Tactical nuclear weapons, also known as battlefield or nonstrategic nuclear weapons, were designed to be used on the battlefield, such as to counter overwhelming conventional forces such as large infantry and armor formations. They are smaller than strategic nuclear weapons such as intercontinental ballistic missile warheads.
While experts disagree on precise definitions of tactical nuclear weapons, lower explosive yields (measured in kilotons) and shorter-range delivery vehicles are common characteristics. Tactical nuclear weapons have yields ranging from fractions of a kiloton to about 50 kilotons, whereas strategic nuclear weapons have yields ranging from about 100 kilotons to over a megaton, despite the fact that much more powerful warheads were developed during the Cold War.
Both the United States and Russia reduced their total nuclear arsenals from roughly 19,000 and 35,000 at the end of the Cold War, respectively, to approximately 3,700 and 4,480 as of January 2022. Russia’s lack of desire to negotiate over its nonstrategic nuclear weapons has stymied additional nuclear arms control efforts.
The fundamental question is whether tactical nuclear weapons are more “usable,” and thus more likely to spark a full-fledged nuclear war. Their development was part of an effort to address concerns that strategic nuclear weapons were losing their value as a deterrent to war between the superpowers because large-scale nuclear attacks were widely regarded as unthinkable. In theory, nuclear powers would be more likely to use tactical nuclear weapons, bolstering a nation’s defenses.
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