It is astounding to think that 50 years ago, the Cold War was already well underway and the word of the day was proliferation. Ever since the end of World War 2, countries have either been arming themselves with, or actively petitioning others to abandon their aspirations of gaining a nuclear arsenal. Here, we take a look at the countries with the most nukes (specifically, nuclear warheads). For the sake of this list, confirmed and suspected countries will be listed, though our estimates are based on the best available data, and this often being a classified bit of info, may be slightly off.
9. North Korea
Starting off our list of countries with the most nukes is one that makes the news quite frequently for not being able to send them anywhere. Failed rocketry aside, North Korea is suspected of having up to 20 Nuclear warheads at their disposal, which is of great concern to their southern neighbor and the rest of NATO. This situation is further soured as in 2015 an unnamed North Korean defector left for Finland with 15GB of evidence that biological and chemical weapons tests still occurred within the country, often to its own citizens. When paired with the recent assassination of Kim Jong-nam (the half brother of the current dictator) using VX chemical agent, a weapon more effective and lethal than Sarin.
Next up on our list is a nation who hasn’t exactly confirmed they have nuclear weapons, but with a wink and a nudge, more or less admitted to it. Israel, back in the 1980’s had at one point aided South Africa in the development of their nuclear weapons program, and themselves had a small stockpile partially thanks to French cooperative efforts. Now, this stockpile is estimated at anywhere from 80-400 nukes, though again, the government not commenting on said issue makes even these wide estimations somewhat unsure. Using these as deterrents against the use or development has been somewhat successful for the country, though conventional conflicts still exist especially with their Palestinian neighbors.
While only 7th on this list with around 120 nukes, India may have one the title of the country with the most deceptive name for a nuclear weapon test: Smiling Buddha. This test, near to their neighbor and often rival Pakistan, showed the developmental capabilities of India but was not apparently meant to be a direct threat. Though India has developed what is termed as a triad system like several other nuke holding countries (with land, sea and air deployment possible), India is a no-first-use state, where the Nuclear option is only one after someone else has already engaged in such deployments
Originally starting as a power and infrastructure program, Pakistan’s 130 nukes came into being as both a result of the Indo-Pakistani wars and the Smiling Buddha nuclear weapons test. As with many development programs for nuclear arms, Pakistan’s development history is full of intrigue, including a bit of industrial espionage where centrifuge blueprints were stolen to help aid development and coded memos floated about regarding progress in the program. Often seen as weaker program to India’s in terms of reach and quantity, recent reports have overturned such theories and now the balance of force between these two nations seem quite equal.
5. The United Kingdom
Next up is the United Kingdom, which despite having helped greatly with the Manhattan project, finds themselves with relatively few nukes. This is primarily due to the “Special Relationship” between the UK and United States shortly after World War 2, causing a significant delay in arms development. Nearly a decade after the end of WW2, Britain would have its first real nuclear success with Operation Hurricane, the detonation of a nuclear weapon inside an abandoned naval ship in 1952 off the Montebello Islands near North West Australia. At time of writing, around 150 nukes are at the United Kingdom’s disposal, many of which are rumored to be available for use if needed across the Scottish coastline. The UK is also one of the first signers of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which discourages the spread and increase of the global nuclear arsenal.
Another member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, China’s nuke count and testing history are somewhat predictable hushed, with current estimates at somewhere near 260. Suspected to be another triad nation (with land, sea and air launch based capabilities) China is an interesting case of being both a no-first-use state, but also not defining what the minimum amount of nukes are needed to scare off any attacks. Of course, before signing the NPT, China has been known to have aided Pakistan in the development of their own nuclear arsenal. There is rumored to be an “Underground Great Wall” which is a long route for the transport of land launched nukes, verified by a Georgetown University study mapping the immense system.
The third mentioned signer of the NPT, France has a somewhat cautious approach after many years of experimentation to the ire of other nations. Holding current active stockpile of 300 warheads (down from nearly double that in 1992), France has had nearly as many nuclear tests as it has active warheads in the Sahara and French Polynesia. Such an active test schedule eventually led to people being sick or injured as a result of the long term effects of these tests, and compensation being given to handle the outcry. At time of writing, they have been dedicating themselves to the use of simulations testing for nearly 20 years, avoiding such fallout again. France is not considered a no-first-strike nation at time, as there have been previous comments that retaliation for terrorism by use of nuclear munitions was on the table, and that the payloads had been configured mostly to handle such a purpose.
2. The United States
Often thought of as the country with the most nukes, the United States is currently in the number 2 spot, mostly due to reductions in nuclear arsenal as a means of negotiation. Down nearly 90% from 31,255 to just over 4,000 warheads, the United States is also known to have been the first and only country to deploy nukes within World War 2. Predictably, the USA has a weapons triad system similar to China’s, and also carried out the first nuclear test, Trinity. During this test, the infamous Oppenhiemer quote, which originally came from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, as well as another quote from the same book, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one”.
Topping off our list of the countries with the most nukes is Russia, with around 4,500 nukes handy, exactly 10% of the previous stockpile from the Cold War whose 45,000 nukes were in existence at 1988. One of the founding members of the NPT, Russia has at times played friend and foe to the United States counterpart in both nuclear and biochemical weapons measures. However, both states had recognized a balance of nuclear power was required and thus often keep their stockpiles at around the same level. Much like many other countries on this list, Russia maintains any use of its triad system would be either as retaliation for a nuclear launch, or as a last ditch effort to keep their own country’s state in existence. Agreeing to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 2016, Russia has worked with the United States in further lowering nuclear capabilities as a means of keeping the world a more stable place, less likely to suffer oblivion via mushroom cloud. With any luck, such measures will continue.