Israel modernizing nuclear capabilities, upgrading production facilities – report

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute warns atomic weapons playing a larger role in international relations than at any time since the Cold War

Satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel, on February 22, 2021. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)
Satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel, on February 22, 2021. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) believes that Israel has been working to modernize its nuclear weapons systems in recent months and has upgraded production facilities in southern Israel amid a worldwide trend of weakening nuclear diplomacy.

Israel has never publicly acknowledged that it possesses nuclear weapons, but is widely believed to have around 90 in its arsenal, SIPRI assessed Tuesday in its annual report on the state of global armament and security, which examined developments throughout 2023 and until January 2024.

In addition to Israel, SIPRI examined the arsenals of the eight other nuclear-armed states – the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

As of January 2024, there are an estimated 12,121 nuclear warheads held worldwide, the assessment found, of which some 9,585 are kept in military stockpiles for potential use. Israel is thought to own a relatively low number of warheads in comparison to the US and Russia, which possess a combined 90 percent of all nuclear weapons.

In addition to reportedly modernizing its nuclear arsenal, SIPRI claimed that there was evidence Israel was in the process of upgrading its nuclear reactor in the southern town of Dimona.

Nuclear diplomacy has already been weakening in recent years, but it suffered another major blow in 2023 as war broke out between Israel and the Iran-backed Hamas terror group, threatening to further destabilize the region.

According to the report, any work that had been done between the US and Iran to de-escalate tensions was undone by the war in Gaza and the subsequent proxy attacks on US targets by Iran-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.

Similar damage was done to nuclear diplomacy by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, due to Iran’s military support of Russian forces.

At the same time as tensions threatened to boil over between the US and Iran – which is widely believed to be developing nuclear weapons capabilities of its own – the war between Israel and Hamas undermined efforts to engage Israel in the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, SIPRI said.

The world “has not seen nuclear weapons playing such a prominent role in international relations since the Cold War,” the director of SIPRI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme, Wilfred Wan, said of the institute’s findings. “It is hard to believe that barely two years have passed since the leaders of the five largest nuclear-armed states jointly reaffirmed that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.'”

As of January 2024, Russia is believed to have the largest number of warheads in its military stockpile, with 4,380, compared to the US’s 3,708 stockpiled warheads.

In this photo released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on November 5, 2023, The Emperor Alexander III nuclear submarine of the Russian navy test-fires a Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile from the White Sea. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Third on the list with significantly fewer nuclear weapons is China, with 500 warheads kept in military stockpiles, up from 410 a year earlier. At the other end of the spectrum, North Korea is believed to have increased its stockpile from 30 nuclear warheads in 2023 to 50 a year later.

The SIPRI report was published alongside a new report from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) that found that in 2023 alone, nuclear weapons spending worldwide jumped by $10.8 billion from a year earlier, with the US accounting for 80 percent of that increase.

The US share of total spending, $51.5 billion, “is more than all the other nuclear-armed countries put together,” said ICAN. The next biggest spender was China, at $11.8 billion, followed by Russia, spending $8.3 billion.

Israel has held a longstanding policy of nuclear ambiguity, meaning the country neither denies nor affirms that it possesses nuclear weapons. For decades, Israel has said that it will not be “the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.”

Far-right Heritage Minster Amichai Eliyahu seemingly admitted that Israel has nuclear capabilities when he called in November “to drop what amounts to some kind of a nuclear bomb on all of Gaza” in response to Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, which saw terrorists kill some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnap 251. Similar comments were made by Likud lawmaker Tally Gotliv a few days after the massacre.

Senior Israeli officials reportedly considered using a nuclear weapon 50 years earlier in the wake of the surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces that sparked the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

According to the SIPRI report, Israel’s nuclear arsenal can be deployed by fighter jets, submarines, and land-based Jericho missiles. On October 7, a Hamas rocket reportedly hit the Sdot Micha Airbase, where Jericho missiles are suspected to be held.

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