Nuclear Arms Racing in the Post-Cold War Era: Who is the Smallest?

China and the Uniked Kingdom have started a new arms race over who has the smallest nuclear weapons arsenal.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Mine is smaller! No, mine is smaller!!

China and the United Kingdom have started a new type of nuclear arms race for the honor to have the smallest number of nuclear weapons.

In April 2004, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared in the fact sheet China: Nuclear Disarmament and Reduction of: “Among the nuclear-weapon states, China…possesses the smallest nuclear arsenal.”

In May 2007, British Defense Minister Des Browne stated in a written response to a parliamentary question that the United Kingdom has “the smallest stockpile of any of the nuclear weapon states recognised under the NPT.”

Apparently, the race is on for who is the smallest.

So Who Is The Smallest Nuclear Power?

The size of the nuclear weapons inventory of both countries is secret, but it is possible to make best estimates.

Britain announced in December 2006 that it had reduced the number of “operationally available warheads” from fewer than 200 to “less than 160.” The gesture was somewhat hollow, however, because Britain hasn’t had room for more than 144 warheads on its Trident D5 missiles for years. Moreover, the language hints that Britain has more nuclear warheads in storage. Assuming it retains a small reserve, the total British stockpile is probably around 200 warheads.

The British government has stated that the single SSBN on patrol at any given time carries “up to 48” warheads, a statement that partly reflects that some of the missiles have been given a “substrategic” mission, probably with only one warhead each. Depending on the number of substrategic mission missiles carried, the actual loading of the patrolling submarine probably is 36-44 warheads. Assuming a similar loading for the other two SSBNs for which there are missiles available, the estimated number of warheads needed for the British SSBN fleet since the substrategic mission first became operational in 1996 is 108-132 warheads.

The Chinese government’s statement that it possesses the smallest nuclear arsenal among the nuclear-weapon states is different than the British statement. First, the Chinese statement refers to the “arsenal” rather than stockpile described by the British statement. It is unclear what the Chinese mean by “arsenal” – whether it refers to the entire stockpile or only operational warheads. Second, the statement refers to “the nuclear-weapon states,” rather than the NPT-declared nuclear weapon states (Britain, China, France, Russia, United States), and thus appears to include India and Pakistan as well. Yet elsewhere in the statement, the foreign minister uses the term “nuclear-weapon states” to refer to Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States. Based on publicly available information and assessments made by the U.S. Intelligence Community, China is estimated to have approximately 150 operational nuclear weapons and a total stockpile of roughly 200 warheads. Only about 100 of these may actually be deployed with the delivery systems, although few (if any) of the warheads are thought to be mated on the weapon.

Estimates of British and Chinese Nuclear Stockpiles

Britain and China both claim to have the lowest number of nuclear weapons of the original five nuclear weapon states. Both refuse to say how many they have. In reality, the two countries are estimated to have about the same total number of nuclear warheads, but the numbers can very considerably depending on which part of the posture is presented.

The two postures differ significantly. China does not have a permanent deployment of nuclear weapons at sea, and most (if not all) of China’s land-based missiles are thought to be deployed without the nuclear warheads installed. Unlike Britain, moreover, China has a no-first-use policy for its nuclear weapons.

In the future, however, China may have to revisit its statement about its nuclear weapons inventory. Whereas the British stockpile has declined an is unlikely to increase in the future, the Chinese stockpile may be increasing some in the next decade.

Confidence Reaffirmed (Silly Secrecy Too)

The statements made by the two countries have revealed a curious phenomenon: both apparently are confident that they know how many nuclear weapons the other has. Indeed, confidence appears to be so high that both are willing to say so in public.

This is curious because both countries insist that the size of their nuclear stockpiles must be kept a secret, or national security would be jeopardized. But if they both know the size of the other’s arsenal, who are they keeping it secret from?

Background: Britain’s Next Nuclear Era | Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning | British Nuclear Forces, 2005

3 thoughts on “Nuclear Arms Racing in the Post-Cold War Era: Who is the Smallest?

  1. OB: There is one key reason to keep the numbers a secret, and that is to keep a degree of strategic ambiguity, the kind that makes war planners nervous. By not revealing the number of warheads they have publicly, it denies their opponents and potential opponents high confidence in their nuclear stockpiles. If a decision maker were to sit down to plan out a possible strike, they would have to factor into their planning that even IF they hit all the warheads they think they knew existed, there was the chance that they might have guessed low on the number.

    That creates quite the pucker-factor for any potential aggressors. Combine this with the fear that the Battle Damage Assessments might not be totally accurate, and that their weapons might not work as effectively as hoped it helps to make the concept of an early nuclear strike more and more unnerving (that is to say more unnerving as contemplating the deaths of millions already is). [shortened, ed.]

    Reply: I think the reasons you mention are part of the problem. Keep “strategic ambiguity,” deny “opponents and potential opponents high confidence in their nuclear stockpiles,” don’t miss hitting extra nuclear weapons.

    If I were planning regional nuclear battles on a global scale for World War III with the Soviet Union, then your reasons might make some sense.

    But this is the 21st Century! So what if the other side knows the total number of nuclear weapons in the stockpile? The argument assumes that after dozens of cities have been turned to rubble it somehow matters if they can destroy one more?

    There is plenty of “strategic ambiguity” even if the size of the stockpile is known. Today that is achieved not by keeping the number secret but by changing the way forces are structured and their employment planned. Besides, if a nuclear weapon state declared the size of its stockpile, would any adversary trust that number in its own planning? I doubt it.

    As I see it, the objective is to stop using Cold War assumptions and move away from nuclear policies that require planners to maintain Cold War postures with thousands of nuclear weapons on alert. HK

  2. PN: In the discussion leading up to the UK Trident submarine renewal decision Des Browne (UK Defence Minister) indicated abandonment of a ‘substrategic’ role for Trident or at least of this as a distinct category.

    Substrategic weapons are variously defined in terms of throw distance (the official NATO criterion) or throw size (it is thought that the Trident warhead yield can be adjusted between about 1 kT and 150 kT). It is not primarily a matter of warhead number.

    The Trident D5 missile is apparently capable of bearing 3 to 8 warheads. The UK MOD’s numbers suggest 3 warheads per UK missile.

    Frankly I suspect that the total available UK warheads are far fewer in number than 160 and that many warheads on the missiles are dummies. The same may be true of the Chinese arsenal.

    Official secrecy may be due to a desire not to reveal how very few weapons we really have. It also avoids giving technical “ammunition” to the movement for nuclear disarmament. The more we know the more informed our arguments.

    Reply: The announcement to stop using the term “substrategic” may have more to do with public relations than operational changes. “Substrategic” connotes nuclear warfighting, which is not in tune with the British government’s nuclear policy.

    The “British” warhead used on the Tridents is very similar to the U.S. W76, and in the future will probably be more similar to the new W76-1. It has a maximum yield of 100 kilotons.

    The British government has stated that the submarine on patrol will carry “up to 48” warheads, which suggests that not all the missiles carry three warheads, or that fewer than 16 missiles may be carried. All sorts of combinations are possible. The Trident D5 has been flight tested with as many as 14 warheads. HK

  3. JF: One cannot rule out the possibility of a strategic Sino-Angelo friendly powwow to nudge the two fat guys in the Club to lose weight, at least some. Don’t you see that George is quite receptive to this seemingly liberal idea? He likes to say that, under his watch, United States now has the least amount of nukes compared to his predecessors.

    Everyone should applaud this new phase of dxxx-measuring contest, now that the coolest thing is to be small. The English naturally have a longer view than the Americans. China should perhaps use its charms (and investments) to persuade the English to adopt NFU [no first use]. Her majesty’s little islands are simply too small and valuable for any retaliatory nuclear strikes. Unlike the Yanks, who have lots of land and population to survive major strikes, the British are squandering their money and national security by practicing strategic patrols. To be always ready to shoot whom? Bin Ladin?

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