By Thalif Deen
Russia’s military setbacks in Ukraine have triggered widespread speculation in the US that Russian President Vladimir Putin may unleash his stockpile of “tactical nuclear weapons”, which may be less devastating than the deadly US weapons that destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki back in August 1945.
In the face of battlefield losses in eastern Ukraine, Putin has warned that he “will make use of all the weapon systems available to us” if our territorial integrity is threatened.
Putin realizes that using nuclear weapons will result in worldwide condemnation and further degrade Russia’s status as an “international pariah”.
There is also speculation that the use of nuclear weapons could result in a blowback of radiation into Russian territory.
The most likely scenario is the use of “tactical nuclear weapons”, which are reportedly not governed by international treaties.
Citing American officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the New York Times reported October 4 this may be a last-ditch attempt by Putin to “halt the Ukrainian counter-offensive by threatening to make parts of Ukraine uninhabitable.”
Hans M. Kristensen, Director, Nuclear Information Project and Associate Senior Fellow, Weapons of Mass Destruction Program, at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IDN a tactical nuclear weapon is any nuclear weapons that doesn’t have intercontinental range and is not covered by the New START Treaty.
The term, he pointed out, really dates back to the Cold War when the Soviet Union, United States, France and Britain developed nuclear weapons that were intended for use in a local battle or limited regional scenario.
“Tactical nuclear weapons were sometimes intended to be used before strategic weapons to deescalate nuclear war and stop it before it escalated to all-out strategic nuclear annihilation.”
Today, he pointed out that tactical nuclear weapons exist in many types, from torpedoes and landmines to bombs, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, and anti-air and missile-defence interceptors. [https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00963402.2019.1654273?needAccess=true]
Russia has the largest inventory (up to 1,912), the US has about 200, and Pakistan has perhaps a couple of dozen tactical nuclear warheads, said Kristensen, who is also Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
All nuclear weapons are deadly, he argued, but tactical nuclear weapons generally have lower yield-options than strategic weapons.
“But many tactical weapons also have yield options that are 10-20 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The yield generally is determined by the kind of targets they are intended to destroy,” he declared.
[A link to the most updated nuclear arsenal information follows: https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/]
In a statement released October 5, Lt Col Bill Astore, who served in the US Air Force for 20 years, said “Tactical” versus “strategic” nuclear weapons is just wordplay.
“All nuclear weapons are entirely devastating and potentially escalatory to a full-scale nuclear war,” he said.
Were Russia to use “tactical” nuclear weapons, the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would likely respond in-kind, he warned.
“Even if a major nuclear war could be avoided, resulting political disruptions would likely aggravate economic dislocation, triggering a serious global recession, even a Great Depression, further feeding the growth of fascism and authoritarianism,” said Astore, who is also a professor of history who has written numerous articles focusing on military history as well as the history of science, technology, and religion.
Asked if there are any comments from the Secretary-General on reports that Russia was planning to use tactical nuclear weapons—specifically a torpedo—UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters October 3: “We have no way of having any details to those claims.”
“What we are very concerned about is any escalation of the conflict and especially the use of nuclear weapons, which I think the Secretary-General has been very clear about … there is no justification in any way, shape or form in any theatre to use those kinds of weapons.”
Initially, tactical nuclear weapons were simply another weapon in the US arsenal, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy organization based in the United States.
Dozens of types were designed and tens of thousands produced, some with very low yields designed to be fired by one soldier.
Over time, as Soviet conventional forces expanded, US-aligned nations in NATO began to view nuclear weapons as an equalizer, allowing the alliance to compensate for numerical disadvantages in tanks and artillery.
“As both sides developed a range of nuclear weapons, some theorists perceived a need to meet an adversary with equivalent force at every level. Their concern was that if a country only had strategic nuclear weapons, it might hesitate to use them to retaliate against a lower-level tactical nuclear attack because the response would be disproportionate and could lead to an all-out nuclear war.”
“According to this flawed and dangerous model, the United States needed a vast array of weapons to match every step in the so-called “escalation ladder.”
“An even more troubling model relies on the idea of “escalation dominance.” This requires seeking such superior capability at any possible level that rivals are deterred because they see any battle as hopeless. This dangerous theory envisions the possibility of “winning” a nuclear war.”
However, as US President Ronald Reagan first declared in 1984 and the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom recently reaffirmed, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the United States has about 200 tactical nuclear gravity bombs with explosive yields adjustable between 0.3 and 170 kilotons. (The yield of the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons.)
The Pentagon deploys about 100 of those bombs, called the B61, in five European countries: Italy, Germany, Turkey, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, Russia has nearly 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons with a broad range of yields, from very low to over 100 kilotons. These can be delivered by air, ship, and ground-based systems, some of which also deliver conventional weapons. For example, some of the missiles Russia has used against Ukraine can also carry nuclear warheads.