A dangerous nuclear situation
The worst nuclear development in 2022 will be Russia’s thinly veiled threats to deploy
nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war. For the time being, warnings and cautionary words have kept such threats quiet, but Russian leaders should firmly reject threats to deploy weapons of mass devastation in Ukraine.
Beyond the Ukraine war, historical trends of nuclear arsenal development and modernization continue, with little progress in negotiations with North Korea or Iran over their nuclear programs. New START continues to restrain US and Russian nuclear weapons, but there is no guarantee the deal will be extended beyond 2026.
China’s nuclear capabilities
The significant expansion of China’s nuclear capabilities is particularly concerning, given the country’s repeated refusal to consider measures to improve transparency and predictability. According to the US Defense Department, Beijing may more than fivefold its arsenal by 2035 and may soon rival the nuclear capabilities of the US and Russia, with unforeseeable ramifications for stability.
North Korea has significantly increased its intermediate- and long-range missile tests. For the first time since 2017, North Korea successfully fired an intercontinental ballistic missile in late March. In the months that followed, it launched a slew of further ballistic missiles, the majority of which had modest ranges. Perhaps most worrying, North Korea flew an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan on October 4. Meanwhile, US officials believe North Korea is preparing for its sixth nuclear test.
Iran continues to expand its uranium enrichment capabilities but beyond the limitations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that once controlled it. This brings Iran closer to achieving nuclear weapons capability, should it choose to do so. Returning to the nuclear agreement would decrease risks and give a route ahead, and the US, Europe, and other countries have made fair attempts to resurrect the agreement. However, Iran’s volatility and Tehran’s support for Russia’s conflict with Ukraine will make effective discussions to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons more difficult.
India’s nuclear arsenal
India’s nuclear arsenal of approximately 160 warheads is being modernized, with new
delivery systems being developed to supplement or replace existing nuclear-capable aircraft,land-based delivery systems, and sea-based systems. Pakistan has a comparable arsenal and is constantly expanding its warheads, delivery systems, and fissile material manufacturing.
US, Russia, and China modernization projects
The US, Russia, and China are now pursuing full-fledged nuclear weapon modernization
projects, laying the groundwork for a perilous new “third nuclear age” of competition. Long-standing concerns about South Asian arms races and missile arms races in Northeast Asia round out a bleak picture that must be addressed.
Priority should be given to all five permanent members of the UN Security Council,
including Russia, to reassert their commitment to confronting nuclear threats through arms control measures and strategic stability agreements. Major international nuclear diplomacy will be required at the appropriate time because of a grave fact highlighted by the Ukraine crisis: the existential threat presented by nuclear weapons persists even as political circumstances change.