Donnerstag, August 21, 2008

Nukes, Tac Nukes and Doctrine...

We may be on the cusp of a rather disturbing development...

First of all, remember what I wrote here: that the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact implemented, as their operative war orders, a pre-emptive tactical nuclear strike on NATO. As far as they were concerned, any nuke used tactically was per definition a tactical nuke, and hence part of a war-fighting strategy to fight the war with all possible means and to end the war as quickly as possible before NATO's superior war-making abilities could come on-line.

This in the WSJ points to the distinct possibility that this doctrine is now part and parcel of Russian operative war orders.

First of all: START reduced the number of strategic warhweads, and the Moscow Talks reduced them even further to a fairly small force. Still deadly, still capable of destroying the world's economy and in any given country a guarantee that nuclear war isn't really a strategic choice.

But what about the tactical nuclear weapons?

First of all, what is a tactical nuclear weapon? Put simply, it is a nuclear weapon on a weapons delivery system that lacks the range to be a strategic weapon, i.e. the delivery system is "local" and not world-wide. That's a tad moot to the people so targeted, but that was the logic of the Cold War.

After the end of the Cold War, the US reduced the number of its tactical nuclear weapons from "many thousands" to "around 500". Russia has also reduced the number, but asymmetrically: from "many many thousands" to "ca 5000".

Now, what does this mean and why is it important? Is it important at all, or is this simply the same kind of Cold-War mentality, a "Tac-Nuke gap"?

I'm not entirely sure.

First of all, there is the classic problem of intelligence analysis: capabilities and intentions. The former we know fairly well, the latter is much more difficult. This is where Russia's recent attack in Georgia raises questions: what are their intentions?

What rang a bell for me was the report that Russia has moved tactical ballistic missiles into South Ossetia.

What is the use of tactical ballistic missiles in such a conflict?

Tactical ballistic missiles are used for two reasons: relatively heavy payload that is enhanced by the speed of the warhead when impacting and the inherent speed of the attack. The Soviets have, in the past, planned on using massed firings of relatively short-range ballistic missiles to attack fixed positions of great value (which are also hence protected fairly heavily against air attack). Once fired, such rockets have relatively short flight times (less than 10 minutes, usually), and their speed is such that normal interception methods fail (this is where the Russians are worried about US mobile laser defense abilities), ensuring that such high-value targets can be taken out reliably within a set time frame: this is what makes ballistic missiles so interesting for the Russians. The US continues to use airpower to do the same thing on the battlefield (it's more cost-effective, given US air superiority and the fact that the ballistic missiles, once fired, are then gone forever, i.e. you can't re-use them; you can also acquire around 10 such missiles for the price of one aircraft, and operative costs are significantly smaller, since you don't have to rely on the quality of your trained pilots).

Having roughly 500 tactical nuclear weapons means that any planning for their use will not be the major part of your war-fighting doctrine: they are too conspicuous to move around a lot, meaning centralized storage.

Having 5000 means that you can decentralize their storage and having dedicated delivery systems for them means any air assets are freed up from having to be held in reserve for the possibility of nuclear use (and the number of air crews such trained are a real limitation...).

Hence my worry: that the large number of Russian tactical warheads, coupled with their increasing use of ballistic missiles, as well as the previous operational war plans, means that if push came to shove, that the Russians, as their Soviet predecessors had planned to do, would initiate the use of nuclear weapons to achieve tactical superiority, convinced that the strategic parity would prevent an escalation of such as war to the strategic use of nuclear weapons.

This is disturbing, to put it mildly: first that the Russians, like the Soviets before them, would view nuclear weapons as just one additional kind of artillery weapon, and second that the West is woefully unprepared for such usage, which even in a limited scenario would bring wide-spread devastation and place forces in a serious situation.

Fundamentally, this is exactly the scenario that the Soviets tried to achieve by setting up the SS-20s in Europe, to underrun US strategic doctrine and achieve real tactical superiority on the battlefield.

And that is a disturbing development.


DV8 2XL hat gesagt…

Thank you for saying what I have been trying to point out for over a year. Tactical nukes are much more of a worry than strategic ones have ever been.

John F. Opie hat gesagt…

Hi -

Thanks for the comment.

What is even more disturbing is that tactical nukes appears to have been standard Soviet doctrine: what does that say about the Russians today?

Nothing good.

Scott hat gesagt…

When your delivery system is highly maneuverable, the distinction between strategic and tactical munitions diminishes greatly. And, I have no doubt that the first use of nuclear weapons by rogue forces, tactical or otherwise, would be met by the US with swift, violent, and overwhelming retaliation. But, then again, I'm an optimist. :)

Let's hope no national leader is foolish enough to set such events in motion.

John F. Opie hat gesagt…

Hi Scott -

Sorry to have gotten back to this so late.

I think that you're missing the point: the delivery system is the difference between strategic and nuclear. If you use a strategic delivery system - which are clearly defined under SALT, START and other treaties - then the weapon's use is strategic. If you use other systems, it is tactical.

Of course, that only applies to the US and Russia: everyone else weren't participants.

Hence a primitive nuke smuggled into Israel would be a strategic weapon. You could put a strategic warhead on a tactical system - such as a FROG or a US carrier plane - and that makes it, per definition, a tactical system.

This is now what is dangerous: apparently the Russians believe in tactical nuclear warfare when appropriate...