Last year was a special year for those in favor of nuclear disarmament. A total of 122 UN member states signed a pledge not to produce or possess nuclear weapons. However, this has not brought the goal of a nuclear-free world much closer.
According to the latest estimates by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 14,465 nuclear weapons still exist, in the hands of just nine states: the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Although internationally these nine countries are in the minority, they have absolutely no intention of giving up their nuclear weapons.
Fewer, but more modern
Shannon Kile, head of SIPRI's nuclear weapons project, emphasized in an interview with DW that while the total number of nuclear weapons has fallen slightly compared to the previous year, existing weapons have been modernized.
"This means that older weapons are being replaced – some of them are actually 40 or 50 years old – but new nuclear weapons are also being developed that have new capabilities and new technical functions."
The US government only confirmed its development of nuclear weapons in February, when it published an updated version of its Nuclear Posture Review. This also affects Germany: While it does not have any nuclear weapons of its own, as a NATO state it comes under the protection of the United States' nuclear shield. Around 20 American B61 nuclear bombs are stockpiled in the Eifel region, and in the coming years these are to be replaced by more modern nuclear bombs that can be precision-guided to a particular target.
The United States is investing a lot of money in the modernization of its nuclear arsenal. By 2026 it plans to have spent $400 billion (€344 billion). However, Kile says that smaller countries like India and Pakistan are also engaged in a kind of "strategic arms race." They are both developing new nuclear weapons and enlarging their production capacities for fissile material. Nuclear weapons thus remain a core element of the nuclear powers' national defense strategies.
In view of the current tensions between the United States and Russia, Kile says it is unclear how effective international agreements will be in future in controlling nuclear weapons.
"What concerns me at the moment is the fact that the political-strategic relationship between the United States and Russia has collapsed – and between them these two countries possess 92 percent of all nuclear weapons," he says.
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Arms control in jeopardy
This also affects arms control. When important disarmament agreements like the New START treaty expire in the coming years, nuclear weapons experts fear that new treaties may not be made to replace them. There would then be no contractual limitations whatsoever on weapons arsenals. "We are clearly moving away from Barack Obama's 2009 vision of a nuclear-free world," says Kile.
As a SIPRI expert, Kile has been observing the nine nuclear states for a long time now. He expressed surprise at one development in particular: the technical advances North Korea has demonstrated in its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile tests in the past 12 months. He says it remains to be seen whether the meeting between the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump really will lead to North Korean nuclear disarmament.
"I'm a bit skeptical about it," he says, but adds that the meeting has opened the door for further trust-building measures.
Peak in military spending
In their 2018 annual report the SIPRI peace researchers have brought together other data that highlights the tense political situation where security is concerned. More money was spent on the military in 2017 than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Total military spending worldwide rose to $1,739 billion – that's $230 for every person on Earth. In 2016 it was $227 per head.
The reason for this global increase is higher military spending in some – though not all – regions of the world. The rise in East Asia is particularly striking: China, for example, increased its defense budget by 5.6 percent to $228 billion. In Europe, the picture is more varied: The countries of eastern Europe spent considerably less on the military in 2017 than in the previous year, but in central and western Europe defense spending increased.
According to its Federal Ministry of Defense, in 2017 Germany spent €37 billion (around $43.5 billion) on the Bundeswehr – around 2 billion euros more than the previous year. The United States still has the largest defense budget of any country – $610 billion – followed by China, Saudi Arabia and Russia.
German weapons are in demand
According to the Stockholm researchers' findings, another trend is also on the rise: The global arms trade has increased significantly in the past ten years after reaching its lowest point since the Cold War in the early 2000s. After the United States, Russia and France, Germany ranks as the fourth-biggest weapons exporter worldwide.