Threat of nuclear war ‘dangerously close’, parliamentary report warns

Disintegrating relationships, new technologies and fewer arms controls mean risk is highest since Cold War, peers say

Harry Cockburn
Wednesday 24 April 2019 14:39
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Russian military hardware on display at the Victory Day parade 2018

Lack of meaningful arms control agreements is risking the creation of an arms race and raising the possibility of nuclear weapons being used, according to a parliamentary report.

Combined with the breakdown of diplomatic communication between countries and new technologies, the risk of a nuclear strike happening is now greater than at any time since the Cold War, the House of Lords’ International Relations Committee has warned.

With a major non-proliferation meeting scheduled by the UN in New York next week, the committee has released a report detailing what it describes as “grave concerns” and is calling on the government to address the “deteriorating state of nuclear diplomacy”.

The Lords’ International Relations Committee chairman Lord Howell of Guildford said: “We are now dangerously close to a world without arms control agreements, paving the way for a new arms race and for increased risk of nuclear weapons use.

“Disintegrating relationships between nuclear possessor states, new capabilities and technologies, mixed with a lack of communication and understanding, mean that the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater now than it has been since the Cold War.”

He added: “The 2019 Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference next week is an opportunity to push for an increase in dialogue and transparency between the nuclear weapon states to show a demonstrable commitment to disarmament.

"We urge the government to take our serious concerns into consideration, and use the preparatory committee to address them.”

The report comes months after the US and Russia pulled out of key Cold War-era weapons treaties.

In February, the Trump administration said it would suspend its obligations under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF), citing alleged Russian violations of the 32-year-long agreement.

Days later, Russian president Vladimir Putin said he was also suspending the treaty and accused the US of testing and using weapons in “direct violation” of the 1987 pact.

Mr Putin subsequently approved plans to begin building hypersonic land-based missiles as well as a ground-based version of the Kalibr (also known as Caliber) sea-launched cruise missile.

The two new systems will be completed by 2021, under the plans put forward by the Kremlin.

Donald Trump also pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal last year. The the landmark 2015 nuclear deal lifted crippling international sanctions in place on Iran in return for curbs on the country’s nuclear programme.

It ensured Tehran would abandon any attempts at creating a nuclear arsenal and ended 12 years of deadlock over the issue.

But Mr Trump described the deal as “decaying and rotten”, and said the US would “not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail” or allow “a regime that chants ‘Death to America’” to gain nuclear weapons.

The Lords’ International Relations Committee listed its main concerns as being:

  • “Misunderstanding, miscalculation or mistakes [which] could lead to the use of nuclear weapons,” with particular issues being “lack of understanding between nuclear possessor states on their respective nuclear doctrines and declaratory policies.”
  • Concern over digital communications and the use of “reckless nuclear rhetoric” on the internet which “could lead to a misunderstanding”.
  • The stalling of progress towards nuclear disarmament
  • The collapse of international arms treaties

The committee is calling on the government to “encourage greater dialogue between all nuclear possessor states about nuclear risk [and to] to reduce global tensions.”

They recommended maintaining the Iran deal and also said they would like discussions in Nato to promote either a revival of the INF treaty abandoned by Mr Trump and Mr Putin, “or at least, to avoid the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe.”

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