The narrative surrounding “tactical nuclear weapons” is setting the stage for disaster.

By Alex Wellerstein, Outrider

When most people think about nuclear weapons, they think about “the bomb”: a unitary, solitary warhead of terrible power. Actual nuclear weapons have historically come in all shapes and sizes and were designed for different uses.

tactical nuke explosion

The possibility of Russia using a “tactical” and “low-yield” weapon has been in the news a lot over the past few months, as has U.S. interest in having “tactical” and “low-yield” weapons at its disposal. These terms are dangerously deceptive in that they imply that weapons on par with the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima are in some way less monstrous and more safely usable than they are.

The two major categories that have historically been used to describe weapons ­are “tactical” and “strategic.” The differences are less about the technology than the intent: a “strategic” weapon is one allocated to a “strategic” target. This category includes any target where the mere targeting is likely to reduce an enemy’s willingness to enter a war. The actual use of the weapon will reduce their ability to make war in a broad sense.

“Strategic” weapons could be pointed at centers of population, economic activity, political activity, and the military bases and weapons that an opponent might use to wage strategic warfare back on you (including, notably, an enemy’s nukes, if they have them).

“Tactical” weapons are intended to be used against “tactical” targets: tanks on the battlefield, bombers or fighters in the skies, submarines and boats deployed at sea, and troops in the field. Tactical nuclear weapons can be considered “theater” nuclear weapons deployed in the actual area where direct fighting occurs.

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