The world's stockpile of nuclear warheads is expected to expand in the coming years for the first time since the 1980s and the catastrophic threat of those weapons being used is escalating, a leading arms watchdog said Monday.
"If the nuclear-armed states take no immediate and concrete action on disarmament, then the global inventory of nuclear warheads could soon begin to increase for the first time since the Cold War," Matt Korda, an associate researcher with the Weapons of Mass Destruction Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said in a statement released alongside SIPRI's annual report.
As of early 2022, nine countries—Russia, the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea—possessed a combined total of 12,705 nuclear warheads, SIPRI estimates. Together, Russia and the U.S. control more than 90% of this global inventory.
Of the estimated 12,705 nuclear warheads in existence at the start of 2022, roughly 9,440 were in military stockpiles for potential use, according to SIPRI. Of those, an estimated 3,732 were deployed with missiles and aircraft, and about 2,000—nearly all of which belonged to Russia or the U.S.—were kept in a state of high operational readiness.
While the total number of nuclear weapons decreased slightly from 13,080 last January to 12,705 this January, SIPRI expects the global supply of weapons capable of annihilating human life on Earth to increase over the next decade.
"All of the nuclear-armed states are increasing or upgrading their arsenals and most are sharpening nuclear rhetoric and the role nuclear weapons play in their military strategies," said Wilfred Wan, director of SIPRI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Program. "This is a very worrying trend."
As the think tank explains:
Although Russian and U.S. total warhead inventories continued to decline in 2021, this was due to the dismantling of warheads that had been retired from military service several years ago. The number of warheads in the two countries' useable military stockpiles remained relatively stable in 2021. Both countries' deployed strategic nuclear forces were within the limits set by a bilateral nuclear arms reduction treaty (2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, New START). Note, however, that New START does not limit total non-strategic nuclear warhead inventories.
China is in the middle of a substantial expansion of its nuclear weapon arsenal, which satellite images indicate includes the construction of over 300 new missile silos. Several additional nuclear warheads are thought to have been assigned to operational forces in 2021 following the delivery of new mobile launchers and a submarine.
The U.K. in 2021 announced its decision to increase the ceiling on its total warhead stockpile, in a reversal of decades of gradual disarmament policies. While criticizing China and Russia for lack of nuclear transparency, the U.K. also announced that it would no longer publicly disclose figures for the country’s operational nuclear weapon stockpile, deployed warheads, or deployed missiles.
In early 2021 France officially launched a program to develop a third-generation nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). India and Pakistan appear to be expanding their nuclear arsenals, and both countries introduced and continued to develop new types of nuclear delivery system in 2021. Israel—which does not publicly acknowledge possessing nuclear weapons—is also believed to be modernizing its nuclear arsenal.
North Korea continues to prioritize its military nuclear program as a central element of its national security strategy. While North Korea conducted no nuclear test explosions or long-range ballistic missile tests during 2021, SIPRI estimates that the country has now assembled up to 20 warheads, and possesses enough fissile material for a total of 45–55 warheads.
"There are clear indications that the reductions that have characterized global nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War have ended," said Hans Kristensen, an associate senior fellow with SIPRI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Program and director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February, experts have warned that the ongoing war in Europe could spiral into a direct conflict between Moscow and NATO—both flush with nuclear weapons—but the U.S.-led military alliance has continued to prioritize weapons shipments over diplomacy.
"Relations between the world's great powers," SIPRI board chair and former Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven lamented Monday, "have deteriorated further at a time when humanity and the planet face an array of profound and pressing common challenges that can only be addressed by international cooperation."
Despite issuing a joint statement on January 3 affirming that "nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought" and reaffirming that they intend to adhere to non-proliferation, disarmament, and arms control agreements and pledges, Russia, the U.S., China, France, and the U.K.—all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—continue to enlarge or modernize their nuclear arsenals.
During its military assault on Ukraine, Russia has even openly threatened to use nuclear weapons. As bilateral talks between Russia and the U.S. have ground to a halt amid the war, none of the other seven nuclear-armed states have pursued arms control negotiations.
In addition, the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members have expressed opposition to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that entered into force last January when it was ratified by 50 governments, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, has yet to be restored by the Biden administration. U.S. President Joe Biden's latest Nuclear Posture Review, released in March, has also been condemned for failing to commit to a no-first-use policy.
"Although there were some significant gains in both nuclear arms control and nuclear disarmament in the past year," said SIPRI director Dan Smith, "the risk of nuclear weapons being used seems higher now than at any time since the height of the Cold War."