The specter of nuclear war hung over the world for much of the 20th century. That fear faded with the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, the specter of nuclear war is returning, as shown by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock. As a result, it makes sense for people to wonder about the countries with the most nuclear weapons.
What Are the Countries with Nuclear Weapons?
According to Wikipedia, here are the countries that either have nuclear weapons or had nuclear weapons:
11. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine - 0 Nuclear Warheads
Currently, no country has more than ten thousand nuclear warheads. However, that wasn't always the case. The CTBTO says the United States had 23,000 nuclear warheads and the Soviet Union had 39,000 nuclear warheads in the late 1980s. In other words, both countries had tens of thousands of such weapons in those times.
As a result, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a time of fear in addition to being a time of hope. After all, no one could be sure that every single one of its nuclear weapons would stay in safe hands. Furthermore, there was serious concern over Soviet personnel selling either nuclear-related materials or nuclear-related know-how to interested parties, particularly since the chaos meant they weren't getting paid for prolonged periods. Of course, people didn't just sit still while everything played out. Instead, Stanford Engineering Magazine says U.S. personnel worked with their Soviet and then ex-Soviet counterparts to safeguard these things.
Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine are on this list because the dissolution of the Soviet Union left nuclear weapons on their soil. Ukraine is particularly notable because it once had thousands of nuclear warheads, meaning it once had the third largest nuclear arsenal in the entire world. Originally, there was a proposal for these three countries to keep these nuclear weapons on their soil. In the end, they relinquished their nuclear arsenals in exchange for various benefits, though they also came under serious pressure throughout the negotiations.
Recent events mean this outcome has done a fair amount of damage to the cause of anti-proliferation. Whether Ukraine could have maintained a sizable nuclear arsenal or not into the 2010s and 2020s is a question worth asking. That is particularly true because these three countries had neither the ability to control their nuclear weapons nor the ability to maintain their nuclear weapons. Still, it is natural for people to connect Ukraine's relinquishing of its nuclear arsenal with the country's inability to discourage Russia from invading in 2014 and then a second time in 2022.
10. South Africa - 0 Nuclear Warheads
Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine didn't develop their nuclear weapons. Instead, they inherited them from their predecessor state. Due to this, South Africa stands out by being the one country to develop nuclear weapons and give up nuclear weapons. The country developed a nuclear arsenal for a couple of reasons. One, it feared both the Soviet Union and Soviet-backed factions in its neighbors. Two, Apartheid had made it more and more of an international pariah. As a result, when the Soviet Union fell, that gave F.W. de Klerk the space to give up nuclear weapons while also ending Apartheid. Some have claimed that Klerk didn't trust Nelson Mandela's government with nuclear weapons, but Klerk himself has denied the claim.
9. North Korea - 20 Nuclear Warheads
The 2010s were not a good time for the cause of anti-proliferation. As mentioned earlier, there was Russia's invasion of Ukraine. However, there was also the Kim family's ability to hold onto power in North Korea, which has been compared and contrasted a great deal with Muammar Gaddafi's inability to do the same in Libya. According to The Conversation, the general idea is that nuclear weapons make authoritarian governments safe from external threats. Things aren't quite that simple, but there is a fair amount of truth to the idea.
In any case, North Korea seems here to stay for the foreseeable future. Its military isn't a match for those of its likeliest adversaries, but that doesn't matter much because no one sane wants to run the risk of it lobbing a nuclear weapon into either Seoul or Tokyo. Of course, the exact number of its nuclear weapons is a mystery. North Korea is either the most or one of the most isolated countries in the world, so there isn't a lot of good information coming out of it.
8. Israel - 90 Nuclear Warheads
Officially, Israel doesn't have nuclear weapons. Unofficially, it is common knowledge that the country has had nuclear weapons for quite some time. Indeed, there is speculation that Israel has a nuclear triad, meaning the ability to launch nuclear missiles from land, the ability to launch nuclear missiles from submarines, and the ability to either drop nuclear bombs or launch nuclear missiles from planes. It isn't 100 percent clear why the country has maintained a policy of opacity on the matter. Popular speculation is that it wants a nuclear arsenal for deterrence without eating the political costs of officially having one.
7. India - 160 Nuclear Warheads
Speaking of which, India is another nuclear power that isn't party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Unlike Israel, it has confirmed the existence of its nuclear arsenal. Indeed, India was quite open about its criticism of the Non-Proliferation Treaty for dividing the world into "nuclear haves" and "nuclear have-nots." In any case, India's desire for a nuclear arsenal is unsurprising. It aspires to become a world power. A nuclear arsenal is a critical component of that status.
6. Pakistan - 165 Nuclear Warheads
India and Pakistan are rivals. To be fair, their relationship seems to be better in the present than in the not-so-distant past. Regardless, it isn't hard to see why Pakistan started scrambling for a nuclear arsenal in the 1970s. The IISS says there was an awareness that the country would need nuclear weapons if India managed to get nuclear weapons. An impression that became even stronger when India made its conventional superiority very clear by enabling the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Pakistan didn't develop the nuclear triad as India did. Instead, it can use nuclear weapons from both the land and the air.
5. United Kingdom - 225 Nuclear Warheads
The next five countries being nuclear powers is unsurprising. They are either the chief Allied Powers or the successors of the chief Allied Powers, meaning they played critical roles in shaping the post-World War II era. Not coincidentally, they are also the five nuclear-weapon states under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Initially, the United Kingdom expected to share in the United States' nuclear technology because it considered it a co-discovery. However, the Americans didn't agree, so it wasn't too long before the British started looking into nuclear technology of their own. Their motives weren't particularly unusual. Defense and civilian uses came up. Furthermore, the British were concerned about remaining relevant in international affairs, which must have been particularly pressing because they were keenly aware that they had been eclipsed by the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II. By 1952, the United Kingdom conducted its first nuclear weapon test, thus paving the way for the British nuclear arsenal. For various reasons, it currently has a single delivery method, which perhaps unsurprisingly, is sea-based.
4. France - 290 Nuclear Warheads
France got invaded and occupied during World War II. Given that, it isn't hard to see why it would want nuclear weapons to call its own, particularly since it also shared the United Kingdom's other motives for securing nuclear technology. For that matter, it is well-known that French leadership didn't want to entrust its nuclear weapon deterrence to any foreign power because the latter was unreliable by the latter's very definition.
According to No First Use Global, France has consistently expressed opposition to the idea of no first use. Instead, it is prepared to use its nuclear weapons if someone threatens one of its vital interests, which is intentionally vague wording. To be fair, France isn't alone in this. China and India are the only two nuclear powers to have a policy of no first use at the moment.
3. China - 350 Nuclear Warheads
Like the other nuclear powers, China decided it needed nuclear weapons to strengthen its credibility, spurred on by either one or more watershed moments. In its case, that was the First Taiwan Straits Crisis. Initially, the Chinese nuclear weapons program received assistance from the Soviet Union. That came to a close with the emerging Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Of course, that didn't exactly deter China's desire for nuclear weapons. If anything, that spurred it on because it had not one but two superpowers to deal with. By 1964, China was able to carry out its first nuclear test, the first step in establishing its nuclear triad.
2. United States - 5,428 Nuclear Warheads
Famously, the United States developed the nuclear bomb during World War II. It wasn't the only country to pursue such a project at that time. After all, the idea of nuclear weapons was already widespread by that point even though no one had managed to put one together. Still, it is worth mentioning that neither of the United States' two great adversaries during that conflict was even close to developing nuclear weapons. As PBS notes, Nazi Germany didn't make a very good effort at pursuing nuclear weapons, which is fortunate considering its willingness to pursue the so-called wonder-weapons of other kinds. Similarly, Imperial Japan never managed to get very far in this regard.
As such, one could say the United States was the country that ushered in the nuclear age. That is particularly true because it is the one country to use nuclear weapons so far. First, it dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima on August 6 of 1945. Second, it dropped a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki on August 9 of 1945. Whether those bombings were justified remains a matter of much contention. Whatever the truth of things, the use of nuclear bombs changed the world forever.
Nowadays, the United States is the country with the second largest nuclear arsenal. Time will tell whether that will remain true in the future. SIPRI predicts that the total number of nuclear weapons will increase over the next decade. No single country is responsible for that. Instead, it seems every nuclear power is working to modernize and otherwise improve on its nuclear arsenal, which feels like a recognition of the times we are living in.
1. Russia - 5,977 Nuclear Warheads
Unsurprisingly, Russia tops the list of the countries with the most nuclear weapons. It isn't the Soviet Union, but it is the Soviet Union's successor. That means Russia inherited the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons, though as mentioned earlier, that wouldn't have happened without extensive negotiations.
With that said, many people are now wondering whether Russia's nuclear arsenal is as formidable as it is reputed to be. After all, its latest invasion of Ukraine has met with limited success, which is particularly noticeable because that is so different from the widespread expectation at the start of the conflict that Russia would overrun the country within a relatively short period. As it turned out, the Ukrainians are much more capable and much more determined now than in 2014. Simultaneously, the Russian military seems to have deteriorated because of corruption and other issues. Unsurprisingly, many people are curious whether the same rot has affected Russia's nuclear arsenal.
Written by Dana Hanson
Read more posts by Dana Hanson