According to what seem to be reliable reports, the Russian
invasion of Ukraine is stalled. The Russians are said to have suffered the
deaths of 10,000 or more troops and two to three times that many wounded. The Russian
losses of tanks and other armored vehicles are apparently huge and continuing.
In the past few days, there have been more and more discussions in the media
about the possibility of Russia resorting to the use of what are referred to as
“tactical nuclear weapons.” I do not get the impression that the people talking
about this on television have the slightest notion of what a “tactical nuclear
weapon” would be or what conceivable use it would be in the Ukraine war.
I have talked about this on this blog quite recently and I
am going to repeat now things I said then. If you find this tiresome, go
somewhere else and amuse yourself on another blog. This is far and away the
most important thing now happening in the world and I am going to talk about it
again and again and again.
The distinction between strategy and tactics has for
centuries been a part of military discourse. The term “tactics” refers to
maneuvers or decisions or actions taken on a particular battlefield in the
context of a particular battle. How to combine tanks with foot soldiers to
greatest effect is a question of tactics. Whether to combine all of one’s
forces or spread them across the field of battle or perhaps divide them into
several wings to surround the enemy forces is a matter of tactics. So are the
decisions about how most effectively to combine airpower with ground maneuvers.
The Russian decision to divide into several columns the forces advancing from
the north on Kyiv is a matter of tactics.
The weapons referred to as “tactical nuclear weapons” are
fission bombs each of which is rated as the equivalent of perhaps 3000 to 5000
tons of TNT or some similar explosive. This is referred to in shorthand as a 3
KT or 5 KT tactical nuke, a catchy form of speech that sounds hep and
knowledgeable, what was called when I was young “inside dopester.”
Let us think about this for a moment. If Russia were to send
a flight of 50 heavy bombers to attack the capital city of Ukraine and if each
of these bombers were to carry four so-called “blockbuster” bombs, each
containing the equivalent of 1000 pounds of TNT, and if all 50 of these bombers
were to drop their bombs on the capital city, causing enormous amounts of
destruction and death, this would be an attack using a total of 100 tons of
high explosive. If Russia were to send such a flight of bombers every day for a
month, it would at the end of that month have delivered to Kyiv an explosive
power equivalent to one so-called
tactical nuclear weapon rated at 3 KT. In
one month, Russia would have destroyed Kyiv with conventional weapons. Using a
single tactical nuclear weapon, Russia would destroy Kyiv in roughly 3 seconds. To ensure the complete destruction of Kyiv, Russia
might have to double down and use two or three tactical nuclear weapons. Not by any stretch of language can this be
called a “tactical decision.”
The phrase “tactical nuclear weapon” is a contradiction, a
deception, a device employed by people who seek some way of justifying the use
of weapons, which they possess, for which no justified use can be found.
Russia is said to have 4000 nuclear weapons. As I have said
before and will say again and again, if a nation has nuclear weapons and the
people who control those weapons cannot be deterred by rational self-interest,
there is nothing anybody can do to stop them from using those weapons.
Vladimir Putin cannot use nuclear weapons. It is not he who
sits in the bunker or flies the plane or enters the codes into the device that
launches the weapon. He gives orders. If he were to order the use of nuclear
weapons, “tactical” or otherwise, would the generals and the colonels and the
majors and lieutenants obey his orders? I have no idea. If he were to order the
use of nuclear weapons and if the officers who actually control those weapons
were to obey his orders, would the weapons actually fly or would they splutter
and fizzle? I have no idea and I do not know whether American military
commanders know either.
Tomorrow, I will try to say something speculative about what
Biden could do short of launching a nuclear war to try to stop Putin.