Douglas Adams (author and satirist, 1952-2001) wrote, “it’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at the end.” For some years now the state of international nuclear arms control is one best described as experiencing freefall. Perhaps it was American hawks abandoning the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, to better wage war in the Middle East, ignoring the implications for arms proliferation. Or perhaps it was Russian nationalists, agitating for renewed arms development to offset their country’s loss of geopolitical influence. In any case, and irrespective of who we pin the blame on, a resurgent nuclear arms race is now a reality of international relations.
Whilst neo-realist advocates of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD) dismiss concerns as alarmist, the world faces the very real prospect of sleepwalking into a nuclear apocalypse. Amidst rising competition between the world’s nuclear powers, the development of an all-new class of weapons systems—hypersonic technology— presents the most serious challenge to arms proliferation in a generation. It is extremely concerning to see how little credibility is given to the possibility of nuclear war despite ample warning signs. Though it is unlikely that either the US, China or Russia seriously considers a nuclear first strike as a viable strategy, all three are increasingly paranoid regarding the military threat posed by each other. Perhaps even more concerning is the deterioration of relations between ‘second order’ nuclear powers such as India, Pakistan and Israel, and the soon-to-be nuclear Iran. Throw into the mix the wild cards of a nuclear North Korea and the possibility of such arms falling into the hands of a terrorist cell, and you have an extremely fragile security situation on the global stage.
The steady dismantling of nuclear nonproliferation treaties hints at the extent to which states have chosen to forget the crises of the past. In late 2019 the US and Russia withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a cornerstone of international non-proliferation set up to avoid the near-misses of the 1980s following weapons build-up in East and West Germany. After 30 years of disarmament processes, the British government announced recently it would increase its nuclear warhead capacity by 40%, taking current stockpiles to 260 warheads. In addition to this, a new front of nuclear capability is emerging, based around developments in hypersonic technology. This technology comprises propulsion systems capable of achieving speeds greater than Mach 5 (close to 4,000 mph). Applications of this technology include the Russian Avangard system, a hypersonic glider capable of delivering a payload of dozens of nuclear warheads to the UK in less than a minute. Similar programmes are currently being pursued by China and the US, with current projections expecting delivery of such systems by the middle of the decade. Hypersonic systems such as these also possess highly sophisticated evasion technology, making them practically impossible to destroy during flight.
These developments turn the concept of deterrence on its head. For at least the immediate future, hypersonic weapons present the opportunity to negate missile defence systems that underpin the theory of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Whilst defensive capability is likely to catch up in the years to come, the current emphasis on offensive capability encourages proliferation of hypersonic weapons and, at least superficially, reduces the consequences of a first strike. In the face of these threats, old and new, immediate action is needed.
Sadly, many crucial players are reverting to the ideologies that permeated the darkest days of the Cold War. The UK government’s integrated strategy review is just such a regression. It seeks to emulate the outdated policy that building nuclear capacity acts as a deterrent to foreign opponents. First, this is unsustainable: the economic burden of developing and maintaining nuclear weapons is astronomical and the state the UK seeks to counter, namely China, possesses far greater material resources and capital reserves. An arms race is thus inconceivable, unless we want to lose. Second, there is significant doubt as to whether deterrence through proliferation actually works. The USSR didn’t collapse because Soviet citizens were convinced of the superiority of the American nuclear arsenal—a far more accurate assessment is that they were convinced of the desirability of American cultural products. The Nike trainer was thus a far more effective defensive tool than the Pershing missile. A nation’s cultural output, or what has been termed ‘soft power’, is invariably a more useful instrument of diplomacy simply because it can actually be deployed strategically without starting a global apocalypse. This money could be far better spent in other avenues of defense. Nuclear weapons are useless as an instrument of war: to use them against another nuclear power would be nothing short of an act of mass suicide. By comparison, investment in cutting-edge cyber warfare capabilities presents many more options for defense that fall short of the threshold for war. Equally important is the role of soft power assets—something the UK has in abundance. To give one example, the BBC remains the most used news service in the world; investing in this often-ignored asset should be at the top of our foreign policy to-do list.
Whilst the UK has placed cultivating soft power as a key goal, the move towards nuclear proliferation undermines this objective both financially and symbolically. It is right and necessary that we seek to update our defensive capabilities, but this must not deter us from engaging in dialogue with our international competitors. A clash of civilisations predicted by some more gloomy political scientists at the beginning of the millennium is not inevitable, but it grows more likely with every act of escalation. If we are to avoid what would surely be the end of humanity as we know it, we must begin to rebuild the relationships of trust that are the basis of non-proliferation treaties. For the UK’s part, renouncing the nuclear capacity increase and proposing multilateral talks on a new comprehensive nuclear arms treaty, one that accounts for the emergence of hypersonic weapons, is not just a matter of inter-state diplomacy, it is a fundamental matter of survival.