ICAN Reports 13% Increase in Nuclear Weapons Expenditure Amid Geopolitical Tensions

In 2023, global spending on nuclear weapons reached a record $91.4 billion, reflecting a 13 percent increase driven by heightened geopolitical tensions and defense budget expansions, particularly in the United States and China

by Sededin Dedovic
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ICAN Reports 13% Increase in Nuclear Weapons Expenditure Amid Geopolitical Tensions
© Jeff T. Green / Getty Images

Global spending on nuclear weapons increased by an estimated 13 percent in 2023, reaching a record $91.4 billion, according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), as reported by The Guardian. The new total, $10.7 billion higher than the previous year, was mainly driven by sharply increased defense budgets in the US amid broader geopolitical uncertainties caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war.

All nine nuclear-armed states in the world are spending more, ICAN adds, with China considered the second-largest spender with a budget of $11.9 billion—although Beijing's total is significantly below the $51.5 billion attributed to the US.

Russia is the third-largest spender with $8.3 billion, followed by the United Kingdom ($8.1 billion) and France ($6.1 billion), although estimates for authoritarian states or the three countries with undeclared nuclear programs (India, Pakistan, and Israel) are complicated by a lack of transparency.

Susie Snyder, one of the study's authors, warned that nuclear states are "on track to spend $100 billion annually on nuclear weapons" and argued that the money could be used for environmental and social programs. "These billions could have been used to fight climate change and save the animals and plants that sustain life on Earth from extinction, not to mention improving health and education services worldwide," Snyder said.

Activists Rally Against Nukes During Nuclear Security Summit In Washington DC© Win McNamee / Getty Images

Over the past five years since ICAN began its research, nuclear weapons spending has increased by 34 percent, or $23.2 billion.

US spending has risen by 45 percent in that time, and by 43 percent in the UK, and is set to exceed $100 billion by 2024 based on current trends. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly mentioned his country's nuclear arsenal to warn the West against direct military intervention in Ukraine since the full-scale invasion began in February 2022.

Russia also initiated a series of exercises simulating the use of tactical nuclear weapons in May near the Ukrainian border. Other data, determined by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), show that the number of active nuclear warheads is also slightly higher, at 9,585, mainly because China increased its arsenal from 410 to 500.

The largest nuclear states remain, as since the 1950s, the US and Russia, which hold about 90 percent of all warheads. Russia has 4,380 nuclear warheads deployed or in storage, compared to 3,708 for the US, researchers added.

SIPRI researchers estimate that Russia has deployed about 36 more warheads with operational forces than in January 2023, although they added that there is no solid evidence that Moscow has deployed any of its nuclear missiles in Belarus, despite public statements by Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

The British nuclear arsenal is estimated to be unchanged at 225 (as is the French at 290), but three years ago the UK announced it would raise the upper limit on the number of warheads it is prepared to store to 260 Trident warheads to counter perceived threats from Russia and China.

Wilfred Wan, director of SIPRI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Program, said, "We haven't seen nuclear weapons play such a prominent role in international relations since the Cold War." He compared the number of deployed warheads with a joint statement signed by the US, the UK, France, China, and Russia in 2022.

Building on earlier statements, the five countries declared that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that nuclear weapons are the alliance's "ultimate security guarantee" and a means of preserving peace.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned that Moscow could use nuclear weapons to defend itself in extreme circumstances. Jens Stoltenberg told the British newspaper Telegraph that NATO members are discussing transparency about their nuclear arsenal as a deterrent.

"I'm not going to talk about the operational details of how many nuclear warheads should be put into service and which will be stored, but we need to consult on these issues. That's exactly what we're doing," he told the newspaper.

The nine nuclear-armed states continue to modernize their nuclear weapons, the Swedish think tank announced on Monday, as reported by The Independent. "We haven't seen nuclear weapons play such a prominent role in international relations since the Cold War," said Wilfred Wan, director of SIPRI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Program.

Earlier this month, Russia and its ally Belarus launched the second phase of exercises intended to train their troops in tactical nuclear weapons, as part of the Kremlin's efforts to deter the West from increasing support for Ukraine.

In a separate report, ICAN stated that the nine nuclear states spent a total of $91.4 billion on their arsenals in 2023, equivalent to $2,898 per second. The Geneva-based disarmament activist coalition won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

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