On day four of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered nuclear deterrent forces to be put on high alert. This news sent shivers around the globe, especially in light of the nuclear weapons doctrine the country had adopted in 2000, which lowered the threshold for what constituted adequate justification for using one.
An article in the Global Security Review offers a plausible explanation for the changes. Joshua Ball believes that the decision came after Russian leaders watched NATO complete a highly “efficient and precise conventional military operation in the former Republic of Yugoslavia” in 1999. The nutshell version is they couldn’t deny that the U.S. and NATO “possessed far greater conventional military capabilities than Russia.”
Russia has updated its doctrine since that time, but not greatly so.
The doctrine specifies four circumstances, which are called “threats of aggression,” that would warrant Russia’s launch of a nuclear weapon. As per Newsweek, these include:
a) the receipt of reliable information about the launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies;
b) the use by the adversary of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction across the territories of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies;
c) the enemy’s influence on critical state or military facilities of the Russian Federation, the failure of which will lead to the disruption of the retaliatory action of nuclear forces;
d) aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is jeopardized.
You’ll note that none of these situations necessarily require the “first use” of a nuclear weapon.
Do you believe Russia would actually launch a nuclear weapon?
Yes: 64% (718 Votes)
No: 36% (408 Votes)
In fact, when asked about the possibility of using a nuke in Ukraine, Russian military leaders have left the option very much on the table.
In most discussions on the subject, the fact that Putin has over 6,000 nukes at his disposal is mentioned.
What is often left unsaid in these conversations is that, according to a January 2022 review by the Arms Control Association, the U.S. has 5,550 nuclear weapons in its arsenal.
We also have a number of submarines that The Seattle Times’ Patrick Malone says can “reshape a continent.”
Malone wrote that Washington State is home to the world’s “third-largest arsenal of deployed nuclear weapons — an estimated 1,120 — behind only Russia and the United States as a whole.”
He describes “eight hulking Ohio-class nuclear submarines, each nearly as long as two football fields and armed with a spectrum of nuclear weapons.” They are located at Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor, Washington. “At any given moment,” Malone says, “seven of them are armed with nuclear warheads and discreetly traversing the Pacific Ocean while one refuels at Bangor.”
The video below from U.S. Defense News shows Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarines in action. It claims that just one of these ballistic submarines, sometimes called “boomers” or “undersea beasts” by Navy personnel, “could destroy Russia and China in minutes.”
Although the Ohio-class vessels, which consist of four cruise missile submarines and 14 ballistic missile submarines, are only the third-largest submarines ever built, the video claims they are “the most destructive weapons systems created by humankind.”
They can reach “targets up to 7,000 miles away, depending on the load.” Each carries 24 Trident II missiles. “As a Trident II re-enters the atmosphere at speeds of up to Mach 24, it splits into up to eight independent re-entry vehicles, each with a 100 or 400 kiloton nuclear warhead.”
“In short, a complete salvo from an Ohio-class submarine, which can be launched in one minute, could unleash up to 192 nuclear warheads to wipe 24 cities off the map.”
The nearest rival to these “boomers” is Russia’s “Typhoon,” which is the largest submarine ever made. According to Discovery UK, only four of these Soviet-era submarines were ever built. The Typhoons carry 20 missiles. The vessels went into service in 1981 and just one remains in use today. By definition, the older technology used in the Typhoon can’t possibly match that found in the Ohio-series vessels.
The second-largest submarines ever built, the Borei-class, are also Russian-made. There are four of them. Discovery reports the first went into service in 1996, the second in 2004, the next in 2006 and the last in 2012. Each carries 16 RSM-56 Bulava missiles.
Another fast fact from Discovery: Each required “17,000 tons of metal (50 percent more than the Eiffel Tower), 68 miles of piping and 373 miles of wiring.”
The displacement of these vessels gives one a clearer understanding of their size differences. According to Discovery, the Typhoon’s displacement is 48,000 tons submerged, the Borei-class, 24,000 tons, and the Ohio-class, 18,750 tons.
But it’s the sheer power, the capability and the technology used in the Ohio-class submarines that puts them into a league of their own. When compared to its Russian competitors, it becomes clear that size does not matter.
And Vladimir Putin may want to remember that.