The New Nuclear Dawn Threat of Atomic Weapons Grows as U.S., Russia and China Renew Arms Race

Seventy-five years after the dropping of the first atomic bomb in Hiroshima, one nuclear non-proliferation after the other is lapsing. A new arms race is already taking shape between Russia, the United States and China.
The testing of a nuclear bomb in the Nevada desert

The testing of a nuclear bomb in the Nevada desert


The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

It’s not very difficult for an industrialized country to build a nuclear bomb. The technology is already available, and it’s astonishing that more countries haven’t done it so far.

The veto powers on the United Nations Security Council - the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain – all have nuclear weapons, as do Israel, India and Pakistan. Beyond that, there’s North Korea and perhaps also soon Iran.

Many worry that the proliferation of nuclear weapons could spin out of control. But those worries apparently don't go deep enough. Fears of nuclear war more or less disappeared after the Cold War and they haven’t returned since. The nuclear weapons of the world’s major powers seem to be in a state of slumber deep within their silos, like mythical creatures from a distant past. That impression, however, is deceptive.

In recent years, one disarmament treaty after the other has been dismantled, including the nuclear deal with Iran, the INF treaty banning land-based, medium-range weapons, the Open Skies Treaty, which guarantees countries mutual reconnaissance flights – all terminated by U.S. President Donald Trump. The New START treaty on strategically offensive weapons is also about to expire.

"We are returning to the days of the 1950s and 1960s, when each country decided for itself how many and what kind of weapons to deploy," says Vienna-based disarmament expert Nikolai Sokov.

The Washington Post recently reported that Trump is considering conducting new nuclear tests in Nevada. The decommissioned test site there is still littered with craters left behind by around a thousand underground detonations – all traces of the Cold War. A new test would be a clear indication that, after three decades of silence, a new nuclear age is dawning.

Meanwhile, Moscow is also tinkering with devices that seem to come straight out of a Cold War science fiction film. Last year, seven people died when a nuclear-powered cruise missile apparently exploded during an attempted salvage operation in the White Sea. A nuclear mega-torpedo is also under development that could wipe out coastal cities with artificial tsunamis.

And in the shadow of the two major nuclear powers of U.S. and Russia, China is expanding its arsenal, unbound by the old arms control treaties.

The fact that, 75 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world is entering a new spiral of nuclear madness is a political disaster. Some 191 countries wanted to prevent this state of affairs, including the countries in possession of nuclear weapons. That’s what they promised when they signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has been in force since 1970. The treaty is full of good intentions and has served more or less as the cornerstone of nuclear arms control since it went into effect. Under the treaty, countries that are not already in possession of nuclear weapons agree to not pursue them for as long as it remains in effect. In return, the nuclear powers commit to reducing their arsenals. Doubts, though, have been growing for quite some time that the five recognized nuclear powers are prepared to stick to their part of the agreement.

That hasn’t been lost on Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN high representative for disarmament affairs. "The move toward nuclear disarmament has stalled and is now in reverse,” she says.

The United States: Spend the Adversary into Oblivion

In April 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama gave an outdoor speech in Prague, against the magnificent backdrop of Prague Castle. It was a typical Obama appearance – he found just the right words and didn’t shy away from a bit of emotiveness and idealism.

"Today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," Obama said. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that same year, in part for his vision of a nuclear weapons-free world.

Only a decade later, the world finds itself in the midst of the new arms race – and it didn’t just begin under Donald Trump’s watch.

Obama was successful in signing the New START treaty with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, which reduces the number of warheads and delivery systems for strategic offensive arms. The move saved the disarmament measure initiated by Ronald Reagan in 1982 and contractually sealed in 1991 by his successor George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. New START replaced the START I treaty, which expired in 2009.

But to get it ratified by the Republican-controlled Senate, Obama had to promise a modernization program for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In reality, new weapons have been developed, including the American forces’ first nuclear "smart bomb.” The B61-12 model, weighing 350 kilograms (770 pounds), can strike its target with pinpoint accuracy using satellite navigation.

This February, the New START treaty is also set to expire, and members of the U.S. government have already ruled out an extension. With the end of New START, one of the last major barriers preventing an arms race between the two largest nuclear powers would disappear.

Negotiations over the issue are at least still ongoing -- that's one sliver of hope. Rose Gottemoeller, Obama's chief negotiator for New START, is optimistic. Should Joe Biden be elected, she says, the chances of an extension are "nearly 100 percent." She says that Trump also has an interest in maintaining the agreement for a short time because "stable conditions are required over the next decade” for the ongoing modernization of nuclear carrier systems.

She is also willing to grant Trump at least one diplomatic success. In the past, Moscow had set conditions for an extension of New START – in the area of missile defense, for example. But there is little mention of that now. Moscow wants to save the treaty, despite all the threatening gestures.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 32/2020 (August 1, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

Meanwhile, the new arms race is continuing and Washington is committed to it. "We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” Trump’s special envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, recently boasted. Just as Washington once knocked out the economically inferior Soviet Union, Russia and China could now be outdone, he said.

If Trump now wants to be celebrated by his followers for strengthening America’s nuclear power, he will merely be taking the baton from his predecessors. Next year, Trump wants to increase spending on nuclear weapons from $37.3 to $44.5 billion.

A further milestone in disarmament was the INF Treaty between Washington and Moscow. It bans all land-based medium-range weapons – the missiles that posed a threat to Europe in the 1980s.

But Russia defied the treaty by developing a land-based cruise missile with a range that exceeded that allowed by the treaty. The Obama administration was critical of Russia's treaty violations and NATO partners, including Germany, believe the accusation to be credible. Washington withdraw from the treaty in February.

Russia: Feeling Ahead

Washington's most powerful rival in the field of nuclear weapons is Moscow -- and in that sense, nothing has really changed. In terms of gross domestic product (GDP), Russia may be a dwarf, at only one-twelfth the size of the U.S. But its nuclear arsenal remains impressive: It possesses about 6,000 warheads, of which 1,500 are deployable by land, from the sea or from the air. The Russian and American arsenals alone account for more than 90 percent of all nuclear weapons. And these arsenals have been updated.

"For the first time in the history of nuclear weapons," Vladimir Putin announced, "we don’t have to catch up with anyone. On the contrary, the world's other leading nations will have to first create the weapons that Russia already has.”

"It’s hard to tell who is ahead in the arms race -- there are several races taking place at the same time,” says arms expert Sokov. "For cruise missiles, whether land-, sea- or air-based, Russia is lagging behind. As it is in missile defense, as well. Russia is leading in terms of hypersonic weapons. It is also ahead when it comes to means of evading a missile defense systems."

It is clear to Russia that if is able to achieve parity with the U.S. in any way, then it will be in the field of nuclear weapons. In the view of the Kremlin, they are the guarantor of Russian sovereignty.

That helps to explain the vehemence with which Moscow is reacting to U.S. efforts to build a missile defense system. Ever since Washington moved in 2001 to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, which restricted missile defense systems, Moscow has been concerned about the threat it poses to strategic stability. In Putin’s eyes, the termination of the ABM treaty was the first step on the road to the current problems.

Reminiscent of a James Bond villain, Putin two years ago presented computer-animated videos depicting the new miracle weapons that Russian either already possessed or was in the process of developing. They include the Burevestnik nuclear-armed cruise missile with nearly unlimited range; the Poseidon nuclear torpedo, which can render coastal cities uninhabitable; the Sarmat, a heavy intercontinental missile that can strike the U.S. from the South Pole; and the Avangard, a hypersonic glide vehicle that can carry nuclear warheads. Officially, the Avangard glide vehicles are already in service. The Sarmat is scheduled for delivery in 2021. These weapons all have one thing in common: They can supposedly circumvent U.S. missile defense systems.

"The message was: We used to be behind, but now we’re ahead. We’re not afraid of the Americans and their missile defense,” says Alexei Arbatov, the head of the Center for International Security in Moscow.

It’s difficult to get a good read on Russia’s nuclear strategy. Is it defensive or offensive in nature? "Moscow threatens and exercises limited nuclear first use,” was the assessment of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, a nuclear policy strategy paper prepared by the U.S. Defense Department in 2018 for the Trump administration. That argument has been used by Washington to justify the development of tactical nuclear weapons with low explosive power. But experts have their doubts about the accusation.

Putin, for his part, has officially ruled out the possibility of a pre-emptive strike. In June, the president established the "Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence” in an effort to eliminate any doubts. "The Russian Federation considers nuclear weapons exclusively as a means of deterrence, their use being an extreme and compelled measure,” the principles state.

The document laying out the fundamental policy is a reiteration of what has effectively been Russia’s strategy since 2010: That nuclear weapons would only be used in response to a conventional attack, but only "when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” What that means, though, is an open question. "The document is ambiguous and incomprehensible even to experts,” Arbatov says, critically.

Finally, Putin’s position on existing arms treaties has also created uncertainty. The INF Treaty has effectively been destroyed by Russia’s alleged violation of the deal. Putin has also criticized it as "unilateral disarmament" on the part of the Soviet Union. "God alone," he once said, knows why the leadership at the time signed such an unfavorable document.

China: The Great Unknown

Lop Nur, China's former nuclear weapons test site, is located on the eastern edge of the Taklamakan Desert and is where China’s first atomic bomb, developed with help from Moscow, was detonated in 1964. The country went on to conduct 45 tests there by 1996. The site was even touted as a tourist attraction for a while.

China is proud of its nuclear program, but it still considers itself to be a second-league nuclear power. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that Beijing possesses only 320 nuclear warheads, about a 20th of the Russian and American arsenals. The institute further believes that none of those warheads is immediately deployable. Moreover, China has been pursuing a defensive nuclear doctrine that rules out a first strike since the 1960s, although that could be deceptive. "The truth is that we really don’t know whether China is a 'minor nuclear power,’” says military expert Zhao Tong of the Carnegie Tsinghua Center, a think tank in Beijing. "China has never released an official number of its warheads, not even a rough number." Zhao currently sees China in third place. "Most importantly,” he says. "China is a world power that is massively expanding its arsenal.”

This is particularly true of China’s arsenal of ballistic missiles, which is now the world’s largest and is not limited by any disarmament treaty. China is especially strong in the category of medium-range missiles, which have a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. "These regional systems are much more important than strategic intercontinental missiles,” says Zhao. "Because any serious conflict in which China could be involved will break out at the regional level – in the dispute over Taiwan, for example, or in the South China Sea."

China is not bound by the INF Treaty between Washington and Moscow, and medium-range missiles now even form the backbone of Chinese defense doctrine. Most Chinese nuclear weapons are currently stored on land, where they can be destroyed, which is leading Beijing to increasingly lean toward submarine-based nuclear weapons.

China is also concerned about the increasingly powerful missile defense system developed by the U.S. When the dispute over North Korea’s nuclear program came to a head in 2017, South Korea agreed to deploy the American THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system. Beijing protested because the high-power radar is also capable of spying deep into China. There have been calls to massively expand China’s deterrent capacity. Hu Xijn, editor-in-chief of the nationalist Global Times newspaper in Beijing, has proposed increasing the number of nuclear warheads to 1,000 as quickly as possible. Even the "No First Use” doctrine, which goes back to Mao Zedong, is no longer sacrosanct.

"The majority is still in favor of sticking with this strategy,” says Carnegie’s Zhao. "But in recent years, there has been a growing number of voices in the military who disagree.” China, he argues, has a "very cynical view” of power relations. The idea has always been that, "the weaker party is always dominated by the stronger party in the end."

It is quite conceivable that China will double the number of its nuclear warheads in the coming years, including multiple warheads that can be installed on the strategic long-range DF-5 and DF-41 missiles. Beijing believes the time has come to close the gap with the U.S., to modernize its military – "and not to limit its capabilities under any circumstances, let alone reduce them." That, however, is exactly what the U.S. is demanding. Washington wants to use public pressure to force Beijing to the negotiating table, though that hasn’t worked so far.

"To pull the Chinese into (New START) is, in theory, a good idea,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently said at an online event in Washington. "In practice,” however, he said it would be "impossible” because "the Chinese have no incentive whatsoever to participate.”

The New Uncertainty

"During the Cold War, all the nuclear weapons that had been stockpiled added up to equivalent of 1.5 million Hiroshima bombs. Today, there are only 100,000 bombs left that are equivalent to Hiroshima,” says international security expert Arbatov. "But that is also enough to put an end to humanity."

But it’s not only the number of atomic bombs that’s decisive – the number of nuclear powers is also growing. India and Pakistan have no plans to give up their arsenals anytime soon. Nor is North Korea likely to renounce the bomb under Kim Jong Un. Iran is also pressing ahead resolutely with its nuclear program.

For dictatorships, nuclear weapons can serve as a kind of life insurance policy. As long as they can threaten with the bomb, their opponents will think twice before intervening. And that serves only to complicate the situation.

Worse yet, the most important guarantor of peace has disappeared: the fear of nuclear war that makes compromises possible in the first place. "We have forgotten how to fear nuclear war," says Sokov. "And the bad thing about that is that if people aren’t afraid of it, it will become inevitable.”

Anticipating the possible failure of the disarmament deal concluded in 1970 between nuclear and non-nuclear powers, a group of countries initiated the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty was adopted in a round of UN negotiations and puts nuclear weapons on par with biological and chemical weapons – prohibited weapons of war. So far, 40 countries have ratified the nuclear weapon ban treaty and it goes into effect once 50 nations have ratified it, a figure that observers believe could be reached in the next year.

At most, the ban treaty will influence the political debate. Legally, it has few consequences, since none of the nuclear powers have signed it. Not a single NATO member state is participating, either, and that includes Germany. Ultimately, the treaty is really just a symbol of good intentions at a time when the arms race has already long since restarted. At this point, getting rid of the bomb will be no easy feat.

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