Capstones: A Dangerous New Nuclear Age

Recent developments in seemingly every corner of the globe serve as a grim reminder that the nuclear nightmare didn’t end with the thawing of Cold War I: Russia has violated key arms-control treaties, moved nuclear weapons into Belarus and engaged in nuclear saber-rattling over Ukraine. China’s nuclear arsenal is worryingly opaque and rapidly growing. North Korea punctuates its apocalyptic nuclear rhetoric with reckless missile tests. And Iran continues its relentless march toward the no-longer-exclusive nuclear club.

Add it all up, and the heady days of nonproliferation and nuclear-arms reduction have given way to a dangerous new era marked by buildups, brinkmanship and breakouts. The following is a snapshot of Cold War II’s new nuclear age.

United States: 1,419 deployed strategic warheads, 5,244 total inventory (minus 184 warheads in the most recent tally)*
As the Pentagon details, the U.S. deploys an estimated 400 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) across Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota.[i] Fourteen Ohio-class nuclear-armed submarines—each carrying as many as 20 ballistic missiles with multiple warheads—comprise the second leg of America’s nuclear triad. And 46 B-52H bombers and 20 B-2 bombers represent the third leg of the deterrent triad.[ii] U.S. nuclear weapons are also prepositioned on the territory of fellow NATO members Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey.[iii] In addition, multiple sources report U.S. nuclear weapons are returning to Britain, after being withdrawn in 2008.[iv] Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, has called for “serious consideration” of replacing the current single-warhead system on land-based ICBMs with multiple-warhead systems.[v] Under a long-overdue modernization program, the U.S. is replacing the Minuteman IIIs with the Sentinel ICBM System, the Ohio-class submarines with Columbia-class submarines, and the B-2 bombers with B-21 bombers.[vi] Modernizing the U.S. nuclear enterprise will cost at least $247 billion.[vii]

Russia: 1,549 deployed strategic warheads, 5,889 total inventory[viii] (minus 88 warheads in the most recent tally[ix])
Like the U.S., Russia deploys a nuclear triad consisting of an estimated 306 land-based ICBMs, 11 nuclear-armed submarines, and 68 Tu-160 and Tu-85MS long-range nuclear bombers.[x] Quite unlike the U.S., the Russian government recklessly rattles its nuclear saber often, most recently in relation to its war on Ukraine.[xi] In addition to his thinly veiled nuclear threats, Putin has adopted a doctrine declaring that nuclear weapons can be used to—somehow—deescalate conflict and recently planted nuclear weapons in Belarus.[xii] [xiii] It’s significant that Ukraine in 1994 surrendered its entire nuclear arsenal in exchange for Russia’s commitment—in an agreement signed by Russia, Ukraine, Britain and the U.S.—to “refrain from the threat or use of force” and respect Ukraine’s “existing borders.” The free world’s failure to back up those words after Putin’s 2014 lunge into eastern Ukraine crippled the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. Ukraine’s grim plight underscores the deterrent power of nuclear weapons—and the danger of not having them.

France: 280 deployed warheads, 290 total inventory
The French nuclear force enfolds 40 bomber aircraft, 10 carrier-based aircraft and four submarines. France decommissioned its land-based nuclear silos in 1996.[xiv]

United Kingdom: 120 deployed warheads, 225 total inventory
As the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation (CACN) reports, “The United Kingdom’s nuclear forces are entirely sea-based.” Britain keeps four nuclear-armed submarines on deployed rotation.[xv]

China: 410 deployed warheads (an additional 60 warheads in the most recent tally)
The Pentagon estimates that China actually has 500 nuclear warheads and reports that China recently completed construction of a missile field consisting of 300 new ICBM silos. The Pentagon projects that China will have more than 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030.[xvi]

Pakistan: 170 deployed warheads (an additional five warheads in the most recent tally)
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are designed for delivery by land-based missiles and aircraft. But U.S. intelligence agencies assess that Pakistan is developing sea-based missiles capable of being mated with nuclear warheads.[xvii]

India: 164 deployed warheads (an additional four warheads in the most recent tally)
India deploys several nuclear-capable missiles, an “unknown” number of aircraft devoted to delivering nuclear weapons and “is now concentrating on building a genuine triad,” according to the Carnegie Endowment’s Ashley Tellis.[xviii]

Israel: 90 deployed warheads
Although Israel is an undeclared nuclear-weapons state, it likely deploys nuclear weapons capable of being delivered by fighter-bombers and ballistic missiles.[xix]

North Korea: 30 deployed warheads (an additional five warheads in the most recent tally)
North Korea continues to expand its nuclear arsenal and missile capabilities—deploying and testing hard-to-track road-mobile ICBM systems, as well as submarine-launched missiles and medium- and short-range missiles.[xx] The tempo of North Korean missile tests is troubling—jumping from seven in 2006, to 19 in 2015, to more than 100 in 2022-23,[xxi] [xxii] including 23 on a single day in November 2022.[xxiii] And the nature of the tests is terrifying—with North Korean rockets flying over Japan, triggering civil-defense evacuations in Japan and air-raid warnings in South Korea, and landing just 25 miles from South Korean coastal cities.[xxiv] Thanks to its transfer of rockets to Russia, North Korea is using Ukraine as “a test site of its nuclear-capable missiles,” the South Korean government points out.[xxv] All of this explains why President Joe Biden recently declared that “a nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners…will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action”[xxvi]—and why voices in North Korea’s neighborhood are calling for their own nuclear deterrent.

Outside the Club
That brings us to those on the outside of the nuclear club—who could soon join.

“We could acquire our own nuclear weapons,” South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol said matter-of-factly last year, mentioning the possibility of “deploying tactical nuclear weapons here in South Korea.” He’s not alone: 71 percent of South Koreans support development of a homegrown nuclear deterrent.[xxvii]

Although there’s little interest in Japan for an indigenous nuclear deterrent, senior Japanese officials in recent years have endorsed U.S. “extended deterrence, including nuclear deterrence,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement, “in light of the international security environment which has been rapidly worsened…by continued development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.”[xxviii] Plus, Japanese officials at the highest level have expressed a willingness to explore nuclear-sharing arrangements similar to U.S. nuclear-weapons deployments in some NATO countries.[xxix]

Iran has barred IAEA inspectors from the country[xxx]; has accelerated its uranium-enrichment program; has produced enough uranium for three nuclear bombs, according to the IAEA; and could produce a single nuclear weapon in “about 12 days,” according to Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl. [xxxi] Iran, in short, is on the verge of nuclear breakout.

An Iranian nuclear test would trigger a cascade of consequences, chief among them military action by Israel and/or the United States: Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu of Israel has said, “I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability.”[xxxii] Plus, the U.S. and Israel signed a joint declaration in 2022, in which the U.S. pledged “never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” and vowed “to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.”[xxxiii]

Equally worrisome: An Iranian nuclear breakout would trigger a Mideast nuclear-arms race. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has called Iran’s leader “the new Hitler.”[xxxiv] Asked what would happen if Iran tested a nuclear weapon, he bluntly answered, “We will have to get one.”[xxxv] Egypt, Turkey and other Sunni states would likely follow suit.[xxxvi]

Finally, if they had reason to doubt America’s security guarantees, several countries—Australia, some NATO members[xxxvii], South Korea, even Japan—could bolt the Non-Proliferation Treaty and buy or build their own nuclear deterrent out of self-preservation.

Nuclear Treaties
In 1972, Washington and Moscow negotiated the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT I), which froze the number of ICBM launchers and the number of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). In 1979, the superpowers finalized SALT II, which further limited the number of ICBM and SLBM launchers and nuclear bombers. SALT I was ratified by the Senate; SALT II was withdrawn by the Carter administration after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.[xxxviii]

Signed in 1987, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) eliminated 846 U.S. and 1,750 Soviet intermediate-range nuclear weapons (missiles with a range of 300-3,400 miles) and included robust inspection-verification mechanisms.[xxxix] It was the first treaty to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons.[xl] The Russian government began violating the treaty in 2014. After repeated efforts by the Obama and Trump administrations to bring Russia back into compliance, the U.S. withdrew from the treaty in 2019.[xli] Given its growing missile capabilities and nuclear arsenal, China would need to be included in a revived INF Treaty, as well as in other nuclear treaties.

The 1990s-era Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) slashed the two superpowers’ strategic nuclear arsenals by 80 percent and limited each superpower to no more than 6,000 nuclear warheads on ICBMs, SLBMs and nuclear bombers. As CACN details, START I banned construction of new ICBM and SLBM variants, missiles with more than 10 warheads, and testing of certain kinds of multiple-warhead missiles.[xlii]

START II was largely superseded by the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).[xliii] Ratified in 2003, SORT reduced the strategic nuclear warheads of the U.S. and Russia to no more than 2,200 warheads apiece.

New START entered into force in 2011. As the State Department details, New START limits each side to 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and nuclear bombers.[xliv] Russia has been in technical breach of the treaty since 2022, due to its refusal to allow on-site inspections.[xlv]

*Warhead numbers come from the Arms Control Association, “Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “World Nuclear Forces, January 2023,” and the Federation of American Scientists, “Status of World Nuclear Forces.”

This article was published in the June 2024 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

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