Eliminating Nuclear Threats

A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers



GARETH EVANS and YORIKO KAWAGUCHI CO-CHAIRS                    Commission Members


2. The Risks from Existing Nuclear-Armed States

The Destructive Capabilities of Existing Weapons

2.1     The destructive power of nuclear weapons is mind-numbing in more ways than one: far too much policy debate about the role of nuclear weapons is abstract and detached from the horrific reality of their lethal capability. The short point is that the combined stockpile of existing weapons is capable of destroying our world as we know it many times over. Their basic blast power is phenomenal, whether the yield of any given weapon (the amount of energy discharged in a nuclear detonation) is measured in kilotons (abbreviated as kt, corresponding to thousands of tons of conventional TNT explosive) or megatons (Mt, or millions of tons of TNT). While direct blast effects cause most casualties, thermal radiation effects go well beyond the demolition radius of the shock wave, and direct radiation can cause death and acute illness for many months – and terrible deformities in exposed unborn babies. Residual radiation contaminates the land, and is a cancer risk to exposed populations for decades.

2.2     At its peak in 1984–1985, the aggregate world stockpile of nuclear weapons held by all nuclear weapon states was some 70,000 warheads. Their cumulative destructive power peaked in 1974 (when the numbers were smaller but the weapons larger) at a level of about 25,000 Mt – 1,600,000 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. Just three 1Mt nuclear warheads, of the kind widely deployed on U.S. and Soviet strategic missiles at the height of the Cold War, had between them destructive power greater than the sum of all conventional munitions exploded by all states during World War II.

2.3     Weapon numbers have been dramatically reduced since then, mainly during the flurry of decommissioning activity in the immediate post-Cold War years, and average strategic weapon sizes are smaller: more like 300 kt than in the megaton plus range. But that still means a destructive capability for each such weapon some twenty times greater than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and the scale of the damage that could be caused by dropping just one of them on any major city today should be deeply sobering for even the most disengaged specialist. And we are still living with a global inventory of some 23,000 nuclear weapons of all sizes, with a combined blast-destruction capability of 2,300 Mt, equivalent to 150,000 Hiroshima bombs.


BOX 2-1

Impact of STRATEGIC nuclear WEAPON STRIKES on London AND mumbai

Diagram box 2-1Detonation of 300kt
nuclear weapon 1000m
above Trafalgar Square, London, on a working
Estimated Fatalities:

Estimated Casualties:









Diagram box 2-1Detonation of 300kt
nuclear weapon 1000m
above Central Mumbai, on a working day.
Estimated Fatalities:
Estimated Casualties:










Diagram box 2-1






2.4     In the 1980s Western and Soviet scientists conducted research that showed what the climatic effect of large-scale nuclear war might be. Enormous pollution of atmosphere by debris and smoke would screen the sunlight for decades and lead to what was called “nuclear winter”, extinguishing many species of flora and fauna, drastically changing ecological balances, and causing famine and social disintegration in societies not directly affected by nuclear explosions. Critics used various uncertainties in the original studies and the first climate models (which were relatively primitive by current standards) as a basis to denigrate and reject these scenarios, and for a number of years nuclear winter was widely regarded in government and media circles as a somewhat suspect theory. But interest in it has re-emerged in the context of renewed interest in climate modelling, and new research, published in 2007–2008, suggests that just a limited regional nuclear exchange, for example between India and Pakistan, with each side attacking the other’s major cities with 50 low-yield Hiroshima-sized weapons, would throw up major concentrations of soot into the stratosphere which would remain there for long enough – a decade or more – to cause unprecedented climate cooling worldwide, with major disruptive effects on global agriculture.

Numbers and Classes of Existing Weapons

2.5     Atomic vs. hydrogen weapons. There are two principal classes of nuclear weapons, variously described as atomic (also called fission or sometimes, confusingly, nuclear) and hydrogen (also called fusion, or thermonuclear). “Fission” involves the splitting of a large atom into smaller ones, and “fusion” the fusing of two or more lighter atoms into a larger one, while “thermonuclear” refers to nuclear reactions occurring at very high temperatures. Atomic bombs use, as their explosive material, weapons grade uranium (as in the Hiroshima weapon) or plutonium (as in the Nagasaki one). Depending on the design, a basic nuclear weapon can be made with around 15 kilograms of high enriched uranium (containing 90 per cent or more of uranium-235 isotopes), or 4–5 kilograms of plutonium (containing 93 per cent or more of plutonium-239 isotopes) – or even less in the case of advanced designs. The trigger for producing a critical mass of the metal in question is a high energy conventional explosive. Compared to uranium charges, less plutonium is needed to achieve a nuclear yield, but plutonium requires a much more sophisticated implosion type trigger mechanism. (On the difference between “gun” and “implosion” designs, see Box 4-1 in Section 4). The upper yield limit for pure fission bombs appears to be around 700 kt.

2.6     Hydrogen weapons, by contrast, provide for virtually unlimited explosive power, with the Cold War superpowers having designs capable of achieving 100 Mt. This class of nuclear weapon is also called fusion, or thermonuclear, since it is based on the release of energy through the fusion of deuterium and tritium atoms – commonly available hydrogen isotopes – at temperatures and pressures higher than those at the centre of the sun, produced using an atomic fission charge as the trigger. A process of using fusion to in turn boost the fission reaction of the plutonium or uranium core permits manufacturing relatively small explosive devices of very high yield which can be easily fitted into a great variety of delivery systems. Most contemporary nuclear weapons are combination fission–fusion devices which have a significantly more efficient yield-to-weight ratio than earlier weapons.

2.7     Thermonuclear weapons form the bulk of the U.S., Russian, British, French and Chinese nuclear arsenals. Other nuclear states have atomic munitions. Israeli, Indian and North Korean weapons or explosive devices are believed to be based on plutonium cores, while Pakistan is believed to use uranium. The nature of each state’s current inventory, to the extent that it can be assessed, is described in more detail below.

2.8     Strategic vs. “sub-strategic” weapons. At least in the context of U.S.-Russia arms control negotiations, nuclear weapons are generally subdivided in two classes, strategic and sub-strategic, with sub-strategic systems further divided into medium-range, and theatre or tactical (battlefield). But even in this bilateral context, and certainly elsewhere, this basic distinction is much more blurred than appears at first sight. As we will note again in Section 18, when addressing the issue of disarmament counting, whatever the formal definitions in treaties like START (which focus on the nature and range of various delivery systems rather than the yields of the warheads themselves), for practical military purposes the differences are extremely elusive. States living side-by-side do not think of “strategic” weapons just in terms of those mounted on intercontinental-range missiles. And even “tactical” or “battlefield” weapons, designed for theatre operational combat tasks, will if used in densely populated areas be more or less indistinguishable in the havoc they cause from much bigger weapons, or those capable of being delivered over longer distances.

2.9     Strategic weapons are assigned the task of destroying an opponent’s capacity to wage war by inflicting unacceptable damage on its strategic forces, conventional forces, economic assets and infrastructure, and urban-industrial centres. Such missions may be performed through a first strike (usually conceived as disarming or counterforce), or a second, retaliatory, strike (usually conceived as countervalue, but also counterforce to the extent that there are such targets left to attack). As the terms imply, “counterforce” refers to the targeting of some element of military infrastructure, while “countervalue” refers to the targeting of an opponent’s cities and civilian populations. It is these capabilities which give rise to the concept of nuclear deterrence at the global level.

2.10     Strategic weapons, of the kind in issue in the post-START U.S.–Russian negotiations, cover land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with a range of 5,500 km and more, sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) on nuclear strategic submarines (SSBNs), and heavy bombers, usually with ranges of more than 10,000 km armed with gravity (air-dropped) bombs, short-range air-to-surface missiles (SRAMs) and long-range air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). Many ICBMs and all SLBMs are equipped with multiple individually targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), also called multiple warheads (each aimed at an individual target). All these missiles and bombs have thermonuclear warheads, with yields within a wide range, from a few dozen kilotons to a few megatons. Their accuracy, measured as a radius of a circle around the target within which the impact is expected, is from several hundred to less than one hundred meters for ballistic missiles and a few meters for cruise missiles.

2.11     “Sub-strategic” nuclear weapons are understood, by implication from the START definition of strategic weapons, to be those with ranges shorter than 5,500 km. As a rule, medium range nuclear weapons have yields in the same range as strategic arms and are targeted at the same classes of sites (military and urban-industrial) as strategic weapons, depending on their accuracy. Hence, such forces have traditionally been considered strategic, despite their having medium instead of intercontinental range. All Soviet and U.S. IRBMs, MRBMs and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) were eliminated by the 1987 Treaty on Intermediate Nuclear Forces and Shorter Range Forces (INF-SRF Treaty), and today the only existing U.S. and Russian intermediate class nuclear weapons are sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) of up to 3,000 km range deployed on nuclear attack submarines, and Russian medium-range bombers. Britain and France do not have medium-range nuclear weapons, but China, Israel, India, and Pakistan possess them in relatively considerable numbers. North Korea has tested and deployed medium range ballistic missiles but most probably, although expert opinion differs on this subject, does not have nuclear munitions reduced to a size capable of delivery by these systems.

2.12     Tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) usually have shorter than 500 km range and lower yield (although on both range and yield there are exceptions to this rule). In the past, they have included small, sub-kiloton nuclear mines and nuclear artillery shells; short-range tactical ballistic missiles (some with megaton yield warheads); nuclear gravity bombs; torpedoes and depth charges; as well as the infamous “suitcase” nuclear weapons designed for special forces demolition operations. A primary distinctive feature of TNW is their predominant use of conventional platforms, launchers and delivery vehicles. Most importantly, TNW differ from strategic and medium range nuclear arms in that their role is not to cripple the economy, population and strategic nuclear capability of an opponent, but to thwart its large scale military operations. However, regardless of theory or war plans, it is clear that any massive use of tactical nuclear weapons would be virtually equal in its devastating immediate and long term consequences to the use of strategic nuclear arms in densely populated regions. Moreover, any use of tactical nuclear weapons runs the huge risk of triggering a full-scale nuclear war employing every other class of weapon in the relevant states’ arsenals.

2.13     During the Cold War NATO deployed about 7,000 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe to offset Soviet conventional superiority, while the Warsaw Pact deployed 10,000 such arms to counter the Atlantic Alliance. Significant numbers of TNW still remain in Europe. U.S.–Russian parallel unilateral commitments on TNW reductions of the early 1990s did not envision any agreed definitions, counting rules or verification procedures. Hence, while having substantially reduced the number of TNW, this approach has created uncertainties and mutual distrust regarding remaining numbers, location, types and missions of this class of nuclear weapon. Presently TNW are held by the U.S. and Russia (in drastically reduced numbers over the last twenty years), France (although it classifies its land- and carrier-based tactical nuclear capable aircraft as an arm of its strategic force), probably China, as well as Israel, India, and Pakistan. North Korea has short-range missiles, but appears to lack the compact nuclear munitions necessary to arm them.

2.14     Defining “nuclear-armed states”. Nuclear weapons or explosive devices (the distinction is slight, and depends on judgments about stability, predictability and deliverability) are presently possessed by nine states. Five of them are the nuclear-weapon states defined as such by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – the U.S., Russia, France, UK and China – who of course happen also to be, although not for any directly connected reason, the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council. Three others are outside the NPT, India, Pakistan and – although it does not acknowledge that it possesses any such weapons, or weapon-making capacity – Israel. When referring collectively to these 5+3 – as will the Commission many times throughout this report – we will use the expression “nuclear-armed states”.

2.15     A question arises as to whether the ninth state, North Korea, should also be so described as a “nuclear-armed state”. It has conducted two nuclear tests in October 2006 and June 2009, has enough plutonium to develop some five or six weapons, and in terms of delivery systems has hundreds of SRBMs and a few dozen MRBMs, and has been testing an ICBM. But on the other side of the equation, its handful of nuclear explosive devices may not yet be operationally deliverable as weapons (with most, if not all, experts agreeing that it has not so far been able to miniaturize its nuclear explosive devices sufficiently to allow their delivery by ballistic missiles or aircraft); its purported withdrawal from the NPT has not been accepted at face value by many states; and in any event, with the ongoing Six-Party Talks process, this situation may conceivably prove reversible by negotiation in the not too distant future, in a way that is manifestly not likely with the 5+3. Given these considerations, the Commission has concluded that it is premature to describe North Korea as a “nuclear-armed state” in the same sense as the others, and wherever relevant in the text we treat its position separately.

2.16     Nuclear statistics are highly controversial and speculative, even with regard to the great nuclear powers. Discrepancies stem from different counting rules for strategic weapons, opaque data on tactical nuclear arms, and great uncertainty over nuclear munitions stored in reserve or awaiting dismantling, utilization or reprocessing. Official data on China and Israel is not available at all. But on the best available information and estimates we have, the size and shape of each of the nuclear-armed states’ present arsenals may be summarized as follows and in Box 2-2.


BOX 2-2

Nuclear Arsenals 2009

To Be
Total by Country
Yield Range (kt)
Total Yield (Mt)
U.S. 2200 2000 – 30001 500 500 4200 9400 – 10,400 Sub-kt – 455 6472
Russia 28003 47504 2000 – 30004 34004 ?4 12,950 – 13,950 Sub-kt – 1000 1,2732
China 130 – 1865 54 ~6 ~   184 – 240 200 – 3300 294
France <3007 08 0 0   <300 100 – 300 55
UK 1609 0 010 0   160 100 16
Israel11 60 – 20012 ~ 0 0   60 – 200 ~ 1.6 – 12
India13 60 – 7012 ~ 0 0   60 – 70 15 – 20013 1
Pakistan13 >6012 ~ 0 0   >60 Sub-kt – 5013 1.3
North Korea 0 0 0 5 – 614   5 – 6 Sub-kt – 814 0.05
5770 – 5975 6800 – 7800 2500 – 3500 3900 >4200 23,200 – 25,400   2300

Sources: These figures represent the Commission’s best judgment, based on published estimates and compilations by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Center for Defense Information (CDI), Federation of American Scientists (FAS), International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and input from the Commission’s research consultants.

Notes to the Table: see the Notes and Sources section at the end of this report.


2.17     United States. The U.S. currently has what it calls “operationally deployed” 2,700 nuclear warheads, of which 2,200 are in offensive strategic and 500 in tactical nuclear forces, together with as many as 1,000 land, sea and aircraft-based strategic delivery systems. Claimed discrepancies between START counting rules and what the U.S. considers to be operationally deployed weapons have led to some continuing disputation on numbers of strategic warheads and their associated delivery systems, but on any view present U.S. strategic force levels are much lower than they were in late 1980s (about 12,000 warheads), or as compared to START ceilings (6,000 warheads and 1,600 delivery systems). Deeper reductions have been made during the past two decades in tactical nuclear weapons. Compared to about 8,000 TNW at Army and Air Force bases and an unknown quantity on naval vessels in the late 1980s, the current U.S. force consists of approximately 500 active warheads: 400 gravity bombs and 100 warheads for SLCMs. Of these around 200 bombs are still deployed at six airbases in five European states (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey).

2.18     There is greater uncertainty associated with nuclear weapons in storage which are subdivided into active, reserve or spare warheads (relatively quickly deployable on assigned delivery systems), and inactive (held in long-term storage and awaiting dismantlement). Unofficial estimates are that the U.S. presently has 2,500 warheads in the former category and 4,200 in the latter. The rate of dismantling of old warheads at the Pantex Plant in Texas is about 350 units per year, at which rate – though it has been much higher in the past – it would take twelve years to eliminate the current backlog of warheads slated for retirement.

2.19     The U.S. nuclear arms modernization program does not currently envision construction of new ballistic missiles, submarines or heavy bombers, though it is developing a new generation nuclear ALCM, and there remains a significant domestic constituency pressing for development of a “Reliable Replacement Warhead” (RRW). The service life of existing equipment has been extended till 2030 and higher yield warheads from dismantled missiles installed on them.

2.20     Russian Federation. Russia’s strategic offensive nuclear force is largely transparent and its data seen as accurate. In 2009 it consisted of 634 delivery vehicles and 2,825 nuclear warheads. Russia’s ICBM force has 385 launchers and missiles carrying 1357 nuclear warheads (on the average of 500 Kt yield). The sea-based force consists of 13 SSBNs, 208 SLBMs and 612 nuclear warheads divided between the Northern and Pacific fleets. On average only one or two submarines are constantly on patrol (60–100 warheads), compared to ten or fifteen during the Cold War. The air wing consists of 77 heavy bombers and 856 cruise missiles.

2.21     The Russian sub-strategic nuclear force is much less transparent. By the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union had about 23,000 TNW. Most estimates put the current number at about 2,000 weapons with Russia, emulating NATO’s Cold War strategy, maintaining a relatively large TNW force to offset NATO’s perceived growing conventional superiority and possibly China’s as well. Of these, approximately 600 are air-to-surface missiles and gravity bombs; 200 are missiles, bombs and depth charges on land-based naval aircraft; around 400 are on naval anti-ship, anti-submarine, and air-defence missiles and torpedoes. It is commonly assumed that in peacetime all these weapons are stored in depots at air force and navy bases, except for a few naval missiles and torpedoes loaded on ships and submarines on sea patrol.

2.22     During the 1990s all ground force tactical nuclear warheads – and a large proportion of air force, navy and air defence TNW – were redeployed to central storage depots deep inside Russian territory. At such depots they, and many strategic warheads (removed from dismantled ICBMs and SLBMs), are serviced as spare munitions for replacement of deployed warheads. Otherwise they await dismantlement or utilization, including blending for fuel for atomic power plants, or for fissile materials recycling for newly manufactured warheads. The total number of Russian nuclear weapons in central storage is unknown but most probably there are many thousands.

2.23     The Russian weapon modernization program is designed to renovate the strategic force, largely of 1970s and 1980s vintage, that is becoming in large part obsolete both in terms of design and lack of maintenance, although some aspects of it have encountered serious technical problems, construction delays and huge cost overruns. Future Russian strategic force numbers will naturally decline due to the mass withdrawal of old systems and the slow rate of new deployments, which opens the door to quite radical strategic nuclear disarmament, in the START follow-on negotiations and subsequently, provided that the U.S. also agrees to go down to similar levels, and – as further discussed later in this report – other military and political problems are resolved. Russia has announced that it is developing a new “gliding” re-entry vehicle for its ICBMs, specifically designed to penetrate potential U.S. ballistic missile defences, and its sub-strategic forces are being modernized with a new tactical land-based missile, which may be equipped with a nuclear or precision guided conventional warhead and have variable short or medium range.

2.24     France has the third largest strategic force in the world, consisting of 108 delivery vehicles and up to 300 nuclear warheads. It has three SSBNs with 48 missiles and 240 warheads, with one submarine usually on patrol. In addition 60 land-based and 24 carrier-based strike aircraft are capable of delivering in total about 60 medium-range air-to-surface missiles. France’s modernization program includes a fourth SSBN (to be commissioned in 2010), deployment of a longer range SLBM system, and a new strike aircraft with new nuclear missiles. Although by START classification French planes would be counted as tactical or medium-range delivery vehicles, they are considered an arm of the “strategic strike force”. It is planned to reduce the number of nuclear capable aircraft by half, which may bring force numbers down to 100 delivery vehicles and 250–270 warheads. France does not possess sub-strategic nuclear forces, apart from the aircraft mentioned.

2.25     United Kingdom. The UK’s nuclear arsenal consists of 4 SSBNs with a total of 48 missiles and 144 nuclear warheads. Submarines and warheads are British while the (Trident) missiles are leased from the United States. One SSBN is normally being overhauled at any given time, while of the three deployed submarines one is on sea patrol. It is commonly assumed that there are ten spare missiles and 40 warheads in storage. After a heated debate in 2005–2007 a decision was taken by the government to start planning (though no major resources have yet been committed) for construction of a follow-on class of submarines, for leasing modified Trident-2 missiles from the U.S. and developing a new type of nuclear warhead after 2024, when the current model SSBNs end their service lifetime; it was subsequently announced in September 2009 that this fleet would be reduced from four to three. Britain does not possess any other strategic force or any sub-strategic nuclear weapons.

2.26     China is the only one of the five nuclear weapon states recognized under the NPT that does not provide any official data on its existing and planned nuclear forces. The official justification of this policy is that China’s nuclear forces are much smaller than those of other nuclear powers and secrecy about numbers is needed for better deterrence. China is nevertheless estimated to have approximately 190–200 nuclear warheads which makes it the fourth (and potentially the third) largest nuclear weapon state. No information exists on any possible nuclear reserve. Foreign official and academic estimates presently assume China is in possession of about 130 land-based ballistic missiles of intercontinental, intermediate and medium range, and varying in age. All of them are currently single-warhead. China also is testing an experimental nuclear submarine with 12 SLBMs and is believed to be constructing another. The bomber force consists of 20 old medium range airplanes, copied from a 1950s Soviet design. China is commonly believed to possess, despite official denials, around 150–350 tactical cruise and ballistic missiles, many of which are deployed within reach of Taiwan and capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Around 40 gravity bombs may be delivered to target by obsolete medium range bombers, and by strike aircraft.

2.27     India does not provide official data on its nuclear forces, but is generally believed to have 60–70 operationally deployed nuclear weapons. Its ballistic missile force consists of SRBMs (150 km range) and MRBMs (700-1,000 km, with a 3,000 km missile being tested), and sea-based ballistic missiles. Medium range and strike bombers may also be used for carrying out nuclear raids, while Russian-made fighter planes can carry nuclear weapons as well and their range can be extended by India’s mid-air refuelling capacity.

2.28     Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal, also officially non-transparent, estimated at approximately 60 weapons. They can be delivered to target by ballistic missiles and by U.S., French and Chinese-manufactured fighter aircraft. Pakistan has two types of SRBMs (400–450 km range), and one type of MRBM (2,000 km). Another type of MRBM is in the testing stage, while a third is being developed. All of these systems are ground-mobile. A ground-based cruise missile, apparently similar to a Chinese model, is undergoing testing and will be developed in both air-based and sea-based versions. The latter is to be deployed on diesel submarines built locally under French supervision. It is assumed that Pakistan’s missile program was developed with the active cooperation at various times of North Korea and China.

2.29     Israel differs from other nuclear states by not only withholding official information on its nuclear forces, but by having never officially confirmed having them at all. It is estimated to possess from 60 to 200 nuclear weapons, about 50 of them as missile warheads, and the rest deliverable by aircraft. Depending on the estimates of the size of Israel’s nuclear stockpile, it is either comparable to or exceeds the nuclear arsenal of Britain, as well as that of India and Pakistan. Israel has 50 MRBMs (1,500–1,800 km range) capable of striking, among others, targets in the south of Russia. In 2008 Israel tested an extended range “Jericho III” missile with a maximum range of 4,800–6,500 km, which took it across the threshold of being an intercontinental ballistic missile. Apart from missiles Israel has one of the most powerful air forces in the world; including 205 U.S.-made fighter planes capable of carrying nuclear weapons. A new development is Israel’s acquisition of three diesel-powered submarines, manufactured in Germany, with two more ordered in 2006, believed to accommodate sea-launched nuclear capable cruise missiles.

Missiles and Missile Defence

2.30     Missile defence systems. Since the destructive potential of the weapons and delivery systems described will depend at least partially on the nature and quality of the defensive systems arrayed against them, it is important to take those systems into account, and be able to make some judgment about whether they are, on balance, lessening the nuclear danger or adding to it. The most controversial issue in this respect is undoubtedly strategic or “national” missile defence, targeting intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, and potentially seriously affecting the balance of capabilities between the major nuclear powers if it could ever be made effective by either side. The argument, in short, is that mutual deterrence depends on each side being vulnerable to retaliation from the other, and that mutuality breaks down if one side has significantly greater capability to defend against a retaliatory strike. The situation destabilizes to the extent that it encourages a scramble to acquire enough new weaponry for retaliatory capacity to stay ahead of defence. There is also an incentive to retain dangerously high alert launch-on-warning capability (as discussed below), for fear that even more offensive weapons will be lost if not immediately used in the face of a perceived attack.

2.31     Initially Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems were deployed by the U.S. and Soviet Union in limited numbers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but then – with eventual acceptance by both sides of the kind of argument just made – were restricted by the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972. The BMD systems relied on ballistic missile early warning systems, battle management radars and ballistic anti-missiles of various ranges armed with nuclear warheads. Russia maintains one strategic BMD site to protect the Moscow area with one battle-management radar and about 50 short-range nuclear armed anti-missiles. After abrogation of the ABM Treaty in 2002 – which generated little major controversy at the time, although the debate is now very much springing to life again – the U.S. started deployment of a conventionally armed precision guided (direct-impact) BMD system in California (about 30 long-range ballistic anti-missiles) and Alaska (three anti-missiles).

2.32     The then U.S. administration also planned a European deployment in Poland (ten anti-missiles) and the Czech Republic (battle management radar), which although officially based on a concern that Iran was developing long-range missiles that could hit the U.S., generated a furious reaction from Russia as a threat to its own nuclear deterrence. Characterized by critics as a system that did not work deployed against a threat which did not exist, as well as standing in the way of U.S.–Russia disarmament negotiations which did meet a real-world need, this deployment was halted by the Obama administration in September 2009, in favour of a system to be specifically directed to shorter-range missiles posing a more immediate danger in South East Europe and the Middle East. As discussed further in Section 18, this issue is bound to be a recurring one in future disarmament negotiations, not only between the U.S. and Russia, and the arguments won and lost over the ABM treaty in the past will need to be revisited.

2.33     By and large questions concerning theatre missile defence (with systems targeting medium-range missiles in a localized region) or tactical missile defence (dealing with shorter ranges still), have been less controversial, and certainly the development of defensive systems in this context continues apace on all sides, in the absence of any evident willingness globally to ban short and intermediate range missiles entirely, as discussed below. The relevant history is that in 1997 the U.S. and Russia reached an agreement on delineation between strategic and theatre BMD systems, according to limits on the speed of interceptions from ground, air and sea-based systems. That agreement was designed to preserve the ABM Treaty of 1972 while allowing the parties to develop theatre missile defences against medium and tactical ballistic missiles of third states. The 1997 agreement never entered into force due to U.S. opposition and eventual withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty. However, in future, the 1997 agreement may be used to prevent theatre BMD systems’ development from hindering START follow-on negotiations.

2.34     But, just as noted above in the context of defining “strategic” nuclear weapons, what is strategic and what is theatre will depend more on one’s geography than anything inherent in the ranges or payloads of the weapons or delivery systems themselves. For nuclear-armed states within reach of each other’s nuclear forces, there will always be an argument as to whether any BMD development and deployment is stabilizing, or rather encouraging the build-up or modernization or both of offensive nuclear arms and hindering negotiations on mutual nuclear disarmament. For example, even though these have been formally designated as targeted against North Korea, China has reacted very negatively not only to the U.S. strategic BMD in Alaska and California, but also as to theatre BMD sea- and land-based systems in North East Asia (Aegis/Standard-3 and THAAD), which have been supported by Japan as legitimate defence measures to compensate for its own lack of offensive capability.

2.35     Curbing missile proliferation. International efforts to curb missile proliferation have been limited. The only treaties which deal with missiles in any way were bilateral U.S.–Russian agreements, including the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty (formally, the Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles). The latter sought to eliminate nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges, defined as between 500–5,500 km. By the treaty’s deadline of 1 June 1991, the U.S. had destroyed 846 of these missiles and the Soviet Union 1,846 – a total of 2,692. Concerned with US plans to deploy ballistic missile defence installations in Eastern Europe, Russia in 2007 threatened to withdraw from the INF treaty.

2.36     The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) was established in the same year that the INF treaty was finalized (1987). Its aim is to restrict the proliferation of missiles, complete rocket systems, unmanned air vehicles, and related technology capable of carrying a 500 kilogram payload at least 300 kilometres. It has had limited effect due both to its reliance on voluntary national export control legislation, and its limited membership, currently standing at 34. The MTCR also developed the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (known as the Hague Code of Conduct) which was launched in November 2002 and now has 130 subscribing states. Although being the only normative instrument to verify the spread of ballistic missiles, the Code is voluntary and non-binding, and a significant number of its members have failed to meet its reporting requirements. It also does not deal with cruise missiles. Russia was instrumental in setting up in 2000 the Global Control System for the Non-Proliferation of Missiles and Missile Technologies, which in turn has created an associated Joint Centre for the Exchange of Data, but this has not moved the debate forward to any significant degree.

2.37     Proposals made to develop multilateral treaties covering missiles, including through multilateralizing the INF, have met with little support, and seem likely to continue to do so, for the simple reason that many states have at least short range, and some have intermediate range, missiles which they regard as essential for their defence. Moreover, many states are concerned by what they regard as another example of double standards in that some of the principal members of the MTCR have retained not only ICBMs but also have substantial quantities of longer range cruise and “precision guided munitions” which, while respecting the MTCR rules, can make up by numbers and quality what they might otherwise lose in the payloads they can carry. The Commission supports all efforts to curb the proliferation and achieve reduction in the numbers of missiles, but remains pessimistic as to whether this endeavour will make a significant contribution to the objective of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. That said, it is important that there be no backward step, and continued failure to multilateralize the INF should not be used as an excuse for either present party to withdraw from it.

Alert Status of Existing Weapons

2.38     During the Cold War years huge resources were invested in raising the combat readiness of nuclear forces. Now, the only nuclear weapons kept on very high alert status and ready to launch within minutes after receiving orders are U.S. and Russian ICBMs and SLBMs on submarines on sea patrol, some Russian SLBMs on submarines at bases, French and (with some uncertainty) British SLBMs on submarines at sea. All U.S. and Russian heavy bombers were taken off alert (aircraft removed from runways and their nuclear weapons placed in storages at airbases). All U.S. and Russian sub-strategic nuclear weapons are de-alerted, except a few Russian naval nuclear torpedoes and tactical missiles on attack submarines on sea patrol. All Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and Israeli nuclear forces are believed to be kept off alert in peacetime, with the practice commonly adopted of separating warheads from missiles and aircraft.

2.39     Strategists and operation planners usually make a distinction between short-notice alert and launch-on-warning (LOW) or launch-under-attack (LUA) policy, (also popularly, if inaccurately, described as “hair trigger alert”). The former relates to all combat ready weapons that may be launched quickly (in a few minutes time) after receiving the order, primarily ICBMs and SLBMs at sea. The latter is associated with weapons that must be launched quickly upon receiving information about an opponent’s attack in order to avoid destruction on the ground. With ICBM flight time being about 30 minutes and SLBM fifteen to twenty minutes, LOW provides political leaders with decision-making time of only four to eight minutes (after deducting time for missile attack detection and confirmation, and the time for the response launch sequence and fly-away). And this time would be available only if the leaders are safe and ready, and everything works perfectly according to planned procedures. Russian strategic doctrine relies on LOW; the U.S., while not relying on it, maintains the policy. It places a premium on the quality of warning systems, which have not always been reliable in the past. Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, a member of this Commission, directly recalls three major such experiences, one of them involving NORAD computers indicating that 200 ICBMs were on their way from the USSR to the U.S. The prospect that a catastrophic nuclear exchange could be triggered by a false alarm is fearful, and not fanciful.

2.40     Altogether there are now probably about 3,000 nuclear warheads of the U.S., Russia, France and Britain at launch ready status at any given moment in peacetime, of which around 2,150 are on very high alert in line with the LOW/LOA concept and operational plans (on U.S. and Russian ICBMs, and on Russian SLBMs on submarines at bases).

2.41     In the 1990s the five nuclear-weapon states concluded agreements on de-targeting their strategic forces from each other territories, which was technically implemented through withdrawing flight programs from missiles’ on-board computers or inserting zero-flight programs. However this was, and remains, an essentially symbolic gesture, since such software modifications are unverifiable and reversible in minutes.

2.42     Maintaining thousands of nuclear warheads on dangerously high launch-on-warning alert is the ultimate absurdity of nuclear deterrence twenty years after the end of the Cold War, when political, economic and security relations, at least among the five NPT nuclear-weapon states, render deliberate nuclear attack virtually unthinkable. And it is extremely dangerous, above all because of the risk of human error in the stress of the moment, as noted below. But, as will be discussed further in Section 17 in the context of an action agenda for disarmament, early “de-alerting” is likely to prove much more difficult than might appear at first sight.

System Vulnerabilities

2.43     So far as the five NPT nuclear-weapon states are concerned (although there is some uncertainty about China due to lack of transparency of its command and control systems), it seems possible to conclude that the possibility of unauthorized use of strategic weapons as a result of technical malfunction or human act is very small. In the case of the U.S. and Russia in particular, measures have long been taken to enhance so called negative control: the heads of state are permanently accompanied by communication officers carrying nuclear “football” suitcases, so that in case of emergency the information quickly reaches them for decision on the appropriate reaction and the transmission of a coded signal to strategic command centres, without which the authorization of a weapons launch cannot be received by the relevant land, sea or aircraft based crews. Additional measures are also taken to prevent unauthorized actions at launch control centres and to provide survivability of the national command authorities (NCA) even in a nuclear strike environment (with deep hardened underground command centres, airborne command centres and the like).

2.44     Of much greater concern is the possibility of miscalculation or a decision based on the wrong information by the NCA under the stress of a possible crisis, in particular if strategic doctrine and operational plans require a very quick decision on strategic force employment: the launch-on-warning, postures described above. Added to that is now a very real concern about the new threat of cyber attack (discussed further in Section 4) – likely to get more rather than less real with future technological advances – which might disrupt computerized networks and emulate false alarms or initiate launch command sequence.

2.45     System vulnerabilities are of most concern in the case of the newer states to possess nuclear weapons, or who may acquire them in the future, which are likely to have less reliable early warning information, less maturely-developed command-control systems, less adequate survivability of their delivery systems, and even greater vulnerability to cyber attack. Institutional problems are very much compounded if the internal political situation is unstable and there is a significant possibility of civil war or rebellion. Add to all these considerations the universal problem of potential miscalculation under stress, there is manifestly no ground at all for complacency about possible catastrophes.

Attitudes to Using Nuclear Weapons and Disarmament

2.46     Every nuclear-armed state that has gone on record about its nuclear doctrine insists that it maintains its nuclear arsenal for no other purpose than deterrence. Only China limits this stated role to deterrence against the threat or use by others of nuclear weapons: all the others keep open the option, to a greater or lesser extent, of using their nuclear weapons in response to other kinds of threats (in the case of India, from chemical and biological weapons; in the case of the others, these and major conventional threats as well). “No first use” statements have been made, or not made, accordingly – i.e. very clearly in the case of China, with qualifications in the case of India, and not at all in the case of the others. “Negative security assurances” – i.e. pledges not to use nuclear weapons at all against certain non-nuclear-weapon states – have been given by the five nuclear-weapon state NPT members, but with so many qualifications as to make them almost empty.

2.47     The strengths – and weaknesses – of the various arguments advanced in support of the deterrent utility of nuclear weapons are discussed in detail in Section 6. And the important potential role of seriously intended “no first use” and related declarations, and negative security assurances, in limiting the role of nuclear weapons in the future is fully treated in Section 17.

2.48     For present purposes, focusing on the risks associated with the retention of nuclear weapons by any state, the main point to note is that, despite all the emphasis on deterrence, there is no clear watershed in practice between nuclear deterrence and nuclear warfighting. While the point of deterrence is not to have to use the weapons, they have to be capable of warfighting use if the deterrent is to be credible. Even the most destructive strategic nuclear forces carry out their political mission of deterrence specifically through their ability to carry out assigned combat missions, i.e. to destroy certain targets, and nothing else. These missions are embodied in operational plans, target lists and flight programs loaded into ballistic and cruise missiles’ onboard computers. These plans provide for the use of weapons, with varying degrees of expected effectiveness, in a first strike, a launch-on-warning or launch-under-attack strike, or delayed retaliatory second strike. Strike options envision massive salvos, limited groupings or single missile nuclear strikes at various combinations of states and targets.

2.49     The “grey area” of no clear distinction between the concepts of deterring and waging nuclear war relates even more to tactical nuclear weapons, which are viewed both as a means to promote success in a theatre or specific battlefield more rapidly, or to offset an enemy’s superiority in conventional forces. It may not make any rational sense to actually use nuclear weapons as instruments of war, but as long as they remain in existence that option will be there.

2.50     Stated attitudes by the nuclear-armed states as to whether nuclear weapons should remain in existence also vary quite considerably. Although the five nuclear-weapon state members of the NPT are formally committed to nuclear disarmament (and, indeed, to “general and complete” disarmament as well) under Article VI of the NPT, their attachment to that objective – by all of them some of the time, and some of them all the time – has been seen as less than complete. For example, even in the new and much more optimistic current environment we have described in the opening section of this report, at the special meeting of the Security Council on disarmament and non-proliferation in September 2009, which passed the wide-ranging and important Resolution 1887 on these issues, it did not prove possible to reach agreement on an operative provision explicitly agreeing on the goal of a nuclear weapon free world.

2.51     After a decade of neglect and worse, nuclear disarmament – at least to the extent of major new numerical reductions – has certainly returned to the bilateral U.S.-Russian agenda, and the overall atmosphere is far more conducive than it has been for a long time to embracing, to at least some extent, other nuclear-armed states in the process. But that said, France, the UK and China are not presently planning to accept any legal limitations on their nuclear forces, and are going on with long-term modernization and in some aspects build-up of their nuclear arsenals. Nor are Israel, India or Pakistan apparently contemplating any limitations or reductions in their nuclear forces or development programs. The challenge to achieve further real disarmament progress, let alone the ultimate goal of elimination of all weapons, remains a daunting one.



Next: 3. The Risks from New Nuclear-Armed States