Proliferation of strategic nuclear weapons

Other Names:
Nuclear proliferation
Strategic arms competition
Strategic arms rivalry
Proliferation of ballistic missiles
Spread of atomic arms

Strategic weapons include intercontinental ballistic missiles and other weapons, such as long range bombers and submarine launched ballistic missiles, with which the two powers can threaten each other without using the territory of their allies. In each nation, the groups which govern policy have a hostile perception of the other nation engaged in the development and deployment of such weapons systems and will exaggerate the number and capabilities of its strategic weapons systems in an attempt to justify the development by their own nation of more and better systems. It has not proved possible to control this arms race, particularly since agreement reached on the limitation of the total number of delivery vehicles, for example, can be by-passed by substitution of a qualitatively superior vehicle for an existing type, or introducing multiple warheads delivered by a single vehicle. Such agreements may also be effectively by-passed by the construction of defensive anti-ballistic missile systems resulting in an offence/defence race. Agreement to cease research and development along particular lines always leaves the opportunity for each side to divert resources into alternative lines of advance.


The two superpowers (USA, and the former USSR) and regional powers (Britain, France, India, Israel and probably Argentina, Brazil, China, Iran, Iraq, North and South Korea, Pakistan, Syria) have developed accumulated or deployed nuclear weapons in a wide variety of forms. At least 22 developing countries are trying hard to build or buy ballistic missiles which can be fitted with both chemical and nuclear warheads. In 1993, South Africa announced that it had had such capability for 20 years and had constructed six bombs which it had since destroyed.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's figures for the end of 1982, indicate that the strategic nuclear weapon delivery capability for the USA is 1,264 nuclear bombs and 2,224 nuclear missiles (land, sea and air to air). For the USSR, the figures were 290 nuclear bombs and 6,366 nuclear missiles of all strategic types. The delivery capability is based on a single mission for delivery vehicles such as bombers and submarines; and on current strategic missile deployment. Nuclear weapon stockpiles are much larger, however. Various estimates place these at about 30,400 for the USA; 940 for China; 720 for France and 680 for the UK (one source has 1,700 for the UK). These include strategic, theatre and tactical weapons.

With the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1 and 2), the next decade promises to see a 70% reduction in the number of nuclear warheads in the world. The elimination of ground-based multiple warhead missiles has substantially defused the nuclear arms race by removing fear of a nuclear first strike. The USA and Russia have concluded 16 bilateral agreements providing for greater transparency and greater security. However it was estimated in 1993 that approximately 20,000 nuclear warheads, including non-strategic nuclear weapons, would still remain by the year 2003 – still enough to annihilate all life on earth. The UK and France were planning to expand their arsenals and cuts in the Chinese arsenal were considered unlikely.

It is not in Europe, but in third world that the proliferation of missiles is accelerating, and their threat to regional stability and international security is the most profound. The UK, for one is moving its strategic orientation away from Russia and back to the rest of the world. As an example, it is likely that some Trident missiles would be armed with single low-yield warheads to make them usable in "shot across the bow" operations in a nuclear crisis with a power like in the Middle East. The USA is also taking the view that the nuclear crisis is far from over. Even though the huge overkill of nuclear arsenals can now be curbed, it is believed that Russia's 1993 moratorium on nuclear testing is an embarrassment to the Americans, whose testing programme continues full tilt (including precision low-yield warheads). It was suggested that Mr Bush was putting Mr Yeltsin under pressure to resume the Russian test programme in order to give his own more legitimacy.

Strategic arms reduction treaty
International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility (INES)
Nuclear Age Peace Foundation
Musicians Against Nuclear Arms (MANA)
International Nuclear Non-proliferation and Security Academy (INSA)
Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)
Children's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CCND)
Campaign for a Nuclear-Free Middle East
Global Zero (GZ)
European Nuclear Disarmament (END)
Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE)
Greenpeace International
Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND)
Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific Movement (NFIP Movement)
Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)
Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR)
International Secretariat Committee of Nuclear Free Zone Local Authorities
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW)
International Philosophers for Peace and the Elimination of Nuclear and Other Threats to Global Existence (IPPNO)
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)
Global Nuclear Safety and Security Network (GNSSN)
Forum for Nuclear Cooperation in Asia (FNCA)
Forum of Nuclear Regulatory Bodies in Africa (FNRBA)
European Youth Network for Nuclear Disarmament (BANg)
European Platform on preparedness for nuclear and radiological emergency response and recovery (NERIS)
Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO)
Asian Nuclear Safety Network (ANSN)
Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN)
Abolition 2000 - Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons (Abolition 2000)
World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS)
International Nuclear Safety Group (INSAG)
Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT)
European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG)
Arab Network of Nuclear Regulators (ANNuR)
Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO)
Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean
European Free Alliance (EFA)
Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs
Ribbon International
World Union for the Protection of Life
World Information Service on Energy (WISE)
World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean EnergyGOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and ProductionGOAL 13: Climate ActionGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions
Problem Type:
D: Detailed problems
Date of last update
09.03.2022 – 16:33 CET