The Cost of Staying Nuclear
Image Credit: Antônio Milena

The Cost of Staying Nuclear


Concern over the spread of nuclear weapons to new states often overshadows the issue of existing nuclear arsenals. Even when the latter does receive attention, it is usually devoted entirely to Russian and U.S. nuclear forces, which are estimated to account for 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.

A new report by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s (WILPF), entitled Assuring Destruction Forever: Nuclear Weapon Modernization around the World,  is notable for bringing together prominent nuclear experts to analyze the stockpiles and future modernization plans of all nine nuclear weapon states – the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. The multi-authored report also devotes three chapters to larger thematic issues like international law and political will.

At the outset, the report presents some ominous data. For example, as of March 2012, there were approximately 19,500 nuclear weapons between the nuclear powers. Furthermore, the report also finds that all nine states have plans to modernize their arsenals. The subsequent case studies analyze each of these modernization plans.  

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China’s plan for modernizing its nuclear forces is very much in line with its long-standing nuclear doctrine of “minimum means of reprisal.” Following its first nuclear test in 1964, most analysts expected Beijing to rapidly build up its nuclear weapon stockpile as the countries before it had done. Yet nearly half a century after its first nuclear test, two scholars marveled that, “The degree of vulnerability that China was willing to accept after developing nuclear weapons is striking.”

Indeed, China has only gradually expanded its arsenal, and even today only maintains 170 nuclear warheads, 110 of which are deployed, according to Assuring Destruction Forever (ADF). Given this history, it’s not surprising that Hui Zang’s ADF chapter concludes, “To have a small arsenal capable of counterattack, China’s nuclear modernization has been focusing on the quality over the quantity of its nuclear arsenal.”

The same can’t be said for Pakistan, according to Princeton University’s Zia Mian’s ADF chapter. Already Pakistan is estimated to have between 90 and 110 nuclear warheads, as well as stockpiles of 2,750 kilograms of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) and 140 kilograms of plutonium. Furthermore, Mian writes, “Pakistan has been rapidly developing and expanding its nuclear arsenal…and [is] testing and deploying a diverse array of nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missiles.” Unsurprisingly, these conclusions have been widely reported in India’s major media outlets under headlines like, “Pak N-arsenal is developing rapidly.”  

But India is hardly faultless itself. As M.V. Ramana writes in his chapter on India, reliable estimates of New Delhi’s nuclear forces are hard to come by because “there is little information available from India’s government on most nuclear weapon matters.” New Delhi is hardly alone in shrouding its nuclear program in secrecy, he might have added. In any case, Ramana derives his numbers on India’s nuclear forces from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists2010 Nuclear Notebook, which estimated that India had between 80 and 100 assembled nuclear weapons, and approximately 50 deployed ones.

The main focus of India’s modernization, however, has been “increasing the diversity, range and sophistication of ways of delivering these weapons,” Ramana concludes. Indeed, between April 18 and 25 India will test three nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, including the inaugural test flight of the Agni-V missile, which has a range of 5,000 kilometers when carrying a nuclear payload. That this makes it capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to any part of China was likely what one Indian official had in mind when he called the Agni-V a strategic “game-changer.”

One commonality between the nuclear weapon states is the prohibitive costs they face in maintaining and modernizing their arsenals. Already, the nuclear powers have spent a combined $100 billion on their programs. Furthermore, ADF estimates that they will spend an additional $1 trillion modernizing their nuclear arsenals over the next decade. Although analysts have long stressed the high cost and inherent difficulties countries face in trying to go nuclear, perhaps emphasizing the towering costs of staying nuclear might be a more effective means of dissuading potential proliferators.

Zachary Keck is an editorial assistant with The Diplomat.

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