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Trump’s withdrawal from the INF treaty could signal a new nuclear arms race

Dr Glen Anderson and Blake Pepper

It is estimated that there are 16,300 nuclear weapons spread between the United States (US), Russia, the United Kingdom (UK), France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Of this stockpile, 93 percent are thought to be concentrated in the hands of the US and Russia (approximately 6800 and 7000 weapons respectively).

In October 2018 US President Donald Trump declared that Washington would be withdrawing from the US-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Since its inception in 1987, the agreement has eliminated over 2600 ground based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5500 kms.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty was apparently prompted after a yearlong dispute with Moscow over its development of a new ground launched cruise missile – the Novator 9M729.

It may also be partly driven by John Bolton’s appointment as National Security Advisor in April 2018. Bolton, who has a reputation as a hard-line negotiator and a devout realist, is rumoured to have opposed the agreement’s continuation.

Not surprisingly, Trump’s allies within the European Union and Japan have criticised the decision to withdraw, fearing that it could lead to a new nuclear arms race.

Asone commentator has adroitly observed:

Trump’s decision, if implemented, fires a starting gun in a second-phase global arms race that could be even more frightening than the two-sided superpower contest that halted when the Soviet Union imploded. The world has changed since 1991. This time around, the race could be many dimensional and multipolar, making it harder to contain. This time, the threat of mutual annihilation will be replaced by multilateral assured destruction…

This being said, Moscow’s rhetoric appears to indicate that it too is amenable to scrapping the INF Treaty.

Russia has recently developed a new intercontinental missile: the  SS-X-30 Satan 2. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a media presentation delivered at the 2018 State of the Nation address in Moscow, boasted, “[n]o kind of, not even future missile defense systems will offer any trouble to the Russian rocket complex.” He also claimed the weapon was “invincible” against missile defense systems.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded:

President Putin has confirmed what the United States government has known all along, which Russia has denied: Russia has been developing destabilizing weapons systems for over a decade in direct violations of its treaty obligations.

Other states have also been advancing their nuclear capabilities.

The UK in 2016 announced that it would be replacing its four Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines with four new ships – dubbed the Dreadnought-class. Each will contain Trident II D-5 missiles, each of which are able to release eight 100 kiloton warheads during the re-entry phase.

Francehas renovated its nuclear submarine fleet with the introduction of the Triomphant-class during 1986-2010. The last in class – Terrible– has been equipped with the M51 ballistic missile, which is capable of releasing six 150 kiloton warheads during the re-entry phase. All Triomphant-class ships are being retrofitted with the same system.

China has recently deployed large numbers of ballistic and cruise missiles. The former Head of the US Pacific Command, Admirable Harry Harris, has testified before the US Senate that China has “the largest and most diverse missile force in the world.” Beijing is also estimated to have four Jinclass ballistic missile submarines.

India has quietly diversified its nuclear forces. In addition to ground and air launch systems, it has recently added submarine ballistic capabilities with the commissioning of the INSArihant. A second more advanced Arihant-class submarine, the INSArighat, is currently being outfitted and expected to be operational in 2019.

Pakistan is intending to place nuclear capable cruise missiles in up to three of its five French built submarines. Pakistan has also reportedly stuck a deal with China to obtain eight further nuclear capable submarines by 2028.

Although there is general consensus that Israel possesses a nuclear deterrent, there is no agreement as to its size. Despite this, there have been credible commentators, such as former US President Jimmy Carter, who have suggested that during 2008-2014 Israel’s capability expanded by approximately 100 percent.

North Korea has a well-documented nuclear program. Although plagued with technical problems, even a single weapon delivered by missile would be capable of devastating cities such as Seoul or Tokyo.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions appear to have been halted for the time being under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However in the future, Tehran may reinstate a nuclear weapons program, if only to remain strategically relevant or to deter regime change.

Other states to previously covet nuclear weapons include Syria and Libya.

Nuclear proliferation is steadily increasing, meaning that the threat of nuclear war is correspondingly increasing. Unlike the Cold War, however, the threat posed by nuclear weapons is worryingly absent from mainstream consciousness. In a world dominated by Facebook and the 24-hour news cycle, talk of nuclear proliferation is viewed as unfashionable – even anachronistic.

Humanity may be sleep-walking towards the nuclear conflict it has to have – the questions are though at what cost to human life and to what extent the environment as we know it will be forever changed.

Hopefully, these doomsday questions will remain unanswered.

States can still choose the diplomatic negotiating table, rather than the red button.

Diplomacy can triumph if states recognise the futility of nuclear weapons, the absolute pointlessness of second wave capabilities (usually achieved by difficult to detect submarine-based platforms), and the crippling economic cost of maintaining and continuing to develop these trillion-dollar apocalyptic systems.

Trump’s recent repudiation of the INF Treaty is symptomatic of a growing acceptance of nuclear proliferation.

It is also emblematic of the growing scepticism for international law and international institutions.

Although total nuclear disarmament has always been a chimera, meaningful nuclear reductions have been achieved through the implementation of agreements such as the INF Treaty.

Moving away from legal pathways that ensure nuclear weapons reductions will only heighten the risk of a new nuclear arms race. Unlike the Cold War, however, this new race will likely involve many more state actors, and could spread quickly to involve middle tier states such as Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

Agreements such as the INF Treaty should not be lightly disregarded in such an environment.

Dr Glen Anderson is a Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Newcastle Australia. Dr Anderson researches in the areas of international law, equity, company and property law. He has formerly taught Australian and international politics at Macquarie University. Blake Pepper is a Law and Economics graduate, Newcastle University. 

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