Keeping a nuclear exchange limited: Closer look into Pentagon’s recent wargame

The Pentagon’s drill was centered on the use of the W76-2 low-yield nuclear warhead-tipped submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM)

Dr. Can Kasapoglu   | 12.03.2020
Keeping a nuclear exchange limited: Closer look into Pentagon’s recent wargame

The writer is the director of security and defense research program at the Istanbul-based think-tank EDAM.


In February 2020, the U.S. Strategic Command conducted a war-game, assessing a limited nuclear exchange with the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. News reports suggest that the drill’s scenario simulated a first use of tactical nuclear weapons by Moscow in the European theatre, followed by “an American response in kind”.

The Pentagon’s drill was centered on the use of the W76-2 low-yield nuclear warhead-tipped submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Notably, the U.S.’ 2018 Nuclear Posture Review document hinted at the Trump administration’s plans to produce a low-yield variant of the existing W76-tipped SLBM arsenal.

The newly deployed warhead is based on the W76 thermonuclear weapon with a yield of some 90 kilotons (some sources report 100 kilotons). Available writings on the W76-2 variant suggest that the new tactical nuclear warhead has a yield of less than 10 kilotons (even 5 kilotons according to some open-source reporting), allegedly making it a “battlefield asset” – a debated military concept that many non-proliferation experts would shun, claiming that no nation can keep a nuclear exchange limited or at tactical level.

Thinking like a Russian general: Debates on Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons

A closer glimpse into the Western, particularly American, political-military debates as to the Russian tactical nuclear weapons – or “non-strategic nuclear weapons” in the Russian military lexicon – showcase two distinct schools of thought.

On the one hand, the more optimistic view calculates that Russia cannot keep a nuclear conflict limited and the Kremlin is in grasp of this reality. Thus, Russian military planners would not resort to any sort of nuclear option in a conventional bonanza.

On the other hand, the more cautious view considers Moscow’s non-strategic nuclear assets, which account for up to some 2,000 warheads, to be an integral part of its military planning. If true, this would signal a very dangerous potential for any escalation in the Russian Western Military District and NATO’s eastern flank, as well as in any Russo-Sino tensions in the east, especially given the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s force-on-force ratio advantages.

Western writings focus on two main Russian non-strategic first-use scenarios in Europe.

The first one revolves around a limited nuclear strike on forward-deployed NATO formations in the eastern flank, at the overture of a spiraling armed conflict to gain the upper hand fast.

The second scenario explores the prospects of a demonstration strike by the Russians, aiming at inflicting no casualties, but deterring all-out NATO mobilization. Ironically, the latter boils down to “de-escalating” a conventional conflict in the Russian strategic community’s understanding.

Dangerous scenarios in context

When and under which circumstances would the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation use tactical weapons in a conflict situation?

Major Russian military drills have portrayed a pronounced nuclear character which remains telling. Since the 1999 Zapad (the principal planned exercise in the western part of the country), the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have simulated a nuclear first use many times. This practice was later extended to the Vostok exercises (the principal planned exercise in the east) too. Furthermore, Russian nuclear scenarios take place in a very broad array of missions, ranging from using low-yield assets against a separatist threat to massive nuclear strikes with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Even more dangerously, in the peak of Moscow’s 2014 hybrid warfare campaign in Ukraine, Russia held a massive nuclear exercise.

The present Russian military doctrine was published back in 2014. According to the strategic document, Moscow could resort to the nuclear option against a nuclear aggression to any part of Russian or allied territory, as well as for retaliating against a pressing conventional threat which can fundamentally threaten the existence of the state. The latter emphasis remains crucial as it gives assent to a nuclear response against conventional aggressions.

Present Russian defense planning envisages three geographic layers of war-fighting (local, regional, and large-scale). In the literature, while the Russian understanding of local conflicts involves limited use of war-fighting capacity and no nuclear weapons, regional wars, which can be exacerbated by local conflicts, remain interstate in nature and might necessitate nuclear capabilities. Finally, large-scale wars go well beyond regional armed conflicts, thus, they could trigger massive nuclear exchanges. If there is a place for non-strategic nuclear capacity, it is what the Russian geo-strategic school depicts as regional wars.

If war comes

According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s principal open-source military intelligence estimate about Moscow’s military might, “the Russian military today is on the rise—not as the same Soviet force that faced the West in the Cold War, dependent on large units with heavy equipment, but as a smaller, more mobile, balanced force rapidly becoming capable of conducting the full range of modern warfare. It is a military that can intervene in countries along Russia’s periphery or as far away as the Middle East. The new Russian military is a tool that can be used to underpin Moscow’s stated ambitions of being a leading force in a multipolar world”.

In league with the above-mentioned assessment, several wargaming reports prepared by the RAND Corporation conclude that the Russian military, thanks to the Western military district’s local superiority over the NATO forces in its vicinity, can reach the outskirts of the Baltic capitals in less than three days.

When it comes to CONOPS, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation excel in mobilizing an overwhelming number of troops in a short time, capitalizing on the political-military ambiguities when transitioning from peacetime to wartime, and conducting large-scale combined arms maneuvers. The anti-access / area denial assets in Russia’s strategic weapons arsenal, along with Moscow’s critical edge in electronic warfare, can give the Kremlin’s ground forces enough time to execute a blitz.

The Putin era defense reforms have introduced additional operational headquarters (at army and corps levels) to the Russian military’s doctrinal order of battle in the west and south. This enhancement would ensure better organization for divisions and brigades when executing offensives. In the meanwhile, the VDV (the Airborne Troops), being the Russian president’s strategic reserve force with no other subordination, as well as elite Spetsnaz formations, have increased their manpower. In recent years, Moscow has shown a bigger interest in private contractors, like the Wagner Group, which could translate into better “hybrid warfare” activities in the gray zone below the threshold of war. Finally, the Syrian expedition and operations in Ukraine have offered an invaluable experience and lessons-learned for Russian military planners. All in all, Russia in the 2020s will keep being a potent military actor with aspirant geopolitical ambitions.

What about the shortfalls? Due to the unstable economic situation of the country, as well as having lagged behind in digitalization, the Russians cannot match the Western C4ISR (command, control, computers, communications, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) capabilities. This drawback would inevitably translate into critical shortcomings in network-centric warfare.

Nevertheless, since the end of the Cold War, most NATO nations have not invested in large-scale combined arms capabilities. In case the Kremlin opts for testing the allied cohesion, it has to do so by using the surprise factor. Russia is capable of mastering ambiguity in the gray zone when transitioning to wartime. Then rapidly, Moscow has to de-escalate the conflict before it turns into a large-scale war. Because, in the longer term, NATO’s strategic sources would still outclass those of the Russian military. If Russian defense planners ever opt for limited nuclear first use, it would take place during the critical changeover between a regional war and a large-scale war.

Right at this point, the U.S. Strategic Command’s recent war-game looms large. Would the U.S. really go for tactical nuclear retaliation against Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons use during an aggression towards a NATO ally? Can the belligerents keep a nuclear exchange at the tactical level to de-escalate an armed conflict, or once the genie is out of the bottle, would a nuclear Armageddon be inevitable? As Hamlet put it; that is the question…

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