The US nuclear forces in 2024

Nevertheless, the US continues to be the leading power in the multipolar world

Dr Zafar Khan May 28, 2024
The writer is a Professor of International Relations and Executive Director at Balochistan Think Tank Network, Quetta


Bulletin of Atomic Scientists produces papers yearly as part of its Nuclear Notebook describing the estimated nuclear weapons and the related delivery systems of all nine nuclear weapon states. More recently, it has produced papers on the US, Russia and China nuclear weapons — 2024. With the domino effect, all these three nuclear weapon states including France and the UK are modernising their nuclear forces. The paper on the United States nuclear weapons 2024 describes that “the US has embarked on a wide-ranging nuclear modernization program which will ultimately see every nuclear delivery system replaced with newer versions over the coming decades.” In doing so, the US has already planned to spend from $1.2 trillion to $1.7 trillion in the coming three decades. The paper elaborates that the US has “an estimated stockpile of approximately 3,708 nuclear warheads for delivery by ballistic missiles and aircraft.” Out of this estimated stockpile, “1,770 warheads are deployed while 1,938 are kept in the storage as a so-called ‘hedge’ against technical or geopolitical surprises.” The report also reads that out of an estimated 200 tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), “100 TNWs are deployed at six bases in five European countries: Aviano and Ghedi in Italy; Büchel in Germany; Incirlik in Turkey; Kleine Brogel in Belgium; and Volkel in the Netherlands.”

When it comes to delivery systems, the US continues to upgrade its nuclear-powered submarines, bombers, aircraft and different variants of missiles for delivering nuclear weapons against the proposed adversarial targets. First, the US currently has 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) each of which can carry up to 280 nuclear capable ballistic missiles. Second, the US Air Force currently operates a fleet of 20 B-2A bombers (all of which are nuclear capable) and 76 B-52 H bombers (46 of which are nuclear capable). Third, the US has 450 silo-based Minuteman III ICBMs. Since 1970, the US has continued to turn most of them into Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) capability to deliver as many as 14 nuclear warheads in one shot. MIRVs can become one of the most sophisticated delivery systems especially when states are turning them into hypersonic glide vehicles. There is no strong evidence for the making of defensive systems against the incoming multiple nuclear capable warheads loaded on MIRVs.

Given the return of great power competition between the leading powers when there is a resurgence of Russia and the potential rise of China, the world does not remain unipolar any longer. Nevertheless, the US continues to be the leading power in the multipolar world. It has the largest economic strength with $28.78 trillion in GDP. It has documented 750 military bases in 80 countries around the world. It leads by both conventional and nuclear forces modernisation with an unmatched technological advancement. Both the US and Russia possess 90% of the total world nuclear forces. It has an alliance system both in Europe and Asia that remains one of the strongest pillars of the US grand strategy to prevail upon and become the predominant player both in Europe and Asia. Geographically, the US remains protected by oceans in its east and west. In the North, it borders Canada while in the South, it borders Mexico. Neither of the countries have the economic and technological wherewithal to challenge US power.

Given these realities while in possession of modernised conventional and military forces, the US could remain the leading power in the so-called multipolar world for the foreseeable future. It will continue to possess modernised nuclear forces. It may not rescind its first use nuclear option because of its security guarantee to its European and Asian allies against both Russia and China, though ambiguous such a policy could be. Many security analysts in the West argue that the US may not become part of the arms control and disarmament deals unless it takes others on board. The withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM), the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and the recent suspension of the New Start Treaty and the de-ratification of the CTBT by Russia are some of evidence reflecting the grim realities of the perceived global arms control regimes.

In sum, nuclear forces and their related delivery systems possessed by the US reflect that nuclear weapons will continue to stay and play a decisive deterring role in the evolving global nuclear order. In the existing world order, the US desires to remain a predominant player with its strong alliance system intact for containing and defeating its peer competitor. However, it will affect the policies of other countries which, in turn, increases arms race, crisis instability and risk of war. At the same time, this increases a security dilemma for other leading players in the system that may continue producing effective countermeasures to retain balance of power by preventing adversarial aggressive preemptive strikes.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th, 2024.

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