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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Small Nukes Tempt Russia

Last week President Boris Yeltsin chaired a secret meeting of his Security Council to discuss Russia's future nuclear plans. After the meeting Security Council secretary Vladimir Putin told reporters that Yeltsin signed three decrees covering "the development of the nuclear weapons complex and a concept for developing and using non-strategic nuclear weapons."

The Soviet Union had tens of thousands of "non-strategic" or "tactical" nuclear weapons, including air bombs, sea, land and air based short-range rockets, heavy artillery shells, nuclear land mines and so on. Since the end of the Cold War most such warheads have been dismantled, but some are still in storage.

The West knows that Moscow could reintroduce hundreds of additional tactical nukes into active service at short notice. The United States could easily do the same. But what would that change? Hitting NATO forces in the Balkans or anywhere else with a nuclear artillery shell would not be easy.

All U.S. and Russian land-based mid- and shorter-ranged operational-tactical missiles that could have reached deep into Europe from Russian territory were destroyed in the late 1980s under a treaty signed in 1987. Reintroduction of some new missiles to replace the ones destroyed would take time and money that Russia does not have. A new missile with the range of 450 kilometers, sometimes referred to as the "Iskander," was fully tested several years ago. But there is no money in Russia's defense budget to mass-produce and deploy it.

For many years the Russian Nuclear Power Ministry was developing a new generation of nuclear weapons small in size and in explosive yield. In 1996 Viktor Mikhailov, the nuclear power minister, together with some colleagues, published an article in which he promoted the new weapons as a possible reply to the expansion of NATO. Today Mikhailov is no more the nuclear power minister. He resigned and now is the first deputy nuclear power minister in charge of Russia's military nuclear program.

To deter NATO, wrote Mikhailov in 1996, "Russia could develop new-generation battlefield nuclear arms with relatively low capacity and reduced side-effects. It could manufacture 10,000 high-safety nuclear warheads with a yield (TNT equivalent) ranging from dozens to hundreds of tons, designed for theater missiles, front-line aviation and anti-aircraft complexes.

"To implement this program, Russia would need 300 tons of weapon-grade uranium and 30 tons of weapon-grade plutonium," Mikhailov estimated. These materials are available - the reduction of nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War has already produced more weapon-grade material than Russia can safely store.

The main aim of Mikhailov's plan is not only the production of new battlefield weapons. He says, "Russia could change the perception of nuclear arms as weapons of mass destruction."

Today nuclear weapons are considered so terrible that no one is ready to use them. Nuclear deterrence did not stop NATO attacking Yugoslavia, because no one in the West believes Russia would use nukes and destroy humanity because of a local war it does not like. Mikhailov wants to restore nukes as a weapon Russia can use in any armed conflict.

All Russia's warheads, including strategic ones, would be modernized to produce low-yield nuclear explosions not exceeding the equivalent of several hundred tons of TNT. If, say, Russian oil tankers are attacked by NATO ships near Yugoslavia, one or several Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles could be fired against Western troops or bases in the region, their warheads programmed to produce low-yield nuclear explosions.

Such a low-yield "pinpoint" attack would hardly trigger an immediate global nuclear war. Western governments would not even be sure at first whether it was a nuclear or a non-nuclear attack.

The introduction of low-yield "non-strategic" nuclear weapons on existing platforms, including intercontinental ones, would make Russian nukes a usable asset in any local armed conflict worldwide and Russia could become a superpower again - cheaply. Of course, the same "non-strategic" intercontinental warheads could easily be reprogrammed to deliver a "normal" megaton blast if global war happened.

In 1996 Mikhailov wrote that "technically, this is feasible, and the Nuclear Power Ministry is capable of solving the problem without additional nuclear tests and great expense." After the NATO attack on Yugoslavia, this plan seems to be ready for implementation.