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The glaring problem with a recent multinational pledge against nuclear war

Five of the world’s most powerful countries took a stand against nuclear weapons. So why are they modernising and increasing their stockpiles?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
8 January 2022, 12.00am
A ballistic missile and launcher in a military parade, North Korea, 2013
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Stefan Krasowski, CC BY 2.0

Last Monday, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, Russia, China, France and the UK – signed a joint pledge to reduce the risk of nuclear war. The pledge states that:

“We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.  As nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences, we also affirm that nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.  We believe strongly that the further spread of such weapons must be prevented.”

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These five nuclear weapon states are the only ones recognised as such in the 1967 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), with the other four nuclear powers – Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea – having no such status. Such a pledge between such five rival states is unusual at any time, the more so given current tensions over Ukraine and Taiwan. It may be a welcome move, at least symbolically, but questions must be asked about why it has been made, given that it hardly sounds genuine in light of the states’ actual arsenals and expansion plans.

Embarrassment

The NPT is reviewed every five years, with a review currently delayed by the pandemic. Under the NPT, the five permanent member states (known as the P5) are required to steadily disarm themselves of nuclear weapons. At each review, non-nuclear states are quick to remind them that they are simply not doing this, causing some embarrassment.

That embarrassment is heightened by the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which came into effect almost exactly a year ago. The key element of this agreement, which took years to negotiate following determined pressure from non-nuclear states and campaigners, is the term ‘prohibition’; for any state signing up to it, nuclear weapons are illegal.

The P5 states will have nothing to do with the treaty and no doubt hoped privately that it would never come into law. Yet it received plenty of support, a text was agreed, and the treaty was opened for signature on 20 September 2017. By the start of last year, the required 50 states had ratified it and the treaty came into force on 26 January. A year later, there are already 86 signatories and 59 ratifications.

And so, the P5 pledge is perhaps best explained in context of this treaty.. Without sounding cynical, perhaps they hope it will take a tiny bit of pressure off them, particularly with the first anniversary of the treaty’s ratification due shortly and the NPT review likely later this year.

The problem is that what nuclear weapons states say and what they do are not the same thing, with four other recent bits of news providing a rather different context.

Modernisation

Shortly before Christmas, the commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, Colonel-General Sergey Karakaev, confirmed that another stage in Russia’s nuclear force modernisation was under way, with the country’s Strategic Missile Forces being re-equipped with new intercontinental ballistic missiles.

According to Karakaev, the missiles would be able to avoid any defensive system deployed by the United States, just the thing for getting a head-start in a nuclear exchange, and not easy to reconcile with the pledge that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.

Not that Russia is in any way alone in this, with all P5 states busily modernising their systems and two of them, China and the UK, even increasing their stockpiles. Modernisation is also being carried out by those four other states outside the P5. Indeed, the second bit of news is that India has recently done another test of its Agni P nuclear-capable missile while, thirdly, North Korea has just tested a 700-km range hypersonic missile designed to evade anti-missile systems.

Finally, early this week, Declassified UK published yet another of its carefully researched stories about UK defence policy, reporting that during the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War, the UK had equipped Task Force warships with 31 tactical nuclear weapons, mostly nuclear depth bombs for anti-submarine warfare. According to recently opened government archives, in among the Falklands War material was a file marked “Top Secret, Atomic” and according to the Declassified UK author, Richard Norton-Taylor, it reported that:

“A Ministry of Defence (MoD) minute, dated 6 April 1982, referred to “huge concern” that some of the “nuclear depth bombs” could be “lost or damaged and the fact become public”. The minute added: “The international repercussions of such an incident could be very damaging”.

That the Task Force was so equipped should not come as a surprise given that in the parliamentary debate about sending the Task Force, the then defence minister, John Nott, said specifically that the ships would be carrying their full range of weapons. At the time that included helicopter-delivered tactical nuclear depth bombs and Sea-Harrier delivered free-fall nuclear bombs.

A recent analysis from Rethinking Security provided details of Britain’s nuclear posture including its long-term commitment to nuclear war-fighting. The government has long since been reluctant to see this discussed in public and a few months ago announced that it would henceforth maintain greater secrecy over the make-up and purpose of its whole nuclear posture. Having postures and weapons specifically suited to small-scale use hardly aligns with a pledge that nuclear wars must never be fought. Presumably the diplomatic tongue was firmly in the cheek and fingers crossed when the UK signed the pledge.

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