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In this world set in a near future setting, nuclear weapons are somewhat widespread by both sides. The thing is, due to dimensional shenanigans, both sides are mostly unable to strike the strategic areas of their opponent.

Due to this, unrestricted nuclear war uses less Tsar Bombas and more Davy Crocketts or nuclear artillery, along with chemical and bioweapons. What would the tactics and strategy by both armies be?

For a little more context, both sides are gigantic industrial empires fighting over a dimensional middle ground.

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    $\begingroup$ This is far too broad. The moment you depend on limited armament (non weapons of mass destruction) you depend on the terrain, weather, disposition of opposing troops, nature of radioactive and ophthalmological protection, availability of medical care, and the specific nature of the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.... I'm not even sure it's reasonable to ask about military doctrine. VTC for violating the Book Rule and for missing far too many details. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jun 15 at 3:38

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No Armour, Guerrilla Warfare

This is near-future, not WWII, so you're not going to see nuclear artillery or Davy Crocketts, you'll see nuclear-armed Altius-700M loitering munitions. Better range, better accuracy, better efficiency, and no risk of catching your own people in the blast radius.

If both sides are employing these weapons, you're not going to see tank columns or large troop movements, because they'll be smashed flat. So lots of independent movement of lightweight weapon systems and dispersed troops with tightly-integrated command and control networks.

Chemical weapons might be used for area denial, but if bioweapons are in play, drones and autonomous military vehicles will also be prioritized rather than having to protect soldiers against / isolate soldiers infected by pathogens that cannot make it back to the civilian population.

The hardest part would be logistics - deploying any large force would be impossible if you're in range of the enemy's weapons. So likely the battleground would be a sparsely populated stalemate, and for the most part, the tactical weapons would not be used, just held as a threat against any attempts to establish a beachhead.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nitpick, but the smallest nuclear warhead we know of (W54) exceeds the altius’s carry weight by 18 lbs (33 vs 51) so it may make sense to remove the mention of a proprietary technology and just call out loitering munitions in general. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Commented Jun 14 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielB - I suppose, but I was linking an example of a current-tech item that had a payload-envelope in the realm of the target weight (particularly since a modern version of the W54 could probably be a lighter package) to demonstrate that this wasn't imagination; you wouldn't have a nuclear mortar because current tech could easily be adapted to carry nuclear payloads. "Loitering munition" is like saying "airplane with supermaneuverability". It's abstract unless you give a concrete example of a plane that actually does that right now. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Commented Jun 14 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ fair enough! I’m not sure that we can, in practice, get it that small, but it’s a good practical example of a similar drone. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Commented Jun 14 at 21:33
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielB - because of course I was digging into it, the minimum critical mass of Pu-239 is about 10kg, which leaves you some mass available for explosives and wiring and whatnot, though I imagine it would be technically challenging. You could also go much smaller (at incredible expense) with synthetic isotopes, but I would agree that the easier solution would simply be to make the payload of the loitering munition bigger. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Commented Jun 14 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, from what I saw, the weight of the explosive lens exceeds the weight of the plutonium, in practice. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Commented Jun 14 at 23:33
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Look no further than the battle plans for western Europe from the 1970s and '80s.

Those were pretty much exactly what you describe: large scale use of chemical, biological (assumed, on paper the USSR didn't have them but everyone knew they did) and low yield nuclear weapons.

Day 0, threat of imminent start of hostilities (actually this will be a period of several days or weeks): defenders deploy nuclear "landmines" in preparation for destroying vital infrastructure as they retreat. Most highway intersections, railheads, and bridges are prepared for demolition. As many military units as possible are mobilised and positioned in defensive prepared positions, combat engineers start preparing secondary defensive lines.

Day 1, initial invasion: massive air and short/medium range strikes with nuclear weapons on the troops defending the border, with chemical and biological strikes against the area immediately behind and nearby population centers.

Day 2, literally after the dust has settled, offensive units pour into the desolation left behind by the initial strikes, repeating the battle plan employed on day 1 over the next prepared line of the defenders. Meanwhile, defenders try their best to strike the attacking armies with their own battlefield nuclear weapons (and chemical weapons if they have them, but those aren't that useful for defending against an armoured assault).

This continues until one side or the other runs out of men and equipment to send into the maelstrom, or until the attackers reach their goal and the defenders surrender.

At a tactical level, NATO expected to use small high speed units with overlapping fields of fire and sensor coverage to hopefully limit initial losses in the defense, while the USSR expected to steamroller over those forces using massed formations, taking heavy losses but winning by sheer momentum alone if needed. Which is basically the same tactic they used in WW2 and what the Chinese used in Korea.

Note that NATO only expected to need to hold out in this manner for a week without running out of ground to cover, as that was the expected time needed to implement REFORGER and get the bulk of the US Army from the US east coast to the front lines. A plan the USSR of course intended to interrupt through the large scale use of submarine warfare, effectively closing the Atlantic. If you have a similar geography, expect submarines and surface ships with large numbers of nuclear torpedoes, rockets, and short/medium range missiles taking potshots at each other.

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I won't get into chemical or biological weapons, suffice to say that we already have airtight armored vehicles and biohazard suits. I'm not sure they would have much effect, besides inconvenience. Nobody wants to live in a biohazard suit, but you can if you have to. I would expect chemical and bioweapon casualties to be minimal.

As for nuclear weapons, Freeman Dyson co-wrote a great paper against using tactical nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War, and I think most of the reasoning still applies. I'll sum up the relevant parts below:

  1. Modern armies don't fight like Napoleon. They don't form up in giant blocks. They're much more spread out. Your Davy Crockett tactical nuke, with a kill radius of ~200m, will only kill a few squads, maybe 100 infantry. Armored vehicles will fare much better still.
  2. Nukes cannot really deny terrain. The really-dangerous isotopes are gone in a few days, and the ones that stick around take weeks of exposure to be dangerous. A modern army will move through long before radiation sickness causes any issues. And again, it won't effect air-tight vehicles at all.
  3. You could use them to knock down trees and block roads if the area is forested, but that only works once. They will be cleared off the roads shortly, supply disruptions will be brief.

In short, I don't think things will be that different compared to modern warfare in real life.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think this depends on the definition of the battlefield. "Strategic" (cities, presumably) targets are off limits, but widespread use of tactical nuclear weapons make even encampments or command centres hard to set up and maintain, as would equipment stores be. An RPG hitting a command post is very different from a 0.05kt warhead doing the same thing. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Commented Jun 14 at 23:42

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