HomeGlobal Defence UpdatesChina's nuclear force now three times larger than India's: SIPRI data

China’s nuclear force now three times larger than India’s: SIPRI data

China is accelerating its nuclear weapons buildup, now possessing 500 warheads, significantly more than India’s 172 and Pakistan’s 170. This growth marks the fastest expansion globally, with some warheads on high operational alert, a status previously reserved for US and Russian arsenals.

The nuclear stockpiles stand at: Russia (4,380 warheads), US (3,708), France (290), UK (225), Israel (90) and North Korea (50). An estimated 3,904 of these warheads are deployed with missiles and aircraft, with the rest being kept in storage.

“Around 2,100 of the deployed warheads were kept in a state of high operational alert on ballistic missiles. Nearly all of these warheads belonged to Russia or the US, but for the first time China is believed to have some warheads on high operational alert,” SIPRI said.

China’s Accelerated Nuclear Buildup

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reports that China’s nuclear arsenal has grown from 410 warheads in January 2023 to 500 by January 2024. In the SIPRI report, Hans M. Kristensen, associate senior fellow with SIPRI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme, stated, “China is expanding its nuclear arsenal faster than any other country.”

He went on to state, ‘But in nearly all of the nuclear-armed states there are either plans or a significant push to increase nuclear forces.’

China boosting nuclear arsenal, has 3x India's warheadsTOI.in

Global Nuclear Landscape

Russia and the US remain dominant, holding 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, with Russia at 4,380 and the US at 3,708 warheads. China is projected to reach over 1,000 warheads by 2030, potentially matching the US and Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) count. SIPRI reports that 2,100 deployed nuclear warheads are on high operational alert, with China now joining this status for the first time.

SIPRI also said India, Pakistan and North Korea are all pursuing the capability to deploy multiple warheads on ballistic missiles, a capability that the US, UK, Russia, France and China already have. “This would enable a rapid potential increase in deployed warheads, as well as the possibility for nuclear-armed countries to threaten the destruction of significantly more targets,” it said.

Strategic Implications for India

India maintains confidence in its strategic deterrence, bolstered by the Agni-5 ballistic missile, tested for multiple-warhead capability. India is increasingly adopting canister-launch missiles for enhanced operational readiness. The Indian navy will soon commission its second nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arighat, strengthening its nuclear triad. SIPRI notes, “India appears to be placing growing emphasis on longer-range weapons, including those capable of reaching targets throughout China.”

Geopolitical Context

The increase in nuclear capabilities comes amid ongoing global conflicts, notably in Ukraine and Gaza, which have strained nuclear arms control efforts. SIPRI states, “The deterrence role of nuclear weapons has grown amid the ongoing geopolitical turmoil over conflicts like the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas ones.”

Nuclear arms control and disarmament diplomacy suffered more major setbacks in 2023. In February 2023, Russia announced it was suspending its participation in the 2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START)—the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty limiting Russian and US strategic nuclear forces. As a countermeasure, the USA has also suspended sharing and publication of treaty data.

In November, Russia withdrew its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), citing “an imbalance” with the USA, which has failed to ratify the treaty since it opened for signature in 1996. However, Russia confirmed that it would remain a signatory and would continue to participate in the work of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). Meanwhile, Russia has continued to make threats regarding the use of nuclear weapons in the context of Western support for Ukraine. In May 2024, Russia carried out tactical nuclear weapon drills close to the Ukrainian border.

“We have not seen nuclear weapons playing such a prominent role in international relations since the Cold War,” said Wilfred Wan, Director of SIPRI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme. “It is hard to believe that barely two years have passed since the leaders of the five largest nuclear-armed states jointly reaffirmed that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’.”

Future Projections

China’s arsenal may reach 1,000 warheads by 2030, though still smaller than the US and Russia. SIPRI emphasizes that all nuclear-armed states, including India and Pakistan, are pursuing multiple warheads on ballistic missiles, enhancing their potential destructive capabilities.

China’s nuclear expansion reflects a broader trend of modernization among nuclear-armed states. The geopolitical landscape remains tense, with significant implications for global security and nuclear deterrence strategies.

According to a Washington Post report, at a recent conference on nuclear disarmament, Pranay Vaddi, a National Security Council official specializing in nuclear weapons, highlighted the potential need for the US to expand its nuclear arsenal in response to the growth of rival arsenals. He stated, “Absent a change in the trajectory of adversary arsenals, we may reach a point in the coming years where an increase from current deployed numbers is required.”

The quiet buildup of China’s nuclear arsenal comes as various conflicts continue to rage around the world, including the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. The war in Ukraine has had a “negative impact” on nuclear arms control talks and has “diminished opportunities to break the long-standing deadlock in nuclear arms control and reverse the worrisome trend of nuclear-armed states developing and deploying new weapon systems,” SIPRI said in the report.

(With inputs from TOI)

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