Where are all the nukes?
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Since the end of the Cold War, the absolute number of nuclear weapons in the world has declined dramatically. But, as Len Williams discovers, that doesn’t mean we can sleep any more easily. Here’s what the planet’s nuclear arsenal looks like in 2022.
It begins with a blinding flash that fills your entire range of vision. Moments later, a blast of scorching air pulsates over you. If, after a few moments of shock, you realise you’ve survived the initial nuclear blast, you need to act now – because it’s not over yet.
In the next few minutes, radioactive debris will rain down. Find shelter, preferably inside a building with a concrete structure. Once inside, remove your outer layers and wash with soap to get rid of any radiation. The fallout will remain most dangerous for the next 24 hours, so avoid leaving shelter. Follow these steps from Ready, a US public service campaign designed to educate and empower people to prepare for emergencies, and you might just survive a nuclear attack.
Of the estimated 13,000 nuclear warheads in the world today, almost 10,000 are in active service and all have the potential to cause mass destruction – and even bring an end to human civilisation. Even a ‘small’ regional nuclear war could throw up so much soot into the atmosphere that global temperatures would drop precipitously for years, destroy agriculture and cause mass starvation.
The dangers of nuclear weapons are well established. But how worried should we be? Nuclear bombs have only been used twice in anger, more than 70 years ago (by the US against Japan in 1945). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the global nuclear arsenal has shrunk rapidly. In 1991, the US had around 19,000 weapons, compared to around 5,600 today. A similar decline is seen in Russia (which had 29,000 in 1991, but about 6,000 today).
Only nine states have nuclear weapons, and there are far fewer countries with a nuclear programme today than during the Cold War. And the crazy logic of ‘MAD’ (Mutually Assured Destruction) does seem to have prevented war between the nuclear powers for decades.
Nevertheless, complacency would be unwise. The world today is arguably less safe than at any time since the end of the Cold War, the calculations of diplomacy more complex, and a resurgence of great power rivalry is encouraging nuclear states to modernise their arsenals. So how dangerous is the nuclear threat in 2022?
“You could destroy the world 100 times over or five times over, but it’s the same difference,” points out Philip Ingram, a former senior British intelligence officer and expert in nuclear weapons. While the world’s nuclear-armed states have gradually reduced the number of weapons in their arsenals, they’re still bristling with enough potential firepower to bring about catastrophe.
Today’s nuclear weapons are far more destructive than those that came before. For example, any one of the US’s nuclear submarines contains several times more potential firepower than all the explosives unleashed in World War Two combined (including the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
What is more, despite the decline in absolute numbers of nuclear weapons, most countries are currently upgrading their systems to be more lethal. Practically all countries are investing in new types of nuclear weapon and ways to deliver them; the most significant is perhaps the recent emergence of ‘hypersonic’ missiles, which can change course while in flight and potentially evade nuclear defences.
“When states invest in new delivery systems like this, it can drive an ‘arms race’ where other nuclear-armed states feel they need to catch up,” explains Marion Messner of BASIC, an organisation that advocates for disarmament.
This desire to modernise can be seen in several countries. The UK, notably, increased its ‘ceiling’ for the number of weapons from 180 to 260 last year. Meanwhile, China is increasing its inventory as are India, Pakistan and North Korea.
Yet perhaps more concerning than the qualitative improvement in the weapons themselves is the political context we now find ourselves in. Messner says: “A lot of people are worried that in the past five to 10 years, tensions between nuclear armed states seem to have increased.”
Closest to home (for UK readers) is surely Russia and its acts of outright aggression; the threat of a possible invasion of Ukraine means many are worried about the potential for miscalculation.
The Korean peninsula is another hotspot. North Korea is believed to have between 40 and 50 nuclear warheads, and its belligerence and paranoia mean the threat of attacks is continual. In January this year, Pyongyang claimed it had successfully tested a hypersonic missile that can evade conventional anti-missile systems.
Ingram also points to Israel (which is believed to have some 90 nuclear weapons, despite neither confirming nor denying this). “Israel is a worry because it is surrounded by enemies.” With many of its neighbours being opposed to the tiny country’s very existence, Ingram believes there is a high risk of the country using its nuclear weapons if faced with an existential threat.
Then there are the qualities of the world’s political leaders. Again, Ingram notes the dangers of countries where the leaders appear to be settling in for life. There are countless historical examples, Ingram argues, “of leaders who stay in power for life becoming more draconian and believing there are Machiavellian things going on around them”. He reckons the longer that leaders like Kim Jong-Un, Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin stay in power, “the more likely they are to surround themselves with ‘yes men’ and lose touch with reality”. That could potentially lead to them making extreme choices.
Besides the actions of nuclear armed states, there are other emerging threats. Not least is the risk of global terrorism. Although it would be very difficult for terrorists to build a bomb themselves, there has long been a danger of rogue states selling fissile material to terrorists that could be turned into a ‘dirty bomb’ that would still cause carnage.
There are also several countries that have the potential to create nuclear weapons, even if they are not there yet. Iran has garnered plenty of attention for its nuclear programme in recent years. However, it’s widely believed, says Ingram, that Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, has the know-how to create a bomb if it wanted. Meanwhile in east Asia, another global hotspot, it’s generally believed that Japan, Taiwan and South Korea all have the capability to create bombs in a year or two.
Cyber-attacks are another serious issue. Ingram explains that there is a continual threat of such attacks against nuclear weapons silos. He points to the example of the Stuxnet bug, which is believed to have caused serious damage to Iran’s nuclear programme in 2010. Perhaps the biggest fear is that terrorists might find a digital back door into nuclear facilities and launch a weapon (although robust security measures make this very unlikely).
Another emerging threat is the impact of a bomb being set off in space. Ingram explains that exploding a nuclear weapon beyond the Earth’s atmosphere might not kill people on the ground, but “the electromagnetic pulse could fry or shut down many satellites”. Since modern militaries are ever more reliant on GPS and satellite communications, space-based attacks could be particularly disruptive.
Current estimated total: 225
Operationally available: 120
Delivery method: Four Vanguard-class submarines.
While the country has never published data on its nuclear arsenal, it appeared to be gradually reducing the number of warheads from the early 2000s (it peaked at around 500 during the 1970s and 1980s). The country has about 120 operational weapons today. However, in its 2021 integrated review, the government appeared to reverse this policy, and set an upper ‘ceiling’ of 260 (including non-operational weapons).
The country is also planning to modernise its submarines, with four new Dreadnought class nuclear submarines coming into service in the 2030s. It is also in the process of upgrading its warheads, increasing their ability to conduct missions.
Current estimated total: 300
Operationally available: 300
Delivery method: Four Le Triomphant class submarines. Air-launched cruise missiles from approximately 40 bombers.
France has reduced the size of its stockpile to around 300, down from a peak of 540 in the early 1990s.
Paris is currently in the process of upgrading its entire nuclear deterrent. By 2035 it is expected to commission the first of four new submarines to replace the Le Triomphant class boats. Currently known as the SNLE 3G, the new submarines will come with improved missile delivery platforms.
France also plans to commission its next-generation combat aircraft around the same time, which will be able to deliver a hypersonic cruise missile.
Current estimated total: 5,600
Operationally available: 3,700
Delivery method: Numerous ICBMs – intercontinental ballistic missiles (launched from the ground in the US and the territory of five Nato allies), 14 Ohio-class submarines, ~110 B-52 and B-21 bombers (armed with missiles and gravity bombs).
Over the past 30 years, the US appears to have complied with its treaty requirements and continued to reduce the number of warheads in its arsenal.
The tone changed under the Trump administration, however, which became much less transparent about the number of weapons and reductions. Most significant is the increase in funding for the army’s nuclear weapons programmes; the budget has almost doubled in the past decade as the arsenal modernises.
The biggest development is the creation of the W93 ballistic missile warhead, a brand new design about which relatively little is known.
Current estimated total: 6,257
Operationally available: 4,587
Delivery method: Numerous intercontinental ballistic missiles silos, 11 nuclear submarines of 3 classes, ~65 Tu-160 Blackjack and the Tu-95MS Bear H bombers.
Russia has reduced the size of its arsenal dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Union (it also removed weapons it held on the territory of independent post-Soviet states, including Ukraine). However, its posture has been repeatedly criticised, and it has developed several new weapons and delivery methods which appear to break its treaty obligations.
The Russian nuclear arsenal has been undergoing a decades-long modernisation, with several new technologies introduced. These include plans for a nuclear-propelled cruise missile, which could have unlimited range. It has also developed the Sarmat, a ballistic missile that could carry up to 15 warheads, each with its own target.
Current estimated total: 165
Operationally available: 165
Delivery method: Mirage III and Mirage V bombers, several short and medium-range land-based ballistic missiles – including road mobile weapons.
Pakistan is not constrained by non- proliferation treaties and has been expanding the size of its arsenal in recent years. The country aims to achieve a ‘triad’ of air, land and sea delivery, and is currently developing a sea-launched version of its Babur missile.
Pakistan has invested heavily in so-called ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons. These are designed to have a low yield and short range, with a view to use on the battlefield.
Current estimated total: ~90
Operationally available: ~90
Delivery method: It is believed that Israel can deliver warheads from the ground, air and sea.
Israel has long pursued a policy of ambiguity about its nuclear weapons programme and has neither confirmed nor denied whether or not it has them.
It is therefore unclear what the country’s plans for upgrading its nuclear posture are.
Current estimated total: 160
Operationally available: 160
Delivery method: ~4 squadrons of Mirage 2000H and Jaguar aircraft, short, medium and intermediate range Agni land-based missiles, and the Dhanush – a ship-based ballistic missile.
India is not constrained by non-proliferation treaties and is actively expanding its nuclear arsenal.
While the country already has a ‘triad’ of land, air and sea delivery, it is upgrading them to become more sophisticated and increase its reach. India commissioned the Arihant in 2017 – a nuclear-capable submarine – although it is not believed to be armed (but more are on the way). It is also building the Agni-V, an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of over 5,000km.
Current estimated total: 45
Operationally available: 45
Delivery method: Land-based short, medium and (potentially) intercontinental ballistic missiles.
North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and has actively been testing missiles and bombs in recent years. A lack of transparency means the exact number and range of missiles is unclear, but it is believed to have the ability to target cities in the US.
Pyongyang claims to have successfully launched a hypersonic missile in January 2021. It is also believed to be developing submarine-launched missiles.
Current estimated total: 350
Operationally available: 350
Delivery method: Two brigades of the DF-41 road-mobile ICBMs, two submarines and ~20 gravity bombs.
China appears to be going through a significant expansion and modernisation of its nuclear forces. Reports indicate the country is increasing the number of nuclear silos across the country. Experts expect the country to at least double or even triple the size of its arsenal over the coming decade.
Ever since 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a non-governmental organisation, has maintained a ‘Doomsday Clock’, representing how close the planet could be to a man-made global catastrophe. Nuclear war and climate change are perceived as the likeliest causes of such a disaster, and the people behind the clock believe we are the closest to ‘midnight’ we have ever been.
However, not everyone is convinced that the threat is quite so severe, at least not from nuclear weapons. “I don’t see such a great risk of proliferation right now, and the great powers will seek to maintain a stable strategic relationship,” reckons Christoph Bluth, professor of international relations and security at the University of Bradford. Bluth acknowledges he may not be in the majority with this interpretation but does point to several factors that make the use of nuclear weapons today relatively unlikely.
First, he points to the happy fact that interstate warfare has almost disappeared in recent decades. Thanks to a set of international laws and norms that most countries comply with, wars between countries are far less common now than at practically any other time in human history. Because of free trade, there is relatively little imperative for countries to invade others; they can normally access the resources they need through non-violent avenues.
Bluth also thinks it’s extremely unlikely that any country would be first to use nuclear weapons against an opponent. Thanks to MAD, they know they would almost instantly be hit with several nukes in return. Only in the case of existential threats, such as an invasion by an enemy power, does he think these weapons would be used – and we’re a long way from such an event, even in today’s fraught political environment.
He points out that despite various nations’ weaponry upgrades, the fundamental diplomatic calculations are the same as ever. For instance, he believes the new hypersonic missile systems “do not change the strategic balance”. The weapons might be getting better, but the fact remains that it would be a very foolhardy leader indeed who would strike first, aware that this would inevitably be followed by a counterpunch.
As Messner of BASIC points out, “modernisation itself is not necessarily a bad thing”. Upgrading weapons is about “making sure systems stay safe”, since many of the technologies used to run and launch nuclear weapons are decades old.
Whether it’s the increasingly confrontational nature of international relations, the ever-present risk of proliferation, or the apparent ‘arms race’ for new delivery systems, growing fears about the possibility of a nuclear war do at first appear justified.
Nonetheless, there is cause for optimism. Thanks to determined diplomacy, non-proliferation does seem to be working. What is more, more than 80 non-armed countries have so far signed a UN treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, which came into effect in January 2021. This treaty, although unlikely to have a material impact on the nine nations that have nuclear arsenals, does pile pressure on them to disarm.
Messner explains that there are various theories about how, and if, denuclearisation could ever come about. She says that countries with the weapons often don’t really want them – they’re expensive and pose a huge risk – but they do offer a kind of security. As part of BASIC’s advocacy towards disarmament, “we try to get them to think about what alternative forms of security would look like”.
While we can’t uninvent this technology, Messner believes there is still “appetite” to denuclearise and that we might just “muddle through”.
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