And (who knows?) maybe Monaco."
The US, Russia, the UK, France, 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 against Japan 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, France, 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, Pakistan, Israel, 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.
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.
Translation: "Yes", 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. Vanunu's conviction is a textbook case of Insane Troll Logic, because he was imprisoned for revealing things that Israel continues to insist were lies.
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 officially 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 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 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's 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 BM25 Musudan, it is an open question whether or not they can develop a warhead small enough to mount on the missile.
...Or not, as the case may be. In 2017, North Korea showed signs of having suddenly and rapidly modernized their nuclear program and actually got their hands on working ICBMs and even (allegedly) hydrogen bombs. Whether they've managed to build nuclear warheads small enough to actually fit in the missiles remains unknown, but given the rapid improvement of their nuclear technology that's worryingly possible. They have been testing their missiles much more often than they usually do since then, and have been firing them over Hokkaido, Japan to the ocean beyond, causing major panic in that country and escalating tensions between them, the U.S. and South Korea. While this is mostly still just saber-rattling, it has still caused major alarm regardless.
However, early 2018 saw both Korean leaders began a peace agreement in a historical moment after decades of war with North Korea announcing that it will begin the dismantlement of its nuclear arsenal. There are indications that outside of Western pressure, domestic factors such recent disasters involving their test sites and nuclear bases may have pushed North Korea to drop its plans, though it remains to be seen if they will remain true to their word.
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. It also remains the only nation to give up nuclear weapons over with it had full controll.
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 the technology.
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
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.
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 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 1988 including receiving assistance 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
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.
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.
In the mid 1960s, Italy intended to participate in the "Multilateral Force" project which would've provided American Polaris ballistic missiles and warheads to be launched from both submarines and surface ships of NATO navies, and to that end successfully test-launched a Polaris from their cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi. When the MLF concept collapsed under the weight of multinational disagreement over how best to deploy the missiles and who would actually pay for them, Italy wasn't quite ready to give up on nukes. Drawing from their established civilian nuclear energy and aerospace industries, they promptly developed an indigenous ballistic missile, the Alfa, and were working on a thermonuclear warhead for it to carry. Changing political conditions in Italy and the sheer cost of a nuclear program, along with American diplomatic pressure, led to the sudden cancellation of this program in 1975 with Italian ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The nuclear weapon research was discarded entirely, but the ballistic missile technology was repurposed to the Italian space program's satellite launches.
South Korea's nuclear ambitions date back to the Syngman Rhee administration, but did not coalesce into anything substantial until 1972, under the Park Chung-hee military dictatorship. Code-named Project 890, Park sought to build upon South Korea's burgeoning civil nuclear infrastructure and expand military power independent of American military protection. To that end, Park issued a mandate to develop a viable nuclear weapon by 1977. Reaching breakout capacity that quickly could not be accomplished alone, meaning South Korea would need to rely heavily on foreign industrial assistance to meet their timetable. By 1974, South Korea was looking to purchase reactors from Canada and reprocessing equipment from France, but was held up by Canadian and American pressure to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty which would make any nuclear weapons program extremely difficult to pursue. Intense diplomatic pressure through the next two years led Park to cancel the contract for the French reprocessing plant in order for the reactor sale to go through. Project 890 would be quietly be shut down by the end of 1976.
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. Adjusted for inflation, it was cheaper to put a man on the moon than it was to create the Bomb.
- 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.
Depending on how you define it, breakout capability could mean building a bomb in only six months to building all the infrastructure over the course of a couple of years and then building a bomb in six months. So how does that leave the aspiring nuclear powers?
- Iran has 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). There's also speculation that Iran's ally Russia might assist them in that regard, but that seems unlikely given that Russia was a party to the negotiations in which Iran agreed to never build nukes and allow international inspections to prove they're not cheating. The U.S. seems only to want to prevent them from outright developing nukes; Israel seems to be unwilling to even let Iran get as far as breakout capacity.
- Japan, Germany, Italy, Finland, Sweden, Canada, South Korea, and the Netherlands all have the infrastructure in place for breakout capability. Germany, though, is seriously considering dismantling it, and Japan would have to be in really dire straits before actually building a bomb.
- Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, and Australia would need a few years to build up the infrastructure and collect enough fissile material. They also probably lack the know-how, but they could probably rectify that quickly.
- Saudi Arabia barely has the infrastructure or the know-how, but it does have a lot of money, meaning it could buy its way into the breakout-capacity club or even buy pre-made warheads from other nations. There are fears that an Iranian bomb could provide the impetus for a Saudi nuclear program, and reports suggest that the Saudis provided extensive funding to Pakistan for their program (possibly in exchange for Pakistani warheads to be delivered to the Saudis on demand). However, it's full of hardline Islamists who don't necessarily trust science.
- South Korea, and many other countries under the U.S. umbrella of protection, don't really have breakout capacity because they don't feel that they need it. But given their proximity to North Korea, there have been calls in South Korea to get to breakout capacity on their own, although cooler heads eventually prevailed (if only because bombing North Korea is akin to bombing themselves — they do claim sovereignty over the whole peninsula, after all). This sort of thinking exposes a wider trend that some countries don't necessarily trust the U.S. not to sacrifice them for their own protection, even if they're nominally under the nuclear umbrella; this would drive some countries to get to breakout capacity on their own.