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Report: Nuclear powers talk up disarmament while modernizing arsenals

Think tank SIPRI says nuclear-armed states sending mixed messages as they make overtures to nuclear disarmament

The world’s nuclear-armed states have continued to expand and develop their nuclear weapon delivery systems – even as they pledge their commitment to a world without the weapons – according to an annual report released Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Despite an overall decline in the number of nuclear warheads over the past few years, the world’s legally recognized nuclear weapon states, or the P-5 – the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom – have all either deployed, or announced their intention to develop, new weapons systems. So have India and Pakistan, which have developed such weapons outside of international law.

It is a trend that seems to undermine the global consensus toward nuclear disarmament as dictated under the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, not to mention the professed desire for a disarmed world by P-5 leaders such as President Barack Obama.

“The long-term modernization programs underway in these states suggest that nuclear weapons will remain a center-point of their strategic calculus in the long term, and I don’t see that changing,” said Phillip Schell, a Nuclear Project researcher at Stockholm-based SIPRI, which releases the annual report.

The U.S. and Russia – who together hold 93 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads – account for almost all the progress in shrinking the number of deployed nuclear warheads around the world, as dictated by their New START treaty. When warheads are deployed, it means they are placed on missiles or at bases where they can be launched quickly.

But those reductions belie the important role nuclear weapons continue to play in U.S. and Russian military strategies. The U.S. has plans to invest $350 billion over the next decade on modernizing and maintaining its nuclear arsenals, and Russia has announced it will replace its Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missile systems with mobile, multiple-warhead versions and build a new class of nuclear-armed submarines. China has made similar advancements.

The report comes as the U.S. and Iran on Monday kicked off another round of negotiations in Vienna aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program, a multilateral initiative spurred by concerns Iran could soon join the ranks of the world’s rogue nuclear states.

In addition to India and Pakistan, who have been locked in a tense arms race with each other for decades, Israel and North Korea are also known to possess nuclear weapons.

Even as unprecedented progress is made to scale back the alleged nuclear ambitions of Tehran, which has denied its nuclear program is anything but peaceful, SIPRI’s findings indicate the world’s five official nuclear powers are sending mixed messages.

Curbing the world’s nuclear weapons has long been a staple of Obama’s foreign policy. In 2009, the newly elected president declared his intention to aim for “a world without nuclear weapons.”

A subsequent Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which outlined the Obama administration’s nuclear policy, stated that “the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security and military strategy has been reduced significantly in recent decades, but further steps can and should be taken at this time.”

The NPR said that the U.S. required some nuclear deterrent force, but most defense analysts believe the current levels are far higher than necessary. According to Larry Korb of the Center for America Progress, multiple analyses have concluded that moderate reductions in nuclear stockpiles could save American taxpayers “tens of billions” of dollars over the next decade in maintenance and repair costs.

Obama has disappointed some proponents of nuclear disarmament, who argue that the New START treaty has not gone far enough. They say that if Washington and Moscow did more, other powers would be inclined to do the same.

But after New START’s final reduction deadline in 2121, there are no clear plans for the U.S. and Russia to pursue a follow-on agreement. The precipitous decline in nuclear weapons since the Cold War ended could halt altogether.

“The prospects going forward for bilateral arms control between the U.S. and Russia look very dark,” said Elbridge Colby, who is the Robert Gates fellow at the Center for a New American Security and worked on the New START treaty. “We’re not likely to see a push towards zero.”

Russia has indicated it has little interest in scaling back its own nuclear arsenal unless its neighbor China is subject to a similar reduction, and prospects for successful U.S.-Russia negotiations have been sunk even further by deteriorating relations over contentious issues such as Ukraine and Syria. At the same time, in the absence of U.S.-Russian leadership on the nuclear front the Chinese are unlikely to budge on their own nuclear programs.

Still, many in U.S. defense circles believe that Washington would do a disservice to its allies by broaching any sort of dramatic scaling-back of its own arsenal. Nuclear abolition can be a double-edged sword, Colby noted.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the U.S. arsenal is the biggest driver of non-proliferation,” Colby said. “If the U.S. reduces its nuclear weapons, countries that rely on U.S. nuclear deterrence – Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Poland – will have to start thinking about programs of their own.”

"I think ultimately there has to be a multilateral approach," said SIPRI's Schell. "But right now, there's really no outlook for that."

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