Nuclear powers, despite a certain reduction in the number of warheads, continued to update their arsenals in 2019. This is stated in a report on the situation by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), published on Monday. Experts warn that tensions between Russia, the U.S. and China, along with the lack of progress in arms control negotiations, threaten to lead to a new nuclear arms race.
As of the beginning of 2020, nine nuclear powers — the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and the DPRK — accounted for 13,400 nuclear weapons. This is almost 500 fewer units than last year. The reduction was mostly due to the dismantling of obsolete weapons by Russia and the United States, which account for 90% of the global nuclear arsenal.
At the same time, the Russian Federation and the U.S. are actively modernizing their nuclear weapons. “Both countries assigned a new or expanded role to nuclear weapons in their military plans and doctrines, which reflects a significant reversal from the trend that existed after the Cold War towards the gradual marginalization of nuclear weapons,” the document states.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s question ― does modernization mean the development of hypersonic weapons? ― was answered by the academician Alexei Arbatov, head of the Center for International Security, IMEMO. Arbatov said, “The hype around supersonic weapons is prohibitive. This is just another type of ammunition carrier — nuclear or non-nuclear, flying five or more times faster than the speed of sound. That is, we’re talking about a speed of 1700 meters (1870 yards) per second. Until now, all ballistic missiles with a range of over several hundred kilometers have been hypersonic weapons. The peculiarity of the new systems is that they, unlike ballistic missiles, can plan with great speed in the upper atmosphere (60-70 kilometers or 37.2-43.4 miles above the Earth) and maneuver in flight. Russia was ahead of the United States in this area by creating the ‘Avangard’ missile-planning system. The advantage of hypersonic planning assets is that they cannot be intercepted by current missile defense systems.”
If we talk about modernization, we must first keep in mind that Russia continues to update the components of its strategic triad, which they began 10 years ago. “We are replacing the marine component (‘Bulava’ missile) and replacing the ground component (‘Yars’ silo and mobile ground-based missile) with multiple warheads. But the air component is behind us. We’ve been trying to create a new bomber for a long time, but the process has been delayed. Therefore, we resumed the use of the old Tu-160 ‘White Swan’ bomber, created 30 years ago,” Arbatov explained.
According to him, the Americans are not currently undergoing intensive modernization. The only thing they’ve done lately is equipped some Trident-2 submarines with low-power warheads for selective limited strikes. This concept was outlined in the 2018 Nuclear Policy Review. The full-scale American modernization of strategic forces, comparable to that of Russia, will begin a decade after the mid-2020s. It involves creating new bombers, ground-based missiles, submarines and sea-based missiles. This entire program is designed for 20 years.
“This is really the beginning of a new, massive arms race,” the academician is convinced. Moreover, Russia has already been drawn into this race and is even ahead of the U.S. in a number of areas. This is incidentally stated with great satisfaction at the highest level: they say that we always had to catch up with them, now let them catch up to us. So, this is a real arms race, only with a change in technology, in the face of new geostrategic and political factors. It will be all the more intense and expensive if it’s not possible to extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START III) and conclude the next treaty.
In turn, the SIPRI report notes that if START III is not extended, it will expire in February 2021. In 2019, negotiations to extend the old agreement or finalize a new one didn’t provide any results. According to the drafters of the document, this was partly due to the position of the U.S. administration, which insists on China participating in the treaty. Beijing categorically refuses to sit at the negotiating table, citing the fact that its nuclear arsenal is several times behind the Russian and American ones.
“It seems to me that China’s position is beginning to drift towards the adoption of a proposal to start negotiations. In Beijing, they felt that their stubbornness was beginning to cause irritation, not only in the U.S., but also in countries such as India, Japan, Britain, France, and even Russia, which over the past decade has demanded a transition to a multilateral format of dialogue,” Arbatov said. “I would take a flexible position in the place of the Russian leadership: we are in principle supportive of China joining the trilateral format, but negotiations should not be conducted in the language of ultimatums (like the deployment of new American missiles in the Asia-Pacific region), rather in diplomatic language. After all, no state will sit down at the negotiating table unless it sees that the agreement will improve its strategic position. So far, neither Russia nor the U.S. has proposed anything like this to China.”
According to the academician, China stands in a special place among the nuclear powers. This is the only state that has the economic and technological potential to possibly become equal to two great nuclear powers in a decade. At the same time, China keeps its arsenal a secret. But it will never agree to lag behind the U.S. and Russia, enshrined in possible future agreements. We need to develop a model that will interest Beijing and legalize its equality with the two superpowers in one way or another.
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