Nuclear 101: Now What?

It truly is the eternal question: Now What? In 1945, it was the question asked as we realized we were on the back of the bull/tiger/dragon/colorful metaphor of your choice and needed to hang on. It’s still the question today, and we will get to it here in time.

In 1945, the United States was the most powerful nation on Earth, with a temporary monopoly on the power of the atomic bomb. While some felt that we could hold onto that power indefinitely, reality as always intruded. The Soviets had known about the Manhattan Project from the start and were already at work on creating their own bombs. This was spurred along, no doubt, by reports that some were pushing to use the bomb to take out the Soviet Union, nip Mao in the bud, and do other world-cleaning events. There were indeed such pushes, given that both politicians and generals had been quite vocal about the need to go ahead and take on the Soviet Union with the conventional forces already in place in Europe.

In those early days, there was what we would now consider an amazing lack of knowledge about atomic weapons. Radiation, contamination, fallout, and more were learned about somewhat on the fly. Aside from the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, U.S. and Soviet troops were exposed to blasts, marched through blast zones within hours, and treated to other delights. A surprising number of military and civilian leadership/elites apparently truly thought there would be little to no effect on the troops, despite what was being seen in Japan with survivors. Yet others simply saw this as an opportunity to learn what would happen.

As it began to sink in that atomic munitions were not something to be used like extra-powerful conventional bombs, there came a spate of serious proposals that read like bad science fiction. Of course they wanted atomic-powered planes, rockets, and more. There were also serious proposals for armored/shielded land crawlers that would dwarf a Jawa sand crawler, giant robots, and more. It can be a lot of fun to go back and look at some of these proposals.

At the same time, strategic concepts were being developed for the use of atomic weapons. The ridiculous idea that they would pre-empt and prevent conventional war was quickly disproven by Korea and a host of smaller conflicts around the world. At the same time, people began to realize that as more countries got more and more bombs, that a nuclear war would be/could be devastating on a scale never before seen. Pretty much every country of any significance began upgrading its air defenses as planes were the primary means of delivery at that time. As rockets and missiles came to the fore, work began on anti-missile defenses.

As things progressed, concepts were developed for the use of weapons and fighting an atomic war. In some respects, the focus was on preventing the use of atomic weapons and limiting exchanges between parties (really between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.). Thus was developed the moral abomination of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) which simply was that if the U.S. were attacked, we might be destroyed but we guarantee you will as well. Both sides had the means to destroy the other, potentially a few times over, and would do so at need. Since each side could do so, neither would attack the other. At least that was the theory, though it really didn’t consider independent powers that weren’t part of the two major power blocks. Worst, it put the safety of the world in the hands of the least stable leader with nukes.

Yet, planning continued on “limited” nuclear war and, to be honest, how to get around MAD and various treaties. After all, if you could come up with a way to take out your enemy’s atomic arms and/or the command and control of same, you’d win, wouldn’t you?

To get a better idea of the ideas involved, allow me to recommend reading Herman Kahn’s Thinking About The Unthinkable and Thinking About The Unthinkable In The 80s. There are other books out there, some of which are quite good, but these two capture a great deal of the philosophies of nuclear war, and avoiding same. NOTE: This is not an endorsement of or agreement with everything espoused by Herman Kahn. Agree or disagree, it is a fascinating window to this world.

They also provide a window into the concept of limited nuclear war. In such an event, only a small number of weapons — perhaps even only one — would be used and then both sides would stand down from further use of atomic weapons. Two problems, IMO, with that are human nature and clarity. Human nature says that even if a limited strike is executed on Country A by Country B, Country A is going to want to strike back and if they feel an existential threat they are going to be inclined to strike back as hard as possible. Clarity, in this case means that you know what you are doing and that you want to limit things, but the country you are attacking, and any allies, aren’t mind readers and are likely to be taking any announcements from you with a grain of salt. To be polite.

Is a single missile being launched a harmless weather sounding mission? Is it a satellite launch? Or, is it a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) that will detonate over the target country and take out pretty much all electronics with a burst of EMP so a surprise attack can be launched? Even the use of tactical devices on the battlefield runs a real risk of escalation. If one uses such against a city with military and political headquarters, you have just put your cities at risk.

It was the U.S. position for decades that the use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons would be regarded as first use of nuclear weapons, and would be responded to in kind. Those particular red lines have been severely eroded, which may have unfortunately emboldened enemies and given the concept of “escalate to de-escalate” an undeserved air of legitimacy. For those who are not regular readers, this is a Russian concept that they could use a special weapons/tactical device or devices on the battlefield and prevent retaliation by threatening to go strategic (full exchange) if anyone fires back. Sort of a ‘you know I’m crazy because I’ve used a nuke, if you retaliate I’m crazy enough to launch them all’ scenario. I have my doubts about how well that’s going to work…

Tomorrow, I think we discuss targeting and may start looking at some scenarios; but, for today, let’s close out with two very important considerations: Command and Control, and defenses.

Command and Control is how the President (or civilian authority in line of succession) gives orders to our nuclear forces. It’s also how the military shares information with the President, so he can make the decision(s) on how to respond to an event or events. There are such command and control systems/structures for every atomic power.

In the case of the U.S. we have bases, airborne command posts, and perhaps some other things devoted to detecting threats and responding to them. There are dedicated communications networks for these purposes, for all that the Chinese seem to be potentially trying to spoke them. No, I’m not happy about those Chinese land purchases that also seem to come with all sorts of interesting electronics, though I expect little to be done for now. Just keep in mind, as I’ve noted before, the majority of our detection systems are older tech and focused pretty much entirely on ballistic missiles. Much broader threat envelope today…

The Russians also have detection, command posts, and airborne command posts. However, the Soviet Union back in the day realized the communications nets sucked so they devised a system to work around it. For all that we joke about the President pushing the button, the Soviet-now-Russian system is pretty close to that. It has an official name (Perimeter) but is best known as “Dead Hand.” The idea being that a dead hand can still launch a retaliatory strike.

I wrote about the system before at Blackfive years back (can’t find the link, sadly) but the basics are that the system monitors cities, seismic data, and more and if it detects information indicating an attack on Russia, a duty officer is notified and they can decide next steps. Also, if they get the launch orders from the special control system that is usually near Putin (or previous leaders), they can act. Either way, they make a decision on target packages and then launch a missile that as it rises up broadcasts a radio signal to the nuclear armed forces that gives them the launch orders. Once that rocket goes up, the Russian missiles will launch. Which is why we should all celebrate Col. Stanislav Petrov, who when a major warning system malfunctioned, made the decision to ignore the false information and prevented 1983 from being the year of WWIII. The system also came close to being activated by Boris Yeltsin when a weather rocket launched from Norway was mistaken for a first strike.

The British, French, Chinese, and others all have their systems and those systems reflect their governments. With the British, we have a good deal of sharing and it used to be fairly common to see British liaison officers at NORAD and other facilities I’m told.

Now, a little on defense. While Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems get a lot of play, there are a variety of options. Passive defenses include bunkers, such as The Hole or Cheyenne Mountain Complex. Active defenses can include ABMs, projectile systems, or potentially space-based systems. Work on lasers and other directed energy devices is advancing according to industry publications and RUMINT. For a number of reasons, I’m not able to comment on a lot on this work, but will admit I find it frustrating when told (usually by an over-educated idiot) that some or all of it won’t work. You might look up Dean Ing’s discussion on accidentally directly intercepting a missile in flight. It was decades ago, and the idea apparently was to have a near miss so they could get the data to allow a direct hit. Ooops.

Sadly, a lot of our defensive efforts have been prevented/gutted/etc. by people who seem to feel it is immoral and improper to defend yourself. Or possibly because they agree with the enemy. I do wonder some days. And, yes, there is a group that feels that because of MAD we have a moral duty to die without defending ourselves since that might undermine MAD. My thoughts on them I leave to your imaginations.

Some Previous Posts:

Vladimir And The Ukraine

Answers, Ramblings, And A Bit More On Vladimir And The Ukraine

Your Must Read For The Day On Russia

The Puzzles In Play, And The Missing Pieces

Quick Thoughts On Ukraine/Putin

The Thing Behind The Curtain

Missing Pieces And Surprise Pieces

Thursday Update

Not A Lot To Add


Monday Update

Burn Notice

Accuracy, Reliability, And More

Putin, Trump, And The Coming Storm

Three Futures For Russia

Quick Thoughts

Saturday Update

Mismatched Locomotives

War, Ag, Demographics, And The Worst Is Yet To Come

Past, Present, And A Hungry Future

Huge Grain Of Salt

The Moskva

Retribution Inbound

Uncertainty And Preparation

Honest Question

Monday Morning Quick Brief

War Of The Memes

A Little Free Ice Cream

Rumors Of War

Three Times Is…

If It’s Wednesday, This Must Be Moldova

Going Nuclear

How To Spy On The Russians

Here’s Hoping I’m Wrong

Pins And Needles Time

Mock Away

Intel Wars

The Revenge Of HUMINT

A Funny Thing Happened

Rumors of Rumors

Ukraine, Uvalde, Oh My

Very Interesting

A Quick Russia/Ukraine Update



Hmmmm Follow-Up

Ukraine/Russia Tidbit

If You Think

Nuclear What?


Nuclear War Posts In Order:

Nuclear What?

Nuclear 101: Weapons

Nuclear 101: Delivery


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