President Vladimir Putin's state of the nation address in which he described new emerging nuclear capabilities for use as delivery systems could represent an erosion of international nonproliferation mechanisms and a new destabilizing arms race.
This comes on the heels of other recent warnings about Russian intentions to increase reliance on nuclear weapons in deterrence and warfighting and its withdrawal from a bilateral treaty with the U.S. on plutonium stockpiles.
In his address, Putin highlighted testing of a nuclear-powered cruise missile and a multiyear program for development of a nuclear-powered underwater drone.
Such systems would likely have unlimited ranges and long operational timelines. They would also represent major changes in how nuclear capabilities could be employed and increase the risk of dangerous proliferation.
While the U.S. and Russia have had nuclear-powered submarines and ships for decades, the use of an unmanned nuclear-powered system could set a dangerous precedent.
With manned systems, the crew serves as the security against the proliferation of the nuclear power plant. However, using unmanned systems removes this layer of security, should a deployed nuclear-powered system fall into foreign hands.
One need only think of the case of the American RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone captured by Iran in 2011, as an example of what could happen if a nuclear-propelled drone were to fall into the hands of a hostile nation or terrorist organization. Iran reverse-engineered a similar system based on the U.S. captured system.
Imagine though if a Russian nuclear-propelled drone were to be hacked and brought down. Such a scenario could allow the capturing nation to reverse-engineer its own nuclear-powered system, and/or the nuclear material used for propulsion could be reprocessed to create a nuclear weapon.
The use of nuclear capabilities for propulsion also calls into question the applicability of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The NPT certainly pertains to nuclear weapons, while unambiguously supporting the use of nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes.
It requires nuclear-weapons states not to transfer, assist, encourage or induce any non-nuclear-weapons state to manufacture or acquire explosive devices, while requiring that non-nuclear-weapons states do not receive or manufacture nuclear weapons.
If these new types of nuclear-powered drone systems are considered “nuclear weapons,” any transfer to a non-nuclear state would violate the NPT.
However, if nuclear propulsion systems without nuclear payloads are not considered to be weapons, the outcome is potentially more dangerous, as the international nuclear nonproliferation foundation, the NPT, would not apply. This could open new possibilities for the proliferation of nuclear and radiological material.
Global nonproliferation efforts, established through the NPT, have served as important foundations for keeping dangerous material out of the hands of dangerous state and non-state actors.
Putin has linked the development of these new weapons capabilities to the U.S. refusal to collaborate with Russia on arms control. Perhaps before Russia goes down this path, another attempt at dialogue would be beneficial as both nations have expressed a shared interest in limiting nuclear proliferation.
Incorporating nuclear capabilities into more weapons systems could threaten these shared nonproliferation goals.
Daniel M. Gerstein works at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and is an adjunct professor at American University. He was the undersecretary (acting) and deputy undersecretary in the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security from 2011-2014.
This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on March 6, 2018. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.