Nuclear Threats Coming From New Sources
Only once in the past 20 years has the world found itself nearing the brink of nuclear war. In 1990, India and Pakistan rolled their air forces’ bombers onto runways during a confrontation over the disputed region of Kashmir.
This week, India’s detonation of three nuclear devices again illuminated a chilling fact of life in the post-Cold War era: The greatest danger of atomic warfare is not between the old superpowers but from a relentlessly growing list of “new” nuclear powers in Asia and the Middle East.
The United States and Russia still maintain thousands of frighteningly powerful nuclear missiles, and China, France and Britain control hundreds of their own.
But the biggest threat to the sometimes-precarious nuclear peace is no longer in those big-power stockpiles, which have been the focus of arms control efforts since the first atomic explosions in 1945.
Instead, the most acute modern dangers come from smaller sources in unstable places: the growing nuclear arsenals in Pakistan and India, including India’s brand-new hydrogen bomb, apparently compact enough to fit atop a medium-range missile; the one or two nuclear weapons that North Korea might still be hiding; the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program in Iraq--and the more than 100 nuclear weapons Israel maintains to deter an Arab attack.
Plus, there’s the impossible-to-quantify danger of “loose nukes,” of nuclear material falling into the hands of rebels, terrorists or gangsters.
“This is the third proliferation crisis since the end of the Cold War,” said Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “First was Iraq, where we discovered that they were much closer to developing a weapon than we knew. Then came North Korea, where we discovered that they had succeeded in diverting significant quantities of nuclear material. Now India, which could be the most serious because it hasn’t been contained, and because it could spread across a whole region.
“The guiding theory of nonproliferation has been that the more people have nuclear weapons, the more likely someone is to use them,” he added. “The question now is: Can we seal this breach, or is it going to start popping rivets like the Titanic?”
The world has veered close to nuclear war three times since the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II in 1945.
In 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to a nuclear exchange over the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
In 1973, Israel readied its nuclear weapons when Egyptian and Syrian troops nearly broke through its conventional defenses.
In the 1990 incident, India and Pakistan were on the brink of war over the mountain region of Kashmir when U.S. intelligence picked up evidence that nuclear weapons were being readied on both sides.
Then-President Bush quietly dispatched Robert M. Gates, his national security advisor, to calm both sides. “They weren’t quite at the brink,” Gates said Tuesday. “But our worry was that the two countries would blunder into a conflict, and that if a conventional war did start, the losing side might resort to nuclear weapons.”
Today, Gates said, he would still put India and Pakistan “at the top of the list” of potential nuclear flash points.
“The concern is that, in a real crisis, one side will be tempted to use their weapons for fear of losing the small stockpile that they have,” agreed Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, a Washington think tank. “Neither India nor Pakistan has actually practiced its deployment of nuclear weapons. If the first time you deploy is in a crisis . . . that’s exactly when accidents and mistakes happen.”
The experts say other nuclear threats are posed by:
* North Korea. The impoverished Communist nation agreed to place its nuclear energy program under restrictions in 1994, but its military is believed to control one or two atomic weapons. “All along, we have tended to underestimate the capabilities of countries developing nuclear weapons,” warned Gates.
And even if North and South Korea unify peacefully, some scholars note, the outcome could be a nuclear-armed Korea.
* Iraq. Hussein’s nuclear weapons program is believed to have been largely dismantled by United Nations inspectors. But if the U.N. ever leaves, he could revive the effort. “Saddam invested $4 billion in his nuclear program, and you can’t take knowledge out of people’s heads,” noted Shahram Chubin of the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland.
* Iran. The CIA says Iran is working seriously on a nuclear weapons program but is still years from success. “They’re working on it, but mainly they’re working on it in their heads,” Chubin said. India’s atomic tests, he added, “will give people in Iran a pretext to argue that they need nuclear weapons.”
* Israel. U.S. officials believe that Israel maintains 100 to 200 nuclear weapons as a deterrent to would-be attackers--and is ready to use them. “If there were ever a major chemical or biological strike against Israel by any of its neighbors, there would certainly be a response,” Kemp said.
* Terrorists. Many experts believe that the greatest danger of nuclear warfare comes from the prospect of a warhead falling into the wrong hands. “I think the most likely first use of a nuclear device would be of a nongovernment entity, be it terrorist, gangster or a political breakaway,” Kemp said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean an explosion; they might simply use it for blackmail.”
Cirincione warned that “the former Soviet Union is still the largest storehouse of nuclear weapons and fissile materials in the world, and it is a region in chaos.”
For almost a decade, the United States has been funding programs to bring the former Soviet arsenal under strict control, but the effort is “painfully inadequate to the task,” Cirincione said.
In one recent success story, U.S. officials arranged to remove 10 pounds of nuclear material from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. “The good news is that they got the 10 pounds out,” Cirincione said. “The bad news is there’s almost a million pounds left.”