Great Powers' Nuclear Arsenal Growing, Say Experts
China, the world's third-largest nuclear power, is believed to have increased its number of warheads to 410 in January 2023.

China could have as many ICBMs as the US or Russia by the end of the decade, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The number of operational nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the major military powers is on the rise again, according to a leading think tank, whose analysts warn that the world is “entering one of the most dangerous periods in human history.”

At a time of deteriorating international relations and escalating nuclear saber rattling, there are an estimated 12,512 nuclear warheads worldwide, of which 9,576 are in ready-to-use military arsenals, 86 more than a year ago.

This increase ended the period of gradual decline that followed the end of the cold war. The Stockholm International Institute for Peace Research (Sipri) suggested that 60 of the new nuclear warheads were in the hands of China.

The other new weapons are attributed to Russia (12), Pakistan (five), North Korea (five) and India (four).

The increase in combat nuclear warheads comes despite the fact that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, Russia, China, the UK and France – declared in 2021 that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be released.”

Russia and the United States together possess almost 90% of all nuclear weapons in the world. In addition to their usable nuclear weapons, the two powers each possess more than 1,000 previously decommissioned warheads, which they are gradually dismantling.

Of the total 12,512 warheads in the world, which includes withdrawals and pending dismantling, Sipri estimates that 3,844 are deployed in missiles and aircraft.

Great Powers' Nuclear Arsenal Growing, Say Experts

Around 2,000 of them – almost all belonging to Russia or the US – are kept on high operational alert status, meaning they are installed on missiles or held at airbases that house nuclear bombers.

However, Sipri notes that it is difficult to judge the full picture, as several countries, including Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom, have lowered their level of transparency since Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

China, the world’s third nuclear power, is believed to have increased its number of nuclear warheads from 350 in January 2022 to 410 in January 2023. That arsenal is expected to continue to grow, but Sipri predicts that they will not surpass the arsenals of the United States and Russia.

Great Powers' Nuclear Arsenal Growing, Say Experts

The report adds that China has never declared the size of its nuclear arsenal and that many of its assessments are based on data from the US Department of Defense (DOD).

In 2021, commercial satellite images revealed that China had begun construction of hundreds of new missile silos in its northern territory.

Hans M Kristensen, Sipri’s Senior Research Associate for the Weapons of Mass Destruction Program, stated: “China has embarked on a major expansion of its nuclear arsenal. It is increasingly difficult to square this trend with China’s stated goal of having only the minimum nuclear forces necessary to maintain its national security.”

France (290) and the United Kingdom (225) are the world’s next largest nuclear powers. Britain’s operational arsenal is expected to grow after announcing two years ago that it was raising its limit from 225 to 260 nuclear warheads.

Of Britain’s 225 nuclear warheads, 120 would be operationally available for delivery by Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and some 40 would be carried on a ballistic missile-launching nuclear submarine (SSBN) on patrol at all times.

However, the British government has declared that it will no longer publicly disclose its numbers of nuclear weapons, deployed warheads or deployed missiles amid rising global tensions.

The new British policy is just one sign of the breakdown of cooperation on the future of nuclear weapons.

The United States suspended its bilateral strategic stability dialogue with Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, and the Kremlin announced it was suspending its participation in the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty and limiting the strategic nuclear forces of the two Cold War enemies.

Meanwhile, the Russian government has become increasingly vocal about the risk of nuclear war since its February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Putin has stated that he has placed the Russian nuclear deterrent on high alert.

He also said immediately after his invasion that the consequences for those who stood in the way of his country would be “unlike you have ever seen in your entire history.”

Since then, NATO’s arming of the Ukrainian military has led to a steady stream of nuclear threats from figures close to the Kremlin.

Dan Smith, director of Sipri, said: “We are entering one of the most dangerous periods in human history. The world’s governments must find ways to cooperate to defuse geopolitical tensions, curb arms races, and cope with the worsening consequences of environmental degradation and rising world hunger.”

daniel boffey