Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 02:06 | SYDNEY
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Nuclear Weapons

Overview

Nuclear weapons remain an enduring security issue for Australia and its region. Nuclear arsenals in the Indo-Pacific region are growing, and their delivery methods and supporting systems are becoming more technologically advanced. In addition, several nuclear powers are transitioning from purely land-and air-based strategic forces to a sea-based nuclear deterrent, further complicating a radically changing security environment.

Nuclear Weapons in the Indo-Pacific

As strategic relations in the Indo-Pacific change, due to the rise of China and the US pivot to Asia, nuclear weapons will be a subtext to the changing strategic dynamic. Six of the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons are in the Indo-Pacific region. The United States, China, India, Pakistan, Russia and North Korea are all modernising or enlarging their nuclear arsenals to some degree, making nuclear weapons an important area of study regarding strategic stability in the Indo-Pacific.

The nuclear deterrence relationship between China and the United States is especially important. As China becomes increasingly assertive in the East and South China Seas, and the United States continues its rebalance to Asia, nuclear weapons will become a more visible element to this strategic dynamic. For instance, recent assessments suggest that China will be ready to conduct its first nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) deterrence patrols at the end of 2014.

Another major nuclear deterrence relationship in the region is between India and Pakistan. After their partition in 1947 and the several wars and conflicts that followed, nuclear weapons were introduced into the Indian/Pakistani equation in 1974 with India’s first successful nuclear weapons test. Armed confrontation and even nuclear warfare became a possibility in South Asia when in 1998 India and Pakistan conducted a series of nuclear tests among heightened tensions. Both sides have since refrained from further nuclear tests, but the introduction of nuclear munitions in their arsenals has raised the possibility of their use in a major confrontation.

North Korea

North Korea or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is the fifth and least advanced nuclear weapon state in the Indo-Pacific region. It poses a considerable threat to regional stability due to its pursuit of higher-yield and more advanced nuclear warheads and missile delivery systems. North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 after a series of failed international negotiations over the status of its nuclear program. Its first nuclear detonation occurred in 2006 and it has since conducted further tests in 2009 and 2013. A serious source of regional instability is the regime’s continued testing of long-and short-range missile delivery systems, usually in the Sea of Japan. In April 2013, North Korea’s failed launch of a satellite, condemned by many in the international community as the testing of a long-range missile, sparked war fears throughout the region. The crisis saw an unprecedented escalation in rhetoric from North Korea, the temporary closure of Korean joint venture manufacturing facilities, and the United States conducting a show of force with B-2 strategic stealth bombers.

SSBN Programs and Strategic Stability

A recent development in nuclear security in the Indo-Pacific is the growing numbers of SSBNs. SSBNs are widely considered the most advanced and invulnerable nuclear delivery platform in the nuclear triad, but they have the potential to be destabilising in an international crisis situation. Both China and India are making advances to join the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and France as operators of SSBNs. These platforms afford a mobile and sea-based deterrent that provides an assured retaliatory ‘second strike’ in the event of a nuclear attack on home territory. While SSBNs can be strategically stabilising in terms of nuclear deterrence generally, in a crisis situation they can contribute to crisis escalation and destabilisation.

What the Lowy Institute does

The Lowy Institute has a strong record of nuclear security research, from disarmament, non-proliferation, arms control and strategic stability through to nuclear energy and uranium export policy. This has largely been conducted through the International Security Program under the banner of the Nuclear Policy Centre, which has been supported by the Nuclear Security Project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. The Institute was also an Associated Research Centre for the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament and was commissioned to prepare its original concept paper. Currently, the main focus of nuclear security research is on nuclear stability in the Indo-Pacific amid a changing regional strategic architecture. This research is generously supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The nuclear weapon ban treaty is significant but flawed

On 7 July 2017 a UN negotiating conference adopted a draft treaty banning nuclear weapons – specifically, their development, production, possession, stationing and deployment, use, threat of use, testing, and so on. The treaty will be open for signature on 20 September 2017, and will enter

Getting past the awful logic of nuclear weapons

In August last year I wrote on why Australia should support negotiations on a nuclear weapon ban. Subsequently the UN General Assembly voted by a three-to-one majority to convene negotiations on a ban on 27-31 March and 15 June-7 July. The General Assembly will then review progress and decide on

What's behind Russia's missile treaty violation?

Earlier this week the New York Times broke a story that Russia is fielding new cruise missiles in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). This is significant, not because Russia stands accused of violating the Treaty, but rather how and why. The INF Treaty

Nuclear-armed submarines in Indo-Pacific Asia: Stabiliser or menace?

In this Report, Lowy Institute Research Associate Brendan Thomas-Noone and Nonresident Fellow Professor Rory Medcalf examine the implications of sea-based nuclear weapons for strategic stability in the Indo-Pacific. This paper is part of a wider research and outreach project on nuclear