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Chaos is a Ladder: Tactical Nukes Pose A Grave Threat to the World

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Deep Dive Article

By Jack Parkinson

The Mushroom Cloud over Nagasaki - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Global Weekly reader does not have to be told of the dangers of nuclear weapons. One bomb can turn an entire city into rubble and pump enough radiation into the surrounding area to make it uninhabitable for years, if not forever. When nuclear weapons were first deployed against Japan by the US in 1945, they sent shockwaves around the world: the first wunderwaffe. Today, Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs that decimated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with payloads of around 15kT, pale in comparison to the modern arsenals of nuclear-capable states. Modern nuclear weapons possess warheads that can detonate payloads of up to 10,000kT. The largest bomb developed by the USSR, the Tsar Bomba, detonated a 50,000kT payload. What makes nuclear weapons most dangerous however, is not the power of a single warhead, but rather the sheer scale of warheads that states possess, with the US and Russia having multiple thousands of warheads each. If a nuclear war were to occur, the result may well be omnicide.

However, despite the very real dangers posed by strategic nuclear weapons, they have also been attributed to maintaining peace for much of the last century. Nuclear peace theory, most notably argued for by neo-realist Kenneth Waltz, posits that because nuclear capable states are aware of the dangers of nuclear war, they are deterred from beginning conflicts with other nuclear capable states. Mutually assured destruction, ironically initialled MAD, supposedly ensures this. Thinking back over the Cold War and the last 30 years, it is not a stretch to conclude that nuclear weapons may really be the greatest peacekeeper of our time, or so Waltz argues. In 1989, John Gaddis even coined the phrase “the long peace” to identify the absence of conflict between the top economies of the world in the Cold War and beyond. This theory is not without its critics: surely the best way to avoid nuclear war and omnicide is indeed to get rid of nuclear weapons entirely? The controversy of nuclear disarmament digresses…

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reignited debates on nuclear deterrence. Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling after setbacks on the battlefield and increasing Western military involvement has scared many European states, such as Germany, and stoked concerns of direct nuclear war in Europe. Yet the fears of nuclear war have not come from the intercontinental hydrogen bombs or the MIRV hypersonic missiles, but rather smaller nukes known as ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons.

These tactical bombs are far smaller than other nuclear weapons and were designed mainly for use on the battlefield rather than the destruction of cities. Only Russia and the USA possesses these weapons, with Russia operating far higher numbers. However, while they may sound less threatening than strategic missiles, they pose a dire threat - not as a means of destruction, but rather as a means of escalation.

Escalation and how it may occur has long fascinated defence analysts and been the subject of much study and debate. Most agree that nuclear war does not just happen out of nowhere. Instead, wars between nuclear capable states occur as a result of constant escalation and one-upmanship. Where a minor conflict may begin between two states which involve minor skirmishes, the desire to prevent either side gaining an upper hand leads to a constant intensification of the conflict. Herman Kahn, and his book On Escalation (1965) sought to detail how this may occur, using the example of an ‘escalation ladder’ to illustrate this.

While the escalation ladder is a generalised concept, its accuracy is certainly eerie. Many of the major crises or close calls during the Cold War, occurred due to gradual escalation. The most famous of these, the Cuban Missile crisis, began by US deployment of nuclear-capable missiles in Italy and Turkey and some dramatic declarations and shows of force. Before, of course, descending into embargoes, nuclear ultimatums, and direct confrontation.

Even a direct war between two nuclear states does not necessarily mean nuclear war is going to occur, yet it is just one more rung up the ladder towards that end. There are many problems with Kahn’s illustration and theory, not least because it details a highly abstract, ordered, linear and western understanding of nuclear escalation. But its general premise remains important.

When applied to the current state of affairs in Ukraine, we can see this unfolding before our very eyes. While up until 2022 the war has often changed through compound and sudden escalations, since February both Russia and the West have gradually become more embroiled in the conflict, although the latter remains an indirect actor. Western arms shipments have become progressively more substantial, in both quantity and quality, as has Western rhetoric with regards to the extent of their support. Likewise, Russia has greatly increased their commitment to the war, cutting gas flows, annexing the occupied territories, and mobilising some 300,000 men (some pundits estimate this figure is over half a million by now). In response to increasing Western support, Putin has issued multiple nuclear threats, hoping to intimidate Western states into submission. A risk in and of itself. Where the real threat emerged, however, was when Russia began to suffer serious military setbacks.

Russia would likely not launch a strategic nuclear strike in Ukraine, knowing that such a move would surely invite worldwide condemnation and massive retaliations from other states. The prospect of Russia using a tactical warhead, however, is worrying. Worrying enough that in November, top U.S. officials confirmed that the US had to privately communicate the “consequences” should Russia use a tactical nuclear bomb, even conceding that it “had been considered” by top Russian generals. Using a tactical nuke would most definitely ensure huge punishment of the Russian state, isolation, and possibly even direct military strikes by the West. We do not yet know what ‘consequences’ the US threatened. The problem is that a tactical nuclear strike may well be just enough to demoralise the Ukrainians while still avoiding the most negative consequences of a full scale strategic strike. The world must make sure that this is not the case, by making clear a smaller nuke does not mean smaller consequences. For Putin, if his back is against the wall, it still may be worth the risk. With a Ukrainian counter offensive due to begin in spring, the world will be holding its breath.

Whether you believe in Nuclear Peace theory or not, even its proponents must agree that making it easier to slide and escalate towards nuclear war is not in anyone’s interests, far less Russia’s. The world has made it clear that any use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable, while still naively running scared in the face of nuclear sabre-rattling. Putin, and other eagerly watching despots, are seeing whether the mere threat of nuclear war is enough to deter the free world from acting. If Putin’s strategy works, it would send a terrible message.

The US has possibly, without anyone really realising it, prevented a world changing disaster. But while both the USA and Russia possess tactical nukes, or any nuclear weapons at all for that matter, there is still a risk of nuclear war. The world has a duty to prevent that from happening, and to stand strong in the face of nuclear threats. A tactical nuclear weapon may seem like a small bomb, but it takes just one bomb to end the nuclear taboo. Chaos is a ladder, and every time the world moves up one rung, it becomes closer to that all terrifying ‘Step 21’. The possession of a weapon that poses as a perfect middle ground, a ‘segway’ if you will, between conventional warfare and nuclear warfare is where the real danger lies. The West must ensure the lines between conventional and nuclear remain unblurred, and that the consequences of a nuclear strike are all too clear to Putin and the world.


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