Downsized but modernised: why the world’s nuclear arsenals aren’t going anywhere

In June the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released its annual nuclear forces data showing that while the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world continues to decline, none of the nine nuclear weapon-possessing states are prepared to give up their nuclear arsenals for the foreseeable future. Claire Apthorp reports.


Trident submarine

Collectively, the nine nuclear states – the US, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – possess approximately 4,120 operationally deployed (located on operational bases or placed on missiles) nuclear weapons. This figure rises to around 15,395 nuclear weapons if non-deployed warheads are included.

These figures, from early 2016, show a slight drop from the 15,850 warheads possessed by the same nine states in early 2015, although the number of weapons deployed by North Korea is unknown and excluded from both data sets. This drop has been attributed to the two top world nuclear forces – the US and Russia, with 1,930 and 1,790 deployed warheads respectively (accounting for more than 90% of warheads worldwide) – reducing their inventories of nuclear weapons as part of the bilateral Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START) put in place in 2011.

However, both countries, along with almost every other nuclear weapon-owning nation, are reluctant to scrap their nuclear arsenals altogether. In fact, the opposite is occurring, with major nuclear capability modernisation programmes underway that aim to upgrade and update national nuclear forces.

The status quo

The US-Russian New START treaty entered into force on 5 February 2011. It aims to responsibly reduce the number of nuclear launchers that both countries deploy by 2018 to within agreed limits. These limits include 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments; 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit); and 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.

"The Obama administration announced plans in 2010 to invest more than $85bn over the coming decade."

From the outset, the Obama administration made it clear that while it would work to meet the agreed limits, it would remain committed to “fully maintaining America’s nuclear deterrent”. It has also been open about that fact that the US will continue to ensure “the safety, security and effectiveness of [its] nuclear stockpile, as long as nuclear weapons exist”, with the treaty set to “enhance, not harm” the US’ ability to maintain the safety, security and effectiveness of its nuclear weapons stockpile.

Major investment in the US

Indeed, the Obama administration announced plans in 2010 to invest more than $85bn over the coming decade to modernise the US nuclear weapons complex that supports its deterrent. This represented a $4.1bn increase over the next five years relative to the plan provided in May that year when the treaty was submitted to the Senate - a level of funding unprecedented since the end of the Cold War.

The funding will modernise the US nuclear arsenal and the complex that supports it, and support the nation’s uranium processing and chemistry and metallurgy research replacement facilities. This work aims to undo some of the damage done to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) charged with sustaining America’s ageing nuclear complex and stockpile in the years leading up to the Obama administration.

The President’s FY2017 budget requested $12.9bn in funding for the NNSA, an increase of $357m above the FY2016 appropriation, affirming the administration’s continued commitment to NNSA’s enduring missions, which include maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent, and reducing the threat posed by nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

Such a level of continued investment is possible within the scope of the New START treaty, as the treaty only constrains offensive strategic missile capabilities. It does not limit defensive ballistic missile capabilities, nor does it tackle the issue of tactical nuclear weapons.

Herein lies the rub. There is an interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms that must be – and is – acknowledged when considering the ability of the treaty to reduce strategic offensive arms stocks. Russia asserted in its unilateral statement prior to the signing of the treaty that any build-up in US missile defences that would “give rise to a threat to the strategic nuclear force potential of the Russian Federation” would justify Russia’s withdrawal from the treaty. The US responded in its statement that its missile defences “are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia,” but instead are intended to defend the US, its allies and partners against “limited missile launches, and… regional threats.”

Weapons of peace?

This goes to the centre of why treaties and agreements concerning reduction in nuclear arms are such a complex issue. The majority of nuclear states maintain their nuclear capabilities as a deterrent: as a preventative measure to balance the known and unknown nuclear capabilities and intentions of those nations that pose a potential threat to their own national security. A last resort insurance policy – a ‘weapon of peace’.

"Since its first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea has spent a decade building its arsenal ."

And it is possible that the global political landscape is approaching the end of a brief period of relative peace that began with the end of the Cold War. Since its first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea has spent a decade building its arsenal and is thought have enough fissile material for around ten nuclear weapons. China is understood to be modernising and increasing its own capabilities, while both India and Pakistan are expanding their stockpiles and their abilities to deliver them.

For its part, Russia continues its own nuclear force modernisation investment programme, and has embarked on a new era of military belligerence, alienating itself from Western nations and NATO with its increased nuclear exercises and rhetoric, illegal annexation of Crimea, and support of separatists in eastern Ukraine. It is investing in reinforcing its borders with NATO territories and threatening to base nuclear forces in Kaliningrad and Crimea.

The UK's position

Russia's actions have prompted the UK to consider the country's increasing aggression a primary risk to its national security, and the most concerning resurgence of state-based threats.

In the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, the UK Ministry of Defence outlined plans to continue investment in its nuclear deterrent, based on the threat of other states continuing to build nuclear arsenals and the risk of nuclear weapons further proliferating.

The review said: “There is a risk that states might use their nuclear capability to threaten us, try to constrain our decision making in a crisis or sponsor nuclear terrorism. Recent changes in the international security context remind us that we cannot relax our guard. We cannot rule out further shifts which would put us, or our NATO allies, under grave threat.”

In order to sustain its Continuous at Sea Deterrent, the UK will maintain “the minimum amount of destructive power needed to deter any aggressor”.  To do so, four submarines will be funded to ensure that one remains always at sea carrying 40 nuclear warheads and no more than eight operational missiles. The UK will retain no more than 120 operationally available warheads, and by the mid-2020s the overall nuclear weapon stockpile will be reduced to no more than 180 warheads.

And so it goes on. The concept of unilateral nuclear disarmament is becoming increasingly unlikely as nuclear states look to continue to invest in capabilities to maintain a mutual assurance against the nuclear threat. The number of weapons may be dropping, but the nuclear appetite persists, with nuclear deterrence remaining a central pillar of national security strategies.