Nuclear Weapons — History, Significance and Implications

As of 2016, only nine countries are believed to possess nuclear weapons. Their expertise in the nuclear field varies, yet all have the capability to inflict serious destruction with their respective arsenals.

There are already disputes among the nuclear nine. Increasing the amount of members in their little club multiplies the potential for more unrest and uncertainty between them. However, why would any of them be willing to give them up? Furthermore, why wouldn’t some other nations’ leaderships pursue them? The geopolitical clout alone has proven tempting.

Understanding disputes between the powers which possess nuclear bombs and the reasoning behind them is integral to decreasing the threat of such weapons. A key aspect of their power is in not using nuclear weapons on adversaries, whether or not they have them too.

Victors’ spoils

Upon the conclusion of World War Two emerged five victorious major powers. The US, Russia, Britain, France and China were unrivaled by any other countries on the world stage.

With the exception of China, the other four had begun nuclear research before and during the war. In July of 1945, the US was able to detonate the first nuclear weapon in the Nevada Desert  — Trinity. One month later it would detonate two more over Japan; Little Boy on Hiroshima and Fat Man on Nagasaki. The explosions effectively ended the Pacific theatre of World War Two just months after the European theatre had concluded. It demonstrated the weapons’ destructive power, and they remain the only time they have been used in warfare.

Their detonations also sent a message to Russia — Europe would be shared. The larger, battle-trained army of the USSR was far less formidable against America’s new weapon. However, the Russians would detonate a nuclear weapon merely four years later. Together, they would engage in a nuclear arms race for decades, which have meant that together they currently possess more than 90% of the world’s stockpile (over 7,000 nuclear devices each).

Britain and France would detonate their own in 1952 and 1958, respectively. It was a comforting achievement to the two remaining European powers at a time of decreasing diplomatic power in part due to the US and Russia’s growing share.

Finally, China would detonate one in 1966. Far from the military and economic colossus that it is today, it was nonetheless privately accepted by the major four as eligible. Like France and Britain, it possesses a few hundred nuclear weapons.

The five were and still are the only permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The balance of power has swayed considerably between them since 1945, yet the five remain the strongest actors in international relations.

The final four

However, the creation of such a weapon was unlikely to remain exclusive for very long. The US, with the support of some of the other five occasionally, has attempted to limit the amount of nuclear weapons globally. The following countries had to develop discrete ways to develop their nuclear programs, and deemed it necessary to suffer potential consequences in pursuit of them.

Israel — ~1960s (roughly 80 nuclear weapons)

Israel’s modern creation shortly after World War Two placed its leadership in a precarious position. The country’s tiny size and array of larger, hostile neighbours meant that its very survival was constantly under threat. Significant initial aid from the French and later their own research allowed the Israelis to perhaps create a bomb by the 1960s.

The Vela Incident in 1979 is often believed to be a covert Israeli nuclear test off the coast of South Africa, though Israel has a policy of neither confirming nor denying if it has nuclear weapons. Nicknamed the Sampson Option, the Israelis’ military policy prepared for a large-scale nuclear retaliation against a hostile force as last resort, should a significant part of Israel be destroyed. Preventing any other regional power from obtaining nuclear weapons is a core part of Israeli foreign policy, and is part of the reason they neither confirm nor deny having them.

India — 1974 (roughly 100 nuclear weapons)

Conflict with China but particularly Pakistan led to the development of the Indian Nuclear weapons. During the 1972 Indo-Pakistan War, both the US and Russia became involved in order to release their Cold War tensions. The US sent a carrier group as a show of force in support of Pakistan. It was trailed by a nuclear-tipped Indian-allied Soviet submarine, and demonstrated to Indian leaders the power of merely having such a weapon against a source of pride in the American Navy.

Previous years’ research culminated in the detonation of India’s first nuclear weapon in 1974 in an underground detonation. The bomb, Smiling Buddha,was described was a “peaceful nuclear explosion” by the Indian press. Pakistan, who would be the next country to join the nuclear club, obviously had problems agreeing with the Indian term.

Pakistan — 1998 (roughly 150 nuclear weapons)

Even before India’s first nuclear tests, Pakistan had flirted with the idea of acquiring nuclear weapons. Two weeks after India conducted its second round of nuclear weapons tests in 1998, Pakistan responded in kind. Chagai-I and Chagai-II were a series of detonations that proved they too had developed the weapons after more than two decades of stagnating nuclear-capable countries.

As J Swift wrote in 2003, India’s nuclear weapons tests in 1974 “meant that it was only a matter of time before Pakistan evaded safeguards and secretly gained the enrichment technology to develop its own weapons”. The Pakistani leadership deemed it would never be treated equally by India now that they had nuclear weapons. The desire to return to a level playing field against their most formidable and threatening adversary was their primary motive for obtaining nuclear weapons.

North Korea — 2006 (roughly 10 nuclear weapons)

In 2006, North Korea became the last member to join the current club. It is diplomatically weak, financially destitute, and until 2006, was able to be contained militarily by the US, China and other actors. Similar in a sense to Israel’s Sampson Option, the North Korean leadership has a nuclear deterrent. Removing the political leadership or defeating it in conventional military terms does not automatically reduce the damage elements within the country could still pose. North Korea’s leadership found a new lease on life after struggling to adapt to a post-Cold War world. That new lease came with the ire of much of the international community, led by the US. However, until it collapses on its own terms, the North Korean leadership appears capable of surviving.

Nations who’ve had/tried

Except for perhaps India, the final four nuclear states just mentioned are not major powers. However, just like the first five, their security could be jeopardised should more countries ever get nuclear too.

In his 2009 article for titled “Nations that gave up on the nuclear bomb”, David Graham identifies 15 countries that fit the mould. They are: South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Iraq, Sweden, Libya, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Syria, Egypt and Algeria. Some relinquished their nuclear weapons and programs (Ukraine), others could not continue to afford it (Sweden) or had it obstructed (Iraq, Syria).

Iran

Only one country continues to appear to be actively pursuing a live program — Iran. The US has placed sanctions on Iran since 1979, though some have recently been lifted. Iran has taken some distinct steps in the complicated field of creating a bomb, but maintains that it is for civilian energy use.

Whether or not the Iranians are actively pursuing a nuclear program is irrelevant to both the US and Israel. By not admitting they have nuclear weapons publicly, Israel can avoid instigating a regional nuclear arms race that may occur due to public, political and military pressure inside other Middle Eastern powers. If Iran creates or detonates one publicly, countries like Turkey might feel compelled to get one too. This weakens Israel’s leverage against its larger neighbours and creates a nightmare for American nuclear containment policy.

Iran insists it maintains its program for civilian purposes, and some have argued that Iran has used the allure of pursuing a weapons program to negotiate a reduction in sanctions with the US. Nonetheless, it remains a thorn in the side of Middle Eastern politics, and one that could devolve quickly if left unattended.

So what can be done?

Banning and destroying nuclear weapons are obviously the easiest ways to do remove the threat they pose. It is also impossible for the time being.

Safeguards

What is possible is the ability to establish more safeguards to make the current nuclear powers more restrained in potentially using them. In 1983, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces by the name of Stanislav Petrov is credited with helping to avoid an accidental nuclear war from occurring between the US and Russia. Soviet satellites warning systems had malfunctioned, and were showing signs of an imminent American nuclear attack. Instead of initiating measures to launch a counterattack (as was protocol), Stanislav Petrov waited until it was confirmed as a false alarm.

Thanks to his actions, the world may have avoided a nuclear catastrophe. Establishing more safeguards when matters such as this arise would help to make such a risky event from almost taking place again. In a war between nuclear powers like Russia and the US, the entire world would likely fall victim to the nuclear fallout. Countries with smaller arsenals such as Pakistan and India could still inflict enormous damage, and they have had several wars against each other since 1998. Without maintaining an element of restrain between nuclear powers, the potential for a collective global demise grows.

Policing the Prevention Policy

Every country that becomes nuclear-capable increases the potential for global devastation. The US, despite being the only country which has ever used them in warfare, has attempted to keep the number of nuclear weapons states as low as possible. It is constantly looking for greater collective responses to do so.

Coalitions of nuclear and non-nuclear states (such as the first five and Germany negotiating Iran’s nuclear program) can help achieve this. Meanwhile, the US and Japan do not want South Korea (which had a nuclear program in the 70s) to develop weapons as a deterrent against the North for example. The Saudis and the Israelis in turn don’t want a nuclear Iran. Making nuclear powers and non-nuclear powers invested in preventing any more countries from obtaining them is critical to them being seen as too dangerous to pursue. As the strongest country in international affairs, the US can organise their efforts most effectively.

Treaties

Three Strategic Arms Reductions Treaties (START) have been signed by the US and Russia in 1979, 1993 and 2010. They have reduced the amount of weapons in each country’s large arsenal considerably. Every nuclear weapon that is destroyed makes the world slightly more immune to nuclear catastrophe. Countries like France and UK might be more open to the idea of getting on board with reducing their numbers, not least because their nuclear reserves are so much smaller than Russia and the US. Meanwhile, countries such as North Korea might have leaderships open to the idea of relinquishing their nuclear weapons (similar to Ukraine and South Africa) if they are offered an attractive enough deal.

Conclusions

Thousands of years of inter-human conflict led to the creation of the nuclear bomb. It is the ultimate weapon, and does not even have to be used when deterring enemies. However, the world remains unsure of how to accept their existence. What would a nuclear war look like? Who would it involve? Why should some countries be allowed them yet forbid others from getting them too?

Despite these concerns, it remains obvious to limit the availability of these weapons. It is also important to make sure they are properly safeguarded, in order to make them the very last thing military planners would want to turn to. Finally, destroying as many as possible in mutual reduction treaties would help alleviate the concern of the world, as well as pacify the disdain of the vast majority of countries that don’t have them.

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