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Why NATO Can’t Match Russia’s 2,000 Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Russia's Tactical Nuclear Weapons
Iskander Transport Loader 9T250

Russia’s  Tactical Nuclear Weapons: A Head Scratcher for the West – Can Russia win a war with tactical nuclear weapons?

Moscow certainly has a numbers advantage against the United States and NATO. The Russians have around 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons while the Americans have only 200 with 100 deployed in Europe and the remaining stored at home. That’s a ten to one advantage. While the Russians are not likely to conduct a first strike with strategic nuclear weapons launched by an intercontinental missile or delivered by bombers, they could resort to using a non-strategic weapon in battle.

Russia’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons, Explained 

Strategic nuclear weapons such as intercontinental ballistic missiles or sea-launched nuclear missiles have a range of more than 10,000 miles and yields of at least 150 kilotons. Tactical nuclear weapons are short-range when launched by missiles with a range of fewer than 650 miles and a low yield of .1 to 20 kilotons.

Russia’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Escalate to De-Escalate

When pondering the use of tactical nuclear weapons, the Russians have an “escalate to de-escalate” deterrence doctrine on the battlefield. This is sometimes called “escalate to win.” What does this mean? Let’s take a look at an example. Say Russia does execute an invasion into the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. The incursion goes well for the Russians at first, then Ukraine fights back hard and stages a counter-attack. The Russian offensive bogs down and a stalemate ensues.

Hold Ground, Keep Attacking, or Use Tactical Nukes

Russia then has a choice. It could continue the conventional fight or stop the offensive, hold ground, and consolidate its forces around the seized territory. This is where tactical nuclear weapons come in. Russia could choose to “escalate” and detonate one of these battlefield devices (using an Iskander-M short-range missile) or threaten to use a low-yield weapon as a warning to the West.

Then they “de-escalate” the situation, so it is frozen in place. Under this scenario, the Ukrainians would give up the fight and allow Russia to keep their forces inside Ukraine allowing Vladimir Putin to declare victory. The Russian’s willingness to get in a nuclear confrontation using tactical devices is a risky, but potentially effective way to prosecute warfare.

The Russians Make Nuclear Threats

The Russians have already declared they could use a low-yield weapon or deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles if pushed too far. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has emerged as “Dr. Doom” as he often delivers threats against the United States and NATO in the media.

Ryabkov has responded to what the Russians believe is a major red line – further NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. Ryabkov told state-run media in December that “A lack of progress towards a political-diplomatic solution would mean that our response will be military and military-technical.”

Military-Technical Could Mean Nuclear Employments

“Military-technical” is a difficult to define concept of Russian rhetoric. It has many meanings. But one military-technical tactic would be for the Russians to send nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad or Belarus.

Ryabkov has already raised the nuclear stakes by warning that Russia could go beyond tactical weapons and deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe.

The Russian Nuclear Threat Is Not Going Away

James Ragland and Adam Lowther, writing in 1945, pointed out the Russians have held military exercises such as GROM-2019 and ZAPAD 2021 in which they have simulated using tactical nuclear weapons. Putin has made comments in the past about the potential use of battlefield nuclear devices.

Ragland and Lowther also declared that Russia has a low-yield nuclear edge, “…The reality is that Vladimir Putin and the Russian leadership believe they have created an asymmetric advantage with their large arsenal of low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons. Denying and mischaracterizing the threat will not make it go away.”

Would Russia Really Use a Tactical Nuclear Weapon? 

I still don’t think a battlefield nuclear detonation by the Russians is likely, although it does conjure up fears that can lead to nuclear deterrence against NATO. Threats from spokespeople like “Dr. Doom” Ryabkov should still be taken seriously. These statements must be parsed for clues on Russian tactical nuclear activities and help analyze how the Kremlin uses nuclear escalation messages to enhance Russia’s power and prestige.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Alex

    February 9, 2022 at 6:02 am

    What exactly is the Russian nuclear threat? That Russia has nuclear weapons at home? Or that US nuclear weapons are thousands of miles from the US near Russia? Perhaps it was in Cuba that Russia deployed nuclear weapons? Don’t you think it’s even shameful to write such falsehood?

  2. Slack

    February 9, 2022 at 9:11 am

    Hmm, mr eastwood, nukes are a double-edged sword with all sides almost surely going to end up as losers.

    US today has a nuclear first use policy solidly written ‘in stone’ since george bush era where it specifically spells out that US military commanders have authority to use nukes to prevent war. In other words, to employ pre-emptive nuclear attack to strip enemies of the will and ability to attack.

    Nukes will almost certainly bring about nuclear winter, one capable of starving the entire planet, so US pre-emptive nuke strike is to (partially or hopefully) avoid it.

    US is the MOST DANGEROUS threat to world peace today, as it is simply too willing to use nukes (how’d the heck field honchos correctly know someone’s about to start a war?) and its brazen act of storing nukes in other countries.

    US has in past kept nuke rockets (Thor, Mace, Jupiter, Persing,…) in places far, far away from home and more than once nearly started/brought on nuclear armageddon AND today, old man biden has clearly learned nothing useful from history.

  3. Abugu, Bennett Okwu

    February 9, 2022 at 12:44 pm

    American’s quest for world dominance is the cause of all chaos,war and destruction happening around the world.This present Ukraine crisis is a case in point.

  4. TrustbutVerify

    February 10, 2022 at 5:34 pm

    HAHAHAHA, yes the “US quest for world dominance” that has seen us return land to countries we have defeated for 80+ years, help them rebuild their countries, and in most cases become allies with them…when we certainly had the means and ability to “dominate the world”. But we are a peace loving Republic that adheres to the “don’t start nuthin’ won’t be nuthin'” school.

    I am curious about the “you guys are cheating by keeping nuclear weapons to deter the Russians and Chinese from just doing what they want” thought process. So the Russians see no problem with battlefield nukes and your response is…..the US is bad for having nukes to counter that?

    Because the one thing the Russians should understand by now is WE don’t see any difference between “tactical” and “strategic” nuclear weapons – all the same to us. So the “escalate to de-escalate” is the same as launching an ICBM to us…as the use of WMD, small or large, is the same.

    As you say, that is bad for everyone – so direct your opprobrium at the Russians as they are the instigators and aggressors.

  5. Michael Veritas

    February 10, 2022 at 10:40 pm

    Complete neocon nonsense. Every serious military expert knows Russia could easily defeat the Ukrainians with conventional weapons. Why would they resort to a nuclear weapon? The simple answer is they wouldn’t. Folks, remember how many anonymously sourced MSM articles we read screaming “ Eminent Russian invasion!” Quick, don’t think ship Ukraine billions of dollars worth of weapons supplied by our friends at Raytheon and Boeing. Of course paid for by the American taxpayers!

  6. mawendt

    February 11, 2022 at 10:58 am

    Brent, it’s time for you to step away from the keyboard. This ‘opinion’ piece you’ve written doesn’t increase your status as an ‘expert’.

    First, NATO (and particularly the US) has multiple means of tracking *all* nuclear weapons,as well as a minute by minute monitoring of that weapon’s status – which is why your article is silly. As quick as the Russians might bring those missile delivered weapons systems up, even more quickly will a strike eliminate them. Tactical nukes delivered by artillery or ground would be more difficult to stop, but it’s unlikely the systems you discussed you be fully deployed in an offensive conflict. Defensively, they have perhaps as much as 50% chance of deployment – but probably that’s being gracious.

    Those systems become threats only if 90% or more of NATO/US intelligence, surveillance, and monitoring have already been eliminated. At that point, we are all (including Russians) in the final apocalypse without central control, functional government, or command-and-control. Which leads me to believe they most probably wouldn’t be used.

    With known (and still secret) counter systems, tactical and ballistic nuclear systems are becoming more of a political weapon than any serious use by the major nations. Many non-nuclear (like Ukraine, Poland, etc) are aligned with East or West, are provided with a blanket deterrent. The best a nuclear attacker can do is saturate it’s target and hope 1 to 10% of it’s weapons are successful in resolving targets. The other 90% will be destroyed before employment, intercepted en route, or damaged so they miss target or not detonate.

    Here’s the real deal: presently, the Western systems are at least ten times more accurate and survivable than Russian nuclear missiles. Plus, the West’s conventional systems that can remove a Russian tactical nuclear threat before employment is incredible beyond discussion. Russia needs 2000 tac nukes so they can get off a 100 on target- if they’re that lucky lucky.

    So we don’t need 2000 tac nukes. Why spend the money in development and maintenance? Your girl should have already educated you that bigger is not better. Or maybe quality over quantity.

    I’m struggling to not mock this article. It’s a panic piece, quoting fear mongers, that has no meat.

  7. Fenderowner

    February 11, 2022 at 11:26 am

    Slack: having specifically worked for years in helping to formulate US Strategic Nuclear Policy, I can assure you that you have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t know who you have read or talked to about US Strategic Nuclear Policy, but everything you have written is flat wrong. You might want to find some other souces that have some validity before commenting on an op ed like this.

  8. kinghurl

    February 24, 2022 at 1:45 pm

    This article is emblematic of the current state of affairs in Nato and US relations with Moscow. Hand wringing followed by inaction. Putin will only respond to a show of strength. Nato needs to quietly but clearly reposition new Nukes in each of their member nations, Poland, Slovakia, immediately come to mind, essentially breaking previous treaties with Moscow. A quiet change in show of force (Veto at the UN if necessary, much like Russia would do in response to any toothless UN sanctions) and an increase in Nuclear presence at Russia’s doorstep would send a clear message that this invasion will be met with increasingly large shows of force on Russia’s doorstep. Anything less than action will continue to paint the West as weak and a wounded dog. We need leaders to send a message to this bully. Guess who is watching-China is keen to see how this plays out. Think there is trouble with Russia? Further inaction will play into China being emboldened to act against Taiwan and the South China sea.

  9. davey boy

    March 5, 2022 at 8:58 pm

    So what do you say now VERTAS, putler has fully invaded ukraine despite his constant claims to the contary, the war and invasion has stalled with just one city captured, putler has raised his nuclear readiness status,
    Putin WILL bring nuclear oblivion to this planet and all you putin paid trolls comenting here will share the blame

  10. RedCloud

    March 8, 2022 at 9:35 am

    Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to pursue maximalist goals towards Ukraine – an unconditional capitulation. Now, looking at military technical measures, which also includes nuclear deterrence, does not necessarily mean literally. In the last days of the Ukrainian war, the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant has already been attacked and a third is under threat. Recall Putin’s threat to the West in intervening in the war in Ukraine, he is ready to use nuclear deterrence and he is behind him. He does not care about the Ukrainian people, much less his soldiers, he needs Ukraine as a territory to carry out his obsession with the Great Russia or Russki Mir.

  11. James VanCise

    March 16, 2022 at 8:07 pm

    And what of Strategic nuclear weapons?

  12. Paul Yates

    March 17, 2022 at 8:51 am

    Very well written and researched article, unlike some of the troll replies. Russia is weak conventionally compared to NATO and would lose a confrontation if NATO intervened in Ukraine. It’s, therefore, more likely he would “escalate to de-escalate” at the point. NATO IMHO would not step up to use tactical or strategic nuclear weapons, nobody in NATO will currently say that, what they actually do when given a choice is a whole different matter. Nuclear war is NOT a zero-sum game, if you’re faced with the option of a)Allowing an independent country to be occup[ied by an aggressor, or b)provoking an eventual strategic nuclear exchange where everyone dies, which option do you take?

  13. Johan Poonhammer

    March 24, 2022 at 4:56 pm

    Mawendt, you’re living in a fantasy world. You are VASTLY overestimating both our ability to track the status and location of tactical nuclear weapons, and our ability to bring them down. You’re talking about something the size of a gym bag, in a nation twice the size of the US. As for tactical nuclear missiles, there is little to no difference between a short or intermediate range missile armed with a conventional warhead, and one armed with a nuclear warhead.

  14. Andy Selleman

    April 7, 2022 at 5:41 am

    My God what planet do you live on? According to US Scientists, as of 2022, the USA has approximately 6,800 Nukes. But together it would only take 200-300 Nukes detonated around the world to wipe out all human life. So does the number of current Nukes available on this failing planet really have any value?
    Putin wants an adversary. He will continue to escalate his weapons and civilian carnage until someone stands up to him. The longer the West plays patsy into Putin’s hands, the quicker he will launch Nukes. Then our automated systems retaliate. Then we all die!
    So basically, the FAKE News media around the world, hold the fate of every single life in their hands. And that is one scary thought!

  15. Richard Pirrello

    April 12, 2022 at 8:34 pm

    You are forgetting that the US has a “MAD” policy Mutual Assured Destruction
    Much of the US nuclear capability is mobile on land and undersea as well as in space.. the US isn’t the problem, Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are the problems, they continue to instigate and cause problems on the world stage…

    Putin would have never gone into Ukraine if NATO and the US had provided the Ukraine with sufficient weapons, months before the invasion especially since our intelligence knew it,, of course Biden shared it with the Chinese???

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