Strategic nuclear weapon

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Fat Man was a strategic nuclear weapon dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki during the final stages of World War II. It was the second and last nuclear weapon to be used in combat. This nuclear strike killed an estimated 35,000-40,000 people outright, including 23,200-28,200 Japanese factory workers, 2,000 Korean slave laborers, and 150 Japanese combatants.

A strategic nuclear weapon refers to a nuclear weapon which is designed to be used on targets often in settled territory far from the battlefield as part of a strategic plan, such as military bases, military command centers, arms industries, transportation, economic, and energy infrastructure, and heavily populated areas such as cities and towns, many which often contains such targets.[1] It is contrast to a tactical nuclear weapon, which is designed for use in battle, as part of an attack with and often in close proximity to friendly conventional forces possibly on contested friendly territory.


Strategic nuclear weapons generally have significantly larger yields, and typically starting from 100 kilotons up to destructive yields in the low megaton range for use especially in the enemy nations interior far from friendly forces to maximize damage especially to buried hard targets like a missile silo or wide area targets like a large bomber or naval base. However, yields can overlap, and many weapons such as the variable yield B61 nuclear bomb which could be used at low power by a fighter-bomber in an interdiction strike or at high yield dropped by a strategic bomber against an enemy submarine pen. The W89 200 kiloton (1/5Mt) warhead which armed both the tactical Sea Lance area effect anti-submarine weapon for use far out at sea and the strategic bomber launched SRAM II stand off missile designed for use in the Soviet Union's interior. Indeed, the strategic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki utilized weapons of between 10 and 20 kilotons, though this was because the "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" bombs were the most destructive (and indeed only) nuclear weapons available at the time. There is no precise definition of the "strategic" category, neither considering range nor yield of the nuclear weapon.[2][3] The yield of tactical nuclear weapons is generally lower than that of strategic nuclear weapons, but larger ones are still very powerful, and some variable-yield warheads serve in both roles, Modern tactical nuclear warheads have yields up to the tens of kilotons, or potentially hundreds, several times that of the weapons used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Strategic thinking under the Eisenhower administration and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was that of massive retaliation in the face of the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal during this period when the many of the most destructive deployed thermonuclear weapons were developed by both superpowers, every bit of destructive power which could be delivered to the enemy's interior was considered advantageous in maintaining deterrence and would become the basis of the US strategic arsenal.[4] Flexible response was a defense strategy first implemented by John F. Kennedy in 1961 to address the Kennedy administration's skepticism of the policy of Massive Retaliation in the face of strike options limited to total war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. [5] This along with cost, increasingly accurate targeting, multiple warheads per delivery vehicle, and a desire for greater flexibility in targeting especially with respect to increasing sensitivity to collateral damage in some scenarios began the trend to reducing individual warhead yields in strategic weapon systems.[6]

Strategic missiles and bombers are assigned preplanned targets including enemy airfields, radars, and surface to air defenses; but this strategic mission was to eliminate the enemy nation's national defenses to allow following strategic bombers and missiles to more realistically penetrate and threaten in force the enemy nation's strategic forces, command, population, and economy rather than purely targeting military assets in near real time using tactical weapons with range and yield optimized for this type of time sensitive attack mission often in close proximity to friendly forces.[7]

Early ICBMs had an unfavorable circular error probable (CEP); meaning the strategic missiles, and in some conditions bombers; had low targeting accuracy. Additionally much early cold war strategic asset construction was above ground soft targets or minimally hardened such as airfields, pre-nuclear command and control installations, defensive infrastructure, even ICBM bases. When every missile carried only one poorly guided warhead designing systems with massive warhead yields in order to cause a huge damage footprint, with the possibility of potentially destroying several nearby soft targets of opportunity, while also increasing the likelihood that the primary target was within the overlap of CEP and destruction circle the highest possible yield warhead for the missile was considered an advantage.[8] The enemy being targeted a continent away there was a low ratio of side effects to friendly areas when contrasted to potential damage to enemy assets. As navigation technology improved accuracy or CEP and many missiles and nearly all bombers were equipped with multiple nuclear warheads the trend was to reduce warhead yield both for weight as well as to give more flexibility in targeting with respect to collateral damage, target hardening also created a situation where even a very large warhead with excellent targeting would still only destroy one target gaining no advantage to its large weight and expense vs several smaller MIRVs.[9]

A feature of strategic nuclear weapons, especially in the transcontinental nature of the U.S.-USSR cold war with continent spanning superpower enemies that are oceans apart, is the greater range of their delivery apparatus (e.g. ICBMs), giving them the ability to threaten the enemy's command and control structure and national infrastructure, even though they are based many thousands of miles away in friendly territory. Intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads are the primary strategic nuclear weapons, while short-range missiles are tactical. In addition, while tactical weapons are designed to meet battlefield objectives without destroying nearby friendly forces, one main purpose of strategic weapons is in the deterrence role, under the theory of mutually assured destruction. In the case of two small bordering nations, a strategic weapon could have a quite short range and still be designed or intended for strategic targeting. Specifically on the Korean peninsula with a nuclear armed North Korea facing off against a NPT compliant South Korea there have been calls to request a return US owned short range low yield nuclear weapons, nomenclatured as tactical by the US military, to provide a local strategic deterrent to the North's growing domestically produced nuclear arsenal and delivery systems.[10]

After the Cold War, the tactical nuclear weapon stockpiles of NATO and Russia were greatly reduced. Highly accurate strategic missiles like the Trident II can also be used in substrategic, tactical strikes.

De-escalation Strikes[edit]

According to several reports including by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists quote Russian sources that as a result of the effectiveness and acceptability of USAF use of precision munitions with little collateral damage in the Kosovo conflict in what amounted to strategic destruction once only possible with nuclear weapons or massive bombing against fellow Slavic Serbians. Vladimir Putin, then Russian defense minister formulated a concept of using both tactical and strategic nuclear threats and strikes to de-escalate or cause an enemy to disengage from a conventional conflict threatening what Russia considered a strategic interest. This concept was formalized when Putin took power in Russia in the following year.[11][12][13]

Strategic nuclear weapons[edit]


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  2. ^ Brian Alexander, Alistair Millar, ed. (2003). Tactical nuclear weapons : emergent threats in an evolving security environment. (1. ed.). Washington DC: Brassey's. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-57488-585-9. Retrieved 22 March 2011. 
  3. ^ Some weapons could be tactical or strategic at the same time, depending only on the potential enemy. For example India nuclear missile with 500 km range is tactical when evaluated by Russian side, but understandably would be considered strategic if evaluated by Pakistan.
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  8. ^ p-29
  9. ^ p-9
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  13. ^ Russia's Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons, by Dr. Jacob W. Kipp, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth; published in Military Review May-June 2001