There are eight confirmed countries with nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. The first five are all parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), with North Korea being a former signatory.
Two other countries – Israel and Iran – are also believed to be nuclear-armed, most especially the former. But both have remained mum about their nuclear capabilities.
For this top 10 list, we rank these countries according to their nuclear arsenal based on the data from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), which has an updated report on the current status of nuclear-armed countries. (Note that Iran is not included in the FAS report.)
(Updated Dec. 2017)
A party to the NPT, Iran has long been suspected of being a nuclear-armed country. However, no substantial proof has been laid out yet, with the Iranian government repeatedly shutting down the notion that the country has nuclear weapons.
Since there’s no tangible proof yet that Iran has nuclear weapons, we don’t have any numbers to show here. So let’s just move on to the next country on the list.
9. North Korea
North Korea is the only country on this list with a perpetual “WE HAVE NUKES! CHECK IT OUT!” sign on its forehead. Over the years, the hermit country has never been shy about telling everyone that it has nuclear weapons and that it is prepared to use them at the drop of a hat.
Under former leader Kim Jong-il, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, earning the ire of the UN in the process. The country has been stubbornly persistent about developing nuclear weapons despite numerous warnings and UN sanctions. It’s unclear how many nuclear warheads North Korea has, which only makes them more dangerous.
Unlike North Korea, Israel has remained ambiguous about its nuclear capabilities. The country has neither confirmed nor denied that it has nuclear weapons. But experts believe that they are a fully nuclear-armed country. It’s estimated that Israel currently has around 80-400 nuclear warheads.
Because Israel has remained secretive about its nuclear weapons program, it’s unclear when the country started developing nuclear weapons. In 1979, Israel was suspected of conducting a nuclear test near Antarctica. It was known as the “Vela Incident,” named after the satellite which detected the suspicious activity.
Because both countries are armed with nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan have had a rough relationship over the years. India was the first of the two to successfully develop a nuclear weapon, testing the “Pokhran-I,” also known as the “Smiling Buddha,” in 1974. It was the first nuclear test conducted after the creation of the NPT. Naturally, India earned the ire of other countries because of it.
Despite being pressured, India has refused to be a part of the NPT, arguing that its nuclear program is meant for “peaceful” purposes. True enough, India declared a no first use policy in 2003, joining China as the only nuclear-armed countries to do so. At the moment, it’s believed that India has about 110-120 nuclear warheads, with none being in active deployment.
In 1971, former Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared that if India builds nuclear weapons, Pakistan would do the same – even if they have to eat grass to achieve it. Pakistan conducted its first nuclear test in 1998, a few weeks after India launched a series of nuclear tests.
Experts say Pakistan has been a nuclear-armed country since the 1980s. But it’s unclear when the country first successfully developed a nuclear weapon. At the moment, Pakistan is estimated to have approximately 120-130 nuclear warheads, with none of those being in active deployment. Since India has no plans to shut down its nuclear weapons program anytime soon, expect Pakistan to continue to boost its nuclear arsenal in the coming years.
5. United Kingdom
The United Kingdom was a part of the so-called Manhattan Project, a research and development agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada during World War II, which resulted in the first ever nuclear weapon. But it wasn’t until 1952 that the country tested its first nuclear weapon with Operation Hurricane.
The first of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states on this list, the United Kingdom has about 215 nuclear warheads on hand. About 120 of those are deployed. Unlike other nuclear-armed countries, the United Kingdom exclusively deploys its nuclear weapons by sea using four Vanguard-class submarines equipped with Trident II missiles, which houses the nuclear warheads.
Out of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states, China is the only country with a “no first use” policy. Meaning, China has pledged to never use its nuclear weapons unless another country attacked it with a nuclear weapon first. However, considering how the country has been flexing its military muscle the last several years, a lot of people have become increasingly skeptical.
China tested its first nuclear weapon, the “596,” in 1964. Due to the country’s secrecy, it’s hard to put a definitive number on China’s current total number of nuclear warheads. Experts believe China has about 270 nuclear weapons on hand.
France may be the butt of “surrender” jokes, but when it comes to nuclear weapons, the European country is no slacker. France has around 300 nuclear warheads at its disposal. Almost all of which are fully deployed and ready to go.
France is the fourth country to have successfully developed a nuclear weapon. Under President Charles de Gaulle, France started developing nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The former president wanted the country to have the means to defend itself against other foreign powers without relying on the United States and NATO. France tested its first nuclear weapon, the “Gerboise Bleue,” in 1960.
2. United States
The United States forever changed the world with the Manhattan Project. Formed in 1942, the Manhattan Project gave birth to the first ever nuclear weapon, the “Trinity.” The United States would go on to become the first and only country to use a nuclear weapon in combat, bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki and effectively ending World War II in 1945.
With approximately 6,800 nuclear warheads at its disposal, the United States is one of the most heavily armed countries in the world. About 1,800 of those are locked-and-loaded. With Donald Trump currently sitting as President of the United States, expect that total figure to get a boost over the next few years.
The United States peaked with about 31,175 nuclear warheads in 1966 during the Cold War. Overall, the United States has built approximately 70,000 nuclear warheads since the Manhattan Project – the most for any country on this list.
Russia is one country you don’t ever want to mess with. It is armed with approximately 7,000 nuclear warheads – almost 2,000 of those are deployed and ready to use anytime. The former Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949, making it the second country to have successfully developed and tested a nuclear weapon.
During the lengthy Cold War, the Soviet Union continued to boost its arsenal of nuclear weapons, eventually peaking at a jaw-dropping 45,000 nuclear warheads in 1986. The most notorious of which was the “RDS-220,” also known as “Tsar Bomba.”
The Tsar Bomba registered the most powerful nuclear explosion in history when it was tested in 1961. It’s the Soviet Union’s “hold my beer” response to the United States in the nuclear arms race. Overall, Russia has created about 55,000 nuclear warheads since 1949, second only to the United States.
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