Is a new nuclear age upon us?

Is a new nuclear age upon us?

Why we may look back on 2019 as the point of no return

Foreign Affairs | By Nicholas L Miller and Vipin Narang | December 30, 2019
A North Korean missile test in an undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency in November 2019 KCNA / Reuters
Nicholas L Miller, Vipin Narang
December 30, 2019
Foreign Affairs

A year ago, it was clear that a storm was brewing on the nuclear horizon. Writing in Foreign Affairs in January, we warned that “the United States could find itself in not one but three nuclear crises in the next 12 months.” We pointed to the risk that negotiations with North Korea would break down, that arms control between the United States and Russia would further deteriorate, and that Iran would begin violating its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal.

Looking back, it is clear that we missed the mark—by being too optimistic. Over the past year, Washington has not only faced nuclear crises with North Korea, Russia, and Iran, as predicted; it has also watched as nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan stumbled to the brink of all-out war and a host of US allies began to rethink their nuclear options. Unless governments in Washington and elsewhere act quickly to reverse course, future scholars may look back on 2019 as the turning point from an era of relative calm to one of intense nuclear competition and proliferation—the dawn of a dangerous new nuclear age.


At the top of a long list of worrying developments is the heightened risk of a nuclear arms race between Washington and its most powerful rivals. The demise, earlier this year, of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, was an early sign of trouble. The first treaty to ever outlaw an entire category of nuclear delivery systems, the 1987 agreement had been a cornerstone of US-Russian arms control for more than three decades. But the United States accused Russia of violating the terms of the agreement and voiced concerns about the large arsenal of intermediate-range missiles that China, free of any treaty constraints, had built up in recent years. In February, Washington announced that it would stop complying with the treaty. A few months later, it withdrew from the agreement altogether. 

A similar fate may soon befall the most important remaining guardrail on US-Russian nuclear policy. The New START treaty, which limits the number of strategic nuclear systems that each side can deploy, expires in February 2021, and the Trump administration has signaled that it will not renew the agreement. Russian officials have offered a five-year extension, but US President Donald Trump has suggested that he is interested in a revised agreement only if it covers a broader range of weapons systems, including Russia’s arsenal of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons—a demand that Russia has rejected out of hand.

The risk of a great-power nuclear arms race is growing by the day.

Washington would also like any updated New START treaty to include other nuclear powers, such as China—another nonstarter, and a bizarre demand given that China’s nuclear arsenal is vastly smaller than those of either Russia or the United States. Any agreement involving China would either be an invitation to Beijing to grow its nuclear arsenal to parity with the United States and Russia or force Beijing to accept a much lower ceiling than the one Washington and Moscow agreed to. Because China has shown little enthusiasm for either option, any attempt to include it amounts to a poison pill to kill the treaty entirely. 

Making matters worse, Trump announced in January that the US missile defense system (the network of sensors and interceptors that shield the country from outside nuclear attack) would aim to “detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States.” The future role of missile defense, in other words, may be to provide protection not just against the small arsenals of rogue states such as North Korea but even against those of large, capable rivals such as Russia and China—creating an incentive for those adversaries to further upgrade and expand their own arsenals to evade, penetrate, or simply overwhelm US defenses. 

With all three countries modernizing their nuclear programs, and dim prospects for arms control, the risk of a great-power nuclear arms race is growing by the day. And unlike US-Soviet nuclear competition in the Cold War, today’s would be a three-way nuclear arms race, the likes of which the world has never seen. 


Washington fared no better in thwarting the nuclear ambitions of smaller rivals. Back in 2018, a charm offensive initiated by North Korea had sparked hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough after years of stalemate. Events in 2019 offered a cruel reality check. A much-touted summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi fell apart when the United States stuck to its demand that North Korea give up all its nuclear weapons facilities—and more—prior to any sanctions relief, a maximalist position that many experts had advised against. A visit to Panmunjom—where Trump became the first US President to step foot inside North Korea—failed to resuscitate the process, as did working-level talks in Sweden. In December, North Korea stated that denuclearization was “off the table.” 

With no deal in place, North Korea has continued to churn out fissile material and intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, which can carry its warheads all the way to the US mainland. It conducted more successful missile tests in 2019 than in any prior year in its history, some of them using solid fuel rather the less sophisticated liquid fuel designs of years past.

North Korea’s recent claim to have tested a new rocket engine at the Sohae test site—a site it had supposedly dismantled in a show of good faith in 2018—offers a preview of what is to come. Kim has explicitly dropped the pretense that he is interested in arms control, let alone disarmament, without major sanctions relief. But such relief is not in the cards any time soon; in fact, the Trump administration recently imposed additional sanctions, a step that is likely to infuriate Pyongyang.  

Although Kim’s moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests has thus far remained in place, he has repeatedly hinted that this will change if no deal is struck by the end of the year and, indeed, it appears as if an ICBM test may be imminent. And even if Kim holds his fire, he will continue to expand and improve his nuclear and missile force unabated, setting the United States and North Korea on a potential collision course in the coming year. 

There is no telling yet if a new crisis will reach the fever pitch of the 2017 standoff, with thermonuclear tweets and talk of “fire and fury.” But if Trump, already under siege at home, feels personally betrayed by his “friend” Kim Jong Un, he may lash out—and with the diplomatic doors slammed shut, that could mean war. US leaders may look back at 2019, and the summit in Hanoi in particular, as the moment when the last opportunity to slow down North Korea’s nuclear program slipped by. 


If progress with North Korea has stalled, it has gone into reverse with Iran. Ever since the United States withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran has been at the receiving end of a “maximum pressure” campaign from Washington, designed to further constrain its nuclear and missile program and rein in its involvement in conflicts across the wider Middle East. Yet as 2019 comes to an end, Iran’s nuclear capabilities are more advanced than when the American pressure campaign began. 

Tehran has responded to sanctions and threats from Washington by moving away from the commitments it made under the 2015 nuclear deal and expanding its nuclear program. Over the past six months, it has deployed advanced centrifuges that allow it to enrich uranium more quickly, enriched uranium to higher concentrations, slowly but surely ramped up its stockpile of enriched uranium, and resumed enrichment at the hardened, underground Fordow site. As a result, its breakout time—the time it would take to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear warhead—is shorter today than it was at the start of the year. According to one recent estimate, it now stands at six to ten months, down from eight to 12 months before it took steps away from the nuclear deal’s limits. To build a full-fledged arsenal would take much longer—but the numbers still indicate how close Iran has positioned itself to the bomb. 

Tehran’s message of defiance has been clear. It attacked or seized several oil tankers and carried out a brazen drone and missile attack against the heart of the Saudi oil industry. In June, it shot down a US unmanned aircraft over the Persian Gulf. Trump authorized then called back a retaliatory air strike, putting the two countries within minutes of a shooting war.

De-escalation remains unlikely. Iranian leaders have offered to negotiate only if Washington lifts sanctions first. The sanctions have been successful in seriously damaging the Iranian economy and helping spur massive protests, but they have so far failed at achieving any of their stated objectives. As things stand, Tehran is likely to continue to advance its enrichment program step by step, bringing the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon (or a war to prevent one) closer and closer.  


The United States is not the only one to pay close attention to Iran’s moves—Saudi Arabia, too, has kept an eye on Tehran’s nuclear program and has continued preparations for a nuclear energy program of its own, which it has clearly signaled is intended as a hedge against Iranian proliferation. Specifically, Saudi Arabia has shown an interest in enriching uranium, which can be used either to produce fuel for nuclear reactors or for nuclear bombs.

The Saudi case is part of a broader trend: across the world, 2019 revealed a growing appetite for nuclear weapons programs even among US allies. Support for an independent nuclear arsenal is significant in South Korea—both among some political elites and the broader population—a sentiment that Trump exacerbated by repeatedly calling into question the US security commitment to Seoul and demanding massive increases in South Korean payments to the United States to help fund the US troop presence there. In September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that he “could not accept” that nuclear-armed states such as the United States prohibit Turkey from acquiring its own arsenal. A few weeks later, Turkish troops invaded Northern Syria and fired artillery at US positions there—all while being a longtime host of US nuclear weapons at its Incirlik air base. Meanwhile, in Europe, concerns over the credibility of the US commitment have led French President Emmanuel Macron to mull offering a French nuclear umbrella to NATO as a substitute for an American one. 


Add to this another flashpoint, often overlooked by observers: South Asia. Tensions between India and Pakistan, which have long been at odds over disputed territory in Kashmir, escalated in February, when Pakistani militants attacked an Indian security convoy in the region. India retaliated by bombing a site in the northern Pakistani town of Balakot. What made the air strike unusual was that its target lay outside the swath of land in dispute—making it the first ever attack by a nuclear power against the undisputed sovereign territory of another nuclear power. 

Soon after the strike on Balakot, Pakistan shot down an Indian Air Force jet over disputed territory and captured its pilot on the Pakistani side. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly contemplated launching several surface-to-surface missiles against Pakistan in what he called a “night of murder” if the pilot was not expeditiously returned. India also allegedly deployed its nuclear-armed submarine—another first in the history of the two rivals. 

South Asia has become a nuclear tinderbox.

Pakistan soon handed over the pilot, and further escalation was averted. But the episode does not bode well for nuclear stability in the region. For the past two decades, India has suffered regular terrorist attacks on its homeland by Pakistani-sponsored proxies, but it has kept its responses limited for fear of courting escalation with its neighbor, which has threatened to go nuclear in a potential conflict. Now, however, India is testing that proposition with bolder countermeasures, no longer content to accept provocations from its nuclear neighbor without reprisal.

That strategy, though perhaps satisfying at home, comes with significant risks. Although the February crisis stopped short of full-blown conflict, it is easy to imagine several plausible turns that could have sent it over the nuclear edge: if India’s pilot had died when his plane was hit or while he was in Pakistani custody, if the Pakistani response had hit a high-value target, or if Modi had gone ahead with the missile strikes. Re-run the crisis ten times, and a majority of the time it will lead to much more significant escalation. Consider, too, the possibility that India may have developed a counterforce nuclear strategy (a playbook focused on quickly disabling the opponent’s nuclear forces in any crisis before he has the chance to use them), raising the risk that any future confrontation could quickly go nuclear. Together, these risks have made South Asia a nuclear tinderbox. And even outside the region, states may look to India’s attempts to push the envelope against Pakistan as a strategy to emulate in the face of aggression from their nuclear adversaries. 


The year 2019 has been an inflection point for three key features of a new nuclear age: renewed nuclear competition among several great powers; the emergence of new nuclear powers, both adversaries and allies; and a greater tolerance for escalation among existing nuclear powers, with potentially catastrophic consequences. 

Washington could still avert, or at least mitigate, some of these outcomes. It could, for example, work to repair the damage done to its alliances, extend New START, and pursue more realistic diplomacy with North Korea and Iran. But other trends—such as the return to great-power competition, the relative decline of the United States, and a rising and increasingly assertive India—are likely to persist and reinforce the dangerous nuclear dynamics already playing out. Any one of these trends would be a major challenge. Their confluence this year may mark the beginning of a dangerous new nuclear age.

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