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When the conversations about a possible tactical nuke strike by Russia on Ukraine go, I usually see the headline threats by Putin or some other top officials. The rest is basically "this would lead to a nuclear war", "this will not lead to a nuclear war since Ukraine is not in NATO". There was also this apparently close point of tactical nukes being used when Ukrainians started to successfully push russians back. But all of these conversations seem super lazy to me.

First of all, what would a tactical nuclear strike look like? You can't just launch a single rocket to some military target. What if it gets intercepted by the air defense. Russia's hypersonic wunderwaffe was downed by Ukrainians using a Patriot system with software upgraded but it is still a 1980s weapon. I doubt the design will be improved since most of the scientists are getting jailed for treason. So they would have to strike with multiple ones. But would it be a concentrated or spread out strike? If concentrated, then this is basically a strike by a strategic nuclear weapon. So would this still be a tactical strike? Do you target multiple locations at once?

Secondly, does Ukraine even have good targets to be hit with a tactical nuke? I understand defending against the US or China. There would definitely be concentrated areas of forces that would have the expected impact, say an aircraft carrier or a tank division. Isn't UA too spread out and concentrated forces are few and defended by the air defense systems?

Third, what are the consequences if most of those rockets get intercepted? Or the opposite, none get intercepted? If most get intercepted, then that is a GG for Russia, their biggest threat is yet another joke around the globe. If most/some get intercepted, the allies would probably be motivated to send even more air defense to Ukraine. The provided systems clearly work, the world would be even more motivated to help Ukraine at this point -- nukes are already flying so might as well. I doubt the Ukrainians would be broken by this same way the Japanese were during the two nuclear strikes by the US, since the devastation is not on the same level. If none get intercepted, then probably we can go back to the opaque debates about whether this is or isn't a start of a nuclear war. But how likely is that Russia actually has a weapon that works as advertised?

Fourth, it seems that striking Russian targets in Russian territory with NATO weapons (even though it seems this has already done in the past, just not officially) seemed like a legit real red line. Once it happened, the "red line" got pushed again. Ukrainians even hit (destroyed?) two early warning systems, which a lot argue is a big deal from a nuclear doctrine point of view, yet nothing happened. Oil refineries in Russia are being hit weekly. The Russian Black Sea fleet is being bullied. The Crimea bridge is being defended by barges at this point. And none of this is still crossing the red line?

To summarize, are those tactical nukes even actually usable at this point in war, when Ukrainians increasing their air defense capabilities, Patriot systems can clearly hit Russian hypersonic missiles, not to mention the rest? Isn't the lack of their use as the so called "red line" continues to be pushed further and further a sign that this might be the case?

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    "You can't just launch a single rocket to some military target. What if it gets intercepted by the air defense" - if I remember the definition of tactical (as opposed to strategical) nukes correctly, they are supposed to be battlefield weapons that are fired ad hoc by some commander in the field at relatively short distance, not from a fortified position at a preselected target. That would rather limit the chances to intercept them. Commented Jun 19 at 10:19
  • @EikePierstorff thanks, this is a great point, that was also made by User65535. Commented Jun 19 at 10:42
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    Instead of letting the users speculate which only results in lots of opinions, it would be better if military experts could be cited in the answer. I feel this is rather a military strategy question than a political question. It doesn't seem to be concerned with the political impact of such a possible action. Commented Jun 19 at 12:02
  • "Tactical" covers a multitude of sins. The smallest tactical nuclear weapons are barely more potent than a "bunker buster" conventional bomb (although much smaller). The largest nuclear weapons that are called "tactical" can wipe out a neighborhood in a city or a small town. The method of delivery and the chosen targets could also matter.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 19 at 18:08
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    I’m voting to close this question because this question appears to be designed to produce low quality answers from users because it would be difficult to get real sources (e.g. from weapons manufacturers, military officials, etc.,) because such discussions are generally not permitted for classification reasons.
    – uberhaxed
    Commented Jun 19 at 19:52

5 Answers 5

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How would a tactical nuke strike actually look like?

A true tactical use of nuclear weapons, according to Russian doctrine, would see a point on the Ukrainian front line hit with a low yield nuclear device. This would be followed up by a strong, highly trained, mobile force equipped to operate on a nuclear battlefield that would create a hole in the defences that could be further exploited.

Such an attack is unlikely in Ukraine, for many reasons. These include the logistical challenges of mounting such an operation, and manpower shortages Russia is experiencing and the lack of any sufficiently concentrated defensive fortifications to justify the use of nuclear weapons. Missile defence would be largely irrelevant, the device could be delivered by artillery.

What seems more likely, if not likely, is the use of a low yield device in a way that is calculated to have a greater effect on the Ukrainian will to fight and/or wider international support than directly on the battlefield. I would argue that such a use would not be tactical from a semantic point of view.

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    If manpower shortages did not prevent takeover of Avdeevka it won't preclude overtaking nuked Ugledar. Otherwise, spot on.
    – alamar
    Commented Jun 19 at 11:33
  • This is a good point I think. People tend to conflate "tactical nuclear" with "low yield nuclear" but it's not exactly true.
    – Eric Nolan
    Commented Jun 19 at 12:36
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    Do you have any sources for the claims in this answer?
    – Allure
    Commented Jun 19 at 14:31
  • @Allure I have to admit I do not. I have seen it described so on youtube, but after a look I cannot validate them online.
    – User65535
    Commented Jun 19 at 15:57
  • @Allure The declassified plans for the breakthroughs through the NATO defenses for the Czechoslovak Army in the 1960s after Soviet nuclear strikes basically follow the described pattern, just on a larger scale (not just a small gap by special forces but a large offensive). These plans were "in case NATO attacks, most likely the East Germany". Commented Jun 19 at 19:05
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Disclaimer: There apparently is some terminology of "tactical nukes" and "strategic nukes" that can at times refer to their usage in warfare as well as to broad classes of nukes, that are roughly grouped by yield. Where "tactical" nukes are usually smaller devices, like artillery shells, rockets, torpedoes, mines, backpack sized objects, etc. while "strategic" nukes are your large yield h-bombs meant to level entire areas.

That all being said, this distinction is totally arbitrary and there are apparently high yield "tactical" nukes and while there is the idea that low yield nukes could be used in a localized nuclear conflict without triggering the end of the world, that is by no means something that any side ever agreed upon, on the contrary usually the doctrines are that any use of nuclear weapons can trigger a response with the big strategic nukes. So as of right now tactical nukes have never actually been used in combat and what response their usage would trigger is not really foreseeable.

TL;DR: So as of right now there is no difference between a tactical, a strategic or any other type of nuclear bomb.

Though practically a "tactical" nuke would probably be a lot less complicated to be fielded than a strategic one, could literally be another artillery shell.

Though while the military purpose is probably negligible, the threat potential wouldn't rise (everyone knows Russia has nukes, they could only lose by them failing) and the potentially consequences of such an escalation are not foreseeable and could exceed any positive effect of that by a long shot.

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First of all, how would a tactical nuclear strike would look like?

I only see two possible options:

  1. demonstration: draw some actual 'red line' and launch a couple of nukes once it is crossed, sort of a warning.
  2. necessity: launch a couple dozen warheads accompanied by a couple hundred decoys

What if it gets intercepted by the air defense

Some [highly likely] will, some [highly likely] won't. The problem with nuclear weapons is that unless you shoot down all of it whatever was targeted is gone (assuming tactical 'size' of the target) and you've just depleted a portion of your AA capabilities for nothing. But no defense system has 100% efficiency. Also, like User65535's answer points out, some devices are basically artillery shells, although I'm not sure if Russia has any significant number of them in ready-to-use state.

I doubt the design will be improved since most of the scientists are getting jailed for treason

The article talks about three scientists, which I doubt constitute for majority of all scientists working on hypersonic technologies. It also cites their defence: "detained scientists were not working directly on weapons, but were studying physical processes associated with high speeds". And while theory is required to produce and modernize weapons, it is unclear whether specifically theirs research is.

Second, does Ukraine even have good targets to be hit with a tactical nuke?

Practically any industrial facility, any airfield, any power plant (except for nuclear), even big classification yard are all 'good' primary targets.

  1. Industry. Having production facilities destroyed means you now need to buy/ask for stuff from countries that support you and/or resort to using more outdated vehicles/gear that you still have stored. Having repair and maintenance facilities destroyed means less vehicles can be recovered, repaired and sent back on the battlefield.
  2. Airfields. Air support is good, no air support is bad, I believe that one doesn't require further explanations. It is especially important now that Ukraine receiving F-16s is more or less a matter of "when" rather than "will it happen?"
  3. Power plants. Everything needs energy. Less energy for army means army is going to perform worse, less energy for people means more people might decide to flee the country (primary factor) or consider surrendering an option (secondary factor, if electricity shortages become borderline insufferable).
  4. Logistics. Self explanatory.
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  • Side remark: Logistics (roads, rail) was primary target at the beginning of the war, in order to prevent or harden the western support. They are not really attacked any more. Reason is simple: a bombed train rail can be restored in some mandays of work, while the rocket bombing it needs tens of manyears.
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented Jun 19 at 13:17
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  • Political Fallout
    Some media reports that China is very much against the idea of using nuclear weapons. Other media reports that the US has threatened to enter the war with a conventional strike if Russia goes nuclear. The reports may or may not have been accurate at the time, the policy decision may or may not be the same today, and a country may or may not follow through with what they planned to do when push comes to shove.

  • Nuclear Fallout
    Nuclear weapons have been used twice in combat, against two cities in Japan. Today, both of these cities are densely habitated again. But statistical analysis has shown increased death rates in these populations. Even more weapons were used in tests, and a film crew working in an exposed area had exceptional cancer rates. Winds may carry the fallout from a strike on unoccupied Ukraine to occupied Ukraine and Russia. At a different time, they may carry the fallout to NATO countries, who may or may not react militarily to that.

  • Frontline Targets
    A deployed tank or artillery battalion is not, actually, a good target for nuclear weapons. Same for well-equipped infantry in good field fortifications. Too dispersed, too hardened. They might be used against a brigade or division headquarters and support. Those would also be dispersed, especially within range of long-range artillery, but less hardened than combat troops. And if a fuel or ammunition dump is too dispersed, it becomes less efficient.
    It helps if the attacker has good NBC gear and training and the defender does not. Russian equipment and training is questionable, and issuing new gear in a sector of the front would be noticed. There was a flurry of interest some time back when Russian generals tried to enforce military grooming regulations -- a beard may hinder the fitting of a mask. Or it was simply an attempt to improve discipline in little things so that discipline would become a habit.

  • Rear Area Targets
    Bridges, railway stations, warehouses, etc. might be a profitable target. Yet such a strike would cause widespread civilian casualties, increasing the political effect above.
    Airbases may also be a good targets once Ukraine starts to get F-16. Medical services in Ukraine would be totally overwhelmed by tens of thousands of contaminated casualties, and medical services in the EU would also be overwhelmed. (Intensive care beds in Germany during COVID -- not just a question of beds but also of staff ...)

  • "Terror" Targets
    Nuclear strategists talk of countervalue targets, and they used to be part of strategies when hitting precise, military targets was not feasible. By definition, those would not be tactical, yet Russian media would surely characterize such a strike as a discriminate counterforce strike. To be fair, Western media would characterize even a counterforce strike as terrorism.

  • Saturation Attacks
    A nation with few nuclear weapons might launch dozens of missiles, only a few of them nuclear, and hope that the enemy air defenses are saturated. This tactic is used by both sides with conventional missiles and drones. These is some probability that a few nuclear warheads will all be intercepted, but the success chance is higher than a smaller, pure nuclear strike. Of course Russia has enough weapons to launch a large all-nuclear salvo. The first warhead to get through might fratricide the others, so this would be wasteful in nuclear warheads.

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  • Other media reports that the US has threatened to enter the war with a conventional strike if Russia goes nuclear. Do you have a source for this?
    – Allure
    Commented Jun 21 at 6:28
  • @Allure, here: nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/… (qs I mentioned, plenty of might or could)
    – o.m.
    Commented Jun 21 at 14:29
  • Thanks. I would definitely suggest not writing "the US has threatened to enter the war with a conventional strike", since as that article writes, The Biden administration has intentionally avoided spelling out how it would respond if Russia launched a nuclear attack in Ukraine.
    – Allure
    Commented Jun 21 at 14:40
  • @Allure, leaking something like that is either the sign of a dysfunctional government or an attempt at public messaging. So I think my paragraph with all those "mays" remains appropriate.
    – o.m.
    Commented Jun 21 at 16:26
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Tactical nuke attack would not unavidably lead to nuclear war. It is not a nuclear attack against any nuclear powers. It is a minor nuclear attack on a battlefield. Case is similar to the disuputed chemical attacks in Syria: it was widely convicted by the international community (of course everyone accused the other side), but it was undoubtly not a reason to trigger a nuclear answer from any side.

Attacks have an important factor on how concentrated is the enemy on how much territory. For example, currently the best of the Ukrainian army is collected on the Kharkow front, in small villages, and they are accumulating for a counteroffensive. They are obviously enough well dispersed to not be attacked effectively by conventional rocketry. But probably not that is the case for a tactical nuclear attack.

Beside that, as Putin has clearly explained, the long-range western rockets are remotely controlled by NATO soldiers, from NATO countries, and not by Ukrainians from the front. He has also expressed his doubts about the mental health of the governments controlling these countries.

The known Russian nuclear doctrine is that nuclear attack is now possible against them - not only against the Ukrainians, but also against the countries where they reside. From the point that there is no way to stop them by convetional means and the Russian state existence is in danger (what is the case since 2014 in the Russian version).

While the downing of a single Russian rocket looks quite possible, note that they can not do too much against a large scale massive offense. This is why their thermal power is now downed. Concrete numbers are not really known: no one on the world has both the numbers and the will to say the truth. They are also quickly changing as the tactics and technology co-evolve in the war.

What is known, that is the results: no large-scale breakthrough on the front happened until now, making the Russian air superiority at most partial. But the Ukrainian energy production and bridges are mostly destroyed. The same fate waits probably also the Ukrainian airports with the arrival of the F16-s. Very likely, the rockets are already stored for that on the Russian side.

Tactical nuclear warheads are mostly not on rockets designed for them. Most of the ordinary rockets, including Kinjals, can be used both with nuclear and conventional warhead. There is no way to see on the radar, what is coming with a rocket.

Before an attack, some warnings are very likely from both sides. Now the NATO has started an "exercise" and also an expansion of its nuclear stockpile. Also Russians did it already. Experimental explosions did not happen yet, but also they would be likely. That is the strongest argument that probably no such attack will happen - neither side has exploded nuclear anything since the cold war. Anyone working on any of these devices, has at most now retired ex-coworkers who have seen them working.

Adding these together, I believe, the likely events leading to a tactical nuclear attack are these:

  1. Both parts (Russia and West) make nuclear-related exercises, "showing their biceps", but without an actual explosion. It did happen.
  2. One of them terminates international agreements about the ban of the experimental nuclear explosions, or suddenly becomes very important for him, that the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is actually not valid (because the USA has rejected it). It did not happen. The other side will probably follow it.
  3. Experimental nuclear explosion with tactical warheads. The other side will likely follow it. It did not happen.
  4. Sudden, large scale missile and artillery offensive on front locations, as part of a counteroffensive or against an accumulating force for a counteroffensive.
  5. As part of the attacks, before the enemy could resupply the defensive rockets, probably another large scale offensive will happen. That will have some nuclear rockets, as part of many conventional ones.

If a nuclear warhead is hit by a conventional counter-rocket, it won't explode. It will become, not very big, plutonium contamination of the soil. Probably they will be done enough well that most warheads will hit their target. The target will be most likely large human concentrations of the enemy.

The current most likely outcome of the war is that Ukraine keeps on western support, until the coming next USA elections. Then they will make a truce, then a peace agreement, sometimes in 2025 or 2026. The agreement will be a conditional surrender, giving up everything in exchange for the existence of the Ukrainian statehood. It will be sold as an "undecided" in the Western media. The future historians will see it as an Ukrainian loss.

No nuclear or bio/chemical attack will happen. Reason is that the Russians are about to win even with conventional means. They are also keeping in eye the BRICS. Most of these countries are quite happy as they see the West to suck, but it would not be surely so if they would find themselves as a potential target of a possible nuclear retaliation.

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  • While Russia has signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the USA did not. Until all mandatory parties ratify it, the treaty is not valid, and the parties are not bound by it. They may conduct tests banned by this treaty if they really want, mainly underground tests. Commented Jun 19 at 19:11
  • @VladimirFГероямслава Wow, thanks! Geroyam slava.
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented Jun 19 at 19:17
  • That Putin pretends to his own population that he is at war with NATO to appear strong against and overwhelming enemy, rather than weak by barely making progress against Ukraine. But that is domestic politics. He most likely knows full well that NATO does not see itself as a conflict party and is having two feet on the break, for the longest time limiting the strength of weapons for Ukraine, their range and potential targets only reversing that as Russia deliberately exploits that. Actually making moves that would get NATO involved are still very risky and he's likely very aware of that.
    – haxor789
    Commented Jun 20 at 9:37
  • @haxor789 The long-range rockets are remotely controlled, by NATO soldiers, from NATO countries. France has sent hundreds, maybe thousands of "volunteers" from the foreign legion, some of them is now POW. NATO is long involved. Question is only, how much.
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented Jun 20 at 10:43
  • @haxor789 The actual numbers of the foreigners serving the Ukrainian Army is maybe 12000 or so, around half of them is dead. They are (were) mostly mercenaries. Looks the Russians take also them as POW, although they do not need to.
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented Jun 20 at 10:58

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