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Is Obama’s Vision of Nuclear Zero Leading to Nowhere?

Islamabad.

As the Second Cold War gathers pace between Moscow and Washington, over range of issues, optimism is fading over possibility of ‘a world free of nuclear weapons’ envisioned by nuclear pessimists since the dawn of nuclear age. The prospects had never been so promising, as had appeared to be, after President Obama’s speech at Prague in 2007 followed by the announcement to cancel deployment of missile defence shield in European theatre, presumably due to Russian concerns. However, the situation changed after U.S. adopted the off-shore rebalancing policy, referred to as ‘Asia-Pivot’, in 2011 which presumably was aimed at containing China and Russia. Obama’s recent pledge to grant India the privileged nuclear status amongst the non-NPT signatory states has further damped the prospects to envision a world free of nuclear weapons in foreseeable future.

Since the promulgation of new set of U.S. strategic priorities for the Asia-Pacific region, China and Russia appears to be in the process of reviewing and enhancing their nuclear and missile capabilities. China recently tested its improved variant of road missile ICBM DF-31B, capable of delivering multiple warheads Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) on the U.S. mainland, while its improved version, named DF-41, is still under development. China is also arming its fleet of stealth submarines with JL-2 ballistic missiles to acquire an assured second strike nuclear capability. Beijing’s antagonism to Washington’s Asia Pivot has seemingly provoked the former to forsake its traditional policy of non-interventionism and neutrality. Chinese non-traditional approach on Ukraine crisis and implicit support to Russia in this new escalating cold war can thus be better understood in the context.

Russians are not lagging behind either. Their newly developed SLBM, Bulava with a strike range of 10000 kms and capability to carry up to 6 – 10 MIRVs of 100 – 150 KT each has become part of the nuclear inventory. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Sochi, criticized Washington for pursuing plans to develop hypersonic weapons under the Global Strike Programme and repudiated the U.S. allegations of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) which according to him was in response to U.S. unilateral abrogation of ABM treaty back in 2002. Russian emerging nuclear posture has also become a source of concern for the U.S. and NATO.

The U.S. nuclear initiatives also appear to be out of step with the contemplated roadmap towards a world free of nuclear weapons. Washington is in a process of revitalizing its nuclear arsenals at an astounding cost of $ 1 trillion spanning over a period of thirty years. Such plans risk undermining President Obama’s initiative for global nuclear zero and the future of new START initiative between Russia and United States.

In South Asia, Indian massive defence spending and conventional arms buildup risks offsetting the regional strategic balance. Agni-VI, capable of delivering multiple warheads through MIRVs is all set to become the new force multiplier for the Indian nuclear deterrent. Development of the two tier interceptor missile defence shield by India is also being keenly watched by Pakistan and China. Economic limitations thus far have prevented Pakistan from indulging into a costly conventional arms race but other options, like for example nuclear, remains plausible to compensate for the growing conventional asymmetries. Adoption of ‘full spectrum deterrence’ posture by Pakistan after developing low yield short range nuclear weapons (also known as (TNWs) tactical nuclear weapons) exhibits its greater reliance on the nuclear deterrence. Worst still, as a consequence to Indo-U.S. nuclear deal South Asia risks becoming the axiom of nuclear arms race. Apprehensive of these insecurities, Pakistan is already on its way to increase the stockpiles of existing nuclear warheads.

In Middle East, P 5+1 and Iran have failed to ink a nuclear deal after having missed the November 2014 deadline. The deadline has been extended once again for another seven months till July 1, 2015. To what extent the Iranian nuclear ambitions can be restrained in future, would largely depend on the mutual trust and security equation between Washington and Tehran. Unfolding of the nuclear diplomacy between Iran and P 5+1 is keenly being watched in Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Saudi Arabia is extremely apprehensive of the growing Iranian influence and has warned that if Iran develops a nuclear bomb, it would have a one of its own, without explaining how.

Militarily powerful Arab states on the periphery of Israel no longer pose an existential threat. However even this scenario has not restrained Israel’s nuclear ambitions, which is in pursuit of acquiring an assured second strike nuclear capability. Israel has plans to induct six nuclear capable “Dolphin Class” submarines in its Navy, four of which have already been procured from Germany. Development of (Inter Continental Ballistic Missile) ICBM, Jericho III, with a planned range of 10000 kilometers remains high on its priority. Such developments ostensibly would influence nuclear ambitions and choices of other states in the region.

South East Asia the situation is not promising either. North Korea has been hurling nuclear threats from time to time and has conducted missile tests which have apprehensively been watched by Japan and South Korea. North Korea is believed to possess an increased nuclear inventory of up to 20 nuclear warheads by 2016. Despite U.S. repeated assurances, its allies in Asian Pacific region still remains apprehensive of Chinese growing stature in South and East China Seas. The matter of horizontal nuclear proliferation thus could become a contentious issue in the region if either of the state contemplates nuclear weapon option in wake of the growing security threats.

The nuclear taboo has so far not been broken since the tragic episodes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet it can’t be guaranteed that this would always be the case. Complex global security issues further accentuate the challenges posed by vertical and horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons. Due to renewed rivalry of the great powers the possibility of a world free of nuclear weapons, even in distant future, remains implausible while the risks of an accidental or a catalytic nuclear war have increased in recent years.

To mitigate these risks major powers, especially the U.S., China and Russia, shall have to take major initiatives by formulating a cooperative framework for debating and finding solutions to the contentious issues, (UN can also provide such a platform). State situated in troubled regions like India, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and Israel could subsequently be involved to take on the challenging issues along with the subject of nuclear proliferation, without which Obama’s dream of nuclear zero would remain a distant utopia.

Shams uz Zaman holds M.Phil degree in Strategic & Nuclear Studies from National Defence University Islamabad. He is visiting faculty member at Roots University International College, Islamabad and frequently writes in newspapers, magazines and research journals on nuclear and strategic issues. He has has also co-authored the book: “Iran and the Bomb – Nuclear Club Busted”.

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