Article in Science / Physics / Nuclear Physics
Russia’s deployment of new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is likely to escalate the East-West nuclear arms race. The USA may also deploy new nuclear weapons. We may, therefore, be on the brink of a new round in the nuclear arms race.

New Nuclear Weapons

Russia’s deployment of new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is likely to escalate the East-West nuclear arms race. The USA may also deploy new nuclear weapons. We may, therefore, be on the brink of a new round in the nuclear arms race.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced, on 29 June 2015 (1), that Russia will add more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to Russia's nuclear arsenal in 2015, which will further escalate tensions between the USA and Russia. Putin made the announcement during his opening address at the Army-2015 Expo, an international military forum near Moscow.

President Putin said that the new ICBMs would be “able to overcome even the most technically advanced anti-missile defence systems". He also announced that the Russian military was beginning to test a new system of long-range early warning radar "to monitor in the western direction".

At the Army-2015 Expo, attended by about 70 countries, showed off the latest developments in Russian military equipment, Putin promised the Russian military leaders an array of other new weapons – such as the Russia’s Armata T-14 main battle tanks. At the Expo, companies could purchase arms and Russian military equipment. Among the items for sale were ships and various weapons systems.

The Armata tanks are equipped with an outer shell impervious to grenade launchers or anti-tank guided missiles. This armour is, according to the TASS Russian News Agency, unique and unlike anything else in the world. It was unveiled last May during the annual Russian Victory Day parade in Moscow; the specifics of its design have been largely kept secret.

The news that Russia will deploy new ICBMs raises the spectre of a new round of the global arms race. Michael Fallon, the British Defence Secretary said on 17 June 2015, while attending a two-week NATO exercise, called Baltops, in Ustka, northern Poland, “Russia is clearly modernising its nuclear defence as well as its conventional arms. NATO likewise is committed to increasing defence spending and increasing the percentage of defence spending that goes on new equipment. NATO is ready to match this kind of sabre-rattling from Russia.” (1) He was, in other words, implying that a new nuclear arms race was in the offing.

Today’s global nuclear arsenals

According to the Ploughshares Fund, nine countries in the world possess a total of about 15,695 nuclear weapons. They are: the USA, Russia, the UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. These countries are maintaining and continually modernising their nuclear weapons. South Africa is unique in that it developed nuclear weapons but then disassembled its arsenal.

Ploughshares explained that the United States and Russia account for 93 percent of them. “Since their peak in the mid-1980’s, global arsenals have shrunk by over two-thirds. More countries have given up weapons and programs in the past 30 years than have tried to acquire them. The direction is positive, but when you are fleeing a forest fire it is not just direction but speed that matters.” The USA currently has about 7,100 nuclear weapons, Russia has 7,500, France 300, the UK 225, China 250, Pakistan 120, India 110, Israel 80 and North Korea fewer than 10.

NATO to rethink its nuclear-weapons strategy

An article in the London Guardian newspaper on 25 June 2015 (2), states that NATO is preparing to re-evaluate its nuclear-weapons strategy partly in response to growing tension with Russia. Since the Ukraine crisis erupted last year NATO is also concerned about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement last week that Russia was to buy 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles. “NATO officials also said there was alarm over Russian rhetoric on nuclear weapons and the extent to which such weapons are involved in military exercises.” A NATO diplomat said recently: “There is very real concern about the way in which Russia publicly bandies around nuclear stuff. So there are quite a lot of deliberations in the alliance about nuclear [weapons], but it is being done very slowly and deliberately. We need to do due diligence on where we are.”

The Guardian reports concern amongst NATO diplomats that “Russian military planners may be lowering the threshold for using nuclear weapons in any conflict”. There are fears that rising tensions between NATO and Russia risk plunging Europe back into a Cold-War-style nuclear confrontation. Such concerns have been fuelled “by increasingly aggressive Russian air and sea patrolling close to NATO's borders, such as two Russian Bear nuclear-capable bombers that flew over the English Channel” very recently.

"What worries us most in this strategy is the modernisation of the Russian nuclear forces, the increase in the level of training of those forces and the possible combination between conventional actions and the use of nuclear forces, including possibly in the framework of a hybrid war," one diplomat reportedly said.

Russia's use of so-called hybrid warfare in Ukraine, combining elements such as unmarked soldiers, disinformation and cyber-attacks, has led NATO's military planners to review their strategies for dealing with Russia.

At a time of heightened tension with the West, Russia has not been shy about reasserting its status as a nuclear power (3). President Vladimir Putin pointedly noted last August that Russia was a leading nuclear power when he advised potential enemies: "It's best not to mess with us”. The British Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, said Russia’s nuclear messaging is not helpful. It is important we understand its implications for the alliance. Since the peak of the cold war, the US and Russia have slashed their nuclear arsenals but Russia still “has an estimated 1,582 strategic warheads on 515 missiles and bombers, while the US has 1,597 deployed on 785”. According to the Washington-based Arms Control Association, Russia “has a further 1,000 non-deployed strategic warheads and about 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads”, such as “short-range missiles and artillery shells, mines and bombs”.

President Putin complained of American “acts in eastern Europe as amounting to the most aggressive since the cold war. Russia argues that the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe and its courting of Ukraine has been a repeated provocation.”

A 2014 report by the American Congressional Research Service said Russia "seems to have increased its reliance on nuclear weapons in its national security concept". Russian general Valery Gerasimov, in explaining Russia’s large increase in military spending, said last week “that support for Russia's strategic nuclear forces combined with improvements in conventional forces would ensure that the United States and NATO did not gain military superiority”.

In December 2014, President Putin announced “a new military doctrine, naming NATO expansion as a key risk. Before the new doctrine was agreed, there had been some calls from the military to restore to the doctrine a line about the right to a first nuclear strike. This was not included in the new doctrine, however, which says Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear strike or a conventional attack that endangered the state's existence.”

The rhetoric about a new nuclear arms race seems to be escalating and the East-West arms race may be about to begin a new round. Hopefully, Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin will not rush eagerly into a new round of the arms race but work to prevent one.


!. The Independent, Vladimir Putin announces Russia will add more than 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles to nuclear arsenal in 2015, The Independent, 29 June 2015.

2. Ewen MacAskill, NATO rethinks nuclear weapons strategy, The Guardian, Thursday 25 June 2015, page 18

3. Ewen MacAskill, We shall frighten them on the beaches: NATO Baltic exercises sends stark message to Putin, The Guardian, Thursday 18 June 2015, page 18.

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Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London

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