The Threat of a Nuclear War Today
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By Wen Xin Lim

The Threat of a Nuclear War Today

May. 04, 2017  |     |  0 comments

Many countries have condemned North Korea’s nuclear tests, as they fear its belligerence may trigger a nuclear war and undermine regional safety.


It is peculiar that many nuclear-armed states spend huge amounts on nuclear weapons development only to keep it as a deterrent due to the irreversible damage that nuclear war may bring. While nuclear arsenals have been developed mainly by the world’s major powers, North Korea and Israel are exceptions among the states to possess nuclear missiles and use these as deterrence against possible attempts at regime change and aggression.


Over the past decades, more and more countries have pursued nuclear weapons. The first nuclear weapons detonated by the United States in 1945 during World War II killed more than 140,000 in Hiroshima and about 80,000 in Nagasaki, and many survivors were left suffering from radiation sickness. The Soviet Union was the second country to test and launch a nuclear device, followed by the United Kingdom, France, China, and India. Today, nine countries including North Korea possess nuclear weapons.


According to the Federation of American Scientists, “the world’s combined inventory of nuclear warheads remains at a very high level: approximately 14,900 warheads as of early-2017” despite progress in reducing Cold War nuclear arsenals. Among all, Russia and the United States own 93 percent of all nuclear warheads, followed by France and China which possess 300 and 270 nuclear warheads respectively (See Table 1).

Table 1. Status of World Nuclear Forces 2017




United States

The first country to develop nuclear weapons and the only country to have used them in war. It spends more on its nuclear arsenal than all other countries combined.

 6,800 warheads


The second country to develop nuclear weapons. It has the largest arsenal of any country and is investing heavily in the modernization of its warheads and delivery systems.

 7,000 warheads

United Kingdom

It maintains a fleet of four nuclear-armed submarines in Scotland, each carrying 16 Trident missiles. Its parliament voted in 2016 to overhaul its nuclear forces.

 215 warheads


Most of its nuclear warheads are deployed on submarines equipped with M45 and M51 missiles. One boat is on patrol at all times. Some warheads are also deliverable by aircraft.

 300 warheads


It has a much smaller arsenal than the US and Russia. Its warheads are deliverable by air, land and sea. It appears to be increasing the size of its arsenal at a slow pace.

 260 warheads


It developed nuclear weapons in breach of non-proliferation commitments. It is increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal and enhancing its delivery capabilities.

 110–120 warheads


It is making substantial improvements to its nuclear arsenal and associated infrastructure. It has increased the size of its nuclear arsenal in recent years.

 120–130 warheads


It has a policy of ambiguity in relation to its nuclear arsenal, neither confirming nor denying its existence. As a result, there is little public information or debate about it.

 80 warheads

North Korea

It has a fledgling nuclear weapons programme. Its arsenal probably comprises fewer than 10 warheads. It is not clear whether it has the capability to deliver them.

<10 warheads


14,900 warheads

Source: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

With 14,900 nuclear weapons in the world, Global Zero reports that “even a minor nuclear conflict — one that uses only a fraction of the nuclear weapons currently in existence — could wreak havoc on the global climate and affect billions of people.” As major powers engage in a nuclear arms race and develop operational nuclear weapons capabilities, does the possession of nuclear weapons truly lead to mutual deterrence?

Nuclear possession as mutual deterrence is best illustrated with the example of gun ownership in the United States. Just like how North Korea is unwilling to give up its nuclear weapons development, it is also difficult for the US government to restrict gun sales even though deadly mass shootings have taken place in the past few years. In February this year, the US Congress even voted to overturn the Obama administration’s gun regulation that proposed background checks on firearm buyers. Americans perceive guns to be a deterrent to crime and in many cases used them for self-defence. While it could not be safer for one to own a gun in a country where firearms are widely available, it is difficult for the government to impose gun regulation. Gun possession pre-empts possible attacks from criminals as they are likely to consider the possibility and implications of gunfights if the victims too possess firearms. The destructive consequences of gunfights thus deter potential criminals from striking. This metaphor can be applied to nuclear development in North Korea and even Israel.

As Robert McNamara opined, “assured destruction is the very essence of the whole deterrence concept.” North Korea’s nuclear ambition makes sense as it shelters the nation against the threat of US nuclear weapons. For Israel, its operational nuclear weapons capability serves as a defensive strategy to avert potential national destruction from its belligerent neighbors. Giving up their nuclear weapons projects, to these nations, is like giving up their most powerful weapons when everybody else, especially their potential enemies, possess far more firearms, which obviously put them in a disadvantaged position. Only when both sides are equipped with nuclear weapons, and because all parties take into account the assured destruction of nuclear warfare, the situation is likely to remain at the status quo to safeguard their survival. Thus, the core principles in deterrence theory are intention and capability which create the impression that the military strength of the countries are on an equal footing; and that there is no chance of victory in nuclear warfare.

It should be noted that nuclear weapons remain the last resort in national security strategy, as they cannot obviate war but add intricacy to the manner of its conduct. Nuclear weapons can impose pressure on conventional warfare, triggering low-level conventional attacks and risking regional security. The National Interest reported that “despite its obsolete military forces, North Korea does possess some weapons that South Korea should fear — not counting its nuclear arsenal.” As tension escalates in Northeast Asia, Seoul, which is just 35 miles away from the North Korean border, cannot afford to take a catastrophic artillery strike from North Korea.

Complementing mutual deterrence are rational nuclear-armed states. Given an unpredictable North Korea, it is difficult to tell if the leader of the authoritarian regime will act sanely or arbitrarily. Peace can only come with credible deterrence, and should any party instigate further aggression and refuse to pull itself back from the brink in this context, the world will reach a point where no return is possible.

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