World’s nuclear capabilities are decreasing in overall numbers but growing deadlier

Where do things stand in the world of nuclear weapons?

Tensions over potential nuclear warfare – and the ever-alarming concerns that more countries are endeavoring to join the niche arms arena – are once again on the rise.

It was revealed last month that U.S. intelligence agencies are probing Saudi Arabia's ties with China to enrich its own process uranium capabilities and the potential development of a nuclear weapon.

Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman professed in a 2018 "60 Minutes" interview that the kingdom would only endeavor to acquire such weapons if its nemesis Iran continued its process. A possible Saudi program – beyond the limitations of a developing a nuclear reactor for civilian purposes – has never been officially affirmed.

Meanwhile, China is said to be quietly aiding the Saudis in establishing a covert facility to produce "yellowcake" from uranium ore, which would bring the kingdom closer to being able to enrich uranium for a warhead.

But Saudi Arabia is not the only power player in the region raising concern.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also expressed interest in developing a program, stating in 2019 that "several countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two."

The UH-1N is a light-lift utility helicopter used to support various missions. The primary missions include: airlift of emergency security forces, security and surveillance of off-base nuclear weapons convoys, and distinguished visitor airlift. Air Force

The UH-1N is a light-lift utility helicopter used to support various missions. The primary missions include: airlift of emergency security forces, security and surveillance of off-base nuclear weapons convoys, and distinguished visitor airlift. Air Force

"But [they tell us that] we can't have them. This I cannot accept," Erdogan proclaimed on the centennial of the Turkish independence movement. "There is no developed nation in the world that doesn't have them."

So, where do things stand in the world of nuclear weapons?

"Over the past several years, disarmament efforts have largely stagnated. Every nuclear-armed country is currently in the midst of modernizing their nuclear arsenals. Many states are also reinvigorating or even expanding the role of nuclear weapons – specifically tactical nuclear weapons – in their military doctrines, meaning that nuclear-armed states are increasingly posturing themselves for nuclear warfighting," Matt Korda, research associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), told Fox News. "This could lower the threshold for nuclear use, and will therefore be a serious nuclear risk factor going forward."

Korda also claimed that, in recent years, "we have seen the decline – and general disinterest – in arms control writ large."

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According to a recent report published by the Stockholm Institute Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the number of warheads has been declining over at least the past two years – with the focus being redirected to modernization.

People watch a TV showing a file image of an unspecified North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. South Korea's military said North Korea on Thursday fired two projectiles toward its eastern sea, an apparent resumption of weapons tests aimed at ramping up pressure on Washington over a stalemate in nuclear negotiations. The sign reads: "North Korea fired two projectiles." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

People watch a TV showing a file image of an unspecified North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. South Korea's military said North Korea on Thursday fired two projectiles toward its eastern sea, an apparent resumption of weapons tests aimed at ramping up pressure on Washington over a stalemate in nuclear negotiations. The sign reads: "North Korea fired two projectiles." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Together, the nine nuclear-armed states – the U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea – maintain an estimated 13,400 nuclear weapons, as of the beginning of this year, a drop from the 13,865 weapons SIPRI estimated these states had at the beginning of 2019. This follows the trend of the previous year, which saw a decline of over 600 warheads – due to the U.S. and Russia decreasing their inventory, the assessment said.

The U.K., China, Pakistan, North Korea, and likely Israel all bumped up their number of warheads, SIPRI said. India and France saw no changes to the size of their arsenals. The institute's 2020 review noted that around 3,720 nuclear weapons are now deployed with operational forces, and almost 1,800 "are kept in a state of high operational alert."

The U.S. remains the only country known to store some – roughly 180 – of its stockpile in other countries, as per the Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor (NWBM) 2018 report, and has long vowed to use its weapons to aid NATO member states, in addition to South Korea, Japan and Australia.

The U.S. depository is made of numerous nuclear weapons, ranging from warheads borne by air-launched cruise missiles to others in silos.

While the U.S. now possesses a smaller nuclear arsenal, industry experts have pointed to a shift toward modernization and technological advancement – in the name of "modular" reactor designs, low-yield weapons, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, reactor-coolant mixes, and micro-reactors – with other nations following suit.

The biggest cause for concern in terms of development, officials are now underscoring, is China.

"China is in the middle of a significant modernization of its nuclear arsenal," SIPRI researchers stated. "It is developing a so-called nuclear triad for the first time, made up of new land- and sea-based missiles and nuclear-capable aircraft."

For the first time on Tuesday, in its report to Congress, the Pentagon released the number of warheads it believes China possesses – at least 200 – underscoring in a new report that Beijing is on track to double that number over the next 10 years. The significantly more sophisticated arsenal is expected to include more high-end discharge methods such as road-mobile carriers, ground-based silos, bombers and submarines.

FILE - In this March 18, 2020, file photo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks as President Donald Trump listens during press briefing with the coronavirus task force, at the White House in Washington. The government’s $3 trillion effort to rescue the economy from the coronavirus crisis is stirring worry at the Pentagon. Bulging federal deficits may force a reversal of years of big defense spending gains and threaten prized projects like the rebuilding of the nation’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. Esper says the sudden burst of emergency spending to prop up a stalled economy is bringing the Pentagon closer to a point where it will have to shed older weapons faster and tighten its belt. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

FILE - In this March 18, 2020, file photo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks as President Donald Trump listens during press briefing with the coronavirus task force, at the White House in Washington. The government’s $3 trillion effort to rescue the economy from the coronavirus crisis is stirring worry at the Pentagon. Bulging federal deficits may force a reversal of years of big defense spending gains and threaten prized projects like the rebuilding of the nation’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. Esper says the sudden burst of emergency spending to prop up a stalled economy is bringing the Pentagon closer to a point where it will have to shed older weapons faster and tighten its belt. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

The latest SIPRI data shows China has much more – around 320 warheads.

A 2019 U.S. Department of Defense evaluation highlighted that the country was also on its way to developing its own nuclear triad, a capacity that only the U.S. and Russia is publicly known to have staunchly maintained in recent times. Beijing – on paper – is committed to a "no first use" policy.

"I worry most about China. Given China's self-stated goal of becoming the world's hegemon by 2049, there is an ever-increasing risk of nuclear confrontation," said Guy Roberts, former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, biological defense programs.

Meanwhile, data collated by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) shows that Russia "retains a stockpile of thousands of nuclear weapons, with more than 1,500 warheads deployed on missiles and bombers capable of reaching U.S. territory."

The 2018 National Defense Strategy also identifies the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition with Russia and China as the "the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security," and the challenges associated with continued stockpile advancement.

Foreign policy observers have also looked at the ongoing efforts made by neighboring rivals Pakistan and India to seek new sea-based delivery systems. Though little is known about their arsenals, SIPRI data estimates that India has up to 140 warheads and Pakistan up to 160 with both slightly increasing their stock each year. Questions routinely swirl as to whether the "first no-use" mandate will stand.

Israel has never publicly conceded to possessing nuclear weapons, although international bodies widely assume it has at least 90 warheads. The country is believed to be continuing its technological enhancement amid growing concerns regarding Iranian capabilities.

Indeed, rogue actors remain a threat to global security, analysts emphasize.

Tehran's nuclear ambitions have long been a worry for foreign governments. Even after signing the controversial Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was designed to stop it from developing nuclear weapons in the immediate future, Iran stood accused by the U.S. of breaching the terms. Trump yanked the U.S. from the deal more than two years ago.

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Last week, German intelligence reportedly affirmed that Iran is pursuing technology for weapons of mass destruction and missile carrier systems. It does not currently possess a nuclear bomb, but analysts have cautioned that it does have the expertise necessary to build such a weapon.

The former chief of Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, also warned in July that despite its best efforts, his country could not stop Tehran from building a nuclear bomb – it could only work to deter it from using such a devastating weapon.

This Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, photo provided Saturday, Aug. 17, by the North Korean government, shows test firings of an unspecified new weapon at an undisclosed location in North Korea. North Korea on Saturday said leader Kim Jong Un supervised another test-firing of an unspecified new weapon that extended a streak of weapons demonstrations seen as an attempt to pressure Washington and Seoul over slow nuclear negotiations and their joint military exercises. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. Korean language watermark on image as provided by source reads: "KCNA" which is the abbreviation for Korean Central News Agency. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

This Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, photo provided Saturday, Aug. 17, by the North Korean government, shows test firings of an unspecified new weapon at an undisclosed location in North Korea. North Korea on Saturday said leader Kim Jong Un supervised another test-firing of an unspecified new weapon that extended a streak of weapons demonstrations seen as an attempt to pressure Washington and Seoul over slow nuclear negotiations and their joint military exercises. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. Korean language watermark on image as provided by source reads: "KCNA" which is the abbreviation for Korean Central News Agency. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

Furthermore, North Korea is committed to its nuclear goals in blatant infringement of denuclearization pledges made in years past, showing little transparency other than declaring tests after the fact. SIRPRI estimates the hermit nation's inventory to stand at around 30-40 warheads, an increase of 10-20 compared to 2018.

Satellite images unveiled by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in early August also show a possible clandestine development base, while information submitted to the United Nations Security Council last month revealed that Pyongyang has seemingly developed nuclear mechanisms that can be attached to ballistic missiles.

North Korea has conducted six known nuclear tests – one each in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2017, and two in 2016.

Syria has also been a concern in recent years. In 2007, Israel conducted an airstrike in Syria on what Washington said was the apparent construction of a nuclear research reactor. Investigations since have pointed to alleged cooperation between Pyongyang and Damascus regarding nuclear facilities, although the extent of the relationship is unclear. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has also pointed fingers at Syria for failing to clarify procurement efforts potentially related to a nuclear program.

Officially, only five states – the U.S., Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France – are recognized as being nuclear-capable by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and bound by its international obligations. India, Israel and Pakistan never signed the NPT.

But the future of paper pledges – especially between the United States and Russia, which together own some 90% of the planet's nuclear capabilities – is murky. The overall reduction of nuclear weapons over the past year is a result of the two countries demolishing retired weapons in accordance with the 2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START). Inked by then Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, the landmark accord aimed to reduce stockpiles by a third in the coming decade. So far, though, Washington and Moscow remain at odds over the terms of a renewed agreement.

In this picture released on April 29, 2019, by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reads part of a book while visiting Tehran's book fair in Tehran, Iran. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Monday, June 24, 2019, targeting Iran's supreme leader and his associates with financial sanctions, the latest action the U.S. has taken to discourage Tehran from developing nuclear weapons and supporting militant groups. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

In this picture released on April 29, 2019, by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reads part of a book while visiting Tehran's book fair in Tehran, Iran. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Monday, June 24, 2019, targeting Iran's supreme leader and his associates with financial sanctions, the latest action the U.S. has taken to discourage Tehran from developing nuclear weapons and supporting militant groups. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Yet Defense Secretary Mark Esper earlier this year accused Russia of being "noncompliant in the treaty for years, specifically when it comes to their allowance of overflights and near flights [of] Kaliningrad and Georgia."

Last August, the Trump team also pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – signed in 1987 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – on the premise that Russia wasn't playing by the rules.

"In terms of strategic nuclear force modernization, the U.S. as compared with Russia is in catch-up mode. It is approximately five to 10 years behind," asserted John Wood, a defense analyst and author of "Russia, the Asymmetric Threat to the United States." "The Russian triad is more complex and varied than its U.S. counterpart. While all U.S. ground-based missiles are currently in silos, and therefore easy targets, Russian ground-based missiles, such as Topol-M and Yars are mobile, and therefore a lot harder to take out in the initial boost phase of flight."

Nonetheless, the lack of written compliance between the two has anti-proliferation proponents deeply concerned that the arms control era is about the end.

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However, other industry experts say such policy wielders disproportionally target Washington.

"The so-called arms control community confuses arms control with disarmament, and those that advocate disarmament focus almost exclusively on the U.S. unilaterally doing so," Roberts added. "In all of human history, I've been unable to find a single case where a state unilaterally disarmed to its benefit. Usually, it meant the end of that state or people."