Despite an overall decrease in the number of nuclear warheads, all states possessing have continued to modernize their nuclear arsenals, a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has found.According to the report, at the start of 2020 there were approximately 13,400 nuclear weapons in the hands of nine states – the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, a decrease from 13,865 in 2019.There were 3720 (down from 3750 the previous year) that were deployed with operational forces and another estimated 1800 (down from 2000) of them kept in a state of high operational alert.The report stated that the decrease in the number of nuclear weapons was due to the dismantlement of retired nuclear weapons by the United States and Russia, which together possess over 90% all of global nuclear weapons – with Moscow having 6,375 (down from 6,500) and Washington in possession of 5,800 (down from 6,185)The UK was reported to have 215 (an increase from 200), France 290 (down from 300), Israel 90, Pakistan 160, India 150 (up from 130-140), China 320 (an increase from 290) and North Korea between 30-40 (up from 20-30) nuclear weapons.But, in a significant reversal of the post-Cold War trend of marginalizing nuclear weapons, both Russia and the United States have extensive programs to replace and modernize their nuclear warheads, missile and aircraft delivery systems and nuclear weapon production facilities.The two have also given new importance to the role of nuclear weapons in their military plans and doctrines, the report said.With the withdrawal of the United States last year from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the deadlock over the New START treaty, the report suggests that “the era of bilateral nuclear arms control agreements between Russia and the USA might be coming to an end” and could potentially lead to a new nuclear arms race.“The loss of key channels of communication between Russia and the USA that were intended to promote transparency and prevent misperceptions about their respective nuclear force postures and capabilities could potentially lead to a new nuclear arms race,” said Shannon Kile, Director of SIPRI’s Nuclear Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Program.
Other countries with smaller arsenals are also modernizing their nuclear arsenals, such as China which for the first time is developing a “nuclear triad” made up of new land and sea-based missiles and nuclear-capable aircraft, while North Korea continues to prioritize its military nuclear program as a central element of its national security strategy.
According to the SIPRI report, there are low levels of transparency in reporting on nuclear weapon capabilities, which according to Kile, is a “particularly worrying development.”
“In these times of ever-increasing geopolitical tensions, the absence of adequate measures to monitor nuclear arsenals and to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials is a particularly worrying development,” she said.
Along with nuclear powers modernizing their arsenals, the past year included dangerous clashes across the world, including several occasions where tensions between Iran and the United States threatened to escalate into a full-blown military conflict.
According to the report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran has “continued to facilitate inspection and monitoring activities by the agency pursuant to the JCPOA” (the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), despite having announced that it would be scaling back its compliance with the limits set out by the agreement in response to the re-imposition of US sanctions.
Nevertheless, Israel believes that Iran is continuing to develop the capabilities to produce a nuclear weapons arsenal, as well as ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, despite new US sanctions placed on Iran meant to pressure Tehran over its military activity in the Middle East.
Israel considers Iran’s nuclear program its number one concern, and according to intelligence assessments presented to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the Islamic Republic is six months away from manufacturing all components of a nuclear bomb and two years from actually producing one.