The use of tactical (or non-strategic) nuclear weapons on the ground battlefield is much more difficult to visualise and understand than is popularly assumed. In general, the usual thing is simply to extrapolate the apocalyptic images of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then deducing that carrying out a few attacks with nuclear artillery fire would cause extremely destructive effects that would annihilate an enemy army with relative ease.
Things, however, are far from being so simple, with multiple technical problems that are not easy to solve. This turns tactical nuclear warfare into a complex issue that is not within the reach of any power, as we will see below. In addition to the difficulty of inflicting an acceptable level of damage on the enemy, we must also take into account the effects on our own troops -sometimes difficult to predict due to radiation- or the high number of warheads necessary to carry it out.
Tactical ground-based nuclear warfare requires a lot of warheads
In popular imagination, the only major drawback would be the effects of radiation on our own army (since it could kill many soldiers). Therefore, if the radioactive risk is managed properly (staying away from detonations and respecting CBRN protection procedures), a nuclear artillery salvo could have an almost magical effect, wiping out entire brigades and divisions of the enemy army.
That magical vision of the ground-based nuclear battlefield is not exclusive to what the Russian leadership might think of as a solution to the military setbacks in Ukraine. During the Cold War, tactical nuclear artillery was also at the core of US and NATO military policy.
In the 50s the Eisenhower administration did not want to compete tank for tank or battalion for battalion with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower was in favour of a minimal government with little fiscal weight in the economy, so he wanted to save costs by limiting the military budget. The solution was to have an army that was smaller than the Soviet one but which, equipped with nuclear weapons, could equally offset and destroy the Communist numerical superiority.
The divisions of the American army would have to adapt, organising themselves under the Pentomic order. The Pentomic division meant that such a unit would move from having three regimental battle groups to being organised into five (smaller) tactical groups and would be deployed in a much more dispersed, non-linear and non-contiguous grouping.
It was believed that Soviet nuclear weapons could easily eliminate all three regiments of a conventional division. Thus, by dispersing geographically and organically, the chances of survival against enemy nuclear weapons were increased. For their part, the nuclear weapons of the US groupings could destroy Soviet mechanised regiments (which had numerical superiority over a loose Pentomic grouping).
However, using nuclear weapons on the battlefield is far from achieving those almost magical effects of eradicating entire regiments and divisions with a handful of atomic explosives with the intention of opening gaps in the enemy military deployment through which our mechanized forces would later penetrate.
The following two images show a linear deployment (forming a front) of a traditional division during World War II (a 7-kilometre front between the two vanguard regiments), and that of a Pentomic division (with the groupings leaving gaps up to 8 kilometres apart).
However, the effects are much more limited than a 15-kiloton (Hiroshima) device destroying a city area. For example, a tactical nuclear device of one or two kilotons (power of the 155 mm nuclear howitzers of the 1980s), could hardly physically destroy a few tanks or a section of infantry. 203mm howitzers like the W33, with a yield of between 5 and 10 kilotons, could hardly destroy a company of tanks or infantry.
If we calculate that a division has about 40 infantry companies and 10 tank companies, just to destroy the maneuvering force of a division it would take 50 10-kiloton nuclear weapons, and always in the event that they detonate close to the target. It must be taken into account that even in these cases precision -or rather its lack- plays against it. In addition to those 50 warheads to destroy the manoeuvre companies, we would have to add those necessary to destroy the rest of the support units such as logistics, artillery, engineers, etc.
These metrics may seem surprising to people unfamiliar with the details of tactical nuclear warfare on land. But the following figure from a US Army nuclear warfare manual shows the effect of nuclear weapons in defeating different types of units, making it clear that their effect is far from being as devastating as people think. Especially in an age, such as today’s, when fighting is increasingly dispersed.
155mm nuclear artillery (a few kilotons) defeats platoons and companies. The 8-inch (203 mm) artillery, companies. The Lance missile (whose yield reached 100 kilotons) was capable of defeating battalions, bridges and railway junctions. Air-dropped nukes (which could be even more powerful than the Lance) would defeat any of the above units.
Therefore, to destroy an army the size of the Soviet and its Warsaw Pact allies, it is not surprising that General James Gavin (the famous commander of the 82nd Parachute Division during WWII) said in 1957 that only the US Army would need a fabulous amount of 151.000 warheads to fight a war against the Soviet Union. Of these, 106.000 would be for ground combat, 25.000 for air defence, and 20.000 for allied support. He calculated that 423 nuclear warheads would be used each day for air defence alone. In those years, Gavin was not a general leading a brigade or a division with eccentric opinions, but rather the deputy to the US Army Chief of Staff. A highly respected and listened figure, as well as one of the people who promoted the debates nuclear and doctrinal that would lead the Pentomic (nuclear) organisation of the army.
The figure of 151.000 warheads should already make us think that if Russia wants to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield with some military rationality to achieve definitive kinetic effects against the Ukrainian army, it would have to use, at the very least, many dozens of warheads.
However, the Russian government might choose to use the tactical nuke on a much smaller scale to demonstrate resolve and cause fear, and thus subsequently threaten to continue escalating progressively. Even so, it should be clear to the reader that dropping a single bomb against the Ukrainian army would not solve anything (militarily); even if they are able to throw away a dozen of them.
Another very important tactical nuclear use in the modern land battlefield would be to cause damage to electronic devices thanks to the electromagnetic pulse of an atomic explosion. A series of explosions carried out on the Ukrainian military deployment on the battlefield could damage all combat electronics, which is essential for the effectiveness of modern weapons (in clear contrast to the armies of the 50s).
Besides, beyond the tactical, Russia could also use nuclear weapons attacking targets at the operational level of war. That is, destroy railway junctions, bridges, fuel depots, air bases, bases and camps in the second and third echelons of the Ukrainian ground force, etc. This was the case with the use of the Lance or Pershing nuclear missiles.
However, as many of you may have guessed, the number of targets would also be very high. Many nodes, many bases, and many depots would have to be attacked to have a decisive effect. It would probably take many dozens of nuclear strikes against the set of all those targets that support the Ukrainian army (in the Cold War there were hundreds). Nevertheless, these targets have the advantage over tactical use of being static targets, while companies and battalions can be moved once you have located them. Therefore, attacking operational targets would be particularly easy to hit and cost-effective in its military effects per nuclear explosion.
Another type of nuclear use that the Russian government could decide on would be strategic. That is, destroy critical civil and economic infrastructure, such as power plants, in order to destroy Ukraine’s economy and ability to pay for the offensive war effort. It must be bear in mind that Ukraine currently needs 3.500 million dollars a month in international aid (42.000 million a year) so that the state (which pays and organises the army) does not go bankrupt. If the infrastructure that supports its economy is destroyed, Ukraine may need hundreds of billions of dollars of aid a year to continue the war effort.
Lastly, Russia could opt for demonstrative nuclear use to try to scare the international community into forcing the Ukrainian government to stop the war.
The different types of nuclear uses that Russia could make to try to stop the war in Ukraine, in addition to the tactical one, will be addressed in a later article based on the study of doctrinal and theoretical studies that the Russians themselves have done. In this article, we will focus only on the tactical and ground-based (not on the naval, space and air domains or on missile defence).
How destructive are tactical nuclear weapons in ground warfare?
To visualize the effects of nuclear explosions, we will use the examples of two nuclear fission explosives as a common thread: 1 kiloton and 10 kilotons respectively. Then we will briefly talk about the neutron bomb (which is a fission weapon with boost of fusion, but without the usual boost fission).
The energy of a nuclear fission detonation is transformed and distributed following these percentages. 50% is blast wave, 35% is thermal radiation, 4% becomes immediate radiation, another 10% in different radioactive particles that float more or less time depending on their mass, and finally, the remaining 1% corresponds to the energy released in the form of an electromagnetic pulse.
To observe the effects of nuclear weapons on military units, we proceed to comment on several images extracted from various manuals and popular books on nuclear war that we have been collecting over the years.
Effects of a 1-kiloton tactical nuclear weapon on a tank battalion
The following illustration shows the effect of a 1-kiloton nuclear fission bomb explosion on a tank battalion (consisting of 4 companies) lined up. As can be seen, the area covered by the different effects does not reach the entire battalion. The inner black circle represents the overpressure (blast wave) of 5 psi (capable of damaging the facade of a building and breaking windows). The outer black circle shows thermal effects (infrared making things burn). The inner red circle is the area of 8.000 rads, absorbed radiation dose that leaves personnel incapacitated. The outer red circle of 150 rad would kill 10 per cent of people in the days following the explosion.
That is to say, it would take four or five 1-kiloton warheads to destroy a perfectly formed battalion in line preparing for a meeting battle, not slacking off as is done in defensive battles, with the formation disrupted or adopting other geometries more suitable for an assault.
Besides, we must take into account the Australian tank story of the Chieftain model, which after being placed 500 metres from the explosion of a 9-kiloton device in 1953 remained repairable. In fact, it served in the Vietnam War during the following decade. That is, the kinetic effects of 5 psi on a tank are not equivalent to the catastrophic destruction of the tank as if it were penetrated by a Javelin missile.
Effects of a 10-kiloton tactical nuclear weapon on a tank battalion
The following image is of a 10-kiloton fission tactical nuclear warhead detonated on the same tank battalion. The inner black circle represents the 5 psi overpressure and shock wave; the outer black circle shows second-degree burns among staff; the inner red circle a radiation at 8.000 rads (immediate incapacitation) and; the outer red circle 150 rads, which would kill 10% of people in subsequent days.
Three 10-kiloton warheads could blanket the battalion area causing 5 psi. That is if the battalion formed in line manages to attack perfectly. If they wanted to achieve more than 5 psi per tank and/or attack them in a less ideal layout for the attacker, they would obviously need more.
1 kiloton and 10 kiloton tactical nuclear weapon on an infantry company
The diagram below shows the effects of a 1-kiloton (left column) and a 10-kiloton (right column) bomb, on an infantry company (the oval-shaped figure), deployed about 600 metres and about 1.050 metres from ground zero of the explosion.
As shown, by blast wave, at minus 600 metres the 1-kiloton explosion would render only 5% of the company useless for combat (at 600 metres only 5% would have ruptured eardrums). The radiation itself would be more deadly, being able to kill the entire company in between 2 and 6 days (if exposed, because if it protected itself in trenches and shooter’s pits, survival would be superior). Thermal effects 600 metres from the 1-kiloton blast would cause second-degree burns to only 5% of personnel. For the effects of the 10-kiloton artifact on the company at 1.050 metres, the data appears in the right column of the image, so it is not worth repeating it as well.
Keep in mind that the first shots with an artillery shell can be hundreds of metres off target. For this reason, tempering the barrel with previous shots and knowing exactly the ballistic behavior of the atomic projectile is essential so that the effects of the atomic detonation are not dispersed.
Nuclear weapons for the Russian defence
If Russia had a good reconnaissance and attack complex to locate Ukrainian companies and attack them with a precision of a few dozen metres, the Russians could fire salvos of howitzers and tactical atomic rockets to destroy the companies and battalions they wanted and within range. The desired effects would be, above all, to kill all the troops and officers by radiation, not so much to eliminate them by the effects of the blast wave.
It is true that the Russian army would have to wait several days, even a week, to be able to advance without encountering live Ukrainian infantry, but if the Russian commanders are not looking for a mechanized breakout operation (which requires a lot of speed), they can afford to wait several days to advance (or simply stay in their positions). If they decided not to advance, they would simply wait for new waves of Ukrainian battalions to attack them to, once again, destroy them with a new atomic barrage.
If the Russian government wants to hold on to the newly annexed territory and force a ceasefire on Ukraine, using tactical nuclear weapons defensively might make some military sense. It should be emphasized once again that it would only make some sense to have good information on the Ukrainian deployment and projectiles with a certain precision. Also remember the effects of the electromagnetic pulse that could destroy the electronics of artillery batteries, anti-tank missiles, radios, telecommunications, etc.
The following graph shows the radiation in rads on the horizontal axis and metres (in hundreds) from the epicenter of the 1-kiloton explosion. The curve shows the effects on people (at about 500 metres death and no recovery in 2 days).
In this other image, the effects of two tactical nuclear weapons of 1 and 10 kilotons respectively are illustrated. In the first drawing, it is indicated that at 210 metres a tank would be badly damaged by a 1-kiloton nuclear bomb. The same damage would be at 540 metres with a 10-kiloton artifact. With 1 kiloton, people inside the tank would receive 3.000 rads of radiation at 460 metres while in the open field they would be irradiated with 3.000 rads at just 600 metres. With a 10-kiloton warhead, 3.000 rads would be received inside a tank at 820 metres and uncovered infantry at 1.010 metres.
The following illustration figuratively shows the effects of a 1-kiloton tactical nuke (top) and a 10-kiloton tactical nuke (bottom). Use the same data as the previous image, but add the distance at which unprotected electronic equipment would be damaged (red box “EMP”). Thus, in the case of a 1-kiloton tactical nuclear weapon, this damage would spread up to 3.000 metres, while with 10 kilotons it would reach 5.000 metres.
It should be underlined that it is not clear that Russia still retains the howitzer and mortar nuclear artillery that it had during the Cold War. The opacity about the Russian tactical nuclear arsenal is very remarkable. The nuclear warheads that are mounted on missiles such as the Iskander (ballistic and cruise), for their part, have a performance that can be regulated in a range of between 10 and 100 kilotons.
Keep in mind that the height of the explosions must be optimal to cause overpressure effects (expansive wave). If it were detonated just on the surface, the values of all the effects would vary considerably, the same in the case of detonating at a higher altitude than the optimum.
On May 25, 1953, during the Upshot-Knothole Grable nuclear test (the ‘Atomic Annie test we mentioned earlier) it was discovered that, when detonated at a certain altitude, the shock waves of the air that started from the epicenter (black line of the following image) of the explosion met the shock wave coming from the ground (red line). Thus, creating a precursor effector (green line) and considerably increasing the wind speed (mach stem).
A 10-kiloton atomic bomb detonated at a height of 131 metres would cause the following incapacitation ratios (vertical axis) at some distance from the center of the explosion (horizontal axis), for tanks, rifle pits and emplaced (protected) weapons.
Detonating weapons at a certain altitude with a fission bomb has the advantage of generating less radioactive cloud. A fusion bomb would generate far fewer radioactive particles per kiloton than the fission weapons being used as an example in this case study. The question of the radioactive cloud is of great importance in case nuclear artillery is used on the battlefield to try to stop the Ukrainian offensive.
The next two images simulate the detonation of four nuclear weapons of “only” 10 kilotons near the front in Ukraine (by Ivan Stepanov). By default, the direction of the winds at a certain altitude (which would disperse the radioactive cloud) cannot be predicted, so some simulations carried the clouds to the east and others to the west. This uncertainty is perfectly normal every time nuclear wars are simulated, which is why they are usually carried out with the available records corresponding to different times of the year. In the case of Russian use in Ukraine, making a correct forecast of the weather is of paramount importance if Russia wants to minimize the risk of contaminating its own troops.
Another simulation example is this one for two different days of the year 2021 in North Korea and for a tactical nuclear weapon with a yield of 10 kilotons.
The neutron bomb
The use of a large number of 10-kiloton fission nuclear weapons causes great nuclear contamination and could not immediately destroy even a battalion. Using a large number of 100-kiloton warheads to attack multiple operational targets would cause much greater contamination.
Therefore, the best option for any country to fight a tactical nuclear war on the ground is the neutron bomb. With neutron explosives, almost as much immediate radiation can be generated with 1 kiloton as with a 10-kiloton bomb of ordinary fission design (also generating much less radioactive cloud).
These weapons cause relatively small explosions but generate much more immediate radioactivity. It is called a neutron or enhanced radiation bomb because the design pushes the percentage of immediate radiation from 5% to 30% (with much of that radiation consisting of fast neutrons). The residual radiation (produced by the radioactive cloud) drops from 10% to 5%.
Let us remember that the percentages of a common fission weapon were the following.
Neutron nuclear explosives are small fission bombs with a small boosting of fusion. In more traditional designs, a uranium casing is usually added to the above, which works boosting of fission, against which the high-speed neutrons generated by the previous small nuclear explosion would collide. Hence, generating a chain reaction of many kilotons of yield. Neutron bombs, in general, are the small primary nuclear detonators of thermonuclear bombs (which are fission with boosting of tritium fusion), but without the fusion phase (like deuterium) and without the uranium casing that works boosting end fission.
The important thing is that a 1-kiloton neutron bomb generates a large number of fast neutrons that fall on an area of the same extent as a 10-kiloton fission bomb (and generating less waste percentage).
The following representation illustrates the effects of a 1-kiloton tactical neutron nuclear weapon detonated on a tank battalion. The inner black circle indicates overpressure and a 5 psi shock wave; the outer black circle is the area in which second-degree burns would occur in personnel; the inner red circle radiation at 8.000 rads (immediate incapacitation) and; the outer red circle radiation of 150 rads that would kill 10% of people in the following days.
Note that the red circles (which refer to the rads) of the neutron bomb are approximately the same size, if not larger, than those of the 10-kiloton tactical nuke in the image below (also shown above).
Russian arsenal available for a tactical scenario in Ukraine
The current Russian nuclear arsenal has 10-kiloton neutron warheads for Gazelle anti-missile missiles. FAS investigator Kristensen estimates 76 warheads (one per interceptor). However, their exact number is not known or if they are really still active (although it is assumed in the community that they do). Neutron weapons are supposed to be very effective as anti-missile weapons, which is why this type of weaponry is preserved in Russia as a legacy from the time of the Soviet Union.
If Russia did not retain a few kiloton neutron artillery, it could use the Gazelle’s warheads and insert them into vectors such as the Iskander, the Kinzhal “hypersonic” quasi-ballistic missile, or any other type of missile. Making the adaptations between the navigation of the new vector so that it would give the signal to the fuse to detonate at a certain time and place should not be an insurmountable engineering challenge.
If Russia did not have fission nuclear artillery, neutron artillery and could not adapt its Gazelle neutron warheads to other vectors, it would have to wage tactical nuclear warfare with warheads of between 10 and 100 kilotons. Therefore, it would perhaps result in excessive power (at least compared to neutron weapons).
Furthermore, in the Zapad maneouvres of 1999, according to various sources, Russia simulated a tactical nuclear war against NATO. Contrary to what is often said, they would not have carried out nuclear war maneouvre of “escalation to de-escalation”, but they would have simulated destroying enemy military units to gain an advantage on the battlefield. In those years it was very fashionable among Russian defence intellectuals to discuss the role of non-strategic (tactical and operational) nuclear weapons in Russia’s military and defence policy.
Non-strategic nuclear uses, in general, were considered to be used at the operational level of warfare, to master escalation and restore deterrence within the war, forcing NATO not to use its vast superiority in long-range conventional precision weapons. However, in the Zapad 1999 maneouvres it is likely that a purely tactical use was also explored. In any case, given the great importance that Russian theorists have given to non-strategic nuclear weapons after the Cold War and the great opacity that exists in Russia, it should not be too surprising if it is finally discovered that Russia kept tactical nuclear weapons for its howitzer artillery.
Kristensen and FAS estimates are about 1.900 tactical warheads of all kinds. They do not give Russia possession of nuclear artillery. US intelligence sources do claim that Russia still has nuclear artillery, and estimate a tactical nuclear arsenal similar in size to that of the FAS. Kristensen’s 2022 estimate is shown in the table below:
In the event that Russia were to fight a nuclear ground battle, an added difficulty is the wide dispersion of Ukrainian forces on the ground. This war does not take place with battalions and regiments of tanks and mechanized infantry maneouvring against each other, as was the case in the Cold War and in several of the images that have been used. The concentration of tanks is very low and battalion-level fighting has not been seen. Tanks are not used in large maneouvres of Blitzkrieg but in a dispersed way supporting the infantry, as if they were the assault guns or infantry tanks of the Second World War. Therefore, locating battalions of Ukrainian heavy forces on which to launch several 100-kiloton Iskanders, destroying one battalion each is practically impossible.
In the combats that would have taken place in the Cold War, such as those of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, did take place with battalions and regiments that could be located in full marching order destroyed with 100 kiloton Lance missiles 100 kilometres from the front. Using 100-kiloton nuclear warheads to destroy companies does not seem very efficient, especially considering that Russia does not have an infinite tactical nuclear arsenal. Kristensen only gives 90 warheads launched from ground-based missiles. The 500 air-launched warheads, since Russia does not have air superiority, should be ruled out as they could not be used with sufficient operational freedom of action (except for free-fall bombs very close to the front line and air-launched missiles).
In the case of Russia having more land-based nuclear weapons than Kristensen estimated (and it should not be surprising if this is the case), it would not be thousands of warheads either, but probably a few hundred in the best of cases. Recalling General Gavin’s request for 151.000 nuclear warheads back in the day. The Russian military would need to fine-tune the process of identifying an enemy unit and designating the exact focal point at which to aim its nuke if it really wanted to take advantage of such weapons.
In the following image, you can see the lethal areas of nuclear weapons of different yields. Each small square is equal to one square kilometer. The Lance missile’s large circle corresponds to a 100-kiloton blast, which covers an area of 2 kilometres by 2 kilometres, more than enough to destroy a battalion if it is not widely spread out.
Despite the efforts made in this regard in recent years, Russia has not shown to have sophisticated reconnaissance and attack complexes, so it would be difficult for it to locate the deployment of Ukrainian units too many kilometers behind the front line. Therefore, if it did not improve its capabilities to collect and process information to generate intelligence, it would use tactical nuclear weapons very close to the front line. Using 100 kiloton weapons there is complicated by the effects on the friendly army and would perhaps only destroy a few Ukrainian companies. For this reason, the logical option for Russia would be to use neutron bombs on the front line and gradually crush the Ukrainian units, in order to reinforce the defensive battle.
In that context and operating environment, since the Ukrainian offensive would have to shift to even smaller unit attacks to avoid attrition from nuclear bombardments, they would become much easier opponents to beat for Russian units that would not be forced to scatter. The 300.000 Russian reservists might indeed have some chance of resisting Ukrainian offensives in that military context, instead of facing Ukrainian units as they operate now. On the other hand, the danger of the HIMARS, which could beat the Russian nuclear artillery at long range, would make it ideal to use missiles with a range of a few hundred kilometers with neutron warheads extracted from the Gazelle.
However, if Russia only had 100-kiloton Iskanders as tactical nuclear weapons, tactical nuclear warfare would not be a good option for Russia. Missiles with that performance would be better used against operational targets and of much higher value.
The tactical nuclear battle in the Cold War
A common scenario of tactical nuclear warfare during the cold war is that of the Soviet offensive in the Fulda Gap, with one axis of progression advancing through the valley of the same name and another advancing further north, eventually converging on Frankfurt. See the following image:
Entire Soviet regiments and armies would advance through such confined spaces, overwhelming the American 3rd Armored Division in numbers. In that operating environment, NATO plans were to blast nuclear explosives to hamper the Soviet advance, and to fire huge amounts of nuclear artillery and missiles like the Lance, Honest John, Pershing, etc. on predetermined grids. The Soviet concentration was such that many of these nuclear explosives would end up reaching the maneouvring mass of the Warsaw Pact and destroying many regiments.
A single corps-level tactical nuclear-use package is depicted in the image below. That is 136 nuclear weapons of different yields for just one package that would be launched in an hour or two.
In the following image, the nuclear delivery vectors are shown just after the front line. Up to 10 kilometres deep it would be by howitzer artillery. It must be taken into account that, although the artillery has more than 10 kilometres of range, it must be placed several kilometres behind. Consequently, it could only fall about 10 kilometres behind the front. The rest would be tactical missiles, like the American Lance, the old French Pluton or the Russian Tochka. Beyond that distance, they would be targets for nuclear attack aircraft. Using the expensive Pershing missiles against tactical targets was wasteful and served another function in American strategy. Something similar could happen for the nuclear Iskander in the current Russian Federation.
In addition, the US, during the 70s and 80s of the Cold War, had more than 7.000 deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Europe alone (although there were more in American territory and deployed in South Korea). Therefore, launching packages of 130 or 150 nuclear weapons did not imply ending the arsenal of tactical atomic weapons. Dividing 7.000 nuclear weapons by 136 results in 51 packages. Not all packs were that big, there were others of “only” 60 or 70. Nevertheless, 51 “shots” is not such a big figure. Although 7.000 nuclear weapons are a lot of tactical warheads, we have tried to show that the nuclear battle consumes a lot of atomic ammunition. It is nothing like the popular prejudice of a 15-kiloton nuclear weapon leveling all of Hiroshima, and that therefore a handful of atomic bombs could destroy entire armies.
If Russia wants to fight a tactical nuclear battle to stop Ukrainian offensives in their tracks, would have to make use of at least many dozens or a hundred low-yield nuclear weapons (1 to 10 kilotons), as well as some dozens of 100 kiloton yield warheads for operational purposes. That would add up, without effort, to about 130 nuclear weapons. However, after the first detonations, the war could stop and not reach that figure. If it doesn’t stop, it shouldn’t be surprising that the first volleys hit that number. If they continue with more volleys and salvos, that is, with more “packages”, they would obviously far exceed the 130 tactical nuclear weapons used. Perhaps Russia only wants, at first, to use “only” two atomic devices on Ukrainian troops to destroy a battalion in the hope that this will stop the war.
At this point, the reader should be reminded that the earliest Russian usage is perhaps only demonstrative. We cannot guess the Russian plans. They may even have already decided that using nuclear weapons is not worth it. In this vein, if Russia attacks Ukraine with atomic weapons, it faces the possibility that NATO will respond with a massive campaign of aerial bombardment and cruise missile salvos. This would leave the Russian army fighting in Ukraine badly damaged, and the Ukrainian army would then be able to advance.
In that case, the use of a few tactical atomic weapons would not cause the war to stop, but rather escalate with direct NATO intervention. Thus, leaving Russia with the dilemma of accepting losing the war or escalating to a nuclear war with NATO on a larger scale than the tactical nuclear war in Ukraine, with the risk – then yes – of ending up being destroyed itself and much of the planet.
It should also be clear that Russia has more than enough capacity to wage a limited nuclear war against NATO without having to escalate directly. However, such a limited nuclear war would mean the deaths of millions of people in the United States and Europe, as well as an economic catastrophe greater than that of the Great Depression and second only to the costs of World War II. As I wrote above, that should be the subject of a later article.
What needs to be made clear from this exposition is that Russia does not have many options to fight a nuclear battle in Ukraine. It does not have too many warheads, maybe it has too few (since most air-fired and all naval ones have to be excluded). If it wanted to fight an atomic battle, Russia would need a lot of low-yield artillery and neutron bombs, which it probably does not have. Under these conditions, Russia may only have to escalate directly to cause operational, strategic and economic damage. Dealing decisive tactical atomic damage is perhaps outside your current nuclear arsenal. Although, as we have said, it could make tactical use in the hope that it will cause deterrence, not because with a few warheads it will destroy the Ukrainian army.
It could also scale to destroy Ukrainian cities, but that would be strategic nuclear warfare, which is beyond the focus of this article.
Finally, detonating high-altitude, high-yield nuclear warheads to cause an EMP pulse that would destroy civilian electricity and electronics in large areas of Ukraine would be a very risky move. The extent of EMP damage has been greatly exaggerated by the mainstream press. The famous Starfish nuclear test that is said to have left many areas of Hawaii without electricity is not entirely true. In the photos of the moment in Honolulu and other places, some areas can be seen without public lighting, but others with lighting in perfect condition. The electricity of the houses was not affected much and cars continued to work.
Indeed, there is almost no data on what could happen if an 800-kiloton bomb (the maximum yield of current Russian warheads) is detonated at high altitude. In fact, what is known is by chance, as a result of detonating devices at high altitude without being aware that civil infrastructure could be damaged. Measurements are limited to testimonials and anecdotes. It is also not known how the ionization would be distributed geographically. If Russia were to try something like that, it would just be a “throw it out and see what happens” and to see if by chance it scares the West (at the risk of triggering a Western response instead of deterring it).
Although Russia has little choice but to use nuclear weapons to try to stop increasingly strong Ukrainian forces (mobilization will not stop the flow of Western weapons), attacking and overpowering an increasingly weakened Russian army, the truth is that the tactical atomic option is not as attractive as it might seem (if the Russians really have a large enough tactical land-based nuclear arsenal).
The operational and strategic atomic could cause a large number of civilian deaths. The railway nodes are in the middle of the cities, and dropping a 10 to 100 kiloton bomb there would cause several or many Hiroshimas. That operational damage, to have decisive effects on the front lines, would have to be used against dozens of targets and, as a consequence, the mortality could be immense.
It remains to be seen if finally the Russian government, led by Putin or whoever leads it when the moment of truth arrives, can have a sufficient tactical nuclear arsenal. Or if it does not have it, after a demonstrative atomic use, it dares to scale to a nuclear war against Ukraine at the operational or strategic level.
That is, while tactical nuclear use is rational (especially if neutron bombs were available), the point of the article is that it would be much more complicated than is often thought, as it is neither a magic nor a simple solution.
If Russia fails to scare with one or two bombs, it will have to drop many, many bombs to achieve a decisive tactical military effect, or escalate to strategic and operational strikes.
Finally, the Russian government could be misinformed and make an ‘irrational’ tactical use decision.