The good news is that we have had nuclear weapons for almost 70 years. The ‘other side’ has had them for about 60 years, although only in militarily significant quantities for the last 45 or so years.
And, excepting of course Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in all that time, there’s not been a single nuclear weapon exploded other than for ‘peaceful’ testing purposes.
Does that mean we can look forward to another 45+ years of peace and safety?
Some optimists might hope that the disbanding of the Soviet Union, and the reductions in nuclear weapons by both Russia and ourselves has reduced the risk of nuclear warfare in the future. That might be true, but we’re uncertain about that, and (this always surprises people unacquainted with military tactics) the weaker that conventional military forces become, the greater the reliance such states necessarily must have on nuclear weapons.
In addition, we have new nuclear ‘players’ these days – new nations with nuclear weapons, and more nations on the verge of adding nuclear capabilities, too. The dynamics of the situation have changed.
In the Cold War, the doctrine of ‘mutual assured destruction’ or MAD as it was known was clearly successful. We knew that any strike by us on the Soviet Union would see tens of thousands of nuclear weapons raining down everywhere in the US homeland. That dissuaded us from attacking the Soviets. And they in turn knew that an attack from them on us would see a similarly massive response.
Additionally, we both had ‘second strike’ capabilities. Even if a first strike by the other side caught us off-guard, we had sufficient second strike capabilities from submarines, from B-52s already in the air on patrol, and from whatever land based missiles we could either launch before they were destroyed or which survived the first round of attack.
These days our second strike abilities are massively diminished. Yes, we still have 5 or 6 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines at sea at any given time, each with up to 288 nuclear warheads on 24 missiles, but our finest ground missiles (the MX Peacekeepers) have been voluntarily retired, leaving only three fields of Minuteman III missiles (at Warren AFB, WY, Minot AFB, ND and Malmstrom AFB, MT), all of which have been voluntarily downgraded from carrying three warheads each to now only carrying one, and we no longer have B-52s in the air.
How Many Nuclear Weapons Do Potential Enemies Have?
That’s a very relevant question, of course, and not one that allows for an exact answer, unless we are to assume that everything we have been officially told by potentially opposing nations is true.
For example, while it is officially stated that Russia has about 10,000 nuclear warheads and another 4,500 awaiting dismantling (as of 2012) some sources suggest that Russia has concealed large numbers of warheads which it is not officially revealing to the US.
We can’t comment on this, of course, but while we’re pleased that Russia’s total inventory is way down from its high of about 45,000 weapons in the mid 1980s, the simple fact is that however many thousands of warheads it still has are way too many for us to feel good about.
This page is often used as a definitive summation of the world’s nuclear weapons inventory, but some of the information on the page strains one’s credibility – for example, a claim that neither Israel, Pakistan, India, or China have any operational nuclear weapons. Both India and Pakistan are obsessed with each other and with the possibility of a sudden attack – the thought that neither nation has weapons ready to fire seems unlikely.
As for Israel, as the country knows only too well, it could be overrun by enemy forces in a week or less – it needs to have its weapons ready for instant deployment.
Most of all, to suggest that China also has no weapons in operational status seems very unlikely, as does the suggestion that in total China has no more than about 240 weapons – fewer than France (and note the footnote which says France may have lied about its total number of weapons!).
Even Wikipedia contradicts the claim that China has no operational nuclear weapons, referring to currently deployed Chinese ICBMs such as the Dong Feng 5 and 31 and 31A and possibly other models too, plus whatever China might have in the way of sub launched weapons such as the JL-2, which might be in service on up to four Chinese Type 094 SSBNs that may currently be in service, and in the future on the successor Type 096 boats.
Furthermore, while the Soviet Union understand the concept of MAD, allowing us an uneasy stand-off during the Cold War and to the present day, it is unclear but unlikely as to if the Chinese government also accepts such a concept. With their much more distributed economic and industrial base, they are naturally more resilient to any nuclear attack, and an attack, if it were to be mounted against China, would require a huge number of warheads to be effective.
It suits the purpose of people advocating for nuclear disarmament to underestimate the count of weapons ranged against us by other countries. It is easier for them to say we should reduce our weapon numbers based on a suggestion that the other side either doesn’t have many weapons or has already reduced their numbers. So take the numbers you see on the FAS and other sites with a grain of salt.
Where Would an Enemy Strike?
It is anyone’s guess what and where in the US might be targeted for nuclear attack, either as part of a super-power high-intensity all out conflict, or as a suicidal type attack by a minor nuclear power, or even as a single bomb launched by renegades acting outside of state control.
However, we can make some estimates, and there are actually two very different sets of targeting criteria as between an attack by a minor power and a major power. For clarity, let’s look at them separately.
Nuclear Attack by a Minor Power
If we have a nuclear war with a minor nuclear power, we can expect them to launch or in some other way transport only a small number of weapons towards us. These weapons will probably be designed to ‘punish’ us, rather than to take out our nuclear response and military capabilities.
The good news is that not many countries have nuclear weapons. The two smaller countries that seem to be biggest risks are Pakistan and North Korea. They will doubtless be joined by Iran some time soon; indeed it is estimated Iran probably has enough nuclear material to make five bombs, even now. It is thought Pakistan has about 90, and North Korea probably fewer than 10 nuclear weapons.
One other risk is the possibility of ‘loose nukes’. These are most likely to originate from the former Soviet Union, and due to the confusion and corruption that surrounded the final days of the USSR and the first few years of the new countries formed out of the USSR, it is entirely possible that some weapons disappeared, notwithstanding the official assurances that this never happened.
One final (?) risk is the possibility of surreptitiously built nuclear weapons by groups of terrorists. This is somewhere between easy and difficult – it is extremely difficult if you don’t have the appropriate materials and equipment, but if you do, it becomes acceptably simple. If a group of terrorists were able to simply acquire the various materials, from various sources, over time, it becomes no more complicated that putting together furniture from Ikea to assemble them into an explosive device.
Although we for sure can’t read the minds of terrorists and the crazed leaders of countries that hate the US, we’d guess that a list of targets for such an attack would more or less follow a list of major US cities and best known/best-loved US icons, rather than attacking our nuclear warfare capabilities, for the simple reason that a minor power can’t hope to neutralize enough of our nuclear weapons as to have any appreciable impact on our likely response.
So, for sure, New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago would be targeted. Other major cities that might also be targeted would probably include Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Jose, and Dallas.
Note that this list ignores the huge ‘obvious’ strategy of detonating one or a series of warheads as EMP devices. In our opinion, this is the most likely strategy that any minor power would use – see our separate article for a discussion on the effects of an EMP attack on the US.
There’s one other possibility – nuclear blackmail, which might include a demonstration of ‘good faith’ where the enemy power attacks a target (city) and threatens additional attacks if certain demands aren’t complied with. In such a case, we’d guess the attacker would go for a secondary level city rather than a primary city; because the goal would be to coerce and cower, not to enrage.
If the attacking power had recently suffered an attack by us of a specific nature, it might choose to respond in similar manner – a submarine launched cruise missile strike might see some of our submarine bases attacked, for example. But our guess is most of the time, the highest risk from minor power attacks will be to major civilian population centers.
Nuclear Attack by a Major Power
There are two potentially dangerous major nuclear powers – China and Russia. The other nuclear equipped major powers – Britain and France – don’t seem to pose such a level of threat.
Russia and official western sources says it has an inventory of about 10,000 nuclear weapons, of which perhaps 1,800 are immediately deployable and operational. China’s nuclear capabilities are less clear – probably less than Russia’s, but probably more than we officially concede they may have.. Both countries have multiple delivery methods to get nuclear weapons to pretty much anywhere on the planet.
The good news – such as it can be – is that a first strike from a major power would probably be designed more to take out our own military and nuclear capabilities rather than to ‘punish’ our citizens. Unlike a minor country, Russia and probably China too have the weaponry necessary to credibly attempt to destroy our own nuclear response abilities as part of their first strike, and as long as they have neutered our war-making, and perhaps our industrial base, they have no further need to destroy our population as a whole.
More or less in priority, here are some of the targeting considerations that an enemy power would keep in mind – and, the same as in our discussion of minor powers, this list ignores the EMP option, which we feel to be an overwhelmingly attractive approach for any nuclear aggressor of any size.
Whether an aggressor nation decides to limit their first strike merely to targets in the first category, or how far down the category list they end up going, is impossible to guess at. It depends on the circumstances at the time.
1. Our nuclear strike capabilities : The few remaining missile silos would all be targeted for high yield ground bursts – the absolutely worst type of nuclear explosion from a point of view of subsequent fallout. Also targeted would be all Strategic Air Command bases, naval installations, military command and control facilities, and major naval assets – especially aircraft carriers and submarines – wherever in the world they were.
2. Non-nuclear military capabilities : Most military bases and installations. Major airports. Also nuclear research establishments.
3. Industrial capabilities : Major manufacturing facilities such as vehicle plants, aircraft plants, and any other major/heavy manufacturing facilities that could be repurposed for building military equipment.
4. Economic capabilities : Ports. Major transportation hubs and bottlenecks. High tech industries. New York/Wall St. Major dams. Concentrations of industry such as refineries, power generation and pipelines.
5. Leadership : Washington DC, of course (if not already targeted in a preceding category). Major cities and state capitals. ‘Undisclosed safe locations’ that our politicians plan to retreat to – we mightn’t know their whereabouts, but the other side probably does.
6. Civilian : Major population concentrations. Universities. Iconic American locations. Other infrastructure. Maybe warheads at locations that may trigger volcanic eruptions or earthquakes.
A Note on Accuracy
It is thought that most modern ICBMs can deliver a warhead to a target, thousands of miles away, with an accuracy of about 0.1 miles.
It is not known what disruptive effects there may be when the first missile warheads start exploding in terms of ‘blowing’ other missiles off course. This phenomenon, known as ‘fratricide’ may well have some impact, causing some warheads to malfunction (either in the form of failing to explode, or perhaps a limited reduced yield explosion, or detonating at an unexpected altitude and/or somewhere off course. When you have a missile traveling 5,000 – 10,000 miles, it only takes a very small amount of error to result in tens of miles of ‘miss’ distance at the destination.
When calculating your vulnerability to nuclear strikes, you need to consider not only the effects of accurate hits on probable targets, but also the effects of moderately near misses, too.
There’s one more type of accuracy to consider – the accuracy of the target lists the other side has adopted. There are lots of US military installations that have closed down over the last decade or two – installations that, in their heyday, would have been prime nuclear targets, but which of course, now that they have been closed and abandoned, no longer have any military target value at all.
But has the other side kept its targeting lists up to date? And, for that matter, does it truly believe that abandoned de-activated facilities have been truly abandoned and de-activated?
Major cities are at risk of a minor power attacking us with nuclear weapons. Military facilities are for sure at risk of a major power attacking us, as are probably industrial and economic targets too in a first strike, and more general leadership and civilian targets in any second strike.
You need to consider your retreat’s location in terms of where possible nearby nuclear targets may be, and you need to consider your travel route to your retreat based on possible targets on the way.