Types of Nuclear Weapons

The part of a nuclear weapon that contains the nuclear device itself is called the warhead. In order for this to function as a weapon and reach the desired target, some form of weapon carrier, such as a missile, is needed.

Nuclear weapons are usually divided into two different categories, strategic and tactical. The difference between these is the range.

Sometimes tactical nuclear weapons are referred to as “smaller and more useful nuclear weapons”, but it is important to remember that no nuclear weapon is “useful”. These bombs have a yield of around 10 kilotons of TNT, which compares with the bomb that destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945, which had a yield of 15 kilotons of TNT and killed 140 000 people.

Nuclear warheads are placed on weapon carriers, various forms of missiles and missile systems, such as cruise missiles, ballistic missiles or multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) etc. These are then placed on aircraft, in silos, on submarines and ships or similar.

Strategic nuclear weapons

Strategic nuclear weapons are nuclear weapons placed on intercontinental missiles. These missiles have a long range, from 5,500 km and up. Intercontinental means that the missile’s range is large enough to fire from one continent to another. It is with these weapons that the US and Russia can directly threaten each other’s territories. The nuclear weapons placed on these missiles also have the greatest explosive power.

Using rocket propulsion, an intercontinental missile can hit a target up to 10 000 km away and it travels at a speed of around 20,000 km/hour. A submarine launched missile that can be launched near the coast and reduce any warning to just minutes.

Tactical nuclear weapons

Tactical nuclear weapons, or non-strategic nuclear weapons, are short- to medium-range nuclear weapons. These nuclear weapons have different ranges, ranging from 60 kilometers and up.

All nuclear weapon states have tactical nuclear weapons in their arsenals and this type of weapon includes aerial bombs, gravity bombs, short-range missiles, torpedoes and more.

Tactical nuclear weapons are also usually referred to as “smaller nuclear weapons” and “battlefield bombs”. But a nuclear explosion, regardless of size, has overwhelming destructive power. Even the US’s smallest nuclear weapon would cause damage far beyond that of a conventional bomb.

Sources and more information

Tactical Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear Threat Initiative
“Limited” Tactical Nuclear Weapons Would Be Catastrophic, Nina Tannenwald, Scientific American, 10 mars 2022


Swedish Physicians Against Nuclear Weapons

Last updated
11 January, 2023