The Rest of the Nuclear Club
Luxembourg is next to go The US
And (who knows?) maybe Monaco.
, the UK
, and China
all have nuclear weapons and get to deal with all the attendant politics thereof. Since their development, nuclear weapons have been used in warfare by one nation only two times: the United States
in the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima on August 6, and Nagasaki on August 9. The sheer destructive effectiveness of these weapons shocked the entire world, including the US itself, and since then the only nuclear detonations have been tests or demonstrations.
In theory, only the Permanent Five (P5) members of the United Nations
Security Council — the US, Russia
, United Kingdom
, and China
— are even allowed
to have nuclear weapons, per the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). That said, international law being what it is — i.e.
, highly voluntary — several states currently have, previously had, or may be or have been developing nuclear weapons. For the most part, the non-P5 states that have or had nuclear weapons either did not sign the Treaty in the first place (India
, South Africa
) or withdrew from it (North Korea
).How is this possible?
The states that are suspected of developing weapons are generally parties to the NPT, and the shadiness about them is caused by their attempts to circumvent the controls they agreed to under the terms of the NPT.
Israel - The Samson Option
Israel must be like a mad dog - too dangerous to bother.
It is entirely within the realm of possibility that Israel may or may not have weapons that could be described as being of a nuclear nature, but it is also entirely within the realm of possibility that they do not have weapons that could be described as being of a nuclear nature, but all that really counts is that the State of Israel, in a very real sense, would like to remind you of the fact that it may or may not have nuclear weapons.
: Israel has nukes. Unofficially.
Israel being a nuclear power is frequently referred to as "the worst kept secret
in nuclear politics". While the Israeli government refuses to officially admit that they have nuclear weapons, multiple leaks have confirmed to anyone interested that hell yes, they do. The program was first exposed by The Times
, with the help of whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, who helped work on the program. He was abducted in Rome by Mossad (in a Honey Trap
ploy which is an Old Shame
of The Times
, who were supposed to be protecting him) and faced nearly two decades of solitary confinement in Israel.
The reasons to do this are actually quite practical (and complex); it's more than just a way to avoid having to deal with the politics of being a nuclear power. A nuclear arsenal serves as a useful deterrent against Israel's many rather hostile Arab neighbors. It also provides a convenient justification to those Arab states to not
attack Israel — they really don't want to, having figured out some time before 1973 that fighting Israel is a fool's errand, but they have to keep up the appearance of hostility to Israel, if only because Israel provides an excellent boogeyman to allow these governments to keep power. A nuclear counterattack would be truly devastating. It shows, too — notice how Saddam Hussein, for instance, was totally willing to use chemical weapons against Iran and the Kurds but never considered using them against Israel, even during the Gulf War
And keeping that nuclear arsenal a secret would prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, as most other Middle Eastern states don't feel a pressing need to acquire nuclear weapons. This keeps the Middle East a non-nuclear area as a whole on paper. If Israel ever went public, several Arab countries and Iran would withdraw from the NPT — and they'd be allowed to do so, this qualifying as a direct threat to their physical security. They don't want
to, but they totally will — the Middle East is funny like that. Secrecy also allows Israel to accept aid from the US, as US law prohibits foreign aid payments to countries which proliferate nuclear weapons technology outside the scope of the NPT (even if it's not a signatory). Finally, it provides Israel plausible (if cynical) deniability in case it decides one of its neighbors' reactors needs an extremely destructive visit from a squadron of F-16s; they can thus claim that they're preserving the regional balance of power.note
The Israeli government, by the way, is the biggest source of leaks regarding the program. After all, what's the use of an intimidating nuclear arsenal if the enemy doesn't know it exists? Prime Minister Ehud Olmert even once let it slip in a speech before hastily retracting his statement, proving that "the Ship of State is the only ship that leaks from the top."
Israel is very protective of its nuclear capability
, though — they will only comment that they will not be the first to "introduce" nuclear weapons (meaning that they will only admit to having nukes if one of their rivals gets some). Estimates show 80 to 400 warheads, deployable via Jericho ballistic missiles, submarine cruise missiles, and a wide range of fighter aircraft, giving Israel the full nuclear triad.
India - The Smiling Buddha
India detonated its first nuke in 1974, in what was called a "peaceful nuclear explosion". They even called the event "Smiling Buddha" (because it happened to fall on a holiday marking the Buddha's
birthday; no word on what the actual Buddha would have thought). It's interesting for being the first nuclear explosion to be ordered by a woman, India's then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi
. The main weapons are Agni medium-range ballistic missiles, with an ICBM in development. The Su-30MKI "Flanker" is being adapted for nuclear use, and its first missile sub has just been launched.
Pakistan - Mutually Assured Destruction: The Remix
If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass and leaves for a thousand years, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own...After all, the Christians have the bomb, the Jews have the bomb, and the Hindus will soon have the bomb. Why not the Muslims too?
Pakistan tested its first nukes in 1998, developing them in response to India's test, although it is believed to have had them for many years previously
. The country has an unknown number of nuclear weapons, but current estimates
put it ahead of India in both weapons and delivery systems. Unlike India, it has successfully developed a triad of systems which can be launched from land (medium- and intermediate-range missiles), aircraft, and submarines. This is a much more sophisticated arsenal than what India has, but it comes at the cost of accepting Indian superiority in conventional weapons (the earlier doctrine called for approximate parity). They're currently making a nuclear submarine.
While diplomats hardly advocated
for a nuclear India and a nuclear Pakistan, it's arguably the best of all possible outcomes. The two states seem to be locked into a pattern of conflict escalation and reduction without reaching actual war. Conventional war would have been catastrophic for both parties, but now that both nations have nuclear weapons, it's impossible. The Cold War logic of Mutually Assured Destruction means that while India and Pakistan continue to fight on a number of issues, neither is willing to take out the other party if it means total death.
Furthermore, while the Pakistani nuclear project started in response to India's test, the deployment
was a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets had been threatening Pakistan with nuclear attack since the whole Gary Powers incident;note
things would escalate after the Pakistanis started helping anti-Soviet militias in Afghanistan. Pakistan was no longer under a nuclear umbrella,note
encouraging many Western leaders to turn a blind eye to Pakistani nuclear ambitions.
However, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal remains subject to scrutiny as a major security concern for the international community; domestic instability means that the technology might fall into the wrong hands, who aren't state entities and thus not necessarily rational actors concerned with the above-mentioned balance of power. Domestic politics are so factionalized in Pakistan that it's unclear who would be in control of the arsenal in the event of an emergency. Pakistanis tend to dismiss such concerns, pointing out that nuclear arsenals have not yet been lost in other states undergoing massive social upheaval (e.g.
the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of Apartheid in South Africa).
North Korea - The Hooves of Chollima
-Korea Central News Agency
North Korean Songun
("military first") policy calls for the development of nuclear weapons as a possible defense against the West. The country recently conducted two nuclear tests. The first one, conducted in 2006, was a fizzle, but a WC-135
confirmed that the test was nuclear. The second test was conducted in 2009 and was much more succesful, and confirmed North Korea's status as a full-fleged nuclear power, albeit one with the world's smallest arsenal, somewhere in the single digits. The yield
was somewhere between one and twenty kilotons, probably in the single digits (2 to 6 kilotons, comparable to India and Pakistan's first nuclear tests).
It has conducted a number of missile tests recently, including an indigenous ICBM, which has had two tests. This ICBM looks like it may be using the old Soviet R-27/SS-N-6 as its second stage (with some bought in the 1990s). Most of its nuclear capability, though, would be based on the large variety of "Scud" derivatives built in the DPRK. Many of the North Korean missile tests have been even less successful than their nuclear tests (which at least did
produce nuclear blasts, albeit probably smaller than were intended), with several missiles breaking up mid-flight over the Sea of Japan and some not even making it that far. They're making progress, but it's slow (and provides continued fodder for the West to point and laugh).
With the ascendency of Kim Jong-un, there were hints that North Korea was seriously considering ending its experiments, in exchange for badly needed donations of food and infrastructure. However, several factors suggest that the regime's priorities remain firmly nuclear. First, in late 2012, it tested its Unha-3 rocket, succeeding in placing a satellite in orbit. Second, it signed an agreement in Tehran for "scientific and political cooperation" with Iran, which is widely considered to be attempting to enrich uranium. Third, it announced in early 2013 that it is preparing for a third nuclear test at its Pungye-Ri test site, this time possibly using properly enriched uranium. Fourth, reports from inside the DPRK suggest that food shortages in some provinces are so bad people are resorting to cannibalism
, indicating that "feed citizens" is rather low on Kim Jong-un's to-do list. Finally, atmospheric data suggests that it may have performed low-key tests as early as 2010, which went unnoticed in the West.
However, North Korea still faces serious challenges. For one thing, it doesn't have a lot of cash — South Korea's military budget is more than the North's entire GDP. Secondly, while it has developed nuclear fission devices, it still needs to increase the yield to create a thermonuclear device. Similarly, while its rockets can put satellites in space, it needs to find a way of guiding them to targets, as well as miniaturizing warheads enough to deliver them via ICBM. Furthermore, though it has developed intermediate range missiles, such as the BM 25
Musudan, it is an open question whether or not they can develop a warhead small enough to mount on the missile. Some have estimated, however, that it may be able to create simple artillery, SCUD, or air-delivered fission bombs in fairly large quantities within the next ten years.
South Africa - The Next Mfecane
Why do they need them anyway?
During The Apartheid Era
, South Africa developed a small number of nuclear weapons, probably no more than ten. The very isolation that drove them to develop the weapons also limited their means of delivery to the aging English Electric Canberra. It also limited their design options; all South African nukes were of the inefficient and dangerous but simple and dirt-cheap (for a nuke) gun-type
, rather than the implosion-type all other nuclear powers use for most of their weapons. In 1979, an American satellite detected what may have been South African (or joint Israeli-South African) nuclear test, now known as the Vela Incident
. Rumours of collaboration with Israel's nuclear program abound but have never been proven; such a relationship is unsurprising because both Israel and South Africa were "pariahs of the West" who weren't aligned with the communists or
the Americans, and they were known to cooperate on conventional weapons development. All weapons were dismantled shortly before the end of Apartheid, and South Africa went on to help establish the African nuclear-weapon-free zone.
Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan - Regifting
25,000 nuclear warheads. One is missing.
Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan together inherited thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons after the fall of the USSR. They sent them all back to Russia, and Kazakhstan has since become part of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapons-Free-Zone. It's the first time since the invention of nuclear weapons that a nation has declined
One wonders if they regret giving them up, particularly Ukraine. Several Neorealist
international relations scholars — most notably John Mearsheimer — have advocated rearming Ukraine as a deterrent to war in Europe. However, given that their analyses were made in the late '80s and early '90s and assumed that the reunited Germany
would be tempted to flex its muscles militarily, this theory is not given much credence these days. As it turns out, the Germans hate war viscerallynote
and prefer to flex their muscles economically
; as the strongest economy and de facto political leader of the European Union
, Germany has no need to act aggressively. The actual threat has come not from the West, but from the East, with an aggressive Russia invading Ukraine in violation of the agreements made at the time of disarmament.
Developing Hell/Development Hell
Iran - The Fist of God
The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons.
The very big maybe. Though much of the world (including the International Atomic Energy Agency) is inclined to put Iran in the "trying to get" category, Iran's government maintains that it is only pursuing peaceful nuclear energy, which the NPT explicitly allows all nations to do. The country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, issued a fatwa (an Islamic judicial opinion) condemning nukes, but Khamene'i isn't the most trustworthy man around by a long shot. The Iranian government may or may not be distanced from the populace, as there exist large numbers of pro- and anti-government Iranians. That said, the country's nuclear program is a national point of pride; regardless of their politics, most Iranians will defend Iran's right
to nuclear technology, and (to a lesser extent) even nuclear weapons, although they might have differences with the government over whether or not it's a good idea.
The United States helped start Iran's nuclear program in the 1950s
as part of the Atoms For Peace program. The United Kingdom's push for Operation Ajax didn't help either.
It has recently conducted tests of medium-range missiles, with the range to hit Cyprus and Bulgaria. It could be collaborating with North Korea to build missiles, an area where North Korea could certainly use some help.
Iran's program seems to be the target of a considerable number of cyberwarfare attacks. The most notable, the Stuxnet worm, was designed to target the programmable logic controllers operating Siemens centrifuges used for uranium enrichment. The most likely origin of these programs is either the US or Israel, neither of which will comment publicly on the matter.
The 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani as President was accompanied by a sudden shift to a conciliatory tone in Iranian rhetoric respecting the Bomb; Rouhani claims, apparently truthfully, that Supreme Leader Khamene'i gave him full authority to negotiate on the nuclear issue. Whether this means we are going to see clear steps towards a clearly non-military Iranian nuclear program is unclear, much like everything else in Iran. That said, an interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (US, China, Russia, UK, France, and Germany) was signed on 24 November 2013; it basically states "Iran will put its program on hold for six months so we can figure out how it can prove to the world that it's telling the truth about the program being peaceful without damaging Iranian pride, and we'll ease up on the sanctions a bit for six months." Israel (not a party to the negotiations) has unsurprisingly reacted with great disappointment to this agreement, which ironically is exactly what Iranian moderates wanted to hear; if Israel had offered even lukewarm support, the nature of Iranian politics would've made it a necessity to scrap the agreement.
Syria - A Great Big Hole in the Desert
All the Israelis have done is dig a hole in the desert!
Many suspect that Syria is developing nuclear weapons. Israel destroyed a suspected nuclear reactor (or at least a site where Syria
seems to have been gathering materials to build a reactor) in an airstrike in 2007. Any further attempts have probably been utterly derailed by the ongoing civil war.
Taiwan - Trying Again?
Everyone knows we had the plan before. Perhaps we should try again.
Taiwan refuses to confirm or deny rumors, but it has six
operational power-generating nuclear reactors that could potentially be converted to producing weapons-grade plutonium,note
with two more under construction. Declassified documents from the US State Department show that Taiwan was sporadically pursuing a nuclear program from 1966 to 1980 (with a little help from Israel
), despite constant attempts from the US government to prevent them from doing so. However, back when the United States still had official diplomatic relations with Taiwan
, a lot of advanced physicists were sent there for an unspecified reason. There was also that one time during George W. Bush's presidency that a ship full of warheads and other stuff got "accidentally" shipped to Taiwan.
Then again, maybe not. Taiwan's nuclear reactors are all light water reactors. Unlike heavy water reactors, they do not produce nearly as much plutonium or thorium waste, and they require pre-enriched uranium as fuel, which is more strictly regulated than the stuff you could just dig up and refine. If Taiwan was secretly attempting to build a nuclear arms program, it would have probably set up a heavy water reactor from the start (with the fuel thing as a justification) like India or Pakistan did.
For political reasons, most other nations and the UN consider Taiwan an autonomous province of China, rather than as sovereign state in its own right. As a result, by definition they are not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In fact, the NPT could reasonably construed to allow
them to have weapons as a part of China, which already had weapons when the treaty was ratified. The PRC doesn't agree; it has has stated in the past (and seemingly codified under obtuse language in its 2005 "Anti-Secession Law") that any possession of weapons of mass destruction by Taiwan would be grounds for immediate military action.
Had programs, but no longer
developed a short-lived, secret program during its military dictatorship, but it never got very far, and all such work stopped completely when civilian government took power again. This was probably, in part, due to its rivalry with Brazil. How far they got is unknown, though there are persistent rumors that the British were worried enough about it to deploy an SSBN to the South Atlantic during the Falklands War
Virtually the same as Argentina, including the rivalry part. The military dictatorship pursued a nuclear weapons program covertly, but never got very far, and since the restoration of democracy, the program has been completely disbanded. The Brazilian government remains touchy about its refinement technology, though, leading to a bit of a spat with the IAEA monitoring a plant, but this isn't because anyone seriously suspects of an illegal program; it's just that the government (rightly or wrongly) believed that inspections would be tantamount to industrial spying on their secret centrifugal axis technology, based on electromagnetism. And it was all sorted out in the end, to everyone's satisfaction. Meanwhile Brazil's nuclear power
program never slowed down, and now they're building their first nuclear submarine
Egypt - The Other Staff of Ra
flirted with nuclear weapons in The '60s
wasn't entirely joking), but the project was always half-hearted, and it was completely abandoned by 1980. Egypt does have a peaceful civilian nuclear program, which has been gathering steam of late and has drawn some extra attention after the Revolution of 2011, but as long as Israel doesn't officially declare its weapons, Egypt will almost certainly make no attempt to weaponize its program.
Germany - Atomwaffen nicht einsatzbereit!
During World War II
, the Third Reich commissioned a heavy water production scheme for potential nuclear weapons use. That is, until the Norwegian resistance
movement successfully sabotaged it in 1943. Even without the sabotage, the Third Reich would still have been a long way off producing any warheads. According to Luft46
, which has deleted the article in the meantime, they might or they might not have had a quasi-gun-type nuclear device (stacked plates of uranium separated by hydrogen-rich kerosene, to be compacted together in a critical mass upon impact instead of being fired at each other) in construction stage by the early months of 1945. Even then, the Nazi nuclear program was limited by a number of key factors; the lack of space to test a weapon, Hitler's lack of interest (which meant little funding), the loss of many prime scientists to other programs or Nazi repression, a perilous military situation (which necessitated frequent relocations of the project), and finally, a lack of delivery systems. Indeed, the Nazis' only
aircraft close to nuclear capability was the Heinkel He-177 Greif
long-range bomber, a notoriously unreliable tub of a plane that would have been just as likely to crash into Germany as drop a bomb on Moscow or London.
Their program was also hobbled from the start by the regime's own racist policies, rejecting Einstein's work as "Jewish science"; he and many other academics who could have advanced the Nazi program fled Germany, either because of fears of persecution due to their own Jewish roots, because they sympathised with their Jewish colleagues, or simply on general principle. This gives their failure to build anything remotely resembling a working bomb a sense of Poetic Justice
to it — they were undone by their own bigotry. When German nuclear physicists were debriefed after the war, it quickly became clear that the Nazi program had been a shambles and Hitler was never close to obtaining the Bomb. Nonetheless, the prospect of Nazis with Nukes remains a popular subject of speculative fiction.
Japan - The Power of a Thousand Rising Suns
Similar to Germany, Imperial Japan
during World War II attempted to develop a nuclear weapon.
Also similar to Germany, the program was pretty much doomed from the start, and it didn't get very far. Today, Japan does
theoretically have the resources to produce nuclear weapons (see below) in a matter of months (or even less, according to some estimates) given its resources and status as an economic juggernaut. The very advanced rockets they use for launching unmanned spacecraft could be re-purposed into ICBMs in a matter of hours
. They've never pursued the idea for two reasons. One, they're under the protection of the most powerful military in the world already.
Two, as the only country ever to have nuclear weapons used against them, the idea of a nuclear weapons program is abhorrent to them.
There is occasionally some speculation that if North Korea's nuclear and missile programs reach the point of a truly viable weapon, Japan would be forced to field its own nuclear deterrent, but even then they'd likely consider their alliance with the United States to be sufficient.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster
in 2011 has also left a sour taste in the mouth of many Japanese with regard to nuclear technology in general; there is a lot of political pressure to decommission all nuclear power plants in Japan. Should that happen, sourcing suitable material for a Japanese nuclear weapon would become incredibly difficult, as weapons-grade uranium and plutonium is normally bred in uranium reactors. However, the environmental damage caused by burning hundreds of thousands of tons of coal to make up the power generation shortfall, not to mention the sheer cost of importing the coal in the first place (Japan is very resource-poor when it comes to minerals such as coal), could force a re-think. Nonetheless, the appetite for a home-grown Japanese nuclear weapon is not great.
Italy -Sol Invictus
In the mid to late 1930s, the fascists provided funding for nuclear research by a team of physicists headed by Enrico Fermi, but he (along with many others) left for the United States when Mussolini passed anti-Semitic laws to bring fascism ideologically closer to Nazism. A team at the University of Milan picked up where they left off, but funding was cut when Italy joined the war.
In the 1980's, the Iraqis did have a nuclear program which went through two phases. The first "phase" began some time in the 1970s was based around the Osirak Reactor, which was dismantled with extreme prejudice by the Israeli Air Force before it could get very far. From there, the second phase was a somewhat more distributed project based around uranium enrichment. Then the Gulf War
happened and the program was utterly demolished by American air strikes. After that war, the program never amounted to anything more than, in the words of one military analyst, "a bunch of papers buried in a physicist's backyard."
Muammar Gaddafi admitted to trying to develop nukes when he was briefly on the West's good side. It doesn't seem to have gotten much further than a feasibility study and some lab experiments before being abandoned as more trouble than it was worth.
Romania - Even Our Enemies Shall Kneel.
During the Communist era, Nicolae Ceaucescu's State Sec
, the Securitate, conducted Operation Danube, a program to try and create Romanian nuclear weapons, in an explicit violation of the NPT treaty. At the same time, the Romanian government funneled money and heavy water to other non-NPT compliant states such as India. The Romanian security services and foreign office were also extremely active in the anti-nuclear movement — both civilian and governmental, internal and external — while at the same time attempting to develop intermediate-range ballistic missiles, as well as chemical and biological weapons. It's not clear how far the program actually got before it was dismantled by the first post-revolutionary government in 1989, but Hungarian foreign minister Gyula Horn reported that Romanian officials actually threatened to build and use them if Hungary did not help them clamp down on the unrest in the Eastern Bloc.
Sweden - Extra Neutral Neutrons
Despite the country not having been at war since 1814, Sweden
started a covert nuclear weapons program after WWII. It was effectively abandoned in the late 1960s and put on budgetary life support, but it was only officially abandoned in 1972 in favor of development of the Saab 37 Viggen
. The reasoning behind Sweden's program was maintenance of its neutrality; since Sweden declined to join NATO, it could not expect to fall under the American military and nuclear umbrella. A Swedish Bomb would have probably been an effective deterrent to the Soviet Union trying to involve Stockholm in the Cold War.
Yugoslavia - Balkanuclearization
Yugoslavia started a nuclear weapons program in The Fifties
, but abandoned it after the thawing of Soviet-Yugoslav relations in The '60s
, and Yugoslavia subsequently became a firm proponent of non-proliferation. The program was revived again after India detonated its first bomb, only to be abandoned again in 1987 due to the Chernobyl disaster, financial trouble, and the country's impending breakup
Several non-nuclear members of NATO
participate in nuclear weapons sharing with the US. In the event of World War III
, some or all of the American bombs stationed in their territory would be turned over to the their governments to dispose of as they deemed necessary. Germany
, Belgium, the Netherlands
, and Turkey
participate in the program, while Canada
used to participate but have since withdrawn from the program (Canada in 1984, Greece in 2001).
Nuclear breakout capacity
This is a technical term referring to the ability to quickly build
a nuclear weapon. It generally means that the country in question has all of the know-how needed to build a weapon and most if not all of the infrastructure, but have not for whatever reason actually built a weapon yet.
Fortunately (or unfortunately), building a bomb is not easy and is in fact almost literally rocket science (delivery systems, my dear boy!). Experience has shown that a country needs:
- Technical know-how and the ability to convert the theoretical knowledge into a working programme. It is quite difficult to obtain that without rousing suspicion.
- A large industrial base. A nuclear weapons program covers so many fields that just setting up a reactor is not enough. You need hundreds of processes to convert that weapons material into a deliverable device. If your domestic industry cannot manufacture them, you're out of luck. The Manhattan Project had to develop an industrial infrastructure larger than the car industry to pull this off.
- Money, and lots of it. The Manhattan Project cost more than the American space program did.
- Good management. As we've learned over time, these projects cannot be subject to political timetables or coercion. Scientists and engineers need to be given the freedom to make mistakes in the lab, if you want avoid mistakes while actually building the things. Best case, the device won't work; worst case, you kill a lot of people by accident.
These four are the inherent limits. How they affected our current powers:
- Of the nuclear club, the P-5 already had them and that was that. But China and the Soviet Union did suffer somewhat from the politicization of their programs, which may have negatively affected the design — not by much, obviously, since they still work, but by enough. We can't know for sure, because weapons programs are secrets, but we can extrapolate through space programs; after all, an ICBM is not too different from an orbital launch vehicle. We know that Soviet rocket engineers were afraid of the political fallout from possible failure; many had served time in The Gulag and had no interest in going back. They preferred to use large numbers of small engines than small numbers of large ones (like NASA does), which would in theory reduce the chance of catastrophic failure but was also basically too heavy to get off the ground.
- Israel lucked out that they got information from Jewish scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project (many of whom remember had escaped Hitler's Germany and then Europe — this is the source of the Herr Doktor stereotype). They also had assistance from France, who was their main military supplier and a close ally in the 1950s and 1960s.note Finally, Israeli industrial infrastructure and management techniques were well-developed pre-independence. Being a democracy and the strategic situation helped, as well; the propaganda value of having a bomb was lessened by the fact that Israel's leaders were/are elected politicians, not megalomaniac autocrats, and their situation required that the bombs be an open secret rather than something to boast about.
- Both India and Pakistan had scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project (see a pattern?) as part of British India, and also the later British effort to develop an independent nuclear deterrent. The both had by the 1970's the industrial base and the monies to fund it. Relatively good administration was inherited from Britain as well.
So how does that leave the aspiring/failed powers?
- Iran has number three. They have the funds. They possibly have the industrial infrastructure, though the jury is still out on that. It is in the technical know-how most people feel that it will be decided, although the management issue might pose problems (since it's a highly politicized project, and Iran's government is highly factionalized).
For those who have the basis, depending on how you define it, breakout capability could refer to anything from "could build a bomb in six months" to "could build a bomb in six months once they built the infrastructure, which would take at most a year or two more." Japan, Germany, Italy, Finland, Sweden, Canada, South Korea, and the Netherlands all have the infrastructure in place (although Germany is seriously considering dismantling it, and Japan would of course have to be in really dire straits before it even thought about building a bomb
), while Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, and Australia would need a few years to build up the infrastructure and collect enough U-235 or plutonium, and they probably lack the know-how, something which they could (probably) rectify. Saudi Arabia barely has the infrastructure or know-how at all, but with its money, it could possibly buy its way into the breakout-capacity club, and the House of Saud is well aware that science is not something to meddle in lest they anger their Islamists even more. With that being said, there are fears that an Iranian bomb could provide the impetus for a Saudi nuclear program. There are also reports
that Saudi Arabia had extensively bankrolled the Pakistani nuclear program, in an arrangement that would have the Pakistanis deliver warheads if the Saudis felt their security needs required their own nuclear arsenal.
Breakout capacity has come to the fore in recent years on account of the aforementioned Iran thing. The most important one is probably the positions of the US and Israel on the right moment to attack Iran: while the US has frequently reiterated that it would be willing to make a military strike if Iran developed
a nuclear weapon (i.e. built the damn thing), Israel has just as frequently reiterated that it is unwilling to let Iran get into a situation where it had the ability to develop
a nuclear weapon (i.e. developed breakout capacity). This is what Benjamin Netanyahu's cartoon-bomb poster
speech at the United Nations
General Assembly in October 2012 was about, although he explained it rather poorly.
During the 2012-13 crisis on the Korean peninsula, some South Korean politicians suggested that the state could start a nuclear program, though thankfully cooler heads prevailed. South Korea is under the nuclear umbrella of the USA in any case, and its only potential enemy, North Korea, is so close to it that an actual nuclear detonation on the peninsula would have disastrous effects on the South. Not to mention, as the Republic of Korea claims sovereignty over the entire Korean peninsula, despite obviously not having de facto
control over the whole peninsula, it would be a bit like Britain nuking Northern Ireland, India or Pakistan nuking Kashmir, China nuking Xinjiang or Tibet, or Russia nuking Chechnya.
It has been suggested by some (including Victor Davis Hanson
and the aforementioned John Mearsheimer) that if those breakout club members allied with the United States thought, for whatever reason, that the US wouldn't come to their defense (particularly Germany in regards to Russia, South Korea in regards to North Korea, and Japan in regards to China/North Korea/Russia
) they would rapidly nuclearize by necessity.