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The global nuclear arms race

A look at nuclear weapon stockpiles and production since the Cold War.
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Jordan Hale and Greg J. Smith, July 15, 2013 1:38:01 PM

On July 16, 1945 the world changed forever, as the first atomic bomb exploded at the White Sands Missile Range in Southern New Mexico. Atomic weapons would not only impact the direction of WWII, but they’d become a dominant force in shaping 20th century politics, simultaneously serving as an anxiety-inducing asset and a doomsday deterrent during the cold war. This week, to mark the anniversary of the first detonation, we look at historical nuclear weapon stockpiles across various global powers.

In cycling through this map chronologically, we begin in 1950 in the early years of the Cold War where America already possess 299 weapons, while USSR is considerably slower out of the starting gate with 5. By 1965, armament production was increasing, with America now stocked with approximately 18,500 weapons, and USSR at 1,500 – the United Kingdom has also joined the nuclear club with 42. By 1980, the global nuclear fraternity had swelled; In addition to the UK (500 weapons), France (250) and China (205), Israel (7) and India (1) had all joined this special fraternity. Meanwhile while America was beginning to curb production (having decreased about 10% of their arsenal from 1975 levels to 24K), USSR’s count was burgeoning at 30,000 headed towards their 1985 record levels of 39,200.

The following decade would see the collapse of Communism and considerable disarmament. In 1995, America’s weapons count had plummeted to just under 11,000 while Russia had reduced their stockpile to 27,000. However, while the traditional nuclear ‘superpowers’ were cycling down, and the UK, France and China’s levels had plateaued, Israel (63), India (14) and Pakistan (13) were now accumulating weapons. Additionally, the much-maligned North Korea may have joined the nuclear club.

In 2013, we can see a considerable change in global attitudes towards nuclear weapons where America and Russia have both reduced their stockpiles to under 10,000 weapons and the UK and France have also lowered their counts. The sea change is in Asia, the site of a contemporary arms race, where China has increased their arsenal to 250, and perennial prickly neighbours India and Pakistan now both possess approximately 100 weapons. Meanwhile in the Middle East, the speculation about Iran’s capabilities ebbs and flows…

While Canada has never endeavoured to develop a nuclear arsenal of our own, we are irrevocably tethered to America’s fortunes in the high-stakes procurement poker game. The world still carries the scars of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hopefully we never have to bear witness to that kind of devastation again.

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Jordan Hale and Greg J. Smith

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