Military Wiki

U.S. officials view a W54 nuclear warhead (with a 10 or 20 ton explosive yield) as used on the Davy Crockett recoilless gun. The unusually small size of this tactical nuclear weapon is apparent

A tactical nuclear weapon (or TNW) also known as non-strategic nuclear weapon[1] refers to a nuclear weapon which is designed to be used on a battlefield in military situations. This is opposed to strategic nuclear weapons which are designed to produce effects against enemy cities, factories, and other larger-area targets to damage the enemy's ability to wage war, or for general deterrence. Tactical nuclear weapons were a large part of the peak nuclear weapons stockpile levels during the Cold War.


US scientists with a full-scale cut-away model of the W48 155-millimeter nuclear artillery shell, a very small tactical nuclear weapon with an explosive yield equivalent to 72 tons of TNT (0.072 kiloton). It could be fired from any standard 155 mm (6.1 inch) howitzer (e.g., the M114 or M198)

Russian 2S3 Akatsiya 152mm self-propelled artillery, capable of firing a 'ZBV3' (designated RFYAC-VNIITF) 1 kiloton nuclear artillery shell a distance of 17.4 km


An American eight-inch W33 nuclear artillery shell. This warhead had a number of different yield options (e.g., five kilotons). It could be fired from any standard eight-inch (203mm) howitzer (e.g., the M110 or M115)

Tactical weapons include not only gravity bombs and short-range missiles, but also artillery shells, land mines, depth charges, and torpedoes for anti-submarine warfare. Also in this category are nuclear armed ground-based or shipborne surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and air-to-air missiles.

Small, two-man portable, or truck-portable, tactical weapons (sometimes misleadingly referred to as suitcase nukes), such as the Special Atomic Demolition Munition and the Davy Crockett recoilless rifle, have been developed, although the difficulty of combining sufficient yield with portability could limit their military utility. In wartime, such explosives could be used for demolishing "choke-points" to enemy offensives, such as at tunnels, narrow mountain passes, and long viaducts.

Other new tactical weapons undergoing research include earth penetrating weapons which are designed to target enemy-held caves or deep-underground bunkers.

There is no precise definition of the "tactical" category, neither considering range nor yield of the nuclear weapon.[2][3] The yield of tactical nuclear weapons is generally lower than that of strategic nuclear weapons, but larger ones are still very powerful, and some variable-yield warheads serve in both roles. Modern tactical nuclear warheads have yields up to the tens of kilotons, or potentially hundreds, several times that of the weapons used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Some tactical nuclear weapons have specific features meant to enhance their battlefield characteristics, such as variable yield which allow their explosive power to be varied over a wide range for different situations, or enhanced radiation weapons (the so-called "neutron bombs") which are meant to maximize ionizing radiation exposure while minimizing blast effects.

Risk of escalating a conflict

Use of tactical nuclear weapons against similarly-armed opponents carries a significant danger of quickly escalating the conflict beyond anticipated boundaries, from the tactical to the strategic.[4][5][6][7][8][9] Small, low-yield tactical nuclear warheads can dangerously encourage forward-basing and pre-emptive nuclear warfare,[10][11] as nuclear weapons with destructive yields of 10 tons of TNT (e.g., the W54 warhead design) are less reluctantly used at times of crisis than warheads with yields of 100 kilotons.

American MGR-3 Little John missile, measuring 4.4. meters long with a diameter of 32 cms and a weight of 350 kg. Capable of firing a W45 warhead (10 kiloton yield) a distance of 19 km

French Pluton missile circa 1970s. Capable of firing a 15 kiloton nuclear warhead a distance of 75 miles

File:Red Beard Bomb On Trolley.jpg

Red Beard, a British gravity bomb of the early 1960s with a destructive yield of 25 kilotons

For example, firing a low-yield nuclear artillery shell similar to the W48 (with a yield equivalent to 72 tons of TNT) at the enemy invites retaliation. It may provoke the enemy into responding with several nuclear artillery shells similar to the W79, which had a 1 kiloton yield. The response to these 1 kiloton nuclear artillery shells may be to retaliate by firing a tactical nuclear missile similar to a French Pluton (15 kiloton yield) or the American MGM-52 Lance, fitted with a W70 variable yield warhead ranging between 1 and 100 kilotons. By using tactical nuclear weapons there is a high risk of escalating the conflict until it reaches a tipping point which provokes the use of strategic nuclear weapons such as ICBMs. Additionally, the tactical nuclear weapons most likely to be used first (i.e., the smallest, low-yield weapons such as nuclear artillery dating from the 1960s) have usually been under less stringent political control at times of military combat crises than strategic weapons.[12] Early Permissive Action Links could be as simple as a mechanical combination lock.[13] If a relatively junior officer in control of a small tactical nuclear weapon (e.g., the M29 Davy Crockett) were in imminent danger of being overwhelmed by enemy forces, he could request permission to fire it and due to decentralised control of warhead authorization, his request might quickly be granted during a crisis.

For these reasons, stockpiles of tactical nuclear warheads in most countries' arsenals have been dramatically reduced c. 2010, and the smallest types have been completely eliminated.[14] Additionally, the increased sophistication of "Category F" PAL mechanisms and their associated communications infrastructure mean that centralised control of tactical nuclear warheads (by the country's most senior political leaders) can now be retained, even during combat.

Some variable yield nuclear warheads such as the B61 nuclear bomb have been produced in both tactical and strategic versions. Whereas the lowest selectable yield of a tactical B61 (Mod 3 and Mod 4) is 0.3 kilotons (300 tons),[15] modern PAL mechanisms ensure that centralised political control is maintained over each weapon, including their destructive yields.

With the introduction of the B61 Mod 12, the United States will have four hundred identical nuclear bombs whose strategic or tactical nature will be set purely by the type of aircraft on which they are carried.[16]

Treaty control

Ten NATO member countries have advanced a confidence-building plan for NATO and Russia that could lead to treaties to reduce the tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.[17]

However in the meantime, NATO is moving forwards with a plan to upgrade its tactical nuclear weapons with precision guidance that would make them equivalent to strategic weapons in effects and to carry them on stealth aircraft that are much more survivable against modern air defenses.[18]


See also


  1. Hans M Kristensen. "Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons (page 8)". FAS. Retrieved 26 October 2013. 
  2. Brian Alexander, Alistair Millar, ed (2003). Tactical nuclear weapons : emergent threats in an evolving security environment. (1. ed. ed.). Washington DC: Brassey's. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-57488-585-9. Retrieved 22 March 2011. 
  3. Some weapons could be tactical or strategic at the same time, depending only on the potential enemy. For example India nuclear missile with 500 km range is tactical when evaluated by Russian side, but understandably would be considered strategic if evaluated by Pakistan.
  5. Patchen, Martin (April 1988). Resolving disputes between nations: coercion or conciliation?. Duke University Press. p. 254. ISBN 978-0-8223-0819-5. Retrieved 30 December 2010. 
  7. Strachan, Hew (1988-01-01). European Armies and the Conduct of War. Routledge. p. 195. ISBN 978-0-415-07863-4. Retrieved 30 December 2010. 
  8. Inc., Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, (May 1975). Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc.. p. 25. Retrieved 30 December 2010. 
  16. Kristensen, Hans. "B61 LEP: Increasing NATO Nuclear Capability and Precision Low-Yield Strikes." FAS, 15 June 2011.
  17. Kristensen, Hans. "10 NATO Countries Want More Transparency for Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons." Federation of American Scientists, 24 April 2011.
  18. Kristensen, Hans M. "Germany and B61 Nuclear Bomb Modernization." FAS, 13 November 2012.

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).