The number of operational warheads is on the rise globally, a Swedish think tank has found A Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launcher rolls on Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2024. © Alexander NEMENOV/AFP

The world is in “one of the most dangerous periods in human history” as global powers boost their atomic arsenals and nuclear weapons play an increasingly “prominent” role in international relations, a Swedish think tank said on Monday.

Diplomatic efforts to control nuclear arms have suffered major setbacks as geopolitical relations have deteriorated over the Ukraine and Gaza conflicts, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a group that tracks global security and arms control, said in its annual report.

The nine nuclear states – the US, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel – continue to modernize their atomic arsenals and several deployed new nuclear-armed or nuclear-capable weapon systems in 2023.

“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 Program.

An “extremely concerning” increase in the number of nuclear warheads deployed with missiles and aircraft is likely to pick up speed in the coming years, the report warned. Of the estimated 12,121 nuclear warheads around the world, about 9,585 were in stockpiles for potential use as of January, the report found. Around 2,100 were kept in a state of “high operational alert” on ballistic missiles.

“Regrettably we continue to see year-on-year increases in the number of operational nuclear warheads,” said SIPRI director Dan Smith.

Russia could consider changing nuclear doctrine Russia could consider changing nuclear doctrine

Russia and the US together have almost 90% of all nuclear weapons, SIPRI said. The sizes of their military stockpiles remained stable in 2023, although Russia is estimated to have deployed around 36 more warheads with operational forces than in January 2023, the watchdog added.

Tensions over Ukraine and Gaza have further “weakened” global nuclear diplomacy, researchers stated.

Washington has suspended bilateral strategic stability dialogue with Russia, and last year Moscow announced that it was suspending its participation in the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty. As a countermeasure, the US has also suspended the sharing and publication of treaty data.

For the first time, China is believed to have some warheads on high operational alert during peacetime, SIPRI said. Beijing boosted its nuclear arsenal to 500 warheads in January, up from 410 in the same month last year. China is expanding its nuclear inventory faster than any other country, the report claimed.

In Asia, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are all pursuing the capability of deploying multiple warheads on ballistic missiles.

“We are now in one of the most dangerous periods in human history,” Smith said, urging the world’s great powers to “step back and reflect. Preferably together.”