Video Above: Russia-Ukraine and the Prospect of Nuclear War
The Russian move to put nuclear forces on “high alert” has many raising the legitimate question as to whether Putin might actually consider using nuclear weapons, perhaps even a tactical, lower-yield nuclear weapon.
Russia's Nuclear Weapons
Should the Russian military continue to be stalled, stopped and heavily impaired by highly-motivated Ukrainian fighters, would Putin feel backed into a corner and fire a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon into Ukraine, assuming the West would not choose to imperil the fate of the world by responding with nuclear weapons?
The question is an important one, and US leaders are making a specific choice not to escalate in response to Putin’s actions with threatening language due to the seriousness of the possibility of nuclear war. At the same time, the Pentagon was clear to emphasize that it has full confidence in its nuclear triad intended to provide strategic deterrence against any adversary contemplating a nuclear attack.
What about the question of tactical nuclear weapons, as it has been something fiercely debated on Capital Hills as to whether it might lower the threshold to nuclear war.
This question was introduced in response to several key developments such as the US Air Force’s nuclear-capable Long-Range Stand Off weapon, a cruise missile capable of launching low-yield nuclear attacks from safer stand-off distances.
The intent is to strengthen deterrence by ensuring a second-strike nuclear capability in the event that other elements of the nuclear triad, such as submarines-launched missiles and ICBMs are rendered inoperable or impaired. This kind of nuclear weapon might also be needed to deter an enemy attack in the event that nuclear-capable aircraft were unable to operate over hostile territory due to advanced enemy air defenses.
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Similar questions were raised in response to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review which called for the addition of several low-yield nuclear weapons to be added to the US arsenal to include a low-yield Trident IID5 variant as well as a nuclear-capable submarine launched cruise missile.
The new variant of the Trident has already been built by Pentagon weapons developers. The Air Force F-35 is also being developed as a nuclear capable aircraft.
There are two prevailing frames of mind about this question. Some argue that any use of nuclear weapons, under any conditions and to any degree, should be met with a catastrophic response. At least that clear message should be sent, meaning there would not be a “proportional” response in the form of a tactical nuclear response to a tactical nuclear attack. The idea is to ensure that nuclear weapons of any kind are not used in any circumstance by ensuring complete destruction of the attacker.
Others, however, argue that having an arsenal of tactical nukes simply adds crucial new elements to the US nuclear deterrence posture by giving commanders more options with which to hold a potential adversary at risk.
Years ago, when the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review was being debated on Capitol Hill, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the intent of adding lower-yield nuclear weapons to the US arsenal was intended to bring Russia back to the negotiating table and further encourage Russian to collaborate with nuclear arms treaty agreements.
Certainly the existence of tactical nuclear weapons introduces a more varied and substantial threat equation for potential adversaries to consider, meaning they could greatly contribute to the US deterrence posture.
The question of how or if the US would respond to a Russian nuclear attack is certainly an open one, at least not one that appears decided or publicly available. However what is clear is the US remains ready and confident in its nuclear triad deterrence structure which includes ICBMs, air-launched nuclear weapons from a B-52, B-2 or even an F-35 and submarine launched nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.