Whatever your take on the presidential race, Tuesday’s primary results make it all but certain that, come January, President Obama will hand over the keys to the White House — and the nuclear codes — to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
Both presumptive nominees have expressed deep concern about the nuclear threat. With more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, rising tensions among nuclear-armed countries, extravagant investment in a new generation of nukes, and the evolving specter of nuclear terrorism — the risks of a nuclear catastrophe are reaching unprecedented heights. It’s little wonder the Doomsday Clock hovers at three minutes to midnight.
In a historic address at Hiroshima’s nuclear ground zero, the President called for a “moral revolution” on nuclear weapons and urged us to find “the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.” Charting that escape will be up to his successor. Given the magnitude of latent catastrophes and increasingly bad odds, whoever emerges victorious in November will be in a race against time.
Here are some of the challenges they will inherit on day one:
Stalled Arms Control
Thanks to a potent mix of inertia, international crises and domestic politicking, the arcane and incremental process for nuclear arms control has ground to a halt. Within this system there are several key next steps, including the Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) to end the production of explosive nuclear materials, ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) banning nuclear chain reactions in weapons testing, and a follow-on treaty to the New START agreement for bilateral U.S.-Russian nuclear arms cuts. For now, these pathways are blocked.
There are calls from non-nuclear countries to sidestep this stalemate and ban the weapons outright, without the participation of the governments that cling to them as the cornerstone of security. Where that approach is going remains unclear, and its potential impact on the policies of nuclear-armed states even more so. But like it or not, the risks will continue to rise while the Nuclear Have-Nots discuss norms amongst themselves and the Haves don’t come to the table.
In the international arena, what little political will there is to spare for nuclear concerns is consumed by intractable conflicts and transient crises among nuclear-armed states and their allies. Pakistan and India; India and China; Israel and Palestine; North Korea and, well, most everybody. Any of these disputes can metastasize into military confrontations that escalate to nuclear brinksmanship and beyond. Over the last two years, 327 military incidents were recorded between nuclear-armed states — a third of them deemed “high risk” or “provocative.”
Of particular concern are rising tensions between Russia and the West. Close encounters have spiked dramatically: NATO intercepted Russian aircraft more than 100 times in 2015. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has openly discussed the possibility of nuclearizing the Crimean peninsula, rhetoric matched in the U.S. by Senators Mike Rogers and Mike Turner, both of whom called on President Obama to forward-deploy nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe.
Here, the nuclear gamble is dramatically compounded by the fact that the United States and Russia still operate with Cold War-era “hair-trigger” postures that expose the world to unacceptable risk. As you read this, nearly 2,000 nuclear weapons are fueled, armed, targeted and ready to launch upon receipt of a short burst of computer signals. They can hit their target cities in 30 minutes or less. We’re one wrong move away from our last half-hour — and the opportunities for mistakes are on the rise.
Nuclear Spending Sprees
Against this volatile backdrop, all of the nuclear-armed countries are investing lavishly, or planning to do so, in developing a new generation of nuclear weapons, expanding their arsenals and/or making them more responsive.
In 2011, Global Zero estimated that worldwide nuclear weapons spending would exceed $1 trillion over the next ten years. That forecast came at a rosier time for nuclear disarmament, fresh off New START and well into the ill-starred “Russian reset.” We did not imagine then that just three years later President Putin would invade Ukraine and upend the security paradigm in Europe. Nor could we have predicted that President Obama — the man who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to nuclear disarmament — would embark on a $1 trillion nuclear spending spree of his own, one that threatens to lock in a new nuclear arms race.
The prioritization of arsenals over arms control is pronounced. Russia is increasing the role of road-mobile missiles and is doubling the share of intercontinental ballistic missiles equipped with multiple warheads (from 35% to 70%). The Chinese are deploying strategic submarines, land-mobile rockets and early-warning systems that can support dangerous high-alert postures. India and Israel are making similar moves to operationalize their arsenals and command systems for rapid response. North Korea, under an impulsive dictator, continues to hammer away at its own nuclear weapons capability while ratcheting up threats of pre-emptive nuclear attack. And Pakistan is on track to double its arsenal over the next five years, including development of so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield (this is, perhaps, a too-fine distinction: when a nuclear weapon goes off, nobody will stop to ask whether it was tactical or strategic).
Terrorism and Cyber Threats
Meanwhile, there are other dangerous new players on the board. Violent extremists — better funded and more organized than ever — are working every day to buy, build or steal a nuclear weapon. It is too tempting a prize for a collective of killers bent on brutality and mayhem. Whether as a crudely built design or as a stolen warhead, one “small” 10-kiloton nuclear bomb smuggled into a major city and detonated could instantly kill hundreds of thousands. Recent attacks in Paris, Istanbul, Beirut and Brussels will look like child’s play in comparison.
New concerns have also emerged over the cyber vulnerabilities of nuclear command and control and missiles on hair-trigger alert. Could state-sponsored hackers — or their non-state counterparts — manipulate early warning networks into reporting fake warnings that provoke all-too-real reactions? Can such hackers breach defenses and transmit orders to launch crews or even to the weapons themselves? What if an insider colluded with them to provide access and passwords to the launch circuitry? According to General James E. Cartwright, who until recently commanded all U.S. nuclear forces, we cannot confidently answer “no” to any of these questions.
The Road Ahead
This is all certainly cause for alarm — but not despair. The news isn’t all bad.
Young and politically powerful constituencies are emerging as new champions for global zero — and they’re getting the presidential candidates’ attention. At home and abroad, financial reality and austerity budgeting could apply downward pressure on nuclear arsenals. The view that nuclear weapons pose unacceptable risks is gaining among governments worldwide. And we on the heels of a breakthrough with Iran.
The Iran deal is particularly significant. A few short years ago, it was conventional wisdom that Iran would never agree to forgo weapons of mass destruction. We know now that the skeptics were wrong. Then, as now, the challenges weren’t insurmountable — they were political. They ultimately unraveled when met by a focused American president who marshaled the power of international leadership, diplomacy, and pressure.
That’s a formidable model fit for scaling up.
Whatever the outcome of Election Day, it’s hard to envy the winner. The world is strained and fractured, and the weapons once relied on for stability now offer only liability and risk. The next president is more likely than any predecessor since the dawn of the atomic age to witness — or precipitate — the use of nuclear weapons.
Navigating these challenges and averting this nightmare scenario will take an all-in approach. The Clock is ticking.