The world’s nuclear arsenal is expected to increase in the coming years for the first time since the end of cold war at a time that the risk of such weapons being used is the greatest in decades, a leading conflict and weapons thinktank has said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and western support for Kyiv have heightened tensions among the world’s nine nuclear-armed states, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) said on Monday.
Countries increasing their stockpiles of nuclear warheads included the UK, which in 2021 announced its decision to increase the ceiling on its total warhead stockpile, in a reversal of decades of gradual disarmament.
The increase come despite a statement from the UN’s five permanent members of the security council in 2021 – the US, Russia, China, the UK and France – stating that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. All P5 members continue to expand or modernise their nuclear arsenals.
The UK currently has about 195 nuclear warheads, of which 120 are operational, according to an estimate by researchers at the Federation of American Scientists.
While the UK has criticised China and Russia for lack of nuclear transparency, the UK 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 programme to develop a third-generation nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) while 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 modernising its nuclear arsenal.
While the number of nuclear weapons fell slightly between January 2021 and January 2022, Sipri said that unless immediate action was taken by the nuclear powers, global inventories of warheads could soon begin rising for the first time in decades.
“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,” Dr Wilfred Wan, the director of Sipri’s weapons of mass destruction programme, said in the thinktank’s 2022 yearbook. “This is a very worrying trend.”
“There are clear indications that the reductions that have characterised global nuclear arsenals since the end of the cold war have ended,” said Hans M Kristensen, an associate senior fellow with Sipri’s weapons of mass destruction programme and director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
Three days after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin calls a “special military operation”, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, put Russia’s nuclear deterrent on high alert. He has also warned of consequences that would be “such as you have never seen in your entire history” for countries that stand in Russia’s way.
Russia has the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal, with a total of 5,977 warheads, 550 more than the US. The two countries possess more than 90% of the world’s warheads, though Sipri said China was in the middle of an expansion, with more than 300 new missile silos, according to the latest estimate.
Sipri said the global number of nuclear warheads had fallen from 13,080 in January 2021 to 12,705 in January 2022. An estimated 3,732 warheads were deployed with missiles and aircraft, and about 2,000 – nearly all belonging to Russia or the US – were kept in a state of high readiness.
Stefan Löfven, the Sipri board chair and a former Swedish prime minister, said: “Relations between the world’s great powers 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 hopes in the post-cold-war era that countries would give up their nuclear weapons, few countries have followed through, while some agreements to restrict nuclear forces have gone into reverse, not least after the decision by the former US president Donald Trump to unilaterally withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces agreement.
In 1993 South Africa renounced its small stockpile of six nuclear warheads, while Iraq abandoned its nuclear weapons research programme under international pressure after the first Gulf War.
Ukraine also relinquished its arsenal of nuclear weapons for an unfulfilled promise of security.
Reuters contributed to this report