How Many Nuclear Weapons Exist, and Who Has Them?

Tue, 22 Mar 2022 07:00:00 GMT
Scientific American - Technology

Nuclear states admit to owning about 13,000 warheads, but the real number could be higher

When Putin said his country's nuclear weapons were on high alert, what did he mean? Also, how many nuclear weapons exist, who has them, and how powerful are they?

Nuclear weapons analysts estimate that the world's nine nuclear states-China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States-have around 13,000 nuclear warheads in total, according to the Arms Control Association.

"We know which countries have nuclear weapons, but we don't necessarily know how many nuclear weapons they have; Israel does not publicly acknowledge its program," Anne Harrington, a senior lecturer in international relations at Cardiff University in the U.K., told Live Science.

Since the end of the Cold War, both the U.S. and Russia have reduced their respective nuclear arsenals, and their nuclear stockpiles are far smaller than they were at their height.

"Although it's difficult to know definitively exactly how nuclear arsenals are changing, we assess that China, India, North Korea, Pakistan and the United Kingdom, as well as possibly Russia, are all increasing the number of nuclear weapons in their military stockpiles," said Matt Korda, a senior research associate and project manager for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

As for how quickly a nuclear weapon could be deployed and how many are on "High alert," there is "a bit of a spectrum," Korda told Live Science.

Strategic weapons can "Reach from Moscow to Washington, D.C., while nonstrategic, tactical nuclear weapons have shorter ranges," said Samuel Hickey, a research analyst at the nonprofit Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

In theory, only the president has the authority to sanction their use, but according to Hickey, "If the cryptographic code is input or bypassed, the nuclear weapons could be armed in a matter of minutes." However, Hickey also confirmed that these weapons would need to be "Affixed to a missile or deployed on an aircraft" in order to be launched.

Given that the launch of a nuclear weapon would, in all likelihood, be met with immediate retaliation and could lead to all-out global nuclear war, is there a chance that all nuclear weapons could be decommissioned for the greater good? Could there ever be a future without nuclear weapons?

"Nuclear weapons are mainly a form of deterrence against nuclear attack, so states have no real interest in getting rid of them. Entirely getting rid of nuclear weapons would mean a very high level of trust between all states in the international system, and this is unlikely to be achieved."

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