Nuclear Artillery and the Raid on Belgorod-22

No one should be surprised that, between the United States and the Russian Federation, there are thousands of nuclear weapons in the world. There are all kinds, from multi-megaton nukes launched on ICBMs to fractional kiloton nukes stuffed into land mines, artillery shells, and backpacks.

Classification

To avoid confusion, Russian doctrine divides nuclear weapons into three classes:

Strategic Nuclear Weapons – those that are subject to nuclear weapons treaties. These can be anything from 20 kilotons to 50 megatons. The key determinant of classification is not yield but the delivery mechanism. These are delivered on ICBMs or IRBMs.

Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons – those that are NOT subject to nuclear weapons treaties. This is where confusion arises. When Russia recently stated that they were conducting non-strategic weapons drills, everyone assumed they were conducting tactical weapons drills. Not so. Again, the classification dimension is by delivery mode, not yield. A 50-kiloton warhead could burn Berlin or Ramstein Air Force Base to a crisp, but it could be launched on a cruise missile and be considered non-strategic.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons – those that are designed for battlefield use. By definition, these weapons are non-strategic and typically of low yield, anything from fractional kilotons to ten kilotons. It’s not written in stone. For reference, the Hiroshima bomb was fifteen kilotons, and Nagasaki was twenty. These weapons are delivered in land mines, torpedoes, cruise missiles, gravity bombs, and artillery shells.

Belgorod-22

When you have a lot of these weapons in your inventory, you want to keep them locked up in a safe place. The Russians stored a lot of nuclear weapons at a facility located a short distance southwest of Belgorod. Belgorod, it should be noted, is less than a hundred miles across the border from Kharkov, in Ukraine.

Look at the map in Figure 1. The storage facility, designated “Belgorod-22” was located near the town of Grayvoron, southwest of Belgorod. In fact, the facility is only ten miles by road from the border, and six miles cross-country.

Belgrod Map
Figure 1. Belogorod-22 nuclear weapons facility located in Grayvoron

Belgorod-22 is designated a “Class C” storage facility for strategic nuclear weapons under the authority of the Russian Federation’s Strategic Rocket Forces. It’s a secure facility with nuclear armories, and it’s protected by a full motorized rifle brigade.

Figure 2. Nuclear weapons stored in protective bunker

And yet, one wonders, “Does it really make sense to store nuclear weapons so close to the border with a hostile state?”

Ukraine’s Kharkov Counteroffensive, 2022

In the fall of 2022, Ukraine launched two counteroffensives. One in the Kherson oblast in the south of Ukraine, and another in the Kharkov oblast in the north. Russian forces were thinly spread. In the Kharkov area, Russian forces fell back under cover of artillery. Ukrainian forces seized ground, albeit at a heavy cost.

Not only were Russian forces thinly spread, but regular Russian army units had been withdrawn from that sector well before the Ukrainian offensive. When the Ukrainians struck, they encountered fierce resistance from badly outnumbered Russian border police units. To prevent these units from being overrun, Russia sent in two airborne battalions to help them fight their way out.

Despite heavy casualties, the Ukrainian counteroffensive did well. The Russians staged an organized retreat to more defensible positions. But – it looked like the Russian forces might not be able to stop the Ukrainian attack.

Enter the Tyulpan

Enter the Tyulpan, Russia’s heavy 240mm mortar. We covered this bunker-buster in a previous post here: https://sofrep.com/news/siege-artillery-the-flowers-of-spring/

What we did not mention is that the Tyulpan is capable of firing nuclear ammunition. Specifically, the Tyulpan is capable of firing the RD-14 nuclear mortar bomb. The following video shows American nuclear artillery:

Figure 3 shows the American nuclear howitzer in action.

Figure 3. US 280mm Howitzer test-firing a 15-kiloton nuclear shell

The American howitzer is 280mm and fires a 15-kiloton shell. Note that this shell has the same yield as the Hiroshima bomb. It is “non-strategic” but larger than most would consider “tactical.” Both Russia and the United States have nuclear artillery in calibers ranging from 152mm to 405mm. 152mm shells tend to be fractional kiloton weapons. The 240mm RD-14 fired by the Tyulpan is a mid-range shell that balances mobility and yield.

Figure 4. Russian nuclear artillery shell with a transportation case.

Russian nuclear doctrine specifies that should the integrity of Russian territory be threatened, the first use of nuclear weapons is authorized.

In the face of the Ukrainian offensive, Russia deployed RD-14s and Tyulpan mortars to the theatre. The RD-14s were stored in Belgorod-22.

Similar measures were taken in the Kherson theatre of operations.

The United States became aware of Russia’s preparations to escalate to nuclear first use. They are well aware that the Russian escalatory ladder is shorter than that of the United States. Frantic back-channel communications were conducted in an effort to head off escalation to nuclear war.

In the event, conventional artillery and air power was sufficient to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Ukrainians suffered such heavy losses that their attacks ran out of steam. The RD-14s were not used, and remained locked away at Belgorod-22.

Ukrainian Raids, 2023

The Ukrainian counteroffensives of 2022 seized ground, but suffered heavy losses of men and materiel. The Russians withdrew to defensible positions and stabilized the lines.

Ukraine had to rebuild its army before renewing offensive action in 2023. While gathering its strength, it conducted harassing raids across the border. Some were launched across the Dniepr in Kherson oblast, others were launched in the Kharkov sector. Russian defenses were robust, and none of the raids penetrated very far.

The map in Figure 1, however, shows that the Kharkov sector raids struck uncomfortably close to Belgorod-22. Anecdotal information suggests that at least one of the raids was launched to seize Belgorod-22.

Belgorod-22’s nuclear inventory is secret, but the Russians became concerned by its proximity to the fighting. By this time, Russian reinforcements were strengthening their defenses across the entire line of contact. The Russians were becoming more confident that a Ukrainian offensive could be repelled with conventional forces.

In the spring of 2023, Russia withdrew its entire nuclear weapons inventory from Belgorod-22.

About the Author:

Cameron Curtis

Cameron Curtis

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Cameron Curtis has spent thirty years on trade floors as a trader and risk manager. He was on the trade floor when Saddam’s tanks rolled into Kuwait, when the air wars opened over Baghdad and Belgrade, and when the financial crisis swallowed the world. Having written fiction as a child, he is the author of the Breed action thriller series, available on Amazon.

Check out his new Breed thriller, BLOOD SPORT, here:

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