Cold War 2: Do not let it spark off a nuclear arms race

Russia is thought to have upped its nukes deployment by 36 to 1,710, just 60 short of the US’s latest figure.  (AP)
Russia is thought to have upped its nukes deployment by 36 to 1,710, just 60 short of the US’s latest figure. (AP)


  • A SIPRI report warns of a rising number of nuclear warheads deployed globally. The world must reverse this trend. An arsenal meant for defence only needs a few such weapons to achieve minimum credible deterrence.

The deadly stockpiles of nuclear weapons built by Cold War adversaries Russia and the US gave the ‘MAD’ doctrine of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ a literal ring. With thousands of nukes each, both had enough to destroy the planet many times over. Could today’s geopolitical divide between a China-led bloc and the US-led West imperil the world with another arms race being pushed beyond the limits of reason by its force of rivalry? 

According to the latest report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a think-tank, all nine nuclear-armed countries—the US, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel—modernized their arsenals in 2023, while some deployed new weapon systems. By SIPRI’s 2024 estimates, of the world’s 12,121 warheads in existence this January, about 9,585 are held in military arsenals, with some 3,904 of these mounted on delivery vehicles. 

Also read: India has more nuclear weapons than Pakistan; US biggest spender, says SIPRI report

Worryingly, this tally of ‘deployed’ nukes is 60 more than it was last January. Russia is thought to have upped its deployment by 36 to 1,710, just 60 short of the US’s latest figure. But the year’s expansion story has been China’s. Its count of warheads jumped to 500 from 410 at the start of 2023. Moreover, as many as 24 of its nukes are now thought to be deployed, although no other Asian country has any deployment in SIPRI’s analysis.

Why is China expanding its nuclear arsenal so fast? The size of its stockpile was already more than double that of India’s, its big regional rival. Analysts view Beijing’s moves in the context of its push for long-range hypersonic missiles and the ability to project force across the Western hemisphere as well. 

Alarm over China’s alliance with Moscow has been rising. Over the weekend, Nato’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that Nato allies could for the first time face a nuclear threat on two fronts, Russia and China, which may require increasing its deployable warheads to act as a deterrent. In this formulation, the “no limits" partnership of Moscow and Beijing justifies weighing their joint capacity for nuclear annihilation against their own. 

Stoltenberg’s statement drew criticism from the Kremlin, whose spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it “escalation of tension." Given that arms-control talks of the West with Moscow remain in limbo, with Cold War-calming pacts having lapsed in recent years, none of this is reassuring.

Also read: Ex-Trump Adviser Urges Him to Cut Ties With China, Restart Nuclear Tests

What’s particularly disturbing is the stockpile versus stockpile dynamic in evidence, as if a nuclear shield demands a balance of explosive power between adversaries ranged against each other. By SIPRI’s data, Pakistan has 170 warheads to India’s 172. This also seems to fit into the same framework. Yet, given how easily the game of ‘strategic parity’ can slip into an expensive race for more, all nuclear-armed states need to exercise self-restraint. 

All that’s really required is minimum credible deterrence (MCD), which can be achieved even with a small arsenal backed by sharp delivery devices. As Cold War II worsens, this fact needs to be borne in mind globally. Nuclear proliferation was absurd back in the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it still is. The global imperative right now is to make the world a less dangerous place. 

To that end, a no-first-use treaty signed by all nuclear states would be worth the pursuit. If this does not work out—say, if countries with weaker conventional defences insist they see value in rattling nuclear sabres—then at least we should all agree to cap our arsenals at MCD levels. A nuclear race makes no sense.

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