On February 27, three days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, two things happened. First, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s nuclear deterrence to be put on high alert, and second, this:
Searches for the term “nuclear war” have increased rapidly since Russia’s invasion.
While experts say the move was mostly just designed as a scare tactic – a way to “remind the world he’s got a deterrent” and make sure people are “talking about [that] rather than the lack of success they are having in Ukraine,” according to Britain’s defense secretary – Putin’s orders are nevertheless a stark reminder of something that most of us haven’t thought hard about since the end of the Cold War.
Despite all but five of the world’s nations agreeing to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – also known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT – the threat of nuclear war is still out there. While the exact locations and numbers are state secrets, a handful of nations are known to possess these weapons of mass destruction – and as such, have the ability to wipe out millions with the press of a button.
But where are the world’s nuclear weapons? And approximately how many are out there?
WHO HAS the most nuclear weapons?
Current count: US, 5,500; Russia, 6,000.
Unsurprisingly, most of the world’s nukes are owned by the US and Russia. And when we say “most,” we mean “almost all”: there are around 12,700 nuclear weapons on the planet, and an estimated 90 percent – that’s nine out of every 10 nukes across the entire world – belong to one of these two countries.
That’s a legacy of the Cold War – the period of increasing tension and paranoia between the USA and the then-USSR that lasted from the late 1940s to the end of the '80s. Both countries had been attempting to build nuclear weapons during World War II, but it was the US that succeeded first, and their bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain – so far – the only times nuclear weapons have been used in warfare.
The subsequent decades would see the two nations dramatically escalate their nuclear capabilities, with arsenals running to the tens of thousands. By the mid-1980s, there were more than 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world; the USSR topped out at just over 40,000 over the years, and US reserves made it above 31,000.
“In the 1970s and ’80s, even decision makers will say the U.S. and Soviet buildup was insane,” Richard J Burt, chief negotiator of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty under President George Bush, told the New York Times in 2019. “Both sides overbuilt without predictability.”
The result: mutually assured destruction – aptly shortened to MAD. Scientists at Los Alamos had estimated all the way back at the end of World War II that it would take “only in the neighborhood of 10 to 100” of the type of weapons held by the two adversaries to destroy the entire planet, and they had 30 to 40 thousand. Each. Both had also developed mechanisms to fire these nuclear weapons even after sustaining an attack themselves.
In short, the policy became: you won’t nuke me, because then I’ll nuke you.
“Donald Brennan …[coined] the acronym MAD to ridicule the idea that in a nuclear war, or even a large conventional conflict, each side should be prepared to destroy the other’s cities and society,” explained the late political scientist Robert Jervis in Foreign Policy back in 2009.
“Of course, this objective was not sensible, but MAD proponents argued that was the point: The outcome would be so dreadful that both sides would be deterred from starting a nuclear war or even taking actions that might lead to it.”
NATO Has nukes
Current count: 6,000 – but only 500 without the US.
There are 30 countries in NATO: 28 in Europe, and two – Canada and the US – in North America. Of that total, though, only three have nuclear weapons: the UK, France, and as we’ve already seen, the US.
Compared to the third member of their nuclear NATO crew, France and the UK have pretty tiny arsenals, holding just around 290 and 225 nukes, respectively. Of course, that’s still a huge number when you consider the unimaginable destruction just one of those weapons could unleash.
The rest of the 27 nations in NATO have no nuclear weapons at all – but that doesn’t mean they’re totally defenseless: a handful of countries throughout the alliance house an estimated 100 US nukes as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing program.
These weapons are held physically in Germany or Italy, for example, and guarded by US Air Force personnel, but it’s the host country’s air force that can deploy them in the event that certain world leaders decide to, you know … murder everything.
China's Nuclear Weapons and policy
Current count: 350.
You don’t often hear much about China’s nuclear weapons – which is strange, because they’ve been around for more than half a century now. The first nuclear weapons test in the country occurred all the way back in 1964, after close to a decade of collaboration with USSR scientists.
Today, China is believed to have the third-largest arsenal of the world’s five nuclear states, and some top US defense experts think it’s going to grow rapidly over the coming decade.
That hopefully won’t increase the existential threat from China, however – it is, after all, the only country with nuclear weapons to have committed “not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States or nuclear-weapon-free zones at any time or under any circumstances,” and “not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstance.”
Instead, experts on Chinese policy hope this is a defensive move, perhaps reflecting a growing unease with the US. Chinese President Xi Jinping is “ensuring that China can withstand a first strike from the U.S. and penetrate U.S. missile defenses with whatever Chinese nuclear weapons survive,” James Acton, a co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Atlantic.
But “I think China’s development of its regional forces is much more concerning to me and potentially offensively oriented,” he added. “I believe that China wants options to fight a limited nuclear war, which is a new element of its strategy.”
India and Pakistan's nuclear arms race
Current count: India, 160; Pakistan, 165.
India and Pakistan have gone to war with each other no fewer than four times since the British made its “messy, hasty, and clumsily improvised” exit from the subcontinent in 1947.
The Partition of India – the historical term for the separation of British India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan – was marked by profound and unexpected cruelty and bloodshed from both sides, and the two countries’ relationship is marked by it to this day. It is, according to acclaimed Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal, “the central historical event in twentieth-century South Asia,” which “continues to influence how the peoples and states of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future.”
No wonder, then, that some see the Indian subcontinent as a potential stage for any future nuclear war. Neither have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the two historically belligerent nations are for all intents and purposes locked in a nuclear arms race with each other.
So far, neither has pressed the red button, even during their many conflicts with each other. Fingers crossed nobody important has a bad day coming their way, hey?
North Korea's nukes
Current count: 20.
Thanks to a very public presidential "button"-measuring contest, we all know North Korea boasts a nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, we don’t know that much about it, thanks to the country’s notoriously isolated government and society.
What we do know is that, five years ago, the country conducted its largest nuclear test to date at the Punggye-ri test site. North Korean officials claimed to be testing a thermonuclear weapon, with an estimated explosive power of between 100 to 370 kilotons.
For comparison, the lower end of that estimate alone would make the weapon six times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
So should we worry about North Korea? While the tiny Asian country does now possess intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US and Europe, if we take them at their word, they don’t want to cause trouble, according to Suzanne DiMaggio of New America, who has participated in a series of unofficial nuclear talks with North Koreans affiliated with the Kim government.
“In my conversation with the North Koreans, they’ve been very clear that their key goal is to demonstrate they’re capable of striking the continental U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile” in order to deter a U.S. attack, she told The Atlantic.
“They have told us that their goal is not to amass a giant nuclear arsenal, but to have just enough to safeguard the regime, and then they will turn their attention to economic development of the country. Of course, this is what they told us. We should fully test that.”
Does Israel have nuclear weapons?
Current count: 90 … probably.
It may seem surprising that in a list containing North Korea and nuclear weapons, Israel would be the wildcard entry. But there’s a good reason: unlike every other country discussed so far, Israel has never formally admitted to having nukes.
We know the country does possess nuclear weapons – it’s been an open secret ever since 1986 when former nuclear technician and peace activist Mordechai Vanunu blew the whistle in the British press.
Weirdly, this hasn’t stopped anybody from playing along with the Middle Eastern nation’s charade, even if privately, Israel’s capabilities are well known and equally well documented. Satellite images from last year showed the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center, a nuclear facility at the center of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, undergoing a huge construction project, and the country even conducted nuclear weapons tests as far back as the '70s.
For many years – and some in Washington believe even to this day – Israel’s nuclear program was reliant on black market dealings and outright theft, which, coupled with the official policy of “nuclear ambiguity”, makes the country’s nuclear arsenal even more difficult to estimate than most. Analysts’ best guesses are that the country has enough material for around 80 or 90 nuclear bombs, however – and despite international disapproval, that number is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
“Essentially the bargain has been that Israel keeps its nuclear deterrent deep in the basement and Washington keeps its critique locked in the closet,” explained Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in a 2013 Washington Post article.
WHO DOESN'T HAVE a nuclear arsenal?
Current count: Rest of the world, 0, zero, zilch, nada, not a one.
As for the world outside of those nine countries – there’s none that’s known to have nuclear weapons. In fact, let us show you something beautiful:
See that sea of blue? Those 84 million square kilometers comprise the world’s Nuclear Weapon Free Zone: states where the development, manufacturing, control, possession, testing, stationing, or transporting of nuclear weapons is fully – and verifiably – banned.
And the yellow countries on the map are all signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, without nuclear weapons. In fact, only the red nations – the nine we’ve covered here – have nuclear weapons.