By Ben Goldson

With international treaties focused on regulating higher-yield nuclear weapons, the relatively lighter “tactical” armaments have quietly proliferated in their place, despite being far more destructive than either of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Since the early 1960s, successive international treaties have been signed regarding nuclear weapons. This patchwork of agreements generally focuses on higher-yield armaments, intended for strategic use far away from the borders of the nation deploying them. In contrast, the lighter end of the scale remains relatively unregulated by the global community, which is currently beset by growing tensions. Combined, these two factors have seen the re-emergence of the low-yield, “tactical” nuclear weapon at the forefront of war planning, seen as possibly the difference between victory and defeat in the event of open conflict.

Despite the terminology however, which itself remains contentious, the reality is that modern tactical weapons have a far more destructive power than the bombs that reduced Hiroshima and Nagasaki to ashes during World War Two. Part of the problem is that the very concept of a divide between tactical or strategic dates back to the months leading up to the twin explosions, with conflicting ideas on how to use the devastating new arms within the government soon spilling out into the public eye. Caught up in the resulting controversy would be physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had led the Manhattan Project to successfully detonate the world’s first nuclear device in July 1945. Afterwards, Oppenheimer questioned the assumption that the weapons had to be used strategically against civilian populations. Although his opposition went unheeded, the now-famous scientist continued to use his platform to influence opinion during the early years of the Cold War, until he was stripped of his security clearance in a 1954 hearing into allegations of Soviet espionage.

Taking place in a wider context of conservative anti-Communism now known as the Second Red Scare, the hearing effectively drove him from the forefront of nuclear research. Outside of the personal fortunes of one scientist, the ruling was also a defeat for the US Army, which had agreed with Oppenheimer’s pro-tactical position. In their case, however, it was for far more cynical reasons, with strategic deployment far from the field of battle instead placing the powerful weapons in the hands of the newly-created Air Force. Unfortunately for the Army, their reputation was also hit by the Second Red Scare, which saw an investigation into the Signal Corps started shortly before the Oppenheimer hearings. Associated most strongly with Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had served as an intelligence officer with the US Army Air Force before it had been reorganised into an independent branch of the military, the investigation would make similar claims of widespread infiltration of the Signal Corps.

While McCarthy’s own image would be critically damaged by his conduct during the hearings, the resulting suspicion towards the tactical camp would help cement the strategic supremacy in the early years of the Cold War. Despite these machinations within the military establishment however, the prospect of all-out nuclear warfare was not readily accepted by the people in the firing line, spurring the creation of an international movement against the apocalyptic new weapons. Understandably, their focus would be on the heavier end of the nuclear scale, itself continuing to expand in an arms race driven by international hostilities. When these tensions eased somewhat in the 1970s, the resulting Strategic Arms Limitations Talks would take place between the United States and Soviet Union. With a name reflecting its focus on the strategic use of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead across the world at the push of a button, tactical weapons, which could be delivered at close range through means such as artillery, were left uncovered by the resulting agreements.

Decades on from the end of the Cold War, as international relations once again begin to fray, this grey zone continues to exist. While the rise of climate change and terrorism may have displaced nuclear weapons at the forefront of people’s minds when it comes to the world’s troubles, recent years have proved that they are far from going away, with the absence of more stringent controls leading various nations to embrace the lighter option. Most notable among them is Pakistan, which has made clear its enthusiasm for tactical weapons, having developed the Nasr missile in the early 2010s as part of a pivot towards the low-yield. Elsewhere, the three great powers of the modern world, the US, China and Russia, are all quietly upgrading their own stockpiles in what could well turn into a full-blown arms race if it continues to go unchecked by comprehensive regulation.

Currently, it appears that a new round of talks relating to nuclear disarmament, particularly relating to tactical weapons, is hardly a priority for national governments or the people they represent. Seventy-something years on from the only times that nuclear weapons, of any size, have been used in combat, there is a sense that the issue has been, for the most part, resolved. With memories of Cold War-era fears fading into history, the reality is that the threat of nuclear apocalypse remains. If anything, it is being accentuated by the proliferation of tactical weapons, the relatively small size of which may well tempt war planners into thinking a limited strike is achievable. Meanwhile, the growth of non-state actors in conflicts around the world increases this risk, with these groups far less bound by the drastic consequences of actually using nuclear arms.

In a world increasingly divided by nationalism and terrorism, the ongoing lack of regulation governing the supposedly low-yield weapons threatens catastrophe, but it appears little is being done about it. In theory, the solution is simple. In practice, however, bringing the various nuclear powers together and getting them to agree on disarmament is a daunting prospect, a problem which pre-dates the Atomic Age, yet failing to do so would maintain a potentially apocalyptic status quo.

Ben Goldson is a news and current affairs broadcaster at 95bFM radio in Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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