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


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. 

September 16, 2013 at 23:09

From the point of view of military and strategic detterence – India's stockpile is woefully inadequate if the numbers claimed by Kristiensen and Norris are to be believed. 90 odd nuclear weapons with nearly 40 years of nuclear research and study with more than 3 major nuclear research facilities and nearly 10 major reactor sites ?? One could rightfully ask the nuclear industry in India – what they've been doing all these years ??

In terms of economics, Pakistan is wisely pursuing the nuclear counter because it is cheaper than conventional parity. Yet the Indian government is either apathetic to the threat of Pakistan's and China's nuclear superiority or has a more sizeable detterence that Kristiensen and Norris are aware of. Both of these scenarios are pretty shocking considering that in the first case, the Indian leaders are not only abrogating their duty but in doing so are precipitating the chance of a nuclear first strike from either the Pakistani state or a rogue Pakistani general who gets control of their weapons in the confidence that they can suffeciently destroy/cripple Indian retaliatory strike by launching a sudden and massive first strike. Also, this would also embolden the Chinese and the Pakistani's to work together in improving nuclear warhead design and delivery vehicles posing a greater danger.

The only beneficial aspect of nuclear weapons is nation states have sought to maintain parity or at least try their best to acheive nuclear parity with their adversaries, when the Indians drop the ball and are apathetic to the concept of nuclear parity, that stable equilibrium of mutually assured destruction becomes less likely to factor into the minds of their adversaries – giving the threat of a nuclear first strike more and more credibility.

December 5, 2013 at 05:36

Mazo you only need to be able to land 10 or 12 weapons to decimate any nation on earth.
120 atomics is enough to lay 3 down on 40 targets more then enough to assure MAD with china and Pakistan and enough to keep America of Russia away.

September 4, 2013 at 10:02

the truth that's not being spoken is that China posesses the capability to launch ASBM into space that reenter at over 14,000km/hr, this alone carrys such kinetic power and speed that the U.S, Russia, U.K, working together could not stop it, it's just to fast, China also posess the capability of launching this same weapons at the U.S or anyone's aircraft carries, totally destroying the carrir in a single hit. Nothing in the world know to man can stop China's ASBM. The U.S nor Russia, claim the title of Solo/Combined Supreme Super Power. China do'es not brag about it's military capability, the U.S will not admitt that they can not militaryly contain China. Grant it China has no Navy worth speaking about, unless you care to factor in the JIN class subs, capable of extreme Nuclear Destruction. The American people need to be address and educated on the new world Powers. WE have'nt even touch the fact that China holds one of the largest most capable Cyber Armys. I'am a Patriot, long live America, live by the Constitution or Die by the Constitution. Let the American people know the truth and let them decide their fate.

September 3, 2013 at 22:15

‘The explosive force of nuclear fission has changed everything except our modes of thinking and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe. We shall require an entirely new pattern of thinking if humankind is to survive.’ Albert Einstein, 1946.

 When it comes to numbers, the Russians and Americans believe in "overkill".  The Chinese believe that killing you once is enough, which is more economical. In purely South Asian context, a stockpile of around 200 nuclear weapons with a naval based assured second strike capability should constitute as enough. So till the time global nuclear disarmament does not start taking place, expecting Pakistan to dump its nuclear weapons would be naive.

September 3, 2013 at 21:11

The United States and Russia hold almost 80 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. If these two old rivals cut down their nuclear weapons to 1/3 proportion then it will be an immense achievement for nuclear disarmament initiatives. USA has never wanted to vacate her hegemonic position which is by military means. US strategic thinking is of the view that nuclear reductions would reduce USA compensations vis-à-vis Russia and China. 

September 3, 2013 at 19:02

What an insult. Don’t Indian cities count?

September 3, 2013 at 17:14

An arms race has been triggered after the nuclear attacks on Japnese cities. The very reason is this that states find the possession of nuclear weapons as the only way which can deter even the bigger forces of the world. After the 5 NWS, the number increased because of the continued threats and find no other option other possession of nuclear weapons. In the South Asian case, India started under the umbrella of Atoms for Peace which turned into a fully clandestine nuclear weapon program. This created a security dilemma and made Pakistan to deter its conventionally big hostile neighbour. Interestingly, this is a weapons which makes  both opposition parties and even the rest of the world to avoid and feared  from the consequential destructive powers of the nuclear weapons. 

Sonia Ali
September 3, 2013 at 15:18

The article depicts that disarmament norms are being undermined because of the number of nuclear arsenals and also stockpiles. Global disarmament cannot be achieved with this increased number of nuclear weapons. In case of South Asia, Inia was the first who tested its nuclear device and Pakistan only followed the suit when Idia tested its nuclear device for the second time which rang alarm bell inside Pakistan. Gobal powers are not concerned about global disarmament and arms control then what to expect from the rest of the world.

September 3, 2013 at 15:06

Money and uraninium reserve should be a factor of the potential nuclear stockpile in a nation.

September 3, 2013 at 14:56

The U.S. is on track to spend between $620 billion and $661 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next decade. Do we really need to be spending so much on weapons that military experts don't believe are relevant to today's threats

September 3, 2013 at 12:46

If you want to know how many nukes China has, count how many major cities exist in western world.

September 3, 2013 at 12:08

When India tested its nukes, and Pakistan reciprocated, the western experts argued strongly that these are prohibitively expensive and beyond the means of either India or Pakistan to go in the direction of nuclearization. Almost 40 years after India tested its first device, and after almost 15 years after Pakistan came out of the closet, there is no such talk from the western experts any more ……. may I ask why ………….. ???

September 3, 2013 at 11:20

If existing intact nuke warheads are considered, USA has 7,500; UK 225; France 300; China 250; Pakistan 110; India 100; Israel, North Korea ??. Total = 8,485.

Russia = 8,500.

Do they (USA and Russia) really intend to dismantle them anytime soon? I have my doubts. Will they not secretly manufacture and stockpile nuclear weapons? Of course they will. Ultimately it is population density of each nation and the availability of deployable locations in land and sea determines the real number of nuclear warheads of a nation.

September 3, 2013 at 01:53

Too bad the article did not discuss the Israel nuclear weapons stockpile nor Iran's development of nuclear weapons. A good article for a change from this online magazine.

Andrea Berger
September 3, 2013 at 00:48

The UK carries a maximum of 48 warheads on each SSBN (rather than 'at least 48') and, as part of its 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review declared that it is moving to a maximum of 40 per boat over the next few years. One boat already operates with the 40 maximum. 

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