Proliferation of strategic nuclear weapons

Other Names:
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 global arsenal peaked in 1988 and is now decreasing. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I and II) will reduce the number of strategic offensive warheads held by the USA and the successor states to the Soviet Union from about 18,000 in 1991 to 6,500 by 2003. This would return the number of strategic warheads to their 1968 level -- the year the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed and the atomic powers pledged a serious move toward nuclear disarmament. START I was signed by the United States and the (then) USSR in 1991. Following the dissolution of the USSR, four former Soviet countries now have strategic nuclear arms on their territory. Three -- Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine -- have committed themselves to eliminate all nuclear weapons on their territories (by moving them to the fourth, Russia) within START's seven-year implementation period. However, concerns over the cost of dismantling and international security vis-à-vis Russia have held up the commencement of the dismantlement. The last to ratify the agreement is Ukraine. With 1656 warheads and was seeking $1.5 billion compensation expenses. The USA had offered $175 million in assistance. Projected numbers of nuclear warheads after START are USA: 3,500; Russia: 3,000; France: 384-768; China: >400(?); UK: 256-512; other countries unknown.


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.


Whatever the Foreign Office may think, the private view in the Ministry of Defence is that the control of nuclear proliferation is a lost cause.

Counter Claim:

The development and deployment of nuclear weapons has had a general dampening effect on East-West antagonism, particularly by inhibiting the resort to war and in promoting management of crises. Because it was basically a bilateral balance in nuclear capability it tended to be stable. The pace of nuclear build-ups in the context of a structure of opposing relationships permitted time and circumstances for peaceful adjustments. The special structure and magnitude of the arms competition underlying the nuclear balance provided assurance against, rather than provocation to, an initiation of nuclear conflict. At all times there was a mutual recognition that the great risks and costs of any direct military encounter would clearly offset any value of political or economic objectives that might be gained by such an encounter.


Problem Type:
D: Detailed problems
Date of last update
30.11.2017 – 00:44 CET