Major nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, continue to bring about technological improvements in nuclear weapons and delivery systems. President Trump on assumption of office had boasted of launching the most ambitious nuclear programme in which the US plans to spend on a trillion dollars over a decade. The other disconcerting aspect is that with the governments focused on Covid-19, the nuclear arms control deal between the US and Russia could be pushed in the background. Proponents of nuclear stability have been forcefully arguing that it is imperative that the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) caps the US and Russian nuclear arsenals to prevent an arms race.
The US is working on the modernisation of warheads and delivery systems and it is only a matter of time that it will have the latest version of intercontinental ballistic missile.
China, to counter the hostile US policy that aims at hurting its economic and strategic interests, has stepped up the development and production of land, air and sea-based strategic weapon systems. It has made major strides in developing advanced nuclear weapons and means of delivery that were on display during the National Day parade in Beijing, last October. Most significant among them was the road launched DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of having a range that can strike any target in the US with multiple warheads.
The Global Times, a respected source on strategic issues, published in its October 2019 issue that China is reportedly engaged in testing nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missile and developing the type 096 nuclear-powered strategic submarines to launch the missile. Moreover, in development in China is the H-20 strategic stealth bomber that is comparable to the US B-2.
Initially, China has been comparatively slow in developing its nuclear arsenal. It was primarily focused on the economy. But as it achieved consistent high growth and hostility between Washington and Beijing intensified, it has stepped up the modernisation and numerical strength of nuclear and missile forces. China considers that it has to play an independent and stabilising role in this chaotic world order. It is not surprising that President Trump wants China to participate in negotiations that the US holds with Russia in limiting strategic weapons. As expected, China has not agreed and will stay out of any binding agreements until it has reached a compatible level in strategic weapons.
India too is forging ahead unabated with its nuclear programme using the pretext that it has to counter the growing Chinese threat. In the pursuit of this policy, the US and other Western countries have been fully supportive of New Delhi. Whereas the reality is that 70% of the Indian forces are deployed against Pakistan. With India-Pakistan relations at their lowest ebb the Indian military’s threatening posture leaves no choice for Pakistan but to keep pace and build its strategic forces.
Economic weakness has prevented Pakistan from maintaining a balance of 3 to 1, in conventional forces with India. It is only when Pakistan’s GDP would match or exceed India’s could it rely on its conventional forces without leaning heavily on nuclear capability. Until then there seems no alternative for Pakistan’s decision-makers but to match and effectively counter its hostile neighbour, bomb to bomb and keep pace with technological developments.
It indeed goes to the credit of Pakistan’s engineers and scientists that despite extremely tight international sanctions and clandestine oversight by Western intelligence agencies, Pakistan managed to not only master the nuclear technology but develop a solid industrial infrastructure to manufacture strategic weapon systems.
One of the possible reasons for major powers greater concern about Pakistan’s nuclear capability as opposed to India, apart from other considerations like the China factor and inherent prejudices, is its greater reliance on it.
North Korea despite being financially bankrupt has a clandestine nuclear and missile programme that draws global attention when it fires a missile or conducts tests. It is indeed a paradox that the US and world powers look so helpless in dealing with its nuclear and missile achievements. For decades, the US has been engaging with North Korea directly or multilaterally to prevent it from abandoning its nuclear programme but with no success. President Trump engaged with the recluse North Korean leader on a highly optimistic pitch only to discover that it is not possible to change course that the latter has set for its country.
Israel’s nuclear programme is of course sacrosanct as it has the full backing and support of the US and most Western powers. The irony is that the rivalry between major Arab countries — Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Iran — has made the former not only overlook Israel’s nuclear development but has even sidetracked the Palestinian struggle for a separate homeland.
In sharp contrast, the US with full backing of Israel and the Jewish lobby rescinded the nuclear agreement with Iran and imposed stifling sanctions to destroy its economy. Hoping that these measures would bring the collapse of the politico-religious regime. No doubt, it has severely hurt the economy and made Iran fight the Covid-19 with its hands tied but its people have shown a resolve where other nations in similar predicament may have given in.
With the world battling with the Covid-19 virus, developments in the nuclear field have generally been pushed in the background. This is despite the fact that the Doomsday Clock set by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in January 2018 to two minutes is the closest it has been to midnight since 1953.
Sanity demands that all nuclear powers reassess their national threat priorities in the light of the new dangers posed by Covid-19. How helpless did the two superpowers appear when faced with this new invisible enemy. So did the other seven and especially poverty-stricken India and Pakistan. With the US health sector in tatters and the government leaving it to the individual and private sector, the coronavirus overtook concern for survival and healthy existence over the dangers of man-made existential threats of a nuclear catastrophe.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 13th, 2020.