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Understanding Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Their Role and Implications in Ukraine

The recent escalation of tensions in Ukraine has brought tactical nuclear weapons into the international spotlight. These weapons, designed for battlefield use rather than strategic defense, have become a topic of concern as Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued threats involving their potential use. To shed light on the significance of these weapons and their relevance in the current geopolitical landscape, we turn to an international security expert.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons: An Overview

Tactical nuclear weapons, also known as battlefield or nonstrategic nuclear weapons, were originally developed to counter overwhelming conventional forces on the battlefield. They differ from their strategic counterparts in terms of size, explosive yield, and delivery range. While experts may debate precise definitions, tactical nuclear weapons typically have lower explosive yields, ranging from fractions of a kiloton to about 50 kilotons, as compared to strategic nuclear weapons, which can yield over a megaton.

Their delivery systems are characterized by shorter ranges, typically under 310 miles (500 kilometers), making them suitable for use in localized conflicts. Unlike strategic weapons designed for long-range attacks, tactical nuclear weapons are intended for shorter-range targets on the battlefield.

The possession and deployment of tactical nuclear weapons vary among nations. For instance, the U.S. has reduced its reliance on these weapons, with most of its remaining stockpile deployed in Europe. In contrast, Russia has retained a substantial arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, estimated at around 2,000, and has incorporated them more prominently into its nuclear strategy.

The Destructive Power of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

One critical aspect that sets tactical nuclear weapons apart is their significantly higher destructive power compared to conventional weaponry. Even at the same explosive energy, nuclear explosions are exponentially more powerful than chemical explosions, leading to widespread destruction. Furthermore, the aftermath of a nuclear explosion includes deadly radiation fallout, similar to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, which contaminates air, soil, water, and food supplies.

The Question of Tactical Nuclear Weapons’ “Useability”

The fundamental question surrounding tactical nuclear weapons is whether they are more “useable” in practice and whether their use could potentially trigger a full-scale nuclear war. Historically, these weapons were developed as a means to overcome the perception that large-scale nuclear attacks were unthinkable, leading to concerns that strategic nuclear weapons were losing their value as a deterrent.

However, any use of tactical nuclear weapons would invoke defensive nuclear strategies. The idea of “tactical” nuclear weapons is contested, with many experts arguing that any nuclear weapon use fundamentally alters the strategic landscape. As former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated in 2018, “Any nuclear weapon use any time is a strategic game changer.”

Tactical Nuclear Weapons in the Current Ukraine Crisis

Russian President Putin’s threats to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine have raised concerns and discussions on their credibility and potential consequences. It is essential to recognize that the use of these weapons in Ukraine would likely not achieve any military objectives but would instead contaminate the claimed territory and risk spilling into Russia. Such a move could escalate the situation and invite direct NATO intervention.

Putin’s approach of preemptively annexing regions in eastern Ukraine, followed by threats of nuclear weapon use to defend them, has been met with skepticism. Many experts argue that this approach stretches Russia’s nuclear strategy beyond belief, as using tactical nuclear weapons in such a scenario is widely seen as strategically incredible.

In conclusion, the debate surrounding tactical nuclear weapons continues to be a complex and contentious issue in international security. While they were designed for battlefield use, their actual employment remains a subject of significant debate, especially in the context of contemporary conflicts like the one in Ukraine. The world watches closely as geopolitical tensions evolve, and the role of tactical nuclear weapons in modern warfare continues to be a topic of critical importance.