Nuclear Weapon Stockpiles: Past and Present
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Nuclear Weapon Stockpiles: Past and Present

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Two decades after the end of the Cold War there are still some 17,000 intact nuclear warheads around the world, according to a study published in the new issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

The study, which was done by the Federation of American Scientists’ Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, estimates that the nine nuclear weapons states—the U.S., Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea— have approximately 10,000 nuclear warheads remaining in their stockpiles. In addition, the U.S. and Russia are estimated to have around 7,000 nuclear warheads still intact but awaiting dismantlement.

According to the article, Washington and Moscow’s nuclear arsenals still account for over 90 percent of the global total.

More troubling, nearly half (4,400) of the 10,000 nuclear warheads in existing military stockpiles are deployed on missiles or at bases with operational launchers present, the authors estimate. In fact, Kristensen and Norris believe that the U.S. and Russia maintain 1,800 nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles that are kept at high alert, meaning that they can be launched 5 to 15 minutes after the order is given.

Even still, global nuclear stockpiles have dropped considerably since peaking in 1986 when there were almost 64,500 nuclear warheads in existence. Most of the reductions in global nuclear stockpiles can be attributed to the U.S. and Russia, although the UK and France have also eliminated some of their stockpiles.

According to Kristensen and Norris, since the dawn of the nuclear age 125,000 nuclear warheads have been built, 97 percent of them by the U.S. and Russia/Soviet Union. The other seven nuclear states—presumably including South Africa’s briefly held arsenal—account for the remaining three percent.

The U.S. has historically built about 66,500 warheads, or 53 percent of the global total. 59,000 of these have been disassembled since. Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union, have produced some 55,000 nuclear warheads since first exploding a nuclear device in 1949. Of these, 8,500 remain intact although 4,000 of them have been retired and are awaiting dismantlement.

While the UK and France are also reducing their much smaller arsenals, the rest of the nuclear weapon states are believed to be expanding their stockpiles. Indeed, the authors estimate that China has now surpassed the UK in holding the fourth largest nuclear stockpile in the world, and could surpass France as the third largest nuclear power by the end of the decade. The authors also expect both India and Pakistan to surpass the UK by the middle of the next decade.

Currently, the UK has 225 nuclear warheads, all of which would have to be delivered using its Trident-II submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which are deployed on its Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). It is currently contemplating building a new class of SSBNs, although there is much debate about the wisdom of this in the U.K. at the moment.

London plans to reduce its arsenal to 180 by the mid-2020s, and already the English government claims that only 160 of its nuclear warheads are operationally ready, with one SSBN on patrol at all times carrying at least 48 nuclear warheads on board.

France has about 300 nuclear warheads and plans to reduce this slightly over the coming years. Its delivery systems are a variant of its M51 SLBM, as well as the SMP-A (Air-Sol Moyenne Portee-A) cruise missile, which it launches from its Mirage 2000N and Rafale fighter-bombers.

China currently has an arsenal of about 250 warheads, Kristensen and Norris estimate. They note that Beijing is in the process of producing new mobile solid-fueled missiles in order to phase out its stock of liquid-fueled missiles. Currently, China—which maintains a new first use nuclear doctrine—does not keep its warheads in the same facilitates as its ballistic missiles. This could potentially—though not necessarily— change with the induction of solid-fueled ballistic missiles.

The authors also estimate that China likely has the capability to delivery nuclear weapons by air, and believe that “production is probably under way of new warheads for missiles intended to arm the new Jin-class submarine.” As The Diplomat previously reported, U.S. intelligence sources expect the JL-2 SLBM to begin sea trials next year. The JL-2 is expected to be deployed on the Type-094 (Jin-Class) SSBN. Just this week, WantChinaTimes quoted a PLA general as saying the JL-3 SLBM has also been completed.

Kristensen and Norris note that far less information is available about India and Pakistan, as well as other nuclear weapon states like Israel and North Korea. Indeed, compared to the U.S., Russia, the UK, and France, the authors point out that China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea are much less transparent about their nuclear stockpiles. Israel for instance, has never publicly acknowledged having a nuclear weapon arsenal while Pakistan and China have often defended their lack of transparency on the need to maintain secrecy in order to protect their smaller arsenals from an adversary conducting a first strike that completely eliminates their entire stockpiles.

Nonetheless, the authors estimate that Pakistan has between 100-120 nuclear warheads with the fissile material to continue enhancing the size of its arsenal in the future. India, by contrast, has between 90 and 110 nuclear warheads, by Kristensen and Norris’s account.

Perhaps of most concern, both South Asian nuclear powers are enhancing and diversifying their delivery systems. Islamabad, for instance, is believed to be seeking tactical nuclear weapons that it could deploy along its border with India to prevent Delhi from pursuing its Cold Start military doctrine. Kristensen and Norris attach special concern to Indian claims that it is seeking to equip its ballistic missiles with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), which allows a single missile to carry multiple nuclear warheads and disperse them to different targets. The authors fear that such a development, coupled with the U.S. enhancing its theater missile defense in the region, could push China to MIRV its own missiles.

Such a development would likely spur India and China to significantly enhance the size of their arsenals, much as it did for the U.S. and Soviet Union. If this fate is avoided, however, Kristensen and Norris estimate that none of the nuclear weapons states will reach parity with the U.S. or Russia for decades, even if the former Cold War adversaries continue to sign further arms reduction treaties. 

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