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Putin’s Very Limited Tactical Nuclear Warfare Options

“Anticipating what a Russian nuclear attack would look like is an important first step in fashioning an appropriate response.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has again threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Nuclear weapons are the most powerful military device available because they easily blind sensors, so they are difficult to intercept and defend against. They are also relatively inexpensive given the damage they can inflict. Even with the low combat performance demonstrated by the Russian armed forces, nuclear strikes would provide a decisive force multiplier that would significantly shift the balance in favor of Moscow. Anticipating what a Russian nuclear attack would look like is an important first step in fashioning an appropriate response. Unfortunately for Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it is unclear from his drills alone if and how President Putin intends to exploit nuclear detonations on the battlefield. Loading and unloading nuclear warheads on rocket and tube artillery, and aircraft, as it appears Russian troops are practicing in Belarus, and having them don NBCW (Nuclear Chemical Biological Warfare) suits and perform decontamination drills, is the bare minimum preparation for the nuclear battlefield. There are two idealized extremes on how to fight a tactical nuclear war, the real world of which would likely include a mix of both. In both, we assume that NATO responds in kind. The alternative is a predictable and prompt Ukrainian surrender.

First, the Soviet method was to destroy a fixed point of resistance with “nuclear fires” and then to exploit by pushing past with high tempo but dispersed armored forces. The Soviets drilled their conscripts to conduct simple (but inflexible) offensive maneuvers, stressing persistence despite losses, and rehearsing regimental-sized combined arms assaults that included rocket artillery, smoke, chemicals, helicopters, and small-team raids against headquarters and nuclear storage sites, deep behind enemy lines. The Soviets possessed impressive earth-moving and obstacle clearance military engineer capabilities, meant to reopen roads and clear urban debris caused by nuclear destruction and craters. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had approximately 10,000 tactical nuclear warheads, designed to operate in conjunction with an offensive-oriented armored force, together tailored for the purpose of conquering West Germany, up to the Rhine, or the Kuropatkin Line in Northern China. There was also a greater diversity of tactical nuclear weapons, including surface to air missile warheads, and assorted naval missiles, torpedoes, depth charges and mines, all intended to slow the arrival of resupply convoys from North America to Europe and East Asia. The Russian army no longer has the technical capacity for this level of complex coordinated offensive operation. 

Even if Russia was forewarned of a NATO nuclear strike, it lacks the training to coordinate the continuously dispersed movement necessary to avoid creating the troop concentrations that NATO would be seeking to hit. The low state of cohesion and officer initiative in the current Russian army would cause a formation to shatter if hit by even a single nuclear counterstrike. A NATO attack would consist of a volley, targeting offensive spearheads, logistical fuel and artillery munitions nodes, and headquarters. Under these circumstances, the advance of a formation as large as a corps of 50,000 soldiers would stall, and the survivors would disperse into isolated pockets. Those combat arms most dependent on a logistical tail of unarmored trucks moving along highways, in particular artillery and vehicle fuel, would be unable to function. Entrenched Ukrainians, even if their locations were fixed by reconnaissance, would suffer a much lower proportion of losses in this sort of nuclear exchange than attackers exposed unprotected on the surface.   

The second type of nuclear attack is a static remote bombardment, which is much closer to the Russian army’s capabilities and what President Putin is most likely imagining, given his lack of training as a military planner. Once nuclear warfare is initiated, there would be a separate, simultaneous and continuous nuclear counter-battery (artillery vs. artillery) operation. Since missile and tube artillery, and aircraft, are the principal platforms for delivering tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield, there would be an ongoing and aggressive attempt by both sides to use drone and ground reconnaissance to detect and destroy these forces with nuclear weapons. Air bases would quickly be destroyed, so individual aircraft operating off of sectioned highways would replace large aircraft packages. The plethora of false contacts resulting from deception, electronic spoofing, and dummy positions would lead to a great many strikes being squandered. Likely a third of warheads would be destroyed before they are used; a third would be wasted against decoys; and only a third would hit their intended targets. The incentive to use tactical nuclear weapons can lead to up to 100 detonations per day across the front to a depth of 100 km. 

The battlefield in Ukraine is characterized by a layered system of deep and camouflaged entrenchments, long-range artillery and missile strikes, and the difficulty of achieving mobility, similar to the trench warfare on the Western Front during the First World War. This is primarily the result of the rough military balance, in terms of Ukrainian defense vs. Russian attack power, and the impact of reconnaissance drones against breakthrough attempts, and attack drones at disabling armored vehicles. Paradoxically, it is the power of nuclear artillery attacks that would be expected to have a similar entropic effect as drones, in the slowing down of maneuver on the battlefield, as infrastructure, vehicles and logistics would be severely disrupted. Nuclear weapons would be a supplement to Russia’s current attrition strategy, of shelling the Ukrainian front line and rear areas, continuously sending out platoon patrols and battalion-sized probing attacks, in the hope of an eventual collapse of the Ukrainian line. 

Most of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons are air dropped and would likely result in reciprocal destruction of Russian, and then, NATO airfields. The Russians would then rely on their much smaller arsenal of theatre missile delivered warheads, which would launch from and be targeted several hundred kilometers from within Russia. The remainder of the warheads would be launched by tube artillery, at ranges of up to 40 km. There is a critical conflicting factor that the probable high rate of nuclear weapons expenditure, conceivably 1,000 warheads fired or destroyed by pre-emption and counter-battery fire per week, would quickly consume Russia’s very small arsenal of 2,000 tactical and theatre nuclear weapons. Perhaps another 1,000 warheads could be reassigned for battlefield purposes from Russia’s strategic bomber force. Both sides would run short of tactical nuclear warheads long before they achieve a strategic breakthrough. Neither Russia nor the United States have the industrial readiness to restart Cold War rates of weapons production. 

It is surprisingly commonplace how military strategy is driven by wishful thinking and desperate political imperatives, as Chicago University professor John J, Mearsheimer has shown in the case studies in his 1983 book Conventional Deterrence. In fact, Adolf Hitler’s reliance on offensive armored operations to achieve victory against France in 1940 was not at all derived from his understanding, before the war, of the German Wehrmacht’s advantages in the use of radio to facilitate combined arms. He was lucky. Most uninformed leaders that start wars do poorly, as President Putin is in Ukraine. It is very likely that President Putin is unaware of the resulting high rate of tactical nuclear weapons use and may panic when he faced with how best to maximize their effect as they become scarce. President Putin, to demonstrate resolve at the moment of this weakness, may escalate the nuclear exchange to striking cities as far as North America, given the larger available number of Russian strategic warheads and delivery systems. The best possible NATO deterrent against President Putin’s temptation to escalate to tactical nuclear weapons use against Ukraine, is a firm publicly-announced commitment to respond in kind. Avoiding pronouncements in fear of provoking Moscow, which is a widely held belief of anti-war publics, has been proven by history to be unwise. Showing President Putin that NATO has escalation dominance in every scenario, will foreclose his option of expanding conflict violence.

Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, author of the 2007 book Militarization and War and of the 2014 book Strategic Nuclear Sharing. He was also a former Operations Officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment. He has published extensively on Pakistan, where he conducted fieldwork for over ten years, as well as in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Egypt.

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