Is the use of nuclear weapons more likely now? Well, yes…

DR ROD THORNTON

Nuclear weapons are, it seems, becoming more and more of a factor in the thinking about how future major wars will be conducted. The recently released United States Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) points to the fact that Washington now wants to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal. Specifically, it seeks to deploy more non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons.

Currently, the only tactical nuclear weapons the US possesses are 500 free-fall ‘gravity bombs’ designed to be dropped from aircraft; much like those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All the rest of its nuclear weapons are strategic; that is, those slated to be used against an opponent’s homeland. These are the long-range ballistic missiles – the ICBMs – based in silos or fitted to road-mobile transporter-erector launchers (TELs) or the SLBMs on submarines. Also in the strategic category are the cruise missiles (ALCMs) launched from strategic bombers.

There is thus a gap in this US nuclear arsenal. This is that between these state-of-the-art high-end strategic missiles and the low-end tactical-use gravity bombs. Moreover, while the former have tremendous deterrence capability, the latter do not. Such gravity bombs have to be delivered all the way to their targets by vulnerable aircraft, which are highly likely to be shot down before they get anywhere near those targets. The fact that this gap exists – and that the tactical gravity bombs at one end of it are basically unusable – is limiting Washington’s flexibility of response when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons in any future conflict.

The new NPR has looked at ways of filling this gap and in providing more effective strings to Washington’s nuclear bow. Specifically, it is encouraging the development of a new tactical nuclear weapon based on an upgraded version of the Tomahawk cruise missile. This missile can currently only mount a conventional warhead – i.e. it is not ‘dual-use’.

The NPR’s recommendations are being made now in specific response to a particular Russian relative advantage. This is one, moreover, which has become more pronounced recently. For the Russian military has, and is developing further, a highly capable suite of tactical nuclear weapons. Russia has no ‘gap’ between its own strategic nuclear missiles and its gravity bombs. Whereas in the West – where thoughts about the utility of nuclear weapons dropped off the radar in a post-Cold War era dominated by insurgencies and counter-terrorist operations – in Russia, in contrast, there was no such drop-off. Interest has always been maintained in Russian military circles on how best to use nuclear weapons in warfare. In particular, the focus has been on the role of tactical nuclear weapons in an operational theatre. In Russia, such weapons are seen as a vital balancer in battlefield situations where Russian conventional forces are likely to be either technologically inferior to or outnumbered by their NATO or Chinese adversaries. In traditional Soviet/Russian thinking there is, moreover, no great philosophical barrier to overcome in terms of employing tactical nuclear weapons on a battlefield – they are just seen as having a bigger explosive potential than conventional ordnance. The targets of such Russian tactical nuclear weapons would be the likes of an adversary’s troop concentrations, logistics hubs and command and control centres.

Most of the Russian development work on new tactical nuclear weapons has been concentrated on how they are to be delivered. And they can be delivered by a great range of vehicles – even Russian anti-aircraft missiles (for the S-300, S-400 and S-500 systems) can, it seems, be fitted with nuclear warheads to use against ground targets. However, the most angst in Western military circles is created by two particular delivery vehicles. Firstly, there is the cruise missile. Such missiles are normally seen as being quite vulnerable to being shot down by an opponent’s air defences because traditionally they have a relatively slow speed – the Tomahawk, for instance, is subsonic. The Russians, however, have overcome this drawback by deploying the dual-use Kalibr missile, which develops supersonic speed (up to Mach 2.9). It can be fired, out to a range of some 2,500km, from several platforms, including submerged submarines and from TELs. Its launch vehicles can thus be very hard to locate. (What is perceived to be an augmentation of the Kalibr – the Zircon cruise missile – is now in production. Its speed is hypersonic – up to Mach 8!)

The Kalibr has been operationally tested (delivering conventional warheads) by the Russian navy in attacks on Syrian targets. Launches have been made from both ships in the Caspian Sea and from submarines off the Syrian coast. While the capabilities of this Kalibr missile have raised eyebrows enough in Washington, it is, however, the other principal Russian means of delivering a nuclear warhead in an operational theatre that is causing perhaps greater concern. This is the mobile Iskander-M short-range dual-use ballistic missile. Being ballistic, it is theoretically far harder to intercept than a cruise missile and also has the hard-target ground mobility provided by its TELs. Effective countermeasures against the Iskander-M appear limited. It has also been used against targets in Syria, having been fired from within the country. Its stated maximum range is only 500km, which means that it is technically in the ‘short range’ bracket and thus not liable to banning under the INF Treaty (which Russia seems to be ignoring anyway).

There is nothing in the US nuclear arsenal akin to either the Kalibr or the Iskander-M. Thus what the Kalibr and Iskander-M do above all else is to provide the Russian military with escalation dominance to the nuclear level in any active theatre of operations. If such missiles were to be used against, say, NATO logistics hubs on the territory of Poland then how would the US (read NATO?) respond? Currently, with no employable tactical nuclear weapons of its own to retaliate with (or to use, indeed, as an initial deterrent factor), the temptation for the US could then be to respond – in terms of escalation – by moving straight up to the use of its strategic missiles (which technically outnumber those of Russia). But such an act would naturally invite a retaliatory Russian strategic response and thus risk setting off world-wide nuclear Armageddon. The thinking on this issue is that Moscow assumes that Washington would never take this drastic step; that it would not use strategic nuclear weapons in response to Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. This might mean that Russian forces would have few qualms about the use of such weapons in theatre. Russia could then, by so doing, prevail on the battlefield and its adversaries would have to accept Russian terms. There are thus clear scenarios where Russia could ‘win’ its wars by using its tactical nuclear weapons. (It should be pointed out that modern tactical nuclear weapons can actually be very small in terms of yield – far smaller than say, the Hiroshima bomb – and, if delivered as an air-burst, produce very little radioactive fallout.)

The fact that Russia does have this capability to practice escalation dominance provides Moscow, of course, with a significant tool of deterrence. But it also provides something else. It provides Russia with a good deal of ‘coercive credibility’ – perhaps the sine qua non in terms of what any country’s armed forces should provide to their political masters. If Russia starts rattling its tactical nuclear rockets then potential opponents have, at the very least, to pay attention to Moscow’s demands and, at worst, give in to them without a fight.

This expressed intent to use nuclear weapons – and thus to back up the coercive credibility provided by their mere possession – comes not just in the general rhetoric employed by senior Russian politicians and military officers, but also in doctrinal statements. The various iterations of the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation have, since the early 1990s, been making it clear that Russia has abandoned its Soviet-era ‘no first use policy’ when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons. The threshold of their use, as pointed out in such doctrine, can be seen as quite low (but, obviously, ambiguously expressed). Russian naval doctrine, moreover, appears to indicate an even lower threshold of nuclear use. Such expressions of Russia’s intent to ‘go nuclear’ are thus enhancing both the deterrence capacity and the coercive credibility of, in particular, its most employable nuclear weapons – that is, its tactical ones.

This latest US Nuclear Posture Review, as well as indicating increasing US capabilities in the realm of tactical nuclear weapons, is also seemingly indicating an increasing intent to use them. Washington appears to be lowering its threshold of nuclear use; pointing, for instance, to the fact that such weapons could be used in retaliation for, say, a cyber attack that caused mass casualties in the US.

The advent of a new series of US nuclear weapons and the concomitant lowering of Washington’s nuclear-use threshold seems to make the use of tactical nuclear weapons more likely – perhaps even, indeed, in the absence of any major future conventional conflict. Russia, moreover, is bound to become alarmed by this US move. It has been relying on the deterrent and coercive effect produced by its nuclear advantage at the tactical level and would naturally be concerned if this advantage started to be whittled away. A Russia lacking its nuclear ‘comfort blanket’ is, as like as not, going to feel more vulnerable and its natural reaction – as ever with a Russia feeling threatened – will probably be to become even more aggressive. Watch this space.

Image: US Army MGR-3 ‘Little John’ docket launcher, c. 1950-1960, via wikimedia commons

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