The existence of a nuclear threat may have factored heavily in NATO’s initial decision to avoid setting up a “no-fly” zone, something which may have quickly given the Ukrainians an impactful and decisive advantage. Continued threats and comments regarding a realistic Russian “nuclear” threat, however likely, are likely taken very seriously by the Biden administration and senior leaders at the Pentagon. At one point, President Biden was clear that the US goal was to avoid a “World War III.” This makes sense given the very realistic possibility of a Russian nuclear response to a more substantial US or NATO involvement. This would be quite realistic because, in large measure, Russia quite likely simply could not compete with NATO in terms of air power or even conventional military ground forces.
The prospect introduces several key factors to consider such as the possibility that Putin might consider a more limited nuclear strike and seek to avoid catastrophic global destruction. Russia is known to operate a large number of tactical nuclear weapons and has already claimed to demonstrate nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons. Most recently, a CNN report now says Putin is planning to put tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a development which clearly impacts the threat calculus.
How might the US strategic deterrence posture respond to such a possibility? Some are of the view that a massive nuclear response should be ensured in response to “any” use of nuclear weapons, whereas there would also be a possibility to respond with a limited or tactical nuclear strike. A limited nuclear strike, or the threat of a measured nuclear response, seems to be a much less likely Pentagon response, as the assurance of total destruction might prove to be the most effective deterrent.
However, the Pentagon has developed some lower-yield, tactical nuclear weapons for the purpose of giving commanders options with which to fortify its deterrence posture. There is already a lower-yield Trident II D5 weapon produced by the Pentagon, the B-61 mod 12 is capable of lower-yield attacks and of course the Air Force is progressing with the nuclear-capable Long Range Stand-Off weapon. However it seems highly unlikely that any actual use of this kind of weapon might be considered.
All this considered, the US and NATO have taken substantial and bold risks with the choices to support Ukraine. Not only is the Biden administration sending Abrams tanks, but drawdown support packages have already sent Patriot Missile batteries and established a specific US industry contract mechanism to support long-term weapons production and delivery to Ukraine. There also continues to be a massive amount of anti-armor weapons, air defenses, drones and of course infantry fighting vehicles such as the Bradley. Finally, there have been numerous suggested reports that Ukrainian pilots are being trained on Western F-16s, a possibility which might fully tilt the war for air supremacy in Ukraine’s favor.
This is extremely significant, as the inability for either side to achieve air superiority remains somewhat of a lingering mystery in the ongoing war. Should Ukraine win the current stalemate for air dominance, they would operate with an unparalleled ability to destroy Russian missile launch sites, ground troop concentrations, fixed infrastructure and even convoys on the move.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.