Michael KreponA Wobbly Nuclear Order

The global nuclear order is becoming more dynamic and unsettled. The top tier is contracting, but at a slow pace. Newcomers feature prominently in the second tier, eclipsing the old-timers. And the newest entrants into the nuclear club either have or seem to want three-digit-sized arsenals – something few envisioned when these late arrivals barged into the nuclear club. A bumpy NPT Review Conference would make matters worse.

There are still two out-sized nuclear powers with roughly equivalent force structure. One is no longer a superpower and its capabilities are very uneven, as is evident by Russia’s modernization programs for missiles and submarines while losing its last functional early warning satellite. Moscow now resorts to nuclear threats and aggressive patrolling – reminiscent of the dark passages of the Cold War. These statements and practices, alongside the Kremlin’s predatory actions in Ukraine, reflect a dangerous mix of weakness and belligerence.

The “old” European second tier nuclear weapon states, Great Britain and France, are the only non-dynamic part of the current nuclear order. They struggle to pay the bills to maintain or replace their sea-based deterrents while their conventional power projection capabilities have shriveled.

The nuclear newcomers on the subcontinent, India and Pakistan, are on track to join and perhaps surpass the ex-colonial powers in the second tier. When they tested nuclear devices in 1998, both embraced doctrines of minimal, credible deterrence. Minimalism has subsequently taken a back seat to credibility.

China, the last of the P-5 to obtain the Bomb, has had very slow nuclear modernization cycles. Its second-generation ballistic missile submarine is only now undertaking sea trials — five decades after Beijing first tested a nuclear device. It took slightly more than a decade after testing ICBMs for the U.S. and Soviet Union to place multiple warheads on them. Beijing is now poised to do so – more than four decades after flight-testing its first long-range ballistic missile. India might follow suit, thereby separating itself from Pakistan. China will remain ahead of India and will distance itself from Great Britain and France.

A cardinal belief of proliferation pessimists, steeped in western deterrence theory, is that a nuclear stockpile has more powers of suasion than the capacity to build one. Another key belief is that any state wanting the Bomb will get one. If true, this would be very bad news for the global nuclear order. Their Exhibit A is North Korea, whose stockpile size by some estimates could surpass three digits before the end of the decade. Ever a stockpile half this size would create far more wobble in the nuclear order.

Proliferation pessimists assume that Iran will follow in North Korea’s footsteps. But proliferation pessimists have been proven wrong before. They hypothesize that Tehran will either cheat to acquire the Bomb during the agreement being negotiated or wait just long enough for its provisions to lapse. A third possibility, given short shrift, is that Iran’s leaders are working from a different playbook, one in which a revived Iran is worth more than a nuclear stockpile. Put another way, Iran would have more regional power and national security if Tehran, Ankara, Cairo and Riyadh did not possess nuclear weapons.

The outlines of the proposed nuclear agreement are consistent with all three hypotheses. The third hypothesis does the least damage to the global nuclear order – but still weakens non-proliferation norms. If Tehran decides to forgo nuclear weapons while retaining the infrastructure to make them, other states in the Middle East might well follow suit. Hedging along these lines would not be new — Japan being the most prominent case – but the global nuclear order will become more wobbly with more states adopting hedging strategies.

Another complicating feature of the new, unsettled nuclear order is the triangular nature of nuclear competitions. This feature is also not new, but it has become more dynamic. The central triangular nuclear competition during the Cold War was among the United States, the Soviet Union and China. But China hardly competed. So, when it switched partners from the Soviet Union to the United States, the nuclear order didn’t change, even though the geopolitical consequences of Beijing’s shift were significant.

There are two dynamic triangular nuclear competitions at present. One is among China, India and Pakistan. This triangular competition is not amenable to stabilization. It can become far more complicated if China and India place multiple warheads atop some of their missiles and deploy limited missile defenses. If New Delhi decides to MIRV, Rawalpindi will be hard-pressed to compete. But its nuclear arsenal will still grow because of prior investments.

The second triangular nuclear competition is among the United States, Russia and China. Unlike the Cold War, this time around, all three parties are competing. Impetus can come from the top down (if Washington decides to deploy certain missile defenses), the bottom up (if Beijing decided to deploy multiple warheads atop missiles), and from the middle, as Russia replaces old missiles and subs, lending impetus to U.S. strategic modernization programs.

All of this adds up to an unsettled nuclear order with many moving parts. In contrast to the dynamism of Bomb-related programs, diplomacy to reduce nuclear threats — except in the case of Iran — remains dormant. A fractious NPT Review Conference, now underway, would add even more uncertainly to our nuclear future.


  1. AEL (History)

    I find it strange that the nineth nuclear power didn’t even rate a sentence in a discussion of the global nuclear order.

    • FlamesInTheDesert (History)


    • Magoo (History)

      And its this unmentioned NWS that has the US nuc community’s knickers in a twist for over two decades. That’s where the wobble is most pronounced.

    • krepon (History)

      Notable omission. My error.
      Where does Israel fit in the global nuclear order?
      An outlier, for sure, but one that has engaged in preemptive nuclear non-proliferation on two occasions. The focus of much diplomatic effort by Egypt and the Arab world (more wobble). And yet Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is likely to result in more hedging than has been the case with Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

    • font (History)

      Or the tenth…

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Russia “losing its last functional early warning satellite.” Will Russia now rely solely on radars for its early warning? Will Russia maintain a policy of launch on warning, or wait until verified nuclear detonations before retaliating? What is the possibility/likelihood of inadvertent nuclear war due to false warning from Russian radar systems?

    “Moscow now resorts to nuclear threats and aggressive patrolling” and “predatory actions in Ukraine.” What are the chances that Russia’s Supreme Leader launches nuclear missiles in response to a false radar warning during a self-caused crisis?

  3. jeannick (History)

    It certainly would depend on the acuteness of the situation , the Russian perceived capability of the Missile shield and probably some pretty solid grief such as exchange of fire with some losses of life .
    On the Whole Vladimir Vladimirovitch has a long track record of being patient , the only exception I can think off was being told while watching the Beijing Olympic games that the Georgia president was raining Grads rockets on civilians and his peacekeepers .
    Then , he seems to have been seized by the black furies, but then he was only prime minister !

  4. Leonard Eiger (History)

    Very helpful perspective; thanks Michael. You mention Russia’s modernization efforts ” lending impetus to U.S. strategic modernization programs.” I wonder if its the other way around. The US has deployed Trident at near Cold War levels since the fall of the Berlin Wall and, aside from NATO expansion into ex-soviet states and other provocative actions), has been refurbishing warheads and planning a new generation of SSBNs for a long time. Who is taking the lead here???

    • krepon (History)

      Subversive Peace Maker:
      I don’t see it this way. One of the reasons why it was so difficult to control and then reduce strategic forces during the Cold War, at least in my view, was that we and the Soviets were usually out of sync. For example, the Kremlin made big investments that came to fruition during the 1970s, and the Reagan administration returned the favor in the 1980s.
      It’s true that Trident patrols continue, well… continuously. But there are fewer boats. The Kremlin is in the midst of recapitalizing (replacing old platforms with new ones) its missiles and subs. US investments in recapitalization are now beginning for all three legs of the triad.

  5. Stephen (History)

    What effect, if any, would Canada’s recent efforts to increase uranium trade with India (and possibly China) have on the dynamics discussed here?

    The CBC (the toque-wearing version of the Beeb) recently reported this, under the headline “Canada-India uranium deal will spur proliferation, experts warn.”

    India test-fired a nuclear-capable ballistic missile Thursday, just hours after signing a deal to buy 3,000 tons of Canadian uranium.

    The Agni-III missile, which has a range of over 3,000 kilometres, was fired from the Indian army’s test range on Wheeler Island in the Bay of Bengal. India declared the test a success.

    It’s a sign of India’s confidence that — with the help of Canada — it has finally left behind its status as a rogue nuclear nation and become an accepted member of the nuclear arms establishment.

    Any thoughts would be welcome.


    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Wikipedia states, “In 1999 India was estimated to have 800 kg of separated reactor-grade plutonium, with a total amount of 8300 kg of civilian plutonium, enough for approximately 1,000 nuclear weapons.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/India_and_weapons_of_mass_destruction If true, this suggests that India’s ability to import uranium is not a hard constraint on its nuclear weapons capabilities. Moreover, if India has enough material for 1,000 weapons, but only deploys 110 weapons, then it is the cost of delivery vehicles and perceived security needs, not its ability to produce or import nuclear fuel, that limit its current nuclear weapon deployments.

      Indirectly, imports allow India to choose both nuclear weapons and nuclear power, rather than being forced to choose between nuclear weapons and nuclear power. This indirect impact on nuclear weapons deployment is probably small or non-existent. Nuclear weapons have no substitutes, but nuclear power can be replaced with coal, oil, or natural gas. If faced with import restrictions on uranium, India would likely choose the same number of nuclear weapons and substitute fossil fuels for its energy needs, thereby contributing to global warming.

  6. Alexis TK27 (History)

    About France and Britain “struggl(ing) to pay the bills” for their deterrents, it should be noted that the cost for the whole of France’s deterrent is no more than 10% of the country’s current defense budget. I don’t think it that large.

    About China’s MIRV, I am surprised to see them listed as a future potentiality. DF-31s are listed as MIRV-capable (3 * 90 kt), and their operational deployment started quite a few years ago.

    About Russia’s actions, there has been more signs of nervosity lately (intercontinental bombers patrols) to be sure, however I would be cautiously optimistic that this should gradually calm down. Situation in Ukraine is shifting in the direction of Moscow’s interests, with consolidation of anti-Maidan fighters in the East and questionable stability of Maidan government in Kiev. Russia having succeeded in preventing Ukraine’s transformation into a pro-Western stable State should allay at least some of its security concerns.

    As far as reducing nuclear threats goes, the primary tool is not a NPT conference, but diplomacy designed to solve what nuclear-armed countries see as their security threats. For it’s protection against those threats which motivates them to strive to increase and improve their arsenals. Yes, such diplomacy is sorely lacking, especially between India and Pakistan it would seem. America and Russia at least do regularly speak with one another, China modernizes regularly and quitely without discernable acceleration trend, France and Britain indeed are stable and do not aim other than continuation of their defense posture, Israel always secret at least does not have a peer adversary with whom to start an arms race. But India and Pakistan are in a different situation.