Nuclear 101: Targeting

NOTE: If you had problems getting to the site, thank you for persevering and I will simply state that my hosting provider, Dreamhost, sucks. If I had the time and money I’d switch immediately at this point. Don’t, so can’t, but suggestions on good hosting providers most welcome. Given that I usually have a short time in which to write these posts, if the occasional typo/autocorrect error makes you meltdown, you might want to skip. Same for anyone melting down about the number of spaces after a period: I was raised two, WordPress keeps trying to change that to one, and so far the battle between us is a draw. These posts are high-level overviews, and if you want to discuss details, special cases, one-offs, etc. feel free but keep it civil and don’t pretend non-inclusion is a world-ending mistake to give yourself ego-boo. For all those (the majority of you) making good, solid, and thoughtful comments: THANK YOU! Such are very much appreciated.

So, we’ve scratched the surface (barely) on weapons, means of delivery, and philosophy. Today, we will focus on the philosophy of reality: targeting. Again, I’m not planning to get into the weeds on this and I’m also, for now, probably only going to focus on a few of the thousands of possible scenarios. While not exhaustive, it will provide enough understanding to help people make decision on preparedness and survival.

While it can be sort of fun in a war game (or if you are trying to create panic in the public) to have an Oprah moment and declare ‘you’re a target, you’re a target, everything’s a target’ it doesn’t really work that way. At least not now, though some do argue that was the case a few decades back. So, what does make a good target for a full-scale attack?

First up, your enemy’s command and control systems. Yep the systems that control the nukes are indeed a prime target, as if you can take them out, it will limit, or possibly, maybe, prevent retaliation. No leaders, no means to communicate, huge amounts of confusion, and you should have time to act with a degree of impunity.

Second, your enemy’s atomic weapons and delivery systems. The emphasis is going to be on getting the first strike weapons such as missiles, boomers/missile subs, cruise missile launchers/launch sites, etc. Within that, you are going to target bomber and other bases to try and take out those nuclear weapons as well. You also want to prevent fighters from launching to prevent them from shooting down your bombers and you don’t want the tankers to launch as they can keep fighters, command planes, and other platforms fueled and up.

What makes a good secondary target? Going back to the days of the Soviet Union, that could/would/did include state capitols, manufacturing centers, ground-force bases, harbors, naval bases that weren’t first strike targets, and other delights.

The basic idea is to use your missiles (cruise missiles, etc.) to take out your enemy’s ability to use their nuclear weapons on you. You do this by getting inside their communications loops (in terms of time and, if possible, the actual signals) or outright eliminating their leadership and those communication systems and loops before they can be used. You do this by destroying the missiles, bombs, and weapon depots before they can be used/utilized. With those systems removed, you go in and attack the secondary targets using aircraft and other means.

Can you have a less-than-full-scale exchange? Theoretically, yes. One class of scenarios involves having a weak-willed enemy who for various reasons chooses not to retaliate at all to a limited strike. Another class involves someone who agrees to limit retaliation to the same level of damage. Yet another class of scenarios is based off having your enemy fuck up by the numbers and give you clear targets that also eliminate the means of retaliation. Could happen. Maybe. Has happened conventionally, so…

The most likely form of limited attack, in my opinion, is likely to be a terrorist or rogue state attack. For a number of good reasons, they are not likely to have/have access to a large number of weapons. In such a case, odds are pretty good they will go after more symbolic targets though some scenarios look at them hitting targets that have a chance of creating situations messier than a nuclear device alone. No, not going to get into more details on that, they have enough ideas as it is and I may have been banned from being OPFOR more than once.

Actually, the scariest scenario out there — to my mind–involves only a single weapon. It’s a scenario that is often associated with surprise first strikes, but just by itself has the potential to put us back to a 1600s level of technology and food production. That scenario is a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) attack.

This version of a FOBS attack essentially has a large warhead (possibly a special warhead to boot) masquerade as a harmless satellite launch. As the device heads up towards orbit, it passes over the center of the United States, and detonates. The resulting Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) will take out not only the electrical grid, but fry every computer and/or electronic device in the continental United States. Only shielded systems will survive. Hate to break it to you, but your car with multiple computers (the newer the more it has), your cell phone, your radio, your stove, your microwave, your toaster, your computer/laptop/tablet, even a large number of medical devices are not shielded. Say bye to them and to your heating/cooling, municipal water, well pumps, sump pumps, and all the features of modern life.

For a nation dependent on just-in-time shipping, it means stores will be rapidly out of food, medicines, clothing, and anything else not locally made. The food in your freezer or refrigerator? Cook and eat it fast, as even if there was power they are still controlled by electronics that are now fried. Even if every train in every museum could be brought back on line and wood/coal/other fuel for them obtained, it’s not even a fraction of one percent of what is carried by train and truck today.

Now, really want to lose sleep? Think about Iran having not only a bomb (courtesy of a lot of help from Pakistan and China apparently) but a proven ability to launch a satellite (again, word is you can thank the CCP, the assholes). Yep, did it a while back and if corporate media covered the story, it tended to be along the lines of ‘nuclear ambitions thwarted, Iran has joined the peaceful use of space club’ type story. Think about the fact that the Mullahs are facing the strongest opposition and uprisings since the revolution; and, that they are committed to bringing about the return of the hidden Imam to Earth — which happens to require an apocalypse. Remember yesterday when I mentioned how MAD placed the safety of the world in the hands of the least stable leader? Can you really look at Putin, Xi, Biden, and the Mullahs and say any of them are in a secure position such that they feel safe and secure about remaining in power? You’re welcome.

A few more points need to be brought up in regards targeting. These are factors that planners (and those seeking to thwart said plans) have to consider.

First up, where do you explode the bomb? Exploding it above ground is going to allow the weapon to destroy or damage a larger area. It also tends to produce less fallout, making it a cleaner weapon.

If you really need to take out a particular structure or location for whatever reason, a ground burst may be the better option to ensure total destruction of that target. Because it is a ground burst, there is going to be a larger amount of fallout since the bomb will be vaporizing/pulverizing soil, structures, etc. and sending it up into the atmosphere and on its way.

The final option is a sub-surface burst. Hardened structures such as bunkers, or even some surface structures, are designed to withstand direct hits and/or near misses. Using ground-penetrating systems increases the chance that even a deeply buried bunker, or massive surface structure, can be destroyed or at least taken off line. Nasty fallout, but I’m also told that it is more limited, at least in terms of the spread. If the boffins from whom I got that information are wrong, I hope it’s on the nastiness of the fallout.

Now, there are two things to consider in regards the statement “How much do you hate that target?” The first is technical in nature, the second one is political in nature.

Your enemy, like you, has a primary control center located well away from other targets like the capital city. It may or may not be a “secret” base or center, but it is likely to be solidly built and deep underground or even inside a mountain. Since The Hole and the Cheyenne Mountain Complex are far from secret and have had their exteriors star on film and television (and rumor is those who worked at both wish the interiors had been as nice as Hollywood portrayed), I’m going to use them for examples. Yes, they did shut down the Cheyenne Mountain Complex for a while, and the Stargate program (annoyed about that still) in the dummy missile silo below the NORAD center (cough, choke, wheeze). While it is not what it was, still makes a good example.

Let’s face it, anyone who wants to attack the United States of America hates The Hole. They don’t just want to knock it offline, they want to destroy it. When first constructed, it was extremely survivable given the accuracy of the times. Now, I don’t know anyone who truly considers it to be survivable. A shaped nuclear charge in a ground penetrator on the most accurate delivery vehicle possible… Think the movies in this case have it right: the orders have to be given and command delegated before it gets hit.

Now, let’s look at the Mountain. Again, when it was built the design was amazingly good. For those who aren’t familiar, the tunnel opening you always see on television and in the movies runs all the way through the mountain. The idea was that if a bomb went off nearby, the blast would go through and not directly impact the doors and such inside. Net result was that the Mountain could ride out even very large blasts.

While there are a couple of tricks that could be tried to simply collapse any and all chambers in the Mountain, I think changing times could easily turn a key defense into an Achilles heel. If you used a cruise missile or hypersonic glide vehicle to put a warhead into the tunnel, the complex is not designed to withstand that. Now, I can think of a couple of ways to prevent that, but…

Now for the political considerations. By and large, the U.S. has focused on developing “clean” weapons. There are a number of reasons for that including but not limited to the fact that I have yet to meet anyone on our side who wants to live underground for a few decades. As long as the weapons are relatively clean, I don’t think it will come to that or any other bad science fiction nihilistic apocalyptic trope.

But, not everyone feels that way about cleaner is better. In fact, an argument can be made that some targets require a dirty weapon because you don’t want ANYONE going into that area for decades. Someone completely unhinged could even desire to make every bomb a dirty bomb to make an enemy the new Carthage. Doing so is easier than many would care for: simply jacket the bomb in cobalt (nasty radiation, long lasting) or some other element or elements that give the desired level of radiation and a decay rate that meets your plan. Someone brought the cobalt bomb up in comments, my thanks to them.

I didn’t cover special weapons in detail the other day as this series is primarily intended for people who have thought little or not at all about the unthinkable. I really don’t want to overwhelm, as my hope is that they will then want to start digging into things and that is when you can start getting into details and precision. Right now, accurate and high-level works. Getting into extreme details on weapons design, orbital mechanics, polar launches, and the many variables on FOBS is counter-productive to the reasons and goals for this series. Feel free to add details and even trivia in the comments, just keep it polite and unclassified.

However, I do feel that I need to mention the nuclear “torpedo” that Russia is allegedly developing as the warhead and the delivery vehicle itself can be considered to fall into the special category. According to the marketing hype, the warhead is massive and dirty, which puts it into the special weapons category. The delivery vehicle, which from the marketing hype would appear to be the size of a small submarine, may either be a form of underwater cruise missile or a drone. Detecting such a vehicle before it hits Norfolk, Pearl Harbor, or other major base could be a challenge. Something to keep an eye on.

The final thing I’m going to bring up in targeting today is the need for multiple attacks on major targets. Why? Simple. When was the last time you saw a complex distributed system where everything worked perfectly when cut on?

Planners tend to be a pessimistic bunch, with good reason, when it comes to reliability. What do you think the odds are of every missile we have igniting, launching successfully, and sending every one of those independent re-entry vehicles on their way with no problems? Planners have to plan for rockets not to launch, problems with the re-entry vehicles, and the fact that a number of the bombs are not going to detonate. They have to plan on planes not starting, having maintenance issues in flight, and that some of their bombs may be duds. Same considerations apply to submarines as well. Also don’t forget that they do have to plan for anti-missile defenses as well.

So, as you look at targets and targeting, keep in mind that a target may get hit multiple times to be sure it is taken out. Trick is, making sure that all the weapons don’t hit too close together, as that tends to work in the targets favor courtesy of one presentation of nuclear fratricide. Multiple hits by multiple means ensures that the target is hit at least once, and odds favor more than once. For example, Washington D.C. could be hit by a sea-launched missile, which if launched off the coast could arrive in 8-15 minutes — not a lot of time. Yes, I’m ignoring for now that DC actually has multiple targets within it. The DC area even more. Sea launched, ground-launched, and aircraft will be headed there. Let’s get people thinking about the unthinkable, then add in the details later when they are better able to handle it.

To end this on a somewhat lighter note, I’m going to bring up a point that may have been rather injudiciously brought up around those who were, possibly, easily offended.

In military operations, there is a concept of selective elimination, to be blunt assassination. The idea is to take out the enemy’s effective commanders and leave the less competent (complete incompetents) alone. However amusing, or true, it is not diplomatic to suggest that Vladimir wants to hurt us, not help us, and as such has elected not to destroy Washington D.C. and state capitals like Albany, Sacramento, Indianapolis, Olympia, Salem, or a few others. Thus concludes both targeting and today’s free diplomacy lesson.

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 War Posts In Order:

Nuclear What?

Nuclear 101: Weapons

Nuclear 101: Delivery

Nuclear 101: Now What?


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6 thoughts on “Nuclear 101: Targeting”

  1. Same for anyone melting down about the number of spaces after a period: I was raised two, WordPress keeps trying to change that to one, and so far the battle between us is a draw.

    Former Graphic Designer and Art Student here. I’ve actually set type from a California Case, and studied typography.

    The “Two spaces after a period” was a rule for manual and electric typewrites using a fixed space typeface. Everywhere else it’s one space, and if the software you’re using isn’t brain dead, that space will be just big enough to make it obvious. Really the period-space creates enough visual space to make it obvious.

    1. SAC Command Post at Offutt AFB. It is reported to be either phased our or in the process of being phased out as it could not handle heating, cooling, power, workspace, and other needs of either Strategic Command or the reborn SAC. Nickname “The Hole” came from the fact they dug a very deep hole and then built the command post at the very bottom. There is a regular office building above ground that may be part of the “seven levels” commonly attributed to it.

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