The Renewed Nuclear Arms Race We Aren’t Discussing

The threat of terrorist attacks is more top-of-mind for Americans than an accelerating nuclear arms race by Russia, China and the United States involving smaller, more precise nuclear weapons that could put the entire world on higher alert.

The threat of terrorist attacks is more top-of-mind for Americans than an accelerating nuclear arms race by Russia, China and the United States involving smaller, more precise nuclear weapons that could put the entire world on higher alert.

Americans worry about the threat of terrorism while being largely unaware of an accelerating nuclear arms race involving Russia, China and the United States.

To the extent nuclear weapons are discussed, it is in the context of the Iranian nuclear deal, North Korea’s relentless efforts to join the nuclear club and a fear that ISIS will grab nuclear material for a so-called dirty bomb. A reignited nuclear arms race between world powers, including the United States, remains in the shadows of a presidential election and public debate.

The topic was brought into the daylight by a recent New York Times article that reported, “The United States, Russia and China are now aggressively pursuing a new generation of smaller, less destructive nuclear weapons.” 

The report added ominously, “The buildups threaten to revive a Cold War-era arms race and unsettle the balance of destructive force among nations that has kept the nuclear peace for more than a half century.”

Sobering stuff. It underlines the need for a calm hand, not a twitchy finger in the White House. It also may be why GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump hasn’t repeated his seemingly off-the-cuff comments about helping Japan and South Korea secure nuclear weapons.

The new nuclear race has less to do with building larger bombs than the stealth of surgically delivering smaller ones. The Russians have topped big missiles with miniaturized warheads and are developing an undersea drone that can loft a city-smothering radioactive cloud. China is reportedly flight-testing a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on a hypersonic glide vehicle, which would maneuver in space, then twist and careen toward its intended target on Earth. 

The Times report says the United States is also testing a hypersonic weapon and modernizing its nuclear arsenal with "small, stealthy and precise” weaponry that can evade nuclear missile defense systems and pinpoint targets. U.S. officials aren’t denying what’s going on, but they also aren’t playing it up.

After World War II, the Cold War race to stockpile ever-larger bombs on longer-distance missiles was based on the “grim logic” of mutual assured destruction, which meant if someone launched an attack, there would be a massive counterattack that would destroy great swaths of the planet. The outcome was so horrifying, it became its own effective deterrent.

Now, the prospect of less destructive and more precise nuclear weapons could tempt somebody to try them out. Some military experts say miniaturized nuclear weapons could deter terrorist groups, though nuclear arms critics would contend their use could feed the radical vision of ISIS for some kind of apocalyptic battle. 

Development of a new generation of nukes at the moment has more to do with geopolitical anxieties, such as Russia’s flirtation with Soviet-style aggression and China’s ambition to solidify its place as a world power. Russia’s expansion into Crimea and China’s land claims in the China Sea serve as present-day reminders of the tensions that underlie nuclear expansion and modernization and cause all three countries to point fingers as to who’s is responsible for a new nuclear arms race.

The Times report notes that Washington and Moscow have kept their respective nuclear forces on high alert to allow a rapid response if an incoming strike is detected. China is apparently on a path to upgrade its early warning system, raising the overall stakes of a “launch on warning” mistake that triggers a nuclear free-for-all.

Arms control advocates feel like middle managers in a modern, fast economy with little effective role in addressing a rekindled Cold War escalation. The Times quotes Mark Gubrud, a nuclear weapons expert, as saying, “The world has failed to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle and new genies are now getting loose."