Where are the atom bombs?

#inventory #armament #nuclear #united_nations

8 January 2021


The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) enters into force on 22 January 2021. Henceforth, the development, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, use and threat of use of atomic bombs - the so-called nuclear deterrence strategy - are prohibited due to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of their use.

by Philippe Rivière

The adoption of this treaty in 2017 by the United Nations earned the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) the Nobel Peace Prize that same year. However, none of the nuclear weapon states were among the 122 signatories.

Nine states hold large stockpiles of nuclear weapons at various military bases or on board aircraft and submarines and are ready to ship them at any time to either side of the globe. They are Russia, United States, France, China, United Kingdom, Pakistan and India, and Israel and North Korea. These rogue states are, for the first five, permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, so they will stand together to maintain their illegality, without considering a move away from military nuclear power. At any rate, this is indicated by the fact that the (enormous!) share of the national budget devoted to the maintenance and renewal of these weapons and the personnel assigned to them is not decreasing, and by the softness of the public debate on this subject.

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Suffice to say that the treaty alone may not be enough to reduce the threat of eradication of the human species, symbolized since 1947 by the “Doomsday Clock”. The hand of this clock - imagined by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), an organization founded in 1946 in the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - was moved even closer, at the beginning of 2020, to the position “midnight,” the time of the end of the world.

If any precise information is a matter of military secrecy, it is in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a scientific journal emanating from the FAS, that one finds the most reliable figures concerning the number of nuclear missiles (“warheads”) ready for service [1], and their location in the world. At least for those on the ground of military bases, because it is by definition impossible to know precisely where the submarines and bomber planes that crisscross the oceans, seas and air of the Northern Hemisphere (at least), and represent the most serious threat, are hiding [2]. For example, France permanently patrols a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SNLE) with the equivalent of one thousand Hiroshima on board.

In “Worldwide deployments of nuclear weapons”, the latest version of which dates from 2017, U.S. researchers Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris gave the following estimate:

There are nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, located at some 107 sites in 14 countries. Roughly, 9400 of these weapons are in military arsenals; the remaining weapons are retired and awaiting dismantlement. Nearly 4000 are operationally available, and some 1800 are on high alert and ready for use on short notice. This article reviews the locations of nuclear weapons in all nine nuclear-armed states, as well as those of US weapons deployed outside the United States.”

Fourteen countries? Indeed, if nine states possess atomic weapons, the United States also stores them in five “friendly” countries (if one can speak of friendship); in 2020, these vassals of American nuclear power are Germany, Belgium, Italy, The Netherlands and Turkey. Other countries have benefited in the past from these proofs of friendship: South Korea, for example.

Beyond these 14 countries, uncertainties persist about the intentions and status of Iran. On the other side of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia could also develop or acquire nuclear weapons.

History shows that it is not impossible to abandon the “absolute” weapon: South Africa, which carried out a military nuclear program in the years of apartheid, with multiple complicities (including that of France), put an end to it in 1991. As for the former countries of the Soviet Union that had inherited missiles (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine), they destroyed them or transferred them to Russia within the framework of the START-1 disarmament agreement.

The current arms reduction agreement (“New Start”) between the United States and Russia expires at the beginning of 2021; negotiations, which did not succeed in 2020, are expected to resume under the presidency of Joe Biden.

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