Tactical nuclear weapons in the modern nuclear era

War International cooperation Defence Nuclear weapons

In this Lowy Institute Analysis, Brendan Thomas-Noone argues that advances in technology are making tactical nuclear weapons more precise and potentially more usable. He argues that new arms control measures are needed to promote greater transparency about the development of these weapons.

Key findings

  • The United States, Russia, and China are modernising their nuclear forces. Advances in technology mean that tactical nuclear weapons are becoming more sophisticated and increasingly precise. This raises the possibility that these weapons will also become more usable.
  • Technological change is also being accompanied by changes in doctrine. In particular, area-denial capabilities as well as credible ballistic missile defence systems are encouraging some nuclear powers to contemplate the use of limited tactical nuclear weapon strikes in conventional war fighting.
  • Tactical nuclear weapons remain among the least transparent elements of the nuclear arsenals of the major powers. This increases the risk that modernisation programs may promote a new arms race and harm strategic stability. The international community, including Australia, should increase pressure on the nuclear powers to promote greater transparency around this class of nuclear weapons.
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