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Nuclear Weapons

I. Arsenals and Strategy by Country
II. Arms Control and the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT)
III. Maps, Tables
IV. Chronology
V. Bibliography/Recommended Reading
VI. Footnotes

Since the United States produced and used the first nuclear weapons sixty-three years ago, these exceptionally destructive arms have played a central and evolving role in U.S. foreign policy. While concepts like mutually assured destruction (MAD) and second-strike capability dominated nuclear strategy during the Cold War, today the U.S. appears less concerned with the still giant arsenal of its former adversary than with the prospect of a few nukes in the wrong hands. Deterrence helps assure policy makers that the Russians will not destroy America and all of its inhabitants (despite their ability to do so). However, the prospect of certain nations or non-state actors operating outside the bounds of the classic deterrence model means that one nuke in the hands of an individual may be more dangerous than 10,000 in the hands of a stable nation, especially when that one weapon can still level an entire city.

It is against this backdrop that one must consider U.S. nuclear policy today. The non-proliferation regime that the United States helped initiate over thirty years ago lends both optimism and pessimism. On the one hand, only eight countries today definitely possess nuclear weapons, which is only a couple more than when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed, and far less than could possess nuclear weapons absent serious diplomatic efforts by the nuclear powers. However, the NPT is facing some of its greatest challenges to date.

North Korea, until recently a party to the NPT, proclaimed itself a nuclear state in 2005, and efforts by the United States and its allies to coax North Korea back into the group of non-nuclear countries have led to mixed results at best 1. India and Pakistan have become full-fledged nuclear powers with few signs of stabilizing the size of their arsenals, and the U.S. agreement to provide India with nuclear technology outside the bounds of the NPT threatens to create a dangerous double standard. Finally, the push by the Iranians for nuclear technology guaranteed to them under the NPT would also enable them to pursue the nuclear weapons they claim to have the right to possess. Without a unified stance from the great powers against Iran's ambitions, the world may soon have its first state acquiring nuclear weapons while still a party to the NPT. From the U.S. perspective, the fact that Iran is a leading sponsor of terrorism with a virulently anti-American regime makes the situation that much more difficult. The resolution of these challenges will likely not be smooth, but together they will determine the course of nuclear proliferation and U.S. foreign policy for years to come.

The questions addressed in this section are as follows:

  • What is the status of each nation in terms of its possession, pursuit, and policies regarding nuclear weapons?

  • What is the current status of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and how has it evolved over the years?

  • What is the status of the NPT? Other arms control efforts?

  • How have India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea posed unique challenges to the arms control regime, and how have they affected U.S. policy?

  • How does the Global War on Terror affect U.S. policy on nuclear weapons?

I) Arsenals and Strategy by Country2

A. United States

  • 1) Arsenal
    • U.S. nuclear arsenal currently contains close to 10,000 nuclear warheads: 5,735 active or operational (5,235 strategic and 500 non-strategic) and 4,225 in reserve/inactive.

    • "Under plans announced by the Energy Department in June 2004 (and possibly revised in spring 2005), some 4,365 warheads are scheduled to be retired for dismantlement by 2012 (see Nuclear Notebook, September/October 2004). This would leave approximately 5,945 warheads in the operational and reserve stockpiles in 2012, including the 1,700-2,200 "operationally deployed" strategic warheads specified in the 2002 Moscow Treaty or Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT)." 3

    • The 2002 Moscow Treaty set a limit of 2,200 operationally deployed strategic warheads for the U.S. and Russia by 2012

  • 2) Strategy
    • “The Defense Department is upgrading its nuclear strike plans to reflect new presidential guidance and a transition in war planning from the top-heavy Single Integrated Operational Plan of the Cold War to a family of smaller and more flexible strike plans designed to defeat today's adversaries. The new central strategic war plan is known as OPLAN (Operations Plan) 8044.”
      • Part of the plan calls for rapid conventional or nuclear strikes anywhere in the world to respond to emerging threats, preemptively if necessary

    • The U.S. continues to develop its nuclear missile defense system, although its current and future utility remains unproven at best
      • For a diagram, see Figure 1

    • Keir Lieber and Daryl Press note that Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) may already be a thing of the past, and that the U.S. is entering a period of nuclear primacy, during which it could conceivably destroy the arsenals of its two biggest nuclear rivals (China and Russia) with a first strike 4

B. Russia

  • 1) Arsenal
    • Russia has close to 6,000 operational nuclear warheads (3,500 strategic, 2,330 nonstrategic) and 10,000 inactive warheads

    • Estimating the size and make-up of Soviet nuclear forces is difficult due to a lack of information from the government, but it is clear in recent years that Russia is beginning the process of dismantling significant numbers of its nuclear forces, especially its Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)

    • President Vladimir Putin has officially stated his desire to modernize Russia's nuclear forces, including the development of multiple-warhead ICBMs designed to evade missile defense systems

    • The 2002 Moscow Treaty set a limit of 2,200 operationally deployed strategic warheads for the U.S. and Russia by 2012

  • 2) Strategy
    • Although Russia retains far and away the second largest (or largest, depending on measure) nuclear arsenal in the world, its shrinking ability to maintain the quality and quantity of its weapons threaten the existence of MAD with the United States

    • It looks to be 10-15 years until U.S. National Missile Defense becomes fully operational, giving the Russians time to consider their response and reform their nuclear strategy

    • Russian officials have stated their desire to pursue a nuclear strategy capable of deterring and defending against any attacks on their homeland, although long-range wars on foreign land no longer appear to be a key consideration (at least according to official statements)

C. Britain

  • 1) Arsenal
    • The British government claims it has fewer than 200 operationally available nuclear warheads

    • A debate has begun in Britain over whether the country needs to build a new generation of nuclear weapons

  • 2) Strategy
    • Britain's special relationship with the United States allows for cooperation in research and consultation on weapon deployment and use.

    • Britain's relatively small arsenal is mainly designed as a deterrent against attacks on the homeland, although its strong relationship with the U.S. gives it greater nuclear clout than its arsenal might suggest

D. France

  • 1) Arsenal
    • France has approximately 350 operational nuclear warheads in its arsenal

  • 2) Strategy
    • The French maintain their nuclear arsenal to deter foreign attacks as well as to assert their independence from the American/NATO security umbrella, although it is clear that they are not completely outside of its reach

E. China

  • 1) Arsenal
    • China has a stockpile of approximately 200 warheads, 130 of which are operational

    • Even more so than Russia, China's lack of official information regarding its nuclear arsenal makes estimating its quantity and quality difficult

    • The CIA and the Pentagon have consistently warned of China increasing the quantity and quality of its stockpile, but clear evidence to that effect is unavailable

  • 2) Strategy
    • China seeks to employ its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent to the many powerful nations in its neighborhood as well as the United States

    • Although Mao infamously remarked how his country could win a nuclear war due to its massive population and size, Chinese leaders including the Chairman have sought mainly to avoid nuclear blackmail at the hands of others and avoid relying on other nations for its security

    • As Leiber and Press note, China is not on a MAD footing with the United States, as its forces are small in number and vulnerable to a debilitating first strike5

    • It is unclear how China is shaping its nuclear force in response to America’s NMD, if at all

F. India

  • 1) Arsenal
    • India has a stockpile of 40-50 nuclear warheads

    • Unlike other nations that are holding their arsenals steady or decreasing them, India plans to increase its arsenal in the coming years to a few hundred warheads

  • 2) Strategy
    • India obtained its nuclear arsenal in large part to deter attacks on its soil, especially from local rivals China and Pakistan, as well as gain recognition as a significant power in the international system

    • "The 2005 Defence Ministry annual report states that India's nuclear doctrine is 'based on the principle of a minimum credible deterrent and no-first-use as opposed to doctrines or postures of launch-on-warning.' This doctrine requires 'a mix of land-based, maritime, and air capabilities, and a minimum credible deterrent to thwart the threat of use of nuclear weapons against it.' The report further explains that India's nuclear policy includes a 'rejection of an arms race or concepts and postures from the Cold War era.' India has not yet explained how many nuclear warheads it believes a 'minimum credible deterrent' requires or when it expects to achieve the necessary deterrent." 6

G. Pakistan

  • 1) Arsenal
    • Pakistan possesses 50-100 nuclear weapons, although determining true quantity and quality is difficult due to state secrecy about the program

  • 2) Strategy
    • Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is generally built and deployed with one major state in mind (India), however, it also allows the country some degree of deterrence against attack from other nations and gives the current regime a degree of prestige as the only Muslim nation to possess nuclear weapons
      • From the perspective of the U.S. and its allies, the presence of large numbers of extremists in and around Pakistan make securing the country's nuclear arsenal against sabotage and/or theft a top priority

      • Recent political unrest in Pakistan due to concerns over the stability of the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Pervez Musharraf and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a leading opposition figure, have led to renewed debates about where U.S. allegiances lie and how involved the U.S. should be (if at all) in protecting Pakistan's nuclear arsenal

H. Israel

  • 1) Arsenal
    • Although Israel does not officially recognize that is possesses nuclear weapons, experts agree that the Israelis have 75-200 nukes

  • 2) Strategy
    • Israel's stated policy is that they will not be the first country to use nuclear weapons in the Middle East, although that could change if they were faced with the destruction of their state from conventional attack (admittedly, this is a low-likelihood affair as Israel's conventional might supercedes that of all of its rivals)

    • Israel's arsenal largely serves as a deterrent against its many enemies in the region, helping to ensure its continued existence

I. North Korea

  • 1) Arsenal
    • North Korea announced that it had become a nuclear power on February 10, 2005

    • Although North Korea has had a nuclear program for a long time and enough weapons-grade plutonium (and perhaps highly enriched uranium) to build a few bombs, the fact that they haven't conducted a nuclear test makes it unclear how many nuclear weapons they truly possess, if any

    • Most experts estimate that the North Koreans possess fewer than 10 nuclear weapons, if any, although the presence of even a few could spark a regional arms race

  • 2) Strategy
    • North Korea seeks nuclear weapons to gain leverage with the United States and prestige abroad as well as among its populace

    • North Korea could never produce enough nukes to achieve anything approaching MAD, however, their ballistic missile program coupled with a few nuclear warheads could be more than enough to destabilize the region, perhaps pushing Japan to develop its own arsenal, sparking further problems with China and the United States

    • A deal was struck in 2007 for North Korea to hand over complete details of its nuclear program and disable its main facilities at Yongbyon in exchange for heavy fuel oil, however, progress on these fronts remains uncertain, as the leadership in South Korea and the U.S. are increasingly skeptical that North Korea will hold up its end of the bargain. These negotiations are part of the six-party talks that involve China, the U.S., Japan, Russia and North and South Korea 7

J. Iran

  • 1) Arsenal
    • Iran currently does not possess any nuclear weapons, however, its current plan to develop nuclear energy would give it enough weapons-grade material to build a nuclear weapon within a decade (some experts estimate only a few years).

  • 2) Strategy
    • Iran seeks nuclear weapons to gain leverage and a degree of deterrence with the United States and Israel as well as prestige at home and abroad (especially in the Muslim world).

    • The U.S. and Europe are currently working furiously to stop Iran from gaining the ability to develop a nuclear weapon, although the Russians and Chinese appear to be less against the prospect of a nuclear Iran.

II. Arms Control and the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT)

  • A. Basics

    • The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty entered into force on March 5, 1970, and 187 countries are currently parties to it (the only abstaining countries are Cuba, Israel, India, and Pakistan), it is the most widely accepted arms control agreement (North Korea also withdrew from the treaty in 2002 after previously joining in 1994)

    • Nuclear states pledge not to transfer nuclear weapons or technology to non-nuclear states and agree to work towards dismantling all nuclear weapons

    • Non-nuclear states pledge not to acquire nuclear weapons and in exchange are allowed to peacefully use nuclear energy

    • All states must declare peaceful nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which can then monitor these areas

  • B. Recent News

    • With North Korea pulling out of the treaty in 2002, Iran would become the only current NPT-member state to acquire nukes while party to the treaty if it acquires nuclear weapons

    • The non-proliferation regime has been quite successful thus far, however, the spread of nuclear weapons to North Korea and Iran could create major problems in two explosive areas, potentially causing greater proliferation, arms races, and incentives for preemptive strikes

      • Some proclaim the death of the non-proliferation regime, however, that determination rests in large part on the situations in North Korea and Iran, which are far from settled one way or the other at this point

      • President Bush has proposed new initiatives to help address proliferation problems, including the criminalizing of proliferation-related activities by non-state actors within all NPT parties

        • In response, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 15409, which criminalizes proliferation (in addition to other additions)

      • The recent U.S.-India nuclear deal, in which the U.S. recognizes India's nuclear arsenal and agrees to provide it with further technology and know-how, represents a break from the NPT, since the U.S. is openly cooperating whose nuclear arsenal is not accepted under the NPT 10

        • This could set a dangerous precedent, as Iran may look for a similar deal from Russia and Pakistan from other powers like China

        • Thus, the NPT is under threat not only from those rogue regimes that seek nuclear weapons but also from its dominant members who wish to establish double-standards for their own benefit

III. The "War on Terror" and Nuclear Weapons

    • Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden has stated his desire to obtain and use WMD against the U.S. and its people, including nuclear weapons

    • The Bush administration has labeled nuclear terrorism the #1 threat to national security (see The National Security Strategy of the United States)

    • Scholars debate whether any nation would give away or sell its nuclear weapons to terrorist groups; however, theft and/or sabotage are also possibilities

    • States like Iran and North Korea have shown willingness to sell or give conventional weapons and technology to groups who target the U.S. and its allies

    • The problem centers on a supposed lack of deterrence, since non-state actors do not have a "home address" and may be fanatical enough to not fear a reciprocal attack
      • However, some scholars argue that the likelihood of such individuals and groups acquiring nuclear weapons is infinitesimally small

    • On the threat of nuclear terrorism and how to prevent it, see Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (New York: Times Books, 2004)

III. Maps, Tables

Figure 1: U.S. National Missile Defense (NMD) Diagram

Figure 2: Proliferation Status (2005)

Figure 3: Changes in U.S. Strategic Forces Since 1990

Figure 4: Global Security’s Table on Nuclear Arsenals


Figure 5: Nuclear Weapon Status 2005

Figure 6: Nuclear Testing Chronology: 1945-1998
Click to enlarge
National Resources Defense Council TestingChronology.shtml

IV. Chronology

Figure 6: Nuclear Testing Chronology: 1945-1998

V. Bibliography/Recommended Reading

Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (New York: Times Books, 2004).

Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002).

Alexander George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974).

Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967).

Barry R. Posen, "We Can Live With a Nuclear Iran," New York Times (February 27, 2006)

Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, “The End of MAD? The Nuclear Dimension of U.S. Primacy,” International Security, Vol. 30. No.4 (Spring 2006), 7-44.

James Lebovic, “The Law of Small Numbers: Deterrence and National Missile Defense,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 46, No. 4 (August 2002), 455-483.

VI. Footnotes

1. The quantity and quality of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal (and if it even has one) is up for debate.

2. Data in this section comes from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists unless otherwise noted (

3. "U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2006," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (January-February 2006): 68.

4. Lieber and Press, “The End of MAD? The Nuclear Dimension of U.S. Primacy,” International Security, Vol. 30. No.4 (Spring 2006), 7-44.

7. See Leon V. Sigal, "North Korea: Negotiations Work," Audit of Conventional Wisdom (MIT Center for International Studies), February 2007.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology