Alex Lockie, provided by
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images
• Of the nine nations that control the roughly 14,200 nuclear weapons in the world, Russia’s bombs could most easily end all life on earth.
• But a nuclear arsenal can’t just be judged on how deadly it is.
• Nuclear nations must be judged on their execution of nuclear projects, their safety and responsibility in nuclear enterprises, whether or not they accomplish their nuclear missions, and the cohesiveness of their nuclear doctrine in addition to just making things go “boom.”
• Business Insider spoke with a nuclear-weapons expert and concluded that China has the world’s best nuclear arsenal, though not nearly the biggest or most ready to fight.
Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed long-held rumors in the US intelligence community in a speech on March 1, 2018, by announcing Russia had built an underwater nuclear device capable of killing millions in a single blast and rendering thousands of square miles of land uninhabitable for decades.
The US, Russia’s main nuclear rival, had no answer for this weapon — no defenses in place can stop it, no emergency-response plans in place address it, and no forthcoming projects to counter or neuter it.
On the surface, the doomsday torpedo represents unrivaled capability of nuclear destruction, but a nuclear arsenal’s worth rests on many factors, not just its ability to kill.
Eight nations control the roughly 14,200 nuclear weapons in the world, and another nation holds an additional 80 or so as an open secret.
Nuclear weapons, once thought of as the ultimate decider in warfare, have seen use exactly twice in conflict, both times by the US during World War II.
Since then, nuclear weapons have taken on a role as a deterrent. The US and Russia, Cold War rivals for decades, have not fought head-to-head since the dawn of the nuclear era, owing the peace at least in part to fear that a conflict would escalate into mutual, and then global, destruction.
What makes a good nuclear arsenal?
• First, a good nuclear doctrine. Will a country strike first, or only in response?
• Second, safety. Are the nukes secure? Does the country participate in nonproliferation treaties?
• Third, do the nukes work as intended? Is the arsenal sufficient? Can the nukes survive an initial attack?
In the slides below, Business Insider has weighed these questions with the help of Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, to rank the world’s nuclear arsenals.
9. North Korea: the fledgling force
North Korea fails by virtually every metric used to measure nuclear arsenals. North Korea’s nuclear missiles may not even work, and the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, diverts money from essential services for his own people to foot the bill. The nation is a constant proliferation threat.
Furthermore, North Korea’s nuclear doctrine, as pieced together from decades of saber rattling, amounts to essentially saying it will nuke the US, South Korea, or Japan if it wishes, and as a first strike. In the 21st century, only North Korea has tested nuclear weapons, introducing the threat of radioactive fallout to a new generation.
North Korea serves the world as a reminder of the horrors of nuclear proliferation. Every day, intelligence officials investigate whether the poverty-stricken country has helped another rogue state acquire missile or nuclear-bomb technology.
North Korea remains an international pariah under intense sanctions for its nuclear activity, so why bother?
Because North Korea has a hopeless disadvantage in nonnuclear forces when compared to South Korea, Japan, or the US. Because Pyongyang can never hope to defeat any of its enemies in conventional fighting, it turned to nukes as a guarantor of its security.
North Korea’s nuclear arsenal
KCNA/File Photo via Reuters
Weapons count: estimated 60
Weapons count rank: 9
North Korea has a number of short- to intercontinental-range ballistic-missile systems thought to operate off the backs of mobile missile launchers.
One analyst has warned that North Korea’s mobile launchers may simply distract from the real threat of hidden nuclear silos, but no evidence of such silos has ever appeared in US intelligence reports made public.
North Korea has tested a number of submarine-launch platforms and fields a fleet of older submarines, but this capability is thought to be far off.
North Korea’s nuclear arsenal comes down to a few older ballistic-missile systems in the field and some long-range systems in development, according to Kristensen.
It’s completely unknown if North Korea keeps its nuclear weapons mated or with the warhead affixed to the missile.
8. Pakistan: loose nukes?
Pakistan built nuclear weapons in response to its bitter regional rival, India, testing and proceeding with a relatively simple nuclear mission: deter or defeat India.
Pakistan managed to develop what’s known as a “credible minimum deterrent,” or the lowest number of nukes possible while still credibly warding off India, which has much stronger conventional forces and many times Pakistan’s population.
Full on shooting wars and frequent cross-border skirmishes have broken out between India and Pakistan since World War II, making the relatively smaller country fear for its sovereignty.
“Pakistan has concluded that India can use its more advanced conventional forces to push into Pakistan and Pakistan wouldn’t have a choice except to use nuclear weapons,” Kristensen told Business Insider.
Pakistan would score highly for having a simple nuclear mission, and not going overboard in meeting it, except for two glaring issues: safety and responsibility.
Pakistan has links to Islamic extremists with connections to global terror networks. Experts have long feared not enough has been done to secure Islamabad’s nukes against these threats.
Additionally, “Pakistan has lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use,” by building smaller, tactical nuclear weapons, according to the Arms Control Association.