With the growing nuclear tension between the US and North Korea, many are once again wondering what a post-nuclear world would be like. Although all eyes are on North Korea right now due to their belligerent nuclear testing, North Korea isn’t actually the US’ main competitor in the nuclear arena. North Korea is believed to only have fewer than 10 nuclear weapons, according to ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Warheads.
In reality, the only country with a nuclear program that can rival that of the US is Russia. Americans might even be concerned to learn that Russia’s nuclear program is actually larger than that of the US! With the growing tensions between the US and North Korea, Americans are forgetting that there was a time when the main concern was Russia vs. the US, in a 45 year long conflict known as the Cold War.
The Nuclear Arsenals
There are fewer nuclear capable countries, with fewer weapons than one might initially suspect. However, the weapons these countries do posses are so powerful, an all out nuclear war between two countries wouldn’t just destroy the two, hundreds of millions would die immediately, hundreds of millions more would suffer from radiation poisoning, and society would potentially disintegrate. That is assuming that anyone could survive a nuclear war at all, something pondered by artists and writers throughout the Cold War.
According to the latest data from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), published in 2017, nine countries possess nuclear weapons. These countries include: the US, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. The smallest nuclear arsenal belongs to North Korea with fewer than 10 nuclear warheads. FAS reminds that their numbers are just estimates, as each country holds their number of nuclear weapons as a national secret.
The biggest nuclear arsenal? You might be inclined to guess the US, but that would be wrong. Russia is actually in possession of a slightly larger nuclear arsenal. Although the US invests more in its nuclear program than any other country and was the first & only nation to utilize a nuclear weapon in war, the US possesses 6,800 nuclear warheads to Russia’s 7,000. Looking at just numbers in a Russia vs. US nuclear battle, Russia takes the cake.
Russia was the second country to develop a nuclear weapon and is currently investing big money in modernizing its arsenal and delivery system. To put the size of Russia’s nuclear arsenal into perspective, consider that the third largest arsenal in the world belongs to France, but their arsenal is nowhere near that of the US or Russia. France possesses just 300 nuclear weapons. China comes in fourth with 270 nuclear warheads, ready to be delivered by land, sea, or air. China is believed to be slowly, but surely increasing the size of their nuclear arsenal.
Between the nine countries in possession of nuclear weapons, there are believed to be 14,900 warheads in the entire world, with the combined might of Russia and the US possessing 92% of all of the world’s nuclear weapons.
Russia’s Nuclear Weapons
Of the 7,000 (or more by some estimates) nuclear weapons Russia has available, around 4,500 are operational. This number is way down from the peak nuclear arsenal the Soviet Union possessed during the Cold War. In 1986, it was estimated that the USSR possessed 45,000 nuclear weapons.
According to reports, Russia is seriously investing in their nuclear arsenal. As of 2015, Russia is believed to be developing a nuclear torpedo called Status-6 Ocean Multipurpose System. The torpedo would create a tsunami of 500 meters in height that would contaminate an enemy coast with radioactive cobalt-60, leaving the area unfit for human life. Most disturbingly, this weapon would be immune from the usual anti-missile defense systems that preserve the tense nuclear peace.
America’s Nuclear Arsenal
Not all of the nuclear weapons belonging to the US are hosted on American soil. Five countries, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, play host to American nuclear weapons, in exchange for protection should a nuclear war break out. In addition to these five countries, 23 have also signed nuclear arms agreements with the US and now count on these nuclear weapons for their protection. These countries include: Albania, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, and Spain.
Mutually Assured Destruction
In 2011 a briefing paper written for the Joint Chiefs of Staff written in 1962 was declassified, shining light on the military doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Known as SIOP-62, or the Single Integrated Operating Plan, the brief detailed the immediate fallout of an American attack on its communist rivals.
The paper weighed multiple Cold War scenarios and attempted to calculate casualties. One scenario, known as Full Force, estimated the cost in human life if the US utilized the full weight of its nuclear arsenal. In the Soviet bloc, the US would decimate the populations of 295 major cities, killing 72% of the urban population and 54% of the overall population. In China, the US would attack 78 cities with nuclear weapons, killing 53% of the urban population and 16% of the entire Chinese population.
It was calculated that within the first 72 hours of nuclear war, the Full Force plan would see the deaths of 335 million people. This number does not consider those who would die afterwards from famine, drought, radiation poisoning, and yet undocumented effects of an all out nuclear war. The US government estimated that a similar attack on the US would be nearly as devastating. Estimates ranged from 47 million to 88 million dead, depending on how effective evacuation measures were.
This bleak picture of nuclear war became known as Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. There was simply no way for a country to wage a nuclear war without seeing a massive attack in retribution that would decimate their own population by the tens of millions.
MAD is considered to be responsible for preventing a full on nuclear war during the Cold War. It is still counted on to defend the peace today, although the peace it creates is rather precarious and often results in proxy wars instead of direct hostilities. The Russia vs. US Cold War has come to an end, but the nuclear peace counts on the US and Russia maintaining similar nuclear arsenals, as well as comparable warning and defense systems.
Sorry ICAN, we can’t expect to see the US or Russia agreeing to nuclear disarmament anytime soon.