Why Low-Yield Tactical Nuclear Weapons Are Still Destructive Beyond Measure

The phrase tactical nuclear weapon is somewhat deceiving. It makes these weapons sound less destructive than they are... The truth is, they are incredibly dangerous and can still cause massive destruction.
tactical nuclear weapon

Despite the misleading name, tactical nuclear weapons pack a punch that is anything but small – and now more than ever, they are coming into the public eye as Russia threatens to use them in Ukraine.

What are tactical nuclear weapons?

MGR-3 Little John
MGR-3 Little John by U.S. Army. Public Domain.

Tactical nuclear weapons are a type of nuclear warhead with a lower explosion yield than traditional strategic nuclear weapons.

They are often designed for use in regional conflicts or against military targets. Tactical nuclear weapons typically have an explosive yield of fewer than ten kilotons, which is smaller than the 20-kiloton yield of the Hiroshima bomb.


But, a single tactical nuclear weapon could easily level a small city, and the radioactive fallout from such a warhead would spread disaster far beyond the initial blast zone.

US nuclear weapons test at Eniwetok Low-Yield Nukes
US nuclear weapons test at Eniwetok by International Campaign. Licensed under CC by 2.0

So, while using tactical nuclear weapons may sound like a good idea, they actually pose a significant risk to global security. It would be a bridge to use weapons of greater destruction and escalate the war to a level never seen before.

“Tactical” and “strategic” nuclear weapons

Tactical nuclear weapons would fall into the category of tactical weapons. They are designed for use on the battlefield against enemy troops.


On the other hand, strategic nuclear weapons are made for use against the enemy’s infrastructure, such as their factories, military bases, telecommunications networks, or cities.

They typically have a higher yield than tactical weapons, making them more effective at causing large-scale damage. Both types of nuclear weapons can be devastating, but strategic weapons are seen as more dangerous as they have the ability to level entire cities.

In fact, the difference between the two is significant. A tactical nuclear weapon would have less destructive power than the atomic bombs used during World War II.


Little Boy atomic bomb casing at the Imperial War Museum in London
Little Boy atomic bomb Museum in London by Nick-D. Licensed under CC by 4.0

Meanwhile, a modern nuclear bomb could easily wipe out a large city, leaving millions of victims – and probably contaminating the world’s water supply and causing unimaginable levels of cancer in the world’s population due to nuclear fallout.

Could Russia strategically or tactically use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine?

OTR-21 Tochka, Day of the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan
OTR-21 Tochka, Day of the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan by Gulustan. Licensed under CC by 3.0

The situation in Ukraine is complex… to say the least. Russia is always claiming that they’re ready to use nuclear weapons. However, using a nuclear weapon – even a low-yield one – would be a massive escalation, and it’s not clear that Russia would gain anything from such a move.

Nuclear weapons test at Eniwetok
Nuclear weapons test at Eniwetok by International Campaign. Licensed under CC by 2.0.

Since the Cold War, Moscow has been threatening the west with nuclear war… But it seems like a bad idea for Russia.


This would probably escalate the conflict and normalize the use of nuclear weapons – and retaliation would undoubtedly follow and probably means Russia’s total obliteration.

Although for the Russian political leadership, it wouldn’t be a big problem since they would have a bunker to survive – and then they could go somewhere else. The military leadership won’t have the same luck. They won’t survive a nuclear war and will see their country being wiped out.

So, it’s more likely that Russia would continue to use conventional forces in Ukraine… But only time will tell if they are really serious about using a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine.


Tactical nuclear weapons are no joke

In the end, there’s no such thing as a “safe” nuclear weapon. Calling tactical nuclear weapons low-yield nukes may lead people to think that they are somehow less lethal than conventional nuclear weapons.

However, they represent a gateway to a larger-scale nuclear war – and its use would presumably mark a point of no return.

Feature image credit:  Teapot Met 001 by National Nuclear Security Administration


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