The specter of nuclear war is rising once more, according to independent watchdogs monitoring the world’s nine nuclear powers in a report published on Monday, June 17.

A one-third surge in spending on nuclear weapons modernization last year, coupled with heightened geopolitical tensions, paints a chilling picture of a potential new arms race.

“We have not seen nuclear weapons playing such a prominent role in international relations since the Cold War,” warned Wilfred Wan, head of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) weapons of mass destruction program.

SIPRI’s report highlights the wars in Ukraine and Gaza as contributing factors to a deteriorating global security landscape, with those tensions spilling over into nuclear policy.

“It is hard to believe that barely two years have passed since the leaders of the five largest nuclear-armed states jointly reaffirmed that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,’” Wan added.

Modernization and Deployment

All nine nuclear-armed states – the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea – are reported to be modernizing their arsenals, with some deploying entirely new nuclear weapon systems.

While the overall stockpile numbers have dipped slightly due to dismantling older weapons, the number of operational warheads – those readily available for use – has crept upwards.

This trend is particularly concerning as both the US and Russia, which possess nearly 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, are believed to have increased their operational stockpiles.

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World Nuclear Force, according to SIPRI’s estimates as of January 2024. (Screenshot)

Nuclear Arms Spending Frenzy

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) paints a more specific picture of the financial side of this equation.

Their report reveals a combined spending total of $91.4 billion on nuclear arsenals in 2023, a $10.7 billion increase from the previous year.

The United States, at 80 percent, shouldered the brunt of this growth, spending more than all other nuclear states combined.

Meanwhile, China’s rise as a nuclear power is also a cause for concern, with their spending coming in second at $11.8 billion.

As reported by SIPRI, China’s arsenal has grown to an estimated 500 warheads, with a possible first-time deployment of missiles during peacetime. Their intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities are also projected for significant growth.

The report finds similar trends elsewhere: the UK plans a stockpile increase, France is developing new delivery systems, India and Pakistan are expanding their arsenals (India focusing on longer range), and North Korea has significantly boosted its estimated warhead count while testing new delivery systems. This raises concerns about the potential early use of tactical nuclear weapons by North Korea in a conflict.

Even Israel, which doesn’t officially acknowledge nuclear weapons, is believed to be modernizing its arsenal. These developments highlight a global shift away from disarmament efforts and towards a more heavily armed nuclear landscape.

Transparency Concerns

The reports also highlight a worrying decline in transparency surrounding nuclear forces, particularly between the US and Russia.

Dialogue channels established during the Cold War to foster communication and reduce the risk of accidental escalation have been severed.

Additionally, key treaties aimed at limiting nuclear proliferation, such as the New START treaty, are hanging by a thread.

This lack of transparency creates a dangerous environment where miscalculations and misunderstandings could have catastrophic consequences.

A Call to Action

Experts warn that the current trajectory is deeply concerning.

A new nuclear arms race fueled by mistrust and a return to Cold War-era thinking threatens to destabilize international security and increase the risk of nuclear war.

The reports urge a renewed commitment to disarmament treaties and a return to open communication channels between nuclear powers.

Only through dialogue and cooperation can we prevent the world from slipping back into the dark shadow of a nuclear confrontation.

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Castle Romeo mushroom cloud on Bikini Atoll, 1954. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Road Not Taken

The alternative to this dangerous path is a world free from nuclear weapons.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which has been ratified by 70 countries, offers a viable roadmap for achieving this goal.

While none of the nuclear-armed states have yet joined the treaty, it represents a powerful global norm against nuclear weapons and a starting point for a future free from the threat of nuclear annihilation.

“We are now in one of the most dangerous periods in human history,” said Dan Smith, SIPRI Director. “There are numerous sources of instability—political rivalries, economic inequalities, ecological disruption, an accelerating arms race. The abyss is beckoning and it is time for the great powers to step back and reflect. Preferably together.”

Disclaimer: SOFREP utilizes AI for image generation and article research. Occasionally, it’s like handing a chimpanzee the keys to your liquor cabinet. It’s not always perfect and if a mistake is made, we own up to it full stop. In a world where information comes at us in tidal waves, it is an important tool that helps us sift through the brass for live rounds.