Arms race picks up pace

War and great power rivalry have had a detrimental effect on the nuclear arms control regime. There are no remaining treaties that regulate the arsenals of the two largest nuclear-weapon states, Russia and the United States. The Chinese authorities have stated that regulations are irrelevant as long as China’s arsenal remains smaller than those of the United States and Russia. Without international arms control, the technological arms race will increasingly come to challenge strategic stability.

Russia: nuclear weapons remain top priority

Russia will continue to pose the greatest nuclear threat to NATO and consequently to Norway. The conventional Russian armed forces and their deterrent capability are significantly degraded following two years of waging war, with high losses within the land forces, extensive use of advanced weapons systems and considerable attrition. As a result, both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons have become more important to Russian deterrence. Russian doctrine allows for the use of nuclear weapons in the event of an existential threat against the country. What constitutes an existential threat will always be a political decision, and creating uncertainty regarding the threshold for nuclear weapons use is part of Russia’s strategy.

Modernisation and development of the nuclear forces remain the top priorities in Russian arms development. Russia’s nuclear triad consists of road-mobile and silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic submarines with intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers.

The new intercontinental missile Sarmat will replace Soviet-era systems and provide a significant modernisation of the land-based component of the nuclear triad. The system was originally planned to be operational by 2018, but the development programme has become significantly delayed.

In addition to the triad, Russia has tactical nuclear warheads. These help to compensate for a growing conventional inferiority vis-à-vis the West. Consequently, Russia will continue to modernise and develop new tactical nuclear weapons for all fighting services.

Although Western sanctions will delay the Russian development programmes, particularly for means of delivery for strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, they will not prevent Russia from maintaining a powerful nuclear arsenal.

Russia has withdrawn its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), yet the Russian authorities have stated that Russia will not be the first country to conduct a test.

Despite having signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), Russia continues to conduct research and therefore retains the ability to develop biological and chemical weapons. Russia has used these types of weapons to assassinate regime opponents.

China: rapidly growing nuclear arsenal

China’s ambition is to establish a robust and credible nuclear triad by 2040, equal in volume and capability to the US and Russian triads. The Chinese nuclear arsenal is growing quickly, and the largest increase is occurring in land-based intercontinental missiles, with the construction of several hundred new silos. The silo-based systems are suitable as first-strike weapons and for retaliation, but they are vulnerable to first strikes themselves.

At present, China’s sea- and air-based nuclear arsenal is limited. However, new submarines and strategic bombers are in development. Distributing the nuclear forces across multiple delivery platforms mitigates vulnerability and offers improved flexibility and retaliatory capability.

Chinese uranium and plutonium plants are being expanded and can be used both to meet civilian power requirements and for arms production.

To all intents and purposes, the developments seen in the Chinese nuclear weapons programme mean that China has abandoned its minimal deterrence doctrine. They also raise questions regarding Beijing’s no-first-use doctrine for nuclear weapons, which has prevailed thus far.

In addition, China is seeking other instruments of power for deterrence. In the PLA doctrine, space-based capabilities are highlighted as key deterrent mechanisms, as they can be used covertly and below the threshold of war.

Iran: nuclear weapons skills retained

Iran has retained the technology and skills needed to produce nuclear weapons. With its current enrichment capability, Iran could produce sufficient weapons-grade uranium in a matter of weeks. Manufacturing nuclear warheads and integrating them into ballistic missiles would take longer.

Iran has a number of missiles suited to delivering nuclear warheads with sufficient range to cover the entire Middle East and much of Europe. Manoeuvrability, improved precision and shorter readiness times are the top priorities, but Iran is also making progress with booster rockets built using the same technology as long-range ballistic missiles. Although the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile would require a battery of tests, much of this testing activity could take place under cover of the country’s civilian space programme.

North Korea: evolving its nuclear capability

The North Korean regime has showcased models of both tactical and thermonuclear warhead designs, and the country is likely to possess a few nuclear warheads adapted to short- and intermediate-range missiles. In addition, stores of uranium and plutonium for future nuclear weapons production are growing.

North Korea considers a credible nuclear retaliatory capability against the United States and South Korea to be a guarantee of regime survival. In addition, the country legalised the right to first strike in 2022. The regime is also developing tactical nuclear weapons intended for regional deterrence and warfare. It is possible that North Korea will conduct new nuclear tests before phasing in additional warheads.


China’s global ambitions


Middle Eastern reconciliation processes on hold
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