As the US Air Force shows off its new B-21 stealth bomber and Russia and China are expanding and updating their own nuclear arsenals, we explore how these states are violating their commitments under international law and increasing the risk of nuclear catastrophe.
The United States Air Force today showed off its latest means of using weapons of mass destruction: the B-21 stealth bomber. This aircraft, developed by Northrop Grumman, is designed to drop two new types of nuclear weapons: the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb and the LRSO nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile, as well as various conventional weapons. The B61-12 nuclear bomb has an explosive yield of up to 50 kilotons; in comparison, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945, killing more than 140,000 people, had a yield of just 16 kilotons.
A single B61-12 bomb dropped by a Northrop Grumman B-21 would likely kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and injure many more, and cause massive damage to civilian infrastructure and the environment; radioactive fallout could contaminate large areas across multiple countries.
The development of the B-21 represents yet another step in the modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal. The B-21 bomber will reportedly be deployed at three bases in the US, resulting in an increase of the number of bomber bases with nuclear weapons from two bases today to five bases by the 2030s. The B-21 will carry new and “improved” nuclear weapons, and is obviously intended to do so for decades to come.
Northrop Grumman, the manufacturer of the B-21, received $5 billion in income from nuclear-weapon-related contracts in 2021, and spent $11 million on lobbying elected officials, including those who approve such contracts. The company also contributed several million dollars to think tanks researching and writing about nuclear weapons. Source.
But the US is certainly not alone: Russia and China are also expanding and updating their nuclear arsenals. Russia has developed and successfully tested its new Sarmat ICBM; the missile was displayed in public in November. The Sarmat is intended to replace the SS-18 ICBM and will likely carry the same warheads: 10 warheads per missile, each with a yield of 500-800 kilotons. That means that one Sarmat missile could carry the same destructive force as at least 250 Nagasaki-size warheads, only one of which killed 74,000 people in 1945. According to a US report, China has recently increased its nuclear arsenal beyond 400 warheads, and now has 300 ICBMs, an increase of 200 since 2021. Chinese nuclear submarines are reportedly now patrolling while armed with nuclear missiles. (Since both Russia and China are much less transparent than the US about their nuclear capabilities, it is possible that they are also modernizing and expanding their arsenals in other ways.)
All these steps by China, Russia and the US are directly contrary to their obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT requires them to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. Under the NPT, the three countries have made an “unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals” and have committed to “pursue policies that are fully compatible with the Treaty and the objective of achieving a world without nuclear weapons”.
In light of this, the Executive Director of ICAN, Beatrice Fihn, said: “These developments show once again that nuclear-armed states cannot be trusted to pursue nuclear disarmament in good faith. Modernising their arsenals is risking a new nuclear arms race and is incompatible with the objective of achieving a world without nuclear weapons. This is particularly disturbing and dangerous, given the sharply heightened risk of use of nuclear weapons.”
With Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons against anyone intervening in the the Ukraine conflict, responses from other governments that imply possible retaliation with nuclear weapons, commentary and analysis examining scenarios in which nuclear weapons might be used, recent military exercises involving nuclear weapons, and testing by North Korea of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, many observers agree that the idea of using nuclear weapons is being normalised, and the decades-old taboo against their use is being eroded. Governments, analysts and anti-nuclear campaigners have all been warning that the risk of nuclear conflict is now as high as it has ever been.
ICAN Executive Director, Beatrice Fihn, commented "This is why the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is so important. Now that the treaty is in force, nuclear weapons are comprehensively prohibited under international law. By joining the TPNW and participating actively in its implementation, countries can contribute to stigmatising and delegitimising nuclear weapons and building a robust global norm against them. The TPNW is clear: the actions of nuclear-armed states to retain, modernize and expand their nuclear arsenals are illegal, immoral and unacceptable,"