Status of World Nuclear Forces
Who owns the world's nukes?
Despite progress in reducing nuclear weapon arsenals since the Cold War, the world’s combined inventory of nuclear warheads remains at a very high level: Nine countries possessed roughly 13,100 warheads as of early-2021.
Approximately 91 percent of all nuclear warheads are owned by Russia and the United States who each have around 4,000 warheads in their military stockpiles; no other nuclear-armed state sees a need for more than a few hundred nuclear weapons for national security.
Globally, the overall inventory of nuclear weapons is declining, but the pace of reduction is slowing compared with the past 30 years. Moreover, all of that reduction is happening only because the United States and Russia are still dismantling previously retired warheads. In terms military stockpiles (those warheads assigned to operational forces), however, the overall number is increasing again. The United States is probably still reducing its stockpile but appears to be leveling out. France and Israel have relatively stable inventories. But China, India, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and United Kingdom are all thought to be increasing their stockpiles (see map):
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Of the world’s 13,100 nuclear warheads, nearly 9,600 are in the military stockpiles for use by missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines. The remaining warheads have been retired but are still relatively intact and are awaiting dismantlement). Of the 9,600 warheads in the military stockpiles, some 3,800 are deployed with operational forces (on missiles or bomber bases). Of those, approximately 2,000 US, Russian, British and French warheads are on high alert, ready for use on short notice (see table):
The exact number of nuclear weapons in each country’s possession is a closely held national secret. Most nuclear-armed states provide essentially no information about the sizes of their nuclear stockpiles. Yet the degree of secrecy varies considerably from country to country. Between 2010 and 2018, the United disclosed its total stockpile size, but in 2019 the Trump administration stopped that practice. Despite such limitations, 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. For a breakdown of the nuclear warhead categories of the different nuclear-armed states, and for links to more details overviews of each country’s arsenals, see this table:
|Status of World Nuclear Forces 2021|
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 active and inactive 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 the queue for dismantlement. For additional guidance, see endnotes below (note: as estimates are updated, they may vary from the printed materials below).
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 2021 is here. Numbers have been updated for later changes.
d All are declared to be in central storage, although some storage sites may be close to bases with operational forces. Many retired non-strategic warheads are thought to be awaiting dismantlement.
e Includes an estimated 985 strategic warheads and all 1,912 non-strategic warheads.
f In addition to the 4,497 warheads in the military stockpile, an estimated 1,760 retired warheads are thought to be awaiting dismantlement. Public details are scarce, but we estimate that Russia is dismantling 200-300 retired warheads per year. The future of the Russian stockpile size is debated: US Strategic Command and part of the Intelligence Community claim “Russia’s overall nuclear stockpile is likely to grow significantly over the next decade – growth driven primarily by a projected increase in Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons.” Others privately disagree. A major uncertainty is how many tactical weapons will be replaced by new nuclear versions versus conventional weapons. See 2021 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 2021 is here.
h Approximately 100 B61 bombs are deployed in Europe at six bases in five countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey).
i Non-deployed reserve includes an estimated 1,870 strategic and 130 non-strategic warheads in central storage.
j The U.S. government declared in March 2018 that its stockpile included 3,822 warheads as of September 2017. After that, the Trump administration decided no longer to declassify the numbers. Since September 2017, a small number of warheads are thought to have been retired for an estimated 3,800 remaining in the stockpile.
k In addition to the roughly 3,800 warheads in the military stockpile and the 1,750 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement, approximately 20,000 plutonium cores (pits) and some 4,000 Canned Assemblies (secondaries) from dismantled warheads are in storage at the Pantex Plant in Texas and Y-12 plant in Tennessee. For a detailed overview of U.S. forces, see here.
l Weapons for France’s single aircraft carrier are not deployed on the ship under normal circumstances but could be on short notice. Warhead loadings on some submarines missiles have been reduced to increase targeting flexibility. For a detailed overview of French nuclear forces, see here).
m Of these 350 warheads, an estimated 272 are thought to be assigned to operational forces. The remaining 78 warheads are thought to have been produced for the new DF-41 and two additional SSBNs being fielded. Our estimate for the Chinese warhead stockpile is higher than the “low-200s” listed in the Pentagon’s 2020 China report. The reason is that the Pentagon estimate is from late-2019 (when we estimated 290) and only includes “operational” warheads, while our estimate also includes warheads produced for missiles in the process of being fielded. Despite these differences, the estimates show that claims made by some that China might have “many more than 300” or even 1,600-3,000 warheads are baseless. Nonetheless, the Chinese stockpile is increasing and US Strategic Command and part of the Intelligence Community claim that China will “likely double the size of their nuclear stockpile by the end of the decade.” Part of that increase is already well underway and our estimate includes some of it. None of the warheads are thought to be fully deployed but kept in storage under central control. China considers all of its nuclear weapons to be strategic, but the US military calls its medium-and intermediate-range missile non-strategic. Detailed overview of Chinese forces is here.
n The number of British warheads on each submarine was lowered from 48 to 40. This lowered the number of “operationally available” warheads from 160 to 120. By the mid-2020s, the previous plan was to reduce the stockpile to “not more than 180,” but in the Johnson government announced in 2021 that it would increase the stockpile to “no more than 260 warheads.” 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 90 warheads. Detailed 2014 overview of Israeli forces is here.
p Estimating the number of Pakistani warheads comes with great uncertainty because neither Pakistan nor western governments provide public information. None of Pakistan’s warheads are thought to be mated with missiles but kept in central storage, most in the southern parts of the country. More warheads are in production. Detailed overview here.
q Estimating the number of India warheads comes with great uncertainty because neither Indian nor western governments provide public information. Despite efforts to increase readiness, we estimate Indian nuclear warheads are not mated with missiles but in central storage. Bomber weapons could probably be employed on relatively short notice. More warheads are in production. Detailed overview of Indian forces is here.
r After six nuclear tests, including two of 10-20 kilotons and one of more than 150 kilotons, we estimate that North Korea might have produced sufficient fissile material for roughly 40-50 warheads. The number of assembled warheads is unknown, but lower. While we estimate North Korea might have a small number of assembled warheads for medium-range missiles, we have not yet seen evidence that it has developed a functioning warhead that can be delivered at ICBM range. Detailed overview of North Korean nuclear capabilities is here.
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.
In historical context, 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 13,100 in early-2021. Government officials often portray that accomplishment as a result of current or recent arms control agreements, but the overwhelming portion of the reduction happened in the 1990s. Some also compare today’s numbers with that of the 1950s, but that is like comparing apples and oranges; today’s forces are vastly more capable.
The pace of reduction has slowed significantly compared with the 1990s and appears to continue only because of dismantlement of retired weapons; the military stockpiles (operational nuclear weapons) are increasing again.
Instead of planning for nuclear disarmament, the nuclear-armed states appear to plan to retain large arsenals for the indefinite future.
All continue to modernize their remaining nuclear forces, several are adding new types and/or increasing the role they serve in national strategy and public statements, and all appear committed to retaining nuclear weapons for the indefinite future.
This work was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Prospect Hill Foundation, and the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.