Observations of an expat: Tactical Nukes

The problem with great power is that using it is too often an abuse of power and if you abuse it, you lose it.

This is especially true of nuclear power as Vladimir Putin may soon discover.

The Russian President has been rattling his nuclear sabres since before his February invasion of Ukraine. He hopes that rattling alone will be enough to bring the West to heel.

This appears to be another of his miscalculations, leaving him with two unpalatable choices: put up or shut up.

If he decides to put up (i.e. use nuclear weapons) then there are a number of options available to him. To start with he will probably start at the bottom of the nuclear leader, that is with tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons. He has a wide range of such weapons to choose from.

The explosive yield of Russia’s tactical nukes ranges from 10 times that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb to less than 0.3 percent of the 1945 explosion. They can be delivered by missile, artillery, landmines, drones, bombers, mortars, even recoilless smooth-bore rifles.

There are different types of explosions. There is the air burst which was used over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This bomb explodes in the air above the target. The force of the explosion destroys people and property on the ground but the effects of radiation are minimised.

A ground burst maximises radiation damage because it irradiates the ground which it hits and throws thousands of tons of dirt and rubble into the atmosphere where air currents can move it hundreds of miles from the bomb site.

A neutron bomb, also known as the capitalist bomb, explodes in the air and kills people within its range but leaves property intact.

Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. NATO used to have a massive Cold War superiority of tens of thousands but now only has about 100.

The reason for its former superiority is that NATO relied on tactical nuclear weapons to slow down a Soviet attack in order to give time for American troops to be rushed across the Atlantic.

Then the Cold War ended and there was a concern that the weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists so NATO tactical nuclear weapons were dismantled. The Russians returned their tactical weapons to storage depots but did not dismantle them.

There was never an attempt to negotiate limits on tactical nuclear weapons. There were successful talks to limit strategic and intermediate range nuclear missiles and even conventional forces, but battlefield nukes never reached the negotiating table.

This is partly because NATO doctrine contemplated using them only if they were losing a conventional war and partly because their size (some are as small as a hand grenade) made verification almost impossible.

So why would Putin use battlefield nukes? He would use them if he believes that there is an existential threat to the Russian state. That red line may already have been crossed in the paranoid mind of the Russian leader, but it is impossible to know for certain.

Another reason for using tactical nukes would be if Russia runs out of conventional missiles and artillery. According to British intelligence, this is already happening. The latest bombardment of Ukrainian cities involves a large number of Russian surface to air missiles aimed at ground targets, a sure sign that they are running short of the more accurate ground to ground and air to ground ordnance.

NATO knows where the Russian tactical nuclear weapons are. Its satellites are keeping a close eye on the storage facilities and the good news is that so far they are staying put.

If they come out and are used the belief is that Putin will take one of two courses of action: destroy a military target with a relatively small weapon or a “shock and awe” explosion in the middle of the Black or Baltic Sea. Either would be meant to demonstrate his willingness to use the Russian nuclear arsenal in the hope that this would be enough collapse NATO resolve.

There is no sign that that would work. This week Germany and Britain upped the stakes by sending their most advanced anti-aircraft missile systems to Ukraine. NATO Defence ministers met to discuss stepping up armaments production. The G7 pledged to do “whatever it takes” to defeat the Russian invasion of Ukraine and 147 countries voted in the UN General Assembly to condemn Putin’s annexation of eastern Ukraine.

Exactly what President Joe Biden would do if Putin flexed his nuclear muscles is unclear – perhaps intentionally so. He recently told a fund raising dinner that the world has not been so close to Armageddon since the Cuban Missile Crisis. But a few days later he told CNN that he did not think Putin would use tactical nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, reported that Russian diplomats have been informed that if Moscow uses nuclear weapons the “consequences would be horrific.”

The American response is unlikely to be nuclear. For a start Washington would not want to escalate the conflict, and it does not have enough tactical weapons to respond in kind. It does, however, enjoy massive superiority in conventional weapons. So the most likely NATO response would be dropping restrictions on arming the Ukrainian military and support for attacks on nuclear storage facilities in Russia.

Of perhaps greater significance would be the reaction of China and India who have been helping to fund Putin’s war by buying Russian oil and gas. They would find it very difficult to continue to support Moscow. Putin would become an isolated pariah. He will have lost the political power that his nuclear arsenal gave him.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.

One Comment

  • It is hard to believe that a permanent member of the UN security council would be threatening the use of nuclear weapons in a regional conflict today, although they are not the first to do so.
    The war in Ukraine seems reminiscent of events in the Korean war where firebombing using Napalm was used extensively against North Korean territory.
    In that conflict, it is said that the American general, Douglas MacArthur, wanted to deploy atomic weapons to halt the advance of invading China forces in North Korea. but was ultimately replaced by President Truman and the atomic bomb was never deployed.
    One of the consequences of the Korean war is the nuclear belligerency that continues to emanate 70 years on from the Pyongyang regime.
    If Putin does deploy tactical Nukes, I expect we will see many more North Korea’s in the region and around the world.

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