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 14,930 warheads as of mid-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: July 8, 2017.
a Warheads in the “military stockpile” are defined as warheads in the custody of the military and earmarked for use by military forces. b The “total inventory” counts warheads in the military stockpile as well as retired, but still intact, warheads awaiting dismantlement. c 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. d All are declared to be in central storage. Several thousand retired non-strategic warheads are awaiting dismantlement. e Includes an estimated 500 strategic warheads and all 1,850 non-strategic warheads. f In addition to the 4,300 in the military stockpile, an estimated 2,700 retired warheads are estimated to be awaiting dismantlement. Details are scarce, but we estimate that Russia is dismantling 300-500 retired warheads per year. See 2017 overview of Russian forces here. g This number is higher than the aggregate data released under the New START data because this table also counts bomber weapons on bomber bases as deployed. Detailed overview of U.S. forces as of 2017 is here. The US numbers have been updated to account for recent developments. h Approximately 150 B61 bombs are deployed in Europe at six bases in five countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey). For details, see here and here [update coming soon]. i Non-deployed reserve includes an estimated 2,050 strategic and 150 non-strategic warheads in central storage. j The U.S. government declared in January 2017 that its stockpile included 4,018 warheads as of September 2016. Since then, a small number of warheads are thought to have been retired for an estimated 4,000 remaining in the stockpile. k In addition to the roughly 4,000 warheads in the military stockpile, the US government in January 2017 announced that approximately 2,800 retired warheads are awaiting dismantlement. In addition, more than 20,000 plutonium cores (pits) and some 5,000 Canned Assemblies (secondaries) from dismantled warheads are in storage at the Pantex Plant in Texas and Y-12 plant in Tennessee. For detailed overview of U.S. forces, see here. l Only weapons for France’s single aircraft carrier are not considered deployed, although it is possible that warhead loadings on some submarines missiles have been reduced. For a detailed overview of French nuclear forces, see this 2015 article (2017 update in here). m China is thought to have “several hundred warheads,” far less than the 1,600-3,000 that have been suggested by some. None of the warheads are thought to be fully deployed but kept in storage under central control. The existence of a Chinese non-strategic nuclear arsenal is uncertain. The Chinese arsenal is increasing with production of new warheads for DF-31/31A and JL-2 missiles. Detailed overview of Chinese forces as of 2016 is here. Next China update: Summer 2017. n The number of British warheads on each submarine has been lowered from 48 to 40. This has lowered the number of “operationally available” warheads from 160 to 120. By the mid-2020s, the stockpile will be reduced to “not more than 180.” This reduction is already underway. Detailed overview of British forces is here. o Although Israel has produced enough plutonium for 100-200 warheads, the number of delivery platforms and estimates made by the U.S. intelligence community suggest that the stockpile might include approximately 80 warheads. Detailed 2014 overview of Israeli forces is here. p None of Pakistan’s warheads are thought to be deployed but kept in central storage, most in the southern parts of the country. More warheads are in production. Detailed overview here. q Indian nuclear warheads are not deployed but in central storage. More warheads are in production. Detailed overview of Indian forces is here. r Despite five North Korean nuclear tests and an estimate inventory of fissile material to potentially produce 10-20 nuclear warheads, there is no publicly available evidence that North Korea has operationalized nuclear warheads for delivery on ballistic missiles. s Numbers may not add up due to rounding and uncertainty about the operational status of the four lesser nuclear weapons states and the uncertainty about the size of the total inventories of three of the five initial nuclear powers.
The information available for each country varies greatly, ranging from the most transparent nuclear weapons state (United States) to the most opaque (Israel). 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.
This publication was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the New Land Foundation, and the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.