Nuclear weapons continue to be a global power indicator that jeopardises the future of the planet with its potential catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects. Technological evolution poses alarming prospects due to its capacity to change the characteristics of nuclear weapons, shorten the time to hit the target, reduce the difference with conventional weapons and significantly multiply the risk of their possible use in a hypothetical conflict. Miscalculation in a crisis also increases. At present, a new generation of nuclear weapons with lower yields and a somewhat more limited destructive range is the most visible example of a situation that is dangerously encouraging non-nuclear countries to become interested in such weapons of mass destruction as well.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) warns that the Pentagon already has 1,000 low-yield nuclear warheads and that US submarine-launched ballistic missiles have new nuclear weapons of about 5 kilotons (one third of the power used at Hiroshima) and substantially less than the 90 kilotons of the average destructive capacity of most operational arsenals. The fact that a low-yield nuclear weapon is incorporated into Trident missiles along with the high-yield ones may not allow an adversary to tell the difference, thus responding to an attack with a high-yield missile. There is also the assumption that low yield nuclear weapons are strategically useful in a military conflict.
According to information published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, France, and the United Kingdom are presumably in the same process of transforming their existing arsenals. The American argument is that the decision to incorporate low-yield nuclear weapons is a response to similar technological evolutions already initiated in Russia for the Central European scenario, and China in Southeast Asia. Israel, India, and Pakistan might conceivably follow the same trend in trying to modify their existing nuclear arsenal with devices of less destructive power as they share common geographical areas with their potential major adversaries.
The expansion of China's arsenal is another important factor in terms of numbers and capabilities. Investment in nuclear weapons has allowed China to develop a nuclear triad similar to that of the United States, which includes air-launched ballistic missiles as well as land and sea launched missiles. According to the FAS, the rapid modernisation of China's nuclear arsenal reveals a substantial increase in nuclear warheads and an extensive network of silos compared to the projection of the 2020 China Military Power report. Current estimates suggest that it could have a dynamic and effective nuclear capability of over 1,000 nuclear weapons by 2027.
In 2021, China became the first country to perform a supersonic flight (more than five times the speed of sound) around the earth, evading US missile defence by entering the American hemisphere via Antarctica. The combination of the supersonic test and the future multiplication of China's nuclear arsenal have directed attention to a possible shift in China's strategic nuclear doctrine. It may go from a nuclear force of minimum deterrence to an arsenal similar to that of the United States and Russia with the ability to strike back before a US missile can hit a target in China. While Beijing will maintain the no-first-use policy, it has recently made it clear that there could be circumstances in which it might not be applied.
The technological advances and the extent of China's nuclear arsenal build-up represent perhaps one of the biggest changes in the configuration of global geo-strategic power over the last century. It also reveals a change in the dominant military doctrines of the nuclear-weapon states since the second post-war period and in the very nature of warfare. The scenario that emerges from the modernisation of the nuclear arsenals of the major powers is alarming because it implies admitting the possibility of a limited nuclear war with tactical nuclear weapons. It also suggests that the nine nuclear powers have no intention of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons to move towards negotiations for their total elimination. Almost eight decades after the horror of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, such a lack of responsibility is deeply disappointing.
Regardless of their destructive power, nuclear weapons are an unacceptable threat to the entire international community and should never be used in a military conflict. No region of the world would possibly escape the destructive consequences of this arms escalation, not even the nuclear-weapon-free zones, such as Latin America and the Caribbean under the Treaty of Tlatelolco. It is necessary to redouble collective multilateral efforts to curb and halt the new trend of the nuclear arms race.
Roberto García Moritán is a career diplomat. He was Undersecretary of Latin American Affairs, Undersecretary of Foreign Policy and Vice Chancellor of Argentina from 2005 to 2009.
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