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Posts Tagged ‘nuclear weapons’

The 45th Anniversary of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: A Look Back and a Look Ahead

This year is the 45th anniversary of the entry into force of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), on March 5, 1970. It also marks the approach of the treaty’s latest Review Conference (RevCon)—a once-every-five-years meeting that will take place at the United Nations in New York from April 27 to May 22. Read More

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Why is China Modernizing Its Nuclear Arsenal?

As we approach the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) the 178 nations that have honored their obligation not to develop nuclear weapons are wondering when the five nuclear weapons states who are party to the treaty will honor theirs. The NPT entered into force in 1970. They’ve been waiting a long time.

Article VI of the NPT requires Britain, France, Russia, the United States and China to “pursue negotiations in good faith” on “a treaty on general and complete disarmament.” But instead of negotiating, these five nuclear nations are investing heavily in modernizing their arsenals and making sure they can be kept in good working order for generations to come.

China’s nuclear modernization program receives more attention than the other four even though its several hundred nuclear weapons are technologically inferior to the many thousands of nuclear weapons held by the United States and Russia. It was the only program highlighted at this year’s iteration of the world’s largest non-governmental nuclear policy conference. An international panel of experts, including three technically trained specialists from China, discussed why China is modernizing its nuclear arsenal, despite its NPT obligations.

Chinese Nuclear Modernization a Response to U.S. Pressure

The Chinese panelists explicitly connected China’s nuclear modernization program to concerns about the United States. They explained that China is upgrading its small arsenal of delivery systems to ensure they are not vulnerable to a disarming U.S. first strike. They said that China is experimenting with multiple independent re-entry vehicle (MIRV) technology as a possible counter to U.S. ballistic missile defense. And they noted that China is investing in a stockpile stewardship program to ensure its nuclear weapons are “safe, secure and effective,” just like the United States is doing.

China’s nuclear posture remains the same as it has been since its first nuclear test in 1964. In a declaration immediately following that test China promises never to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states. It claims it will never, under any circumstances, be the first to use nuclear weapons, and that it will only use nuclear weapons to retaliate in response to a foreign nuclear attack. China also claims to be committed to complete nuclear disarmament.

The Chinese panelists implied that China believes its current nuclear modernization program is needed to guarantee its traditional nuclear posture remains viable in the face of massive U.S. investments in military modernization that could render the United States invulnerable to a Chinese retaliatory strike.

One significant change China may be considering is to place its nuclear forces on a higher level of alert. A 2013 book on Chinese military strategy written by a committee of Chinese military scholars claimed that China could, in response to increasing U.S. pressure, launch its retaliatory strike upon warning of an incoming nuclear attack. The Chinese panelists did not publicly comment on the proposed change, but privately expressed the opinion that a Chinese move to launch-on-warning is unlikely because it would require significant technological upgrades that China could not put in place anytime in the near future.

U.S. and Russian Reductions Not Enough to Discourage Chinese Modernization

Both the United States and Russia point to mutually agreed upon reductions in deployed nuclear weapons as a sign of their commitment to the NPT. But those reductions are not enough to convince China to participate in multilateral negotiations on deep nuclear cuts. Chinese analysts point out that the New Start Treaty, which entered into force in 2011, allows both parties to continue to deploy 1,550 nuclear weapons. One of the panelists noted (correctly) that according to the definition of “deployed” in the treaty, the current number of Chinese nuclear weapons would be zero. More importantly, the treaty allows both Russia and the United States to keep much larger numbers of nuclear warheads in reserve. A reliable non-governmental estimate indicates that the nuclear arsenals of both Russia and the United States are still, despite the treaty, nearly 20 times larger than China’s.

But this disparity in numbers may be less relevant to Chinese thinking about the need for nuclear modernization than Chinese perceptions of ongoing U.S. efforts to develop new military capabilities the United States could use to launch a preemptive attack against Chinese nuclear forces. As the Japanese panelist at the conference noted, the United States is unwilling to accept vulnerability to a Chinese retaliatory strike. While the United States regularly attempts to reassure China that the development of what it calls “conventional precision global strike” (CPGS) capabilities are not intended to threaten its nuclear forces, Chinese nuclear strategists are not convinced. The Chinese panelists noted that the primary focus of Chinese nuclear modernization is to increase the mobility of China’s nuclear forces so that they cannot be so easily targeted by advanced U.S. weapons.

The Nuclear Arms Race 2.0

The frenetic stockpiling of large numbers of nuclear weapons ended with the Cold War. But there is a new nuclear arms race underway: a race for improved quality rather than increased quantity.

The United States, for example, plans to develop a new nuclear warhead, despite a public U.S. assurance to the contrary. Although the Obama administration argues the new nuclear warhead makes deeper reductions in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile easier to achieve, other nations—nuclear and non-nuclear—could see it as a violation of the spirit of NPT. The plans for a new warhead are part of a massive new investment in the U.S. nuclear infrastructure, which the Obama administration promised to the U.S. Senate during its debate on the ratification of the New Start agreement with Russia. In exchange for lower numbers of deployed weapons, U.S. nuclear weapons advocates demanded—and received—assurances there will be a virtually indefinite perpetuation of U.S. nuclear modernization. In the words of Gary Samore, who spearheaded President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summits from 2009 to 2013, “Nuclear disarmament is not going to happen. It’s a fantasy. We need our weapons for our safety, and we’re not going to give them up.

Prof. Wu Riqiang, a former missile engineer and one of the Chinese panelists at the conference, noted that in addition to concerns about the vulnerability of China’s existing nuclear forces, a second driver of China’s nuclear modernization program is the desire to keep pace with U.S. military technology. China may not be not engaged in a traditional nuclear arms race with the United States, and may not deploy some of the military capabilities it is developing, such as MIRV and missile defense technologies, but China does not want to be left behind or surprised by the emergence of new military capabilities that could undermine its effort to maintain a credible ability to retaliate in response to a U.S. nuclear attack.

If the Chinese panelists accurately reflect the thinking of China’s decision-makers, China is modernizing its nuclear arsenal in response to continuing U.S. efforts to further advance both nuclear and conventional military technologies. Although both countries claim to remain committed to the long-term goal of nuclear disarmament, they are both engaged in a technological competition that keeps pushing that goal farther into the future.

This is certain to be unwelcome news to the 178 non-nuclear weapons states waiting for China and the United States to finally live up to their obligations under the NPT.

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China’s Nuclear Forces Feeling U.S. Pressure

A new UCS white paper on Chinese nuclear strategy indicates China’s military may increase alert levels in response to U.S. investments in missile defense and conventional prompt global strike technologies.  Chinese military strategists believe the combination of these two technologies could permit a disabling U.S. first strike against China’s comparatively small nuclear force. Chinese military planners intend to counter this perceived U.S. threat with new early warning systems that would permit Chinese nuclear forces to launch on warning of an incoming U.S. nuclear attack. Read More

Categories: Nuclear Weapons  

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Obama’s Nuclear Legacy #4: Give Nuclear Weapons a Sole Purpose

As I outlined in an earlier piece, President Obama has the opportunity to make significant changes in nuclear policy in the remaining two years of his presidency—changes that would make every American more secure, while also saving money and enhancing his legacy.

The first item on the list is to reduce U.S. long-range nuclear forces to 1,000 deployed warheads.

The second is to remove U.S. ground-based long-range nuclear-armed missiles from their current “prompt launch” status.

The third is to cancel the planned new nuclear-armed cruise missile.

The fourth is to declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies, and to respond to such an attack if necessary. Read More

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The Man Who Saved the World

There are few stories from the cold war more dramatic than that of Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov. After all, earning the nickname “the man who saved the world” doesn’t happen everyday. Read More

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Obama’s Nuclear Legacy #3: Cancel the Cruise Missile

As I outlined in an earlier piece, President Obama has the opportunity to make significant changes in nuclear policy in the remaining two years of his presidency—changes that would make every American more secure, while also saving money and enhancing his legacy.

The first item on the list is to reduce U.S. long-range nuclear forces to 1,000 deployed warheads.

The second is to remove U.S. ground-based long-range nuclear-armed missiles from their current “prompt launch” status.

The third is something I find hard to believe we even need to recommend to this president, but we do: cancel the planned new nuclear-armed cruise missile. Read More

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Obama’s Nuclear Legacy #2: Ending Prompt Launch

As I outlined in an earlier piece, President Obama has the opportunity to make significant changes in nuclear policy in the remaining two years of his presidency—changes that would make every American more secure, while also saving money and enhancing his legacy.

The first item on the list was to reduce U.S. long-range nuclear forces to 1,000 deployed warheads.

The second is to remove U.S. ground-based long-range nuclear-armed missiles from their current “prompt launch” status. Read More

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Red Guards and Nuclear Missiles

China’s nuclear weapons are a source of unending controversy in the United States, in part because the debate is littered with misinformation. The problem is so pervasive that even seasoned researchers have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. Read More

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Obama’s Nuclear Legacy #1: 1,000 Deployed Warheads

As I outlined in a previous piece, President Obama has the opportunity to make significant changes in nuclear policy in the remaining two years of his presidency—changes that would make every American more secure, while also saving money and enhancing his legacy.

The first item on the list is to reduce U.S. deployed long-range weapons to 1,000 warheads. This reduction can be made independent of any reductions by Russia, although ideally Moscow would follow suit. Read More

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The Vienna Conference on Nuclear Weapons

I recently returned from the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (HINW14), the third such conference since March 2013 spearheaded by a number of international civil society organizations and non-nuclear weapons states. These states are growing increasingly impatient with the nuclear weapons states in their lack of progress toward global disarmament—as they pledged to do in Article VI of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  Read More

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