* Global nuclear arms stockpiles sharply down since Cold War
* But major powers still modernising their weapon systems
* China, Pakistan and India may increase arsenals -think-tank
By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA, Oct 10 (Reuters) - The world's stockpile of nuclearweapons is a quarter of the size it was at its Cold War peak inthe 1980s - but the United States, Russia, China, France andBritain are all considering or taking steps to modernise theirarms systems.
The number of nuclear warheads globally is about 17,000,estimates the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute(SIPRI), down roughly 75 percent over the last thirty yearslargely because of cuts by the United States and Russia.
U.S. President Barack Obama gave new impetus to the oftenhalting process of disarmament in 2009 when he set out a visionof a world without nuclear weapons in a speech, three monthsinto his presidency, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, Obama's aim has produced mixed results so far, notleast because of a plan by the United States and NATO to buildan anti-missile shield around Western Europe that has been seenby Russia to undermine his intent.
Last June the U.S. president proposed further cuttingnuclear arsenals by a third but Russia respondedthat the shield, intended to protect against attack from Iranand North Korea, would require Moscow to hold more missiles orlose its deterrent capability. Russia fears the system'sinterceptors could shoot down its long-range nuclear missiles.
Meanwhile, the United States is modifying existing warheadsunder so-called life extension programmes, Russia is deployingmore warheads on each of its missiles, and China is introducingnew mobile missiles for its nuclear weapons, according to theFederation of American Scientists (FAS) think-tank.
Such activities led Angela Kane, U.N. high representativefor disarmament affairs, to comment in September: "Robustnuclear weapon modernisation programmes... raise legitimatequestions over whether these steps are heading toward globalzero, or instead to a permanently nuclear-armed world."
Adds Henry Sokolski of the U.S. Nonproliferation PolicyEducation Center: "In theory everyone can say the ideal numberis zero but in practice no one is willing to take that risk."
The Obama administration used the U.N. nuclear agency'sannual member state gathering in September to underline itscommitment to "pursuing the peace and security" of a worldwithout nuclear weapons, saying it had taken significant stepstoward that goal.
The hope now is that the U.S. and other Western nuclearpowers can persuade Iran to curb sensitive uranium enrichmentafter years of tough sanctions failed to do the job. New IranianPresident Hassan Rouhani's overtures towards the West, whileinsisting on Tehran's nuclear "rights", have raised hopes of anegotiated settlement to the decade-old dispute ahead of talksbetween the two sides on Oct. 15-16 in Geneva.
The Islamic state denies Western accusations that it isseeking the capability to make nuclear weapons.
The fact that more countries are not nuclear armed is widelycredited to the central bargain of the 1970 Non-ProliferationTreaty (NPT) that nations without atomic bombs pledged not toseek them and nuclear weapon states agreed to pursue disarmamentnegotiations.
Compared with U.S. predictions in the early 1960s that thenuclear weapons club could increase to 25 states within a fewdecades, just nine countries are now estimated to have atomicbombs, including India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
The latter four states are outside the 189-nation NPT.Israel is widely assumed to be the Middle East's onlynuclear-armed power, drawing frequent Iranian and Arabcondemnation.
The longer nuclear weapon states hold on to their bombs, thegreater the likelihood of tempting other countries to look intothe possibility of developing such arms, analysts say.
India and Pakistan, which came close to war in 2001-02, bothpublicly said they had tested nuclear weapons in 1998. NorthKorea carried out its third nuclear test in February this year.Israel has neither confirmed nor denied it has nuclear arms.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies has warnedthat a South Asia arms race and Pakistan's development oftactical "battlefield" atomic weapons were increasing the riskof any conflict there becoming a nuclear war.
"Without complete disarmament, we will stand to lose thefight against proliferation in the long run," Austria'sambassador to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA), Christine Stix-Hackl, said in a speech last month.
The Federation of American Scientists says U.S. and Russianwarheads account for more than 90 percent of the world's totalstockpile. Britain, France and China have between 200-300 each.India has 110, Pakistan 120 and Israel 80, it said.
Both the FAS and SIPRI say the total number of deployedwarheads - those placed on missiles or located on bases withoperational forces - amount to around 4,400, of which the vastmajority are U.S. and Russian.
If "nations conclude that the U.S. and Russia have nointention of ever eliminating their obsolete Cold War arsenals,they will hedge their bets and at least explore developing theirown nuclear forces," said Joseph Cirincione, president of thePloughshares Fund, a global security foundation.
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