Thu, Feb 24, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Flirting with Armageddon: Welcome to a new arms race

The threat of a dirty bomb or `conventional' nuclear strike is now greater than during the Cold War

By Paul Harris and Jason Burke  /  THE OBSERVER , London

ILLUSTRATION: YUSHA

It was 1.22am on Monday, Feb. 14 on the frozen Alaskan island of Kodiak when the missile flared upwards into the night sky. As the rocket's flames disappeared into darkness, US military chiefs waited with bated breath to see if their multi-billion-dollar "Son of Star Wars" defense shield would work.

Thousands of kilometers away on the Pacific island of Kwajalein, another missile was primed to intercept the Alaskan launch, soaring to destroy its target in the upper atmosphere and thus "save America from nuclear devastation." It never made it. The test failed.

On Kwajalein metal supports holding the interceptor rocket failed to disengage. If it had been real the enemy nuke would have hit its target. The system has now failed in six out of nine tests. Many experts believe it simply does not work.

But this does not deter the Pentagon. It is in a frenzy to put a missile shield around America. The threat from nuclear attack is now once more at the center of strategic planning. The missile defense shield is not seen as a throwback but as a vital part of defense.

Nuclear weapons too remain in US plans, it is now looking at developing a whole new range of "bunker buster" nukes.

A new nuclear arms race is gripping the world. Many experts believe the likelihood of such an attack is greater now than it was during the Cold War. North Korea has already claimed it has nuclear weapons, Iran could be on the brink of building them. Both nations could trigger arms races among their neighbors. The international system set up to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons has sprung a series of leaks. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned of a "cascade" of states going nuclear.

But that might not even be the biggest threat. Behind the ambitions and fears of nations lurk terrorist networks bent on acquiring weapons. Few doubt the most extreme groups would love to use them. It is a bleak picture that makes the Cold War look almost safe.

"We are in an extremely dangerous time right now," said Natalie Goldring, a proliferation expert at the University of Maryland.

At the moment, the world's nuclear club is eight strong. There are the original big five of the US, China, Russia, Britain and France and the three newcomers of India, Pakistan and Israel. That has now changed. If the pronouncements coming out of Pyongyang are to be believed, the reclusive and impoverished Stalinist state of North Korea has now become the club's newest member.

Some disbelieve the official rhetoric. North Korea is desperate for foreign aid and wants face-to-face talks with the US. It is possible that this latest move is just a bluff.

"I would not take anything the North Koreans say at face value," said Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute.

But most experts accept such sentiments afford little comfort. Now the focus of dealing with North Korea has become working out what sort of nuclear devices North Korea might possess and how it could deliver them. Though it has no missiles that could reach America, South Korea lies just over the border. Tokyo is just a short flight over the Sea of Japan. It could easily use a plane to deliver a nuclear device, or a boat.

That could see the triggering of a regional nuclear arms race in Asia, a continent already scarred by the nuclear standoff between Indian and Pakistan. With North Korea boasting a nuclear arsenal, South Korea is under enormous pressure to follow suit as a deterrent.

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