Is Putin Stupid Enough To Deploy 'Tactical' Nuclear Weapons In Ukraine?

Is Putin Stupid Enough To Deploy 'Tactical' Nuclear Weapons In Ukraine?

Test fire of Russian Iskander missile

In military-speak, they are known as “tac-nukes,” and the first thing you need to know about them is that tactical nuclear weapons have been retired from our arsenal since 1992, although there are some reports that the U.S. maintains about 250 of its larger weapons as part of its NATO emergency response forces, the command and control of which can be more closely held.

Going back to the 1950’s and 60’s, we had tactical nukes in many forms: as warheads on Corporal and Honest John missiles atop launchers which could be mounted on trucks and easily moved around the battlefield. During one Armed Forces Day in Germany in 1956, when the Army put its weapons on display and you were allowed to climb onto tanks and pretend you were driving or shooting them, I remember seeing a weapon they called “the atomic cannon,” a 280 mm cannon towed by tractors on either end of a flatbed that resembled the extra-long “hook and ladder” firetrucks which could be steered from the front and back. It was a ridiculous weapon with a 15-kiloton warhead that the thing could shoot only seven miles. It was tested only once at the military’s Nevada test site and was of course never used in Europe or anywhere else.

We eventually reduced our tactical nuclear warheads to a size that could be fired by 8-inch and 155 mm howitzers. These were deployed in Europe during the Cold War and were also never used. All these tactical nuclear weapons and others were retired from service and disassembled at the direction of President George H.W. Bush at the end of the Cold War in 1991.

Post-Soviet Russia committed to do the same. They didn’t.

Estimates of Russia’s stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons today vary wildly, from 1,000 or 2,000, estimated in recent news reports, to 5,000, a number reported by in 2014: “Russia, according to conservative estimates, has 5,000 pieces of different classes of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] - from Iskander warheads to torpedo, aerial and artillery warheads!”

The Defense Intelligence Agency issued a report in 2017 on “Russia Military Power” and nonstrategic nuclear weapons, describing a Russian tactical nuclear arsenal that included, “air-to-surface missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, gravity bombs, and depth charges for medium-range bombers, tactical bombers, and naval aviation, as well as anti-ship, anti-submarine, and anti-aircraft missiles, and torpedoes for surface ships and submarines.” The “air-to-surface” component reportedly includes Russian cruise missiles which can also be launched from ships and ground deployment systems.

Air & Space Forces Magazine in 2021 reported on an appearance by Gen. John E. Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Air Force Association’s virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium. Hyten said that Russia had just completed a 20-year modernization of its nuclear arsenal, including in its tactical nuclear weapons, “new cruise missiles on updated bombers, and all-new nuclear weapons that are not covered by any treaty. These include a nuclear-tipped hypersonic missile and a nuclear torpedo capable of destroying a larger coastal region.”

Any way you look at it, that’s a whole lot of tactical nuclear weapons Russia can use if Putin goes through with his threats to use them against attacks on “Russian sovereign territory,” that he says now includes the parts of Ukraine “annexed” into Russia last week. The most likely way Putin would use them against Ukraine would be nuclear warheads on artillery shells, or by launching cruise missiles from surface ships or submarines in the Black Sea or the Sea of Azov.

Looked at from a strategic standpoint, tactical nuclear weapons are most useful as either a deterrent against aggression from an enemy on the ground – in other words, as the kind of threats Putin and his political and oligarch poodles have made over the past few weeks as Ukraine has swept into territory Russia has held since March and sent the Russian army into retreat across a broad front.

But what sense do they make tactically – that is, on the ground as a weapon in the war that is ongoing in Ukraine? We don’t have any reliable estimates of the capabilities of Russian tactical nukes, but an examination of the range and power of the weapons in our own arsenal gives you some idea of what the Russian’s weapons might be like.

The Honest John rocket carried a 20 kt warhead it could launch a maximum of 30 miles. The Corporal launched a guided missile carrying a nuclear warhead up to 75 miles and was accurate to within 350 yards. The warhead that could be fired by the 155 mm howitzer could travel between 15 and 20 miles, and came in two variations: .8 kt, and 1.1 kt.

It's not a sure thing, but I think we can assume that Russian capabilities for its tactical nuclear weapons are equivalent to ours. For one thing, Russia has copied our nuclear weapons since they stole the secret of the atomic bomb during World War II and started producing nuclear weapons in the 1950’s. It’s the same for delivery systems. The Russians didn’t invent the cruise missile. We did, and theirs are equivalent in the capabilities for both effective distance and explosive yields, both conventional and nuclear. The Russian 9M723 Iskander ballistic missile, mounted on a truck chassis, is the modern equivalent of our Corporal missile, with a greater range, 300 miles, no doubt carrying a larger, more powerful warhead.

There are three important factors with any weapons system, conventional or nuclear: What is the maximum distance at which it is accurate, how powerful is it, and will it work? The artillery-based tactical nukes we had were good out to about 25 miles, and their “yields” – don’t you just love the icy language of nuclear weapons? – were in the range of 1 kiloton, or a thousand tons of TNT. The “will it work” aspect of weapons systems is usually and severely underplayed, because everybody wants to think if you’ve got one of these big, complicated, powerful systems, of course they’ll work.

Well….not always, as I learned one afternoon at Fort Bliss, Texas, when my West Point class was treated to a firepower demonstration of the Honest John rocket that could be armed with a nuclear warhead, but for the purposes of the demonstration, of course wasn’t. One of the important strengths of the Honest John was how quickly it could be set up and fired — about 5 minutes, as I recall. We cadets were sitting in a big set of bleachers, all 800 of us, when suddenly a truck carrying the Honest John launcher roared up next to the bleachers about 50 to 100 yards away. An army crew dismounted, manipulated a bunch of levers and buttons, and the thing was ready to fire.

Which they proceeded to do. It left the launcher spewing flame in a gigantic cloud of desert dust. A few hundred yards out, the missile began fish-tailing wildly, swerving left and right, pointing straight up and then fishtailing again. When it began to look like the missile might reverse direction and take out a bleacher-full of brand-spanking-new West Point cadets, they remotely detonated it, exploding its solid fuel-powered body in an explosion big enough that we could feel the heat from the blast.

You have to wonder how many tests or demonstrations of Russian rockets like the Iskander have gone the same way, don’t you?

It is thought that the warhead on the Russian Iskander could be in the area of 10 to 100 kt. The only real example we have of the damage nuclear weapons can cause comes from those dropped in 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 15 and 20 kt respectively, which flattened huge portions of both cities. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was atomic and burned or razed 70 percent of the city’s buildings and killed 140,000 civilians. The Nagasaki bomb was a plutonium bomb and razed 6.7 square kilometers of the city – much of the blast was over water – and killed some 75,000 civilians.

That is the benchmark we have. Tactical nuclear weapons are said to be range between 10 to 100 kilotons, so that should give you some idea of the damage they could cause. The Washington Post reported yesterday that a 16-kiloton bomb like the one used on Hiroshima would have a blast diameter of about 10 miles. A smaller 5 kt weapon would have a five-mile damage diameter.

What that means is that a really small tactical nuke of about 1 kt, like those fired by artillery, would have the power to knock out a battalion of men on the ground. Larger warheads fired by the Iskander missile from Russian occupied Ukraine, or possibly Russian cruise missiles launched from Russian ships at sea, could be as powerful as 15 to 100 kt, and could cause equivalent damages, destroying an area covering 10 miles of the Ukrainian army’s front lines, or leveling major cities like Kyiv, Odessa, or Kharkiv.

The Russians start with one big problem: none of these weapons have been tested. Oh, the rockets have been tested, and their cruise missiles appear to work because version with conventional warheads have been used against Ukrainian cities since the beginning of the war. But the nuclear warheads have never been tested, meaning they might end up as duds.

The other problem the Russians face is this: what do you do after you’ve shot one of these things? The tactical nukes we know they have could produce Chernobyl-size no-go radiation zones, not to mention the fall-out from nuclear explosions, most of which would blow back over Russian-held Ukrainian territory and Russia itself. So what if they use some small tac-nuke against Ukrainian front-line soldiers on the ground in eastern or southern Ukraine: What do they do then? They can’t pass through the area covered by the blast without causing huge casualties among their own soldiers. If they shoot a big tactical nuclear weapon with a cruise missile or Iskander rocket at a Ukrainian city, what then? That would cause an even bigger no-go zone to deal with if Putin is to conquer all of Ukraine, which he has repeatedly said he wants to do.

But the biggest problem with using tactical nuclear weapons of any size is this: If Putin uses one, he’s going to need a victory to show for it, because the immediate response will be swift and savage. My friend Bill Taylor, the former American Ambassador to Ukraine, told me this week that he has heard the American response to Russia using a tactical nuclear weapon would be to completely destroy the unit which fired it, as well as a big part of the Russian forces around it. Presumably if Russia fires a missile from their territory, the response would be the same. That place wouldn’t exist anymore, and we wouldn’t use nuclear weapons, we would use conventional cruise missiles or airpower dropping conventional bombs in whatever quantity is necessary. If the cruise missile is fired from a Russian ship in the Black Sea, it would be bye-bye Russian navy in those waters and anywhere where Russian ships carrying cruise missiles are sailing near Ukraine.

So, if Putin uses a tactical nuclear weapon and then loses a good portion of his navy, is that a victory? The same is true if he uses a land-based launch platform. He will lose a good part of his army in Ukraine. His military is already limping there, “collapsing” across a broad front from the Kharkiv region in the north to Kherson in the south, according to British Defense Intelligence, which has been accurate about Russian forces’ loses and movements – read: retreats – since the beginning of the war.

Putin doesn’t just need a tactical victory on the battlefield, which he hasn’t had since February 24 when he invaded Ukraine. He needs a political victory at home in Russia, and I don’t think there is any way in hell that using nuclear battlefield weapons will give him one. He may think he’ll look strong if he fires off a tactical nuke, but he’ll end up looking weak at home because of the huge losses in manpower and equipment such an act will produce.

The last bad thing for Putin is the fact that his nuclear saber rattling with tactical nukes, the threats to use them they’re supposed to be good for, hasn’t produced any change in Ukraine’s battlefield strategy or in the resolve of the United States and NATO nations to support Ukraine with weapons and money. If anything, using tactical nukes will have the opposite effect, causing the U.S. and other nations to step up the amount and types of weapons they will supply to Ukraine, up to and including combat jet aircraft, according to what I heard in Washington this week.

Using tactical nuclear weapons is like pulling a gun in a fistfight. You’d better hit what you’re aiming at and kill the other guy and all his friends and allies or they’re going to be coming at you with everything they’ve got.

Whether Putin knows this or even cares is the biggest question of all. So far, he has not shown himself to be much of a military genius, and his recent take-over of command on the battlefield from on-the-ground generals hasn’t produced the gains he was counting on. In fact, what has happened is just the opposite, as his forces have lost miles of land along the front lines in northeast Ukraine and in the south in Kherson, where they are about to be pushed back across the Dnipro River.

Which means Putin could be just stupid enough to pull the tactical nuclear trigger. We could be looking at the biggest turning point of all in the war in Ukraine, because if Putin does it, the war will be over in a matter of a few months, and there will be no victory parades in Red Square in Moscow.


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