7 PM Editorial |At the edge of a new nuclear arms race| 27th April 2020

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At the edge of a new nuclear arms race

What has happened? A report by USA claims that China and Russia has conducted nuclear weapon experiment and in response US has also resume its nuclear testing. This signals demise of CTBT.

The U.S.’s moves to resume nuclear testing, signals the demise of the ill-fated CTBT, could be the first signs of new nuclear arms race. As per Arms Control Association and Federation of American Scientists, there are about 14,500 nuclear weapons in the world and nine nations (USA, Russia, China, France, UK, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea) are members of the world’s nuke club.

This brings us to the question of arms race and prohibition on the development of nuclear arms further. Therefore, in this article, we will discuss the following:

  • What is Nuclear Arms Race?
  • What is CTBT?
  • What are the issues in CTBT?
  • How nations in the world are competing with each other for nuclear arms?
  • Conclusion

What is Nuclear Arms Race?

  • An arms race competition for supremacy in nuclear warfare between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies during the Cold War. During this very period, in addition to the American and Soviet nuclear stockpiles, other countries developed nuclear weapons,
  • The first nuclear weapon was created by the United States of America during the Second World War (1939-1945) and was developed to be used against the Axis powers.
  • In addition to the United States and the Soviet Union, three other nations, the United Kingdom, People’s Republic of China, and France developed nuclear weapons during the early cold war years.

What is CTBT?

  • The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is the Treaty banning all nuclear explosions – everywhere, by everyone.The Treaty was negotiated at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. It opened for signature on 24 September 1996.
  • Before CTBT, a Partial Test Ban Treaty was concluded in 1963 banning underwater and atmospheric tests but this only drove testing underground.
  • 182 countries have signed the CTBT – the last country to do so was Trinidad and Tobago on 8 October 2009 which also ratified the Treaty on 26 May 2010. 154 countries have ratified the Treaty – most recently Ghana on 14 June 2011.
  • The CTBT is the last barrier on the way to develop nuclear weapons.  It curbs the development of new nuclear weapons and the improvement of existing nuclear weapon designs.
  • The definition of “comprehensive test ban” is a “zero yields” test ban that would prohibit supercritical hydro-nuclear tests but not sub-critical hydrodynamic nuclear tests.
  • When the Treaty enters into force it provides a legally binding norm against nuclear testing. The Treaty also helps prevent human suffering and environmental damages caused by nuclear testing.
  • Nuclear tests conducted before CTBT (between 1945-1996):
    • Over 2000 nuclear tests were conducted by the United States.
    • The Soviet Union conducted 700+, France 200+, the United Kingdom and China 45 each.
    • Three countries have carried out nuclear explosions after the 1996: India and Pakistan in 1998, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 2006 and 2009.
  • The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) is the organization that promotes the Treaty so that it can enter into force.  It also establishes a verification regime to monitor adherence to the Treaty. The organization was founded in 1996 with its headquarters in Vienna, Austria.
  • CTBTO runs an elaborate verification system built around a network of over 325 seismic, radionuclide, infrasound and hydro acoustic (underwater) monitoring stations.

What are the issues in CTBT? 

  • The CTBT prohibits all parties from carrying out “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion” and these terms are neither defined nor elaborated.
  • The treaty fails to define a “nuclear test,” the very action it is supposed to prohibit. Consequently, states may decide for themselves what constitutes a test.
    • The US interprets the treaty as prohibiting tests that produce any nuclear yield. Russia apparently has a different interpretation; it reportedly conducts hydro nuclear tests that produce some nuclear yield. Such tests can be highly useful in assuring the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons, and in their modernization.
  • States can defy in numerous ways with very low risk of detection. For example, a nuclear explosion can be decoupled by conducting it in an underground cavity and/or in a special container to reduce the seismic signal. Even CTBT proponents concede that militarily significant nuclear tests may be undetectable.
  • In June 1996, India announced its decision to withdraw from the negotiations of CTBT. This led to revision the entry-into-force provisions (Article 14 of CTBT) promoted by U.K., China and Pakistan. The new provisions listed 44 countries by name whose ratification was necessary for the treaty to enter into force and included India.
    • The Treaty’s entry into force depends on 44 specific States that must have signed and ratified the Treaty.  These States had nuclear facilities at the time the Treaty was negotiated and adopted.
    • Of the 44 listed countries, to date only 36 have ratified the treaty. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the U.S. have signed but not ratified.
    • North Korea, India and Pakistan are the three who have not signed. All three have also undertaken tests after 1996; India and Pakistan in May 1998 and North Korea six times between 2006 and 2017.
  • The CTBT has therefore not entered into force and lacks legal authority.

How nations in the world are competing with each other for nuclear arms? 

  • Strategic competition among major powers is today’s norm. The U.S. now identifies Russia and China as ‘rivals’. Its Nuclear Posture Review asserts that the U.S. faces new nuclear threats because both Russia and China are increasing their reliance on nuclear weapons.
  • The U.S. have decided to expand the role of its nuclear weapons and have a more usable and diversified nuclear arsenal. The Trump administration has embarked on a 30-year modernization plan with a price tag of $1.2 trillion, which could go up over the years. Readiness levels at the Nevada test sitethat has been silent since 1992 are being enhanced to permit resumption of testing at six months notice.
  • The Trump administration, as outlined in its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released on Feb. 2, 2018, intends to continue the modernization plan laid out by the Obama administration, and also develop several new nuclear weapons capabilities.
  • Russia initially made sharp reductions in its strategic nuclear forces but retained large numbers of non-strategic nuclear weapons. Today, Russia is modernizing these weapons as well as its other strategic systems. Russia’s adoption of military strategies and capabilities rely on nuclear escalation.  Moscow has decided return to Great Power competition and is exploring hypersonic delivery systems and theatre systems.
  • China, too, is modernizing and expanding its already considerable nuclear forces. Like Russia, China is pursuing entirely new nuclear capabilities tailored to achieve particular national security objectives while also modernizing its conventional military.
  • A report issued by the United States State Department on “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (Compliance Report) accuses China for secretly conducting a low-yield underground nuclear test and ‘a high level of activity at the Lop Nur test sitethroughout 2019’.
  • North Korea’s nuclear provocations threaten regional and global peace, despite universal condemnation in the United Nations. Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain an unresolved concern.
  • United States withdrew from a Cold War–era agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in2019. Signed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the INF Treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The end of the treaty could spark a new nuclear arms race.
  • The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) limits U.S. and Russian arsenals but will expire in 2021 and U.S. President Donald Trump has already indicated that he does not plan to extend it. Instead, the Trump administration would like to bring China into some kind of nuclear arms control talks, something China has avoided by pointing to the fact that the U.S. and Russia still account for over 90% of global nuclear arsenals.


Resumption of nuclear testing may signal the demise of the ill-fated CTBT, marking the beginnings of a new nuclear arms race. A new nuclear arms race could just be the beginning. Unlike the bipolar equation of the Cold War, this time it will be complicated because of multiple countries being involved. Technological changes are bringing cyber and space domains into contention. All this raises the risks of escalation and could even strain the most important achievement of nuclear arms control — the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons that has stood since 1945.


Source: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/at-the-edge-of-a-new-nuclear-arms-race/article31439692.ece

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