Chess without a queen: the tactical nuclear imbalance
10 Feb 2017|

Image courtesy of Flickr user klimkin.

In a game of chess, the queen is the ultimate power on the board. It can move in any direction and is a looming figure that any opponent should be wary of. If we’re to look at a tactical battlefield with a variety of high-tech weaponry (tanks, artillery, mortars and guided munitions, etc), we’d be remiss if we didn’t factor in the looming figure of tactical nuclear weapons. With a variable explosive yield and the ability to eliminate a division or airfield in the blink of an eye, it’s crucial that military commanders and national leaders alike don’t disregard that threat.

In his recent piece, Rod Lyon discusses ‘the concept of the great-power nuclear balance’ in regard to strategic nuclear weapons. His piece clearly illustrates how the US–Russia nuclear balance is important to global stability. But it’s clear that this isn’t the case when we look at the non-strategic or tactical nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia.

The US currently has approximately 500 B-61 gravity bombs in its arsenal with around 150 deployed in Europe. Those tactical nuclear weapons possess a powerful yield but need to be delivered to their target by aircraft. That’s no easy task if we look at the gauntlet of surface-to-air missiles that the aircraft would have to navigate in order to reach its target area. Even if deployed on the stealthy F-35, the aircraft would still potentially need to navigate through advanced air defences. Stealth technology is by no means an impervious invisibility cloak.

On the other hand it’s estimated that Russia has approximately 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons that can be deployed on a variety of platforms including ballistic missiles and sea-based cruise missiles. The rationale behind maintaining that relatively large and diverse tactical nuclear arsenal is believed to be in order to offset the superior conventional military forces of NATO.

While the B-61 tactical nuclear bomb is deployed by the US in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey, it’s clear that Russia possesses a superior tactical nuclear force. That mightn’t appear to be a significant issue, especially when one looks at the quantitative and qualitative superiority of NATO’s military over Russia’s. But if tactical nuclear weapons were to be deployed in a battlefield scenario, it’s obvious that there’s a clear imbalance not only in accumulated yield but the ability of the nuclear weapon to reach its target.

Let’s look at the chess analogy again. Russia recently moved Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. Although it’s unknown if those missiles are currently fitted with nuclear warheads, they certainly have that capability. Even with a significant conventional superiority, the potential value of nuclear capable Iskander missiles on a tactical battlefield is a game changer, much like the power of a queen when the opponent no longer possesses one. In addition to the Iskander missiles, Russia also has the capability to launch nuclear capable cruise missiles from submarines. That’s an extremely formidable force if used in any conflict.

Mutually Assured Destruction is a well-known concept for analysing parity and stabilisation when discussing strategic nuclear weapons such as ICBMs and SLBMs, but what of tactical nuclear weapons? The possibility that one side may use a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon in a battlefield scenario much like any other weapon mustn’t be ignored and discounted. If one side in a conflict or potential conflict has an overwhelming superiority in the capability of delivering those incomparable weapons it’s a matter that must be addressed.

Trump has made no secret of his wish to improve relations with Russia. Perhaps now is the time to renew arms control discussions regarding tactical nuclear weapons and the platforms by which they’re deployed. Failure to come to some form of agreement or focus primarily on strategic nuclear weapons parity while ignoring the tactical nuclear weapons imbalance may have devastating consequences. They may include possible escalation to nuclear use in the event of a conflict or proliferation of tactical nuclear weapons if nations believe that their security is at risk. In the current climate of growing uncertainty, a renewed arms control agreement that reduces the risk of a conflict involving nuclear weapons could only be a good thing.