The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) recently released their annual publication, SIPRI Yearbook 2019, which details the current condition of nuclear armament around the world. According to SIPRI Governing Board Chair Ambassador Jan Eliason, this year’s “key finding is that despite an overall decrease in the number of nuclear warheads in 2018, all nuclear weapon-possessing states continue to modernize their nuclear arsenals.”
On its face, the overall decrease of nuclear warheads appears to be a positive step in global disarmament efforts, with the 13,865 nuclear weapons being reported at the start of 2019 being a substantial decrease from 2018’s reported figure of 14,465 weapons. Of the 13,865 weapons, 3,750 are deployed with operational forces, while the rest are either reserve warheads or retired warheads awaiting disarmament. The year’s decrease is mainly the result of the 2010 New START disarmament treaty between the US and Russia, who together account for over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.
While New START appears to have been effective in easing Russia and the US towards the diminishment of nuclear weapon stocks, there are many reasons to remain skeptical of the long-term prospects of nuclear disarmament. New START will expire in 2021 barring an extension, and there no ongoing discussions regarding the maintenance of the treaty or the negotiation of a follow-up. The US Department of Defense’s 2018 plans to develop new nuclear weapons signal the imminent undoing of the results of the New START treaty. Further stoking the flames of concern surrounding the US’s nuclear policy, US President Donald Trump rejected a request from the Federation of American Scientists to disclose the exact number of American nuclear warheads.
Several of the other seven nuclear-armed states are indicating the development of new weapons systems, further portending an increase in global nuclear weaponry. China, India, and Pakistan have all announced their work to increase the size of their arsenals, with the latter two “expanding their military fissile material production capabilities on a scale that may lead to significant increases in the size of their nuclear weapon inventories over the next decade,” according to Shannon Kile, Director of SIPRI’s Nuclear Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme.
There are of course difficulties in ascertaining precise statistics regarding nuclear capability from certain states. Israel, for instance, has refused to comment on its nuclear arsenal for many years. These figures also do not account for country’s that could rapidly develop a nuclear arsenal if prompted, Japan being the primary example of one such country, having plutonium stocks large enough to create at least 5,000 nuclear warheads. Despite short-term successes in disarmament efforts, the SIPRI Yearbook has a clear message: nuclear weapon stocks are not going anywhere and are likely to grow in the next decade.