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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Soviet / Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons [TNW]

The Soviets categorized their nuclear weapons as tactical, operational-tactical, and strategic. Operational-tactical [ie, theater] Scaleboard and other MRBMs, and nuclear-capable tactical aircraft. Tactical weapons included the FROG rocket, Scud, SS-21, and nuclear-capable artillery.

Russia, according to unofficial data, has 5,400 non-strategic tactical and theater nuclear weapons, 2,000 of which are in combat readiness, according to the US Department of Defense as of 2018. The composition of this TNW [theater / tactical nuclear weapon] inventory is poorly characterized in the open literature. But even the lower number is greater than the nuclear weapons inventory of every other nuclear weapons state in the Eastern hemisphere [that is, every nuclear weapons state other than the United States]. Russia appears to have adopted a reasonable sufficiency posture of at least equalling all other states in theater/tactical weapons holdings, as well as at least equalling the United States in strategic weapons numbers.

Russia now finds itself in much the same position the United States faced in the early days of the Cold War. Nuclear weapons offer a cost effective means of offsets an adversary having conventional superiority. In the decades after the Great Patriotic War, the Red Army seemed poised to engulf Western Europe by force of shear numbers, as it had overwhelmed Germany in the final stages of the War. Now, Russia faces an American adversary with precision weapons and intelligence that might brush aside the Russian army as it brushed aside the Iraqi army twice in living memory.

In 1991, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ministry of Defense removed all tactical nuclear weapons from the territories of the union republics. At that point, politicians and the media largely forgot about TNW in Russia.

Under the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives [PNI] that George H.W. Bush announced on September 27, 1991. The United States announced it would withdraw to the United States all ground-launched short-range nuclear weapons deployed overseas and destroy them along with existing U.S. stockpiles of the same weapons. It would also cease deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on surface ships, attack submarines, and land based naval aircraft. On October 5th, 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev followed suit, declaring the Soviet Union would eliminate all nuclear artillery munitions, nuclear warheads for tactical missiles, and nuclear mines. Additionally, it would remove all tactical nuclear weapons from surface ships and multipurpose submarines and store these weapons in central storage sites as well as separating nuclear warheads from air defense missiles and put the warheads in central storage.

The statement of the President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin "On Russian policy in the field of arms limitation and reduction" of 29 January 1992 stated that Russia had stopped the production of nuclear artillery shells and warheads for land-based missiles, and all stocks of such warheads would be destroyed. Russia will remove all TNW from surface ships and multi-purpose submarines and eliminate one third. Half of the warheads for anti-aircraft missiles and air munitions would also be eliminated. After these cuts, in Russia and the US, 2,500-3,000 tactical nuclear warheads were to remain in the arsenals of TNW. But it turned out differently.

Russia specialists later concluded that in the geostrategic situation that developed after the collapse of the USSR, the massive reduction and destruction of TNW was unacceptable. After all, it was the TNW, which possesses rather high indicators on the criterion of "cost efficiency" can serve as a kind of universal equalizer of forces, depriving NATO of their military advantage.

Since 1999 there have been many Russian press reports of Russian exercise use of tactical nuclear weapons against the US and NATO. There are reports that the ZAPAD-99 exercise employed nuclear weapons against NATO.

Colonel General Vladimir Zaritsky stated November 19, 2003 that "Given the fact that demonstrating nuclear weapons for delivery artillery and ·missile strikes on the enemy, as well as pinpoint nuclear strikes remain the major deterrent, I think that it is the missile forces and artillery that will play the major role on the modern battlefield."

The 2009 US Strategic Posture Commission concluded that, "As part of its effort to compensate for weaknesses in its conventional forces, Russia’s military leaders are putting more emphasis on non-strategic nuclear forces . . .." Russia, in the Commission’s view, "no longer sees itself as capable of defending its vast territory and nearby interests with conventional forces." As Russia reduces the number of warheads deployed on strategic delivery systems, the relative importance of its non-strategic arsenal will increase. (The Strategic Posture Commission argued, however, that, while the size of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear arsenal must be a consideration for the United States in its nuclear force planning, the United States need not seek numerical equality to Russia in non-strategic nuclear forces.)

In early January 2010, during the Senate hearings on the Pentagon budget for fiscal year 2011, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, announced Washington's intention to begin negotiations on the reduction of TNW immediately after the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Officially, Russia is not against starting negotiations on TNW, but a precondition for this is the withdrawal of US tactical nuclear weapons from the territory of Western Europe.

On 13 September 2010, U.S. Chair of Global Zero Ambassador Richard Burt, spoke of a "next phase" of arms control, "which would not only cover the deployed weapons but also the non-deployed weapons, the weapons in storage, the so-called sub-strategic weapons, the so-called tactical nuclear weapons, when we can get down to a level of 1,000 or so weapons, in my judgment, you create an environment where then you’re – you have a chance, a decent shot, at bringing in the Chinese and the Indians and others.... How many times do you want to bounce the rubble, in terms of you run out of targets more quickly than you run out of weapons."

At the same meeting, Rose Gottemoeller, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation, noted that " the lines between tactical nuclear weapons and strategic – so-called strategic nuclear weapons are being blurred. As a matter of fact, whether a warhead is considered a tactical weapon or a strategic weapon depends on what its delivery vehicle is, whether it’s a shorter-range missile for a tactical range or whether it’s an intercontinental-range missile or bomber than can deliver weapons at intercontinental range. But those differences are becoming blurred as the numbers go lower and lower and lower. And I, frankly, think we’re entering the stage, as we contemplate this next negotiation, where actually, we’ll have a single basket where nonstrategic and strategic weapons can reside together for purposes of the negotiation. We’re definitely, as numbers get lower, coming to that stage."

On December 23, 2011 Rose Gottemoeller noted that the United States was " .. interested in some of the conceptual and definition questions that are involved because what we consider a tactical nuclear weapon may be different from what the Russian Federation considers to be a tactical nuclear weapon or non-strategic nuclear weapon."

Non-strategic weapons have historically been of less concern in the nuclear disarmament realm, but the close proximity of some states that will likely be involved in future agreements, such as those in Europe, will likely bring more attention to the issue of non-strategic disarmament.

In early 2018 Russian and international media outlets picked up a poorly sourced article that claimed that Moscow was developing nuclear shell for the third generation T-14 Armata tank. The Russian media picked up the news from The Diplomat, which citing unconfirmed media reports, wrote that Russia’s Uralvagonzavod “will not only upgrade later versions of the mysterious T-14 with a new 2A83 152 mm gun but also develop a nuclear tank shell for tactical use on the battlefield.”

The source of the information was an article on the Defense One website in, where Capacity Institute head Phillip Karber says that Russians may be planning to equip the T-14 Armata tank with nuclear weapons. “They’ve announced that the follow-on tank to the Armata will have a 152 mm gun missile launcher. They’re talking about it having a nuclear capability. And you go, ‘You’re talking about building a nuclear tank, a tank that fires a nuke?’ Well, that’s the implication,” Karber told Defense One.

One of the main reasons why Russia will not make nuclear shells to fit its newest T-14 Armata tank is the short range of the tank’s gun. “The tank's gun has a maximum range of 4 km. To use a nuclear weapon at that range is a complete suicide,” head of the NTV channel’s military show, Sergey Kuznetsov, told RBTH.

Dmitry Litovkin, military analyst of the Izvestia daily, agreed with Kuznetsov. “Imagine what would happen on the battlefield, if tanks start shooting nuclear shells within a kilometer from people and from themselves, and when the wind will carry radioactive clouds for miles around,” he asks. According to Kuznetsov, it would be easier to obtain maximum projectile penetrating power for tank guns by creating a shell with depleted uranium instead of using nuclear shells.

The heavy-duty 240-mm 2C4 Tulip mortars and 203-mm 2S7 howitzers "Pion" belonged to the reserve of the High Command. Once they stood in the Western Group of Forces and in the event of a conflict with NATO had to stop the advance of the enemy with the help of nuclear mines. In 1990, after the signing of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), all nuclear self-propelled guns were withdrawn from the Armed Forces and removed to storage bases in Siberia and the Far East. But the CFE Treaty is dead, and after repairs with modernization, heavy-duty guns and mortars, like phoenixes from the ashes, reappeared in the front ranks of the Russian army.

Out of the artillery guns that are in use in the Russian army now, 2S19 Msta, 2S3 Akatsiya and 2S5 Giatsint-S can theoretically use the 152 mm 3BV3 nuclear shell, but, according to Colonel (retired) Viktor Murakhovski, such shells were designed but never used. Kuznetsov adds that the Russian military will never confirm whether or not the Soviet-made shells are still in use.

The April 2020 U.S. Department of State EXECUTIVE SUMMARY OF FINDINGS On ADHERENCE TO AND COMPLIANCE WITH ARMS CONTROL, NON PROLIFERATION, AND DISARMAMENT AGREEMENTS AND COMMITMENTS reported that with respect to the PRESIDENTIAL NUCLEAR INITIATIVES CONCERNING TACTICAL NUCLEAR WEAPONS (PNIs) "The United States assesses that Russia is not adhering to all of its PNI commitments. Although Russia has consolidated its Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons into fewer nuclear weapons storage sites, Russia’s efforts to retain dual-capable non-strategic systems for its ground forces are inconsistent with its PNI pledge to eliminate nuclear warheads for such systems. Despite a 2014 statement by a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) official that force posture changes were made based on the PNIs “that are still carried out by Russia,” and other carefully worded statements by Russia that the PNIs are still “relevant” to it, the United States assesses, based on Russian activities and statements from Russian officials and military officers from 1994 through the mid-2000s, that Russia no longer feels bound by its PNI pledge to eliminate all nuclear warheads for the ground forces."

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Page last modified: 25-08-2021 17:17:38 ZULU