By AF Keck
The Big Bang Gang
In our ever-troubled, ecologically impoverished world, there are currently seven states that have successfully developed and detonated nuclear weapons. Five are considered to be ‘nuclear weapons states’, an internationally recognised status conferred by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They are, in order of development, the United States of America, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), the United Kingdom, France, and the People’s Republic of China. However, since the creation of the NPT, India and Pakistan have also joined in on the fun, but they have refused to sign the treaty.
The United States developed the first atomic weapons during World War II out of the fear that Nazi Germany would get there first – a justifiable concern. It tested its first nuclear weapon (called Trinity) in 1945, and remains the only nation to have used nuclear weapons against another nation, i.e. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The US also has the distinction of being the first nation to develop the hydrogen bomb (called ‘Ivy Mike’), in 1952.
The USSR tested its first nuclear weapon (’Joe-1’) in 1949, in a project developed partially with espionage obtained during and after World War II. The obvious motive for their weapons development was to maintain a balance of power during the Cold War. It tested a primitive hydrogen bomb in 1953 (’Joe-4’) and a megaton-range hydrogen bomb in 1955 (’RDS-37’). The Soviet Union also tested the most powerful explosive ever detonated by humans, ’Tsar Bomba’, which had a yield of 100 megatons but was intentionally reduced to 50. After its dissolution in 1991, its weapons entered officially into the possession of Russia.
The United Kingdom tested its first nuclear weapon (‘Hurricane’) in 1952, drawing largely on data gained while collaborating with the United States during the Manhattan Project. Their motivation was an independent deterrence against the USSR, while retaining a military relevance in Cold War Europe. It tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1957.
France tested its first nuclear weapon in 1960, also as an independent deterrence and to retain perceived Cold War relevance. It tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1968.
The People’s Republic of China tested its first nuclear weapon in 1964, much to the surprise of Western intelligence agencies. It had long sought assistance in becoming a nuclear power from an uneasy USSR, but assistance stopped after the Sino-Soviet split and the weapon was developed as a deterrent against both the USA and the USSR. It tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1967 at Lop Nur. The country is currently thought to have had a stockpile of around 130 warheads, potentially less.
As previously stated, India is not a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but tested what they called a peaceful nuclear device (known as ‘Smiling Buddha’) in 1974. It was the first test developed after the creation of the NPT, and created new questions about how civilian nuclear technology such as nuclear power generation could be diverted secretly to weapons purposes. Their project development appears to have been primarily motivated as a deterrent against China. It tested weaponised nuclear warheads in 1998, including a Hydrogen Bomb. In July 2005, it was officially recognised by the United States as a responsible nuclear state and agreed to full nuclear cooperation between the two nations.
Pakistan, the sworn enemy of India, is not a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty either. Pakistan covertly developed its nuclear weapons over many decades, beginning in the late 1970s. It is commonly believed that Pakistan began its nuclear development programs in response to India’s nuclear device. No-one knows for certain when Pakistan began its nuclear development projects, but by the 1980s it was suspected of having successfully developed nuclear warheads. However, this was to remain speculative until 1998 when Pakistan conducted its first nuclear tests at the Chagai Hills, a few days after India conducted its own tests.
The Silent Partner?
There is one nation, however, who is neither an official nor unofficial signatory member of the NPT, but which few international experts question its nuclear capabilities, and that is the nation of Israel. Its nuclear programme is arguably the most secretive weapons of mass destruction programme in the world. Unlike Iran and North Korea, two countries whose alleged nuclear ambitions have recently come to the fore, Israel remains inexplicably immune to economic and political pressure to allow inspections by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The extent of Israel’s nuclear capability has been the subject of often wildly inaccurate intelligence estimates since the 1960s, when the country’s nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert came online. However, it is believed that Israel is in the possession of up to 200 nuclear warheads, unlike India and Pakistan which are thought to have as little as 20 warheads each.
There is no evidence that Israel has ever carried out a nuclear test, but there is speculation that a suspected nuclear explosion in the southern Indian Ocean in 1979 was a joint Israeli-South African test. Post-apartheid South Africa has since dismantled its nuclear weapons program.
The Arc of Irony
Obviously other states in the Middle East, many of which of are in direct opposition to Israel, and thereby strong supporters of the Palestinian cause, have expressed deep concern about the existence of an Israeli nuclear weapons programme. This consternation is fuelled by the perception that the United States is operating a regional policy of double-standards, ignoring Israel’s weapons programmes while insisting that others (notably pre-war Iraq, Iran and Syria) are a threat to peace because of their alleged weapons of mass destruction and “fundamentalist, undemocratic governments”. Both the UK and US demonstrate unwavering support for Israel’s right to defend itself against these hostile “rogue states” which they claim are little more than havens for terrorists. Recently, the UK and US appear to suggest that they and Israel are the only paragons of peace, moderation and democratic stability in the region against what Tony Blair describes as “an arc of extremism” which pervades the Middle East.
It’s a remarkable point of view which must be poignantly clear to anyone currently living in Baghdad, Beirut or the Gaza strip.