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Accountability and stockpile of nuclear warheads

By Rameez Raja

After the US bombardment on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the obsession of states for acquiring nuclear warheads started. When the former Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear test in 1949, the US lost its monopoly over nuclear weapons. The United Kingdom, France, China, and three threshold states like Israel, India, and Pakistan joined the nuclear club later. The international community as well as academic scholars debated largely on the subject of civilian and democratic accountability of nuclear warheads because of unauthorized use of nukes, nuclear accidents or misappropriation, and the limited wars under the nuclear shadow.

This study analyzes the governance and stockpile of nuclear warheads of nine nuclear weapon states. According to the recent report (2018) of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the total capacity of nuclear warheads of all nuclear states is 14, 465, slightly less than the previous year report of nuclear warheads (14, 935) which was estimated by the same institute. The reduction in the nuclear arsenals by the United States and Russia did not visualize any humanitarian effort; rather it prompted a paradigm shift from quantity to quality of nuclear warheads. The reduction in the nuclear arsenals of both United States and Russia, which possess 92 percent of all nuclear warheads, is the result of the implementation of the 2010 treaty on measures for the further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START). However, experts worry about the quality and lethality of current nuclear warheads in the US and Russia. Additionally, China surpassed the US in quality of missiles that has an ability to break the US Ballistic Missile Defence System. The Chinese hypersonic cruise missiles have increased anxiety of the US defence experts who argue that their Ballistic Missile Defence System might fail to destroy the incoming hypersonic weapons from enemy states. However, the US second-strike capability would be lethal in nature.

United States

Fever D. Feaver and Kristin Thompson Sharp write that the US has emphasized the civilian and democratic control of its nuclear assets. The US President, the final authority on nuclear doctrine, development, and operational status, is bound to a collection of statutory policy advisers. The US Congress has a power to declare war, raise armies, ratify treaty, and control the federal budget including the defence spending. The civil society is active in the US and takes part in nuclear issues. However, in the US, the elements of secrecy like ‘Black Budget’ system, devolution of command and centralization of operational power in the President’s hands are an obstacle to the democratic governance of the US nuclear arsenal. The US currently possesses 6, 550 nuclear warheads and holds the second position after Russia.


Alexei Arbatov writes that from 1918 to 1991 Soviet defence policy was controlled by the upper echelon of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the paradigm shift began and some civilian and democratic control of nuclear weapons started with the help of Gorbachev. For the authorization of nuclear weapons, Russia adopted the ‘Kazbeck’ system in 1981. The Kazbeck system is a three ‘Briefcase’ system procedure; one each in the possession of the President, the Minister of Defence, and Chief of the General Staff. The civil society has a limited role to play in nuclear issues. Russia possesses the highest stockpile of nuclear weapons and is ahead of the US. The current figure is 6, 850 warheads.

United Kingdom

John Simpson and Jenny Neilson write that the Mutual Defence Agreement of 1958 between the UK and the USA is the central feature of the British nuclear weapon capability. The authors state that all aspects of the nuclear programme are taken care of by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. The parliament does not analyse specific programmes in detail and cannot exercise advance control. It has a marginal role to play in British nuclear issues. The secrecy is always an obstacle to democratic accountability of nuclear warheads. However, the civil society in the UK has played an important role in mobilizing public interest and debate on nuclear issues. The current stockpile of nuclear warheads of the United Kingdom is roughly 215.


Bruno Tertrais writes that no nuclear weapon in France is physically moved without political authorization and the President has to personally approve any change in alert status. As per the authorization of nukes is concerned, the President is supported by a small private military staff and by the Defence and National Security Council. The Parliament was excluded from power over nuclear weapons in 1964. The civil society in France has a limited role to play in nuclear issues. France is ahead of the United Kingdom in possession of nuclear weapons and has roughly 300 warheads.


Bates Gill and Evan S. Medeiros write that three constituencies have played a critical role in the Chinese nuclear development: the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army, and China’s Defence-Industrial and Scientific Community. The major decisions including nuclear weapons are now taken by the Standing Committee (a nine-member body) of the political Bureau (Politburo) of the CCP. China has a civilian control over its nuclear warheads but lacks a democratic accountability. There is no evidence of parliamentary debate on nuclear weapons. The civil society in China, particularly the media, remains under the direction and scrutiny of the CCP and is the main hindrance for the democratic accountability of nukes. China possesses slightly less number of warheads than France and has roughly 280 nuclear warheads.


Anver Cohen writes that Israel’s nuclear weapons were known in the 1970s but Israel never acknowledged its nuclear weapon capability. Cohen further writes, “Israel’s nuclear programme consists of three distinct but interrelated components: (a) opacity as a national security policy and strategy; (b) censorship as law enforcement mechanism; (c) societal taboo as a legitimizing instrument.” Israel emphasizes a civilian control over its nukes but totally lacks a democratic accountability. The Israeli government has even banned phrases such as ‘nuclear weapons’, ‘nukes’, ‘bomb’ from being mentioned anywhere in Israel. The censor replaces these words with ‘nuclear option’, ‘nuclear capabilities’, or ‘nuclear potential’. Moreover, the shocking phrase ‘doomsday weapons’ is allowed by the censor to refer to Israel’s’ nuclear status. The civil Society in Israel has no role to play in nuclear issues. Israel’s nuclear programme is not well known to public due to the existence of censorship. Israel possesses the least stockpile of nuclear weapons and has roughly 80 warheads.


Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu writes that Indian political leaders, and the scientific-military complex play a pivotal role in the governance of nuclear weapons. The scientific establishments hold the nukes, the military controls the delivery systems, and the political authorities exercise general oversight of weapons use. The parliament has not played a decisive role on the nuclear issues. The author claims that civil society has marginally participated in nuclear issues. However, this claim falls flat on empirical grounds when we see that a member of civil society members have organized themselves into various anti-nuclear groups and have been vocal in speaking against nuclear weapons. However, they face the wrath of the state and have been put behind bars for challenging the Indian nuclear policy, especially the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant. Although conventionally stronger than Pakistan, India possesses slightly less nuclear warheads than Pakistan and has roughly 135 warheads.


Zafar Iqbal Cheema writes that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the architect of Pakistani nuclear weapons programme. The military government created the mixed Civilian-National Command Authority (NCA) in 2001 to establish control over the development and deployment of Pakistan’s strategic nuclear forces. The authorization to use nuclear weapons is vested in the Prime Minister. Cheema states that due to regular breakdown of the Pakistani parliament, the democratic control over nuclear weapons decreases. Except for some academics and other members, the civil society in Pakistan is proud of its nuclear weapons capability. Pakistan currently possesses 145 nuclear warheads.

North Korea

Numerous studies claim that North Korea possesses both atomic and thermo-nuclear bombs, though small in number. It has been estimated that former Soviet Union helped North Korea in the 1960s in nuclear weapons development. Subsequently, scientists in North Korea succeeded in fabricating uranium metal and experimenting with detonating systems in nuclear weapons in the 1980s. During the 1990s, Pakistani nuclear scientist, A. Q. Khan, provided centrifuges for uranium enrichment and warhead design blueprints. As far as the accountability of nuclear weapons in North Korea is concerned, there is insufficient information available to the public. It is believed that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, is the final say about the utilization of nuclear weapons. It is estimated that North Korea has approximately 10-20 nuclear warheads as in January 2018. By 2020, experts estimate that North Korea could have anywhere between 20-100 nuclear warheads, based on the rate of its stockpile growth and technological improvements. The recent meeting between the US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un reached an agreement to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. North Korea conducted both nuclear and hydrogen bomb tests in 2017 that triggered strict condemnation across the globe and resulted in the toughest sanctions by the UN Security Council on North Korea’s oil and textile imports. Trump claims that North Korea is an “extraordinary threat” to the American national security.


There is lot of hue and cry about Iran’s civilian nuclear programme across the globe. Some experts are worried that Iran might possess a fissile material for building nuclear weapons. Several past reports about Iran’s nuclear programme claim that it has undertaken clandestine nuclear activities for the said purpose. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concludes, “Iran had an organized programme to pursue nuclear weapons prior to 2003.” However, there is no indication of the weaponization process from the Iranian side currently. Iran explicitly states that its nuclear programme is entirely civilian and has allowed international inspection on its sensitive nuclear facilities in order to lift economic sanctions on it. Subsequently, the P5+1 has agreed to help Iran for civil nuclear programme after a thorough inspection. The IAEA’s director general, Ukiya Amano, said that until 2003 Iran had conducted ‘a co-ordinated effort’ on “a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” Iran continued with some activities until 2009, but after that there were ‘no credible indications’ of weapons development, Amano added. Despite this report, Israel claims that Iran is breaching the nuclear deal. The US is reluctant to proceed or to pull out of the deal. However, the European states did not find anything that could be regarded as a breach of the nuclear deal, which is based on a stringent verification rather than on trust about Iran’s intentions, as claimed by the UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.


This study is a brief normative analysis of governance of nukes and concludes that every nuclear country should make efforts for good governance of nuclear weapons. However, nukes are against morality and its governance through civilian, democratic, and military institutions cannot make it a weapon of peace. The nuclear risks are increasing day by day with the emergence of new crises between the rival states. The civilian and democratic accountability of nuclear warheads is not an alternative to nuclear disarmament. It is only one of the methods of Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures to control the unauthorized use of nuclear warheads. The biggest threat still exists because of the availability of thousands of nukes, owing to the nuclear mafia that operate in most of the nuclear states. Moreover, it was the US, a successful democratic state, which actually dropped a bomb over Japan. The nuclear states provide the so-called ‘legitimate’ reasons for secrecy over nuclear weapons and this is an obstacle to democratic accountability of nuclear warheads. The failure of the civil society in taking part in nuclear issues is because of the insufficient information about nuclear weapons and censorship. Nevertheless, the issue of good governance has provided meaningful insights that may be helpful for any conception of future nuclear disarmament.

Photo: World Atlas

Rameez Raja, an ICSSR fellow, is pursuing Ph. D. at the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India. He specializes in India’s nuclear policy. His writings have previously appeared in Rising Kashmir, Café Dissensus Everyday, Kafila, South Asia Journal, Foreign Policy News, Modern Diplomacy, Pakistan Observer, Kashmir Observer, and Kashmir Monitor. Email ID:


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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