- - Sunday, May 8, 2016


The likelihood of Russia using nuclear arms in combat is far higher than most imagine.

Very few outside of those who closely study the Cold War remember the complexity of nuclear strategy. In 1999 the Russian military came out with their policy of nuclear de-escalation which redefined limited tactical nuclear strikes as de-escalation. While counterintuitive, it is alarmingly logical in a ruthless way. Unfortunately it has only been taken seriously by our generals in the past couple years, because we continued to naively view the Russians as our friends.

Today, Russia has at least four times as many deployed tactical nukes as America. Unlike strategic nukes, tactical nukes are not covered by our treaties. Due to the foolishness of the New Start Treaty the Russians even have possible advantages in the realm of strategic nukes. The Obama administration has also declared them in violation of the Intermediate Missile Treaty Ban increasing the level of threat to Europe. NORAD has deployed the JLENS blimp into the Washington, D.C. area to detect Russian sub launched cruise missiles that can fly under our regular missile warning systems to prevent a nuclear decapitation strike against our nation.

Russia has deliberately shown off the use of highly capable nuclear capable cruise missiles in Syria. While obviously, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not use nuclear warheads, the whole point of that exercise was likely to demonstrate and rehearse in combat Russia’s capability to deliver tactical nukes to virtually any target in Europe and even the United States. His use of cruise missiles in Syria served no other significant military purpose. The Russians accomplished the other missions far more effectively and cheaply with regular bombs.

Russia has deployed powerful anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles in strategically vital areas such as Syria, the Crimea and Kaliningrad. The S-400 anti-aircraft system poses a huge challenge for our combat planes. Russian anti-ship missiles can be devastating particularly if nukes are placed on them, as demonstrated in the BBC realistic portrayal “Inside the War Room” (with real former officials in the actual war room).

Our current situation is now defined by a Russia in irreversible economic decline, a Russia with the world’s largest and most advanced nuclear arsenal, and a Russia with very capable conventional forces, led by former KGB and GRU thugs.

The only way Mr. Putin has to prove to the world his nukes matter is to actually use them.

Mr. Putin’s goal is be able to control the escalation and achieve escalation dominance. The likelihood of serious clashes with Russia is in reality extremely high now. If the Russians resort to using nuclear weapons they are likely to use tactical nukes against isolated military targets.

The greatest confusion about nuclear weapons is that people assume that they have to target cities only leading to extreme events.

A limited Russian tactical nuclear strike can be done to be extremely limited involving very low yield and highly minimizing the release of long- lasting fallout. However, Russian tactical nukes can also be set for enhanced radiation, meaning increased gamma rays and neutrons to instantaneously kill NATO soldiers very close to the targeted strike. In other words, tactical nukes often have greatly increased “prompt radiation” while simultaneously reducing fallout. Disturbingly, the Russians deliberately leaked a drone that would deliver a megaton cobalt bomb. The purpose of putting cobalt in a nuke is to create a zone that is deadly for a century. The isotope of cobalt created by being in the proximity of a nuclear blast is long enough we would never live long enough for it decay away, but fast enough that the energy emitted is deadly. The Russians likely wanted the threat of a cobalt bomb just to emphasize that we cannot risk massively retaliating against them.

The real issue is the Russians have “escalation dominance” over us. That is because they will not take seriously any U.S. threats to massively retaliate. The high risk of mutually assured destruction means trying to massively retaliate could turn out to be suicide for the United States. Russia continues to maintain over a 1000 thermonuclear strategic nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of destroying almost all American cities in a half an hour.

Possible targets for Russian tactical nuclear strikes would be NATO bases in Poland, bases in Sweden, Turkish armored units, or even Saudi bases and oil fields. The point would be largely demonstrative proving the Russians are not afraid of using nukes and demonstrating the United States can no longer defend global security.

To prevent such an adverse outcome, we need to now seriously work with our allies to greatly bolster the NATO deterrent against Russian aggression.

• Michael J. Szanto is a PhD student at the University of Miami.

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