What are tactical nukes and what would happen if Russia deployed one?

(CNN) — With his forces withdrawing into Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has once again threatened to resort to nuclear weapons, probably what are often referred to as tactical nukes.

In a speech last week, he warned that “in the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapons systems available to us. I am not bragging.”

Russian weapons systems include 4,477 deployed and reserve nuclear warheads, of which some 1,900 are “non-strategic” warheads, also known as tactical nuclear weapons, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

Tactical warheads refer to those designed for use on a limited battlefield, for example to destroy a column of tanks or a battle group of aircraft carriers if used at sea. These warheads, with explosive yields of 10 to 100 kilotons of dynamite, are also called “low yield”.

By contrast, Russia’s most powerful “strategic” nuclear warheads have explosive powers of 500 to 800 kilotons and are designed to destroy entire cities, and then some.

The reference to “low yield” for tactical weapons is somewhat misleading, as explosive yields of 10 to 100 kilotons of dynamite are still enough to cause great destruction, as the world discovered in 1945 when the US dropped atomic bombs. about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

Those bombs were the equivalent of about 15 and 21 kilotons of dynamite, respectively, putting them well within the range of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons.

And it is because of this devastating ability that many people say that there really is no difference between a strategic and a tactical weapon when used in war.

“I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘tactical nuke,’ former US Defense Secretary James Mattis said during a congressional hearing in 2018. “Any nuke used at any time is a game changer. strategic,” Mattis said.

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What would happen if Russia deployed a tactical nuclear weapon?

Russia (and before that, the Soviet Union) has manufactured and maintained a large stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons.

The initial thinking was that using a nuclear bomb on a battlefield would give leaders the option of making a decisive strike that could avoid defeat without resorting to the use of their larger nukes, which, after a counterattack, it would lead to a “civilization-ending nuclear exchange,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

On its website, the organization calls such thinking “wrong and dangerous.”

“Tactical nuclear weapons…introduce greater ambiguity, increasing the possibility that a country thinks it can get away with a limited attack,” the organization said.

Some analyzes support that theory, but the reality is probably far from that.

“American war games predict that a conflict involving the use of tactical nuclear weapons will quickly spiral out of control,” said the Union of Concerned Scientists blog.

“A Princeton University simulation of a US-Russian conflict beginning with the use of a tactical nuclear weapon predicts a rapid escalation that would leave more than 90 million dead and injured,” he said.

In response to Putin’s threat last week, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) says that the Europe of 2022 is a much more dangerous place to use nuclear weapons than the Japan of 1945, which had a population smaller and relatively isolated.

In Europe today, “a single nuclear detonation would likely kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and injure many more; radioactive fallout could contaminate large areas in several countries,” ICAN said on its website.

“Emergency services would not be able to respond effectively and widespread panic would trigger mass movements of people and serious economic disruption. Multiple detonations would of course be much worse,” he added.

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