Why the tactical nukes Russia, N. Korea are fixated on are more dangerous than strategic nukes

Posted on : 2022-04-27 17:33 KST Modified on : 2022-04-27 17:33 KST
If we want to get out of this “new Cold War” era so many speak of, we must think about disarmament
This photograph, published by the Rodong Sinmun and released by state media, shows what it calls the testing of a new weapons system on April 16. (KCNA/Yonhap News)
This photograph, published by the Rodong Sinmun and released by state media, shows what it calls the testing of a new weapons system on April 16. (KCNA/Yonhap News)

Now that it’s invaded Ukraine, will Russia resort to using nuclear weapons?

That’s the question that has a lot of people on the alert. Three days after the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin openly declared that he had ordered his defense minister and chief of general staff to initiate special combat duties by nuclear deterrent units. He later said that he has no intention of using nuclear weapons “at the current stage.”

That has been interpreted by some as meaning that while Russia isn’t planning any nuclear strikes at present, it could use nuclear weapons if the war doesn’t play out as it hopes.

Putin’s behavior calls to mind what has been described as the “madman theory” of foreign policy — giving the sense that someone is capable of anything if they can’t get the war to end the way they want. Underlying this is the strategic aim of maximizing bargaining strength by raising fears, not just in Ukraine but in the rest of the international community.

In a mid-March hearing before the US Congress, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, who serves as director of the Pentagon-affiliated Defense Intelligence Agency, predicted that Russia’s behavior was “likely intended to intimidate” and “reflect[s] Moscow’s doctrinal views on the use of tactical, non-strategic nuclear weapons to compel an adversary into pursuing an off-ramp or negotiations that may result in termination of the conflict on terms favorable to Russia.”

It remains uncertain whether Russia would use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, but it does seem quite likely that it will increase its reliance on nuclear weapons going forward.

Over the course of the war in Ukraine, Russia’s conventional military strength is poised to weaken, while NATO’s military strength will grow substantially.

In response to that, Russia will drastically raise its reliance on nuclear weapons — especially tactical nuclear weapons, which it regards as an “equalizer” capable of making up for its conventional disadvantage. As this becomes more apparent, Europe and the rest of the global community will be faced with a nuclear threat nearly on par with the Cold War era.

The most mention of “tactical nuclear weapons” these days may be coming out of North Korea. It began at the 8th Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Congress in January 2021.

There, leader Kim Jong-un delivered a blistering condemnation of South Korea’s introduction of advanced weaponry. He also stressed the need for the North to respond by developing “tactical nuclear weapons to be used as various means according to the purposes of operational duty and targets of strike in modern warfare.” It was the first time Pyongyang spoke openly about its intention to develop tactical nukes.

Recent remarks from WPK Central Committee Vice Department Director Kim Yo-jong have also been drawing notice. In a press statement on April 4, she stressed that the North “will not fire even a single bullet or shell toward south Korea,” but also warned, “In case south Korea opts for military confrontation with us, our nuclear combat force will have to inevitably carry out its duty.”

It hasn’t just been rhetoric. On April 16, the North test-fired a new tactical guided weapon, stressing that its development was a significant step in boosting the effectiveness of its tactical nuclear weapon operations. This was an overt statement that attaching a tactical nuclear warhead to a short-range missile could be an actual option.

Why is Pyongyang so fixated on tactical nuclear weapons? Ankit Panda, a US nuclear expert and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, offers three reasons.

First, it wants to strike a maximum balance in military strength with the South Korea-US alliance, which possesses a huge military advantage over it. Second, it wants to deter potential strikes by that alliance. Third, it wants to be able to show its willingness to use nuclear weapons in the event that its deterrence fails.

Panda further says that Pyongyang’s tactical nuclear weapon development plans were not particularly surprising from a practical standpoint.

This analysis shares parallels with the historical backdrop and context behind the emergence of tactical nukes in the first place.

Tactical nuclear weapons made their first appearance during the Korean War. Unable to avoid a difficult conflict, the US wrestled with the question of whether to use them. On the one hand, it saw the use of nuclear weapons as necessary to annihilate the communist forces; on the other, it felt that it should not use existing weapons because of their immense destructiveness.

The approach it devised was the tactical nuclear weapon, which boasted much lower destructive capabilities. The leader of this approach was Army Chief of Staff Gen. J. Lawton Collins, who declared in February 1951 that the US Army would soon have a “usable” nuclear weapon. The following year, a successful nuclear artillery test was conducted.

This was also what led to the distinction between “strategic” and “tactical” nuclear weapons.

Strategic nuclear weapons are focused on deterring adversaries from going to war. They are enormously destructive: a single weapon is powerful enough to level a major city. The flip side of that is the excessive burden of actually using them — which is why strategic nukes have been referred to as “unusable weapons.”

Conversely, tactical nukes have been described as “usable weapons,” as Collins himself said. So while they are less destructive than strategic nukes, they are more dangerous.

History has taught us that when countries commit themselves to an arms race to respond to their tactical nuke threat posed by their adversary, the threat may only escalate. This is why the arms race during the Cold War era was countered by an equally intense push for arms reduction negotiations.

The lesson of history is that if we want to get past our “new Cold War era” wisely, we also need to focus our attention on negotiating disarmament.

By Cheong Wook-Sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute and director of the Peace Network

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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