It has become commonplace to talk about the climate crisis as the greatest threat to the planet. It is certainly right to focus on an existential issue which we can do something about. But I fear there are other problems which could – at very short notice – prove even more pressing. Pandemics we know about. But the risks around nuclear war and weapons proliferation have slipped out of public consciousness. They mustn’t.
My awareness of this set of issues was triggered by two things. The first was the reappearance of Little Rocket Man in North Korea. He seems to have been slimming his own girth but increasing his nuclear capability. The country has been developing a cruise missile described as “strategic” and capable of delivering nuclear weapons around 1000 miles – to Japan as well as South Korea and to US bases and aircraft carriers. North Korea is also reported to have restarted a nuclear power station capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.
I am also one of the millions gripped by Vigil on BBC on Sunday evening. Like Line of Duty, its predecessor series, the plot doesn’t bear too much analysis. But, in a very compelling way, it brings to life something we have rather taken for granted: the fact that, operating out of a base in Argyll in Scotland, there is a fleet of submarines carrying Britain’s nuclear deterrent – one of which is continually patrolling at sea.
Each submarine has 40 warheads (eight operational) out of our stockpile of 180: a number which is currently being lifted to 260. Each warhead has 100 kiloton destructive power: about six times the Hiroshima bomb. I suspect, and sincerely hope, that the safety arrangements are rather better than on Vigil, which seems to be permanently on the brink of disaster. The series reminds us of the awesome duty of those politically and operationally responsible.
Yet Britain is a nuclear minnow (even with the new and bigger Trident programme of submarines and missiles currently approved and on order). We are a merely intermediate member of the family of known nuclear powers (the US, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea), which was supposed to diminish not increase in numbers.
In the rosy, optimistic days after the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, there were hopes that nuclear disarmament would be agreed. The numbers of warheads and missiles in the US and Russia was greatly reduced. The Ukraine and Kazakhstan gave up the nuclear weapons left behind by the Soviet Union. South Africa and Brazil, which had embryonic programmes, renounced nuclear weapons. A strict non-proliferation regime was put in place to stop new states joining the club – which seemed to have been enough to deter Iran from converting its nuclear technological capability into weapons.
In the last few years, however, this progress has been reversed. Russia and the US have been modernising and expanding their nuclear arsenals, while technological advances, like autonomous AI based systems, are making the old treaties obsolete. In the increasingly toxic environment in East Asia there are reports that China has deployed more missiles and as yet there appears to be no direct engagement with the US to calm the atmosphere. I explore the poisoned relationship between the two powers in my book released this week, The Chinese Conundrum: Engagement or Conflict.
Meanwhile, the withdrawal of the Trump administration from the non-proliferation agreement with Iran has threatened a revival of Iran’s nuclear programme. Trump’s face-to-face diplomacy with Kim Jong-un produced headlines but no agreement, as we are reminded this week.
As President Biden dusts himself down after the political disaster of the evacuation of Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation should be close to the top of his agenda. He is trying to revive the multilateral talks with Iran. The stakes are high since failure to check the Iranian programme could lead to unilateral military action by Israel. And there is the risk of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia, and possibly Turkey joining the club.
The Middle East is a haven of stability compared with the volatile and dangerous situation in South Asia. One of the big unknowns is how the Taliban victory will affect Pakistan, which has had its own Taliban and its own religious fanatics. The Pakistan military is sitting on a nuclear stockpile and, while Pakistan has an impressively disciplined army, the nightmare scenario of terrorists getting hold of nuclear weapons is a risk that has to be contemplated.
East Asia is more complex still and no less dangerous. The erratic behaviour of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is profoundly destabilising not just for South Korea but also for Japan. Both countries rely on US military protection, but the protection is less explicit than in Nato and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has sowed doubts about its reliability, especially in a nuclear confrontation. Japan has the technological capability to proceed quite quickly to nuclear weapons if necessary; it is largely its own history which acts as a restraint. South Korea is also technologically very advanced.
For both those countries a key uncertainty is China. No one is sure if and how Xi acts as a constraint on its ally North Korea. Moreover, there are simmering disputes between China and Japan over offshore islands. China would certainly regard a move by Japan to nuclear weapons as a provocation. And regional factors are to be seen against the background of growing political tension between China and the US.
When we consider that nuclear China is also a close ally of Pakistan and that nuclear India is nervously watching developments across the border, there is a real witches’ brew of geo-political toxins. My novel, Open Arms, which fantasised about the dangers in those relationships five years ago is beginning to read like non-fiction.
In a worst-case scenario, it is possible to see conflict breaking out between several pairs of adversaries: Iran and Israel; Iran and Saudi Arabia; India and Pakistan; India and China; China and the US; China and Japan; North Korea and several of its neighbours and the US. In each case there would be one or more parties with nuclear weapons. In several cases there is no “no first use” policy and minimal risk mitigation to stop nuclear war breaking out by accident.
“Thinking the unthinkable” is not conducive to peace of mind or a good night’s sleep. But someone has to do it. We have had several very improbable events recently – Trump; Brexit; Covid; the Taliban victory. There will be shocks to come. It is profoundly to be hoped that the use of nuclear weapons isn’t one of them. But time spent now on nuclear proliferation issues, risk reduction and nuclear disarmament would be a very good investment.
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