“I think of the future, but I refuse to paint it. Anything can happen. But I often think of nuclear war.” — Donald Trump, in 1990.
“[I]f someone decides to annihilate Russia, we have the legal right to retaliate. Yes, it will be a catastrophe for humanity and for the world…but we will ascend to heaven as martyrs, while they will just croak before they know what hit them.” — Vladimir Putin, in 2018.
I watched a movie over the weekend on Amazon Prime (both random movies I watched involved Ukraine, without being about Ukraine. What kind of sadist picks these movies?) called “By Dawn’s Early Light.” The 1990 HBO film with an all-star cast (Powers Boothe, Rebecca DeMornay, James Earl Jones, Martin Landau, Rip Torn) began with a missile launch from who-knows-where fired by who-knows (not NATO) that passed over Turkey and detonated over Donetsk, Ukraine. The Soviets automatically launched a response strike against the U.S., and the rest of the movie was a jumble of trying to de-escalate an in-progress strategic nuclear war.
I know it’s just a made-for-TV drama, but the scenario was too close for comfort. This could actually happen, in 2022.
Russia and the U.S. have vastly different views on nuclear war. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate backstop against losing an existential war. In the 1950s through the end of the Soviet Union, NATO faced a numerically superior foe in Warsaw Pact armies, forward deployed against the West. If the “balloon went up,” and the communists swarmed across the Iron Curtain, there was a definite possibility NATO forces could be swallowed up and cut off before heavy reinforcements could arrive. Unlike Russia, Western Europe doesn’t have the advantage of a defense-in-depth.
To counter this, America developed a series of battlefield nuclear weapons, like the M28/M29 Davy Crocket Nuclear Weapon System. That’s quite the aptonym for a system designed to be a last-ditch defense against an overwhelming enemy. The system fired a 51-pound nuclear-armed (W54) projectile between 2 (M28) and 4 (M29) kilometers, with a yield of about 10 to 20 tons of TNT. A 20-foot airburst could wipe out a Warsaw Pact formation and give infantry time to retreat. These kinds of systems were all retired by the mid-1970s.
In those Cold War days, the Russians focused on ever-larger ICBMs and enormous warheads, believing that any war that crossed the nuclear line would eventually end with a strategic exchange.
In 1980, a research study by an Air Force major to the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College was titled “Tactical Nuclear Operations The Doctrinal Dilemma.” The study noted that concerns surrounding security, stockpiles and command and control for release of tactical nukes “grew to a psychological aversion to using tactical nuclear weapons.” It continued, “U.S. nuclear superiority eroded to a less than parity situation, further reinforcing the aversion to nuclear use.”
The author recommended that the U.S. should “undertake a major program to develop a firm, explicit and well-defined theater nuclear doctrine which includes the use of tactical nuclear weapons…” We have not done that. The Russians have.
Later in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, the goal of which was to blunt the Soviet ICBM and MIRV capabilities by destroying them in space. That never really got off the ground, and the U.S. had signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty which prevented us from developing ground-based interceptors. After 9/11, President George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. from that treaty, and we’ve been struggling to intercept even one missile at a time since.
If the world goes strategic nuclear, and the Russians attack the U.S. homeland, we will not be able to stop their missiles from hitting and detonating. Their accuracy might be more questionable than American missiles, but I wouldn’t count on that. Times have changed, and now the roles are reversed. America has long focused on preventing strategic nuclear war, while shoring up against the possibility of a non-state actor (terrorists perhaps) acquiring a weapon. Though we’ve maintained a strong inventory, we have not looked at the possibility of strategic nuclear war through the same lens as we did when the Soviet Union existed.
Fortunately, rational people know that strategic nuclear war means Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The U.S. nuclear defense system is designed to absorb a first strike and launch a devastating response. In 2002, the Bush administration completed a classified “force posture” review (NPR) of our nuclear capabilities and doctrine. Many changes were made, including incorporating scenarios of first-use of nuclear weapons in the case of biological or chemical attack, even against non-nuclear states. From the Congressional Research Service report:
Documents and press reports published in the years since the release of the NPR have reinforced the perception that the United States is planning for the possible, or even likely, first use of nuclear weapons in conflicts with nations that do not possess their own nuclear weapons. In 2004 and 2005, the Joint Staff prepared a new draft of its Joint Doctrine for Nuclear Operations, a document that had last been updated in 1995. The last available draft of this document, dated March 15, 2005, includes a list of several circumstances under which the United States might consider the first use of nuclear weapons. These would not only allow for the use of nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons by other nations, but also in anticipation of that use, both to destroy installations that may house those weapons and to “demonstrate the U.S. intent and capability to use nuclear weapons to deter adversary use of WMD (weapons of mass destruction.)”39
U.S. policy is to “lean forward” with nuclear weapons, and we have never guaranteed America would not be the first to use them. At the end of the Cold War, the hollowed out Russian armed forces could not stand up to NATO or the U.S. Russia, under Putin, used this time to bolster its nuclear doctrine to the one recommended by an Air Force major in 1980. They are ready, willing, and able to use tactical nuclear weapons as part of their overall theater operations.
The security blog 1945 put it this way: “America Isn’t Ready for Russia’s Battlefield Nuclear Weapons.” Here’s a scenario, assuming the warhead was used in a rural area:
Using the formulae found in Samuel Glasstone and Philip Dolan’s The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, some interesting results present themselves. First, if the Russians were to detonate their 10-kiloton nuclear weapon at a height of burst 587.6 feet above ground level, the ensuing fireball would not reach the ground. Thus, this “fallout free” detonation would not create the nuclear fallout zone that many Americans think results from a nuclear detonation. It would essentially result in a “clean” detonation.
Putin’s army could fire a 10-kt nuclear warhead in an airburst and create an essentially “clean” blast where the kill radius would be about 1,000 yards.
According to our analysis, even if the 10-kiloton detonation were a ground burst, NATO troops would only be required to maneuver one thousand yards to safely move around an irradiated ground zero one day after detonation. Doing so would see an unprotected soldier receive .41 rems of radiation. Considering that a CT scan generates about 1 rem of radiation exposure, the low radiological threat of such a weapon makes its use more feasible.
The Russians call their doctrine “escalate to deescalate” which assumes any use of nuclear weapons would shock the West into capitulation or termination of hostilities. It is likely this kind of scenario that Putin was threatening on February 28th when he elevated his country’s special nuclear alert status. Our conundrum today is twofold: 1) How do we know where Putin’s “red line” is for interference? 2) If Putin uses tactical nuclear weapons, how do we respond?
Putin believes he can win this scenario because the U.S. (and other nuclear armed European powers) don’t possess an equivalent capability to respond to a 10-kt nuclear provocation. The options available to us are to respond with conventional force, risking more tactical battlefield nuclear strikes against other targets; respond with nuclear weapons, risking an escalation to a strategic nuclear war; or to withdraw and de-escalate.
The only weapon I could find in U.S. inventory that’s comparable to the Russian stockpile (which numbers between 3,000 to 6,000 warheads) is the W76-2, a warhead ordered by the Trump administration after the 2019 Nuclear Posture Review. It’s interesting that in 2019, Democrats argued that the low-yield sub-launched tactical nuclear warhead, deployed on a submarine which also can launch high-yield weapons “creates a situation where an adversary doesn’t know which system is being used and therefore reacts as if the larger warhead has been launched.”
At least one U.S. Trident submarine, the USS Tennessee, has had this weapon aboard since 2020, according to the Federation of American Scientists. The W76-2 is estimated to have a yield of about 5-kt, smaller than the Russian weapon in the scenario above. FAS estimates that the U.S. has produced about 50 of these. Again, an interesting point:
The W76-2 warhead was first announced in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) unveiled in February 2018. There, it was described as a capability to “help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities,” a reference to Russia. The justification voiced by the administration was that the United States did not have a “prompt” and useable nuclear capability that could counter – and thus deter – Russian use of its own tactical nuclear capabilities.
Say what you want about Trump being a Putin sock puppet. Under his watch, the U.S. produced a weapon—I believe the only one we have—that could provide a tit-for-tat response to a Russian use of battlefield nukes. On the other hand, launching from a Trident submarine is a risky venture. It could prompt an automatic Russian strategic response.
Plus, Russia has thousands of tactical nukes, while the U.S. has a handful, which must be launched from submarines, and each launch exposes the submarine to the real danger of being located, attacked and sunk.
This could explain the U.S. extreme reluctance to get anywhere near a “red line” for Putin to use battlefield nukes. It could also explain Putin’s continuing confidence in attacking closer and closer to Poland, a NATO member. The next escalation would be to cut off the flow of arms into Ukraine, and declare providing arms to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces to be an act of war against Russia. Putin has already said the economic sanctions are tantamount to a declaration of war. In his mind, he needs no other justification.
Because Putin has us backed into a corner, our choices are either to be very proactive against his tactical nuclear capabilities, which could go disastrously wrong, or to avoid the situation entirely by complying with his ever-increasing demands. Putin exists in a dictator yes-man bubble, so it’s unlikely he will choose to back down, and it may even lead to what a RAND analyst calls “poor-quality decisions without rising to the level of outright delusions.”
Putin believes he can go nuclear, avoid a strategic exchange which Russia would surely lose (and the U.S. along with it), and win the day. In 1990, Trump said in an interview with Playboy:
I’ve always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it’s a very important element in my thought process. It’s the ultimate, the ultimate catastrophe, the biggest problem this world has, and nobody’s focusing on the nuts and bolts of it. It’s a little like sickness. People don’t believe they’re going to get sick until they do. Nobody wants to talk about it. I believe the greatest of all stupidities is people’s believing it will never happen, because everybody knows how destructive it will be, so nobody uses weapons. What bullshit.
Trump said he believed this would happen. In his term, something was actually done to rectify the imbalance, a “less than parity situation” in tactical nuclear weapons. Unfortunately for us, and for Ukraine, it is probably too little, too late.
Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.
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