When it comes to the war in Ukraine, there is no shortage of questions that need answering — and it’s hard to think of any that one would call a “dumb question.” In this week’s iteration of our video series, “No Dumb Questions,” Grid’s Global Security Reporter Joshua Keating takes up this one: “What is a tactical nuke?”
From the moment Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine and made the case for his “Special Military Operation,” he also went out of his way to remind the world of the size and scope of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and his willingness to use it. “If anyone decides to meddle in ongoing events and create unacceptable strategic threats for Russia,” he warned in April, “they must know our response will be lightning-quick. We have all the instruments for this, ones nobody else can boast of. And we will use them, if we have to.”
It was one of many not-so-veiled warnings that Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have given — and those warnings have kept NATO countries from taking certain retaliatory steps (imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, in particular), for fear that such steps might lead to direct engagement between NATO and the Russian military, and thus between nuclear powers.
Many of these warnings — from Russia as well as from western officials — have mentioned the possible use of “tactical nuclear weapons.”
What exactly is a “tactical nuclear weapon”? Not only is this not a “dumb question” — it’s a question even the experts aren’t certain how best to answer. In 2018, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis said during congressional testimony, “I don’t think there is any such thing as a ‘tactical nuclear weapon.’ Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game-changer.”
As Keating notes in this week’s video, “It’s one of those military terms that I think can obscure a little more than it explains. When people say a ‘tactical nuke,’ what they’re talking about is less a difference in the type of weapon we’re talking about than what it’s used for.”
In April, Keating reported that “strategic” warheads typically refer to those that the U.S. and Russia would fire at each other’s territory in the event of an all-out nuclear war. The target is the enemy’s society, not just its military. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the textbook example. A “tactical weapon, on the other hand, would be used for some specific gain in the theater of war.”
The term “tactical” is often used to imply that the bomb is smaller or less powerful, but — Keating again here — “this is misleading at best. Some ‘tactical’ warheads in the U.S. arsenal have yields of around 100 kilotons. That’s smaller than some of the larger bombs available today, but still massive: The bomb used on Hiroshima had a yield of just 15 kilotons.”
Ultimately, were Russia to use a nuclear weapon, no matter how small, “tactical” or “strategic,” it would shatter a taboo that has been in place for almost 80 years. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that is.
This, then, is the question for the latest installment in this Grid video series: “What Is A Tactical Nuke?” Watch Keating’s answer here.
We’d love to hear from you with other ideas for the series. We like to think there are no “dumb questions”; or, put differently, that there’s almost nothing out there in the world of news and information that couldn’t use a little more clarity and context in terms of the answers. We also know that we have really smart readers, and that even the smartest among them can’t be expected to have every shred of important context or background on all the events that are roiling the world at any given moment. Send your ideas and questions to email@example.com.
Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.