The world’s nuclear arsenal will grow during this decade. After more than 35 years of constant reduction in the number of atomic weapons globally, experts warn that the trend will reverse in the coming years. All nuclear arsenals are in a phase of renovation or expansion; the arms control and progressive disarmament structure, through which Washington and Moscow have dismantled tens of thousands of atomic warheads since the 1980s, is practically extinct, and the rhetoric of the leaders of some nuclear powers is increasingly worrying.
The global number of nuclear warheads decreased this year to 12,705, compared to 13,080 in 2021, according to a report published this Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). However, the Swedish research center highlights in its document that there are “clear signs” that this year-on-year drop is probably one of the last of this decade. The global number of atomic weapons has been reduced by more than 80% since it reached its peak (70,374) in 1986.
The report also emphasizes that the global number of operational nuclear warheads (9,440) has not decreased in the last year. The almost 400 atomic weapons estimated by SIPRI that were dismantled during 2021 were part of the more than 3,000 that Russia and the United States have already withdrawn. “All nine nuclear powers are modernizing or expanding their arsenal,” says Wilfred Nan, director of SIPRI’s program on Weapons of Mass Destruction. “And most are redefining their doctrines on the use of atomic weapons. It is an extremely worrying trend,” says Nan.
Russia’s nuclear arsenal remains the largest in the world, and together with that of the United States, accounts for more than 90% of all nuclear warheads. For decades, the weapons that Moscow and Washington could produce and use have been limited by a series of bilateral treaties, which were signed during what is known as the Golden Age of Arms Control (1987-2000). Today only New START remains in force (extended in extremis last year until 2026), which sets the maximum number of nuclear weapons that both countries can have deployed, but not those in storage. Matt Korda, a researcher at SIPRI and the Association of American Scientists (FAS), is pessimistic about the future of arms control: “It is unimaginable that Washington and Moscow are going to negotiate new limitations in the midst of tremendous tensions that the war in Ukraine has generated.
The Budget Office of the US Congress calculates that the first arms power will invest around 188,000 million dollars (178,000 million euros, a figure equivalent to the GDP of Greece) in modernizing its nuclear arsenal during this and the next eight years. Russia is also in a phase of expanding its nuclear capabilities, with the development of new warheads and delivery systems. And since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has threatened in various ways to use tactical nuclear weapons, something unparalleled since the end of the Cold War.
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China is one of the countries that has increased its number of nuclear warheads the most in the last decade. Its arsenal is immersed in a major modernization stage. Last July, Beijing dazzled military analysts by achieving a milestone: the launch of a hypersonic missile from a glider vehicle that also flew at more than five times the speed of sound (Mach 5). This was the last sign —and probably the most powerful— of the evolution of the Asian giant’s nuclear capabilities that caused alarm in the Pentagon. The US Department of Defense estimates that China will increase its nuclear warheads from the current 350 to more than a thousand by 2030. And satellite images reveal that Beijing is building more than 300 missile silos. “The United States is no longer willing to negotiate any kind of arms control agreement that does not include China,” says Korda. “And Beijing maintains that it will not accept any limits until Moscow and Washington reduce their arsenals to levels similar to theirs,” she adds.
Like Russia and the US, France and the UK have fewer nuclear warheads today than they did at the end of the Cold War. And in the French case, the figure is expected to remain stable, although Paris last year announced a program to develop four state-of-the-art nuclear missile submarines, which will progressively replace the current ones between 2030 and 2040. On the contrary, Boris Johnson’s government reversed decades of nuclear non-proliferation in March 2021 and announced the intention to increase its operational atomic warheads from 180 to 260.
Apart from the five members of the UN Security Council, the other four atomic powers (India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea) are also making multi-million dollar investments in their atomic programs. However, the official information that these countries offer about their arsenals and their development plans is extremely limited, null in the case of Israel.
India and Pakistan have steadily increased their arsenals since the turn of this century. According to SIPRI and FAS estimates, the two traditional rivals have more than 300 nuclear weapons between them, and analysts warn of the permanent risk of conflict in the area. Last March, the Indian army accidentally launched a medium-range supersonic cruise missile against Pakistani territory without causing personal injury, although material damage.
Even more alarming are the advances in the North Korean atomic program achieved in the last five years. In its last nuclear test, in 2017, the North Korean army successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, with a destruction capacity far greater than those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then, Kim Jong-un’s regime has displayed several intercontinental ballistic missiles and demonstrated its ability to launch from submarines. In addition, last April, Kim declared that the North Korean Armed Forces were prepared to use their nuclear weapons “at any time” and urged to advance the atomic program “at an even faster pace.”
Not only the nuclear powers are working on their atomic development programs. Negotiations to revive the nuclear deal with Iran — which former US President Donald Trump unilaterally tore up in 2018 — remain in limbo. Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned earlier this month that Tehran will possess enough enriched uranium “within a few weeks” to produce an atomic bomb. And last Wednesday, the Islamic Republic disconnected 27 surveillance cameras from its nuclear facilities. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have threatened to launch nuclear programs in response to Iran’s moves.
The SIPRI report also highlights a couple of positive developments in favor of non-proliferation. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force in January 2021 after ratification by 50 UN members, although it has not been signed by any atomic power or any member of NATO. And earlier this year, the five members of the Security Council issued a striking statement stating that “a nuclear war cannot be won and that [esta] must never be released.”