Nuclear arsenals are not too common a military power around the world. However, it is estimated that there are about 13,885 nuclear weapons in the world, some of which are either stockpiled or retired. The Nuclear-Proliferation Treaty was aimed at ensuring that countries do not use nuclear weapons in wars and over time, countries commit to reducing nuclear power.
Countries that signed the treaty have committed to stop production of more nuclear weapons and to dismantle the existing ones. Therefore each year, more and more nuclear weapons are retired or decommissioned. Currently, there are only nine countries in the world with nuclear arsenals, some more dangerous than others.
So, which countries possess these most destructive of weapons and just how many warheads do they have? Let’s find out.
1. United States
The United States is the country with the second highest number of nuclear warheads. The United States developed its nuclear weapons during World War II with the aid of the United Kingdom and Canada. This was to prepare in case Nazi Germany developed Nuclear weapons first. The U.S. has 5,800 warheads. It is the only country that stores nuclear weapons in other countries.
The U.S has 1,373 strategic nuclear warheads that are deployed on 655 intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers and submarine ballistic missiles. The U.S. has about 150 B-61 nuclear gravity bombs which are forward deployed in six NATO bases in five European countries. There is Incirlik in Turkey, Kleine Brogel in Belgium, Aviano and Ghedi in Italy, Volkel in the Netherlands and Büchel in Germany.
Among the 5800 nuclear warheads of the U.S. 3,800 are stockpiled while 2000 have been retired awaiting dismantling.
Russia is the largest holder of nuclear weapons after the U.S. totaling 6,375. The Soviet Union developed and tested its nuclear weapons after the United States in 1949. The Soviet Union tested its first Megatron-range hydrogen bomb in 1955. They tested the “Tsar Bomba” which is the most powerful explosive ever detonated by humans.
The Russian Federation acquired possession of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal after its dissolution on December 26, 1991. Russia has approximately 4,315 nuclear warheads which include 1,570 deployed strategic warheads with 870 in storage. This also includes 1,875 non-strategic warheads and also 2,060 retired warheads to be dismantled.
Russia and the United States’ unfriendly and antagonistic relationship has slowed down the reduction of nuclear weapons in the two countries. The arms race between these two nations has seen both countries continuing the development of other types of nuclear weapons.
Russia’s position is that it will embark on reduction only if guaranteed that the U.S is doing the same, which in the current climate seems unlikely.
China has a total of 320 nuclear warheads. China developed its nuclear weapons during the Cold War. It tested its first nuclear weapon in 1964 which was to act as a deterrent to both the United States and the Soviet Union. China’s nuclear weapon development was rapid.
In 1967, it tested its first hydrogen bomb. In 1992, China signed the Nuclear-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). China has been increasing its military capacity in East Asia as the U.S. is expanding its military forces in the region. This poses a risk of a conflict that could easily lead to a nuclear war.
Compared to the U.S and Russia, China is very modest in developing nuclear weapons. They have fewer than a hundred that could reach the United States. This is however dependent on the U.S. respecting the treaty. If the United States advances its nuclear development, China will also increase its capabilities to match.
France has a total of 290 nuclear warheads. It tested its first nuclear weapon in 1960 that was developed based on its own research. Just like the rest of the countries, France also developed its nuclear weapons in the Cold War to retain power. It tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1968.
It disarmed 175 warheads after the Cold War. France reduced and modernized its warheads to become a dual system. This is based on submarine launched ballistic missiles and medium-range air-to-surface missiles. France is however still developing new nuclear weapons.
In 1992, France signed the NPT. France has stated that a nuclear or terrorist attack on it will be retaliated with a nuclear attack. However, France has come to advocate for deterrence in nuclear weapons use and urged other countries to be transparent with their nuclear arsenal.
5. United Kingdom
The United Kingdom has 215 nuclear warheads. The U.K developed its first nuclear weapon in 1952. It collaborated with the U.S. and Canada in the Manhattan Project but went ahead to develop its own method of manufacturing and bomb detonation. The United Kingdom became the third country in the world to develop and test nuclear weapons following the U.S and the Soviet Union.
It also moved to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent to the Soviet Union and to maintain its status in power after the collapse of its empire after the end of the second world war. In 1957, the United Kingdom tested its first hydrogen bomb. Of the 215 strategic warheads that the United Kingdom has, 120 are deployed while 95 are in storage.
After the Cold War, the U.K maintained a fleet of four vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines which were equipped with Trident II missiles. These form the United Kingdom’s exclusive nuclear sea-based deterrent. The UK house of commons voted to renew the British nuclear weapons system in 2016.
Pakistan has approximately 160 nuclear warheads. Unlike the other countries, Pakistan is not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Pakistan has developed its nuclear weapons over several decades starting in the late 1970s. Its first nuclear power was established in a plant near Karachi.
They procured the materials from western nations in the early 1970s. This was prompted by India developing its nuclear weapons. Pakistan conducted its first six nuclear tests in 1998 as a response to India conducting its first tests weeks before. Pakistan was estimated to have 140 warheads as of 2013.
In November 2020, it is predicted that Pakistan would have enough materials to develop 200 warheads.
India has 135 warheads. Like its neighbor and rival Pakistan, India is not a part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and adopted its “no first use” policy in 1998. It had its first test in 1974 in what it termed as a ‘peaceful’ nuclear explosion. India created this test after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) which raised questions on the safety of civilian weapons which could easily be converted into military weapons.
The secrecy surrounding India’s development raised concern and agitation from other nations. India then officially rejected the NPT in the 1960s citing that it created a nuclear world of “haves” and “have nots” and restricted peaceful activity. Although claiming that its nuclear capability was mainly peaceful, India weaponized two dozen nuclear weapons in 1988 and 1990.
The United States and India concluded the Indian-United States Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008. This was following a series of talks and negotiations that included India’s plan to separate its civil and military nuclear programs. Both the United States and India are bound by the Hyde Act which will mean that the U.S. will cease relations with India if they detonate a nuclear explosive device.
Israel has approximately 90 nuclear warheads. Unlike the other nations, Israel refuses to acknowledge owning nuclear weapons, although, Israeli former nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu revealed details of Israel’s nuclear weapons program to the British press in 1986. Despite the refusal, Israel is estimated to be the sixth country to develop nuclear weapons.
It developed its nuclear weapons in 1966 and is not a party to NPT. Israel states that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Israel has about 80 intact weapons.
Israel owning nuclear weapons is causing interest from other mid-eastern countries to develop them as well.
9. North Korea
North Korea is estimated to have between 30-40 nuclear warheads. North Korea accelerated its nuclear program following the Cold War. It was eager to find security leverage after it had economic turmoil. North Korea was a part of NPT but withdrew in 2003 after accusations by the United Nations of having a secret uranium enrichment program.
North Korea is estimated to have 30-40 warheads as of January 2020. North Korea is estimated to have about 20-40 kilograms of plutonium and about 250-500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. North Korea has estimated annual fissile materials that can produce 6-7 weapons.
In 2006, North Korea announced that due to the intimidation by the United States, it would proceed to conduct nuclear tests. They reported a successful test in October 2006. North Korea operates a 5-megawatt heavy-water graphite moderated reactor to extract plutonium for its nuclear heads.