Tactical nuclear weapons burst onto the international scene as Russian President Vladimir Putin, faced with battlefield casualties in eastern Ukraine, threatened that Russia “use all weapon systems at our disposal” if the territorial integrity of Russia is threatened. Putin called the war in Ukraine a existential battle against the Westwho, according to him, wants to weaken, divide and destroy Russia.
US President Joe Biden criticized Putin’s overt nuclear threats against Europe. Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg minimized the threat, saying that Putin “knows very well that a nuclear war should never be fought and cannot be won”. This is not the first time Putin invoked nuclear weapons to try to deter NATO.
I am an international security specialist who has work on and wanted nuclear restraint, non-proliferation and expensive signage theory applied to international relations for two decades. Russia’s vast arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, which are not governed by international treaties, and Putin’s doctrine of threatening their use have raised tensions, but tactical nuclear weapons are not just another type of weapon of battlefield.
Tactics in numbers
Tactical nuclear weapons, sometimes referred to as battlefield or non-strategic nuclear weapons, were designed for use on the battlefield – for example, to counter overwhelming conventional forces like large infantry and armor formations. They are smaller than strategic nuclear weapons like the warheads carried on intercontinental ballistic missiles.
While the experts disagreement over precise definitions tactical nukes, lower explosive yields, measured in kilotons, and shorter-range delivery vehicles are commonly identified features. Tactical nuclear weapons range in yield from fractions of 1 kiloton to around 50 kilotons, compared to strategic nuclear weapons, which have yields ranging from around 100 kilotons to over a megaton, although much more powerful warheads have been developed during the Cold War.
For reference, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons, so some tactical nukes are capable of causing widespread destruction. The the biggest conventional bombthe mother of all bombs or MOAB, which the United States has abandoned has a yield of 0.011 kilotonnes.
Delivery systems for tactical nuclear weapons also tend to have shorter ranges, typically less than 310 miles (500 kilometers) compared to strategic nuclear weapons, which are typically designed to cross continents.
Because the explosive force of low-yield nuclear weapons is not much greater than that of increasingly powerful conventional weapons, the US military has reduced its reliance on them. Most of its remaining stock, about 150 B61 gravity bombsis deployed in Europe. The United Kingdom and France have completely eliminated their tactical stocks. Pakistan, China, India, Israel and North Korea all have several types of tactical nuclear weapons.
Russia has retained more tactical nuclear weapons, estimated at around 2,000and relied on them more in its nuclear strategy than the United States, primarily due to Russia’s less advanced conventional armaments 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 launched by medium-range and tactical bombers, or naval anti-ship and anti-submarine torpedoes. marines. These missiles are mostly kept in reserve in central depots in Russia.
Russia has updated its delivery systems to be able to carry nuclear or conventional bombs. There is heightened concern about these dual-capability delivery systems, as Russia has used many of these short-range missile systems, particularly 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 of 10 million to 100 million than chemical explosions, and leave deadly radioactive fallout that would contaminate air, soil, water and food supplies, similar to the disastrous collapse of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986. The interactive simulation site NUKEMAP by Alex Wellerstein depicts the multiple effects of nuclear explosions at various yields.
Can a nuclear weapon be tactical?
Unlike strategic nuclear weapons, tactical weapons are not focused on mutually assured destruction through overwhelming retaliation or umbrella nuclear deterrence to protect allies. While tactical nuclear weapons have not been included in arms control agreements, medium range weapons have been included in the old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987-2018), which reduced nuclear weapons in Europe.
The United States and Russia have reduced their total nuclear arsenals by approximately 19,000 and 35,000 respectively at the end of the cold war about 3,700 and 4,480 in January 2022. Russia’s reluctance to negotiate on its non-strategic nuclear weapons has hampered further nuclear arms control efforts.
The fundamental question is whether tactical nuclear weapons are more “usable” and could therefore potentially trigger full-scale nuclear war. Their development was part of an effort to overcome concerns that, with large-scale nuclear attacks widely considered unthinkable, strategic nuclear weapons were losing their value as a deterrent against war between superpowers. Nuclear powers would be more likely to use tactical nuclear weapons, in theory, and thus the weapons would enhance a nation’s nuclear deterrent.
Yet any use of tactical nuclear weapons would invoke defensive nuclear strategies. In fact, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, notably declared in 2018“I don’t think there is such a thing as a tactical nuke. Any use of a nuke at any time is a strategic game changer.”
The United States criticized the Russian nuclear strategy of escalate to defusein which tactical nuclear weapons could be used to deter an enlargement of the war to NATO.
Although there is disagreement among experts, Russian and American nuclear strategies focus on deterrence and therefore involve large-scale retaliatory nuclear attacks against the very first use of nuclear weapons. This means that Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent to conventional war threatens an action which, according to nuclear warfare doctrine, would invite a retaliatory nuclear strike if directed against the United States. United or NATO.
Nuclear weapons and Ukraine
I believe that Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine would not achieve any military objective. This would contaminate the territory that Russia claims as part of its historical empire and possibly drift into Russia itself. This would increase the likelihood of direct NATO intervention and destroy Russia’s image in the world.
Putin aims to deter Ukraine’s continued successes in regaining territory as a preemptive annex regions in the east of the country after holding organized referendums. He could then declare that Russia would use nuclear weapons to defend the new territory as if the existence of the Russian state were threatened. But I believe that statement stretches Russia’s nuclear strategy beyond belief.
Putin explicitly asserted that his threat to use tactical nuclear weapons is not a bluff precisely because, from a strategic point of view, using them is not believable. In other words, whatever the reasonable strategy, the use of weapons is unthinkable and therefore threatening their use is by definition a bluff.
Nina Srinivasan Rathbunprofessor of international relations, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences