The Buzz

Can America Prevent Russia from Using Low-Yield Nukes?

Senior Russian officials have talked about Russian low-yield nuclear weapons. In 2007, Russian Deputy Chief of the General Staff General Alexander Rukshin, said Russia had “…created low-yield nuclear tactical nuclear ordnance with a yield of no more than 5 kilotons, which can be employed on the battlefield.”[22] In 2009, Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev, then-First Deputy Chief of the Russian Naval Staff, said that tactical nuclear weapons may be the future and, “We can install low-yield warheads on existing cruise missiles.”[23] These statements are particularly interesting because they were made in contravention of the Russian propaganda line that the U.S. was developing such weapons, which was untrue at that time. It is normal for Russia to charge that the U.S. is doing what Russia is actually doing. Further confirmation of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons comes in a March 2009 ITAR-TASS story which said, “The missiles [on the new Russian nuclear submarine Severodvinsk] are capable of carrying low-yield tactical nuclear warheads and are meant to be used against the potential enemy’s aircraft carrying groups.”[24]

In December 2015, President Putin revealed that the Kalibr and Kh-101 cruise missiles used in attacks against Syrian targets, “…can be equipped either with conventional or special nuclear warheads.”[25] Interfax-AVN reported that the Kalibr has a “nuclear kiloton warhead.”[26]

Advanced low-yield  nuclear and thermonuclear weapons were reportedly developed by the Soviet Union in its later years.[27] Russian expatriate Nikolai Sokov writes, “…as early as 1992, Lieutenant General Evgeniy Negin announced that Russia already had developed a miniaturized nuclear weapon.”[28] In 1994, Russian Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhaylov stated that “a new generation” of nuclear weapons could be developed by the year 2000.[29] In 1996, he called for the construction of 10,000 very low-yield nuclear weapons.[30] In August 2003, when he was Director of the Sarov nuclear weapons laboratory, Mikhaylov said Russian efforts to improve thermonuclear weapons continued and that there were weapons “yielding hundreds of tons.”[31] This is more than a low-yield weapon. It would also be a low-collateral damage design (effectively a neutron bomb) which would be cleaner (producing less collateral damage) and more militarily effective than low-yield fission weapons against some targets. That same year he observed, “The philosophy of thermonuclear weapons has changed today, and on the agenda is the development of high-precision and deep-penetration nuclear bombs,” further adding that Russia was ahead of the United States in these weapons.[32] In December 2002, he declared, “The scientists are developing a nuclear ‘scalpel’ capable of ‘surgically removing’ and destroying very localized targets. The low-yield warhead will be surrounded with a superhardened casing which makes it possible to penetrate 30–40 meters into rock and destroy a buried target—for example, a troop command and control point or a nuclear munitions storage facility.”[33] These are very impressive characteristics. Since this was said 16 years ago and Mikhaylov also said that it would take 10-20 years to develop this weapon, these weapons could already be available. In March 2004 Mikhaylov again stated that, “Thermonuclear weapons development philosophy has changed and work is being conducted on the development of precision-guided munitions with penetrating capability.”[34]