There is consensus that the world is crossing the threshold into a Third Nuclear Age, one in which artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies are becoming entangled with the command and control of nuclear weapons.
Why it matters
Veiled nuclear threats from Russia against NATO interference in its invasion of Ukraine and a US response warning Russia of ‘catastrophic’ consequences, awakened the world in 2022 to the renewed spectre of nuclear conflict and heightened risk.
Mutual assured destruction (MAD) was regarded as the bedrock of nuclear deterrence holding East and West bloc nuclear rivalry in check during the Cold War. But such pieties three decades from the end of the conflict offer little assurance.
The threat of using nuclear weapons to strong arm the outcome of a conventional armed conflict shattered any complacency over nuclear stability, adding to an inventory of nuclear dangers, including disruptive and emerging technologies, in a discordant multipolar world.
The Third Nuclear Age, potentially more dangerous than its predecessors, arrived mostly absent the hard fought agreements that offered a level of security in the Cold War. New policies provide nuclear weapons a non deterrent role, and investment in their modernisation signals little change in plans for their future. The Second Nuclear Age ushered in as the Cold War ended was haunted by a shared spectre of ‘rogue’ nuclear actors. Stealth, division, less time to make decisions and heightened odds of accidents, stalks the cyber realm of the Third Nuclear Age. Avowals a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, begin to look hollow.
The world has lived with nuclear weapons since the first test explosion 77 years ago. At the height of the Cold War in 1986 there were 70,300 nuclear warheads. Although secrecy conceals exact figures and arsenals are growing, in early 2022 it is estimated nine countries (including stored and deployed warheads) possess 12,700 warheads: China (350), France (290), Israel (90), India (160), North Korea (20), Pakistan (165), Russia (5977), UK (225), USA (5428). Approximately 2,000 US, Russian, British and French warheads are on high alert, ready for use on short notice: fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/Source.
Reporting the nuclear file is challenging because of its secrecy and complexity. A lack of better understanding of nuclear basics has handicapped the press, particularly in the run up to the 2003 Iraq war, when false evidence about the existence of nuclear weapons in Iraq and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) went mostly unquestioned until their insubstantiality was revealed.
More than three quarters of a century after their advent, nuclear weapons continue to pose an existential threat to humanity. Broader evidence based reporting about them would be in the interest of the public to whom there is there is little accountability and inform a more protective policy.