Tactical Nukes: Armageddon on the Installment Plan

How’s this for a nice little nightmare? Imagine that Iran responds to another Qassem Soleimani-style provocation with a missile barrage that sinks a $40-billion aircraft carrier with 6,000 personnel on board. The US response is ferocious. But then comes the unexpected: a nuclear-tipped SLBM, or submarine-launched ballistic missile, that scores a direct hit on central Tehran, incinerating buildings and killing civilians by the tens of thousands. The world reels in horror as a 75-year-old anti-nuclear taboo falls by the wayside.

Impossible? Unfortunately, it’s a little less so now that the Trump administration has made the Strangelovian decision to begin arming nuclear submarines with low-yield nuclear devices. Expressly designed for small-scale theaters of operation, such weapons are all too tempting for use against a regional power that refuses to bow to US diktat.

Low-yield means somewhere around five kilotons, a third of the power of the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Atomically speaking, this is hardly more than a firecracker. But such devices dwarf conventional weapons like the record-setting GBU-43/B MOAB (“Mother of all bombs”) that the US dropped on an ISIS tunnel complex in Afghanistan in 2017. In a 2003 test, a MOAB prototype created a mushroom cloud visible from twenty miles away. Yet a five-kiloton bomb is 500 times greater.

It’s their Goldilocks size – not too big, not too small, but just right – that renders such nukes all the more dangerous. Since regular-sized nuclear warheads can range anywhere from 90 to 455 kilotons, their use only makes “sense” in the context of a global meltdown. Even if the fiercest conventional land war were to break out in Central Europe or on the Korean Peninsula, the result would be a boundary that even the most hard-pressed military commander would hesitate to transgress.

But low-yield nukes are all too useful in such circumstance and hence all too tempting. By lowering the nuclear threshold, they therefore make it all the easier to cross. Once it does so, the US would find itself stepping over it again and again. Instead of an immediate blowout, the upshot would a step-by-step escalation leading to the same end – not apocalypse now but apocalypse in a little while following a gradual buildup. Read More.

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