In the last two weeks, 13 more countries have signed or ratified the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), bringing it closer to its entry into force. In the same period, several of the world’s nuclear weapon states engaged in shows of nuclear force, deliberate acts that contribute to a dangerous escalation in the nuclear arms race.
On Monday, 30 September, Russia tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. With a range of 11,000 kilometres, this Topol-M missile can carry a warhead about 35 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. On 1 October, China marked its national day by parading several types of missiles prominently before the world for the first time. One missile, the DF-41, has an estimated range of up to 15,000 kilometres and the ability to reach the continental United States in roughly 30 minutes; China also displayed the JL-2 missile, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and the hypersonic DF-17, which is designed to evade missile defence systems. On 2 October, North Korea tested a submarine-launched nuclear-capable missile, just before entering a new round of negotiations with the United States about its nuclear weapons program. Access to a submarine-launched missile would provide North Korea the potential ability to strike a wider range of targets. Later the same day, the United States conducted a previously-scheduled test of its own unarmed ICBM. The United States has spent $7 billion over the last 15 years to modernize these Minuteman ICBMs.
For nuclear weapons states, nuclear-capable missile tests make a very public and provocative statement to the rest of the world. The U.S. officer responsible for its latest test stated, “Most importantly, this visible message of national security serves to assure our partners and dissuade potential aggressors.”
It is important to recognize, however, that nuclear-capable missiles are not tools to be tested, muscles to be flexed, or toys to be displayed on trucks – they are weapons of mass destruction. As a new study confirms, even a limited regional nuclear war would bring catastrophic global environmental and humanitarian consequences, immediately killing 125 million people and putting two billion more at risk of famine.
Although the timing might be coincidental, this short sequence of events highlights the dangers of a renewed nuclear arms race. Each action can provoke a reaction; intentions to increase feelings of security create the opposite effect.
The vast majority of non-nuclear weapon states recognize this danger. That’s why 122 states voted to approve the TPNW and are now in the process of signing and ratifying it. The treaty prohibits nations from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. Such nuclear-capable missile testing would violate the terms of the treaty.
As the last week has shown, the risks nuclear weapons pose are real. The majority of states are right to seek a ban on these weapons.