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February 6, 2018

A no-good arms race


February 6, 2018

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released last week is bound to be a harbinger of a new arms race. It is likely to be both a catalyst and a justification for Russia and China to pursue methods that they deem fit to secure themselves in light of the US’ declaration to expand its nuclear capabilities.

This is alarming. Between the three, there are enough nuclear weapons to destroy this planet many times over – not to forget the many other militarised nuclear states as well as those aiming to. The concern here is not about the size of the nuclear weapons that the US aims to develop as the stress is laid on developing smaller bombs to counter the threat from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

Take Hiroshima for example. The bomb that was dropped in 1945 was one that was under 20 kiloton, apparently the kind Trump wants to develop as an effective deterrent. Even if Washington reiterates its commitment to adhere to the Obama administration’s New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, of maintaining a limited strategic nuclear warhead capability, adopting a confrontational posture with Russia and China is clearly regressive. America’s argument for developing smaller nuclear weapons is that these are likely to be more effective deterrents than bigger nuclear weapons, which might never even be used. Citing the Russian policy of ‘de-escalate to escalate’ and its annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, the US aims to develop smaller weapons to deter further Russian aggression in Europe. But would this actually serve as a deterrent or escalate a new arms race among the three stakeholders?

Not surprisingly, there were heated retaliations by Moscow and Beijing following the unveiling of the NPR. China termed it a return to an ‘outdated cold-war doctrine’ despite the US’ insistence that its policy was strictly defensive. Russia, on the other hand, reacted strongly, stating that it viewed the policy shift to be clearly ‘confrontational and anti-Russian’. More worrisome is the assertion in the NPR over retaliation to any catastrophic cyber-attacks on the US and its allies. Given this wide ambit under the NPR, it is difficult to determine what will trigger a US nuclear strike. If anything, the NPR seems to have expounded the possibility of a nuclear war, given the wide scope it has set out for a nuclear strike.

Let us not forget that a militarised nuclear power serves a strange contradiction. It is a strategic asset meant to bolster any state’s desired deterrence levels, but its biggest strength lies is not being used, especially, when the contender is also a nuclear power. Thus, countering the threat by deterrence is the key. As in a game of chess, when one has been checkmated retreat is the key, not confrontation. The aim is to deter the other by the mere capability of holding nuclear weapons and/or second strike capability. The argument that a nuclear bomb has only once been used – by the US against Japan during the Second World War – is often used by those in favour of developing this deadliest weapon.

The risks however are very high. By only skimming through the surface we can find some basic ones, such as human error, accidents, technical failures etc. And the implications are much higher for humanity.

Thus, there was some comfort in knowing that the world was becoming a safer place as the Obama-led initiative of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Moscow, aimed at limiting American and Russian strategic nuclear warheads, came in force in 2011. Further efforts to engage Iran to develop civilian nuclear energy were encouraging, despite the Gulf’s trepidations pertaining to Iran’s intentions to mislead the international community and develop nuclear weapons covertly. The new US nuclear policy is hardly going to help efforts to de-militarise aspiring nuclear states, nor will it help reduce tensions with its counterparts in Beijing and Moscow.

This era – unlike the cold-war era – is especially not conducive for: a) indulging in an irresponsible arms race even if it is aimed at smaller nuclear weapons. This is a greater era of instability as we have global leaders whose behaviour is far from responsible. And b) our dependence on technology and its inextricable links with security apparatus call for a tighter control and less belligerence, especially when nuclear strikes are being linked to cyber-attacks. It is hoped that some sense will prevail.

The writer is a former deputy opinion editor at Gulf News, Dubai.

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