What are tactical nuclear weapons?

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When a large-scale armed conflict is declared in which powers indirectly oppose each other (and Ukraine is the latest and greatest example of such a scenario), fears abound that rivals will lose control and use weapons of mass destruction. The appeal of nuclear weapons already exists because they exist. In a theater like the Ukrainian one, the use of small nuclear bombs, so-called strategic nuclear weapons, is still a distant scenario, but not forgotten.

The Kremlin and Vladimir Putin himself have repeatedly stated that they will not stop any attempt to invade Russia’s territory if its national sovereignty is threatened. Moscow believes – much to the liking of Western powers – that Crimea is Russian territory, which the Kyiv government has demanded to return more insistently and with greater force since the start of the war of aggression.

Tactical nuclear weapons are weapons that, if used, would be used in a theater of war. In general, their potential targets are mostly military. These can be entire units, including army forces, navies, ports or large headquarters, to name a few examples. Their mobility and ability to move more or less quickly over land, sea or air is the best feature of any tactical nuclear weapon ever used – barring tests.

Although there is no complete consensus in this regard, there is a more or less broad agreement among experts that a tactical nuclear weapon should be understood as a yield range of less than one kiloton. A kiloton is a unit of mass equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT (trinitrotoluene) and is used in this case to describe the destructive power of a bomb. The yield on Hiroshima was 16 kilotons and the one on Nagasaki was 21 kilotons.

The most common bases or platforms from which strategic nuclear weapons are launched are aircraft, ships or submarines, and ground vehicles. In most cases, these are conventional ballistic missiles which, with more or less modifications, may contain nuclear warheads of various manufactures.

There are countries that rely more on the Air Force as a potential launch platform for their strategic nuclear weapons, while others, such as the UK and to a lesser extent France, rely more on the Navy, particularly submarines.

In terms of nuclear power in general, Russia and the United States dominate the field of strategic nuclear weapons. In any case, the remaining seven nuclear-weapon states have it, although in some cases, the secrecy and discretion with which most governments treat these matters makes it impossible to give a number. Countries with offensive nuclear capabilities: Russia, US, China, France, UK, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

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According to the official academic publication Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Russia has 1,912 “non-strategic” (strategic) nuclear weapons, while the United States has about 200. In any case, Lt. Gen. Francisco José Gan Pampols says that any data on these cases must be taken with extreme caution because states use this data. “There are no exact statistics on this,” he tells the newspaper.

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Undefined data

Governments guard their nuclear weapons statistics

The general explains that tactical warheads are armed with artillery shells or missiles, which can be short- to medium-range. Although the yield of these bombs is already known to be between half and one kiloton, the level of destruction or destruction of a bomb with these characteristics depends on four factors, said a professor in the physics department at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. . Remember Louis Font. “You have to take into account the altitude of the explosion, the climate, the terrain and the population density,” the radiation physicist explains to La Vanguardia.

As for factors related to the height of the explosion, it is worth clarifying that what happened, for example, when hitting the ground, would be less lethal than an explosion that occurred a few meters above the ground. “On the other hand, there is a maximum height range over which power dissipates,” comments Professor Font.

The bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are estimated to have exploded about 500 or 600 meters above the ground, according to the book “International Relations” by Rafael Calduch, a professor at Computense University in Madrid.

Immediate results

The heat generated by a nuclear explosion is the cause of the greatest loss of life.

The greatest instantaneous destructive power of nuclear weapons is produced by the so-called heat wave. It is a heat storm – hurricane-force winds are created – at extremely high temperatures (in the center of the explosion it will be thousands of degrees Celsius), burning everything in its path. For example, in Hiroshima, 75% of all losses (killed and injured) were caused by the heat wave and 20% by physical and mechanical effects, i.e. by the blast wave, which traveled at a speed of 330 kilometers per second. In Professor Kalduk’s book.

On the other hand, the effects of radiation are more delayed, which does not prevent people from suffering terrible torture and death or very serious and very painful injuries. The time of exposure and the distance to the center of the explosion are the determining factors for the development of the pathological effects of the indicated radiation, which in this case originates from a nuclear explosion.

The conflagration caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine highlights the existence of nuclear weapons and the fear they create. Hundreds and thousands of times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, the weapon is not so much a tactical weapon, creating the so-called deterrence effect. Its launch will destroy entire countries.

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In October 1961, the Soviets tested a hydrogen bomb that was 4,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

“There are studies that show that the use of strategic nuclear weapons, even if they are directed only at military targets, will trigger a series of adversarial actions between adversaries leading to mutually assured destruction,” says Lt. Gen. Gann.

“Although the use of strategic nuclear weapons is occasionally considered in some parts of the West, Russia rejects limited nuclear war because it threatens a policy of mutually assured destruction,” said Louis V. Perez Gil commented. La Laguna, an expert on conflict theory. In addition, Russia, unlike other countries such as the former USSR or China, has not adhered to the doctrine of nations that will never use nuclear weapons.

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Professor Perez Gil recalls that there are theories that suggest that it was nuclear weapons that prevented direct conflict between the great powers. Fear of mutually assured destruction would, according to this current of thought, be a guarantee of peace. This is in contrast to what was widely believed in the early years of the Soviet Union’s demise, when it was believed that nuclear weapons had lost their justification.

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Enrique Figueredo | Barcelona

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