The number of nuclear weapons in circulation worldwide has been slowly but steadily declining in recent years because the United States and Russia are scaling back their nuclear arsenals.
Though fewer state-owned strategic warheads exist and the risk of global nuclear war is much more remote than it was during the Cold War, the U.S. nuclear employment strategy acknowledged an increased risk of nuclear attack.
“Today’s most immediate and extreme danger remains nuclear terrorism,” the strategy, published June 19, stated. “Al-Qaida and their extremist allies are seeking nuclear weapons. We must assume they would use such weapons if they managed to obtain them.”
“Today’s other pressing threat is nuclear proliferation, in particular Iran and North Korea. The United States wants to keep nuclear weapons from Iranian hands and disavows the legitimacy of North Korea’s nuclear arms,” the strategy said.
The U.S. nuclear employment strategy also committed to remaining a nuclear power “as long as nuclear weapons exist” in the world.
As a result of a decades-long nuclear arms race, Russia and the United States have by far the largest nuclear stockpiles. Since both nations have agreed to incrementally reduce the number of deployable warheads in their arsenals, the number of nuclear weapons worldwide is steadily declining. The arsenals of other legally recognized nuclear states are considerably smaller.
“Of the five legally recognized nuclear weapon states, only China appears to be expanding the size of its nuclear arsenal,” according to the 2014 World Nuclear Forces Report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The five states recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The remaining nuclear powers are Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea, which was the last to join the “nuclear club” in 1998.
Together, the first eight nations possess 4,400 operational nuclear weapons as of Jan. 1, said the SIPRI report. The institute omitted North Korea from the totals because no one is certain how many warheads it has or how many are deployable, though the institute estimated the number between six and eight.
SIPRI estimated that if all nuclear warheads are counted — working, stockpiled, in storage and those slated to be dismounted — then there are about 17,270 nuclear weapons worldwide, excluding North Korea.
Russia remains the only peer nation in terms of nuclear capabilities, said the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The Russians have a comparable strategic force to the United States and a larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. While the U.S. arsenal stands at about 7,700, the Russians have about 8,500 total warheads.
Continuing the trend of declining nuclear weapons, both Russia and the United States will reduce their arsenals to 1,550 strategic warheads apiece by 2018 under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The treaty did not address tactical nukes.
“If you look at the trajectory of proliferation — not to say that proliferation is not a concern, that Iran’s nuclear program isn’t a concern — but far more states have abandoned nuclear weapons and nuclear programs over the past 20 to 30 years than there are states that have acquired weapons,” said Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
The number of warheads may be declining globally, but many of the nations that own them are updating and expanding their abilities to use them. Some of the smaller nuclear states may also be producing more nuclear material for use in bombs. The nuclear capabilities and future plans of Iran and North Korea are shrouded in secrecy and experts believe China may be assisting both nations in their nuclear programs.
Russia and the United States are the only two countries with operational nuclear triads — warheads deliverable by aircraft, submarine and land-based intercontinental ballistic missile.
However, India and China are both working toward obtaining a nuclear triad and are in the process of testing nuclear-capable submarines, FAS stated.
“India and Pakistan are increasing the size and sophistication of their nuclear arsenals,” the SIPRI report said. “Both countries are developing and deploying new types of nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missiles, and both are increasing their military fissile material production capabilities.”
China has a large conventional military and recognizes the vulnerability of that force to nuclear and conventional strike, Reif said. That nation is therefore attempting to create a nuclear triad to deter a first strike on its conventional forces, he said.
“In China’s case, they are worried about the long-term survivability of their forces in the face of … advancements in U.S. conventional strike weapons,” Reif said. “So they want to diversify their strategic deterrent force.”
Israel’s nuclear arsenal is split between missile-launched weapons and gravity bombs that are delivered by aircraft. The arsenal amounts to about 80 weapons, said the SIPRI report.
Unlike other nations that concentrate on less expensive land- and air-based nuclear weapons, the British deterrent currently only has a submarine-based force. Their warheads and submarine-launched ballistic missiles are versions of the U.S. Trident missile and are serviced along with U.S. missiles and warheads.
Iran currently has no operational nuclear weapons, but its nuclear energy program remains a worldwide concern. The nation continues to expand their uranium-enrichment capabilities, according to recent reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The U.S. government worries that if Iran gained nuclear capabilities, it could create further instability by proliferating those weapons to other rogue states or terrorist groups. However, Reif pushed back on that notion.
“There’s no guarantee that Iran is going to get nuclear weapons,” he said. “They haven’t made a decision to do that, and there’s no guarantee if Iran acquired nuclear weapons that there is going to be some kind of proliferation domino effect, if you will.”
Experts agree that nuclear states like North Korea and Pakistan do not have the ability to strike the U.S. homeland or cripple its nuclear capabilities. But Peter Huessy, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and a nuclear weapons advocate, describes an “arc of uncertainty” that extends from North Korea, through China and the Indian Ocean to the Middle East.
“What each of those nuclear powers — [North Korea], Pakistan, India, perhaps someday Iran — do have is the ability to launch a strike against their adversarial neighbors,” he said. “A crisis can occur at any time, engineered not by us, not by the Russians, but by the knuckleheads out there. … and all of a sudden we’re eyeball to eyeball with the Russians."Photo Credit: Thinkstock