The planet currently faces not one, but three existential threats — where the very continuation of our existence is at issue. These are:
- Climate catastrophe;
- The destruction of nature ( in the course of which pandemics become more and more likely); and
- Nuclear Armageddon.
On the nuclear threat, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists wrote in their January 2021 Doomsday Clock statement:
In the past year, countries with nuclear weapons continued to spend vast sums on nuclear modernization programs, even as they allowed proven risk-reduction achievements in arms control and diplomacy to wither or die.
Some experts believe that the risk is even greater than during the Cold War.
For a terrifyingly accurate picture of this nuclear danger, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has produced a must-watch video. Entitled The Terrifying $1.2 Trillion Plan That Could Kill 90% of Humanity (16 March 2021) and narrated by actor, writer and comedian Stephen Fry, it can be accessed by clicking the arrow below:
For a timely examination of how we managed this sword of Damocles during the Cold War, have a listen to the latest International Crisis Group podcast, entitled War and Peace: Planning for Nuclear Armageddon (2 March 2021), the intro to which begins:
While the threat of imminent nuclear armageddon may not be at the forefront of the average person’s mind today, it was a real, globe-spanning fear not so long ago during the Cold War. Absent the treaties and confidence-building measures developed since to mitigate the risk of such an event, U.S. and Soviet civil defence then was totally consumed with the daunting task of planning for the worst.
This podcast can be accessed by clicking on the arrow below:
For a probing examination of the current risk, consider this extremely intelligent two-person debate entitled: An existential discussion: What is the probability of nuclear war? (18 March 2021, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists).
Featuring Stanford Professor Martin E. Hellman and Google’s VP Vinton G. Cerf, each takes a different approach to calculating the risk, but both agree that it is of the utmost importance to lower the risk of nuclear war as soon as possible.
RI President and former Canadian Disarmament Ambassador to the UN Peggy Mason comments:
We narrowly averted catastrophe during the Cold War by developing and applying a whole range of risk reduction measures, the most ambitious of which were actual limitations on the types and numbers of nuclear weapons being developed. At the other end, were a range of practical strategies to avoid war by accident or miscalculation.
And this is why Russia–USA follow-on talks to the now-extended New START treaty are so vital. But they must also be combined with immediate risk reduction measures, including unilateral American actions such as:
- Drawing down the number of deployed strategic weapons,
- Re-evaluating the “byzantine” nuclear “command and control” systems
- Declaring a “no first use” of nuclear weapons policy (as China has); and
- Ending the President’s “sole authority” for launching nuclear weapons.
Such unilateral actions, as well as agreement on mutual measures, have nothing whatever to do with “rewarding” Russia or going back to business as usual. They are a global imperative in the interests of the entire planet.
We will examine in more detail the types of arms control and stabilization talks needed with both Russia and China in future blogs.
Upcoming NPT Review Conference offers USA a chance to signal a reset in nuclear arms control
President Biden has an opportunity at the upcoming Tenth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), postponed from 2020 to August-September of 2021, to signal that the USA is serious about restarting nuclear arms control.
But in the meantime, the UK, one of the five “declared nuclear weapons states” under the NPT, has just announced that:
[it] is lifting the cap on the number of Trident nuclear warheads it can stockpile from 180 to 260 …. ending 30 years of gradual disarmament.
Equally shocking and dangerous is their signalling of a potential change to their declaratory policy on the circumstances in which they would use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states, to include certain “emerging technologies”.
Anti-nuclear campaigners warn of the UK starting a “new nuclear arms race” although, in our view, since one is already well underway, a better description is that they are adding yet more fuel to the flames.
Outgoing Chair of the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons Earl Turcotte commented:
This increase in nuclear warheads, and potential changes to UK policy on the circumstances under which they might use nuclear weapons, fly in the face of specific disarmament commitments the UK government has repeatedly made in the context of successive NPT Review conferences since the end of the Cold War.
They are also a violation of that country’s legally binding Article VI NPT obligation to engage in good faith negotiations to achieve complete nuclear disarmament.
Note also that the German Foreign Minister has strongly criticised this decision, saying it was the position of his government that:
… there are already too many nuclear warheads in the world, not too few. That is also why we don’t want nuclear arsenals to grow.”
We call on the Government of Canada to urgently convey its concern with these destabilizing actions by the UK government in the lead-up to the vitally important NPT Review Conference.
Heightened need for international regulation of armed drones
We have raised the issue of the dearth of internationally agreed rules for the use of armed drones in past blogs. See for example: Armed drones may be prone to targeting errors (ceasefire.ca, 16 June 2017). The need for effective regulation has become even greater with the possibility of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), including drones, growing ever closer.
Conn Hallinan, writing for Foreign Policy in Focus in an article entitled Day of the Drone: We need an international convention on drones (fpif.org, 11 March 2021), states:
Drones are neither as cheap, targeted, or bloodless as advertised. They’re ripe for international arms control….
Getting a handle on drone[s] — their pluses and minuses and the moral issues such weapons of war raise — is essential if the world wants to hold off yet another round of massive military spending and the tensions and instabilities such a course will create.
The article begins with the findings of two major books on drones — Christian Brose’s The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare and Michael Boyle’s The Drone Age — namely, that:
the victims of drones are mostly civilians, not soldiers.
Hallinan goes on to explode other common myths about drone efficacy including:
- Drones seem most useful in assassinations (“extrajudicial killings”)
- Drones can help on the battlefield but they cannot replace “boots on the ground”
- They are only “all-seeing” if flying at low altitudes where they are easier to shoot down
- The weather needs to be clear and the area smokeless
- Those reliant on GPS are vulnerable to jamming and hacking
Nor are they always accurate, as we first reported in our 16 June 2017 blog noted above.
Nonetheless, they can certainly wreak havoc, as the Houthis have so effectively demonstrated vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and “swarming attacks” of large numbers of drones can defeat many costly air defence systems.
And then there is the issue of autonomous weapons. Hallinan writes:
The U.S. is currently working on weapons [including cruise missiles and drones] that use artificial intelligence and will essentially be able to “decide” on their own what to attack. [emphasis added]
We need an international convention on drones
Hallinan emphasizes the enormous utility of drones for a range of civilian tasks. He goes on to say:
Turning them into weapons, however, is not only destabilizing, it puts civilians at risk, raises serious moral issues about who bears the cost of war, and in the long run will be very expensive.
Drones may be cheap, but anti-aircraft systems are not.
Noting that India and Pakistan are in the middle of a “drone race”, while Mexican cartels are waging war against one another using drones, he concludes:
An international convention on drone use should be on any future arms control agenda.
Since the announcement, as part of the new 2017 Defence Policy, that Canada would acquire armed drones, we have been waiting in vain for the Government of Canada to articulate a policy framework to guide their use and to guard against their abuse.
We have also called for Canada to:
actively pursue, preferably through the United Nations, the creation of a tight international regulatory regime for the restricted deployment and use of these weapons.
This regime should build on current international law, be rooted in the principles of responsibility, transparency and accountability, and focus on protection of civilian populations and property.
And we have repeatedly called on Canada to support a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems — killer robots in common parlance.
In this last area, there has been significant progress with the mandate letter for former Foreign Minister Champagne, appointed in December 2019, including the direction to:
Advance international efforts to ban the development and use of fully autonomous weapons systems.
This priority continues under the new Foreign Minister, Marc Garneau, who received a “supplementary mandate letter” on 15 January 2021.
We call on Foreign Minister Marc Garneau to take concrete and urgent steps to advance the ongoing international efforts to ban fully autonomous weapons systems, including armed drones.
Photo credit: Wikimedia (Chukar III Target Drone – Northrop Grumman)