Tactical nuclear weapon

Last updated

U.S. officials view a W54 nuclear warhead (with a 10- or 20-ton explosive yield) as used on the Davy Crockett recoilless gun, one of the smallest nuclear weapons ever made. Davy Crockett bomb.jpg
U.S. officials view a W54 nuclear warhead (with a 10- or 20-ton explosive yield) as used on the Davy Crockett recoilless gun, one of the smallest nuclear weapons ever made.

A tactical nuclear weapon (TNW) or non-strategic nuclear weapon (NSNW) [1] is a nuclear weapon that is designed to be used on a battlefield in military situations, mostly with friendly forces in proximity and perhaps even on contested friendly territory. Generally smaller in explosive power, they are defined in contrast to strategic nuclear weapons, which are designed mostly to be targeted at the enemy interior far away from the war front against military bases, cities, towns, arms industries, and other hardened or larger-area targets to damage the enemy's ability to wage war. As of 2024, tactical nuclear weapons have never been used.



Tactical nuclear weapons include gravity bombs, short-range missiles, artillery shells, land mines, depth charges, and torpedoes which are equipped with nuclear warheads. Also in this category are nuclear armed ground-based or shipborne surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and air-to-air missiles. Small, two-man portable or truck-portable tactical weapons (sometimes misleadingly referred to as suitcase nukes), such as the Special Atomic Demolition Munition and the Davy Crockett recoilless rifle (recoilless smoothbore gun) have been developed, but the difficulty of combining sufficient yield with portability could limit their military utility. In wartime, such explosives could be used for demolishing "chokepoints" to enemy offensives, such as at tunnels, narrow mountain passes, and long viaducts.

There is no exact definition of the "tactical" category in terms of range or yield of the nuclear weapon. [2] [3] The yield of tactical nuclear weapons is generally lower than that of strategic nuclear weapons, but larger ones are still very powerful, and some variable-yield warheads serve in both roles. For example, the W89 200 kiloton warhead was intended to arm both the tactical Sea Lance anti-submarine rocket-propelled depth charge and the strategic bomber-launched SRAM II stand off missile. Modern tactical nuclear warheads have yields up to the tens of kilotons, or potentially hundreds, several times that of the weapons used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Specifically on the Korean Peninsula, with a nuclear North Korea facing off against a NPT-compliant South Korea, there have been calls to request a return of US-owned and -operated, short range, low yield nuclear weapons (called "tactical" by the US military) to provide a local strategic deterrent to the North's growing domestically-produced nuclear arsenal and delivery systems. [4]

Some tactical nuclear weapons have specific features meant to enhance their battlefield characteristics, such as variable yield, which allow their explosive power to be varied over a wide range for different situations, or enhanced radiation weapons (the so-called "neutron bombs"), which are meant to maximize ionizing radiation exposure and to minimize blast effects.

Strategic missiles and bombers are assigned preplanned targets including enemy airfields, radars, and surface-to-air defenses, not only counterforce strikes on hardened or wide area bomber, submarine, and missile bases. The strategic mission is to eliminate the enemy nation's national defenses to enable following bombers and missiles to threaten the enemy nation's strategic forces, command, and economy more realistically, rather than targeting mobile military assets in nearly real time by using tactical weapons that are optimized for time-sensitive strike missions that are often close to friendly forces. [5]

Tactical nuclear weapons were a large part of the peak nuclear weapons stockpile levels during the Cold War.

US scientists with a full-scale cut-away model of the W48, a very small tactical nuclear weapon with an explosive yield equivalent to 72 tons of TNT (0.072 kiloton). Around 100 of such shells were produced during the Cold War. W48 155-millimeter nuclear shell.jpg
US scientists with a full-scale cut-away model of the W48, a very small tactical nuclear weapon with an explosive yield equivalent to 72 tons of TNT (0.072 kiloton). Around 100 of such shells were produced during the Cold War.

The risk that use of tactical nuclear weapons could unexpectedly lead to a rapid escalation of a war to full use of strategic weapons has led to proposals being made within NATO and other organizations to place limitations on—and make more transparent—the stockpiling and use of tactical weapons. As the Cold War came to an end in 1991, the US and USSR withdrew most of their tactical nuclear weapons from deployment and disposed of them [ citation needed ]. The thousands of tactical warheads wielded by both sides in the late-1980s declined to an estimated 230 American and 1,000 to 2,000 Russian Federation warheads in 2021, although estimates for Russia vary widely. [6]


The yield varies for a tactical nuclear weapon from a fraction of a kiloton to approximately 50 kilotons. [7] In comparison, a strategic nuclear weapon has a yield from 100 kilotons to over a megaton, with much larger warheads available. [7]

Risk of escalating a conflict

Use of tactical nuclear weapons against similarly-armed opponents may carry a significant danger of escalating the conflict beyond anticipated boundaries, from the tactical to the strategic. [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] The existence and deployment of small, low-yield tactical nuclear warheads could be a dangerous encouragement to forward-basing and pre-emptive nuclear warfare, [14] [15] as nuclear weapons with destructive yields of 10 tons of TNT (e.g., the W54 warhead design) might be used more willingly at times of crisis than warheads with yields of 100 kilotons.

Soviet OTR-21 Tochka missile. Capable of firing a 100 kiloton nuclear warhead a distance of 185 km OTR-21 Tochka, Day of the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan 2011.jpg
Soviet OTR-21 Tochka missile. Capable of firing a 100 kiloton nuclear warhead a distance of 185 km
American MGR-3 Little John missile, measuring 4.4. meters long with a diameter of 32 cm and a weight of 350 kg. Capable of firing a W45 warhead (10 kiloton yield) a distance of 19 km MGR-3 Little John 01.jpg
American MGR-3 Little John missile, measuring 4.4. meters long with a diameter of 32 cm and a weight of 350 kg. Capable of firing a W45 warhead (10 kiloton yield) a distance of 19 km
French Pluton missile circa 1970s. Capable of firing a 15 kiloton nuclear warhead a distance of 120 km Pluton 034.jpg
French Pluton missile circa 1970s. Capable of firing a 15 kiloton nuclear warhead a distance of 120 km

The use of tactical nuclear weapons presents a risk of escalating the conflict until it reaches a tipping point that provokes the use of strategic nuclear weapons such as ICBMs. Additionally, the tactical nuclear weapons most likely to be used first (i.e., the smallest, low-yield weapons such as nuclear artillery dating from the 1960s) have usually been under less stringent political control at times of military combat crises than strategic weapons. [16] Early Permissive Action Links could be as simple as a mechanical combination lock. [17] If a relatively junior officer in control of a small tactical nuclear weapon (e.g., the M29 Davy Crockett) were in imminent danger of being overwhelmed by enemy forces, he could request permission to fire it and, due to decentralized control of warhead authorization, his request might quickly be granted during a crisis.

For these reasons, stockpiles of tactical nuclear warheads in most countries' arsenals have been dramatically reduced c. 2010, and the smallest types have been completely eliminated. [18] Additionally, the increased sophistication of "Category F" PAL mechanisms and their associated communications infrastructure mean that centralized control of tactical nuclear warheads (by the country's most senior political leaders) can now be retained, even during combat.

Some variable yield nuclear warheads such as the B61 nuclear bomb have been produced in both tactical and strategic versions. Whereas the lowest selectable yield of a tactical B61 (Mod 3 and Mod 4) is 0.3 kilotons (300 tons), [19] modern PAL mechanisms ensure that centralized political control is maintained over each weapon, including their destructive yields.

With the introduction of the B61 Mod 12, the United States will have four hundred identical nuclear bombs whose strategic or tactical nature will be set purely by the mission and target as well as type of aircraft on which they are carried. [20]

According to several reports, including by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, as a result of the effectiveness and acceptability of USAF use of precision munitions with little collateral damage in the Kosovo conflict in what amounted to strategic destruction once only possible with nuclear weapons or massive bombing, Vladimir Putin, then-secretary of Security Council of Russia, formulated a concept ("escalate to de-escalate") of using both tactical and strategic nuclear threats and strikes to de-escalate or cause an enemy to disengage from a conventional conflict threatening what Russia considers a strategic interest. [21] [22] [23] The lowered threshold for use of nuclear weapons by Russia is disputed by other experts. [24] [25]

Treaty control

Ten NATO member countries have advanced a confidence-building plan for NATO and Russia that could lead to treaties to reduce the tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. [26]

As of 2012, NATO was moving forward with a plan to upgrade its tactical nuclear weapons with precision guidance that would make them equivalent to strategic weapons in effects against hardened targets, and to carry them on stealth aircraft that are much more survivable against current air defenses. [27]

Speculation on use in the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine

During the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, there has been constant speculation about whether Russia's president Vladimir Putin will use a tactical nuclear weapon either against Ukraine or in a demonstration strike over unpopulated areas, given that the course of the war does not seem favorable to what the Kremlin anticipated, and several members of the Russian government have threatened the use of nuclear weapons. [28] [29] [30] [31] Most of these threats have been deflated by timely backchannel meetings including the one organised by the U.K. based Institute for East West Strategic Studies fully explained by Owen Matthews in his latest book Overreach.

On 25 March 2023, President Putin announced the stationing of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Russia would maintain control of the weapons. As of May 2023 the weapons are a small number of Iskander missile warheads. Russia plans to finish a “storage facility” for tactical nuclear weapons by July 1. President Putin told Russian state television: "There is nothing unusual here either…Firstly, the United States has been doing this for decades. They have long deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allied countries." [32] In December 2023, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko announced that the nuclear weapons deliveries were completed that October. [33] [34]


Upshot-Knothole Grable nuclear artillery test

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nuclear warfare</span> Military conflict that deploys nuclear weaponry

Nuclear warfare, also known as atomic warfare, is a military conflict or prepared political strategy that deploys nuclear weaponry. Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction; in contrast to conventional warfare, nuclear warfare can produce destruction in a much shorter time and can have a long-lasting radiological result. A major nuclear exchange would likely have long-term effects, primarily from the fallout released, and could also lead to secondary effects, such as "nuclear winter", nuclear famine, and societal collapse. A global thermonuclear war with Cold War-era stockpiles, or even with the current smaller stockpiles, may lead to various scenarios including the extinction of the human species.

A neutron bomb, officially defined as a type of enhanced radiation weapon (ERW), is a low-yield thermonuclear weapon designed to maximize lethal neutron radiation in the immediate vicinity of the blast while minimizing the physical power of the blast itself. The neutron release generated by a nuclear fusion reaction is intentionally allowed to escape the weapon, rather than being absorbed by its other components. The neutron burst, which is used as the primary destructive action of the warhead, is able to penetrate enemy armor more effectively than a conventional warhead, thus making it more lethal as a tactical weapon.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nuclear bunker buster</span> Earth-penetrating nuclear weapon

A nuclear bunker buster, also known as an earth-penetrating weapon (EPW), is the nuclear equivalent of the conventional bunker buster. The non-nuclear component of the weapon is designed to penetrate soil, rock, or concrete to deliver a nuclear warhead to an underground target. These weapons would be used to destroy hardened, underground military bunkers or other below-ground facilities. An underground explosion releases a larger fraction of its energy into the ground, compared to a surface burst or air burst explosion at or above the surface, and so can destroy an underground target using a lower explosive yield. This in turn could lead to a reduced amount of radioactive fallout. However, it is unlikely that the explosion would be completely contained underground. As a result, significant amounts of rock and soil would be rendered radioactive and lofted as dust or vapor into the atmosphere, generating significant fallout.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nuclear artillery</span> Type of tactical nuclear weaponry designed to be fired from ground level in a battlefield

Nuclear artillery is a subset of limited-yield tactical nuclear weapons, in particular those weapons that are launched from the ground at battlefield targets. Nuclear artillery is commonly associated with shells delivered by a cannon, but in a technical sense short-range artillery rockets or tactical ballistic missiles are also included.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nuclear arms race</span> Part of the Post-WWII era and the Cold War

The nuclear arms race was an arms race competition for supremacy in nuclear warfare between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies during the Cold War. During this same period, in addition to the American and Soviet nuclear stockpiles, other countries developed nuclear weapons, though none engaged in warhead production on nearly the same scale as the two superpowers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Russia and weapons of mass destruction</span>

The Russian Federation is known to possess or have possessed three types of weapons of mass destruction: nuclear weapons, biological weapons, and chemical weapons. It is one of the five nuclear-weapon states recognized under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Suitcase nuclear device</span> Nuclear weapon that can be transported in a suitcase

A suitcase nuclear device is a tactical nuclear weapon that is portable enough that it could use a suitcase as its delivery method.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">B61 nuclear bomb</span> Nuclear bomb

The B61 nuclear bomb is the primary thermonuclear gravity bomb in the United States Enduring Stockpile following the end of the Cold War. It is a low to intermediate-yield strategic and tactical nuclear weapon featuring a two-stage radiation implosion design.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nuclear sharing</span> Concept in NATOs nuclear deterrence policy

Nuclear sharing is a concept in NATO's policy of nuclear deterrence, which allows member countries without nuclear weapons of their own to participate in the planning for the use of nuclear weapons by NATO. In particular, it provides for involvement of the armed forces of those countries in delivering nuclear weapons in the event of their use.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">W80 (nuclear warhead)</span> Nuclear weapon

The W80 is a low to intermediate yield two-stage thermonuclear warhead deployed by the U.S. enduring stockpile with a variable yield ("dial-a-yield") of 5 or 150 kilotonnes of TNT.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">W85 (nuclear warhead)</span> Nuclear weapon

The W85 was a thermonuclear warhead developed by the United States of America to arm the Pershing II missile. It was a variable yield device with a selectable yield of 0.3, 5, 10 or 80 kilotonnes of TNT.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nuclear weapons delivery</span> Type of explosive arms

Nuclear weapons delivery is the technology and systems used to place a nuclear weapon at the position of detonation, on or near its target. Several methods have been developed to carry out this task.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">W87</span> American thermonuclear missile warhead

The W87 is an American thermonuclear missile warhead formerly deployed on the LGM-118A Peacekeeper ("MX") ICBM. 50 MX missiles were built, each carrying up to 10 W87 warheads in multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV), and were deployed from 1986 to 2005. Starting in 2007, 250 of the W87 warheads from retired Peacekeeper missiles were retrofitted onto much older Minuteman III missiles, with one warhead per missile.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">W84</span> Nuclear weapon

The W84 is an American thermonuclear warhead initially designed for use on the BGM-109G Gryphon Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM).

The B61 Family is a series of nuclear weapons based on the B61 nuclear bomb.

The W30 was an American nuclear warhead used on the RIM-8 Talos surface-to-air missile and the Tactical Atomic Demolition Munition (TADM).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Strategic nuclear weapon</span> Nuclear weapons used on strategic targets outside of battlefields

A strategic nuclear weapon (SNW) refers to a nuclear weapon that is designed to be used on targets often in settled territory far from the battlefield as part of a strategic plan, such as military bases, military command centers, arms industries, transportation, economic, and energy infrastructure, and heavily populated areas such as cities and towns, which often contain such targets. It is in contrast to a tactical nuclear weapon, which is designed for use in battle as part of an attack with and often near friendly conventional forces, possibly on contested friendly territory.

During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several senior Russian politicians, including president Vladimir Putin, former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, have made a number of statements widely seen as threatening the use of nuclear weapons. The possibility of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons, and the risk of broader nuclear escalation, has been widely discussed by commentators and in the media. Additionally, the Russian occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant has led to a crisis over the safety of the plant and the risk of a nuclear disaster.


  1. Hans M Kristensen. "Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons (page 8)" (PDF). FAS. Retrieved October 26, 2013.
  2. Brian Alexander, Alistair Millar, ed. (2003). Tactical nuclear weapons : emergent threats in an evolving security environment (1. ed.). Washington DC: Brassey's. p. 7. ISBN   978-1-57488-585-9 . Retrieved March 22, 2011.
  3. Some weapons could be tactical or strategic at the same time, depending only on the potential enemy. For example, an Indian nuclear missile with a 500 km range is tactical when it is evaluated by Russia but understandably would be considered strategic if evaluated by Pakistan.
  4. "Not a Good Idea: American Nukes in South Korea". thediplomat.com. Retrieved July 30, 2023.
  5. "Strategic Air Command Declassifies Nuclear Target List from 1950s". nsarchive.gwu.edu. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  6. Amy F. Woolf (July 15, 2021). Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons (PDF) (Report). Congressional Research Service. p. i. Retrieved July 23, 2021.
  7. 1 2 Rathbun, Nina Srinivasan (September 28, 2022). "What are tactical nuclear weapons? An international security expert explains and assesses what they mean for the war in Ukraine". The Conversation. Retrieved July 30, 2023.
  8. "Session 10". Archived from the original on May 1, 2001.
  9. Patchen, Martin (April 1988). Resolving disputes between nations: coercion or conciliation?. Duke University Press. p. 254. ISBN   978-0-8223-0819-5 . Retrieved December 30, 2010.
  10. "Getting to Zero Starts Here: Tactical Nuclear Weapons | Arms Control Association". armscontrol.org. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  11. Strachan, Hew (January 1, 1988). European Armies and the Conduct of War. Routledge. p. 195. ISBN   978-0-415-07863-4 . Retrieved December 30, 2010.
  12. "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists . Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc.: 25 1975.
  13. "Pugwash Meeting no. 270 - Workshop on Tactical Nuclear Weapons". Archived from the original on August 16, 2002.
  14. "Nuclear Threat Initiative | NTI". nti.org. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  15. "CNS - Tactical Nuclear Weapons: The Nature of the Problem". Archived from the original on April 8, 2010.
  16. Rock Island Arsenal atomictraveler.com
  17. "Principles of Nuclear Weapons Security and Safety". nuclearweaponarchive.org. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  18. "Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces [INF] Chronology". fas.org. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  19. "The B61 Bomb". nuclearweaponarchive.org. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  20. Kristensen, Hans. "B61 LEP: Increasing NATO Nuclear Capability and Precision Low-Yield Strikes." FAS, 15 June 2011.
  21. "Why Russia calls a limited nuclear strike "de-escalation"". March 13, 2013.
  22. "The Role of Nuclear Weapons in the U.S.-Russian Relationship".
  23. Russia's Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons, by Dr. Jacob W. Kipp, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth; published in Military Review May–June 2001
  24. "The Myth of Russia's Lowered Nuclear Threshold". September 22, 2017.
  25. "The Elusive Russian Nuclear Threshold". November 26, 2019.
  26. Kristensen, Hans. "10 NATO Countries Want More Transparency for Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons." Federation of American Scientists, 24 April 2011.
  27. Kristensen, Hans M. "Germany and B61 Nuclear Bomb Modernization." FAS, 13 November 2012.
  28. Ukraine war: Could Russia use tactical nuclear weapons? BBC (24/09/2022)
  29. What if Vladimir Putin used nuclear weapons in Ukraine? Al Jazeera (24 Sep 2022)
  30. Would Vladimir Putin let Russia lose in Ukraine before using his nuclear weapons? Grid (September 21, 2022)
  31. 'This Is Not a Bluff.' Putin Raises Specter of Nuclear Weapons Following Battlefield Losses Time (SEPTEMBER 21, 2022)
  32. Putin: Russia to station nuclear weapons in Belarus BBC (March 25, 2023)
  33. "MSN". www.msn.com. Retrieved January 6, 2024.
  34. Wilmington, Fox (December 27, 2023). "Belarus claims to have received tactical nuclear weapons from ally Russia | Fox Wilmington WSFX-TV". foxwilmington.com. Retrieved January 6, 2024.
  35. "The B61 Bomb".
  36. Usman Ansari (November 6, 2013). "Experts: Missile Test Firing Shows Development Complete". Archived from the original on November 8, 2013. Retrieved November 8, 2013.