Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened once more to use nuclear weapons after his forces began to retreat from Ukraine. This is most likely to be what are commonly called tactical nuclear weapons.
He warned in a speech last Wednesday that if there is a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity or to defend its people, he will use all weapons systems. This isn’t a joke.
According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia has 4,477 deployed weapons and reserve nuclear warheads. Around 1,900 of these are “non-strategic,” or tactical nuclear weapons.
What is a tactic nuclear weapon, and how does it differ to a regular weapon?
Here are the facts.
Strategic vs tactical
Tactical warheads are those that can be used on a small battlefield to eliminate a column or tanks, or destroy an aircraft carrier battle group. These warheads have explosive yields of between 10 and 100 kilotons dynamite. They are also known as “low yield.”
Russia’s most potent “strategic” nuclear warheads are, however, explosively more powerful than any other and can destroy entire cities.
It is misleading to refer to tactical weapons as having a low yield. Explosive yields of 10 to 100 kilogramons of dynamite can still cause significant destruction, as the world learned in 1945 when the US dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima in Japan and Nagasaki in Japan.
These bombs were approximately 15 and 21 kilotons each of dynamite – roughly the same as Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons.
According to US government archives, the initial Hiroshima-Nagasaki blasts killed approximately 70,000 and 35,000 persons instantly. Tens of thousands more died later from radiation exposure.
Alex Wellerstein is the director of science and technology studies for the Stevens Institute of Technology, New Jersey. He says that the true difference in nuclear weapons lies not in their explosive yield but in their targets.
“The atomic bombings of Japan were’strategic attacks’ that were primarily aimed at terrorizing the Japanese high command and destroying their morale. What made 15 kilotons a strategic yield was dependent on its intended destination.
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