Putin's Tactical Nuclear Weapons Might be as Lethal as The Atomic Bombs Launched on Japan

With his forces withdrawing from Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons once more, most likely tactical nuclear weapons.

With his forces withdrawing from Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons once more, most likely tactical nuclear weapons.

He warned in a speech last week, "In the event of a threat to our country's territorial integrity, we will undoubtedly employ all weapon systems at our disposal to defend Russia and our people. This isn't a ruse."

According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russian military systems comprise 4,477 deployed and reserve nuclear warheads, with around 1,900 of these being "non-strategic" warheads, also known as tactical nuclear weapons.

But what exactly is a tactical nuclear weapon, and how is it different from a conventional nuclear weapon? Here's what you should know.

Strategic vs. tactical

Tactical warheads are those that are designed to be used on a limited battlefield, such as destroying a column of tanks or an aircraft carrier combat group if fired at sea. These warheads, which have explosive outputs ranging from 10 to 100 kilotons of dynamite, are also known as "low yield."

Russia's most powerful "strategic" nuclear bombs, on the other hand, have explosive yields ranging from 500 to 800 kilotons and are meant to obliterate entire cities – and then some.

The term "low yield" for tactical weapons is somewhat misleading, as explosive yields of 10 to 100 kilotons of dynamite are still sufficient to produce widespread devastation, as the world discovered in 1945 when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

These bombs were the equivalent of around 15 and 21 kilotons of dynamite, respectively, and were comparable to Russia's tactical nuclear weapons.

According to US government records, the first bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed around 70,000 and 35,000 people respectively, while tens of thousands more died subsequently from the radiation produced.

According to Alex Wellerstein, director of science and technology studies at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, the real difference between nuclear weapons is not their explosive yield but rather their targets.

"The atomic bombings in Japan were strategic operations designed to undermine morale and terrorize the Japanese high command into surrender. What made a 15-kiloton yield "strategic" depends on where it was aimed "Wellerstein published an article on the Outrider security blog earlier this year.

Others, such as former US Defense Secretary James Mattis, argue that there is no difference.

"There is no such thing as a 'tactical nuclear weapon,' in my opinion. Any nuclear bomb used at any time changes the strategic game "said during a congressional hearing in 2018.

What happens if Russia deploys one?

Russia (and, prior to it, the Soviet Union) produced and maintained a sizable stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons.

The initial thought was that using a nuclear weapon on a battlefield gave leaders the option of making a decisive strike that could stave off defeat without resorting to their most powerful nuclear weapons, which would result in a "civilization-ending nuclear exchange," according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

According to the organization's website, that kind of thinking is "flawed and hazardous."

"Tactical nuclear weapons... add greater ambiguity, increasing the chance that a government may believe it can get away with a limited attack," according to the organization.

Some research backs up the theory.

According to a July editorial issued by Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) by Sidharth Kaushal and Sam Cranny-Evans, the employment of tactical nuclear weapons on command centers or air bases in Europe could minimize civilian losses in nearby areas.

According to the RUSI assessment, using a tactical nuclear weapon in the Sulwaki Gap, the territorial border between NATO members Poland and Lithuania that divides Russian Kaliningrad from its neighbor Belarus, would result in hundreds of civilian casualties.

The truth is likely to be rather different.

"US war exercises indicate that a battle including the use of tactical nuclear weapons will swiftly spiral out of control," according to the blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"A Princeton University simulation of a US-Russian conflict that starts with the use of a tactical nuclear bomb anticipates rapid escalation that would kill and damage more than 90 million people," it claimed.

In response to Putin's ultimatum last week, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) claims that in 2022 Europe is a far more dangerous area to employ nuclear weapons than in 1945 Japan, which had a smaller population and was relatively isolated.

"A single nuclear blast in Europe today would undoubtedly kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and harm many more; radioactive fallout might contaminate enormous areas across many countries," ICAN stated on its website.

"Emergency services would be unable to respond efficiently, and widespread panic would result in mass migrations and serious economic upheaval. Of course, many detonations would be far worse "it was added.

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