Tactical Nuclear Weaponry: Deterrent or Danger?

Ryan Smith
May 25, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: A trio of B61 tactical nuclear bombs. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On January 11, 2016, an American F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet dropped a mock nuclear bomb over the Nevada desert. [1] Set into a stable spin by two simultaneously firing rockets, the dummy B61-12 explosive plummeted to Earth with deadly accuracy, its trajectory maintained by a quartet of maneuverable fins. [2] In a non-test environment, these fins could convey a payload to an enemy encampment over a significant distance, protecting the pilot from the resultant nuclear explosion. [1] Thanks to the design of the warhead, the potency of this explosion could be dialed in according to the situation: options range from a relatively modest 1.5-kiloton TNT equivalent yield to a Hiroshima-dwarfing 50-kiloton nightmare. [2]

Of course, as per the Cold War mantra of nuclear deterrence, the aim of developing upgraded weapons like these in the U.S. is not to unleash them, but rather to incorporate them into the defense apparatus as a symbol of American military might. The more powerful the United States, the theory goes, the less willing our enemies will be to attack us or our allies in Europe (and elsewhere in the world). [1]

The development of the "refurbished" B61-12 bomb described above, as well as a fresh complement of nuclear cruise missiles, was quietly endorsed by the Obama administration as part of an effort to preserve the military stature of the United States - notwithstanding the vision of a "nuclear-free world" articulated by the president in Prague in 2009. [1] The official line is that the new smart bombs - which have at their core somewhat dated explosives - are not new weapons per se, but rather improved versions of earlier bombs that will ultimately allow the U.S. to pare down the size of its overall arsenal. [1]

This may be true in the long term, but precision-guided, potentially low- yield nuclear weapons - so-called "nonstrategic," or "tactical," nuclear arms - raise some serious safety questions in the here and now. [3] Commentators disagree on whether the development of such technologies in the U.S. is likely to increase global stability through intimidation or merely to augment aggression in already hostile nations.

To constructively approach this question, it behooves us to examine the issue from both domestic and international perspectives.

Tactical Nuclear Arms in U.S. Foreign Policy

In the February 2017 Congressional Research Service report on nonstrategic nuclear weapons, author Amy F. Woolf - a specialist in nuclear policy analysis - helpfully informs the modern debate with a bit of Cold War history.

In the days of U.S.-Soviet arms accords, regulating tactical nuclear missiles was by no means a top priority in the view of American leadership. After all, a vast ocean separated the U.S. from its adversary: paranoia in the homeland centered on the massive, long-range strategic warheads the Soviets could bring to bear, not the smaller-scale explosives they had deployed for regional defense. [3]

That is not to say that tactical nuclear weapons did not figure into U.S. military jockeying - on the contrary. The deployment of nonstrategic nuclear arms in NATO nations was ratcheted up in the 1980s, with the Russians boasting a formidable array of their own. Only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was an agreement struck between Bush and Gorbachev to scale back the nonstrategic inventories of both nations in the years to come. With that said, a problematic disparity endures: while the United States currently wields 760 total tactical nuclear weapons, 200 of which are deployed with aircraft in Europe, Russia's stockpile is significantly larger, perhaps by a margin of multiple thousands of warheads. [3]

In light of this gap, and in response to Vladimir Putin's recent provocations (which I will touch on in the next section), one could make a reasonable case for the bolstering of the U.S. tactical weapons stockpile. However, though Russia has an edge in tactical nuclear weaponry, the U.S. has the advantage on the conventional warfare front. [3] Unless Russia is willing to precipitate a nuclear conflict with the United States - which would seem highly unlikely - the tactical nukes on both sides will remain purely symbolic. Given that, is escalating for the sake of escalating really worth it? Would we not be better served dismantling our tactical nuclear weapons and setting an example for Russia to follow? These questions are the ones currently on the table.

It bears mentioning that President Obama, while approving billions of dollars in nuclear upgrades, did deviate from America's Cold War-era nuclear stance in one key way: according to his administration's policy, nuclear weapons would never be considered by the United States as a response to a conventional, chemical, or biological attack. [3] This proclamation, at least, set a tone of responsibility amidst the engineering of more precise, more militarily tempting weapons: punishing a simple terrorist act, no matter how malicious, with nuclear armaments simply would not fly.

The ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency, however, has cast the nuclear intentions of the United States into doubt. Towards the tail end of campaign season, Trump opined via Twitter that "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes." As a New York Times analyst noted, this policy statement is imprecise in the extreme - it is difficult to tell whether Trump is advocating for a) a continuation of the Obama stance or b) an aggressive ramping-up of American nuclear technology, numbers, and deployment. [4]

Tactical Nuclear Arms in the International Sphere

Vladimir Putin, for his part, has been far from an agent of stability. With his recent incursion into the Ukraine and his increasingly vociferous criticisms of NATO, the Russian strongman seems intent on pushing a renewed escalatory posture on his people. [5]

Further evidence of this came in February of this year, when Putin's Russia was found to have covertly developed and deployed land-based nuclear-tipped cruise missiles in contravention of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an agreement whose relevance in the modern geopolitical scene Putin played down in a recent address. [5]

The unpredictability of Putin on the one hand and a longing for a less tense regional situation on the other has fostered disagreement among members of NATO as to the necessity of U.S. tactical missiles deployed within their borders. Despite opposition from several NATO states, the NATO strategic concept released in 2010 made no mention of withdrawing U.S. nuclear missiles from the area, and at a 2016 Warsaw summit, NATO went a step further, affirming that "as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance." [3] As of now, NATO leadership seems to be of the opinion that, barring unanimous consent, nonstrategic American arms should remain in place.

The NATO-Russia standoff has attracted much in the way of media attention, but the tactical nuclear capabilities of Pakistan and India are in many ways just as concerning. Long bitter enemies, the two nations are both equipped with nonstrategic weapons, and both have shown themselves resistant to international mores governing nuclear arms (neither, for instance, is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty). [6]

In the wake of the discovery that Pakistan's nuclear maestro A. Q. Khan was heading a global nuclear smuggling ring, the U.S. more or less ended its nuclear diplomacy with the nation a decade ago, levying severe penalties and refusing until very recently to consider negotiations. (Meanwhile, the U.S. aided India with its peaceful nuclear ambitions in spite of its NPT non-compliance, which only further angered Pakistan.) As commentators have noted, the nuclear program is the pride of the Pakistani people, and the nation is extremely unlikely to abandon it at the behest of the U.S. [6]

Concluding Remarks

Bearing in mind the specter of potential India-Pakistan and NATO-Russia tactical nuclear violence, it is worth questioning whether an escalation of the U.S. tactical nuclear capability is prudent at this time. If any one nation detonates a tactical nuclear weapon in live combat, warfare across the globe could quickly take an ugly turn. By producing new tactical nuclear weapons to supplement its existing arsenal, the US is implicitly legitimating similar conduct in other, less stable nations - a dangerous reality.

Given Russia's recent aggression, maintaining some nonstrategic nuclear presence in the NATO countries would seem to make sense. Where this author believes the U.S. should be leery, however, is in its sustained development of more precise, smaller-yield nuclear weapons - weapons which could facilitate the transition from conventional skirmish to nuclear war.

© Ryan Smith. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] W. J. Broad and D. E. Sanger, "As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, 'Smaller' Leaves Some Uneasy," New York Times, 11 Jan 16.

[2] K. Mizokami, "Why the Pentagon's New Nukes Are Under Fire," Popular Mechanics, 12 Jan 16.

[3] A. F. Woolf, "Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons," Congressional Research Service, RL32572, February 2017.

[4] M. Fisher, "Trump's Nuclear Weapons Tweet, Translated and Explained," New York Times, 22 Dec 16.

[5] M. R. Gordon, "Russia Deploys Missile, Violating Treaty and Challenging Trump," New York Times, 14 Feb 17.

[6] D. E. Sanger, "U.S. Exploring Deal to Limit Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal," New York Times, 15 Oct 15.