed warheads as the U.S. or Russia.

A core focus of Pakistan’s growing arsenal has been new, short-range weapons, including low-yield, so-called “battlefield” systems. These short-range weapons are estimated to make up more than half of the country’s total stockpile at this point. “Battlefield” warheads were developed to counter an attack by the larger conventional forces of India. Though termed “low yield,” such weapons are considered to be in the range of 5-12 kilotons (kt), the upper figure being nearly equal to that of the Hiroshima bomb (~12-15 kt).

It is a central worry of experts everywhere that these latter weapons could be utilized during a rapidly escalating exchange involving only conventional forces but where one side has clear dominance over the other. Field commanders with low-yield weapons under their control, finding themselves overwhelmed and desperate, could decide to make use of them, thus setting off a nuclear conflict.

One reason for a focus on Pakistan is that it has been both a victim and patron of international terrorism. Not least, it is home to Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), both devoted to destroying India’s rule in Kashmir and to launching high-casualty attacks in Indian cities. Both groups were involved in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Had that assault succeeded, with its car bomb explosives detonating (they failed), the Parliament building destroyed, and a large portion of India’s government wiped out, a major war would almost certainly have resulted. As it was, India ordered the largest mobilization of forces since massive deployment during the 1971 conflict.

Since that incident, LeT terrorists have carried out several mass attacks in Mumbai and other cities, while JeM claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing that set off the air strikes in early 2019. Both groups are known to have received support from the Pakistani military, including the powerful Interservices Security Intelligence agency (ISI).

The possibility must be considered that one or more of these groups will try to weaken or even destroy restraint between these two nations. One possibility is for such a group to acquire a nuclear weapon or weapons-grade fissile material. It is also conceivable that radical members of the country’s military or ISI could supply such material or even a weapon in the midst of a crisis situation. As summed up by Naeem Salik and Kenneth Luongo, “the confluence of increased terrorist activity in Pakistan, the country’s ongoing political instability, and the growing size of [its] nuclear arsenal is increasing the challenge to Pakistan’s nuclear security.”


India, meanwhile, is countering nuclear build-up on two fronts and building new plutonium production reactors for the purpose. Like Pakistan’s facilities, India’s are not under international safeguards, as the country is not a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. According to officials at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, as many as six new fast-breeder reactors will come online by the early 2030s, greatly increasing the country’s ability to produce weapons-grade fuel.

Though confidential, India’s long-range plans might well involve doubling its current stockpile of 130-140 warheads to create what it considers a reliable deterrent to both Chinese and Pakistani nuclear forces. In case of war with Pakistan, Indian nuclear strategic involves retaining most of its arsenal (~100 warheads) to deter China from entering any nuclear exchange. At the same time, however, China is now involved in large-scale and long-term projects related to the China-Pakistan economic corridor, greatly raising the potential for any military conflict to impact Chinese nationals.

At present, India is believed to be actively fitting large warheads (40 kilotons) to missiles with a range of >3,500 km and to be pursuing new short-range strategic systems. It is also developing intermediate-range cruise missiles to match those of its two nuclear neighbors. All three nations are therefore building more diverse stockpiles, increasing the demands on safety, monitoring, and preventing any miscalculation that might lead to use.

Increased tension with Pakistan is happening at the same time that China, under Xi Jing Ping, has greatly expanded his country’s presence and influence in countries surrounding India and in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi’s efforts to bolster its nuclear triad and its pursuit of longer-range missiles represent a security response to China’s nuclear modernization program.

A 2018 meeting between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi was notable for bringing up nuclear issues and the simmering border conflict between India and China, while resolving little. Only a year later, the Indian defense ministry indicated the country may cancel its commitment to “no first use.” At present, only India and China have a clear, announced policy of never using nuclear weapons unless first subjected to a nuclear attack.          


South Asia can thus be described as a delicate imbalance with regard to nuclear threat. While a potential nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia continues to be a nexus of attention, India and Pakistan must be viewed as being in a far greater state of tension and risk. Physical conflict between these two countries, if considered on all levels from local to region, has been ongoing for nearly three-quarters of a century and has been described as slowmotion warfare punctuated by periods of major conflict, now with nuclear weapons in the mix. Whether this exaggerates the case or not, it is more than clear that this “enduring rivalry” will not abate anytime soon. China’s own support for Pakistan on Kashmir and the possibility for a Chinese military presence in Pakistan have not exactly added stability to the situation.

While few observers see a major military engagement and nuclear exchange as imminent or probable, reasons for optimism, cautious or otherwise, do not seem strong. Mr. Modi’s “seizure” of Kashmir and Jammu sets a disturbing precedent; there is much concern that it will encourage still more acts of terrorism. There is not much doubt that it has helped generate increased hostility and antagonism.

Angry rhetoric by leaders, though often dismissed as only a “war of words,” can nonetheless elevate the temperature of any situation. They help legitimize and even normalize extremism on both sides, for Pakistani terrorists and Hindu nationalists. The greatest worry lies with the opportunities for India and Pakistan to stumble into such a disaster. Miscalculation by either military during a period of intensified hostility, or theft of a nuclear weapon or related material by an extremist group, are only two possibilities here.

These words are not meant to suggest that nuclear conflict is likely. Our intent in this essay, however, is to suggest that it remains too easy to dismiss such a possibility, based on past history. The regime of arms control and non-proliferation sensibility that existed for many decades is now gone. Russia and the U.S., with over 90% of all nuclear weapons, have left the table. If and when they will return is not known. Though thoughtful proposals for beginning another stage of cooperation on arms control have been made, there is no indication as yet that they may be adopted.

Today is a new era of political conflict, arms races, and growing tension around the globe. It is an era in which defense officials speak in terms of “usability” and “escalate to deescalate” with respect to nuclear weapons on the battlefield. As we know, however, modern battlefields are not in distant, isolated places. Military bases and facilities, including those with nuclear weapons, are rarely far removed or somehow shielded from populated areas. And, as studies have repeatedly shown, any exchange that involves the destruction of buildings, towns, or cities, would have massive environmental impacts for the entire globe.

A greatly weakened environment for nuclear arms control should be a concern to everyone. At a time when nation-states are becoming less cooperative with one another, more typified by both internal and external political conflicts, the possibility for miscalculation rises no small amount. While Pakistan and India are the focus of related worry at present, they are only part of a larger landscape of nuclear uncertainty whose outlines have again grown dark.



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: Rajeev Rajagopalan via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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