Can the World afford to enter Nuclear Race?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 22 May , 2024

Worldwide holding of Nuclear Weapons

Currently about 13080 nuclear warheads exist worldwide, with Russia holding the most (6,257) and the U.S. following (5,550), a reduction from Cold War peaks. Nuclear weapons have been used in warfare twice: the U.S. dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, causing massive destruction and casualties. The Cold War arms race peaked in 1986 with the Soviet Union and U.S. accumulating over 40,000 and 23,000 nuclear warheads, respectively, driven by mutually assured destruction.

Destructive Capacity of Nuclear Weapons

A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, or a combination of the two. Nuclear weapons are alternately called atom bombs, atomic bombs, A-bombs, nuclear bombs, nuclear warheads, or simply nukes. All nuclear weapons fit into one of two broad categories: fission and combination weapons, or the even-more-destructive fusion-based designs, which are technically thermonuclear weapons and may also be referred to as thermonuclear bombs, fusion weapons, hydrogen bombs, or H-bombs. Nuclear weapons unleash enormous amounts of explosive force, which is measured in kilotons (1,000 tons of TNT) and megatons (1,000,000 tons of TNT), as well as heat and radiation. They are easily the most fearsome weapons on Earth, capable of producing more death, destruction, injury, and sickness than any other weapon. Nuclear weapon stockpiles today It is estimated that there are approximately 13,080 nuclear warheads in the world today. While this is far fewer than either the U.S. or Russia possessed during their Cold War peak, it is notable that there are more countries with nuclear weapons than there were 30-40 years ago. At present, Russia maintains the highest number of nuclear weapons, with an estimated 6,257 total warheads. Of these, 1,458 are actively deployed (current START II treaty limits both the U.S. and Russia to 1550 deployed total), 3039 are inactive but available to be made active, and 1,760 are retired and awaiting dismantling. The United States follows closely behind with 5,550 total nuclear weapons: 1,389 active, 2,361 inactive but available, and 1,800 in line to be dismantled.

Nuclear Bombs dropped during World War II

To date, nuclear weapons have been used in war only twice. At the end of World War II, the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, and a second bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945. One detonated with an explosive force of approximately 15 kilotons, which leveled most buildings within a 1-mile radius. The shock wave was followed by a blast of heat at 6,000°C (10,830°F), which ignited or incinerated anything flammable and turned the blast zone into a firestorm. Finally, the explosion produced lethal ionizing radiation and lingering radioactive fallout, in which debris blasted into the stratosphere by the initial explosion is held aloft by atmospheric winds and settles back to Earth over the next several days. All told, the bombing of Hiroshima was estimated by a 1945 government report to have resulted in 66,000 deaths and another 69,000 injuries. Nagasaki’s totals were a lesser, but still devastating 39,000 deaths and 25,000 injuries.

Nuclear Escalation during the Cold War

Recently war, kicked off an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. A major component of the “Cold War,” in which the U.S. and U.S.S.R. openly competed without actually declaring war on one another, the stockpiling of nuclear weapons continued into the late 1980s. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the nuclear arms race reached its peak in 1986. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki established nuclear weapons as the ultimate weapons which time the Soviet Union possessed more than 40,000 nuclear warheads and the United States had 23,000 (down from more than 31,000 in 1967). Much of this proliferation was based around the idea of “mutually assured destruction,” in which both sides believed that the best way to avoid nuclear war was to have so many nukes that the opponent would not launch an attack because they feared they could not destroy enough of the target country’s arsenal to avoid being devastated themselves by a retaliatory attack. After the Soviet Union dissolved Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1991, thousands of nuclear weapons on both sides were dismantled.

Treaties that limit Nuclear Weapons

Because of the broad lethality and destructive potential of nuclear weapons, governments have negotiated arms control agreements such as the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The NPT’s purpose is to inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons. It designates five countries as nuclear-weapon states (NWS)—the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom—and classifies the rest as non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS). Under the treaty, NWS agree not to help NNWS develop or obtain nuclear weapons, and NNWS agree not to attempt to develop or obtain nuclear weapons on their own. Countries of both classifications further agree to help one another develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and to negotiate nuclear disarmament in good faith. Nearly every country in the world had accepted the NPT as of 2022, though North Korea withdrew from the Treaty in 2003.

Cuban Crisis Wikipedia

Reports that throughout the 1950s and the early 1960s the U.S. and the USSR both endeavored, in a tit-for-tat approach, to prevent the other power from acquiring nuclear supremacy. This had massive political and cultural effects during the Cold War. As one instance of this mindset, in the early 1950s it was proposed bomb on the Moon as a globally visible demonstration of American weaponry. As a show of political strength, the Soviet Union tested the largest-ever nuclear weapon in October 1961 which was tested in a reduced state with a yield of around 50 megatons—in its full state it was estimated to have been around 100 Mt. In its full, dirty, design it would have increased the amount of worldwide fallout since 1945 by 25%. In 1963, all nuclear and many non-nuclear states signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty pledging to refrain from testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, underwater, or in outer space. President Dwight D Eisenhower’s doctrine of “massive retaliation” in the early years of the Cold War was a message to the USSR, saying that if the Red Army attempted to invade the parts of Europe not given to the Eastern bloc during the Potsdam Conference (such as West Germany), nuclear weapons would be used against the Soviet troops and potentially the Soviet leaders. The Cuban Crisis during the Presidency of John Kennedy was seen as the closest the U.S. and the USSR ever came to nuclear war and had been narrowly averted by last-minute compromise by both superpowers. Fears of communication difficulties led to the installment of the first hotline, a direct link between the superpowers that allowed them to more easily discuss future military activities and political maneuverings. It had been made clear that missiles, bombers, submarines, and computerized firing systems made escalating any situation to Armageddon far easier than anybody desired.

The Second Nuclear Age

The second nuclear age can be regarded as proliferation of nuclear weapons among lesser powers and for reasons other than the American-Soviet-Chinese rivalry. India embarked relatively early on a program aimed at nuclear weapons capability, but apparently accelerated after the 1962 Sino-Indian war. After the disintegration of Pakistan Pakistan’s Prime Minister Bhutto launched research on nuclear weapons. The Indian test caused Pakistan to spur its programme. India tested fission in 1998, and Pakistan did the same year, raising concerns they would use nuclear weapons on each other. All the non-Russian former Soviet bloc countries with nuclear weapons – Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan – transferred their warheads to Russia by 1996. Israel is widely believed to possess an arsenal of up to several hundred nuclear warheads, but this has never been officially confirmed or denied. Key US scientists involved in the American bomb program, clandestinely helped the Israelis and thus played an important role in nuclear proliferation. North Korea announced in 2003 that it had several nuclear explosives.


All nuclear weapons holders are aware that possession of weapons has a price because it will have no survivors including the one foolish enough to undertake such a venture. The world will not permit such an adventure to be undertaken that will wipe out billions of years of human history.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Kazi Anwarul Masud

former Ambassador and Secretary in the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh.

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