> Nuclear Proliferation: The Nth Degree
Nuclear Proliferation: The Nth Degree
from the December 04, 2007 eNews issue
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The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union might have become World War III were it not for the threat of "mutual assured destruction." Nuclear war was avoided because of the delicate balance between the world's superpowers and their respective nuclear arsenals. Throughout the Cold War US policymakers, intelligence analysts, and academics recognized that the addition of new nuclear-armed states would create a more unstable and perilous world. They referred to this frightening prospect as the "Nth country problem" - the possibility that some undetermined number of countries would develop nuclear weapons capabilities.
Who Has Nukes?
The Nth country problem, foreseen in the early days of the Cold War, has since become a reality. Today there are at least nine nations that possess nuclear technology: the US, the UK, France, Israel, Russia, Pakistan, India, China, and now North Korea. And other nations, such as Iran, are actively pursuing nuclear weapons technology. Furthermore, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that there are more than 40 countries with peaceful nuclear programs that could modify their technology to create nuclear weapons.
It is estimated that there are currently more than 30,000 nuclear weapons worldwide. In 2002, President Bush and Vladimir Putin signed the Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty. Yet the United States and Russia still possess substantial stockpiles. The US nuclear weapons arsenal is estimated to number nearly 10,000 while Russia's number closer to 16,000.
China, which possesses 130 nuclear bombs, has refused to take part in arms control measures until the US and Russia reduce their arsenals to a level comparable with Britain and France. The UK, which conducted its first test in 1952, has a submarine based deterrent of about 200 nuclear weapons. France, which also maintains a deterrent force, possesses approximately 350 nukes.
India detonated its first nuclear device, code-named "Smiling Budda," in 1974. For over two decades it claimed that its nuclear program was only meant for peaceful research purposes. Then, in 1998, India all but declared itself a nuclear power with a series of nuclear tests, a move that angered the West and prompted its rival Pakistan to follow suit. Pakistan began a secret nuclear weapons program in 1972, and now has between 65 and 90 nukes - roughly on par with the suspected size of India's arsenal.
Israel is perhaps one of the most controversial members of the nuclear club. Israel's officially unacknowledged nuclear arsenal has been described as "the worst-kept secret in the Middle East." Reports indicate that Israel possesses a little over 100 nuclear missiles. The Jewish nation has never officially conducted a nuclear test, however some suspect that such a test may have been conducted in secret in 1979 off the coast of South Africa. On September 22, 1979 a US satellite detected a massive explosion over the Indian Ocean. The explosion is known as the "Vela Incident". Most of the information about the incident is still classified, and there are many different conjectures about who may be responsible for the blast. However the most popular theory is that Israel, which almost certainly had nuclear weapons in 1979, conducted a nuclear test with the assistance of South Africa. South Africa also had a nuclear weapons program at the time, before the fall of the apartheid, and the geographic location of the tests points to their involvement.
The Growing Threat
On October 9th, 2006, North Korea carried out its first-ever nuclear weapons test - officially joining the nuclear club. Experts suspect that North Korea currently possesses between six and eight nuclear weapons. However a report published by the Institute for Science and International Security says North Korea has enough radioactive material to build as many as 13 bombs. North Korea is the most unstable member of the nuclear club, and the test has triggered an Asian arms race. North Korea is under increasing international pressure to abandon its nuclear program, and in recent months it has shown some signs of compliance, but there have also been reports that it has sold nuclear technology on the black market to countries like Syria and Iran.
Iran's uranium enrichment program has also been the subject of intense international scrutiny in the debate over nuclear proliferation. Yet with troops already deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush appears - at least for the time being - to be committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the standoff. Some experts have speculated that Israel may be planning a pre-emptive strike, although military action would most likely be used as a last resort. In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor when it believed Saddam Hussein was close to producing a nuclear bomb. If Israel does attack Iran it would undoubtedly bring about a firestorm in the Middle East. Unfortunately we are running out of time, and neither Israel nor the United States are willing to accept the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. If diplomacy continues to fail, military action may be our only option.
The threat of a nuclear attack is very real. Thomas C. Schelling, an economist and professor of foreign affairs, national security, nuclear strategy and arms control at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, once wrote that we have "a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered looks strange; what looks strange is therefore improbable; what seems improbable need not be considered seriously." Those words were written in regards to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In that instance American forces were taken by surprise and the result was catastrophic. Have we learned from our mistake or is history destined to repeat itself? Will we once again be taken by surprise by our adversaries? To some, the threat of a nuclear attack may seem improbable, but we would be foolish not to take it seriously.
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