WAR IN EUROPE ANALYSIS
Let’s hope Putin can control his trigger finger when it comes to nuclear weapons
The use of even one tactical nuclear weapon by Russia could trigger a devastating series of unknown, even unknowable, consequences. Does history offer any guidance?
… But we can be tranquil, and thankful, and proud,
For man’s been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud.
And we know for certain that some lovely day
Someone will set the spark off, and we will all be blown away…
— From The Kingston Trio’s The Merry Minuet.
The shelves that hold the literature (in books and movies) of disaster and dystopia — and most specifically stories of humanity’s destruction through an avoidable nuclear disaster — have, since 1945, purveyed one of our greatest fears. Or, as the movie and book title put it, The Sum of All Fears.
More recently, this fear has come to be rivalled by the growing realisation that humans seem destined to be the primary culprits for an incoming climatic and ecological disaster. But nuclear armageddon remains the big one for many of us, for no other reason than if it does occur, we will be blown to radioactive dust in a matter of days, if not minutes, rather than over the decades it will take for the Anthropocene to do its dirty work.
This fear of a looming nuclear disaster also comes to us through those minute-by-minute dissections of the real, but more limited disasters of Chernobyl or Fukushima Dai-ichi that, in turn, trigger forebodings of something so much worse that could have been or may yet come about.
Think about the nuclear reactors at Zaporizhzhia and the missiles slamming into and around it. But then it is on through a whole catalogue of tales of nuclear annihilation in novels and films (or both), including Dr Strangelove, On the Beach, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, and so many more.
What those latter suppositions are based upon, however, is the idea that once any form of nuclear exchange takes place between the great powers, a runaway atomic apocalypse becomes virtually impossible to stop. Or, at the very minimum, as in the story of Failsafe, great cities like Moscow and New York City will be destroyed in order to prevent the rest of humanity from suffering the same fate through a much larger war.
The organising principle virtually all of these tales are built upon is the idea of an unstoppable, headlong rush to runaway nuclear warfare, rather than smaller scale, yet still horrific battlefield disasters, and the Herculean efforts and sacrifices that would be needed in order to forestall such a universal catastrophe.
Some of these stories about the nuclear apocalypse are presumed to take place years after an atomic-powered devastation, while others are taking place at the moment of nuclear exchanges, but the theme remains similar: Nuclear disaster inevitably looms once great powers come to blows, even if it is only by accident.
Nuclear deterrence theories
Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Andrew Krepinevich Jr set out the dilemmas and terrible possibilities underlying such calculations in a recent Foreign Affairs article. The Hudson Institute has been one of the premier locations for nuclear strategy thinking, and in his article he noted, “Simply maintaining the ability to obliterate the adversary’s population centers and industrial infrastructure in retaliation for any nuclear attack did not, however, guarantee that deterrence would hold in every situation.
“Under what conditions would a rational leader opt to use nuclear weapons in a conflict? The game theorist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling pointed out that under certain circumstances, initiating a nuclear war could be seen as a rational act.
“As Schelling saw it, the two great nuclear powers, instead of resembling scorpions in a bottle, might confront each other as two gunfighters on the dusty streets of a lawless Old West town, where whoever is quicker to draw enjoys an advantage. This situation would obtain when one of the two powers sensed what Schelling called ‘the feat of being a poor second for not going first’.”
In fact, there has been a large body of thinking about this question since the early 1950s by mathematicians and physicists such as Thomas Schelling, who became nuclear strategists devoted to the mechanisms of the way nuclear exchanges would take place.
Under the pressure of the real possibility of nuclear conflict, they worked out the theoretical underpinnings of the doctrine of mutual assured destruction and deterrence, or MADD (or, fittingly, just MAD, without that final D).
Concurrently, other studies and military doctrines by Herman Kahn and others have focused on how the deployment of just one tactical nuclear weapon in an already existing combat situation could spiral out of control and thrust the combatants up the escalatory ladder, from the use of that one tactical nuclear weapon, on to a full-on launch of a massive first strike of strategic weapons, even as a nuclear counterforce in reserve has been constructed (in hardened silos or in silent nuclear powered subs) in order to restrain such an attack by still being able to carry out vast damage to the initial attacker.
Ukrainian war and tactical nuclear weapons
This whole frightening business is rising ever closer to the top of the pile of concerns about the Ukrainian war. Vladimir Putin and his acolytes have begun issuing barely veiled public threats to use nuclear weaponry — even as (or because) their Ukrainian misadventure takes further wrong turns on the battlefield, and as they face the real threat of losing the entire contest.
Along the way, the growing number of cautions to the Russian leader from the West about even thinking about escalating the conflict through the use of nuclear weaponry seems only to have provoked further threats by Russian leaders of using Russia’s nuclear arsenal to reestablish the chance for a battlefield victory.
Consider it as, in American football parlance, a potential nuclear “Hail Mary pass” — when their team is down six points and there are only seconds left on the game clock to execute a winning play.
The tangible difference between what is happening with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and those imagined scenarios is that what the Russians are threatening is not a nuclear confrontation with the US — at least, not yet. Instead, their threat seems like the idea of using what are somewhat misleadingly termed tactical battlefield nuclear weapons to bring the Ukrainian military into disarray and — potentially — civilian resistance to a halt.
Such tactical nuclear weapons are more powerful than most conventional weapons, but they generally carry significantly less destructive power than the two nuclear devices dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring World War 2 to an end.
Looking back at the development of such tactical nuclear weapons for the battlefield, as David Sanger and William Broad described the history of tactical nuclear weapons in the New York Times the other day, “… as the Cold War progressed, both the United States and the Soviets developed hundreds of variants [of tactical nuclear weapons].
“There were nuclear depth charges to take out submarines and rumours of ‘suitcase nukes’. At one point in the 1970s, Nato had upward of 7,400 tactical nuclear weapons, nearly four times the current estimated Russian stockpile.
“By that time, they were also part of popular culture. In 1964, James Bond defused a small nuclear weapon in Goldfinger, seconds before it was supposed to go off. In 2002, in The Sum of All Fears, based on a Tom Clancy novel, a terrorist wipes out Baltimore with a tactical weapon that arrives on a cargo ship.
“The reality, though, was that while the blast might be smaller than a conventional weapon would produce, the radioactivity would be long-lasting. On land, the radiation effects ‘would be very persistent,’ said Michael G Vickers, the Pentagon’s former top civilian official for counterinsurgency strategy. In the 1970s, Mr Vickers was trained to infiltrate Soviet lines with a backpack-sized nuclear bomb.
“Russia’s tactical arms ‘would most likely be used against enemy force concentrations to stave off a conventional defeat’, Mr. Vickers added. But he said his experience suggests ‘their strategic utility would be highly questionable, given the consequences Russia would almost assuredly face after their use’…”
The two authors went on to note, “The detonation of a tactical weapon would be a choice — and likely an act of desperation. While Mr Putin’s repeated atomic threats may come as a shock to Americans who have barely thought about nuclear arms in recent decades, they have a long history…”
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Karoun Demirjian, writing in the Washington Post on 5 October, noted, “Getting a handle on the exact number of tactical nuclear weapons in Russia’s arsenal is tricky. While strategic nuclear weapons are countable and governed by current US-Russia agreements, the same is not the case with tactical nuclear weapons.
“The United States has a good count of Russia’s strategic weapons, because Washington and Moscow are required to disclose this under the terms of New START, the last remaining arms control treaty. That count of strategic weapons is split among those deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and those launched from bombers.
“But when it comes to the tactical weapons, the US intelligence community can only offer its best guess, and different agencies have differing estimates. The ballpark figure they have settled on is between 1,000 and 2,000 tactical weapons (which, it should be noted, can be launched from ground launchers, ships and bombers but are not pre-deployed). After careful study, the Federation of American Scientists put its estimate at 1,912 — although it cautions that this could include weapons being retired or taken offline.
“… Modern tactical weapons usually have a capacity of 10 to 100 kilotons, which still makes the average tactical weapon potentially more destructive than the bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Russia and the United States also have ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons that pack a ‘light’ punch, even dipping below 1 kiloton. But even the least-powerful nuclear bomb — with a yield of about 0.3 kilotons — has about the same explosive power as the 2020 Beirut port explosion.
At this point in the fighting in Ukraine, the growing fear among experts is that the use of one or more of these weapons is what is being contemplated by Vladimir Putin against troop concentrations or logistic and transportation centres, rather than against Ukraine’s major cities, and as a clear demonstration of what might be the next step, if the Ukrainians continue their battlefield advances.
Of course, the use of any nuclear weapon on the battlefield would kill or injure many people and inevitably a large number would be civilians. Moreover, beyond the immediate death and destruction, the drift of radiation would affect people well beyond Ukraine to the west, and the prevailing winds would also carry radiation eastward into Russia, as happened after the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor nearly 40 years ago.
What the precise military or economic reaction would be by the West in the event Russia uses one or more tactical nuclear weapons is obviously hard to define in advance, although this question is now occupying the time and work of strategic planners in the Pentagon and elsewhere.
The international opprobrium for such a use of tactical nuclear weapons would undoubtedly be severe. In a pre-emptive response to the possibility, according to the Guardian, Poland is reported to be urging the stationing of American tactical nuclear weapons on its territory.
Debate before use of the first atomic weapons
At this point, some historical perspective may be useful. In late 1944 and early 1945, there was an intense debate among the upper reaches of the American government and military to figure out how to use this new atomic weapon and what effect it might have on the war. The debate was intense partly because no one knew the power of the new weapon as it was still to be tested, and there was uncertainty as to how to make use of the two or three bombs that would likely be available. (The bomb had originally been planned for use against Nazi Germany, but by the time it was ready, Germany had surrendered.)
A small group of Japanese cities had been kept off target rosters, including Kyoto, the repository of much the nation’s religious, cultural and historical heritage. Among suggestions were to use one of the bombs in a demonstration in Tokyo Bay, on a small outlying island, on the top of Mt Fuji, and Kyoto, among several other cities. Secretary of War Henry Stimson strenuously objected to attacking Kyoto, arguing it would generate a lasting enmity against Americans among the Japanese.
Ultimately, the other alternatives were all put aside as there was no way to know in advance if the bomb would actually work. Announcing a demonstration but having a dud might even encourage Japanese resistance. Instead, dropping it on a city without warning — but not Kyoto — meant it could have enormous psychological impact, leading to a rapid Japanese surrender, if it worked.
The impact of this weapon triggered a thorough re-examination of military strategy and, so far, since 1945, there has been no further use of such weapons — the norm against their usage has been too strong.
But there have been some extremely close calls, even with all the pressures against using them. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, there very nearly was the launch of a tactical nuclear device by a Soviet submarine against an American sub patrolling off the coast of Cuba. The National Security Archive — an NGO dedicated to freedom of information efforts — released a report on that incident at the beginning of October.
It reads, in part, that a Soviet submarine commander, Valentin Savitsky, in his own submarine, “…did indeed think that they were under attack and that the war with the United States had already started. Caught off guard by the aggressive U.S. actions, Savitsky panicked, calling for an ‘urgent dive’ and the preparation of torpedo #1 (with the nuclear warhead), but he was unable to quickly descend the narrow stairway of the conning tower, which was temporarily blocked by the signaling officer and his equipment. [Sub flotilla chief of staff Vasily] Arkhipov, who was still on the tower and saw that the Americans were actually signaling, not attacking, called the commander back and calmed him down [italics added].
“Savitsky’s command was never transmitted to the officer in charge of the torpedo, and the Soviet submarine signaled back to the Americans to cease all provocative actions. The situation was defused, and the next day, the B-59, with fully charged batteries, was able to submerge without warning and evade its pursuers.” Had that nuclear torpedo been launched, the Cuban Missile Crisis would quite likely have had a very different conclusion.
In contrast to that first use of an atomic weapon in 1945, years before the “rules of engagement” had been structured by the theoreticians and strategists, the events in the Caribbean Sea in 1962 could easily have demonstrated the cascading consequences of the use of even one tactical nuclear weapon.
Looking at where we are now, as the Russians continue to contemplate (and threaten) the use of even one tactical nuclear weapon — on both the larger global picture as well as their Ukrainian battlefield — one hopes the West and Nato are thinking through all of the implications of what responses are possible, appropriate, or effective to the deployment of even one tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine. DM