Nuclear Weapons

Author and Page information

  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Close calls

On various occasions, there have been “close calls” to annihilation:

[In 1995] President Boris Yeltsin was informed that a nuclear missile was speeding towards the heart of Russia. Russian nuclear forces, already on a hair-trigger alert, were put on even higher alert, ready to launch at his command.

The fate of the planet hung in the balance as hundreds of millions of people were going about their daily lives.

Russian policy called for a “launch on warning.” “Use them or loose them.”

Yeltsin wisely waited. And within those fateful moments, the Russians were able to declare a false alarm. An unimaginable nuclear disaster had barely been avoided.

Innovation In Arms Control: De-Alerting, America’s Defense Monitor, Center for Defense Information, December 26, 1999

And over a decade earlier than that:

In 1983 the American investigative journalist Jack Anderson revealed the following:

On November 19, 1980, Capt. Henry Winsett and 1st Lt. David Mosley were conducting a reliability test of their Titan missile at McConnell Air Force Base near Wichita, Kan. The drill was to be a simulated launching. To fire the liquid-fueled Titan, both missile officers in the command capsule must turn keys simultaneously after receiving the proper “enabling” code. This unlocks a butterfly valve, allowing two chemicals to combine and ignite, launching the missile. This time, when Winsett and Mosley went into their prescribed drill, strange things started happening. “We had a green light on the butterfly valve lock control that was not supposed to have a light at all,” Mosely recalled. The two officers turned the keys.

“Instead of giving us the lights that said the test had begun, it said, ‘Launch OK’ and ‘Launch Sequence Go’ which means you're actually in the launch sequence,” Mosely said. In desparation, Winsett shut the missile down—pulled the plug. It was the only way to keep the thing from taking off, he said. The incident was confirmed by both men. Mosely said they couldn’t be absolutely certain the missile’s guidance system would have steered it to a target in the Soviet Union, which would have invited certain retaliation. But he said that “it probably would have gone north”. It was a close call that still gives Mosley the tremors. As he puts it, he and Winsett “saved the world” that day.

Jack Anderson, Parade, August 14, 1983. Quoted by John Pilger, Heroes, (Vintage 2001), pp 143 - 144

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Nuclear Proliferation Treaties Under Pressure

There have been a number of significant and controversial treaties to try and control nuclear weapons:

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
The NPT was ratified in 1975. It has been ratified by 187 countries, more than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement. The objective is “to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.” Some 180+ countries thus agreed not to pursue nuclear weapons in exchange for the nuclear powers to adhere to treaties that would have the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. However, as others have put more bluntly, this treaty was to prevent new members from joining the “nuclear club.”
The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty
The ABM Treaty, signed in 1972, prohibits the use of defensive systems that might give an advantage to one side in a nuclear war. The Mutually Assured Destruction scenario was invoked here to assure that each nation had enough weapons to survive a nuclear attack and therefore have the ability to annihilate the other. Their rationale was that as long as both sides remained defenseless, in this respect, neither country would dare attack the other.
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)
The CTBT was designed to prevent testing of nuclear weapons and hence reduce the chance of an arms race.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, START I and START II
START I and II were designed to reduce the weapons that Russia and the US have.

All four of these have been under pressure for a few years:

  • The NPT is seen by some critics as a means for the five nuclear powers at that time to retain their weapons while telling others not to develop them, and thus allow these five to remain militarily more powerful than other nations. This is feared to then provide a pretext for other countries to develop their own nuclear weapons. For example,
    • India, Pakistan, Israel and Cuba did not sign the NPT.
    • India and Pakistan went nuclear in 1998.
    • Israel is known to have nuclear capabilities too.
    • North Korea went nuclear in 2006. (More on this below.)
  • The US is currently looking at developing an expensive national missile defense system, which goes against the ABM treaty. [Since writing this page initially, the U.S. has withdrawn from the ABM Treaty.]
  • Although President Clinton had signed it in 1995, the US Senate rejected the CTBT in 1999. Other countries such as China and Iran are also “balking” on the idea, using the excuses of U.S. policies and costs, for example, as reported by Reuters (March 7, 2002).
  • Russia initially stalled on START II because of the USA’s national missile defense program. However, they finally endorsed the treaty in April 2000, but warned that if the US still pursues its missile defense program, which goes against the ABM treaty, then Russia would pull out of the arms negotiations.

While the major nuclear powers have agreed to eliminate their nuclear arsenal at a UN review of the NPT, it remains to be seen how much of that will be rhetoric and how much real political will there will be to follow it through.

Almost five years after writing the above paragraph, it would seem that much talk has been rhetoric. David Kreiger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, notes some additional grim developments:

At the center of the nonproliferation regime is the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)…. this treaty is based upon an important tradeoff. The nonnuclear weapons states agree not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and the nuclear weapons states agree to engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament.

Unfortunately, the nuclear weapons states, and particularly the United States, seem to have made virtually zero progress in the past five years. Despite its pledges to do otherwise, the United States has failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; opposed a verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty; substituted the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which is fully reversible, for the START treaties; scrapped the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, opening the door for deployment of missile defenses and moves toward placing weapons in outer space; kept nuclear weapons at the center of its security policies, including research to create new nuclear weapons; and demonstrated no political will toward the elimination of its nuclear arsenal.

David Kreiger, Saving the Nuclear Nonproliferation Agreement, Waging Peace, March 4, 2005

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North Korea and Nuclear Weapons

This section on North Korea and Nuclear Weapons has now moved to its own page.

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The Right to Have Nuclear Weapons?

Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), every country does have a right to nuclear development for peaceful purposes (i.e. nuclear energy). The fear is that countries may use this as a guise for weapons development. This is what the Bush Administration has been concerned about in the Iran example.

More fundamentally, if (as also noted further above) powerful countries, such as the US itself, are pursuing nuclear weapons options (defying various nuclear non proliferation treaties in the process), this raises arguments that many have made in the past, such as:

  • Surely others have a right to develop nuclear weapons as well?
  • Why should only a few powerful countries have them?
  • Won’t they use their position to pressure or bully other countries to their interests?

North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel, for example (and possibly Iran, depending on how things progress) would seem to directly or indirectly support these questions for their own interests.

The right to nuclear weapons will be an attractive argument for those who feel threatened by the current world powers, or for those with more ambition. Furthermore, the world’s foremost nuclear powers appear unwilling to provide sufficient help. Some, such as the US, appear to reverse and actually develop more weapons, citing reasons such as fear and mistrust of others.

In that context, it would be hard to argue against other countries also demanding such terrible weapons. The US may even find it will have to accept that others will want nuclear weapons too, as they will recycle these same concerns, often back towards the US, adding the charge of hypocrisy if the US opposes them.

Perhaps in the ideal sense most citizens in the world would like to see all countries give up their nuclear weapons, but in the world of real-politik, that would seem suicidal. The arms race fear seems hard to avoid.

For countries such as the US that wish to dissuade others from pursuing nuclear weapons development, a negotiated approach that is also backed by real commitments where powerful countries live up to their parts of nuclear non proliferation treaties would go a long way towards achieving a more agreeable and peaceful future. But to achieve this requires an almost colossal shift in foreign policy and requires such a level of friendship and trust between countries currently opposed to each other, that it is hard to see if this can ever happen.

Ironically then, the need for international “stability” will be used as an argument both for the reduction in nuclear weapons, and for their proliferation.

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Ultimately, the threat of more nuclear weapons, of increased arms races and insecurity are all diversions of precious resources that lots of countries can ill-afford. Close calls on nuclear annihilation, such as the two examples at the beginning of this article, may become harder to avoid.

5 articles on “Nuclear Weapons” and 1 related issue:

The US Nuclear Superpower

Last updated Thursday, September 15, 2005.

Read “The US Nuclear Superpower” to learn more.

North Korea and Nuclear Weapons

Last updated Sunday, October 29, 2006.

Read “North Korea and Nuclear Weapons” to learn more.

Iran

Last updated Tuesday, December 06, 2011.

Iran has had a turbulent history in just its recent past. From a democracy in the 1950s, Iran seems to have moved backwards, from an authoritarian regime (backed by Britain and the US) that overthrew the democratic one, to a religious fundamentalist regime toppling the authoritarian one and taking an anti-US stance.

The US ended its support for Iran and instead supported Iraq in a brutal war through the 1980s against Iran where over 1 million people died. More recently, Iran was described as being part of an “axis of evil” by US President George Bush, as part of his “war on terror.”

The US has also accused Iran of pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, while Iran says it is only pursuing peaceful development. Internally, movements towards moderate policies and democratic values are gaining traction, but not with hardliners in power trying to hold on. This section looks into these and related issues.

Read “Iran” to learn more.

India and Pakistan go Nuclear

Last updated Sunday, October 08, 2000.

Read “India and Pakistan go Nuclear” to learn more.

The US and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

Last updated Monday, August 07, 2000.

Read “The US and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty” to learn more.

Arms Control

Last updated Sunday, June 30, 2013.

Read “Arms Control” to learn more.

Other options

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Monday, March 27, 2000
  • Last Updated: Tuesday, December 06, 2011

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Document Revision History

DateReason
October 29, 2006Moved US and North Korea sections into their own pages
October 24, 2006Moved Iran section into its own page
October 31, 2005More about Iran and nuclear weapons, and also about India’s recent surprising turn towards a US alliance on nuclear issues. Also, the US cancels its mini-nukes, deep bunker penetrating nuclear weapons program for now.
September 21, 2005Short notes on North Korea saying it will not stop its nuclear program until it receives the promised civilian nuclear reactor, and that it was the US that gave Iran nuclear know-how in the 1960s and 70s when the US supported the Shah dictator.
September 15, 2005US moves closer to pre-emptive nuclear strike option
March 27, 2005Small sections added on the lack of progress in non-proliferation; nuclear issues with Iran; and about the supposed right for all countries to have nuclear weapons
August 30, 2004Added a subsection on how US backs out of nuclear inspections treaty.

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.