Vladimir Putin has again threatened the West that he is prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend “Russia’s territory”. Many observers fear that after annexing parts of Ukraine, the Kremlin will do so to stop the Ukrainian offensive trying to recapture the territories. So far no country has used such weapons on the front.
Putin is referring in this case to an attack with tactical nuclear weapons, different from the much more powerful strategic ones.
Tactical nuclear weapons are smaller systems designed for use on the battlefield in a limited-range attack. They are intended to destroy enemy targets without causing a large amount of radiation.
The smallest tactical nuclear weapons can have warheads smaller than one kiloton (equivalent to 1,000 kg of TNT). The largest can reach 100 kilotons. The maximum range the weapons can reach is in most cases no more than 500 km.
By comparison, the bomb used by the Americans at Hiroshima, the Little Boy, had a warhead of 15 kilotons. Fat Man, used for the Nakgasaki attack, had about 21 kilotons. A single Trident ballistic missile carried by an American Ohio-class submarine can carry warheads totalling hundreds of kilotons.
How many tactical nuclear weapons does Russia have
According to US intelligence, Russia has approximately 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. Nuclear warheads are equipped with cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, artillery shells, torpedoes or even sea mines. These weapons can be launched from land platforms, aircraft or sea vessels.
Also read: How Putin destroyed his army in Ukraine. Russia may never recover militarily
Many platforms developed to deliver conventional explosives can be modified to carry nuclear warheads.
The most likely platforms Russia could use for a nuclear attack in Ukraine:
Kinzhal hypersonic missiles – can hit targets up to 2,000 km away; impossible to intercept
Kalibr cruise missiles – range 1,500 – 2,500 km
Malka or Pion self-propelled guns – missiles can hit targets up to 47.5 km away
Iksander M ballistic missiles – range 400 – 500 km
How dangerous is the radiation from such an attack
Military experts believe that an attack with a tactical nuclear weapon will not change the fate of the war in Ukraine. Such an incident will contaminate areas Russia wants to control and there is a risk that some of the radiation will reach back to Russia. Moreover, such an attack would probably trigger NATO’s entry into the conflict and further tarnish Russia’s image.
If Putin does make this decision, however, the radiation effects will be quite strong. Many people near the epicenter of the blast will die and others will suffer severe burns, including through their clothes.
Buildings within a certain radius, which depends on the size of the warhead, will be destroyed. For example, a 15 kiloton bomb will destroy everything within a 1.6 km radius around its epicenter. A one kiloton warhead will cause complete destruction within a radius of about 400 metres.
After such an attack, the blast zone will be dangerous to all life for decades due to radiation. Wind and air currents will carry the radiation to other areas, and people in neighboring regions or states could develop radiation sickness.
Sources: BBC, The Conversation
Photo: Wikimedia, Profimedia