As some historians would argue, modern human history can be divided into two sections; pre-atomic and post-atomic. The pre-atomic world was one where absolute military strength dictated geopolitical power and sway in international affairs. Might meant right, and it was this way for much of history. The post-atomic world was very similar – except for the first time the number of men in your army or the technology they wielded didn’t determine strength. The relative importance of the military itself was reduced with the creation of the nuclear warhead. Now, all that mattered was how many bombs you had.
The Manhattan Project was the codename for the operation to create the nuclear warhead in the United States for use in WWII. Upon its successful completion, everything changed. The United States was the first country to acquire nuclear technology, but their enemies in the Cold War, the Soviet Union, would soon follow suit. The latter half of the 20th century was essentially one large nuclear standoff between the USA and the Soviet Union. During this tension, slowly but surely, several other countries acquired nuclear technology. Sometimes they were aided by the US or the Soviet Union and other times they were able to achieve it independently, but all that mattered was that they had the bomb.
Any state that wanted a level of influence internationally that couldn’t be accomplished through cultural or economic means looked at the nuclear warhead as a shortcut to power and respect; and, to an extent, they were right. A non-nuclear state could never hope to defeat a nuclear state in an all-out armed conflict. For them, acquiring atomic weapons and gaining nuclear deterrence was an existential necessity. All that being said, only 9 states have access to atomic weapons – and you may notice that they wield a disproportionate amount of international sway and attention compared to their non-nuclear neighbors.
It should be noted that Israel has never publicly confirmed that they do have atomic weapons. Instead, over the past several decades, they’ve adopted the sly and somewhat comical position of ‘maybe’. They haven’t denied they have them stored away ready for use – even though there’s enough evidence to support claims they may presently have hundreds of them – but they also won’t come out and say it. When you consider their position geographically, that strategy makes a lot of sense. Israel is under near-constant existential threat from some of their Arab neighbours, and in an existential sense no nation on earth needs nuclear deterrence more than them. Playing coy about them is also the smart move. This way, their enemies don’t get the moral high ground when it comes to middle eastern affairs – but they also don’t want to make any military advances into Israel like they’ve attempted in the past, just in case. It’s all but confirmed that Israel is a nuclear state, and some experts – like former US president Jimmy Carter – estimate that they have close to 300 active warheads.
#8 North Korea
North Korea, like Israel, is not part of any formal international atomic agreements. North Korea first became a nuclear power – and thus attracted the attention of the international community more than they ever have before – in 2006, under Kim Jong-Il. Today, Kim Jong-Il’s son, Kim Jong-Un, leads North Korea. Jong-Un is a 31-year-old sociopath who currently has his fingers on the trigger of whatever atomic arsenal North Korea possesses. A nuclear North Korea has been a major source of concern for the pariah state’s significantly more amicable sister state South Korea. The two Koreas have been at odds for decades, and it’s believed that the nuclear weapons of North Korea are capable of targeting the South Korean capital of Seoul. Of all the nuclear states, North Korea is certainly the most irrational and unstable one – an unsettling reality that the rest of the world has to contend with.
Pakistan first achieved nuclear state status in 1998, in direct response to India doing so 20 years earlier. Pakistan became the 8th nation in the world to acquire atomic weapons, and the announcement at what it had achieved sent shockwaves throughout the world – especially in India. Barring Korea, India and Pakistan have perhaps the worst relationships between two neighbouring states. Up until 1998, India felt it had the upper hand when dealing with Pakistan, but the balance of power shifted rapidly following Pakistan’s declaration. Like the USA and the Soviet Union before them, Pakistan and India have followed an outline of mutually assured destruction – if either nation ever uses atomic weapons on the other, all of their arsenal will be unleashed in retaliation.
As mentioned, India reached nuclear status before Pakistan. In fact, India was the first nation after the signing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to achieve nuclear status. The NPT was a treaty signed by the first 5 nuclear powers, who all agreed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons in the world and to encourage the use of nuclear power for peaceful means. When India built atomic bombs independently in 1974 (although some have claimed they were aided by China), it threw a wrench into the established geopolitical situation. Today, India is believed to have between 90 and 110 nuclear weapons.
China completed its first successful nuclear weapon test in 1964, and later signed on to the Non-Proliferation Treaty on condition that it is considered one of the 5 designated nuclear states. Today China is believed to have a stockpile of around 240 nuclear weapons, down from around 434 at its peak. China has actively complied with NPT by steadily reducing its weapons stockpile – but not to the point where it left itself powerless. China has an official no-first-use pledge, meaning that China will never be the first state to use nuclear weapons in a military exchange. That being said, if they are ever under nuclear attack they have plans to respond with extreme prejudice.
France was the 4th nation to achieve nuclear power status, a feat it achieved in 1960 after conducting successful tests in North Africa and French Polynesia. France pursued atomic weapons out of a sense of necessity, as they felt that if Western Europe were under nuclear threat it would be too risky to rely on the intervention for the United States and their nuclear arsenal. They later signed on to the NPT, and have a relatively aggressive nuclear policy. France has authorized the use of nuclear retaliation against any state that attacks France, either through conventional warfare or the use terrorism as a surrogate. In addition, France keeps a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier out on patrol in the Atlantic at all times. They are believed to have approximately 298 nuclear weapons stockpiled.
#3 United Kingdom
After the United States and the Soviet Union achieved nuclear status, the UK wasted no time in joining the party. They conducted their first successful nuclear weapons test in 1952, the culmination of a project that begun in the heat of WWII in 1940. True to the historical strengths of the British, the UK opted for sea-based delivery systems instead of intercontinental ballistic missiles or free-fall bombs. The UK keeps nuclear submarines and nuclear aircraft carriers out on patrol in the Atlantic at all times, just like France. Much of the UK’s nuclear technology and infrastructure has been acquired from or aided by USA. The UK is widely believed to have 225 warheads stockpiled.
Russia may have come a long way since its days as the Soviet Union –although recently it may have taken a few steps back- but there’s one thing that they didn’t lose during their transition into a “democracy”; lots and lots of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union became the 2nd state in the world to achieve nuclear status, which they did after successful tests in 1949. The arrival of the Soviet Union as a nuclear state on the international stage was basically the starting gun for the cold war, even though tension between east and west had already begun in the aftermath of WWII. Throughout the 20th century the Soviet Union engaged in an ever-expanding arms race with the United States in an attempt to acquire a larger nuclear arsenal and, consequently, more power. Although at its peak the Soviet Union had over 45,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled – more than even the United States at their peak – only 8,500 remain today, and only 1,600 are active and primed for use.
#1 United States
The first state to develop and test the atomic bomb also, perhaps unsurprisingly, has more active nuclear warheads stockpiled than any other nation on earth. The infamous Manhattan Project culminated with the first successful testing of an atomic bomb in 1945, codenamed ‘Trinity’. At the time of the Trinity tests, nuclear warfare was still an unknown concept to the general public. It exploded into the consciousness of the world after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which forced Japan into unconditional surrender just days later, ending WW2. Total civilian casualties from the American bombing are estimated to be between 150,000 and 250,000, and the ethical justification for bombing the Japanese is still fiercely debated to this day. Since then, the United States has been steadily stockpiling nuclear warheads. At its peak the american arsenal was estimated to have 31,225 warheads, but is down to 5,113 today. In the current stockpile, 2,104 warheads are estimated to be primed and ready for use, giving the USA more active warheads than any other nation on earth. Thus far the United States is the only nation to ever use nuclear force against another state, and for the sake of humanity it has to stay that way. Should the world ever descend into nuclear war in the modern age, where multiple nations have enough warheads to destroy the earth 10x over, it will spell the end for the human race.