Sleepwalking into nuclear Armageddon By Dr Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

Sleepwalking into nuclear Armageddon By Dr Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

THE increasing global salience of nuclear weapons entailing expansion and diversification of nuclear arsenals at a breakneck pace alarms the demise of arms control and cracks in the non-proliferation regime. Besides, the craze for nukes discredits the international movement committed to seeking the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. Indeed, the unleashing of a nuclear arms race is alarming in the contemporary transforming international strategic environment. Are the nuclear-armed states sleepwalking into nuclear Armageddon?

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported last month that all nine nuclear-armed countries, the US, UK, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, are modernizing their arsenals. Accordingly, the total number of nuclear warheads is estimated at 12,121, with 9,585 of these in military stockpiles ready for potential use and 3904 of these warheads were deployed with operational forces. About 2,100 warheads are maintained in a state of high operational alert on ballistic missiles, primarily by Russia and the United States. It means these nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired.

India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan—non-Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) member nuclear weapon states—appear to be increasing the size of their nuclear weapon inventories. Still, the issue of their nuclear weapons deployment is debatable. Except for Pakistan and Israel, the remaining members of the nuclear club are deploying new nuclear-capable weapon systems. Pakistan’s full spectrum deterrence posture’ denotes the possession of ‘strategic, operational and tactical’ nuclear weapons with a wide range of yields, which could be used against a full spectrum of targets’ in India, including counter value, counterforce and battlefield targets.

India had deployed its nuclear assets at sea during the India-Pakistan post-Pulwama military standoff. According to the SIPRI report, New Delhi might mated some warheads with launchers in peacetime but the report is not clear on the issue of India’s nuclear weapons deployment. However, India’s placing missiles in canisters and mating warheads with their launchers signify that New Delhi has transitioned towards a counterforce nuclear posture to target an adversary’s nuclear weapons earlier in a crisis, even before they (e.g., China and Pakistan) could be used. It confirms that India does not have a no-first-use (NFU) doctrine and reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first in wartime.

SIPRI report claimed that India’s nuclear warheads (172) are more than Pakistan’s (170). This is the first time it is ahead of Pakistan since the May 1998 nuclear tests. India is striving to acquire nuclear weapon capability with a global reach, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles. Its sea-based leg of the triad, including four to six nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and Agni-VI and Surya missiles with intercontinental ranges, enable it to target any country in the world, including Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Brussels, etc.

The Russians-Ukraine war and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threat rhetoric have increased the danger of nuclear conflict. The protracted warfare in Ukraine and the geopolitics of significant power competition have triggered the biggest confrontation between Russia and the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The biggest casualty of the Ukrainian war is discontinuation of the nuclear arms control and disarmament diplomacy. Moscow suspended the implementation of the last remaining Russian-US nuclear arms control agreement, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), in early 2023. The New START will expire in February 2026 if the current tension between Moscow and Washington continues.

The US unilaterally abandoned three treaties: the anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty. These treaties aimed to keep nuclear competition stable and prevent accidental or unintended escalation to nuclear war. Besides, Moscow withdrew its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. It further minimized the chances of the CTBT entry into force and action-oriented negotiations on nuclear disarmament at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland. The American initiative to commence trilateral arms control negotiations (China-Russian-U.S.) seems a non-starter.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin, on numerous occasions, has signaled to use of nuclear weapons to prevent the physical involvement of NATO troops in the war and also discourages the Ukrainian armed forces from using the ally’s supplied weapons to strike targets within Russia. He sees the war as one with NATO, not just the Ukraine. In May 2024, the Kremlin also conducted drills involving tactical nuclear weapons in neighbouring Belarus to make the use of nuclear weapons threat credible. Notably, a probable Russia–NATO/US war is only one of five potential nuclear flashpoints, albeit the one with the gravest consequences. The remaining four are in Asia–Pacific: China-U.S. at Taiwan Strait, North Korean Peninsula, China-India in Southern Asia, and India-Pakistan in South Asia.

Nuclear-armed states are equally vulnerable to the increasing integration of new emerging technologies in military doctrines. The states have been investing in cyber offensive capabilities, which increase the threat of cyber attacks undermining the safety and security of nuclear systems. For instance, in 2019, India’s Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plantunderwenta cyber attack.

The increasing geopolitical contest and mega-defense budgets of the nations testify to the rapid vertical proliferation of nuclear weapons. Besides, the probability of horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons alarms the weakening of the NPT. The leading parties to the NPT, named Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States trilateral pact to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, have germinated debate over the agreement’s legality within the NPT framework.

To conclude, vertical proliferation scares the nuclear arms race, having the potential to trigger a nuclear war. Admittedly, the nuclear taboo—a normative inhibition against the first use of nuclear weapons—has prevented the use of nuclear weapons since the nuclear strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The extreme destructiveness of nuclear weapons makes them qualitatively different in political and moral terms from other weapons to the point of rendering them virtually unusable. However, currently, the nuclear-armed states are preparing for the actual use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Precisely, at least they are sleepwalking into a nuclear Armageddon.

—The writer is professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University.


Sleepwalking into nuclear Armageddon By Dr Zafar Nawaz Jaspal


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