The 5 Most Dangerous Nuclear Threats No One Is Talking About

The U.S. is often more concerned about hypothetical nuclear threats than the ones lurking all around us. Here are five to keep your eye on...

Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have occupied a hallowed place in U.S. national security. Indeed, during the dawn of the nuclear era, a whole new academic discipline—strategic studies—sprung up to provide the intellectual foundations for policy makers grappling with these earth-shattering issues. Moreover, while easy (convenient?) to forget today, nuclear weapons were central to America’s strategy for defending Europe from the numerically superior Soviet military.

During the Cold War, much of the debate centered on the U.S.-Soviet nuclear balance. And for good reason; this was both the most likely and most dangerous flashpoint. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons have continued to be a major preoccupation of American statesmen. However, instead of being concerned by existing nuclear arsenal, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has been most consumed by the nuclear weapons “rogue” states and terrorist groups don’t have. Meanwhile, outside of government, the strategic-studies community has been replaced by the arms-control crowd, who pours most of its energies into trying to abolish nuclear weapons instead of trying to minimize the danger of them.

None of these pursuits are unworthy in and of themselves. Nonetheless, they’ve created a vacuum whereby few are talking about (much less solving) the nuclear dangers that actually confront the world today. Unfortunately, these haven’t gone away. With the hope of sparking these necessary conversations, here are the five most dangerous nuclear threats no one is talking about:

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Asian MIRVs

As I discussed last month, the most dangerous nuclear threat the world currently faces is the prospect of China and India acquiring multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). MIRVs allow ballistic missiles to carry up to ten nuclear warheads each one of which can be aimed at a different target.

As we witnessed during the Cold War, the introduction of MIRVed missiles greatly destabilizes nuclear balances, by making nuclear arsenals more susceptible to being destroyed by an enemy first strike. Compensating for this greater danger requires states to build more nuclear weapons and disperse them to more and more places. This will be especially true for India and China, which have maintained extremely small nuclear arsenals relative to the U.S. and Russia.

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Thus, the most immediate impact of China and India acquiring MIRVs will be that they will have to greatly expand the size of their nuclear arsenal. The impact will not be limited to them, however. For one thing, a rapidly expanding Indian nuclear arsenal will leave Pakistan—which is already terrified that it’s arsenal could be destroyed in a first strike—vulnerable. It is likely to respond by expanding its arsenal as much and as quickly as possible, and ultimately by acquiring its own MIRVed missiles (perhaps with the help of China).

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Similarly, Russia has increasingly relied on its massive nuclear arsenal to “offset” its diminishing conventional military power. As China’s military modernization continues, Moscow will become even more reliant on its nuclear weapons to deter the Chinese. Thus, it is absolutely crucial that Russia maintain a large advantage over China in the nuclear realm. A rapidly expanding Chinese nuclear arsenal would greatly jeopardize that. One day we might look back and assess that China’s MIRVed missiles killed U.S.-Russia arms control.

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Pakistan Tactical Nukes

Contrary to popular belief, Pakistan did acquire nuclear weapons to counter India’s arsenal, but rather to “offset” India’s conventional superiority.

Indeed, the decision to pursue nuclear weapons was made at a January 1972 meeting in Multan in south Punjab, Pakistan. The prior month, Pakistan’s military had been badly humiliated in its war with India, which resulted in East Pakistan becoming the independent state of Bangladesh. This halved Pakistan and, as a result, widened the gap with India in terms of population (from 5:1 in India’s favor to 10:1 in India’s favor) and economic potential. It also shattered the prevailing belief in Pakistan at the time that its military was qualitatively superior to the Indian armed forces, and confirmed (in the minds of many Pakistanis at least) that Delhi was bent on dismantling Pakistan.

As a result, it is not altogether surprising that Pakistan is seeking tactical nuclear weapons to use on the battlefield against India, especially in light of Delhi’s “Cold Start” doctrine. After all, NATO deployed tactical nuclear weapons because it sought to use nuclear weapons to offset the Soviet Union’s conventional superiority.