The Return of the Nuclear Sword of Damocles and the Specter of Nuclear Warfare

Rapid Geopolitical shifts, with the dismantling of the West-led traditional, rules-based world order and the return of the great power competition among leading global powers, drive a surge in global spending on nuclear weapons with focus on arsenals' expansion, modernization, delivery systems upgrade and more deployed weapons on active, operational alert worldwide marking the return of the specter of nuclear warfare.

Rajat Narang - The Radioactive Warzone

6/18/20244 min read

The Hanging Nuclear Sword of Damocles and the Specter of Nuclear Warfare are back in business to haunt humanity as geopolitical shifts, driven by the return of power struggles & great power competition among leading geopolitical powers, drive their resurgence. The latest set of reports bear testimony to that fact.

The first one is the latest report from ICAN, The International Campaign for Abolishment of Nuclear Weapons, which clearly mentions that global spending on nuclear weapons has been on a surge as nukes regain their unmatched deterrence value in the ongoing geopolitical power games & parleys, as effectively showcased by Russia in the war in Ukraine, wherein, Putin has effectively used the threat of use of tactical nukes in Ukraine to great effect to deter U.S. & NATO forces from direct military intervention. As per the report, global spending on nuclear weapons by the 9 nuclear powers collectively stood at $91.4 billion for 2023, which increased by $10.7 billion year-on-year, as compared to 2022 marking a 34% YoY increase. The report further mentions that these nuclear-armed states have collectively spent $387 billion towards their nuclear arsenal over the past 5 years, i.e., from 2018 to 2023 with almost 2.100 nuclear warheads sitting atop ballistic missiles on high operational deployment creating a dangerous situation for the world.

SIPRI has described it almost as a tipping point with a major inflection in spending on nuclear weapons registered along with an unprecedented growth in global defense spending which reached $2.4 trillion for 2023. “We have not seen nuclear weapons playing such a prominent role in international relations since the Cold War,” remarked Wilfred Wan, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's weapons of mass destruction program.

The ongoing wave of increased spending on nuclear weapons has been led by:-

  1. China's military ascension & nuclear ambitions to match the U.S. backed by rapid expansion of nuclear arsenal.

  2. Russia's military resurgence and ongoing dangerous antics in Ukraine, including, nuclear saber-rattling and threats of use of tactical nukes.

  3. U.S. nuclear arsenal & delivery systems which are ageing and long overdue for modernization, especially, the Minuteman III ICBMs belonging to the Cold War-era which were first fielded & deployed in the 1970s.

  4. Development of nuclear weapons by North Korea with focus on building of delivery systems capable of targeting the U.S. while posing a serious threat to regional rivals, especially, South Korea.

Accordingly, the U.S. has clearly been the biggest spender on nuclear weapons accounting for $51.5 billion or 80% of total spending followed by China with $11.8 billion and Russia at the third spot with a spending of $8.3 billion, as per ICAN.

China has been investing significantly towards expanding its nuclear arsenal, which has expanded from 410 warheads in Jan 2023 to 500 warheads by Jan 2024, and is on its way to reach 1,000 warheads by 2030 and 1,500 warheads by 2035, as per the U.S. State Department. China is also investing significantly towards further developing its nukes delivery capabilities & nuclear triad with rapid development & deployment of medium & intermediate range ballistic missiles as well as long range ICBMs, and is set to match U.S. and Russia, in terms, of sheer numbers of missiles by 2030. China has also started keeping a sizable number of nuclear warheads on active deployment even during peacetime, just like Russia and the U.S.

Russia has the world's largest nuclear weapons stockpile, which, coupled with Putin's callous & dangerous nuclear threats to NATO and bid to deploy nuclear weapons in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) in space and develop exotic nuclear delivery systems of-late; including, a nuclear-powered cruise missile with virtually unlimited range, nuclear-powered torpedoes capable of reaching the U.S. from Russia and nuclear-powered UAVs, in addition, to exit from legacy, Cold-war era arms control treaties, especially, the New START; has been fueling the dangerous nuclear arms race between Russia and the West. The threat has been perceived and echoed by NATOs' Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, who recently called for an urgent review of NATO's military doctrine guiding deployment of nuclear weapons by NATO, in order, to effectively deter Russia.

U.S.' focus on modernization of its nuclear arsenal has been largely driven by a rapidly changing threat landscape amid China's military & economic ascension and Russia's military resurgence and its ageing, Cold War-era warheads and delivery capabilities across the nuclear triad. The U.S. is poised to spend almost $1 trillion towards modernization of its nuclear warheads and delivery systems by the mid-to-late 2030s, led by the Sentinel ICBM program, which is scheduled to replace the existing Minuteman III ICBMs and is alone projected to cost a whopping $650 billion over the course of modernization.

The world, thus, is indeed becoming a dangerous place with brewing geopolitical tensions and is, seemingly, headed for a series of potential conflicts over traditional geopolitical issues & legacy fault lines, as shown by ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza. The situation is further compounded & exacerbated by the emergence of Russia-China-North Korea-Iran axis directly facing NATO against the backdrop & shadow of extremely dangerous & lethal nuclear & thermonuclear weapons, which, invariably come into play and pose a direct, existential threat to humanity which was simply lucky to have escaped unscathed from the specter of nuclear holocaust during the Cold War. However, we may not turn out to be that lucky this time around...

For more, Check out my 3-Part book series on Amazon:

The Fire of the Gods: Oppenheimer's Legacy - The Declassified, Real History of Nuclear Weapons & Age - 1938 to 1991 (3 book series)

Image Credits: USAF