There were 13,865 nuclear weapons on the planet last time anyone counted. A quarter of them are, in one way or another, deployed with operational forces. Russia holds the most, with 6,500, according to 2018 figures, and has been upgrading nuclear storage sites.
That’s partly why Russia’s latest protocol on the use of nuclear arms is of concern. The document published on 2 June theoretically allows Russia to use the full might of its nukes when an enemy uses theirs or other weapons of mass destruction are directed towards the country or its allies, or in a situation when conventional weapons threaten the very existence of the nation.
Mark Galeotti, a Russian security affairs expert, says it is actually a useful statement: “It’s a statement of broad policy, not a detailed doctrine, and makes clear that Moscow regards its nuclear weapons as a deterrent and defensive force.”
At the same time there are new calls from Chinese experts to stock up on nuclear arms. Whether that happens is another thing. In May the editor of the Global Times, an English- language newspaper aligned with the ruling Communist Party, urged China to increase its number of nuclear warheads to 1,000 to deter the rising threat from the US. Quoted military experts claim that “having a nuclear arsenal appropriate to China’s position will help establish a more stable and peaceful world order”. At the moment, China has an estimated 320 nuclear warheads.
The call for more nukes comes at a worrying time when China’s relations with the US and Donald Trump worsen and the country has caused international outrage by imposing a new security law on Hong Kong.
Then there are India and Pakistan. They too are expected to boost the size of their nuclear arsenals, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). India has seen a remarkable surge in military expenditure and has made developments in ballistic missile technology to achieve a range of around 4,000 km, which allows it to strike targets almost anywhere in China. SIPRI notes that China and India are now the top military spenders after the USA.
The overall lack of transparency makes gauging nuclear might hard. These emerging superpowers are particularly opaque about releasing figures. Russia sees no reason to publicly disclose a detailed breakdown of its forces. China’s reporting lacks depth and its exact number of nuclear weapons remains a state secret. The size of the Indian and Pakistani arsenals remains a secret, too – though it’s known that India has at least 600kg of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to stuff 150-200 nuclear warheads.
North Korea also keeps it nuclear weapon capabilities a secret. In 2017, US experts calculated that, judging by the pace of its uranium enrichment activities, it could build an additional 12 nuclear weapons per year.