Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

There are less than 48 hours left in this Mid-Year Campaign and our independent journalism needs your help today.
If you value our work, please support Common Dreams. This is our hour of need.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate on January 29, 2021 in an action to call for more progress in nuclear disarmament. (Photo: John Macdougall/AFP via Getty Images)

Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate on January 29, 2021. (Photo: John Macdougall/AFP via Getty Images)

'Worrying Trend': Global Nuclear Stockpile Set to Grow for First Time Since Cold War

"The risk of nuclear weapons being used seems higher now than at any time since the height of the Cold War," said the director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Kenny Stancil

The world's stockpile of nuclear warheads is expected to expand in the coming years for the first time since the 1980s and the catastrophic threat of those weapons being used is escalating, a leading arms watchdog said Monday.

"If the nuclear-armed states take no immediate and concrete action on disarmament, then the global inventory of nuclear warheads could soon begin to increase for the first time since the Cold War," Matt Korda, an associate researcher with the Weapons of Mass Destruction Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said in a statement released alongside SIPRI's annual report.

As of early 2022, nine countries—Russia, the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea—possessed a combined total of 12,705 nuclear warheads, SIPRI estimates. Together, Russia and the U.S. control more than 90% of this global inventory.

Nuclear warheads per country, 2022 (Al Jazeera)

Of the estimated 12,705 nuclear warheads in existence at the start of 2022, roughly 9,440 were in military stockpiles for potential use, according to SIPRI. Of those, an estimated 3,732 were deployed with missiles and aircraft, and about 2,000—nearly all of which belonged to Russia or the U.S.—were kept in a state of high operational readiness.

While the total number of nuclear weapons decreased slightly from 13,080 last January to 12,705 this January, SIPRI expects the global supply of weapons capable of annihilating human life on Earth to increase over the next decade.

"All of the nuclear-armed states are increasing or upgrading their arsenals and most are sharpening nuclear rhetoric and the role nuclear weapons play in their military strategies," said Wilfred Wan, director of SIPRI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Program. "This is a very worrying trend."

As the think tank explains:

Although Russian and U.S. total warhead inventories continued to decline in 2021, this was due to the dismantling of warheads that had been retired from military service several years ago. The number of warheads in the two countries' useable military stockpiles remained relatively stable in 2021. Both countries' deployed strategic nuclear forces were within the limits set by a bilateral nuclear arms reduction treaty (2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, New START). Note, however, that New START does not limit total non-strategic nuclear warhead inventories.

China is in the middle of a substantial expansion of its nuclear weapon arsenal, which satellite images indicate includes the construction of over 300 new missile silos. Several additional nuclear warheads are thought to have been assigned to operational forces in 2021 following the delivery of new mobile launchers and a submarine.

The U.K. in 2021 announced its decision to increase the ceiling on its total warhead stockpile, in a reversal of decades of gradual disarmament policies. While criticizing China and Russia for lack of nuclear transparency, the U.K. also announced that it would no longer publicly disclose figures for the country’s operational nuclear weapon stockpile, deployed warheads, or deployed missiles.

In early 2021 France officially launched a program to develop a third-generation nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). India and Pakistan appear to be expanding their nuclear arsenals, and both countries introduced and continued to develop new types of nuclear delivery system in 2021. Israel—which does not publicly acknowledge possessing nuclear weapons—is also believed to be modernizing its nuclear arsenal.

North Korea continues to prioritize its military nuclear program as a central element of its national security strategy. While North Korea conducted no nuclear test explosions or long-range ballistic missile tests during 2021, SIPRI estimates that the country has now assembled up to 20 warheads, and possesses enough fissile material for a total of 45–55 warheads.

"There are clear indications that the reductions that have characterized global nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War have ended," said Hans Kristensen, an associate senior fellow with SIPRI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Program and director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February, experts have warned that the ongoing war in Europe could spiral into a direct conflict between Moscow and NATO—both flush with nuclear weapons—but the U.S.-led military alliance has continued to prioritize weapons shipments over diplomacy.

"Relations between the world's great powers," SIPRI board chair and former Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven lamented Monday, "have deteriorated further at a time when humanity and the planet face an array of profound and pressing common challenges that can only be addressed by international cooperation."

Despite issuing a joint statement on January 3 affirming that "nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought" and reaffirming that they intend to adhere to non-proliferation, disarmament, and arms control agreements and pledges, Russia, the U.S., China, France, and the U.K.—all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—continue to enlarge or modernize their nuclear arsenals.

During its military assault on Ukraine, Russia has even openly threatened to use nuclear weapons. As bilateral talks between Russia and the U.S. have ground to a halt amid the war, none of the other seven nuclear-armed states have pursued arms control negotiations.

In addition, the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members have expressed opposition to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that entered into force last January when it was ratified by 50 governments, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, has yet to be restored by the Biden administration.

U.S. President Joe Biden's latest Nuclear Posture Review, released in March, has also been condemned for failing to commit to a no-first-use policy.

"Although there were some significant gains in both nuclear arms control and nuclear disarmament in the past year," said SIPRI director Dan Smith, "the risk of nuclear weapons being used seems higher now than at any time since the height of the Cold War."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Just a few days left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Naomi Klein: The US Is in the Midst of a 'Shock-and-Awe Judicial Coup'

"The rolling judicial coup coming from this court is by no means over," warned the author of "The Shock Doctrine."

Jake Johnson ·

Markey, Bowman Join Climate Coalition in Urging SCOTUS Expansion

"We cannot sit idly by," said Markey, "as extremists on the Supreme Court eviscerate the authorities that the government has had for decades to combat climate change and reduce pollution."

Brett Wilkins ·

Ocasio-Cortez Says US 'Witnessing a Judicial Coup in Process'

"It is our duty to check the Court's gross overreach of power in violating people's inalienable rights and seizing for itself the powers of Congress and the president."

Brett Wilkins ·

Critics Say Biden Drilling Bonanza 'Won't Lower Gas Prices' But 'Will Worsen Climate Crisis'

"President Biden's massive public lands giveaway in the face of utter climate catastrophe is just the latest sign that his climate commitments are mere rhetoric," said one campaigner.

Kenny Stancil ·

Grave Warnings as Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Case That Threatens 'Future of Voting Rights'

"Buckle up," implores one prominent legal scholar. "An extreme decision here could fundamentally alter the balance of power in setting election rules in the states and provide a path for great threats to elections."

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo