Nuclear 101: Scenarios

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Well, I had planned to spend today discussing tactical weapons/atomic demolition munitions and then explore some scenarios. However, Winnie The Poo himself, Xi, has done something incredibly stupid even by his standards which sort of highlights that desperation thing I’ve talked about a few times.

In the epic temper-tantrum and meltdown being pitched by Xi and company over Granny WineBox’s visit to Taiwan, Xi approved the launch of several ballistic missiles: over Taiwan. Even better, according to reports now hitting the media, they landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Now, leaving aside the toddler-level histrionics of the tantrum, doing this would appear to be in violation of more than one international convention, possibly one or more treaties, and is ill-considered to say the least. It does, however, give a good intro to exploring a scenario of how a political leader being an idiot can start WWIII.

For all that it is a tired trope in fiction, I personally find it to be one of the more likely scenarios. Fact is, people make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes snowball. Ego gets in the way of rationality and you also have to consider the toddler-model of governmental interaction (short version: governments tend to behave like toddlers in a room full of toys).

Okay, let’s say one of the missiles had a malfunction, so that it went short and the warhead hit in a major city on Taiwan. Even if a dummy, it’s moving at speeds that start to make it a Kinetic Energy Vehicle (KEV) that could, potentially, have the impact of a small nuke. Safe to say, things are going to get tense and given that the Chinese military is already out acting like a bully having a tantrum and looking for a target, you get good odds of things escalating.

Now, let’s consider a malfunction that causes a missile to go long and off course. What if it hit actual Japanese territory, or say a passenger ship? Do you really think Japan’s going to be terribly understanding? Or that Xi and company might actually think and try to de-escalate the situation? Yeah, I don’t give good odds on that. And, for the record, this is a hypothetical and I know Japan is not a nuclear power and for obvious reasons doesn’t like nuclear weapons. That said, it does have allies who are, and Japan also knows it is on Xi’s list.

Given the amount of air traffic flying over Taiwan (that area is a MAJOR air corridor), let’s think about something that actually could have happened. Back when I was getting my pilot’s license many years ago, one of my cross country solo flights took me through military airspace. Had all the appropriate permissions and such, but as I was in that airspace traffic control came on and told me to turn to a new course immediately. I was making the turn even as I acknowledged the order (crazy I may be, stupid I try to avoid). As I made my turn, I saw artillery firing and could even see some of the shells as they rose up to and through the altitude I was flying.

Like those shells, ballistic missiles, warheads, re-entry vehicles, etc. don’t care that you are there. Unlike those shells, they are moving at speeds that make it almost impossible for them to be spotted and a plane maneuver out of the way. Now, imagine that through sheer bad luck one of those missiles had hit an American passenger jet as it flew through that heavily congested airspace. Shades of KAL007. Except that in this case, as we send in aircraft and ships for search and rescue/recovery efforts, one or more of them are attacked because someone on the Chinese side fucked up.

Situations like that can get out of hand fast. The late Fred Thompson’s line in the Hunt For Red October is true and prophetic. It’s one reason for having tight control of nuclear weapons, and things like Permissive Action Links (PALs, sometimes referred to in older documents/fiction as Presidential Initiative Device, PID) and release codes. Problem is, the smaller the weapon the more likely someone at a lower level could do something like staging it for ready use if they think the order might come. Let’s say the skipper of an attack sub thinks that a release order is coming or that war has already started. He then uses a torpedo (or more) with nuclear warhead(s) to attack one or more U.S. ships coming in for search and rescue/recovery efforts. That whole “least stable” thing I keep talking about with leaders? It goes down the chain as well, and it can fall on a simple seaman hitting the button when they shouldn’t just like in the fictional The Bedford Incident.

In fact, since continuing to think on the imbecilic bone-headed (insert more choice words here) actions of Xi and company is not helping my blood pressure, let’s turn to a potentially fun way of exploring different scenarios. Let’s look at fiction, good and bad.

One of the first books I ever read on nuclear war and surviving afterwards is the highly recommended Alas Babylon by Pat Frank. It is one book I recommend having as a paper copy as it is not just a good story but an excellent primer on on preparedness. It is fairly realistic (esp. for its time) and optimistic.

If you want to get into more nihilistic fantasy with the fanatical commies willing to live underground for 50+ years to take over the world (except for the U.S. which will be a radioactive wasteland with no life of any type), go for Triumph by Philip Wylie. The concepts of special nuclear weapons discussed is interesting, as are the aspects of bunker/shelter design raised. I’m not a fan of the book, to be honest, though it did help inspire a high school science fair project on designing a shelter to keep X number of people alive and communicating for at least five years.

In the same vein, you have On The Beach by Nevil Shute. If emotions are your thing, enjoy. If a thoughtful and realistic novel is your desire, this is about as realistic IMO as Triumph, which is to say not at all.

To get back to books I can recommend, you need a paper copy of Pulling Through by Dean Ing. If you have not read his fiction, I highly recommend it. If you have not read his non-fiction, including his work on preparedness, I HIGHLY recommend it. He and the late Jerry Pournelle wrote a lot of very good material on preparedness and related topics. Get it. If you have to, get it electronic and print it out. Pulling Through is half fiction and half non-fiction, and both halves are chock full of good and important information. Get this book!

When it comes to movies, there’s just not a lot out there that looks realistically at preparedness and survival in the aftermath. Most, IMO, tend to be rather nihilistic and pessimistic as well as heavily political. If inevitable death is your thing, go for The Bedford Incident, Fail-Safe, and a host of lesser movies. Even the enjoyable Dr. Strangelove has the world end. I will note that the movie Damnation Alley shared only a title and a couple of character names with Roger Zelazny’s good novel.

Two movies I do/did enjoy, though realistic is not necessarily a word I would associate with them, are WarGames and By Dawn’s Early Light. WarGames frankly was just some good, fun, escapism in which I could ignore the politics and not have to deal with suspension of disbelief issues because it was so unrealistic. The Mad magazine satire of it was excellent, with everyone including the computer asking Matthew Broderick’s character why he was playing with the computer instead of Ally Sheedy. At the end of the movie, you see the computer going through a variety of scenarios and playing them out. And, yes, the category for these articles is a play on the “Would you like to play a game?” from the movie.

By Dawn’s Early Light is one of those movies I almost hate to like. For certain values of correct, it actually got a few things right. The performances by Powers Boothe, James Earl Jones, and Martin Landau were such that I could/can ignore the anti-Christian, evil Army colonel, grrrlllll power, and one-dimensional patriot aspects as well as some massive plot holes. I admit that I tend to hear Peter MacNicol’s repeated line as ‘Mr. President, please don’t torture yourself, that’s my job!’ All that said, it does offer a more optimistic take on things, and reminds us that people can dial it back under the right circumstances.

The only thing on television that I can even halfway recommend was The Day After. Sorta.

With that, I will call it a day. Tomorrow I plan to start talking about preparedness and survival.

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?

Nuclear 101: Targeting


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7 thoughts on “Nuclear 101: Scenarios”

  1. Xi is NOT an idiot. Launching those missiles was both a test of the missiles and a test of western resolve.
    Yes….there is a tiny chance that something could go wrong and one of those missiles with a DUMMY WARHEAD goes down somewhere it shouldn’t. At worst in a major city it takes out maybe a block of buildings. The warhead in a test missile is not explosive. It’s only a kinetic energy device and it’s not moving all that fast when compared to a meteor. Not a good thing but not the worst thing that could happen. The USA tests missiles with dummy warheads regularly and has done so for decades. Could something bad happen? Yes. But it hasn’t yet and the odds are it won’t. Same for the CCP and their missiles. Remember….they are using missile tech they BOUGHT from the Clinton Crime Cabal 30 years ago so their missiles are going to be close to ours in terms of reliability and accuracy. Xi is seeing just how far he can push the current crop of incompetent criminals in power in Mordor On The Potomac. And every time he does or says something and gets away with it it’s a signal to push further and farther. If Trump was in office very little of what the CCP is doing would be happening.

  2. Are you sure Japan is not a nuclear power? They have nuclear power plants, so the tech and the trained personnel are already in place. And, Japan is living in a very tough neighborhood what with North Korea and China. For that matter, South Korea and Taiwan possess similar levels of means and technical know how.

    Nobody is publicly flaunting such capability. But, might Xi be privately ‘aware’ of such capabilities.

  3. “Even if a dummy, it’s moving at speeds that start to make it a Kinetic Energy Vehicle (KEV) that could, potentially, have the impact of a small nuke.”

    This is very inaccurate. Nukes are in a class by themselves. There are no man-made kinetic weapons that approach the energy of even small nuclear devices.

    For example: 1 kilotons of explosive (a very small nuclear device) generates approximately 4000 Gigajoules of energy. In comparison, 1000 kg (a large reentry vehicle) traveling at 5000 m/s (roughly Mach 14 — well above the impact velocity of even intercontinental ranges) represents approximately 12 Gigajoules; only about 0.3% of the 1 kiloton yield — equivalent to 3 tons (not kilotons) of explosives. Further, kinetic energy effects are mostly confined to the range of physical ejecta (shrapnel), while the nuke’s prompt effects can damage a much larger area via thermal radiation (line of sight) and acoustic shock waves (blast).

    The real geopolitical issues are bad enough. Hyper exaggeration is not constructive to understanding and resolution. I am commenting not to criticize your work, but to help refine it.

    Compliments on your efforts. Please continue.

    1. Was about to leave a note more or less saying the same thing.

      An easier calculation would be looking at the mass of the missile and assuming that’s TNT (propellant might be more energetic, but not more than about an order of magnitude). Minuteman is about 40 tons, so it can’t go fast enough to make more than a 40 ton (not kiloton or megaton) explosion when the warhead(s) hit.

      Possibly the Chinese missiles are bigger, but not enough to come close to making up the difference.

      The utility of a KEV (assuming you can get them working properly) would be in accuracy not yield anyway.

  4. “… let’s say one of the missiles had a malfunction, so that it went short and the warhead hit in a major city on Taiwan.” … “… let’s consider a malfunction that causes a missile to go long and off course. …”
    I am not familiar with China’s missile flight test operations, but I know some things about how the US does it. US has stringent and effective methods to assure such things cannot happen.

    Prior to flight, the desired trajectory is designed and modeled, and the instantaneous impact points calculated for the entire flight starting with impacts very close to point of launch and progressing down range, eventually reaching the desired points of impact. The trajectory is designed to keep all these impacts away from anything that matters. (The allowable impact areas are similar to those boxes that are shown on the Taiwan maps.) Along with design of nominal trajectory for the flight, allowable velocity vectors are calculated for every missile position — basically a tunnel is defined. If the missile starts to go outside the allowable tunnel, if the instantaneous impact points drift to the limit of their allowables, the missile is destroyed.

    The missile has a continuous radio link to range safety control. Loss of the radio link for a short time causes the missile to self destruct – step one is termination of thrust, step two is dispersion of all propellant. Termination can be done by command and by loss of communications.

    After powered portion of the flight, the trajectories are ballistic, deterministically predictable due to the laws of physics. Only upon reentering the atmosphere is there additional dispersion, but this is small. (There is a limit to how far a curve ball can break once it has left the pitcher’s hand. Wild pitches are destroyed prior to leaving the pitcher’s hand.)

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