There are signs that a decline in nuclear arsenals witnessed since the end of the Cold War has stalled, a top research institute said, warning that both Russia and the United States appear to have attached greater importance to nuclear weapons in their defense policies.
The nine nuclear-armed states — the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea — held an estimated 13,080 nuclear weapons at the start of 2021, The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said in its annual report released on June 14.
That number represents a slight decrease from an estimated 13,400 weapons in possession of these states at the beginning of 2020.
However, the figure includes retired warheads waiting to be dismantled, and without them the combined military stockpile of nuclear arms rose from 9,380 to 9,620.
“The overall number of warheads in global military stockpiles now appears to be increasing, a worrisome sign that the declining trend that has characterized global nuclear arsenals since the end of the cold war has stalled,” said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear arms expert at SIPRI.
The United States and Russia still had more than 90 percent of all nuclear weapons, enough to destroy life on Earth many times over.
Despite the marginal overall decrease in nuclear weapons, the number of operationally deployed nuclear weapons increased from 3,720 to 3,825, SIPRI said.
Of these, around 2,000 were kept in “a state of high operational alert” and nearly all of them belonged to Russia or the United States.
While the United States and Russia continue to dismantle retired warheads, both were estimated to have had around 50 more nuclear warheads in operational deployment at the start of 2021 than a year earlier. Britain and France also have deployable warheads.
SIPRI did not provide estimates of the number of deployed warheads by the other nuclear states.
Meanwhile, both the United States and Russia are carrying out “extensive and expensive” programs to replace and modernize their nuclear arsenals, according to SIPRI.
“Both Russia and the United States appear to be increasing the importance they attribute to nuclear weapons in their national security strategies,” said Kristensen.
Earlier this year, the United States and Russia extended the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty for another five years. The treaty limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear forces but does not limit total nuclear warhead stockpiles.
“The last-minute extension of New START by Russia and the United States in February this year was a relief, but the prospects for additional bilateral nuclear arms control between the nuclear superpowers remain poor,” Kristensen said.
The report said the other seven nuclear powers are also developing or deploying new weapons systems or have announced their intension to do so.
“China is in the middle of a significant modernization and expansion of its nuclear weapon inventory, and India and Pakistan also appear to be expanding their nuclear arsenals,” SIPRI said.