Week of March 06, 2024

Putin Threatens Nuclear War
What would Nuclear War in the 21st Century look like?


Russian President Putin used the Russian State of the Nation speech to warn NATO that sending troops to fight in Ukraine could result in nuclear war.

This warning came after French President Macron told a security forum that sending troops to Ukraine “can’t be ruled out.”

Putin said, “All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons, and therefore the destruction of civilization…We also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory.”

However, a strike against NATO and its nuclear weapons is a bold move.  In addition to the nuclear NATO nations of the US, UK, and France, there are US nuclear weapons also stored in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.  These nations also have nuclear capable aircraft.

There are also unconfirmed reports by the Times that Pakistan may be willing to share some nuclear warheads with Saudi Arabia if there is a threat to the Persian Gulf.  Both nations have denied the report.

Meanwhile, Russia has said that it is sharing nuclear capable weapon systems with Belarus.  However, Russia may not actually deploy the nuclear warheads until later.

So, what would a NATO vs. Russia nuclear war look like?  It’s very unlikely to look like a movie version of nuclear war, where dozens of nuclear weapons are launched simultaneously to destroy all the major cities on earth.  Modern nuclear weapons are more accurate, and some nuclear devices are only a kiloton in yield.

This week, the Financial Times published some leaked Russian documents that outlined their doctrine for the use of tactical nuclear weapons.  It also outlined the minimum criteria for using tactical nuclear weapons.  The documents were dated 2008 to 2014 and they have been verified by experts.

The Russian nuclear inventory is different from the American one.  Their tactical weapons are designed for use in Europe as they have a shorter range.  They also envision using their nukes against China.

Concerning China, the documents say, “The order has been given by the commander-in-chief…to use nuclear weapons…in the event the enemy deploys second echelon units and the South threatened to attack further in the direction of the main strike.”

A briefing for Russian naval officers gave an outline of when Russia may use nuclear weapons.  These include an enemy landing on Russian territory, the defeat of border units, or an imminent enemy attack using conventional weapons.  This includes a combination of factors where Russian losses “would irrevocably lead to their failure to stop major enemy aggression…a critical situation for the state security of Russia.”

The papers also give specific instances, where nuclear weapons would be used, including the destruction of 20 percent of Russia’s strategic ballistic missile submarines, 30 percent of its nuclear-powered attack submarines, three or more cruisers, three airfields, or a simultaneous hit on main or reserve coastal command centers.

Tactical nuclear weapons could also be used for several scenarios including “containing states from using aggression…escalating military conflicts…[and] stopping aggression.”

In other words, we can expect Russia to resort to nuclear weapons whenever it feels it is necessary.

Although these leaked documents are ten or more years old, experts think they still outline current Russian nuclear doctrine.

So, what is the US strategy for using nuclear weapons?  We don’t really know as it is one of the most sensitive and secret documents the US possesses.  It is called OPLAN 8010-12, Strategic Deterrence and Force Employment.  It has been in place since 2012.

Since the geopolitical situation has changed, it is very likely that it is being revised to account for a likely nuclear strike in Europe or the South China Sea.  Specifically, there will be options for using nukes in defense of a non-NATO nation like Ukraine.  There will also be options for a Russian strike against Poland or the Baltic nations.

Undoubtedly, a Russian strike against Moldova will be considered.

The US plans will also consider its NATO allies.  The US and UK will secure the Greenland, Iceland, UK chokepoint to stop Russian submarines from entering the Atlantic.  These will likely include US aircraft carriers and the UK’s latest Queen Elizabeth class carriers.  The US will work with Italy to secure the Adriatic Sea so US aircraft carriers can secure the NATO southern flank.

The US will have more options since it can project power across the world.  Its nuclear capable bombers can launch from the continental US to it anywhere on earth.  There are also US Navy ships that carry nuclear capable missiles.

But nuclear strikes aren’t the only tool in the American tool box.  Massive American airpower could use conventional weapons to strike nuclear sites in North Korea and Iran.

There are also options that include striking a nation’s electric power grid, conventional electromagnetic pulse weapons, jamming and spoofing the enemy’s air defense and communications, electronic jamming of communications, and cyber warfare.

The US can ratchet up the pressure if intelligence indicates a major strike against the US itself.  This could include tactical nuclear weapons that can penetrate deep underground to destroy underground bunkers that might be used to protect national leaders or nuclear warheads.

Whatever the plans and possible options, they need to be reviewed.  The world has changed dramatically in the past few years.  More nations are nuclear capable and ballistic missile technology makes delivering a nuke easier.  The age of flying a commercial aircraft into a building is past and the threat has gone far beyond conventional terrorism.

In many ways, the type of war envisioned today is closer to that of the Cold War – but with smarter weapons.