Tactical nuclear weapons have jumped on the international scene as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who faces battlefield losses in eastern Ukraine, has threatened that Russia will “make use of all the weapon systems available to us” when the territorial integrity of Russia is threatened. Putin has the war in Ukraine as a existential struggle against the Westwhich he said aims to weaken, divide and destroy Russia.
US President Joe Biden criticized Putin’s overt nuclear threats against Europe. Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg downplayed the threat, saying Putin “knows very well that a nuclear war should never be fought and cannot be won.” This is not the first time Putin has invoked nuclear weapons in an attempt to deter NATO.
I am an international security scientist who: worked on and researched nuclear restriction, non-proliferation and expensive signaling theory applied to international relations for two decades. Russia’s vast arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, not governed by international treaties, and Putin’s doctrine of threatening their use have heightened tensions, but tactical nuclear weapons are not just another type of battlefield weapon.
Tactical by the numbers
Tactical nuclear weapons, sometimes referred to as battlefield or non-strategic nuclear weapons, are designed to be used on the battlefield, for example to counter overwhelming conventional forces such as large formations of infantry and armor. They are smaller than strategic nuclear weapons such as the warheads carried on intercontinental ballistic missiles.
while experts disagree on precise definitions of tactical nuclear weapons, lower explosive yields, measured in kilotons, and shorter range vehicles are commonly identified characteristics. Tactical nuclear weapons range in yields from fractions of 1 kiloton to about 50 kilotons, compared to strategic nuclear weapons, which have yields ranging from about 100 kilotons to over a megaton, although much more powerful warheads were developed during the Cold War.
For reference, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons, so some tactical nuclear weapons can cause widespread destruction. The largest conventional bombthe Mother of All Bombs or MOAB, which the US dropped, has a yield of 0.011 kilotons.
Tactical nuclear weapons delivery systems also tend to have a shorter range, usually less than 500 kilometers, compared to strategic nuclear weapons, which are typically designed to traverse continents.
Because the explosive power of low-yield nuclear weapons does not exceed that of increasingly powerful conventional weapons, the US military has reduced its reliance on them. Most of the remaining stock, about 150 B61 gravity bombsis deployed in Europe. The UK and France have completely eliminated their tactical supplies. Pakistan, China, India, Israel and North Korea all have different types of tactical nuclear weapons.
Russia has retained more tactical nuclear weapons, estimated at about 2,000and relied more heavily on it than the US in their nuclear strategy, mainly because of Russia’s less advanced conventional weapons and capabilities.
Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons can be deployed by ships, aircraft and ground forces. Most are deployed on air-to-surface missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, gravity bombs and depth charges delivered by medium and tactical bombers, or naval anti-ship and anti-submarine torpedoes. These missiles are usually kept in reserve in central depots in Russia.
Russia has updated its delivery systems to carry both nuclear and conventional bombs. There is heightened concern about these dual capability systems, as Russia has used many of these short-range missile systems, most notably the Iskander-M, to bomb Ukraine.
Tactical nuclear weapons are significantly more destructive than their conventional counterparts, even at the same explosive energy. Nuclear explosions are: more powerful by factors from 10 million to 100 million than chemical explosions, leaving behind deadly radioactive fallout that would contaminate air, soil, water and food supplies, similar to the catastrophic meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986. The interactive simulation site NUKEMAP by Alex Wellerstein shows the multiple effects of nuclear explosions at different yields.
Can any nuclear weapon be tactical?
Unlike strategic nuclear weapons, tactical weapons do not aim at mutually assured destruction through overwhelming retaliation or nuclear umbrella deterrence to protect allies. While tactical nuclear weapons are not included in arms control agreements, intermediate-range weapons were included in the now-defunct Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987-2018), reducing the number of nuclear weapons in Europe.
Both the US and Russia have reduced their total nuclear arsenals from about 19,000 and 35,000 respectively at the end of the Cold War until about 3,700 and 4,480 as of January 2022. Russia’s unwillingness to negotiate its non-strategic nuclear weapons has hampered further nuclear arms control efforts.
The fundamental question is whether tactical nuclear weapons are “more useful” and could therefore potentially trigger a full-scale nuclear war. Their development was part of an effort to allay concerns that because large-scale nuclear strikes were widely considered unthinkable, strategic nuclear weapons were losing their value as a deterrent to war between the superpowers. The nuclear powers would theoretically be more likely to use tactical nuclear weapons, and so the weapons would enhance a country’s nuclear deterrent.
Still, any use of tactical nuclear weapons would call upon defensive nuclear strategies. In fact, specifically then Secretary of Defense James Mattis: listed in 2018: “I don’t think there is such a thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. Any use of nuclear weapons at any time is a strategic game changer.”
The US has criticized Russia’s nuclear strategy of escalate to de-escalatein which tactical nuclear weapons can be used to deter an extension of the war to NATO.
Although there is disagreement among experts, Russia’s and the US’s nuclear strategies are deterrent, and thus include large-scale retaliatory attacks on nuclear weapons in light of the first use of nuclear weapons. This means that Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent to conventional wars threatens an action that, according to nuclear warfare doctrine, would lead to a nuclear retaliatory attack if it were aimed at the US or NATO.
Nuclear weapons and Ukraine
I believe that the Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine would not achieve any military goal. It would contaminate the territory that Russia claims as part of its historical empire and potentially drift into Russia itself. It would increase the chances of direct NATO intervention and destroy Russia’s image in the world.
Putin wants to deter Ukraine’s continued success in reconquering territory through preventive annexing regions in the east of the country after holding staged referendums. He could then declare that Russia would use nuclear weapons to defend the new territory as if the very existence of the Russian state were threatened. But I believe this claim makes Russia’s nuclear strategy implausible.
Putin has explicitly stated that his threat to use tactical nuclear weapons is not a bluff precisely because, from a strategic point of view, its use is not credible. In other words, under any reasonable strategy the use of the weapons is unthinkable and so threatening their use is by definition a bluff.
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