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The 15 Countries With the Most Nukes in Their Arsenal

The 15 Countries With the Most Nukes in Their Arsenal

At the dawn of the year 1945, nuclear weapons existed only in theory. By the end of that year, two nuclear warheads had been used in anger. By 1950, the United States of America had nearly 300 nukes in its arsenal, while the USSR had about five. But that balance was going to shift a bit over the next few decades. Near the end of the Cold War, in the 1980s, America had more than 20,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled and ready for use. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, on the other hand, had closer to 40,000 nukes on hand. (For some perspective, the country with the next largest stockpile was France, which had an estimated 500 warheads in its arsenal in the 1980s.)

While the Soviets had more warheads than the Americans, the quality of American weaponry and the reliability of its delivery capabilities allowed the US to maintain a strategic advantage through the end of the Cold War era. The American Triad involved land-based missiles, nuclear-armed bombers, and nuclear-armed submarines; the three-pronged approach guaranteed a response even if part of the nuclear force was destroyed.

Today the American and Russian stockpiles of nukes are both much smaller, though the two nations still possess far and away the largest nuclear arsenals. But these days, they aren’t the only members of the club. And arguably a nation with one bomb is more dangerous than a country with thousands; that one might just be used.

15. Iraq – If Things Had Been Different


If America had never invaded Iraq in 2003, the world would likely be a very different place. Or at least the Middle East would likely look rather different. Perhaps the so-called Islamic State terrorist group would never have formed. Maybe Syria would not be an absolute mess of strife and bloodshed and despair. On the other hand, there is a good chance that, were Saddam Hussein still in power of Iraq, the nation would not only remain a dictatorship, but would by now be a nuclear-armed dictatorship. While the Weapons of Mass Destruction program on which the 2003 invasion was predicated turned out to be greatly overstated, Hussein did indeed desire such weaponry, and who knows what might have happened in time?

14. Iran – In the Club?


As far as we know, Iran does not have a nuclear weapon and currently lacks the capability to build one. But they got rather close a few years back, having built up a robust nuclear program including multiple centrifuges needed for uranium enrichment operations and heavy water production facilities. The Iranians always claimed their nuclear program was intended for peaceful purposes including for medical applications and power production, but given the nation’s history of deceit and its other covert weapons programs, it’s hard to know for sure what they intended or how close they came to producing weapons-grade nuclear material.

13. Belarus – Briefly Nuclear


Belarus is not a great place to visit or call home if you love reliably fair elections, free speech, and other things that most Westerners take for granted. The nation is often referred to as a latter day dictatorship — the president serves without term limits, and the office has been held by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994 — and it operates in many ways like a police state. At least Belarus doesn’t have any nuclear weapons today. Back in the 1990s, they had almost 100 warheads on hand, though the Soviets were in ostensible control of the weapons, of course.

12. Ukraine – A History of Violence


Ukraine is currently in something of a state of war along its eastern border with Russia; separatists and militia groups, with the thinly veiled support of the Russian government and military, are vying for Ukrainian territory, seeking to annex land much like Russia, who took over the Crimean Peninsula a few years back. This active but contained military action is nothing new for Ukraine, which was crisscrossed by forces and ravaged during WWII, the Napoleonic Wars, and on back through antiquity. Ukraine was also the home to at least 1,200 nuclear weapons in the closing years of the Cold War. (Pro tip: Ukrainians actually don’t like it when you say The Ukraine, so don’t do that.)

11. Kazakhstan – Borat and Bombs


Today, most people on the globe probably identify this wind-swept Central Asian nation more with Borat, the bumbling alter ego of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, than with nuclear weaponry. But back when it was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was home to thousands of nuclear warheads. In fact, in the early 1990s, there were more nukes there than in any other country (or vassal state, to be accurate) save for the Russian motherland and the United States. All of the weapons were relocated and/or dismantled following the fall of the USSR, at least as far as we know.

10. South Africa – Ready and Able but Not Willing


Not only is South Africa not, in fact, currently a nuclear armed nation, but in fact it has the distinct privilege of being the only country on earth that can say that it voluntarily gave up its supply of nuclear weapons. The nation developed its nuclear capabilities during the latter years of the 20th Century and had at least six nukes in the early 1990s, but after the end of apartheid, the country dismantled its weapons and shuttered the program. While not currently armed, we know they could again create these super weapons, thus South Africa has a spot on the list.

9. North Korea – One? Eight? None?


You can’t really trust anything the North Korean government says, so who knows how many nuclear weapons they actually have on hand, if any. In fact, it’s even hard to tell how successful their past nuclear bomb tests have been — for all we know, the Hermit Kingdom has never developed a truly effective nuclear warhead. But experts agree that the nation does have at least limited nuclear capabilities, despite the quality of its weapons. The DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, FYI) probably has between five and ten nukes right now. The scary thing is that, without the constraints of international treaties or rationality, they might go right ahead building more of them in coming years.

8. Pakistan – Building On Up


Pakistan joined the nuclear weapons club in the 1980s, at least in terms of capabilities. The nation did not actively test a nuclear weapon until the year 1998. However, when they finally conducted their first live fire test, they did so in a major way: Pakistan detonated five nuclear bombs simultaneously on May 28th, 1998. Today, they likely have a little more than 100 nukes in their arsenal. Unlike many nations, Pakistan continues to increase said arsenal rather than reducing it. The nation will likely have closer to 200 warheads by the end of this decade. That’s a scary prospect in a land often beset by terrorist groups.

7. India – Nuclear Neighbours


There is really only one reason Pakistan developed a major nuclear weapons program: the Indian nuclear weapons program. Since the misguided partitioning of India and Pakistan after the British Empire fractured in the first half of the 20th Century, the two nations have been bitter rivals. India developed its first nuclear weapons in the mid-1970s, and has since built up a nuclear arsenal that today numbers around 100 or more weapons, but is slated for modest reduction in the coming years. India is planning to retain only between fifty and seventy nuclear weapons by the coming of the next decade.

6. Israel – Punching Above Its Weight


Israel is known around the world for its impressive military might, which is ironic, really, as the country ranks as 149th in terms of total size. (It’s very small, in other words.) To help bolster its crack fighting forces, this nation of 8.6 million people and about 8,300 square miles of landmass keeps an arsenal of nuclear weapons that is estimated to be about eighty in number. Unlike most nuclear-armed countries, Israel has no plans to grow or reduce its stockpile in the coming years; the Israelis plan to have just the same number of nukes for the foreseeable future.

5. China – One of the OGs


China was the fifth country to reveal its nuclear weapons program and capabilities, testing its first nuclear warhead in 1964. Since then, this communist juggernaut has built up an arsenal of several hundred warheads, though they never bothered stockpiling thousands of nukes, despite a likely ability to do so. Instead, China has kept between 200 and 300 nuclear weapons in its weapons cache during every decade since the 1970s. And really, a few hundred nuclear weapons is enough to keep a place at the table, isn’t it? That and the whole million-man army thing. And the massive economic power thing, too.

4. The United Kingdom – The Special Relationship


Usually, America spends time, treasury, effort, and occasional blood trying to prevent other nations from obtaining or building nuclear weapons. That’s far from the case with our closest allies, the Brits, however. In fact, America willingly proffered much of the needed information and materials (including fissile plutonium) to the British, helping them to develop their nuclear weapons capabilities in the 1950s, years before the next nation joined the club. Today the UK has about 200 nukes. Their only active weapons delivery system is the Trident II Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles at the ready in the nations four Vanguard-Class nuclear subs.

3. France – Le Bomb

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France has the world’s third largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, with an estimated 300 to 350 nukes at the ready right now. (Note that in the 1990s, the nation had more than 500 warheads ready for blowing up as needed). And as one of five members of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (called the NPT for short), they are free to keep their nukes without international pressure well into the future. The French are not only well-armed, but have traditionally tested their weapons with gusto, blasting off more than 200 devices between the mid-1960s and the 1990s.

2. Russia – The Mother Russia Load


Russia, the scion of the absurdly well-armed Soviet Union, currently boasts the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. They have an estimated 7,500 warheads at present, though over the next few years, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (known as START) should see that number lowered to 3,350. The goal for that reduction is the year 2022, though given the current relationship “enjoyed” between Russia and the West, we’ll see if they end up playing ball. If and when they hit the smaller number, Russia will return to their early 1960s warhead count, albeit with much more potent, effective weapons these days.

1. America – We’re #1! We’re #1!


Technically, right now America does not have the most nuclear weapons, actually. But our current stockpile of around 7,000 nukes barely lags behind the Russian arsenal in terms of quantity. And the United States is slated to retain 3,650 nukes in the year 2020, a point at which the Russians have said they will reduce to 3,350. So within a few years, we’ll have numerical superiority. And recall that, really, nuclear strategic supremacy doesn’t come down to sheer numbers alone, but to who can hit the hardest with the weapons they have… and who can hit last, too. Also keep in mind that no one really wins in a nuclear war.

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