Getting ahead!

Countries Armed with Nukes

President Obama says he hopes to create a world without nuclear weapons. He campaigned on that message and, this week, shifted military policy to limit America’s possible use of them in retaliation to non-nuclear attacks. He hopes that other countries will follow the U.S. lead, as well as the incentives laid out in international treaties, and limit their use and development of nukes.

On Thursday, President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, signed a historic pact in Prague to scale back their nuclear arsenals. Under the new accord – an update of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, first proposed by President Reagan and first ratified in 1991 – the countries will reduce their stockpiles of nuclear warheads by 30 percent and their inventory of nuclear launchers by half.

If Obama hopes to help create a nuclear weapon-free world, however, the real challenge lies beyond America’s former Cold War enemy. Next he’ll need to get other nuclear-armed countries to follow in the path of the START deal and scale back their own arsenals.

Where are the bombs and how many are there?

In addition to the United States and Russia, three countries are officially recognized as a part of the “nuclear club”: China, France, and the United Kingdom.

According to the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan research group that advocates arms control, America and Russia are far and away the biggest nuclear powers. Russia has 2,787 strategic warheads (weapons placed in long-range delivery systems) and about 2,000 tactical warheads (weapons with a shorter range and lower payload). When you include non-operational weapons, Russia’s total stockpile is about 8,000 warheads.

The United States has 2,126 strategic warheads and about 500 tactical ones, with a total stockpile of around 6,000. China – which has the world’s largest conventional army – is a fledgling nuclear power with just 100 or 200 warheads, most of which are believed to be short-range. (International monitoring of China’s nuclear arsenal is sketchy.) France has 350 nuclear warheads, and Britain has fewer than 160.

But there are also countries beyond the official “nuclear club” with nuclear weapons.

The all-but-official nuclear club

India and Pakistan each announced in 1998 that it had developed operational nuclear weapons. That inspired a flurry of activity from nonproliferation crusaders, given the two countries’ history of bitter ethnic, religious, and nationalist rivalry. Current estimates of the nuclear stockpile of each nation, based on the amount of fissile material on hand to make them, are fewer than 100 warheads for India and 70 to 90 for Pakistan.

Israel has never officially confirmed or denied that it has nuclear weapons, because it does not want rivals in the Middle East to know anything about its capabilities. But its status as a nuclear power is an open secret, and a rough estimate ranges from 75 to 200 warheads.

Countries on the verge of going nuclear (if they haven’t already)

North Korea has recently conducted both underground and missile-based nuclear tests, showing off what the communist dictatorship claims is a fully developed nuclear weapons program. But some observers have suggested that at least some of those displays were either faked or overhyped for propaganda. The secretive nature of Kim Jong Il’s government makes it difficult to confirm any claims about the nation’s nuclear capacity. The Federation of American Scientists places its possible arsenal at fewer than 10 warheads, saying that although U.S. intelligence “claims that North Korea may have assembled a few nuclear weapons and North Korea claims to have some, no information is available in the public domain that proves [either].”

In 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Iran was pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program. The Tehran government claims it is developing nuclear power only for civilian applications. In a follow-up report this year, the IAEA maintained that the country was still involved in a weapons-development program, and had enriched its domestic store of uranium to a weapons-grade capacity.

And Syria, according to intelligence sources cited by the Federation of American Scientists, has been coordinating on nuclear weapons research with North Korea for more than a decade. In 2007, an Israeli airstrike destroyed a target in Syria that intelligence officials later told the U.S. Congress was an undeclared nuclear reactor. The reactor was similar to the research reactor near the North Korean city of Yongbyon, the sources reported. This prompted the White House to officially charge that Syria was pursuing a “covert” nuclear scheme to refine weapons-grade fissile material.

The nightmare of possible “loose nukes”

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union sent nuclear material to 17 Soviet republics and allies. Since the end of the Cold War 20 years ago and the breakup of the Soviet Union, most of those countries have fallen through the cracks of international nuclear monitoring efforts. A 2005 report from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government found that enough fissile material existed in the former Soviet bloc to create more than 80,000 nuclear weapons.

Only half of that material had been secured by agencies like the IAEA.

The United States and Russia have since sought to crack down on the traffic in illegal nuclear material in Eastern Europe, but such efforts are painstaking. The great fear is that a terrorist group could grab nuclear material from this underground market to build a “dirty bomb,” or even collaborate with a state sponsor to deploy an actual warhead. That scenario is terrifyingly easy to envision, as the Kennedy Center’s resident nuclear terrorism expert, Graham Allison, has made plain.

The outlier states that have given up their efforts

Back in the bad old days of apartheid and Libyan-sponsored terrorist attacks, no one could imagine the international community preaching that more countries should follow the example of South Africa and Libya.

But what happened in those countries is exactly what a successful nonproliferation effort looks like. South Africa had pursued a successful covert nuclear weapons plan, but renounced it and dismantled its nuclear arsenal when it signed on with the nonproliferation treaty in 1991. And Libya voluntarily renounced its nuclear weapons program in 2003, in a move that President George W. Bush’s White House hailed as a significant victory for the “Bush Doctrine,” which predicted that the invasion of Iraq would be a strong deterrent to other rogue states with nuclear ambitions. Other states that have shelved their nuclear weapons programs include Brazil, Argentina, South Korea, and Taiwan.

In each of these cases the United States, other countries, and international institutions successfully made the case that participating in the global nonproliferation effort was in the country’s best interest. Making that same pitch to established nuclear powers – and the growing fraternity of states still harboring nuclear ambitions – is the central challenge ahead for the emerging “Obama doctrine” of post-Cold War nonproliferation.



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