The Steady Decline of Global Nuclear Stockpiles

Russia got rid of an estimated 1,000 nuclear warheads last year, according to a new report from Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris of the Federation of American Scientists, a Ploughshares Fund grantee. That brings the estimated number of nuclear warheads in the world down below 20,000 for the first time since 1959. Russia had already retired these warheads and slated them for dismantlement, so the strategic calculus has not changed. However, it is a strong data point showing the steep downward trend of global nuclear arsenals.

The warheads Russia dismantled were pulled from service – through arms control agreement or because of age. They had likely been degrading in storage depots for years. These were the old horses, if you will. The ones trained in the 20th century to lead the cavalry charge but that became less relevant, much older, and finally put in line for the glue factory. Eliminating the warheads is the responsible thing to do. Russia sheds the burden of safely storing them while helping reduce the risk that a terrorist group might acquire them.

If eliminating a thousand warheads now feels routine, it’s because we forget how far Russia and the U.S. have come in cutting excess nuclear weapons.

The backlog of retired weapons exists because American and Russian leaders retired warheads by the thousands over the last two decades - so many, and so fast that we are still dismantling the bombs decades later. President George H.W. Bush unilaterally cut thousands of warheads from the US arsenal and Mikhail Gorbachev matched his cuts with thousands of his own. George W. Bush unilaterally cut deployed US strategic warheads by almost two-thirds. Along the way, each presidential administration has pursued arms control agreements that made nuclear cuts verifiable.

Today, each country has shed roughly 80% of their operational stockpiles from their Cold War highs. But the work is nowhere near finished. The U.S. and Russian arsenals still vastly exceed security needs. There is plenty of room for cuts. The U.S. and Russia together still possess 18,500 warheads – approximately 95-percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Each bomb is capable of unleashing unimaginable catastrophe.

Fortunately, the trendline presses ever downward. Old weapons are getting scrapped, while operational weapons are gradually getting in line for the scrap heap. So long as leaders have an eye to history and the political will to follow through, the global stockpile will keep going down – taking the nuclear threat with it.