Russia’s and the World’s Nuclear Arsenal in Focus
It is estimated that there are as many as 12,700 nuclear warheads in the world. Here are the countries where they are located and what it means for Russia to put its nuclear forces on high alert.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine takes place in the shadow of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. These arsenals, which were established during the Cold War, continue to exist as a very serious danger. The potential for a nuclear attack is theoretically slightly higher than the flight time of an intercontinental ballistic missile. The perpetual danger of nuclear weapons showed itself once again when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the country’s nuclear forces to be on alert on Sunday.
The order, which Russia’s defense ministry said Monday, Reuters news agency said, includes adding additional personnel to the military’s divisions responsible for nuclear missile launching. Increasing the number of personnel is one way of signaling preparation to launch nuclear weapons in the form of a first strike, or to launch the same weapons in response to another country’s first strike.
It is not easy to know whether Russia has made other changes in line with this move. One of the reasons for this is secrecy around nuclear weapon complexes. This secrecy covers everything from the production and maintenance of nuclear weapons to their deployment, preparation and orders regarding weapons.
In response to Russia’s February 28 move to raise high alert, US President Joe Biden told a reporter that one should not fear the outbreak of nuclear war.
Understanding nuclear weapons and their command and command structures can be more difficult than understanding the movement of tanks or artillery. But even if these weapons are not used, their mere presence and readiness can seriously shape warfare. Here’s what you need to know…
What are nuclear weapons?
In nuclear weapons, which were first shown on July 16, 1945 at the Trinity test site of the US state of New Mexico, a fission (fission) reaction is initiated by compressing dense nuclear fuel, generally consisting of uranium-235 and plutonium-239 isotopes, with the help of explosives. In the warhead, where isotopes are compressed with explosives, the nucleus of the atom is split, starting a fission chain reaction. Once the process begins, more and more atoms are split, resulting in a tremendous amount of energy being released. At the Trinity test site, fission bombs, also called atomic bombs, were used. It was of this type that the United States dropped bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The lower estimates for the total number of deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki show 110,000, and the upper estimates 210,000.
Contemporary nuclear weapons are different. These weapons use a primary stage, such as a plutonium well, to initiate a fission reaction, and a secondary stage that creates a fusion reaction. When both of these components are present in a warhead (also known as a thermonuclear weapon or hydrogen weapon), this type of reaction can produce an explosion many times more powerful than the energy released in an atomic bomb.
The “Little Boy” thrown by the US on Hiroshima is estimated to be equivalent to 15 kilotons of TNT or 15,000 tons of TNT. The B83 nuclear bomb, the most powerful thermonuclear bomb in the United States inventory today, has a strength of 1.2 megatons of TNT; i.e. 80 times stronger than Little Boy.
Nuclear warheads can be launched via intercontinental ballistic missiles or submarine-launched ballistic missiles, in addition to bombs and cruise missiles carried by aircraft. Some of these missiles may have more than one warhead per missile.
How many nuclear weapons are there?
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) estimates there are a total of 12,700 nuclear warheads at the start of 2022. These weapons are held in nine countries. These countries are the United States, Russia, England, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. South Africa also once had nuclear weapons, but was removed in 1989 in anticipation of a change of government.
Russia inherited the nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union. Before the union was dissolved in 1991, it also stockpiled nuclear weapons in Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. All of these warheads made their way back to Russia in the 1990s. Russia had the ability to maintain and authorize these warheads. One of the reasons for this was the work of the Russians in the nuclear divisions. De facto power preventing the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons was also held in Moscow.
Russia has the largest arsenal, which FAS estimates has 5,977 warheads. The United States has the second largest arsenal with 5,428 warheads, while the third largest, China, is estimated to have 350 warheads. The United States’ NATO defense alliance members France and Britain have 290 and 225 warheads, respectively.
Many of these warheads are kept in reserve for maintenance or possible future dismantling. Russia and the United States maintain a smaller portion of their overall nuclear arsenals stationed at places such as air force bases (1,600 and 1,650 warheads, respectively). This is the basic level of nuclear readiness between the two countries.
What does nuclear readiness mean?
Every nuclear-armed country has command and control mechanisms that its leaders use to decide whether to use nuclear weapons, when to use them, and where to launch them. The information presented in these resolutions can come from anything from early warning sensors (such as satellites that can detect a flash of light from a launch) to radars that can detect approaching missiles. Because nuclear weapon missiles go so fast, many decisions about how to respond need to be made quickly.
In some cases, decisions can be made during the determination phase of the process. In 1983, Soviet lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov saw a satellite detect a launch and give early warning. However, he chose not to raise the alert level, considering that the amount of launch detected was too low for an unexpected attack. It later turned out that what the satellite computer perceived as a launch was actually sunlight reflecting off a cloud.
The decision to launch a nuclear weapon in retaliation for a detected attack is called “launch with warning.” The decision to launch a nuclear weapon after the missiles hit is called “launch by collision”. Pavel Podvig, a weapons control researcher, argues that the Soviet Union had an official “launch by collision” policy, which shaped the structure of the country’s nuclear command and control echelon. A launch detected by the early warning system would have given the Soviet leadership time to increase the readiness of their nuclear forces and to issue orders for possible retaliation if the warnings were correct.
More than 30 years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Russia inherited the USSR’s nuclear initiative. It is also possible that the country has not changed its stance since then. One of the possible implications of the transition to high readiness is the physical connection of circuits that allow the launch order to be transmitted.
What does NATO have to do with all this?
Nuclear weapons are a destructive technology. The site traffic of Nukemap, a famous internet tool that recreates the detonation diameters and other effects of possible nuclear explosions, has been quite intense this week. Because of the short time elapsed between a nuclear launch and collision, political leaders often try to establish expectations about what does and does not include threats to warrant a nuclear retaliation.
Although the United States and other NATO countries provided weapons and other assistance to Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s occupying forces, the Biden administration made it clear that the United States would not fight Russian forces directly unless there was an attack on one of the NATO countries.
On February 11, before the invasion began and Russia was still massing its forces, Biden warned Americans in Ukraine to leave the country. When asked if there was a scenario in which US troops would be sent to rescue Americans in Ukraine, Biden said “None”. “When the Americans and Russia start shooting each other, it becomes a world war.”