Everything You Need to Know: Russia's 'Tactical' Nuclear Weapons
First is the name: While non-strategic nuclear weapons are sometimes referred to as “tactical” nuclear weapons, the term is a misnomer. In reality there are tactical and strategic effects that a can weapon deliver.
In recent months there has much hysteria in Washington about Russia allegedly lowering its nuclear threshold and particularly about Moscow’s arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons. However, there is little evidence that Moscow has lowered its nuclear threshold—nor are there concrete figures available for how many non-strategic nuclear weapons the Kremlin has in its inventory.
Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons:
While non-strategic nuclear weapons are sometimes referred to as “tactical” nuclear weapons, the term is a misnomer. In reality there are tactical and strategic effects that a can weapon deliver. The fact is that any nuclear weapons usage inherently has strategic implications even if it was used on the battlefield as a tactical weapon. Thus, the term non-strategic nuclear weapon (NSNW) is a much better term.
“A nuke is a nuke,” retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former Air Force intelligence chief and current dean of the Mitchell Institute told The National Interest. “No such thing as a ‘tactical’ nuke. The terms ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ refer to outcomes or effects, not material things like aircraft or weapons.”
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Arms control and non-proliferation experts also agree on that point.
“I do not like the term tactical because it implies short-range. Better to talk about non-strategic—i.e., those that are not covered by START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] or INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces],” former Soviet and Russian arms control negotiator Nikolai Sokov, now a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey told The National Interest.
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How big is Russia’s NSNW Arsenal?:
Arms control and non-proliferation experts are divided on exactly how many NSNWs Russia currently has in its inventory. The Russian government has not released any official figures, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told The National Interest.
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“There are no official numbers anywhere, so this is one of the problems.” Kristensen said. “Of course the intelligence agencies have their own estimates and they never really use them, what they do instead is sort of do is refer to public sources.”
In the public discussion, there are many estimates on the size of the Kremlin’s post-Soviet NSNW arsenal. Some estimates suggest that the Kremlin has as few as 1200 NSNWs in its inventory while others estimate that Moscow could have as many as 5000 such weapons. Even at the highest estimates, today’s Russian Federation only maintains a fraction of the massive Soviet arsenal, which Kristensen said ranged on the order of 20,000 to 21,000 NSNWs before its 1991 collapse.
Kristensen’s own estimates for the size of the Russian NSNW arsenal ranges from 1800 to 2000 weapons, which aligns with most of the best experts in the field such as Sokov and Igor Sutyagin, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
“Estimates for Russian NSNW vary a lot,” Sokov said. “My best estimate—which is a few years old—is around 2,000, divided almost evenly between the Air Force and the Navy; to the best of my knowledge, none in the Ground Forces.”
The estimates vary so much because experts have to extrapolate data from statements made by U.S. and Russian officials since the end of the Cold War, Kristensen said. Moreover, there are some disagreements among analysts on how to calculate the number of warheads because exactly how the weapons are counted makes a difference. Some weapons are operational and deployed onboard ships and submarines, while others might be in storage. “The actual forces that are operational is lower because a fair number of them are out for repair just like ours,” Kristensen said. “So the number that is actually assigned operationally to the force is even lower than the inventory.”
There are disputes as to whether any of the Russian warheads are actually deployed onboard Russian warships on a day-to-day basis. Sokov believes that the Russian military keeps its NSNWs in storage during peacetime operations. “Please keep in mind that warheads for all naval NSNW used to be stored on shore—as per PNIs (Presidential Nuclear Initiatives)—and I have not seen indications that this has changed,” Sokov said. “Same with air—stored at bases. In both cases, this includes short-range assets and strategic cruise missiles—i.e., above 600 km using START definitions. I am sure that Iskander is nuclear capable, but have not seen data on whether warheads are immediately available for deployment. There are also some for air defense still and for missile defense around Moscow.”
Sokov said that the Russians have actually cut their NSNW inventory below any of the agreements it made with the United States. “Now, Russia has implemented PNIs and went even below (under PNIs, it should have gone down to about 7,000, according to Alexey Arbatov), now it’s probably about 2,000,” Sokov said. “Still, since the fall of 2004, Russia does not recognize PNIs, it’s more of a political decision rather than posture-driven.”
Another factor to keep in mind is that some longer-range Russian nuclear weapons such as cruise missiles have dual strategic and tactical roles. Indeed, all new Russian delivery systems can be built in conventional and nuclear variants, including Kalibrs, Kh-101/102, Iskanders and other weapons, Sokov said. “Longer-range NSNWs certainly have a big role, especially for limited use missions,” Sokov said. “Very central, and Moscow will want to keep these weapons, although big numbers are not needed. For short-range, I frankly do not see a mission. To the best of my knowledge, Russia continues to slowly reduce the NSNW arsenal probably working to ‘clean’ the inventory by removing the heritage elements it no longer needs.”
Why does Russia maintain such a large NSNW inventory?:
In Kristensen’s view, Russia’s inventory of NSNW’s helps to offset its comparatively weaker conventional military forces relative to the NATO alliance as well as offsets Moscow comparatively smaller strategic nuclear arsenal relative to the United States.
“Russia uses tactical nuclear weapons to make up the difference—so to speak—in the stockpile with the U.S.,” Kristensen said. “Its strategic inventory is less—significantly less—than the U.S. And since they have more of a regional mission, they actually rely more on the tactical nukes for those shorter range regional missions.”
Russia’s conventional forces—though they are being modernized—are still weak compared to the United States and NATO. During any prolonged conflict, the Russian military would likely be defeated. “Russia’s conventional forces are incapable of defending Russian territory in a long war,” Kristensen said. “It would lose and as a result of that, they have placed more emphasis on more usage of tactical nuclear weapons as a leveler.”
In effect, the Russians are doing what NATO did during the Cold War. NATO conventional forces were outmatched by Soviet conventional forces during the Cold War, thus they had to rely on nuclear weapons. The current situation is an inversion of the Cold War military balance. “The Russians are doing the same thing,” Kristensen said.
How would Russia use its tactical nuclear weapons?:
There is much debate about exactly how and when Russia might use its nuclear weapons—particularly its non-strategic warheads. But the real answer is that Western analysts simply do not know.
“It’s not known, “ Kristensen said bluntly. “Russia has some vague statements about its mission with weapons in various regions—so to speak. Their public doctrine does not help us a whole lot because it has two giant categories in which it comes down to the survival of the state.”
Modern Russia renounced the Soviet Union’s pledge to never use nuclear weapons first in 1993 as its conventional forces atrophied rapidly in the chaos of the 1990s. In 2010, it was suggested that Russia would issue policy guidance that would lower its nuclear threshold, but that did not exactly happen.
“When the doctrine was issued, the threshold actually went up, not down,” Olya Oliker, a prominent expert on Russian military forces at the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote for The National Interest. “Russia’s doctrine then, and now, as this language was reaffirmed in 2014, allows for nuclear weapon use ‘in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.’”
In Oliker’s view, there is little evidence to suggest that the so-called de-escalation or “escalate to deescalte” doctrine exists. “Doctrine may not always define what countries actually do. But it seems relevant that a higher threshold was put in place in 2010, when debates suggested a lower one might come, and remained in place in 2014, when Russia revised its doctrine in response to a worsening relationship with the United States and its NATO allies,” Oliker wrote. “This is not to say that de-escalation is entirely out of the picture for Russia. In fact, it has its proponents. But the fact that Russian analysts and even the occasional official advocate for it publicly indicates to me that it is not, in fact, current policy.”