Report IRSEM No. 105 - 2023

The Return of Tactical Nuclear Weapons?


Over the past decade, strategic experts have noted that nuclear weapons have become more prominent on the international stage, despite them not having been used since 1945. A recent and significant milestone in this regard is the way Russia used nuclear signaling during the invasion of Ukraine. Questions regarding the possibility of Moscow using nuclear weapons extended beyond expert circles, as the media began to question whether people should fear the use of a tactical nuclear weapon and an escalation into nuclear war. These concerns echoed the questions raised by several researchers regarding a possible “return” of tactical nuclear weapons, which seemed to have been relegated to the background of the geopolitical arena since the end of the Cold War.

The present study raises the issue of tactical nuclear weapons being rehabilitated, starting from the hypothesis that the latter increase the risk of escalation from conventional to nuclear warfare, due to them being easier to utilize than strategic nuclear weapons. The first part focuses on terminology and aims to shed light on the notion of tactical nuclear weapons. The second part focuses on three very different arsenal- and doctrine-related cases. Finally, the third part examines the possibilities for a normative framework to regulate these systems, despite the current unfavorable political context

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