“We’re now at the precipice of a new nuclear arms race,” former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry recently warned. “This arms race,” continued Perry, “will be at least as expensive as the arms race we had during the Cold War.” As a result, “we are facing nuclear dangers today that are in fact more likely to erupt into a nuclear conflict than during the Cold War.”

Russia and the United States control 93 percent of the 16,000 nuclear warheads in existence today. Since 1991, they have reduced their own stockpiles by over 75 percent but still have more than 7,000 each. The 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) mandates further reductions to 1,550 each by February 2018.

But there are whispers of a new nuclear arms race among all members of the nuclear club—the United States, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea—as well as several other nations that may feel obliged to join the club. This “second nuclear age” brings with it a mounting potential for miscalculations, accidents or sudden escalation.

The European Leadership Network documented over 60 incidents with “the potential to trigger a major crisis between a nuclear armed state and a nuclear armed alliance” just between March 2014 and March 2015.

Cold War heats up again in Europe

Spiegel reported that Germany might once again become a deployment zone of nuclear arsenals, with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warning of an “accelerating spiral of escalating words and then of actions,” which were “the old reflexes of the Cold War.”

The United States has reduced the number of nuclear weapons deployed in Europe from approximately 7,000 in the 1970s to reportedly about 180 today, but it is upgrading those nuclear “dumb” bombs to precision-guided weapons launched on cruise missiles. More controversial is the $800 million missile shield the United States just switched on at a Soviet-era base in Romania. Coupled with other shield elements in Poland and the Mediterranean, it forms part of an antimissile network to protect against missiles from Iran and other so-called rogue states. The sensors measure a rocket’s trajectory so it can be destroyed in space before it reenters the earth’s atmosphere.

The Russians view things differently, believing they are the real focus of such installations. Russian President Vladimir Putin says the site in Romania was “yet another step to rock international security and start a new arms race,” as he warned that Russia will act to neutralize any missile shield that undermines its nuclear deterrence. The Kremlin rattled Russian nuclear sabers by declaring that Romania, the system’s host, might be reduced to “smoking ruins” and threatened additional deployments of Iskander nuclear-capable missiles to the Baltic port of Kaliningrad, nervously close to NATO allies in Eastern Europe.

Fearsome weapons with a limited shelf life

While Russia rolled out a new nuclear delivery system earlier this year, the United States last introduced a new nuclear delivery system in 1994. Suffering from a Cold War hangover with an aging and possibly unreliable stockpile, the U.S. nuclear deterrent—with ICBM missile systems reliant on 8-inch floppy disks and 1970s technology—has been allowed to stagnate and decay into de facto unilateral disarmament.

The United States has now proposed spending $1 trillion over 30 years to upgrade its nuclear arsenal.

Meanwhile, Russia has actually increased reliance on its nuclear weapons. A rapid modernization of Russia’s nuclear weapons delivery systems began in the late 1990s, prompting U.S. officials to state that, “quite unlike the United States, Russia maintains a fully functional nuclear weapons design, development, test and manufacturing infrastructure capable of producing significant quantities of nuclear warheads per year.” Russia’s defense budget has shot up 50 percent since 2007—a third of it devoted to nuclear weapons.

Frightening new weapons

One worry is new “dial-a-yield” technology, where a nuclear bomb’s explosive force can be adjusted before launch from the equivalent of 50,000 tons of TNT down to “micro nukes” with a yield of just 300 tons—only 2 percent as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but delivered with scalpel-like precision.

“What going smaller does,” according to General James Cartwright, retired vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former head of the United States Strategic Command, “is make the weapons more thinkable.”

Noting the dramatically increased threats, last year the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the symbolic Doomsday Clock forward to three minutes to midnight.

While “going small” makes nuclear weapons more strategically practical, terrifying new weapons on the other side of the technological spectrum—bigger, faster and more maneuverable payloads traveling further—make the potential for countless civilian deaths possible.

  • Russia and China both recently flight-tested hypersonic missiles. These “first use” weapons glide horizontally at low, radar-evading altitudes and at speeds in excess of a mile per second.
  • Russian media recently leaked news of a new drone torpedo nicknamed Kanyon, capable of traveling submerged over 6,000 miles to enemy harbors to detonate a thermonuclear warhead. Layered with highly radioactive cobalt, the torpedo would cause a massive, radioactive tsunami up to 500 meters (1,640 feet) high, guaranteeing that everything living will be killed and rendering a vast area “incompatible with conducting military, economic or any other activities” for a long time.
  • Equally frightening, Russia has developed the RS-28 Sarmat—the most powerful mega-bomb ever designed. Dubbed “Satan-2,” it is designed to outfox missile-shield systems with stealth technology, and it is reportedly able to deliver more than a dozen warheads, enabling it to destroy an area the size of Texas or France within 30 minutes.
  • In 2016 China will be launching its first Jin-class submarines loaded with nuclear-tipped missiles. Also becoming operational will be the terrifyingly powerful DF-41 missile, capable of hitting London or any city in the West in just half an hour, and the DF-21D “carrier killer” missile, which can obliterate American aircraft carriers in the Pacific.

The U.S. nuclear umbrella in Asia is folding

Driven by growing doubts about America’s security commitment to its allies, a number of potential nuclear hot spots have emerged. North Korea has expanded plutonium production, grown its nuclear arsenal and is upgrading its ballistic missiles to the point that U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies have concluded that North Korea’s bizarre regime can now mount a small nuclear warhead on a missile capable of striking Japan, South Korea and beyond.

This threat has Japan and South Korea hedging security bets and exploring the development of nuclear arms for the first time.

Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo’s governor until 2012, declared that Japan “should absolutely possess nuclear weapons,” and on April 1, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet announced that Japan’s constitution did not ban the country from having or using nuclear arms.

Japan already has stockpiled 11 tons of plutonium. A bomb requires roughly just 5 kilograms. “It has often been thought that Japan has a ‘bomb in the basement,’ and it would just have to assemble the parts to create a bomb,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Like Japan, South Korea is party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but a 2013 poll found that two-thirds of the country supports developing nukes in response to its bellicose northern neighbor.

Championing a strategy once seen as unthinkable, an editorial in Seoul’s conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper earlier this year went so far as to detail how South Korea could use existing civilian nuclear facilities to build a bomb in 18 months.

Nuclear dominoes in South Asia and the Middle East

Long considered the world’s most threatening nuclear face-off, the rivalry between India and Pakistan is reaching new levels. Due to continuing border disputes over Kashmir and allegations of Pakistani support for terrorist attacks in India, both nations are upgrading their weapons complexes to produce increased amounts of bomb-grade uranium and plutonium, which would allow them to build more warheads.

India, with around 110 nuclear weapons and visions of being a great power, has recently launched its first ballistic missile submarine, the Arihant, meaning “slayer of enemies,” and is testing the nuclear-capable K-4 submarine-launched ballistic missile and a supersonic interceptor ballistic missile.

Pakistan, armed with an estimated 120 weapons, has the fastest-growing arsenal. Its stockpile is meant to counterbalance India’s superior conventional forces, potentially with “demonstration detonations” on its own soil in the event of another war.

The recent nuclear deal involving Iran has put many of Iran’s regional rivals—such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt—on a looming deadline for developing nuclear arms of their own. They fret that the veiled threat of nuclear weapons will dramatically tilt the regional balance of power in Tehran’s favor, but such an arms race would further destabilize what is already the world’s most volatile region.

Vast oil wealth and borrowed technical expertise from the Islamic nuclear power Pakistan could put Saudi Arabia on the fast track to the nuclear club. “Our leaders will never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon while we don’t,” declared Ibrahim al-Marie, a retired Saudi colonel and a security analyst in Riyadh. “If Iran declares a nuclear weapon, we can’t afford to wait 30 years more for our own—we should be able to declare ours within a week” (Wall Street Journal).

Between 1995 and 2012, the International Atomic Energy Agency cataloged 2,200 attempts to steal or smuggle uranium. ISIS’s propaganda magazine has encouraged the idea of a nuclear jihadist buying or stealing a nuclear weapon in Pakistan and smuggling it into Western population centers. U.S. nuclear experts warn that an improvised device could be fitted into an SUV-sized shipping container. A “dirty bomb”—a regular explosive device that would spray radioactive material over a blast zone, potentially exposing millions of people and turning an entire city into a ghost town—has become a chilling reality.

Three minutes to midnight

Noting the dramatically increased threats, last year the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the symbolic Doomsday Clock forward to three minutes to midnight, noting “the probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.”

“The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking,” physicist Albert Einstein said at the dawn of the atomic age. “The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.”

Barack Obama, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, echoed similar thoughts, observing that “we may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil,” but “we must change our mind-set about war itself, to prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun.” Mr. Obama also imagined “a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening.”

Disarmament and the elimination of nuclear weapons will eventually be a result of peace but not the cause of peace. No amount of treaties or accords will change what the Bible reveals as mankind’s unlimited capacity to do evil because the human “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9), not even knowing “the way of peace” (Isaiah 59:8).

During His earthly ministry, Jesus Christ revealed that the end of this age would bring “great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world. … And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved” (Matthew 24:21-22). Such a scenario—where mankind could literally incinerate all human life—has only been possible since the dawn of the nuclear age.

In truth, the “moral awakening” the American president mentioned will not happen until Christ returns to earth and powerfully sets up His government with a rod of iron (Revelation 19:15) and forces the nations to “beat their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4). That will initiate a true millennial peace. 


Discern is published every two months and is available in digital and print versions. Choose your preferred format to start your subscription.

Print subscriptions available in U.S., Canada and Europe


Please choose your region: