An examination of how Russia might use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine and what could happen next.
Even amid great battle victories for the Ukrainians over the Russians, the war is far from over. The desperation and brutality of Russia seems to be without end. And over and over again, we hear threats from the Russians about the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
But what are these weapons? Just how deadly are they? How widespread could their potential damage be, and how might their use escalate? David Shlapak, our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, has been studying these issues since the Cold War.
Shlapak is a senior defense researcher at RAND Corporation. His work looks at great power competition, global security, and the future of US missile defense. He has worked on the reintroduction of nuclear weapons into US defense planning and technology, and was a founding co-director of the RAND Center for Gaming.
Shlapak explains in detail what these tactical nuclear weapons are, how they work, and how they differ from strategic nuclear weapons. He outlines the real dangers they pose, why Russia has so many more of them than the US, and whether anyone knows if these Cold War weapons have been properly maintained — or even if they still work.
Shlapak talks about how nukes might be used on the battlefield, and how — or even if — we can clean up after them. And if that weren’t disturbing enough, he has a chilling warning for us: Most of the military planners in the Pentagon today have no Cold War experience. This is a new generation learning about Russia and nuclear weaponry, almost from scratch. Which means we may all be heading through a door with no idea what’s on the other side.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Regardless of how the war in Ukraine resolves, one thing is clear, the defense posture of Europe and NATO will never be the same. Russia’s global status has been altered and the Ukrainian fight will be remembered throughout history just as the finish in the Winter Wars, the ancient Battle of Salamis, and the English at Agincourt. But this war is far from over; the desperation and brutality of Russia seem to be without end. And we hear over and over again about the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons by the Russians. What does that mean? What are they? How widespread could their immediate damage be, and what is the battlefield aftermath? And what might be the global response and how escalatory might it be?
To help answer all of this, I’m joined by our guest, David Shlapak. David is a senior defense researcher at RAND. He’s led research and published on topics ranging from counter-terrorism to nuclear strategy. His areas of research focus on the return of great-power competition as the defining characteristic of global security. His current work includes the future of US missile defense, the re-introduction of nuclear weapons into US defense planning, and the technological aspects of long-term competition with China.
He was a founding co-director of the RAND Center for Gaming and is a former acting director of the strategy and doctrine program in Project AIR FORCE. It is my pleasure to welcome David Shlapak here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. David, thanks so much for joining us.
David Shlapak: Well, it’s my pleasure, Jeff. Nice to be here.
Jeff: It’s great to have you here. We’ve been hearing certainly, in so much of the media coverage of the war, all about “tactical” nuclear weapons. And I think a lot of people hear that, and obviously, it’s frightening. But I think a lot of people don’t know what that means, as distinguished from what they’ve known to be nuclear weapons and what might be referred to as strategic nuclear weapons. Talk about that fundamental difference first.
David: So a tactical nuclear weapon is an elastic category. And often within the defense community, they’re referred to broadly as non-strategic nuclear weapons, which is a term that may be explained less than even tactical nuclear weapons. But to characterize things fairly cleanly, strategic nuclear weapons are weapons that one nuclear power possesses with the intention of potentially using them against the homeland of another strategic nuclear power. So these are the intercontinental ballistic missiles that the United States, Russia, and China have. These are the submarine-launched ballistic missiles. These are the ones that we’re used to thinking about in terms of Mutually-Assured Destruction and the strategic balances of power.
So the term non-strategic nuclear weapons covers pretty much everything else in the nuclear domain. These are weapons that range in size from 1/150 the size of the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima to five or six times the size of that weapon. There are weapons that are intended to be used against an enemy’s forces in the field, so on frontline ground forces, logistics concentrations behind the frontline, air bases, seaports. They’re weapons that would be used in an attempt to influence an ongoing conventional war between the two sides. So they are typically smaller, shorter range than strategic nuclear weapons and have a very different purpose.
Jeff: And what about the impact on those that launched them? We think of those strategic nuclear weapons as being launched from thousands of miles away, from submarines or from silos somewhere. When you’re talking about nuclear weapons on the battlefield, talk about the impact they have on those that launched them.
David: This has been a topic of great interest since the 1950s when the first tactical nuclear weapons were introduced. At one time, the US Army had a weapon called the Davy Crockett, which was launched from a recoilless rifle — basically, like a bazooka. That was always thought to have actually double the kill likelihood that was officially estimated, since it would kill the guys who shot it as well because the range was so limited. In general, we’ve moved past that in sophistication and, generally speaking, the buttons that would be used — whether they’re artillery fire, whether they’re ballistic missiles, whether they’re gravity bombs dropped from an aircraft — would not necessarily themselves have an effect on the units that fired them. Although, the counter-fire, which could be nuclear, certainly might.
Jeff: To what extent do we know how large an arsenal the Russians have of these kinds of weapons?
David: There are a lot of estimates out there. They tend to be in the 2,000-ish range; some are lower, some are a little higher. That pales in comparison to the number that the Soviet Union had during the Cold War — indeed, that we had during the Cold War. But if it’s 2,000, it’s still a sufficiently large stockpile to give the Russians some flexibility in how they might choose to employ them.
Jeff: And how large a stockpile does the West have, either the US or the US and NATO? How large is our concentration of these kinds of weapons?
David: So that’s very hard to say; those numbers are a very closely guarded secret within the Department of Defense. But I think you might think in terms of a couple of hundred. It’s a significantly smaller number and they are concentrated in gravity bombs, the freefall bombs dropped from an airplane versus artillery shells or ballistic missiles.
Jeff: And given that the US and the West have so few of these weapons in their arsenal, does that actually represent some kind of assessment of the value of these weapons on the battlefield?
David: So I think it mostly reflects the withdrawal of almost all US non-strategic nuclear weapons from the inventory at the end of the Cold War. If you look back into the early 1990s, you see the weapon type being withdrawn from service, being retired, being dismantled. They were primarily intended on the US side to be employed in the NATO defense of Europe. And once that ceased to be the pacing challenge for the US military, I think it was decided they no longer really had a purpose, certainly not a purpose in the numbers that existed.
I think that we retain a small inventory now, mostly as a linkage between battlefield outcomes and our strategic forces to ensure that there’s some interim step in the escalation ladder between a fight that was entirely conventional and a fight that goes all the way to the employment of strategic forces.
Jeff: You’ve indicated that, obviously, these tactical weapons, particularly the ones that the Russians have, come in a variety of sizes. Talk a little bit about the damage that can be done by the smallest versus the largest of these kinds of weapons.
David: It’s an enormous range. The smallest weapon, which may have a yield measured in tons of high explosives, it will be useful for attacking an enemy ground force and potentially destroying, depending on how that ground force is postured, maybe a company’s worth of troops. So a force the size of a couple of hundred people and maybe a couple of dozen vehicles.
So it’s obviously significant, but it’s a long way from what we’re accustomed to thinking of nuclear weapons doing in terms of obliterating square miles of real estate. If you climb up the ladder to the size of weapons that might be on, say, a short-range or a medium-range ballistic missile — a weapon that might have a yield of, I don’t know, 500 times what the smallest ones do — you’re talking about a weapon that could be used effectively against air bases. It could be used with some effect against things like ports. It could be used against larger formations and ground forces — say, assembly areas in the rear or logistics concentrations. And of course, the larger the weapon gets, the less discriminate it becomes. And so a 50-kiloton weapon dropped on an airfield that is in proximity to any civilian population will likely have impact on that civilian population, in a way a weapon 1/10th that size fired against a defending company dug in on the front line somewhere might not.
Jeff: What about the radiation implications of these kinds of weapons?
David: So there are two important things to bear in mind with radiation from nuclear weapons. And the first is they’re actually two kinds. There’s what’s called prompt radiation, which is the radiation that is emitted immediately from the explosion. And for very small nuclear weapons, that is actually the most important damage effect the radiation will have on personnel beyond the distance where the blast wave itself is likely to injure them.
Once you get up above about 10 kilotons in the size, which is well within the range of what we’re talking about as tactical nuclear weapons, the effect of the blast becomes far more dominant. The way to think about it [unintelligible 00:11:21] is that you’re not going to have the chance to be killed by the radiation because the explosion’s going to kill you first. So that’s the first type. That’s the prompt radiation, which is of limited effect once you get past small nuclear weapons.
The second type, and the one that maybe more people are more familiar with. is fallout, which is created when material, dirt, rubble, pieces of trees are sucked up into that mushroom cloud, which is very radioactive, and are irradiated, and then blow downwind and over time, because they’re heavier than air, fall to the ground and bring that radiation with them. Fallout is important in cases where the weapon is detonated either very close to the ground or on the ground. So that a lot of that material gets drawn up into the fireball and made radioactive.
Most tactical nuclear weapons, and even strategic nuclear weapons, would more likely be employed in what is called an airburst mode, which is at a higher altitude and is intended to maximize the area that that blast effect covers, to knock down buildings and toss airplanes around and do things like that. But because the fireball never touches the ground, not as much material gets drawn up into it. So there’s considerably less fallout.
Jeff: What do we know, if anything, about the condition of these weapons in the Russian arsenal? There’s been talk and some stories written about the fact that they’ve been around for a long time, they’re old, they haven’t been used, they haven’t been kept up, as we’ve seen with some of the other Russian military equipment. What do we know about that? And is there any truth to that, do you think?
David: Yes, it’s hard to say. I don’t know that we have a lot of visibility into that. We do know that when we look at things like test launches of missiles, Russians are thoroughly successful, which suggests that they are at least in some aspects of their military maintaining the forces to somewhat higher standard. Nuclear weapons do require maintenance; they don’t just sit on the shelf indefinitely. There are things you have to do in order to keep them operating reliably. Are the Russians doing those things? They’re certainly capable of it. The things you have to do to maintain nuclear weapons are well within the capacity of the Russian military.
Are they doing it with all their weapons? Are they doing it with only some of their weapons? Are some of the older weapons beyond the point of being maintained (the normal procedure with those is to disassemble them and reuse the nuclear material in new weapons)? We really don’t know. I guess I would say that from my perspective, I would not make any assumptions. So on the basis of how we’ve seen the Russian Army perform in Ukraine — which has been less than a spectacular demonstration of the art of work there — I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from that about the condition of their nuclear arsenal.
Jeff: Are some of these high-energy weapons, the bunker-buster bombs we hear about, some of these other weapons that are non-nuclear, can they be as effective or as strong in some cases as these smaller nuclear weapons?
David: Well, oftentimes we’ve developed these weapons, these bunker busters, these penetrating warheads, conventional weapons, precisely as a substitute for small nuclear weapons. So instead of using a one kiloton bomb to blow up a bunker or blow up a facility, you use a handful of these precise, conventional weapons that don’t create the collateral damage that a nuclear weapon might. And this can be especially true for going after targets where you actually have to penetrate — whether it’s a hard and above-ground facility or a buried facility where to use a nuclear weapon you might have to use it in that mode, the ground burst mode where you generate a lot of fallout.
Whereas with a penetrating conventional munition, you could hope to penetrate, destroy the target or damage the target without creating those sorts of collateral effects that would be associated with even a small nuclear weapon used in that way.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the after-effects of these small nuclear weapons once they’re used. What the recovery process is like. What is the cleanup process like? How difficult is it to get in there and begin to deal with the aftermath because of the radiation?
David: So I think that a lot depends on the precise circumstances of the employment. And we also need to be aware that we’ve never actually done this or seen this done. So everything we think we know is precisely that: it’s stuff we think we know. They aren’t anything that we’ve been able to actually do in practice. I think one of the biggest effects of any nuclear attack, particularly the initial use of nuclear weapons or even use of smaller numbers of nuclear weapons, would simply be the shock effect and the resulting disorientation and dislocation of whomever was targeted, whether it was an army brigade or an airbase, as well as the larger military effort of the attacked side.
A war crossing that nuclear threshold changes state. It becomes something very different than it was five minutes ago. And the targeted sides’ plans have to adapt, and their way of approaching the entire conflict needs to adapt, once it becomes a nuclear war. So on the strategic level, there’s a lot that happens as soon as the first weapon goes off. On a physical level, again, the specifics of the use are important. There would certainly be a lot of — if it was used against a military installation like an airbase, there would be fires. There would be a lot of wreckage. There would be a lot of rubble.
There would be a large number of injured personnel, many of whom would suffer from the same wounds you’d see from a normal blast, right? Broken limbs and so forth, but also radiation casualties. Also, people who have suffered certain kinds of wounds that are more characteristic of being exposed to nuclear explosions, or injuries to your lungs, for example, that are caused by the intense negative pressure. So there’d be a substantial medical requirement that would have to be dealt with.
If it was a facility like an airbase that you were trying to recover and trying to resume operations from, firefighting, rubble, clearance, and decontamination, all of these things would be critical. They would be not necessarily straightforward. They would be time-consuming. And again, there’d be a lot of making it up as we go along because, again, we honestly haven’t ever done these things. And really since the Cold War, we haven’t even practiced doing them all that much. So it would be I think chaotic.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about what you understand might be the strategic response if these tactical weapons are used by the Russians in Ukraine.
David: Again, there’s some dependence on how they are used. If they’re used in what some people have speculated to be in “demonstration” mode, where a small weapon is detonated somewhere away from any civilian populations, along with many important civilian infrastructure — just designed to say, “Hey, remember, we have these things and we’re starting to get nervous about what’s happening here” — I think it’d be one thing. If one would detonate over downtown Kyiv, it’d be something entirely different. I do believe that the first use in anger of nuclear weapons since 1945 would be a historic event, and it would transform the nature of the war.
I think you’ve seen in Western Europe and in the United States, there have been — even as these revelations of atrocities committed by the Russian troops in Ukraine, even as those reports have come in and been corroborated — there’s been a desire to contain the conflict, and contain how the conflict is framed as being a fight about Ukrainian sovereignty and a fight about Ukrainian territorial integrity, not a fight about the future of Russia.
I think that any significant use of nuclear weapons by Russia — by which I mean a use that kills a fairly large number of people, whether soldiers or civilians, a use that has potentially a substantial effect on the progress of the war; and certainly any use that encroaches on NATO territory, whether it’s a fallout blowing across the border, or whether it’s a strike, say, on an airbase in Poland that Russia thinks is being used as a transshipment point for our weapons in Ukraine — that changes things. And I think that anything beyond the most mild demonstrative use of a nuclear weapon really does change this to a war about the future of Russia, and a war about the future of the Putin regime.
Jeff: Within the limits of what you can tell us, how have these things been gamed out by the Pentagon, by NATO, et cetera?
David: Most of the gaming that I’m aware of that’s been done with nuclear weapons over the past 20 or so years has been about escalation dynamics. A nuclear weapon is used, or one side gets into a situation where it fears the other side will use a nuclear weapon, how does the situation ratchet up or not ratchet up? So you use a nuclear weapon, I use one in reply, you use two, I use three, or there’s one side using a nuclear weapon, and then the other side says, “Whoa, we didn’t mean things to get this serious. Let’s talk.”
So most of the gaming has been done sort of trying to figure out those more political and strategic dynamics rather than the actual battlefield impacts of nuclear weapon use. And I think what we often see is that once nuclear weapons are used — again, in any kind of serious way — that escalation dynamic becomes very hard to manage. The metaphor of an “escalation ladder” is often used, where adversaries climb one by one up the ladder, deliberate steps of more weapons, larger weapons on a less discriminating target set, step by step all the way to the top.
I think a better way of looking at the escalation ladder is that you start at the top. And when nuclear weapons start being used, you fall off it. And the challenge is to somehow grab back on and save yourself before you hit the bottom, which — to go with me on that metaphor for a minute and if you’ve ever fallen off a ladder — you recognize is a very challenging thing to do.
So I think a lot of the work that’s been done, a lot of thinking that’s been done, has been trying to determine how those dynamics would play out. And, again, once you get past pure demonstrative uses, once you get both sides using nuclear weapons, you start getting into a place where the dynamics are very dangerous and very unstable.
Jeff: To what extent does the imbalance in the arsenal of these weapons, as we talked about at the outset, play a role? If the Russians have a thousand or several thousand of these weapons and begin to use them, and the US on the other hand and the West have a small number of these but a larger stockpile of strategic weapons, is the tendency to use those instead?
David: Well, I think that’s a puzzle that leaders in the West would face in those circumstances. During the Cold War we had, whether it was realistic or not, this well-defined escalatory process that went from conventional combat to the use of small tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield, and then the use of nuclear weapons a little further back, but still against targets associated immediately with the ongoing war. And then perhaps with targets a little further back in the airbases, and so forth. Gradually going from what we call tactical nuclear weapons or battlefield nuclear weapons, to theatre nuclear weapons, and then up to the strategic level.
And all of these steps were intended to be interconnected and to represent a staircase that the adversary could recognize we were climbing, we would recognize the adversary was climbing, and we would be able to seek to, in some ways, communicate with each other via this amazing degree of violence, in order to stop the escalation at some point.
Today, we’re missing a lot of those stairs. We go from a fairly small number of these non-strategic nuclear weapons on up to the strategic arsenal. This was recognized during the last administration, and there was an effort to deploy a much smaller nuclear weapon on some of our Trident submarine-launched strategic ballistic missiles to try to fill that gap so that, it was argued, we will be less vulnerable to nuclear coercion because we’ll be able to fight back tit-for-tat a little more.
There are issues with that line of thinking but, ultimately, nuclear weapons are a very dangerous tool to begin employing, whether you have this well-defined series of steps between conventional war and strategic nuclear use, or whether you have to simply fall off that ladder and in a panic-stricken mode try to arrest your fall. I think both sides still should understand— and I think, do understand — that once you start using nuclear weapons, regardless of the precise correlation of forces and who has more of which kind of weapon, you are, in fact, opening Pandora’s box. And whatever comes out of that box, you’re going to have to deal with and you don’t control what’s going to come out of that box. You maybe can’t even imagine what’s going to come out of that box. And that, I think, is what the folks in Moscow need to understand, and certainly what we on our side of the problem need to understand.
Jeff: Is there also the concern that once that genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, it will have a more chilling global impact, that even after this particular war comes to some kind of conclusion, the degree to which they have been used changes the entire global landscape.
David: So I think that one of the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons will be an impact on the global proliferation situation. Now, it could go in either direction. If one side — say, the Russians — used nuclear weapons and it didn’t derail them; they were still defeated on the battlefield and they suffered enormous consequent damages. For example, it’s hard for me to imagine a Russia that has used nuclear weapons ever — ever is a long time in international relations, but let’s use the word — ever being considered a responsible member of the international community.
It’s hard to imagine that sanctions would ever be lifted. It’s hard to imagine economic interchange with Russia would normalize for a very, very long time. So if they used a nuclear weapon, and rather than having it be a one-member war, it actually cost them significantly. I look around and go, “Well, okay. So it turns out these things may not be quite as useful as we thought they were.” However, if they use a nuclear weapon, and they succeed, and they don’t pay an enormous cost in the strategic sense for having employed them, then you certainly do see a reinforcement of the idea that I think has been the idea that has driven people like North Korea over the last 20 or 30 years, that the way to guarantee your security against an adversary who has conventional superiority, and who may themselves be nuclear-armed, is to have a nuclear arsenal of your own.
So I think that it could go either way, depending upon how the movie ends.
Jeff: And is it your sense that these are the kinds of concerns that keep planners at the Pentagon up at night?
David: So I think for a long time planners at the Pentagon haven’t thought a lot about nuclear weapons. And to be fair, it’s because you have your hands full dealing with Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Syria, and all the other conflicts that they’ve had to manage on a day-to-day basis. So I think that there hasn’t been as much thinking about nuclear weapons or planning around nuclear weapons.
I say that as Mr. Putin brandishes his weapons, as he and his cronies talk about using nuclear weapons to sink the British Isles — as one of them, rather absurd as we talked about a while ago — or one narrow conventional use on the battlefield, the more that planners are being brought to attention about these things. I think that certainly is, if not keeping them awake at night, at least focusing their minds to a much greater degree than probably at any time in their professional experience.
Jeff: And what also comes to mind is, it’s another generation, arguably, of people that are doing this, as opposed to the generation that dealt with all of this during the Cold War.
David: Sure. I’m part of that latter generation. I was doing this job in the latter stages of the Cold War. There’s nobody from — I’m certain there’s nobody left in the military — and almost certainly, very, very few people within the civilian workforce of the Pentagon — who have that experience. We have a military that largely consists of folks whose professional life has been taken up with the war on terror, the wars in the Middle East, and only now is their attention being turned to China, to Russia.
So there’s, to some extent, a lack of institutional memory about this. It’s natural. During the Cold War, every generation learned from the generation before it. But for the last 30 years, there’s been no pressing need, really, to think about these things. And so we’re actually a couple of generations into a Department of Defense that has limited experience in thinking about nuclear matters. So there’s definitely a learning curve to be to be climbed, which is why I think it’s important that certain fundamentals be clearly understood, because this is also true on the other side, as well.
The Russian military is full of folks who never had to think about this, although during the late 1990s and early 2000s, I think they did a lot more, certainly more writing and talking about nuclear weapons, than we did. So they may have a somewhat better intellectual base right now than we do.
But both sides need to have a fundamental understanding that once the nuclear threshold is crossed, regardless of whether it’s with a tiny weapon or a big weapon, a door has been opened and whatever comes through that door you have to deal with for good or ill.
Jeff: It is a little frightening to think about, that all those who are looking at this today in the Pentagon are doing it for the first time, that they didn’t have the experience of the Cold War.
David: So that’s part of where old people like myself and a handful of my colleagues at RAND and elsewhere can actually play a role, because we do have — I came into this world in my mid-20s. And when you just dive into thinking about the sorts of things as we did during the Cold War, and the scenarios we thought about and the planning and thinking and gaming and modeling and analysis that we did, it leaves a very deep impression.
I think in a lot of ways my attitude towards many things was shaped by that experience; it was rather a searing thing to be dealing with on a day-to-day basis.
But you do you have folks who have that recollection; you have that experience. Some of the work we’re doing now is trying to reintroduce that into the department, trying to help the department get a more coherent sense of how to do war games that involve nuclear weapons. We used to do that all the time. We really haven’t for a very long time. How to think about the processes of escalation and how to manage those processes should they begin. And it’s where those of us who are very close to being made irrelevant, have found sort of a new value to the community.
Jeff: David Shlapak, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
David: It was my pleasure. I appreciate you having me on.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you’ll join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.