Tactical nuclear weapons, 2019

By Hans M. Kristensen, Matt Korda | August 30, 2019

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Nuclear Notebook: Tactical nuclear weapons in the U.S., Russia, Pakistan and elsewhere

One of the most dramatic effects of the end of the Cold War was that nonstrategic or short-range tactical nuclear weapons faded into the background of military and political planning and rhetoric. Although many were retained, tactical nuclear weapons generally were first on the chopping block when US President George W.H. Bush and Russia’s leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, initiated sweeping unilateral and reciprocal nuclear arms reduction initiatives in the early-1990s. As a result, the combined number of tactical nuclear weapons in the US and Russian arsenals have declined dramatically by an order of magnitude from 20,000–30,000 in the late-1980s to less than 2,500 today.

The change has been most dramatic in the US arsenal, which saw the complete elimination of tactical nuclear weapons from the Army, Marine Corps, and Navy. Almost all nuclear weapons were withdrawn from overseas locations, and the entire surface fleet was denuclearized. The overall inventory declined from approximately 9,000 weapons in 1989 to about 230 today, all of which are bombs for tactical fighter aircraft. Although strongly motivated by the geopolitical changes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, this development was also precipitated by practical military considerations. Even before the Cold War ended, the military had already started phasing out several types of tactical nuclear weapons because they were no longer needed; increasingly efficient conventional weapons could do the job. Destruction of some complex targets still required nuclear weapons that continued to serve to deter adversaries and reassure allies, but those roles could be largely performed by strategic weapons…

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The Nuclear Notebook is researched and written by Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists, and Matt Korda, a research associate with the project. The Nuclear Notebook column has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1987.


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