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India’s nuclear stockpile surpasses Pakistan’s: SIPRI 

Both South Asian neighbors continued to develop new types of nuclear delivery systems in 2023, SIPRI noted

India’s nuclear stockpile surpasses Pakistan’s: SIPRI 
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

India has overtaken Pakistan in terms of the number of nuclear arsenals in 2024, a report said. 

Swedish think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said India slightly expanded its nuclear arsenal in 2023, and now possesses 172 nuclear warheads while Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile is at 170. 

The nine nuclear-armed states—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and Israel—continued to modernize their nuclear arsenals and several deployed new nuclear-armed or nuclear-capable weapon systems in 2023, the report said. 

Both India and Pakistan continued to develop new types of nuclear delivery systems in 2023, SIPRI noted. 

While Pakistan remains the main focus of India’s nuclear deterrent, India appears to be placing growing emphasis on longer-range weapons, including those capable of reaching targets throughout China, SIPRI said in its annual assessment of the state of armaments, disarmament and international security.

Over 2,000 nuclear warheads on high operational alert 

The SIPRI Yearbook 2024 found that the number and types of nuclear weapons in development have increased as states deepen their reliance on nuclear deterrence.

Of the total global inventory of an estimated 12,121 warheads in January 2024, about 9,585 were in military stockpiles for potential use. An estimated 3,904 of those warheads were deployed with missiles and aircraft—60 more than in January 2023—and the rest were in central storage.

Around 2,100 of the deployed warheads were kept in a state of high operational alert on ballistic missiles. Nearly all of these warheads belonged to Russia or the US, but for the first time China is believed to have some warheads on high operational alert, the report noted. 

Russia and the US together have almost 90% of all nuclear weapons. The sizes of their respective military stockpiles (i.e. usable warheads) seem to have remained relatively stable in 2023, although Russia is estimated to have deployed around 36 more warheads with operational forces than in January 2023. 

Transparency regarding nuclear forces has declined in both countries in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and debates around nuclear-sharing arrangements have increased in saliency. 

Notably, there were several public claims made in 2023 that Russia had deployed nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory, although there is no conclusive visual evidence that the actual deployment of warheads has taken place. 

In addition to their military stockpiles, Russia and the US each hold more than 1,200 warheads previously retired from military service, which they are gradually dismantling. 

China’s nuclear stockpile grows 

SIPRI’s estimate of the size of China’s nuclear arsenal increased from 410 warheads in January 2023 to 500 in January 2024, and it is expected to keep growing. For the first time, China may also now be deploying a small number of warheads on missiles during peacetime. 

Depending on how it decides to structure its forces, China could potentially have at least as many intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as either Russia or the US by the turn of the decade, although its stockpile of nuclear warheads is still expected to remain much smaller than the stockpiles of either of those two countries.

“China is expanding its nuclear arsenal faster than any other country,” said Hans M. Kristensen, associate senior fellow with Sipri’s weapons of mass destruction program and director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). “But in nearly all of the nuclear-armed states there are either plans or a significant push to increase nuclear forces.” 

Although the UK is not thought to have increased its nuclear weapon arsenal in 2023, its warhead stockpile is expected to grow in the future as a result of the British government’s announcement in 2021 that it was raising its limit from 225 to 260 warheads. The government also said it would no longer publicly disclose its quantities of nuclear weapons, deployed warheads or deployed missiles.

In 2023, France continued its programs to develop a third-generation nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) and a new air-launched cruise missile, as well as to refurbish and upgrade existing systems.

North Korea’s nuclear program

North Korea continues to prioritize its military nuclear program as a central element of its national security strategy. SIPRI estimates that the country has now assembled around 50 warheads and possesses enough fissile material to reach a total of up to 90 warheads, both significant increases over the estimates for January 2023. 

While North Korea conducted no nuclear test explosions in 2023, it appears to have carried out its first test of a short-range ballistic missile from a rudimentary silo. It also completed the development of at least two types of land-attack cruise missile (LACM) designed to deliver nuclear weapons. 

“Like several other nuclear-armed states, North Korea is putting new emphasis on developing its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons,” said Matt Korda, associate Researcher with Sipri’s weapons of mass destruction programme and senior research fellow for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. ‘Accordingly, there is a growing concern that North Korea might intend to use these weapons very early in a conflict.’

Israel—which does not publicly acknowledge possessing nuclear weapons—is also believed to be modernizing its nuclear arsenal and appears to be upgrading its plutonium production reactor site at Dimona.

India, Pakistan and North Korea are all pursuing the capability to deploy multiple warheads on ballistic missiles, something Russia, France, the UK, the USA and—more recently—China already have. 

This would enable a rapid potential increase in deployed warheads, as well as the possibility for nuclear-armed countries to threaten the destruction of significantly more targets.

“While the global total of nuclear warheads continues to fall as cold war-era weapons are gradually dismantled, regrettably we continue to see year-on-year increases in the number of operational nuclear warheads,” said Sipri director Dan Smith. 

“This trend seems likely to continue and probably accelerate in the coming years and is extremely concerning,” Smith added.

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