90 nukes will be added to China’s arsenal by the end of 2024

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According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute [SIPRI], China is set to boost its nuclear warhead inventory by at least 90 by 2024. SIPRI has been diligently monitoring global armaments for many years, providing insights into worldwide trends. 

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China’s arsenal is now believed to have surged to around 500 warheads, up from 410 in 2022. While this number still trails behind the nuclear giants, the US and Russia, Beijing is accelerating its efforts rapidly, striving to close the gap and convert geopolitical ambition into formidable hard power. 

Globally, there are currently 3,904 nuclear warheads ready for launch, with an additional 5,681 in storage. This brings the total to an alarming 9,585 warheads. 

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Among the smaller nuclear powers, India reportedly holds a stockpile of 172 warheads, Pakistan possesses 170, North Korea has around 50, and Israel maintains about 90. SIPRI also estimates that North Korea has the nuclear material necessary to potentially increase its arsenal to 90 warheads.

The big problems

The concern over nuclear arsenals is mounting, especially with the diminished transparency since Russia and the U.S. paused the New START Treaty in 2023, a pact that encouraged limiting these arsenals. 

Photo credit: Russian MoD

In this climate, all nations are enhancing their nuclear capabilities, incorporating new launchers and advanced ballistic missile submarines. The uncertainty surrounding Iran’s nuclear weapons development investigations, coupled with escalating international tensions, is driving an arms race and intense military rhetoric, undermining global security and peace initiatives.

North Korea too

North Korea is thought to have built around 50 warheads, which is an increase of 20 since 2023. They also have enough fissile material to potentially reach a total of 90 warheads. 

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“Like many other nuclear-armed nations, North Korea is focusing on expanding its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons,” stated Matt Korda, an associate research fellow in SIPRI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Program. 

“This raises significant concerns that North Korea might plan to deploy these weapons very early in a conflict,” Korda elaborated.

Where are the nuclear warheads?

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Russia and the United States currently hold a staggering number of nuclear warheads, with 5,580 and 5,244, respectively. Together, they account for nearly 90 percent of the world’s total nuclear arsenal. Of these, approximately 3,904 warheads are deployed on missiles and aircraft, marking an increase of 60 from the previous year. This includes 1,710 from Russia and 1,770 from the United States. 

According to the think tank, China is estimated to have 24 warheads deployed on missiles. SIPRI Director Dan Smith remarks, “While the total number of nuclear warheads worldwide continues to decline as Cold War-era weapons are gradually dismantled, we unfortunately continue to see an annual increase in the number of nuclear warheads in service.” 

Smith further emphasized, “This trend looks likely to continue and even accelerate in the coming years, which is extremely concerning.”

Photo credit: Sergey Kazak

More are coming

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently highlighted ongoing discussions within the alliance about possibly deploying additional nuclear weapons. He emphasized the importance of showcasing NATO’s nuclear capabilities to convey a clear message to potential adversaries. 

“I won’t delve into operational specifics like the exact number of nuclear warheads to be deployed or stored, but these are significant consultations we are engaging in,” he said, noting that China, Russia, and North Korea currently pose the main challenges for the alliance. 

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Stoltenberg’s remarks have been noteworthy. Not only has he alluded to his role in NATO’s strategic shift to counter China, which is striking given NATO’s traditional Euro-Atlantic focus, but he also underscored that Beijing’s lack of support for Western economic actions against Russia has influenced this pivot. 

He also pointed out China’s significant nuclear arsenal expansion, forecasting that by 2030, it will reach approximately 80 percent of the size of the Russian and United States arsenals.

Nuke’s production

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Nuclear warhead production begins with the extraction and refinement of fissile material. The two primary materials used are uranium-235 and plutonium-239. Uranium-235 is obtained through a process called enrichment, which increases the concentration of U-235 isotopes in natural uranium. Plutonium-239 is typically produced in nuclear reactors by irradiating uranium-238 with neutrons. 

Once the fissile material is obtained, it is fashioned into a core or ‘pit’ that will undergo fission. This core is often surrounded by a tamper, which helps to reflect neutrons back into the core, increasing the efficiency of the reaction. The core and tamper are then encased in a high-explosive shell designed to compress the core to a supercritical state when detonated. 

The next stage involves the assembly of the warhead’s triggering mechanism. This includes conventional explosives arranged in a specific pattern to ensure symmetrical compression of the fissile core. Advanced designs may also incorporate a neutron initiator to introduce a burst of neutrons at the precise moment of maximum compression, ensuring a rapid and sustained chain reaction. 

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Following the assembly of the core and triggering mechanism, the warhead is integrated into a delivery system, such as a missile or bomb. This involves rigorous testing and quality control to ensure reliability and safety. Modern warheads also include sophisticated electronics for arming, fuzing, and firing, as well as safety mechanisms to prevent accidental detonation. 

The final steps involve extensive testing and validation. While full-scale nuclear tests are largely prohibited under international treaties, subcritical tests, and computer simulations are used to validate the warhead’s performance. This ensures that the warhead will function as intended without the need for actual detonation. 

Throughout the entire production process, strict security and non-proliferation measures are enforced to prevent the unauthorized use or dissemination of nuclear technology. This includes physical security, personnel vetting, and international oversight by organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. 

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