Since the very onset when the US became the first country to develop and use nuclear weapons, the deadly effects including that of the deterrence value of these weapons were realized, not only by the US itself, but many then aspired to acquire such technology. The US responded to the Soviet Union to break the US nuclear monopoly followed by the UK, France, and China which acquired nuclear weapons. Later, India, Pakistan, and North Korea also successfully tested their nuclear capability. Israel which practices opaque nuclear deterrence has already possessed nuclear weapons since the 1960s.

Considering the deterrence value of nuclear weapons, other countries such as Japan and South Korea also tried to acquire nuclear weapons during the Cold War, but the US under its nuclear umbrella and security guarantee prevented them from developing these weapons. It can be argued that in the absence of an unambiguous US security guarantee both to its European and Asian allies, these countries could opt for acquiring nuclear weapons. Germany, for example, has recently indicated its aspiration to acquire nuclear weapons since the Russia-Ukraine war.

Elsewhere, Iran has been a nuclear aspirant state as well. Few American Professors such as Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer have already argued that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons will stabilize the Middle Eastern region. However, Iran is still part of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), and it hopes for the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was created in 2015. Later, it was unilaterally abrogated by the Trump administration in 2018.

Many may argue that it remains functional technically until October 2025 when the so-called agreement will expire. Like North Korea, Iran may also withdraw from the NPT if Iran feels that there is an acute security threat to its sovereignty by invoking Article X of the NPT.

The April 2024 tussle between Iran and Israel may become one of the security reasons for Iran to speed up its road for weaponization.

Although it is considered in the existing literature that nuclear weapons may not be the panacea to all the issues a country may face, nuclear weapons played a significant role in maintaining deterrence stability thereby regional stability between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Neither of the Cold War nuclear rivals fought directly against each other despite coming close to waging a direct nuclear war, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

In addition to many factors, nuclear weapons played their part creating the fear in the mind of adversaries and preventing them from waging a direct war against each other because of the devastating consequences played out of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). MAD is linked up with nuclear rivals deterring each other, and the conceptual framework based on the essentials of MAD informs us that two nuclear weapon states do not directly fight. In other words, since nuclear war cannot be won therefore it must never be fought. This statement, which was first made by the US and the Soviet Union leadership in 1985 reflects the deterrence value of nuclear weapons for stabilizing the situation between the nuclear rivals.

MAD existed during the Cold War, and this continues to exist between the US and Russia despite the danger of the use of nuclear weapons in the NATO-led Ukraine-Russia war when Russia has deployed its tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in Belarus while NATO is considering placing these weapons in Poland in addition to 100 US TNWs deployment at six air bases in five European countries (i.e., Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Turkey).

Because of the existence of nuclear weapons between the US-led NATO expansion and Russia, both sides are cautious by crossing each other’s redlines, which otherwise could quickly spiral out of control. The consequences of nuclear escalation could be too high than the benefits one may perceive. Considering this discussion, it is important to understand the dangerous and complex South Asian region as well where both India and Pakistan because of the complex issue of Kashmir have fought many times before the development of nuclear weapons.

However, since the possession of credible nuclear forces bolstered with the sophisticated delivery systems by the South Asian rivals, both sides have not fought a large-scale war that could involve a large movement of infantry with tanks and missiles, air, and naval forces.

Because of the existence of credible nuclear forces, deterrence remained intact cautioning both sides on the risk of escalation to a bigger military conflict leading to the use of nuclear weapons.

Many may argue that if there were no nuclear weapons in South Asia, both India and Pakistan might have fought more than ever because of the growing conventional asymmetry between the two rivals.

In any case, we have strong empirical evidence in the existing literature that conventional deterrence often fails. In other words, India with its larger conventional force capability could have attacked Pakistan if Pakistan did not possess nuclear weapons to offset the growing imbalances in South Asia.

We now know what happened to Iraq, Libya, Syria and Ukraine without nuclear weapons. North Korea could have been attacked if it did not have nuclear weapons. In the perceived dangerous and complex world where Finland and Sweden may not be allowed to develop their nuclear weapon capability, both Finland and Sweden have finally broken their centuries-old neutrality by joining the US-led NATO for nuclear security guarantee under Article 5 of NATO.

It can also be argued that India despite being tempted to preemptive strikes because of its increasing conventional and nuclear forces supported with sophisticated delivery and defensive systems remains cautious before undertaking any military action against its nuclear rival. The Balakot incident in 2019 was India’s flawed preemptive strike strategy risking a large-scale military conflict spiraling out of control, had Pakistan not demonstrated strategic restraint in South Asia.

As part of its full-spectrum deterrence within the ambit of credible minimum deterrence, Pakistan has not only produced an equalizer to India’s increasing conventional and nuclear forces, but it also has produced effective countermeasures to retain deterrence balance vis-à-vis India. In doing so, this helps contribute towards broader strategic stability in South Asia.

In the growing body of literature, there also exists an argument if emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, lethal autonomous and semi-autonomous swarms of drones and cyber would change the dynamics of the military battlefield in general and the relevance of nuclear weapons in particular.

It would be too ambitious to believe that emerging technologies will make the traditional tactical and operational methods on the battlefield irrelevant.

Although the newer technologies may become important and they may play some role, the deployment of infantry with tanks and missiles will continue to play a decisive role in the battlefield. Emerging technologies without human-in-the-loop and the application of classic warfighting tactics for both offensive and defensive purposes could become unproductive and irrelevant in the battlefield.

Similarly, nuclear weapon states still practice tactics for dispersal, hardening, sheltering, and concealing for their deterrent forces despite the arrival of emerging technologies. The induction of new technologies for both conventional and nuclear forces may become important, but it is flawed to argue that such technologies may make nuclear weapons and their deterrence value irrelevant. There is always a counter-emerging technology for the arrival of every new technology and the arms race goes on.

If nuclear weapons were not relevant as stabilizing forces and did not have any deterrence value, nuclear weapon states would already have gotten rid of these weapons. But we can see for sure that no nuclear weapon states are willing to get away from their nuclear weapons. There is no sign of arms control and nuclear disarmament taking place despite the existence and the life extension of the NPT and despite the promises made by the established nuclear weapon states in the NPT.  All the NPT-recognized nuclear weapon states are not only retaining but also modernizing their nuclear forces.

Only the US has planned to spend from 1.2 to 1.7 trillion USD over the next three decades on newer nuclear forces. The bilateral arms control that occurred between the Soviet Union and the US is overshadowed by the Great Power Competition and the US-led NATO war in Ukraine against Russia. We now know that both the US and Russia have withdrawn from the ABM and INF treaties. The New Start treaty remains suspended, and the Russians have de-ratified the CTBT.

All these episodes indicate how relevant nuclear forces have become in the 21st century of international politics. Nuclear weapons have prevented major wars between rivals, and they will continue to play a decisive role in preventing the aggressors from waging preemptive strikes. The risk of accidental use of nuclear weapons existed during the Cold War and such risk may continue to exist today between nuclear rivals, but there can be multiple safety and security measures including nuclear confidence-building measures to prevent this from happening.

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