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Nuclear war refers to a military conflict in which nuclear weapons are used. The term"nuclear warfare” is distinguished from the achievement of military or political ends through the possession or threat of nuclear weapons without their actual use; these strategies might include nuclear deterrence or nuclear blackmail.
Compared to conventional warfare, nuclear warfare is vastly more destructive in range and extent of damage. A major nuclear exchange could have severe long-term effects, primarily from radiation release but also from possible atmospheric pollution leading to nuclear winter, that could last for decades, centuries, or even millennia after the initial attack. Nuclear war is considered to bear existential risks for civilization.
The first and only nuclear war was the atomic bombings of Japan by the United States shortly before the end of World War II. At the time of those bombings, the United States was the only country to possess atomic weapons. After World War II, nuclear weapons were also developed by the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China, which contributed to the state of conflict and tension that became known as the Cold War. In the 1970s, India and Pakistan, countries openly hostile to each other, developed nuclear weapons.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of the Cold War, the threat of a major nuclear war between the superpowers was generally thought to have receded. Since then, concern over nuclear weapons has shifted to the prevention of localized nuclear conflicts resulting from nuclear proliferation, and the threat of nuclear terrorism.
There are more than 16,000 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons ready for deployment and another 14,000 in storage. The U.S. has nearly 7,000 ready for action and 3,000 in storage and Russia has about 8,500 on hand and 11,000 in storage. China has 400 nuclear weapons, Britain 200, France 350, India 160, and Pakistan 60. North Korea is confirmed as having nuclear weapons, though it is not known how many (a common estimate is between 1 and 10). Israel is also widely believed to have nuclear weapons.
Although disarmament could limit such risks, there would be substantial challenges in implementing such a policy of relinquishment. For example, the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) would no longer serve as a deterrent for conventional but massive warfare. Even if the physical existence of nukes was eliminated, there would always be the threat of someone recreating them.
Nuclear terrorism by non-state organizations is an unknown factor in nuclear deterrence thinking, as states possessing nuclear weapons are susceptible to retaliation in kind, but sub- or trans-state actors are not. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the possibility that former Soviet nuclear weapons might become available on the black market, while no warheads are known to be have been mislaid, it has been alleged that suitcase-size bombs might be unaccounted for.