NukesNuclear Weapon Modernization Continues but Outlook for Arms Control Is Bleak: Report

Published 15 June 2020

The just-released annual report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) assesses the current state of armaments, disarmament, and international security. The report finds is that despite an overall decrease in the number of nuclear warheads in 2019, all nuclear weapon-possessing states continue to modernize their nuclear arsenals.

The nine nuclear-armed states—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea)—together possessed an estimated 13 400 nuclear weapons at the start of 2020. This marked a decrease from the 13 865 nuclear weapons that SIPRI estimated these states possessed at the beginning of 2019 (see table below). Around 3720 of the nuclear weapons are currently deployed with operational forces and nearly 1800 of these are kept in a state of high operational alert.

SIPRI says that the decrease in the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world in 2019 was largely due to the dismantlement of retired nuclear weapons by Russia and the United States—which together still possess over 90 per cent of global nuclear weapons. The reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces required by the 2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START) were completed in 2018, and in 2019 the forces of both countries remained below the limits specified by the treaty.

New START will lapse in February 2021 unless both parties agree to prolong it. However, discussions to extend New START or to negotiate a new treaty made no progress in 2019. This was due in part to the US administration’s insistence that China must join any future nuclear arms reduction talks—something that China has categorically ruled out. 

‘The deadlock over New START and the collapse of the 1987 Soviet–U.S. Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-­Range Missiles (INF Treaty) in 2019 suggest that the era of bilateral nuclear arms control agreements between Russia and the USA might be coming to an end,’ says Shannon Kile, Director of SIPRI’s Nuclear Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Program. ‘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.’

Next-Generation Nuclear Weapon Systems Are in Development
Russia and the United States have extensive and expensive programs under way to replace and modernize their nuclear warheads, missile and aircraft delivery systems, and nuclear weapon production facilities. Both countries have also given new or expanded roles to nuclear weapons in their military plans and doctrines, which marks a significant reversal of the post-cold war trend towards the gradual marginalization of nuclear weapons.