A dangerous liability

August 23,2017

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As of today, nine countries in the world are recognised as possessing nuclear weapons. These countries collectively have a total of 14,900 nuclear weapons in their military stockpiles, with Russia and the US in possession of almost 93 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads.

Billions of dollars are spent every year on the constant maintenance and extensive modernisation of these weapons. According to some estimates, nuclear-armed countries spend more than $300 million a day on their nuclear warheads. Countries choose to draw on their national resources to develop an independent nuclear deterrent because the possession of these weapons is considered to be a guarantee of absolute security against external threats.

Notwithstanding the fact that nuclear weapons provide only some level of security against threats from state actors, the development of nuclear warheads is a risk that is not worth taking.

The greatest threat to global security today comes from nuclear weapons because they are fast becoming a liability rather than a strategic asset. Technological advancements over the past two decades have made nuclear arsenals of many countries more vulnerable than ever before. Owing to the vast increase in nuclear-targeting capability and the development of remote-sensing, nuclear warheads are no longer secure against external attacks.

In order to offset vulnerability, nuclear-armed states will seek to deploy more capable retaliatory mechanisms. With rapid advances in counterforce technologies comes greater ability to target nuclear forces anywhere across the globe. The continued growth of counterforce capabilities also increases the temptation of attacks on nuclear forces of other countries. Although many countries are aware of multifaceted threats to their nuclear arsenals, they do not have a publicly articulated or well-developed strategy for deterring those threats.

Maintaining a safe and secure nuclear weapons stockpile has also become difficult because of insider threats in the form of accidents, employee negligence or even deliberate collusion. While insider threats might be rare, they still occur even within most competent and professional organisations. A 2014 report by the Sandia National Laboratory in the US found that more than half of the multi-million-dollar heists involved employees from within the organisations.

What makes it difficult to take preventive measures against the possibility of the insider threat is that some states continue to expand the size of their nuclear weapon stockpiles as well as their infrastructure for fissile material production capabilities. In August 2014, a reactor in Belgium had to be put out of commission because an insider deliberately let the lubricant for its turbine drain away, causing significant damage to the facility.

It can be reasonably argued that some terrorist organisations have also shown interest in the use of weapons of mass destruction. In 2009, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al-Qaeda’s team in Yemen, even claimed to have some nuclear weapons in his possession and hinted at the possibility of using them on US soil. However, that later turned out to be a false claim.

Deterrence theorists have argued that even a limited number of deployed nuclear weapons are not only survivable but also reduce the possibility of attack to almost zero. However, states continue to enhance their nuclear arsenals even when there is no need for it.

According to a recently-published report, Russia has 1,910 and the US has 1,800 deployed nuclear weapons. In addition to an endless nuclear arms race, the increased vulnerability of nuclear arsenals would be counterproductive to the already shaky acceptance of the idea of nuclear deterrence.

In Pakistan, there is absolutely no debate regarding the possibility of any such incident. In fact, scholars who try to start the insider threat debate are generally ignored. It is also difficult to sustain a debate on such issues because of lack of access to information. This problem also exists in many other countries owing to a veil of secrecy that surrounds nuclear security measures.

Over the past two decades, a number of nuclear security lapses have been witnessed in India. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), India’s nuclear security practices rank very low. There is a great deal of room for improvement. Owing to external political interference, India’s nuclear regulatory authority also does not possess the crucial independence to take decisions.

It would be wrong to say nuclear weapons are instruments of deterrence since countries possessing these weapons continue to face security threats in the geopolitical arena. Nuclear-armed states still engage in arms races and worry about relative gains. This repeated behavioural pattern on the part of various states demonstrates that nuclear weapons can provide reasonable security but cannot guarantee absolute security. Nuclear weapons are a dangerous liability, not an asset. And the sooner we all realise this fact, the better it is for us and our future.



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