Article in Politics / International
A report just published by the British American Security Information Council analyses on-going developments in the nuclear weapons of all the nuclear-weapon countries apart from the United Kingdom. The report shows that nuclear-weapon powers are steadily improving the quality of their weapons.

A report just published by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), analyses on-going developments in the nuclear weapons of all the nuclear-weapon countries apart from the United Kingdom. The countries dealt with are China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States. BASIC is an influential think tank with offices in Washington DC and London.

The UK is not discussed in any detail because the report, entitled Beyond the United Kingdom: Trends in the Other Nuclear Armed States, is part of the BASIC Trident Commission set up specifically to examine the UK’s nuclear-weapon policy and the on-going political discussion about the renewal of Trident.

Trident, Britain’s nuclear-weapon force, is a sea-based nuclear weapon system operated by the Royal Navy, consisting of with four Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines. The submarines are armed with Trident II D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles; there are a total of about 200 nuclear warheads in Britain’s nuclear arsenal.

The global nuclear arsenals

The BASIC report concludes that the number of nuclear weapons in the global arsenals has gone down since the mid-1980s but since then the number of countries that have acquired nuclear weapons has increased. “Nuclear weapons”, it says, “are present today in some of the most unstable and violence prone regions of the world, and in North East Asia, the Middle East and South Asia, there are serious conflict and proliferation concerns that suggest an increased potential for nuclear weapons use”.

The US arsenal contains a total of 8,500 nuclear weapons: 1,950 deployed strategic nuclear weapons and 2,850 in reserve; 200 deployed tactical nuclear weapons; and 3,500 nuclear weapons waiting to be dismantled.

The Russian arsenal contains a total of about 11,600 nuclear weapons: 2,600 deployed strategic nuclear weapons and 3,700 in reserve; about 2000 deployed tactical nuclear weapons and about 3,300 tactical nuclear weapons in reserve.

China has 185 deployed strategic nuclear weapons and has 55 in reserve. France has 300 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. The United Kingdom has between 120 and 160 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. Israel is estimated to have between 100 and 200 deployed strategic nuclear weapons; India between 60 and 80; and Pakistan between 100 and 110.

North Korea is reckoned to have 5 or 6 nuclear warheads although it is unclear whether it has developed the capability to manufacture nuclear warheads small enough to be carried by its ballistic missiles (such as its new Musudan missile, which has a range of between 2,500 to 4,000 kilometers - between 4,200 to 6,700 miles).

The world’s nuclear arsenals contain a total of about 21,240 nuclear weapons: about 5,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons and 6,670 in reserve; 2,200 deployed tactical nuclear weapons and 3,305 in reserve; and 3,500 nuclear weapons waiting to be dismantled.

The total global nuclear weapons stockpile is considerably smaller than it was during the Cold War. The maximum number of nuclear weapons in the US arsenal was 32,500 in 1967. The former Soviet arsenal peaked at 45,000 in 1986. The British nuclear arsenal peaked at 410 in 1969; the French one peaked at 540 in 1993; and the Chinese one peaked at 450 in 1993. More than a staggering 128,000 nuclear warheads have been built since 1945 – about 97 per cent of them by the USA and the Soviet Union/Russia.

Modernizing nuclear weapons

The most worrying thing brought out in the BASIC report is that all the nuclear-weapon countries are modernizing and upgrading their nuclear weapons and forces. “Hundreds of billions of dollars are earmarked for spending over the next decade, not only in the United States and Russia but in major development programmes in China, India, Pakistan and elsewhere”. Almost all of the nuclear-weapon countries, it goes on, are continuing to produce new or modernized weapons and some, such as India and Pakistan, “appear to be seeking smaller, lighter warheads than they possess currently to allow either to be delivered to greater distances or to allow them to be deployed over shorter ranges and for more tactical purposes”.

Moreover, Russia and the United States are intent on maintaining a triad of land, sea and air forces for the long term. China, India and Israel are building triads of their own. The report can find ‘little sign that any of these nuclear armed states that a future without nuclear weapons is seriously being contemplated’. So much for the nuclear-weapon-free world desired by US President Barack Obama.

On 5 April 2009, Obama, in a speech made in Prague, Czech Republic, announced the support of his Administration for a world free of nuclear weapons. He said: “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence”.

In fact, each of the established nuclear-weapon powers (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the USA) has an international legal obligation, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other agreements, to move towards the reduction of its nuclear arsenal and to the eventual abolition of its nuclear weapons.

Moves to nuclear war-fighting and nuclear war-winning

There is no detailed discussion in the BASIC report about the consequences of the modernization and upgrading of nuclear weapons and forces. These consequences include moves away from nuclear deterrence policies to nuclear-war fighting policies and then to nuclear-war winning policies.

As the figures quoted above show, the USA and Russia are, and will remain for the foreseeable future, the world’s two nuclear superpowers. In comparison, the other nuclear-weapon powers are nuclear pygmies.

Why are the USA and Russia moving towards a nuclear-war fighting policy? The targets assigned to nuclear warheads are chosen by the combination of the accuracy with which they it can be delivered, their reliability and their explosive yield.

The accuracy of the delivery of nuclear warheads is increasing as time goes on. The accuracy is normally measured by its circular error probability, or CEP, defined as the radius of the circle centred on the target within which a half of a large number of warheads of the same type fried at the target will fall.

The Americans have continuously improved the guidance system of their land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) so that the CEP is being continually reduced. For example, the CEP of a Minuteman II warhead, first deployed in 1966, was about 370 metres. The CEPO of the currently deployed Minuteman III is about 100 metres. Russia is doing the same.

A paradox of the nuclear age is that nuclear deterrence based on mutual assured destruction, the current nuclear strategy of the USA and Russia, only works with inaccurate nuclear weapons. These weapons are seen to be useful for nuclear deterrence by threatening an enemy with unacceptable death and destruction, the targets being the enemy’s cities and industry.

As more accurate nuclear weapons are deployed the enemy is likely to assume that your nuclear warheads are targeted on his nuclear forces and not on his cities and industry. The cities and industries then cease to be effective hostages. Accurate nuclear weapons, in other words, weaken and eventually destroy a policy of nuclear deterrence based on mutual assured destruction. With nuclear weapons accurate enough to destroy reliably even very hardened military targets, nuclear war-fighting based on the destruction of the enemy’s nuclear strategic forces becomes the preferred policy.

Accurate and reliable nuclear weapons change nuclear strategy from nuclear deterrence based on mutual assured destruction to nuclear war-fighting whether or not the political leadership wants to make the change. The change will be made willy-nilly because the enemy will perceive that you are now targeting his strategic nuclear forces.

But further technological developments in nuclear weapons will cause even more destabilizing changes in nuclear policy. Nuclear war-fighting policies will give way to nuclear war-winning policies. A range of military technologies is being developed that will strengthen military and political perceptions about the possibility of fighting and winning a nuclear war. The most important of these technologies are those related to anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems.

Now that Russian and American land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles are vulnerable to a first (pre-emptive) nuclear strike by the other side’s land-based missiles, their nuclear deterrence posture depends mainly on the continuing invulnerability of each side’s strategic nuclear submarine forces. If one side could severely limit the damage that the other side’s strategic nuclear submarine force could inflict in a retaliatory strike, and it believed that it could destroy, by anti-ballistic missiles, the enemy missile warheads which survive a surprise attack, then the temptation to make an all-out first strike may become well-nigh irresistible, particularly during a period of international crisis. There will also be a serious danger of a nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.

The deployment of ASW and ABM systems would, therefore, be very destabilizing indeed. If these systems become available the risk of an American-Russian nuclear war becomes very great indeed. And this will happen unless the political leaders can bring military nuclear technology under control. So far, they have totally failed to do so.


The BASIC report shows clearly that the nuclear-weapon powers are steadily improving the quality of their nuclear weapons. The two nuclear superpowers – America and Russia – are moving their nuclear policies away from nuclear deterrence based on mutual assured destruction to nuclear-war-fighting.

Unless the leaders of these two countries are prepared to control their military technologies, and there are no signs that they are, the policies will move again to nuclear war-winning. If this happens the risk of a nuclear war will considerably increase.

A nuclear war in which only a few hundred nuclear weapons were used would destroy civilisation as we know it. It is a sobering thought. Let us hope that President Obama’s vision of ‘a world without nuclear weapons’ becomes the reality before it is too late. to Shut Down Permanently on December 31, 2017

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About the Author 

Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London

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