A quick guide to nuclear weapons

The what, when, where of nuclear danger – and the good news about dispelling it.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
8 February 2018

Nagasaki, 20 minutes after the bombing in 1945. Flickr/Semilla Luz. CC-BY-2.0.

In the past couple of weeks, the details of the new United States nuclear posture have been published, Trump has delivered a belligerent state-of-the-union address and, most significant of all, the authoritative Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight.  

This is the closest the clock has been to “doomsday” since the US and Soviet Union started testing immensely destructive H-bombs in the early 1950s. Now, after thirty years of an apparent easing of nuclear tensions since the end of the cold war, fear of nuclear war is real and pressing.

In recent months I’ve written some specific pieces on the nuclear issue for openDemocracy, mostly related to North Korea (see, for example, "Trump vs Kim Jong-un: nuclear war by 2019?" [12 October 2017], and "What are the chances of a nuclear nightmare?" [11 January 2018]); and for Oxford Research Group, mostly on UK weapons, US developments and first use (see Limited Nuclear Wars – Myth and Reality [29 August 2017], and Nuclear Posture Review: Sliding Towards Nuclear War? [30 January 2018]).

But what of the larger, yet immediate, context? In light of these publications, several people have suggested that a short guide to current nuclear arsenals would be useful. So here it is, in four parts. It starts with a quick scan of nuclear history; lists today's nuclear arsenals; outlines the good news (there really is some) and the bad; and ends with where to go next for reliable information (there’s plenty around). And to underline: notwithstanding all the worries, there is still room for optimism.

A quick history

The atom bomb was developed in the United States-led Manhattan Project which peaked with the first test in July 1945 followed by the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August). By later standards these were small bombs exploding with a force below 20 kilotons, but together they killed more than 200,000 people. A kiloton equals 1,000 tons of TNT – but current weapons may be a megaton or more in destructive force (1,000,000 tons of TNT).  

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US soon set up a nuclear production-line. American planes could have destroyed two Japanese cities each month (though many were already flattened by intense conventional bombardment). In the event, Japan surrendered on 15 August. But a production-line was established anyway as the cold war loomed. As early as 1948, the US had a nuclear arsenal of fifty weapons.

This is the closest the clock has been to “doomsday” since the US and Soviet Union started testing immensely destructive H-bombs in the early 1950s.

The Soviet Union meanwhile developed its own atom bomb, testing its first in 1949. Both states went on to develop and test the H-bomb (aka thermonuclear or fusion bomb). There followed an extraordinary nuclear arms race involving free-fall bombs, land-based and submarine-launched ballistic-missiles, nuclear-armed torpedoes, anti-aircraft missiles, air-to-air missiles, artillery-shells, and even miniature backpack nuclear landmines.

Other countries got in on the act: the United Kingdom built its first bomb in 1952, France followed in 1960, China in 1964, and Israel later that decade. India tested what it tastefully called a “peaceful nuclear device” in 1974, Pakistan’s first test was in 1998, and North Korea’s in 2006.

The east-west nuclear arms race lasted from the early 1950s to the end of the 1980s, and was almost unbelievable in its intensity. In most areas of weaponry the US led the way, with the Soviet Union subsequently catching up. By the mid-1980s world nuclear arsenals peaked at over 60,000, the vast majority American and Soviet. Most were far more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. But the extraordinary range of tactical weapons refutes the idea that nuclear policy was all about deterrence through mutually-assured destruction (MAD) using massively powerful strategic weapons. In reality, actually fighitng a nuclear war has a history that dates from Hiroshima and continues strongly to today.

Where are we now?

There was a substantial scaling down in the 1990s, some of it by agreement but much more done unilaterally. Most of the US and Russian (ex-Soviet) nuclear stockpiles were allowed to wither during the decade, although that still left many thousands. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says there are currently about 15,000 warheads in the worldwide nuclear arsenals, with individual states as follows:

  • * United States,  6,800
  • * Russia, 7,000
  • * United Kingdom, 215
  • * France, 300
  • * China, 270
  • * Israel, 80
  • * India, 130
  • * Pakistan, 140
  • * North Korea, 15

Some of these weapons are in reserve and others are in storage, waiting to be dismantled. The United States, for example, has 1,393 warheads on strategic-delivery systems, made up of intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers; 4,018 stockpiled, many of them tactical nuclear weapons readily available for use, and 2,880 “retired” nuclear warheads pending disassembly. The proportions for Russia are broadly similar. If nuclear strategy was all about the ability to destroy the major cities of a country then twenty or thirty would be more than enough. So "overkill” remains the order of the day.

Most analysts believe the US systems are more accurate and reliable. But they also recognise that because Russia's conventional forces are relatively weak, it would be tempted to use nuclear weapons early if a conflict with Nato broke out. This was certainly the policy within in the 1970s-80s when the Soviet Union had much larger conventional forces in Europe.

The good news

With around 10,000 nuclear warheads deployed or stockpiled for use, and more talk of “limited nuclear wars”, it is worth remembering that there are positives too. After all, only eight United Nations member-states have nuclear weapons, while 185 don’t. Moreover, a number of states decided against developing nuclear weapons in the past after thinking seriously about it. They include Sweden, Switzerland, Brazil and Argentina. South Africa had nuclear weapons but dismantled its small stock at the end of the apartheid era (see "A nuclear world: eight-and-a-half rogue states", 13 January 2017). In the 1980s, many analysts (including me) thought that there would have been more nuclear-armed states by now.  

It is also worth remembering that many states are members of nuclear-free zones, including signatories to four international treaties covering large parts of the world:

  • * Treaty of Tlatelolco (Latin America and the Caribbean), 1967
  • * Treaty of Rarotonga (south Pacific), 1985
  • * Treaty of Bangkok (southeast Asia), 1995
  • * Treaty of Pelindaba (Africa), 1996

In view of this it is hardly surprising that over fifty states have signed up to the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a UN initiative which was adopted in July 2017 and opened for signature only in September.

The bad news

A recap: why is it even necessary to write articles like this, nearly thirty years after the end of the cold war and in light of the good news just cited? Here are three reasons.

There is a need for much more discussion about and opposition to the belief that having the ability to kill tens of millions of people makes for a sane “defence” policy.

First, all the eight nuclear-weapons states are intent on keeping their nuclear arsenals and are involved in modernising them or their delivery systems. None has even the slightest intention of signing up to, or even vaguely supporting, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – although that document has widespread international support.   

Second, tensions between Nato and Russia are increasing, and there is real fear of a nuclear confrontation between North Korea and the United States, especially under the latter’s present leadership.

Third, and perhaps most important of all, is the serious talk of small-scale use of nuclear weapons. Such a catastrophic step would break a nuclear taboo that has held, despite many crises, mistakes and false alarms, since 9 August 1945.

That is why the issue is so important – and why there is a need for much more discussion about and opposition to the belief that having the ability to kill tens of millions of people makes for a sane “defence” policy. But in raising the issue, it's always useful to remember the good news too. There are other ways forward, out of the nuclear danger and into a safer world, and plenty of people believe in them.


Further information

If you want to know more about things nuclear, then here is a brief personal selection of sources - from a much larger range:

* SIPRI is an excellent resource, not least its Yearbook: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security

* Probably the best informed sources on nuclear weapons are Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris, both at the Federation of American Scientists with frequent articles in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

* Patricia Lewis, research director for international security at Chatham House, is with her team doing some interesting work on issues of nuclear safety and crisis instability

* Nuclear Information Service is a well-informed source, particularly on UK nuclear matters

* British American Security Information Council (Basic),   is also  useful on UK nuclear weapons, not least the US connection

* Rebecca Johnson’s Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy has valuable information on nuclear arms control -

* There are all too few independent academic analysts in the UK, but Nick Ritchie at the University of York is always worth reading

* Finally, and if you are a real glutton for punishment, see if you can dig out a copy of a book that Malcolm Dando and I wrote for CND nearly in 1984: The Death of Deterrence: Consequences of the New Nuclear Arms Race. It cost £1.95 then and should be even cheaper now!

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