Estonian soldiers advance along a trench as they defend a dug-in position from attacking British armor and infantry as part of NATO exercise Bold Dragon, alongside Danish and French forces, April 14, 2022.

Estonian soldiers advance along a trench as they defend a dug-in position from attacking British armor and infantry as part of NATO exercise Bold Dragon, alongside Danish and French forces, April 14, 2022. PA Images via Getty Images / Ben Birchall

NATO Should Start Preparing Troops For a Nuclear Battlefield

Our own history can help prepare for the physical and psychological effects should Russia use tactical nukes in the next conflict.

Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that Russia was not considering using nuclear weapons in the Russia-Ukraine conflict “at this time.” Even if that assurance could be trusted, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless threats and statements in reference to nuclear arms should cause NATO commanders at least to prepare their forces for a battlefield that could include tactical nuclear weapons.

For more than 20 years Russia’s nuclear doctrine has articulated a relatively low standard for an event that could trigger such an action. Unless the conflict escalates rapidly into a war of mutual annihilation, NATO troops in Europe could face an extended fight on a battlefield that includes low-yield Russian nuclear weapons.

It’s been a long time since Western troops were exposed to nuclear weapons—and almost as long since policymakers and military commanders widely taught their effects and prepared their forces for such a contingency. Reportedly, Biden administration officials already have gamed out how the White House would respond to Russian nuclear weapons—but military commanders should be preparing, too.

The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced the equivalent of 15 to 25 kilotons of TNT.  A smaller-sized 2 kiloton weapon is generally regarded as within the tactical range. Russia is widely thought to be in possession of 1,000 of these devices, far more than the United States.

The United States and NATO must prepare for the psychological effects on troops who might witness these events, much less the dangers of the physical blast and subsequent radiation. Unfortunately, we have a source of guidance for this operational situation, even though it never has been—and one hopes never will be—experienced by troops in the field.

From 1951 to 1957, over 200,000 US soldiers, sailors, Marines, air crews, and civilians took part in above-ground atomic tests, especially at Camp Desert Rock in Nevada. Many were there as observers and monitors, but about 70,000 were assigned for research and training in assignments they were told to keep to themselves, even though their participation in the maneuvers was widely reported in the media. As the years went on these “atomic veterans” who were exposed at Desert Rock and elsewhere in the southwest attracted public concern about their long-term medical problems. Finally, Congress created a special compensation program for veterans who suffer from a list of primary cancers, similar to Agent Orange.

How could these exposures have been ethically justified? In 1994 and 1995, I was senior staff for a presidential Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, assigned by President Bill Clinton to review these and other government-sponsored exposures to ionizing radiation.  The advisory committee found that, at first, the U.S. Army and the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, the agency responsible for the bomb tests, were motivated by the fact that so little was known about the long-term health effects of radiation under various battlefield conditions. Yet as the years of testing went on, the acceptable distance from the blast site varied, partly depending on the perceived need for information about human factors, thus posing the very hazards that were to be avoided. 

Rightly or not, because these deployments were considered training and data-gathering exercises the vast majority of the military personnel were not considered to be research subjects. However, several thousand of these men were studied for the physiological and psychological effects of participation in the bomb tests, including psychiatric observations, responses to questionnaires, flash blindness, and protective clothing experiments. In some of these cases consent was provided, although there does not seem to have been much actual choice in the matter. Risks were generally known, but record keeping about the specifics of participation of the individuals was poor, at best. Ultimately, these studies were inconclusive, partly because it was appreciated even then that the close-up conditions for truly informative radiation exposures could present long-term health effects that could make for bad public relations for the Army. Those in charge of the human exposures do not seem to have been aware of the Pentagon’s own ethics policies, on the books since early in 1953.

While we may hope the current Russia-Ukraine war will pass without crossing the nuclear threshold, defense planners can no longer be comfortable that future conflicts will not involve battlefield atomic weapons. Obviously without above-ground testing the conditions obtained in the late 1940s and mid-1950s cannot be replicated, but NATO can develop a training program that builds on the lessons of the Desert Rock experience.  

First, information provided to the troops should be accurate and candid about the nature of radiation risks under various conditions, including the uncertainties due to weather and weapons yield. The advisory committee found that some of the information provided to the Desert Rock participants was not. 

Second, the training program should be competently implemented. A 1953 review found that only 40 percent of the troops had been properly “indoctrinated,” a term that did not have the pejorative connotation it does today, meaning they weren’t trained.

Third, the actual use of tactical nuclear weapons and warfighters’ responses to them will constitute an “experiment in nature.” A panel of social scientists should be assigned to develop instruments that will allow trained monitors to record these reactions. Some of the materials developed for Desert Rock may provide a basis for those new instruments, which should be informed by half a century of advances in cognitive neuroscience.

Fourth, individual radiation exposure levels through individual radiation badges and field measures of fission release should be recorded. Those records should include locations of service and should be maintained on a long-term basis. The advisory committee found that in the case of the early Cold War atomic tests the government did not create uniform records that permitted reconstruction of risks.

Fifth, the trauma associated with combat may be exacerbated in the nuclear battlefield. The needs of these 21st century atomic veterans may call for new forms of emotional support and reintegration as part of ongoing medical monitoring.

Finally, planning may take a page from the controversial science fiction classic Starship Troopers, in which Robert Heinlein refers to a boot camp with simulated nuclear weapons. 

Would such systematic preparation lower the bar for the normalization of the unthinkable?  This, too, is a question that may have to be faced.

Jonathan D. Moreno is the David and Lyn SIlfen university professor of ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and a former staff member of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments.