Nuclear Weapons and Disarmament Realities: Past, Present and Future

By Simpson, John | New Zealand International Review, November-December 1997 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Weapons and Disarmament Realities: Past, Present and Future


Simpson, John, New Zealand International Review


John Simpson discusses the problems and prospects of achieving non-proliferation and non-possession of nuclear weapons.

We currently live in an era where, for the first time for half a century, the global elimination of nuclear weapons appears possible, though not yet probable. The five nuclear-weapon states, who also happen to be the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, have been for the last six years in a relationship other than acute political hostility, and their need for such weapons for their own security is no longer so self-evident as it was prior to 1991. This in itself will not be sufficient to produce the elimination of nuclear weapons: other changes in the perspectives that states and their leaders hold about nuclear weapons will be necessary. But such changes are not impossible: the `realist' perspective that suggests that a universal, determinist logic applies to attitudes and policies towards such weapons is demonstrably open to question, at the very least.

From the early 1950s onwards, the pervading concern influencing the implementation of `pure [nuclear] deterrence', and thus strategic nuclear weapon policies and doctrines, was to counter the possible disarming consequences of a surprise attack. Since 1991, this picture has changed radically. Concern now is over actions resulting from inadvertence and accident, rather than malevolence. Although a limited, residual state of mutual threat and deterrence can still be perceived to exist between the United States and Russia, political change has meant that a purposeful surprise disarming strike is no longer the threat driving strategic nuclear weapon procurement and operations. This development seems likely to be strengthened with the imminent entry of officers and officials of Russia into the corridors of NATO headquarters on a permanent basis.

This same political change has also allowed developments in weapon technologies to impact fully upon thought and action concerning the role of nuclear weapons in `indirect' deterrence. From the late 1960s onwards, precision guided munitions started to make it unnecessary to mount nuclear warheads on missiles and aircraft to compensate for delivery inaccuracies, but the full impact of these developments was not felt until 1991, when both the Cold and Gulf wars ended. The consequence was that nuclear warheads were removed from almost all their `war-fighting' roles by NATO. Yet the concept now seems to have made a reappearance in Russia to offset conventional military weakness, despite technological disarmament having advanced so rapidly that reports suggest that almost all the non-strategic weapons in Russia will cease to be capable of reliable operation by 2005, with no obvious means or money being available to replace them.

Global numbers of immediately available operational weapons have therefore declined radically since 1991, with total numbers of warheads on `hair-trigger' alert in Russia now probably not exceeding 500. Two sets of questions flow from this:

* What are the doctrinal implications of having a much reduced portion of the inventories of nuclear weapons committed to time-urgent tasks?

* What will be the impact upon such inventories of the continuing processes of block obsolescence, design-life expiry, aging, and lack of priority for financial and other resources to sustain nuclear arsenals?

Low risk

The post-2000 security environment seems likely to be characterised by political and security uncertainties, but a low risk of catastrophic global nuclear conflict. The nuclear-weapon states may need to adjust their policies to the changing realities of a world where:

* nuclear weapons will not be as salient to them as in the past;

* resources available for them will be significantly constrained;

* a nuclear test moratorium will place the emphasis on maintaining existing physics packages, rather than on developing new ones; and

* articulating the need for nuclear weapons on anything other than a `come in handy' basis will become increasingly difficult. …

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