Nuclear-armed governments claim to have around 13,000 warheads, but the true number might be far higher.
The possibility of nuclear weapons usage has increased since Russia initially invaded Ukraine about three weeks ago.
According to the Associated Press, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared on Feb. 27 that his country’s nuclear forces had been placed on “high alert.” According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the current situation is a “horror scenario” come to reality.
So, what did Putin mean when he declared his country’s nuclear weapons were on high alert? What about nuclear weapons: how many are there, who owns them, and how powerful are they?
According to the Arms Control Association, the world’s nine nuclear states—China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have roughly 13,000 nuclear warheads in total. This estimate, however, is based solely on publicly accessible data; there may be many more that states have not revealed.
“We know which nations have nuclear weapons, but we don’t necessarily know how many they have,” Anne Harrington, a senior professor in international relations at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, told Live Science. “The quantity of nuclear weapons China possesses is also a hot topic.”
WHAT ARE THE NUMBER OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS IN THE WORLD?
Both the US and Russia have decreased their nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War, and their nuclear stockpiles are substantially lower than they were at their peak. According to Homeland Security Newswire, the United States possessed 31,225 nuclear weapons in 1967. According to a Harvard Kennedy School report written by Graham Allison, a national security analyst at the school, around “35,000 nuclear weapons remained at thousands of sites across a vast Eurasian landmass that stretched across eleven time zones” at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
Today, Russia says it has 6,257 nuclear warheads, while the United States admits to having 5,550, according to a January fact sheet released by the Arms Control Association. However, this drastic reduction is “mainly due to them dismantling retired warheads,” Sara Medi Jones, a campaigner at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), told Live Science..In fact, “there was actually an increase in deployed warheads last year , and all nine nuclear-armed states are either upgrading or increasing their arsenals,” Jones said
“Although it’s difficult to say for sure how nuclear arsenals are changing, we believe China, India, North Korea, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and possibly Russia are all increasing the number of nuclear weapons in their military stockpiles,” said Matt Korda, a senior research associate and project manager at the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project.
CAN NUCLEAR WEAPONS BE DEPLOYED QUICKLY?
According to Korda, there is “a bit of a continuum” in terms of how rapidly a nuclear bomb may be launched and how many are on “high alert.” According to him, the US and Russia maintain a fraction of their nuclear weapons on high alert, which means they might be ready to fire “in under 15 minutes.” According to a 2015 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the US and Russia each kept roughly 900 weapons on high alert.
Other nations, such as China, Israel, India, and Pakistan, retain their nuclear weapons in centralized storage, requiring them to be removed and “mated to their delivery systems” in the event of a crisis, according to Korda. It might take days, if not weeks, to put this together. Others, like the United Kingdom, have nuclear weapons “deployed at all times on ballistic missile submarines,” but they are maintained detargeted and would take “hours or days to bring to launch-ready posture,” according to Korda.
WHERE DO NUCLEAR WEAPONS GET STORED?
While each country has its own method, storage facilities are typically blast-resistant and placed underground to “reduce the harm of an accidental detonation and to safeguard against an assault,” according to Hickey.
Nuclear weapons in the United States are “kept under cryptographic combination lock to prevent unauthorized use,” according to Hickey. Only the president has the power to authorize their use in principle, but Hickey claims that “if the cryptographic code is entered or circumvented, the nuclear weapons might be armed in a matter of minutes.” Hickey did state, however, that these weapons would need to be “affixed to a missile or deployed aboard an aircraft” before they could be launched.
Is there a potential that all nuclear weapons may be retired for the greater good, given that the launch of a nuclear bomb would almost certainly be greeted with quick retaliation and could escalate to all-out global nuclear war? Is it possible to imagine a world without nuclear weapons?
“I don’t think this will happen,” Holger Nehring, a professor of contemporary European history at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said. “States have no genuine interest in getting rid of nuclear weapons because they are primarily a kind of deterrent against nuclear attack.” Complete nuclear disarmament would need a high degree of confidence among all governments in the international system, which is unlikely to be realized.”
Professor of international politics at the University of Leicester in England, Andrew Futter, concurred. He told Live Science, “We have probably reached a stage today where additional large reductions are improbable.”