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What are "tactical" nuclear weapons and how might they be used?


Nuclear war is not a topic that many people may have thought a lot about recently, but it's on the mind of President Biden. During a fundraiser on Thursday, he said that Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin, is, quote, "not joking" about using tactical nuclear weapons. Biden also warned that the use of such weapons in Ukraine might spark Armageddon. Well, with that, joining me to discuss these comments is NPR science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Welcome, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Thanks, Ayesha. Nice to be here.

RASCOE: So what is a tactical nuclear weapon?

BRUMFIEL: The name tactical is actually kind of a misnomer. These are not small weapons by any means. So, for example, the largest conventional bomb the U.S. Air Force ever dropped on a target delivered the equivalent of about 11 tons of TNT. But a so-called small nuclear weapon might deliver one kiloton of TNT - basically a hundred times as powerful as the biggest bomb the Air Force has ever dropped. And that's a small one. So Russia has 1 to 2000 of these weapons in its arsenal. So it's really more about where it's set off rather than being a surgical weapon or something like that.

RASCOE: What do we know about Russia's approach to using these types of weapons?

BRUMFIEL: So during the Cold War, both the U.S. and Russia had, like, a load of these weapons in their stockpiles. And the U.S. got rid of its tactical nukes and actually replaced them with conventional weapons. Basically, the U.S. figured if we got a, you know, cruise missile that can strike a target within a couple of feet, that's just as good as a nuke in most cases. We don't need them. But Russia has hung on to the weapons. And I spoke to Anya Fink at the Center for Naval Analyses, who studies Russian nuclear doctrine. And she says that these tactical weapons are actually an important part of Russian war planning, in part because the conventional weapons the West have are so much more accurate and powerful than the Russian equivalent.

ANYA FINK: They look at Western conventional capabilities and basically say, hey, in a match up, they will have little recourse but to resort to nuclear weapons.

RASCOE: Russia feels like they will have little recourse...

BRUMFIEL: Exactly.

RASCOE: ...But to resort to nuclear weapons. So how would Russia use nuclear weapons in a situation where they felt the need?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, Russian doctrine is that they would only use it if their territory was threatened. But, of course, Putin has just annexed a bunch of territory. At least, that's his claim. Everyone else disputes that. So it is kind of fuzzy right now. But the one thing that's really clear is this won't be some sort of surprise attack. The main point of nuclear weapons is to force the other side to change its behavior. So this only works if the other side understands what you're doing and why. So Fink says Putin would not just do this without any warning.

FINK: We will know about it, right? So Putin will say something or, you know, the U.S. government will confirm that there's actual Russian movement of nuclear forces or sort of things like that.

BRUMFIEL: Now, there are still a lot of questions. If they went ahead, what would happen? I mean, would it be a demonstration blast over the Black Sea? Would they hit a target like an airfield? The one thing that's unlikely is that they would actually use these nukes on the front line against Ukrainian troops because the troops are all spread out. You'd have to fire off a bunch of nukes at once. And of course, that is a really scary situation that could escalate quickly.

RASCOE: So what are the risk to Russia if they do use these weapons?

BRUMFIEL: Well, look, the U.S. has been very clear that Russia is going to face some kind of significant retaliation, probably some sort of military retaliation, if they decide to use nuclear weapons. But I think that the real danger here is the possibility of escalation. You know, the U.S. hits back. Russia feels more threatened from that. They decide to use their nuclear weapons, maybe somewhere else in Europe. But Anya Fink - she's not too worried just yet.

FINK: I think this is all really low - probability of this is really low compared to other things they could do.

BRUMFIEL: Russia still has a lot of conventional options. And maybe they never feel they have to use these nukes.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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