Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Want a Nuke Wargame? I’ve Got One for You


The last few weeks have been filled with discussions about possible Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons – probably in a demonstration first – because of their collapsing conventional war in Ukraine.

There are lots of different scenarios/vignettes you can go through and could spend all day or more on each one, but I’d like to pull one out for you today that brings together a few threads we’ve seen the last nine months.

Here are the threads we are going to pull in to the primary subject of this wargame: the Russian Federation decides to demonstrate their willingness to use tactical nuclear weapons.

Threads common to this war so far: 

  • Russian “gun decking” of material readiness.
  • Russian culture of not delivering bad news and hoping for the best.
  • Ineffectiveness and lack of trust in Russian Air Force manned aircraft capabilities.
  • Reliance on rocket forces.
  • Russian leadership has no option but victory.


  • Due to the test ban treaty, the Russians have not been able to test their nuclear warheads in decades. 
  • The two parts of the nuclear triad most visible to Western eyes – submarines and manned aircraft – have all demonstrated spotty levels of performance and maintenance in the post-Soviet era. One can assume the missile forces have comparable, if not worse, records.
  • Open source reporting reflects that even the most basic of Russian weapons, like HE artillery rounds, have a higher than acceptable failure rate.


  • Russians decide for an air-burst demonstration shot vice a tactical use on the front lines. 
  • The Russian’s relatively benign high altitude airburst will not mirror Western ideas of a demonstration shot over water, but will instead drive the point home by doing it over Ukraine between Kyiv and the Donbass.
  • The 448th Rocket Brigade of the 20th Guards Combined Army based out of Kursk was the last Russian Army unit to be equipped with the SS-21 (Tochka-U) and in 2019 converted to the SS-26 (Iskander-M). However, we know that SS-21 have been used by the Russians in Ukraine, so we can assume that the last unit to convert would be the first to bring them back.
  • The SS-26 transition has been a slow one with substantial SS-21s remaining with the brigade that enabled them to quickly use the SS-21 from the start of the war.
  • We can assume that the SS-26 coming in to use are mostly conventional to save money and trouble. They need to keep the nuclear capability on the books, so they will have their special weapons crews remain in Kursk with their few remaining nuclear armed SS-21. 

That sets the table, and here is what I would like wargamed…and what I think will be different.

I’m not interested in flash-bangs etc … no … I want something much more difficult. I want something that will stress the diplomatic and political structures of the USA, EU, and NATO.

Before Turn-1, here is what happens (I attempted to be exceptionally abbreviated but I can’t help myself).

  • President Putin orders a demonstration shot, but specifically states that he wants it overhead Ukraine as outlined above. 
  • Putin does not trust the ability of cruise missiles or manned aircraft to successfully deliver a weapon where and how he wants it, and absolutely no strategic forces are to be used (so the Russian Navy good idea fairies can stow their wings).
  • Colonel Dmitry Nikolayevich Martynov, Commander of the 448th is forward deployed in theater with his forces and all of a sudden has his Deputy Commander Lieutenant Colonel Igor Ivanovich Karamyshev showing up in his command vehicle telling him that he is ordered by Moscow to get on the Mi-17 he arrived in and return to Kursk.
  • Upon arrival, Martynov is walked in to a briefing led by Shoigu himself and is given his orders; he has 72-hrs.
  • Martynov leaves and contemplates that, yes, they have three nuclear certified crews in Kursk, but they are not his best. His best crews are forward deployed. These are the sick, old, or otherwise best left home crews. Yes, they can launch, but … he's keeping the details to himself.
  • Also, the Transport Erector Launchers (TEL) are not his best, his best are forward deployed.
  • His nuclear certified ordnance crews … well, they are specialists. They never deploy and when he last walked through the nuclear magazine, all seemed in order. All paperwork is in order. As long as the TEL’s can drive 5-km, the 448th should be good to go.
  • D-3: Shoigu insists that they have a “Primary,” “Back-up,” and “Ready Spare” for the strike (as is expected), which is great as they only have three nuclear warheads good to go.
  • D-2: some low-level USA Joint Staff J2 types received notice of Shoigu’s movement to Kursk and even saw in another report Martynov’s unusual return to Kursk – but this is not of great concern - just another Colonel. Shoigu’s movements are worth briefing – but not Martynov.
  • D-1: a separate NATO CJ2 shop notices some unusual, but not unheard of, movements around the 448th’s magazines in Kursk, but in a sea of data, is barely acknowledged. In DC and Brussels, a series of high-level short notice briefings are taking place that has the staff curious, but that is not unusual so far this year. However, some pasty looking officers are going in to brief no one really sees around often. Huh.
  • D+0 (early): TELs are set to move, but TEL-2’s transmission shit-the-bed halfway out the shelter, so the “Ready Spare” of TEL-3 is now the “Backup.”
  • D+0 (mid-day): Final launch orders received. "Dial-a-Yield" was set earlier to .5-kilotons with airburst at 10km. “We’re here to make a point, not destroy resources we want later.” The Colonel mumbles to himself as he attempts to remain calm as he slowly realized what he is about to do. Target 320-km away; the Voloshanska Dacha Ornithological Reserve in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.  
  • TEL-1 launch successful. However, word is received 10 very sober minutes later, no detonation. Orders are clear; TEL-3 begins checklist and 2-minutes later TEL-2 has another successful launch.
  • The crews remain in place. Martynov steps out of his command vehicle, gets in a staff car and drives over to TEL-1. He’s a hands-on leader and wants to thank them for a job well done, duty, etc. He then gets back in the staff car to visit TEL-3 when he gets a call on the radio from Major Aleksey Aleksandrovich Kondratev who he left in charge of the command vehicle. "Return immediately."
  • As he pulls up, he see’s a GRU truck full of security pulling in, “дерьмо.”

Four and a half a kilometers west of the woods of Volvoshanka at the bus stop in the village of Orlivs’ke, a farmer’s sister hears the high-pitched screech of what is to her, ten months in to the war clearly a missile. 

At the end of the street she sees something hit the ground. She walks to the southeast 50-meters towards the crossroad at the edge of her brother’s field and there it is in her neighbor’s yard.

A small crowd gathers to look at it and about 10 minutes later a few guys from the Territorial Army arrive to shoosh everyone away. Once they finish that, everyone looks to the southeast again over the field where one of the kids is pointing. Something else just fell at what looks like 500 meters away the field. Another dud. 

Everyone looks at each other. What a lucky little village. The war hasn’t reached them yet, and when for some reason it did, nothing blew up.

So, there is a bit more story than I wanted to do, but it was fun – for me at least.

Here is where the wargame starts. No one knows it but the Russians right now, but at D+0 the Russians just tried to do an airburst over Ukraine between Kyiv and the Donbass – they actually tried twice – but neither missile detonated.

We have a few things to play out:

Red (Russia): What are your possible COAs from here?

Blue (USA/NATO): What will it take for you to know exactly what happened here without inside sources? (judge will determine how many turns Red gets before Blue/Green/White know)

Green (UKR): How long will it take for Ukrainian EOD to get there and realize that is no normal warhead on that SS-21?

White (International Organizations/neutral nations/Pope/etc): Possible reactions and timelines.

…and no – in what I consider the infinitesimally small chance the Russians would ever use tactical nuclear weapons in UKR (non-zero, but close to it) – I don’t think this scenario is outside a half-standard deviation either side from the centerline.

Also, I may have some technical details incorrect here. If you feel the need to be pedantic, roll in the comments, I can take it.

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