2 August 2020
A nuclear arms race in space? It seems we've learned nothing from Hiroshima
By Simon Tisdall
Russia’s apparent test-firing of an anti-satellite weapon in outer space on 15 July, as alleged by the US and Britain, could be dismissed as another of Vladimir Putin’s annoying provocations. That would be a mistake. The alleged new space weapon should be seen in the broader context of a rapidly evolving, hi-tech, high-risk international arms race involving all the major nuclear powers that, largely undiscussed, is spinning out of control.
This week sees the 75th anniversary of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed over 200,000 people, but the absence of public debate or a sense of alarm about the grim advent of sophisticated new nuclear, hypersonic, cyber and space weapons is striking. In the decades after Hiroshima, noisy anti-nuclear “ban the bomb” protests by CND and others spanned the globe. Today, by comparison, an eerie silence reigns.
The battle for outer space is only getting
going – yet deserves immediate attention. Russia’s alleged
development of anti-satellite weapons is almost certainly matched
by the US and China, and undermines past undertakings about the
peaceful use of space. Christopher Ford, US assistant secretary of
state for international security and non-proliferation, warned
last week that Russia and China had already turned space into a
command last year, Donald Trump also pointed to space as the
next great-power battlefield. Nato secretary-general Jens
Stoltenberg says the alliance will not deploy weapons in space but
is obliged to defend its interests, which include 2,000 orbiting
satellites. For Nato, too, space is now an
“All these states are either developing or deploying new weapon systems or have announced their intention to do so,” Sipri’s annual report said. The US and Russia each possessed about 1,550 deployed, long-range weapons, while China had about 300. Both the US and Russia were spending more and placing greater reliance on nuclear weapons in future military planning, it said, while China was rushing to catch up.
“China is in the middle of a significant modernisation of its nuclear arsenal. It is developing a so-called nuclear triad for the first time, made up of new land- and sea-based missiles and nuclear-capable aircraft. India and Pakistan are slowly increasing the size and diversity of their nuclear forces,” Sipri reported. Meanwhile, North Korea continued to prioritise its military nuclear programme, while conducting “multiple” ballistic missile tests.
“Instead of planning for nuclear
disarmament, the nuclear-armed states appear to plan to retain
large arsenals for the indefinite future, are adding new nuclear
weapons, and are increasing the role such weapons play in their
national strategies,” a Federation of American Scientists survey
said. It estimated about 1,800 warheads were kept on high alert,
ready for use at short notice.
Trump looks set to scupper New Start, which
expires in February, on the spurious ground that it does not
reduce China’s much smaller arsenal (which it was never intended
to do). He has previously reneged on the
2015 Iran nuclear treaty, the
1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, and is said to
favour resumed nuclear testing in Nevada in defiance of the 1996
Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban treaty.
While nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945, great-power military flashpoints are increasing the risk that they might be. These potential triggers include the South China Sea, Taiwan, the India-Pakistan and India-China borders, the US-Israel-Iran conflict, North Korea and Ukraine.
Heightened international tensions and collapsing arms-control regimes only partly explain the accelerating pace of nuclear rearmament. Resurgent nationalism, authoritarian rightwing populism, revived or new territorial rivalries (as in space), the bypassing of the UN and multilateral institutions, and a shifting economic and geopolitical power balance are all aggravating factors.
But so, too, is amnesia. Seventy-five years
after Armageddon was visited upon the people of Japan, the world
seems to have forgotten the truly existential horror of that
moment. A history lesson, and a renewed debate, are urgently