China Nuclear Stockpile Grows as India Matches Pakistan Rise

China, which has the world’s second-largest military budget behind the U.S., expanded its nuclear-weapons arsenal last year, with India and Pakistan also bolstering their stockpiles, a research institute said.

The three added an estimated 10 warheads each to their inventories, with China’s arsenal now reaching 250 devices, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said today in releasing a new yearbook. Pakistan holds 100 to 120 units and India 90 to 110, while North Korea may have as many as eight warheads with an uncertain operational status, it said.

As efforts have intensified among nuclear states to curb the proliferation of the weapons, the international focus has shifted to stopping Iran from joining the ranks. At the same time the U.S. and others are working to update even if not expand their warheads and the ability to deliver them.

“The long-term modernization programs underway in these states suggest that nuclear weapons are still a marker of international status and power,” said Shannon Kile, a senior researcher at the organization. “All are making qualitative improvements.”

In Iran, which the U.S. and European countries are trying to block from gaining such weapons, “we are seeing a steady expansion in the scope and also the pace of its nuclear program,” Kile said.

Shrinking Arsenal

The global nuclear weapon arsenals shrank to about 17,265 warheads at the start of the year from 19,000 a year earlier as the U.S. and Russia continue eliminating them under bilateral arms control agreements, Sipri said. Russia retains the largest inventory, with 8,500 warheads, ahead of 7,700 held by the U.S.

Russia and the U.S. have embarked on large renewal programs, Kile said. Both countries have committed to developing new long-range bombers to replace aging aircraft.

“Russia is moving to a smaller force, but a more capable force,” Kile said.

The U.S., with the world’s largest defense budget, is set to spend $214 billion in the next decade on related activities, he said. “The irony is that with President Obama’s Prague address in 2009 calling for the gradual elimination of nuclear weapons, in fact the U.S. is determined to retain its triad of nuclear forces for the indefinite future,” Kile said in reference to the mix of long-range bombers, missiles, and submarine-launched capabilities the Pentagon maintains.

French Nukes

China, too, is pursuing a “qualitative” improvement of its inventory, Kile said. U.S. spending, including on long-range conventional strike capabilities, is driving China to make its own missiles more mobile and harder to attack, he said.

“We have always kept our nuclear capability at the lowest level commensurate with the need for national security,” China Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing in Beijing today. “China hopes the outside world does not make groundless speculation about China’s limited nuclear capability.”

India is similarly working on expanding its capabilities to use nuclear weapons through new ballistic missiles in development. “With India we see the gradual expansion of its longer-range ballistic missile capabilities which are not really targeted at Pakistan but rather at China,” Kile said.

The French nuclear warhead inventory, the world’s third largest, remained unchanged at 300 units with the U.K. also maintaining a level stockpile at 225 devices. Israel, which has never publicly acknowledged its stockpile, is estimated to remain at 80 warheads, Sipri said.

“There was an extraordinary number of tests of nuclear-capable launch systems conducted in 2012,” Kile said. “That really is a good indicator of the commitment of all of these countries to modernize or expand their arsenals.”

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