The number of nuclear weapons in the world has declined significantly since the Cold War: down from a peak of approximately 70,300 in 1986 to an estimated 14,900 in early-2017. Government officials often portray that accomplishment as a result of current arms control agreements, but the overwhelming portion of the reduction happened in the 1990s. Moreover, comparing today’s inventory with that of the 1950s is like comparing apples and oranges; today’s forces are vastly more capable. The pace of reduction has slowed significantly. Instead of planning for nuclear disarmament, the nuclear-armed states appear to plan to retain large arsenals for the indefinite future.
Despite progress in reducing Cold War nuclear arsenals, the world’s combined inventory of nuclear warheads remains at a very high level: approximately 14,900 warheads as of early-2017. Of these, roughly 9,400 are in the military stockpiles (the rest are awaiting dismantlement), of which more than 3,900 warheads are deployed with operational forces, of which nearly 1,800 US, Russian, British and French warheads are on high alert, ready for use on short notice.
Approximately 93 percent of all nuclear warheads are owned by Russia and the United States who each have roughly 4,000-4,500 warheads in their military stockpiles; no other nuclear-armed state sees a need for more than a few hundred nuclear weapons for national security:
The United States, Russia and the United Kingdom are reducing their warhead inventories, but the pace of reduction is slowing compared with the past 25 years. France and Israel have relatively stable inventories, while China, Pakistan, India and North Korea are increasing their warhead inventories.
All the nuclear weapon states continue to modernize their remaining nuclear forces and appear committed to retaining nuclear weapons for the indefinite future. For an overview of global modernization programs, see this 2014 article.
The exact number of nuclear weapons in each country’s possession is a closely held national secret. Despite this limitation, however, publicly available information, careful analysis of historical records, and occasional leaks make it possible to make best estimates about the size and composition of the national nuclear weapon stockpiles:
Status of World Nuclear Forces 2017*
|How to read this table: Deployed strategic warheads are those deployed on intercontinental missiles and at heavy bomber bases. Deployed nonstrategic warheads are those deployed on bases with operational short-range delivery systems. Reserve/Nondeployed warheads are those not deployed on launchers and in storage (weapons at bomber bases are considered deployed). The military stockpile includes warheads that are in the custody of the military and earmarked for use by commissioned deliver vehicles. The total inventory includes warheads in the military stockpile as well as retired, but still intact, warheads in queue for dismantlement. For additional guidance, see endnotes below.
* All numbers are approximate estimates and further described in our FAS Nuclear Notebooks published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and the World Nuclear Forces overview in the SIPRI Yearbook. See also status and 10-year projection of U.S. and Russian forces. Additional reports are published on the FAS Strategic Security Blog. Unlike those publications, this table is updated continuously as new information becomes available. Current update: April 4, 2017.
a This number is higher than the aggregate data under the New START treaty because this table also counts bomber weapons at bomber bases as deployed. Detailed overview of Russian forces as of 2017 is here. Numbers have been updated for later changes.
The information available for each country varies greatly, ranging from the most transparent nuclear weapons state (United States) to the most opaque (North Korea). Accordingly, while the estimate for the United States is based on “real” numbers, the estimates for several of the other nuclear weapon states are highly uncertain.