Nuclear 201: Targeting, Take 2

While I still hope to go back for some further discussion on communications and control, the time has come to talk of mice and men, of targets and targeting. While we did a brief overview in Nuclear 101, it’s time to get a bit further into the weeds.

In many respects, there are three levels of target: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary.

Primary are those things that if you are to have any chance of pulling off a successful (for values of successful) attack, you have to take those targets out. Such targets can include weapons systems, especially land-based systems; bases from which various systems can operate or be controlled; and, your command and control systems ranging from the NMCC in the Pentagon to the Nightwatch and TACAMO planes in the air. If you can take out the command and control (and communications nodes) centers, you can prevent (or reduce) the retaliation for your attack. If you can damage or destroy the missiles and planes, again, you reduce or eliminate the ability to retaliate. In short, primary targets are those things that can seriously hurt you.

Secondary targets are the “nice to do” targets if you will. They can’t hurt you immediately, but long-term are a problem. For example, tanker aircraft and the bases they fly from may not be a primary target, but you want to take them out in order to prevent refueling of bombers, fighters, and other craft. They can be secondary command and control nodes, military or civilian. RUMINT had state capitals as Soviet secondary targets (bomber targets) unless said city had a major military base/center that would make it a primary target.

Tertiary targets are sort-of the “eh, if we can we will” targets. These tend to be administrative centers and operations that keep the bureaucracy moving as it were. It could be something like Ft. Ben was/is in Indianapolis (want your money? Be nice to Ft. Ben!), to Fort Huachua which is home to a number of commands including the Army Intelligence Center. One can spend some time arguing where any given base or center falls in the rankings. Honestly, a lot comes down to how the given enemy views that location.

Why does it matter? Simple. There are limits to the number of nuclear weapons in the world, and there is a limit to the number of delivery systems. Some of the commenters on earlier posts have already dived head-first into those waters (or potentially even started scuba diving). For today, I’m going to keep it largely hypothetical with just a few dashes of reality.

Let’s start with that dash of reality. The U.S. land-based ICBM of choice is the LGM-30G Minuteman III. The Russian missile on which we will focus is the Satan 2/RS-28 Sarmat, which is in the process of replacing the Satan-1 missiles. Originally scheduled to be completed around 2018, this is still in process which suggests a few things. For all that I’m concentrating for now on Russia and the U.S., you may want to check out what’s going on with the Chinese as they could easily take over as the top threat from Russia. As within hours to be honest.

For our purposes today, we are going to go with some assumptions which may or may not be precise, but work for the points of this exercise. First, for U.S. weapons we are going to go with 400 missiles, each capable of carrying 3 independently-targeted re-entry vehicles (range 1,100 miles though not part of today’s exercise). For Russia, we are going to go with the same number of Satan-2 missiles, but for purposes of the exercise we will limit it to 11 re-entry vehicles (possible mix of light, heavy, HGV; range 11,000 miles).

Now, to set the final stage of the exercise, let’s limit each side to just 1,500 nuclear weapons. Close to treaty, though how close to reality is something very different. Reality is that some on each side are going to be other-than-strategic, with the Russians having (again, according to RUMINT) a significantly larger stockpile of tactical/other-than-strategic. For exercise purposes, treat all 1,500 as strategic weapons of various sizes.

Now, go back to the discussions on reliability and let’s go with the (ludicrous) position of 80 percent success. My very cynical view on reliability is that one would be far better going with a 20 percent success rate, but let’s be optimistic for the exercise. Let’s assume that 80 percent of the missiles will launch; 80 percent of the nuclear weapons will work as advertised; and, that 80 percent of the aircraft will make it into the air and not be sidelined by mechanical or other issues.

Which means that the missiles on either side are reduced to 320 missiles. Which reduces the U.S. to 960 effective warheads via missiles and the Russians to 3,520 warheads. Ooops. Is anyone spotting a problem here? Well, it’s a problem and one of the issues in regards START and related treaties — no one really knows how many ICBMS Russia has. No one knows how many nuclear weapons they truly have either. One set of estimates is here and another is here. You might notice that there is a wide range on the total number of nuclear weapons Russia (and even the U.S.) are reported to have ready to go. As noted earlier, the 40,000+ warheads attributed to the Soviet Union is not reality today. Even so, there is a lot of “wiggle room” and that is what makes planning so much fun!

Again, for purposes of the exercise, let’s ignore reality and limit both sides to 960 effective warheads. Now, which ones are they? Are they on the missiles that don’t launch? How many are on missiles that do launch? Welcome to the sub-lesson Paranoia 101 in target selection! You can’t just assign one warhead to a crucial primary target. You have to figure on at least two warheads, on different missiles, to have a shot at one hitting on target. Really critical targets (such as The Hole, Pentagon/NMCC, etc.) are going to get 3-4 warheads via missiles, and then one or two via bomber.

You can get away with targeting one weapon per missile silo (odds aren’t good on catching it in the ground anyway) or even control capsules (and, yes, the Russians and others pretty much know where they are). Your major command and control nodes? You need to plan on 3-5 warheads for each target. Oh, and to make the planning even more fun, you can’t have all the warheads arrive at once. There’s a thing called nuclear fratricide which could have one nuke take out, or mitigate the effects of, the other nukes if they all hit about the same time. If you want to know more on the topic, do a search of “Dense Pack” and nuclear.

Now, for this exercise, let’s just keep it simple and go with each nuke being a large device. The fact is, as a commenter noted a while back, 4-40 KT bombs can be far more effective than a single 400 KT device. This being a 201-level exercise, we won’t get into size and placement. Presume each device is the same and we are using airburst rather than ground or ground-penetration blasts. FYI, going back to a comment, an underground test is not supposed to breach the surface (though such is reported to have happened), and even the so-called theoretical deep-penetrating warheads are going to send boom upwards and out — and frankly produce some nasty fallout in the process. It will NOT stay all underground.

Okay, now: pick your targets. If you want, you can play Russia and pick targets in the U.S., or you can pick targets in Russia. Up to you. Just you have to stay within the numbers above. In fact, if you like, since this is just an exercise, go with only missiles. Adding in bombers, sea-launch, and other delights really is a 301- or higher level course.

Ready? Go.

In some respects, there are no right or wrong answers for this highly theoretical exercise. The primary purpose is to get you to thinking about what constitutes a target so that you can understand current events. It also allows you to assess things such as if you live in a target zone, and if so what can you do to improve your odds of survival. Despite a number of movies and breathless television dramas, you can survive. Much depends on the level of target near you, distance to that target, and other factors.

For example, currently living in Indianapolis (and please help me get out of here!), I rate us as a secondary target. It’s not like it was years back when you had Ft. Ben as a bit more than just an admin center, major manufacturing, and some other things. Back then, one could make a case that Indy was targeted for at least four weapons. Today, with logistics being the dominant industry here, Ft. Ben reduced, and the critical wartime manufacturing pretty much gone, a good case could be made for a single weapon.

Then the debate turns to how large and where. The argument I put forth earlier in the series looked at a 1 MT device airburst over the state capitol. Such an attack would take out several major interstate highways, a major airport, potentially cripple midwest rail operations, air and ground cargo operations, and state government. An equally good case can be made for targeting the airport (which would take out the state capitol in the process). Frankly, I don’t like either choice as while I am outside the total destruction zone, I would still be in the conflagration zone. Much better odds with the airport, but… Rough (very rough) rule of thumb on a 1 MT airburst: 4 mile radius total/near-total destruction, 2-4 mile additional radius for fire after damage. Not perfect, but gives you something to work with on damage assessment.

Again, this is all a higher level course but it is something about which you do need to think.

Oh, one final thought to share in selecting your targets for this exercise. If you choose to play Vladimir and target the United States, there is one other major consideration when looking at the number of missiles and warheads: you don’t want to use them all. You need to keep a reserve because it’s not just the U.S. and Russia. If you are playing Russia and use all your nukes and missiles on the U.S., Xi is going to be over on the side going ‘youuuuu soooo stuuuppppiiiddddd!’ as you just gave up your ability to deter him from taking some valuable chunks out of your empire.

Again, while it is a higher level course, keep in mind that Vladimir does not have the luxury of just targeting the U.S. He’s got to target NATO and more. Again, that’s higher level, but keep in mind the deeper you get into this the more targets you need to think about for your weapons. You also have to think about which weapons you want to hold in reserve, and how.

Finally, there should be some computer games/simulations out there. Years back, I remember one called (I think, stupid lightning) “Nuke War” that was a limited (only 3 or so dimensions) study that worked you through the Triad (planes, missiles, sub-launched) where you had to choose how to spend your defense budget for same and build up a nuclear capability. It also, at random, would decide to kick off a nuclear exchange. Think there were or are some others. If you know a good one, speak up in the comments.

Ah, that’s the other point I wanted to make today: Nuclear Winter. At worst, it will be nuclear autumn. Keep in mind that the original study on Nuclear Winter used a literally two-dimensional model of the Earth to come up with it’s conclusions. If memory serves, I think 16-24 dimensions are required just to start getting the atmosphere (much less what it does) correct. Caught an earful from a rather annoyed scientist at a major government lab over that one day. Enjoyed the info, though I enjoyed playing with an early version of the holodeck even more.

So, have fun and take a look at your list then tuck it away. If we keep going with this, you will need it again as we once again kick targeting up a level.



Nuclear 201 Posts In Order

Nuclear 201: Some History

Nuclear 201: Will You Be My PAL?

Nuclear 201: A Bit More C&C

Nuclear 201: Additional Thoughts On Coms

Nuclear 101 Posts In Order:

Nuclear What?

Nuclear 101: Weapons

Nuclear 101: Delivery

Nuclear 101: Now What?

Nuclear 101: Targeting

Nuclear 101: Scenarios

Nuclear 101: Survival

Some Quick Thoughts


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13 thoughts on “Nuclear 201: Targeting, Take 2”

  1. Nuclear Winter: Was going to grad school in ’86. Sagan had destroyed whatever scientific rep he had left by signing onto that idiot paper. It came under discussion as there was another such idiot paper released just around then, iirc, which had my physics/astrophysics/atmospheric physics profs guffawing.

    Of course, I trace the history of the “climate change” crowd directly to those idiot papers. The more things change…

  2. I’m a retired F-4 and F-111 WSO/EWO.

    When I think about the effects of a nuclear attack, I think about 9/11. An attacker destroyed two large office building and seriously damaged the Pentagon.

    Look what it did to the country!

    When I think about even a little Hiroshima sized weapon would do dropped on a major city I absolutely shutter with real fear.

    When I think about what a single Satan dropping 10 MIRVs, or that crazy Russian submarine that would drench the east coast with highly radioactive tsunami…. this is beyond horrifying, and I can’t think of a way to prevent it.

    1. Look at what a more sensible attack by Al-Qaida would have done! Swallow hubrissian pride and avoid the siren call of symbolic targets like the Pentagon. Hitting the Capitol building while Congress was in session (it WAS) would have been MUCH more crippling strangely enough–mostly in getting replacements for the Congresscritters and more importantly their staffs. The Twin Towers in NYC were 77% of the US Treasuries market–hitting them may have not been just mere Symbolism.

  3. IMHO,

    The first strike will be by shipping containers on nondescript Panamian or Maltese flagged vessels in a dozen large ports.

    Who dun it?

    1. The Russian Klub-K family of containerized cruise missiles could be launched from off Ocean City Md and reach DC in ten minutes, not enough response time to evacuate leaders from the blast zone .

  4. There are a couple of old boardgames that might serve. Warplan: Dropshot and Warplan: Dropshot II/III (The End Game) are very hard to find, and would probably need to be updated into the bargain. They were originally desktop-published print’n’play titles. Still looking, because I am possibly a horrible person.

  5. The big question in any scenario is “do you shoot silos that well may be empty by the time your warheads arrive?”

    If Putin goes for the silos, that’s 400+ warheads that could be used elsewhere.

    Second big question is “how many bunker busters?” Each 20 Mt bunker buster take its own missile, reducing the MIRVs that could be used.

    If Putin used 50 on hard targets, that’s 500 smaller warheads not used.

    IIRC, the SALT and START Treaties count warheads mated to delivery vehicles and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency inspects regularly.

  6. You left out the rather important part that if you want to disable port cities, they will need more than one nuke each. And to really damage a large city takes several. Terrain plays an important role….and eats up warheads quickly.
    Also, after the performance (or lack thereof) of Russian hardware in Ukraine, I would make a bet on less than 50 percent their nukes 1. reaching the target plus 2. Detonating as designed. The US should do better, but remember the age of those missles. 80 percent is probably a good number.

  7. “… for U.S. weapons we are going to go with 400 missiles, each capable of carrying 3 independently-targeted re-entry vehicles (range 1,100 miles though not part of today’s exercise).”

    1. That 1100 km range is not correct (typo I assume). Canada would suffer.

    2. All US ICBMs have been down-loaded to single warheads. Upload back to three would take years to complete. Also, the unique value of our ICBMs is to raise the ante to get into the game. Presently, only Russia has a deep enough stockpile to eliminate the US ICBM force. China is getting there. All other countries are effectively limited to muzzle-loaders in a Ma Deuce fight.

    3. US relies heavily on SSBNs for putting warheads on targets. (And Trident-II has put together an impressive string of successful flight tests – having more than 180 successful launches including 135 consecutive successes.)

    4. There are many factors that contribute to the overall Pk (“probability of kill”) against a specific target. Missile system reliabilities are just some of those factors. Also, unreliabilities can be randomly distributed or systemic. There is a tendency to assume faults are random like tosses of a coin – that some missiles will fail and others will not. But there are entire classes of failures that are system-wide binary. The dice may be loaded; the coin might have tails on both sides. What works in test might not work in war. When the first squadron of F-22s operationally deployed from Hickam to Kadena, all their electrical systems shut down when they crossed the international dateline. That was not random by individual aircraft but systemic.

    5. Target hardness is a key parameter. The harder the target, the closer the weapon needs to get and/or higher the yield required. A lot of US targeting efforts go toward optimally matching the full catalog of targets against available US weapons. We have enough weapons to put a serious hurt on even the biggest countries. We don’t need to be able to kill ALL the targets, nor do we have enough weapons to do so even if we wanted to.

    6. Another way to categorize targets is Counter-force vs. Counter-value. Counter-force is attacking adversary’s military and C2 – typically “point” targets. Counter-value is largely a euphemism for city busting – ala Hiroshima, Coventry, Dresden, Tokyo. Counter-value does not require accuracy, but does require large yield. US policy pursues Counter-force, and avoids Counter-value. Coincidentally, for decades the US has been decreasing weapon yields in our active stockpile and increasing accuracy.

    7. Targeting is a pretty complex subject.

  8. If you happen to be on Steam, there is Defcom, and a newer game (that I haven’t had a chance to check out yet) called ICBM.

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