World’s stockpile of ‘usable’ nuclear weapons is increasing, watchdog warns

This 25 July 2021 satellite image shows what analysts from the Federation of American Scientists believe is construction of a missile silo near Hami in China. (Photo: Planet Labs PBC/AP/NTB)

Countries are amassing an increasing number of “usable” nuclear warheads – a trend that threatens to derail efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons, a new report warned on Monday. 

The world’s nine nuclear-armed states had a combined arsenal of 12,705 warheads at the beginning of 2022, according to the Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor’s findings.

Of those warheads, around 9,440 – the equivalent explosive power of 138,000 Hiroshima bombs – are “usable stockpiles”, that can be deployed on missiles, aircraft, submarines and ships, the watchdog said.

Its authors warned that countries including China, India, North Korea and Pakistan, continued to increase their stockpiles last year and, at this rate, could soon reverse the overall pace of decline in nuclear weapons.

The report shows that the UK has also announced a significant potential increase while Russia’s usable stockpile has also been increasing over the past few years.

The United States’ usable stockpile increased slightly in 2019 but declined again in 2020 and 2021, while France’s and Israel’s stockpiles have remained constant.

Approximately 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear warheads are owned by Russia and US, who have around 5,977 and 5,428 weapons respectively.

“The total number of nuclear warheads in the world continued to decrease slightly in 2021, but only because the United States and Russia every year dismantle a small number of their retired, older nuclear warheads,” Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists, and one of the contributors, said at the launch of the report, held in Geneva.

The pace of dismantling retired warheads will soon be overtaken by new stockpiles and when this happens, “the global inventory of nuclear weapons will begin to increase for the first time since the end of the Cold War,” he added.

World on nuclear tenterhooks

The report’s release comes as Russia’s war on Ukraine puts the world on edge over the resurgent threat of a nuclear conflict. That was made clear on 27 February after Russian president Vladimir Putin said that his country’s nuclear forces had been placed on “high alert”.

“The war in Ukraine and Putin's nuclear threats are yet another stark reminder of the profound dangers of living in a world where some states insist their security must rest on capacity for massive and indiscriminate nuclear violence,” Grethe Lauglo Østern, of Norwegian People’s Aid and editor of the monitor, said.

“It’s clear that we have ended up trusting luck rather than the supposed stabilising effects of nuclear deterrence,” she added, speaking at the launch, held that Geneva Centre for Security Policy headquarters.

Despite nuclear tensions, the monitor said its research showed no clear cut case last year, where nuclear weapons were threatened to be used - until the thinly veiled threats by Putin of February.

“The closest, perhaps was Operation Global Thunder in November of last year. This was an announced operation by the US, where they had strategic bombers flying towards Russia, both from the east and the west, and came within 20 kilometres of the Russian border,” Stuart Casey-Maslen, Honorary Professor, University of Pretoria, said.

“But I think it's clear to say that any similar operation under current circumstances would be extremely unwise.”

Countdown to first nuclear weapons ban treaty conference

Now in its fourth year, the monitor, produced by Norwegian People's Aid (NPA), a partner organisation of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), tracks the progress being made to eradicate the world of nuclear weapons, as set out in the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons (TPNW), which came into force last year.

Under the treaty, signatory states are prohibited from all activities involving nuclear weapons, including possessing, developing and testing. Sixty states have ratified it, and a further 29 states are signatories.

An additional 49 states are identified by the monitor as “other supporters” on the basis of their most recent voting record on the Treaty in the UN.

However, the world’s nine nuclear-armed states (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, United Kingdom, United States) are yet to join.

The first meeting of state parties to the treaty will take place in Vienna in June, after being postponed twice due to the pandemic. It is unclear yet whether any of the nuclear states will attend as observers, amid a tense political backdrop and a deteriorating security situation.

Commenting on the events of this year, Casey-Maslen, said: “Clearly, we've seen some horrific scenes over the last two months [editor's note: referring to Ukraine]… but if we look back in history, at the darkest times with respect to nuclear weapons, we saw progress.

“In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we saw the partial Test Ban Treaty, a major step forward…even the darkest times these were steps forward, because we had statesmen. The question is, do we have statesmen today? That we will find out in the months to come.”