Which countries have the most nuclear weapons?
In theory, stockpiles of nuclear weapons are well-kept national secrets. Major countries have rough estimates that are not regularly updated, new nuclear countries keep their capabilities vague and unclear, and Israel never officially confirmed a nuclear weapons program.
But with limited disclosures, records and leaks, we can visualize the full extent * of the world’s nuclear arsenal. This graph uses the Federation of American Scientists’ estimated nuclear warhead inventories as of August 2021.
Based on these estimates, there is only nine countries with nuclear weapons in the world.
Editor’s Note: The exact number of nuclear warheads held by countries is a closely guarded state secret, with the FAS estimate being the closest, most used, and most reliable international approximation available.
Nuclear weapons, by country
The nuclear arms race has always been centered on we and Russia.
After the end of World War II and long after the Cold War, the two world superpowers rushed to build more nuclear weapons (and more nuclear weapons) than the other.
Even as international organizations pressed for an end to nuclear proliferation, the global stockpile of nuclear weapons peaked at 70,300 warheads in total in 1986.
As arms deals and non-proliferation treaties began to gain momentum, the United States and Russia reduced their stocks as new nuclear-weapon countries began to emerge.
|Country||Total warheads (2021)||% Of total|
Despite the significant reduction in their stocks since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the United States still have around 90% of all nuclear warheads in the world.
Far behind them lie China and France, which began testing nuclear weapons in 1964 and 1960 respectively. The UK Today has the fifth largest number of nuclear weapons, although it was the third country in the world to develop them after the United States and Russia in 1952.
Countries with fewer than 200 nuclear weapons are regional rivals India and Pakistan, who first tested nuclear weapons in the 1970s, and North Korea, which began operating uranium manufacturing plants and testing explosives in the 1980s.
Israel is also estimated to have fewer than 200 nuclear weapons, and reports indicate that its weapons program dates back to the 1960s. However, the country has never confirmed or announced its nuclear capabilities.
Countries with nuclear weapons, by warhead status
Although the world has 13,132 nuclear weapons, that doesn’t mean they are all ready to fire.
Weapons (or “warheads”) are delivered by missile, and countries do not keep all of their nuclear warheads ready for use. The estimate of nuclear stocks also clarifies whether warheads are considered deployed, reserved or withdrawn:
- warheads deployed are deployed on intercontinental missiles, heavy bomber bases and bases with operational short-range launch systems.
- Warhead reserve are stored and not deployed on launchers.
- retired warheads are still intact but awaiting dismantling.
|Country||warheads deployed||Warhead reserve||retired warheads|
Only four countries have officially deployed warheads, while the majority of the world’s nuclear stock is in reserve. This is in part due to estimates ranging from relatively transparent in the case of the United States to opaque and uncertain for countries like China and North Korea.
But some countries are expected to further strengthen their stocks. The British government has announced that it will increase its stockpile to no more than 260 warheads, and US intelligence services expect China, India and Pakistan to increase their stocks.
While the global nuclear stockpile will likely continue to decline due to the retirements of the United States and Russia, the 2021 landscape of nuclear weapon countries shows that proliferation is still ongoing.