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A Renewed Nuclear Arms Race?

Mr Niranjan Chandrashekhar Oak is a Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 23, 2024

    The US conducted a subsurface chemical explosion at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) on 18 October 2023 to improve its  ability to detect low-yield nuclear explosions.1   The US claimed the underground tests was a part of its non-proliferation efforts by way of developing a robust detection mechanism. Although the test was not a nuclear test but a chemical explosion, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reiterated that if the US conducted the nuclear test, Russia would follow suit.2

    The timing of the test was interesting as it was conducted just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin sounded out the possibility of Russia de-ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The possibility became a reality when Putin signed a law to revoke the CTBT ratification on 2 November 2023. Kremlin spokesperson claimed that the action was necessary to bring in parity with Washington which never ratified the Treaty.3 The spokesperson further asserted that the withdrawal of the CTBT ratification did not mean that Russia had plans to conduct nuclear tests.4

    Russia and the US possess 90 per cent of the total nuclear stockpile and China is aggressively increasing its nuclear arsenal. The two biggest nuclear powers, Russia and the US, are indirectly fighting each other in Ukraine. The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is in indefinite suspension and there is no hint of renewing the same or negotiating a new arms control treaty after the expiration of the New START in 2026. Given the above, is the world bracing for a renewed nuclear arms race?

    First, Washington and Moscow have failed to insulate the arms control dialogue from the war in Ukraine. As the Ukraine crisis unfolded in February 2022, the saga of the suspension—of the Strategic Stability Dialogue, the inspections of the nuclear weapons-related facilities and the Bilateral Consultative Commission—reached a logical conclusion with Russia suspending the New START in February 2023.

    The New START obliged parties to control the quantity of nuclear warheads which was an essential part of arms control. Moreover, the Treaty provision of ‘inspection’ promoted transparency and acted as the single-most important confidence-building measure. With the demise of the New START from the horizon, there is distrust in the air that was manifested during the NNSS episode. Moreover, the link between the arms control dialogue and the Ukraine war further diminishes the prospects of the resumption of the dialogue anytime soon giving a free pass to parties to develop weapon systems.

    Second, the lack of qualitative risk reduction steps has led the US and Russia to modernise warhead design and delivery systems unabashedly. The Cold War era arms control treaties focused on the placement of the anti-ballistic missile systems (Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty), the yield of nuclear tests (Threshold Test Ban Treaty), and the range of missiles (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty banned the development of the ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres), apart from the number of nuclear warheads. Thus, both quantitative and qualitative aspects of arms race were taken care of by the treaties.

    However, there exist no such restrictions in the current times. On 27 October 2023, the US Department of Defense (DoD) announced the development of a modern version of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb, the B61-13, subject to Congressional authorisation and appropriation.5 In 2022, the US Senate Armed Services Committee authorised funding for the W93 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead6 and the Mark 7 aeroshell re-entry body for the Trident II D5 missiles.7 Likewise, Russia, according to the US Strategic Posture, is modernising nuclear warhead design and production infrastructure.8 Lt Gen Robert P. Ashley, Jr., then Director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency had claimed that Moscow was developing high-yield and earth-penetrating nuclear warheads for hardened targets.9

    Regarding delivery system modernisation, in March 2018, in an address to the Federal Assembly10 , Putin declared the development of super-weapons such as Avangard, Kinzhal, Tsirkon, Burevestnik, Poseidon and Sarmat. While the former three use hypersonic technology that gives them an advantage in terms of speed, Burevestnik and Poseidon use nuclear-powered engines facilitating a practically unlimited range.

    The US is also actively developing and testing hypersonic missiles. Conventional Prompt Global Strike Programme is also likely to give an edge to the US in attacking high-value targets.11  While addressing the Arms Control Association (ACA) Annual Forum in June 2023, US National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan submitted that the US was investing in cutting-edge non-nuclear capabilities such as conventionally armed hypersonic missiles in contrast to the nuclear-capable missiles of the similar category developed by Moscow and Beijing. However, when the hypersonic missile is launched during the war situation, it is very difficult to discern whether the incoming missile is conventionally-tipped or nuclear-tipped. Thus, the development of such a category of missiles is bound to create strategic instability.  

    Moscow and Washington are not alone in the modernisation race but Beijing has also joined in. China has already tested hypersonic missiles. Moreover, the country has gone a step ahead with the development of the fractional orbital bombardment system paired with a hypersonic glide vehicle. All three countries are also employing artificial intelligence in the development of the weapons. Therefore, apart from the numerical limits, the nuclear arms race is also being manifested in qualitative terms.

    Third, credible satellite images show the construction of “new tunnels under the mountain, new roads and storage facilities, as well as increased vehicle traffic coming in and out of nuclear testing sites”12 in Russia, the United States and China. The sites include Novaya Zemlya, Russia, NNSS in the US and Lop Nur in China. In August 2023, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Novaya Zemlya. According to a CNN report13 , Russian authorities are ensuring that the Novaya Zemlya, which is located in the Arctic, remains open throughout the year. The same report states that the US’ underground facility at the NNSS—the U1a complex—saw big expansion between 2018 and 2023.14 Even China’s construction of underground tunnels was in its final phase.15 These developments show that countries are readying their respective nuclear testing infrastructure to test weapons on short notice. Any miscalculation vis-à-vis the opponent’s intent or action may lead to the resumption of nuclear testing, thus fueling an arms race.

    Fourth, the two-pronged nuclear arms race has become three-pronged with the entry of China, impacting strategic stability. Hitherto Russia was the only competitor of the US. However, China’s rising nuclear arsenal, technological advances and ambition to become a “world-class” military by 2049 has posed a major challenge to the US. According to U.S. Defense Department’s annual China Military Power Report, China possesses more than 500 operational nuclear warheads in its inventory and is likely to double that figure by 2030.16

    The one-off arms control meeting between China and the US on 6 November 2023 produced no results. Given the massive increase of China’s nuclear arsenal, a report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States published in October 2023 has contended that “the risk of military conflict with either or both Russia and China, while not inevitable, has grown, and with it the risk of nuclear use, possibly against the U.S. homeland.”17 The report further states that the US must take into consideration “the possibility of combined aggression from Russia and China” while determining the size and composition of the nuclear forces so that the country can deter both simultaneously.

    While the war in Ukraine is ongoing and Taiwan is likely to emerge as a hotspot in the Indo-Pacific, the possibility of having to deal with both Russia and China simultaneously may become a reality for the US. Moreover, Russian officials have already threatened to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine in the war. Although the US NSA has assured that the Pentagon would not increase the number of nuclear weapons to outnumber the combined total of Russia and China18 , a future administration in Washington may decide to implement the suggestions of the Congressional report and redefine the size and composition of its nuclear forces. Russia has always taken into account the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nuclear arsenal to decide the size and composition of its nuclear forces. Thus, nuclear stability is going to be impacted negatively in the coming days.


    The world is likely to witness a nuclear arms race being played out in both quantitative as well as qualitative terms in the coming years. Nuclear arms control issues between the US and Russia have also been wedded to the Ukraine War. Moreover, the Cold War-era strategic stability has been disturbed by the entry of China into the nuclear arms domain. The three nations are rapidly modernising their nuclear arsenals along with delivery systems. The introduction of hypersonic missiles, fractional orbital bombardment systems, unmanned systems, nuclear-powered delivery systems, and artificial intelligence has added new dimensions to arms development. With the last surviving arms control treaty, the 2010 New START under suspension with no sign of a successor treaty, the post-Cold War nuclear order is under stress.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.