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A nuclear attack could take several forms such as a dirty bomb or high-atmosphere EMP, but this article will deal with the “traditional” low atmosphere attacks such as those that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.


Understanding Nuclear Attacks

There are two basic types of nuclear warheads employed by military forces, lower yield fission weapons or atomic bombs (“A-bombs” typically measured in kilotons) and high yield fusion weapons or hydrogen bombs (“H-bombs” typically measured in megatons). The former were typically considered theater tactical weapons and the latter were reserved for strategic intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and gravity bombs (via bombers). Due to increases in accuracy many lower yield weapons have long replaced H-bombs as the warhead of choice for strategic weapons, particularly in Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) which has many warheads on one missile. Additionally there are enhanced yield (or boosted yield) fission weapons or neutron bombs (N-bombs, measured in kilotons) which are designed to cause increased radiation damage in the blast but less blast effect. They were designed specifically to kill people but leave buildings and vehicles intact. These latter weapons were retired from US use in the 1990's but may still be present in other nations' inventories.

Nuclear weapons are classified as Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD's) and are nominally reserved as weapons of last resort for nations. Ideally they are merely deterrents but with the proliferation of nuclear weapons to unstable nation-states and possibly to terrorist groups they may yet be used outside of a strategic deterrent force.

Nuclear weapons kill in several ways. First is the blast effect that is the same as from any conventional high explosive only much larger. The blast wave moves out from the detonation killing by heat (thermal energy) and concussion. The second effect is by a high burst of radiation (“instant radiation”) along several wave lengths, alpha, beta, and most penetrating, gamma rays. These too kill anyone caught out in the open but survivors who were somewhat shielded may survive longer only to die later due to radiation sickness. The third effect is from the radioactive fallout which spreads beta ray emitting material, usually isotopes which decay over time, some as short as two weeks, others as long as a century or more.

Preparing for a Nuclear Attack

To survive a nuclear attack you will need to prepare for three different challenges; the initial blast, fallout, and finally loss of infrastructure. Preparing for these will require food, water, distance, and insulative mass.


While sheltering from fallout your food stores will be all you have since you will be unable to go outside while the radiation dissipates, after the radiation dissipates infrastructure will take a long time to recover and even if you have your own plants and animals to eat it is likely they will not have survived the attack if you were to close to ground zero.


All surface water will be contaminated by any fallout.


Increasing distance from the radiation source reduces the dose due to the inverse-square law for a point source. The distance you need to be to survive a nuclear attack depends on the type of weapon and the yield. The largest bomb tested ever, the Soviet Tsar Bomba was a 50 megaton hydrogen bomb. It was a reduced “clean” 100 megaton device. Yet it still could produce third degree thermal burns from infrared radiation 62 miles (100 km) away from the blast and blast damage 620 miles (1000 km) away. The mushroom cloud was 40 miles (62 km) high and 25 miles (40 km) wide meaning that it could wipe out any American city when you include the other deadly factors present.

By comparison the largest US nuclear blast, Castle Bravo was a 15 megaton weapon that caused a fireball 4.5 miles (7 km) across within a second. It was detonated at ground level, unlike the Tsar Bomba, so it caused a crater 250 feet (75 m) deep and 6,500 feet (2 km) across. The mushroom cloud was 47,000 feet (14 km) high and 7 miles (11 km) across.

Duration of Exposure

The longer that humans are subjected to radiation the larger the dose will be. The advice in the nuclear war manual entitled “Nuclear War Survival Skills” published by Cresson Kearny in the U.S. was that if one needed to leave the shelter then this should be done as rapidly as possible to minimize exposure.

In chapter 12 he states that “Quickly putting or dumping wastes outside is not hazardous once fallout is no longer being deposited. For example, assume the shelter is in an area of heavy fallout and the dose rate outside is 400 R/hr enough to give a potentially fatal dose in about an hour to a person exposed in the open. If a person needs to be exposed for only 10 seconds to dump a bucket, in this 1/360th of an hour he will receive a dose of only about 1 R. Under war conditions, an additional 1-R dose is of little concern.”

Insulative Mass

A shelter near ground zero needs to have sufficient density to stop the penetration by gamma radiation, the silent killer of nuclear attack. One manual during the Cold War recommended that to convert a typical American wood frame home's basement into a fallout shelter would require, at minimum, two feet of earth to be spread across the main floor and up around all exposed walls and windows of the basement. Of course a filter system has to be arranged for air to pass into and out of the shelter. However even this amount will not stop gamma rays from a near blast. For that a shelter needs to be well outside of a likely target area as any shelter within the blast radius will not likely survive unless it is several stories deep.

Fallout shelters are meant for just that purpose, to allow a person or family to remain safe during the first two weeks or so after radioactive debris has fallen over the affected area. Typical radioactive fallout emits beta radiation for about that time. Only larger samples will keep emitting radiation after the first two weeks.

Nuclear Attack Aftermath

It is expected that after an intense nuclear exchange between nations that there will be a total societal collapse. Survival will be up to the individual, family and small community in a post apocalyptic world. The following are special risks that come from nuclear attack.

Radiation Sickness

Known clinically as Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) it comes from the brief but powerful burst of ionizing radiation (e.g. gamma rays) that will penetrate deep through most insulative masses. Radiation sickness is generally associated with acute exposure and has a characteristic set of symptoms that appear in an orderly fashion. The symptoms of radiation sickness become more serious (and the chance of survival decreases) as the dosage of radiation increases. These effects are described as the deterministic effects of radiation.

The lucky ones will die instantly from a lethal dose. Others will live for a time period with burns on their bodies, their hair falling out as the toxic radiation attacks their internal organs. For some who receive a fatal dose but whose bodies do not show it are termed “walking ghosts.” The “walking ghost” phase of radiation poisoning is a period of apparent recovery from radiation poisoning, lasting for hours or up to a couple of weeks, following a dose of 10–50 sieverts of radiation. As its name would suggest, the walking ghost phase is followed by certain death.

Those that do not receive a lethal dose of radiation may still suffer from long term effects such as increased risk of cancers and birth defects.


Treatment reversing the effects of irradiation is currently not possible. Anesthetics and antiemetics are administered to counter the symptoms of exposure, as well as antibiotics for countering secondary infections due to the resulting immune system deficiency.

There are also a number of substances used to mitigate the prolonged effects of radiation poisoning, by eliminating the remaining radioactive materials, post exposure.

Potassium iodide (KI), administered orally immediately after exposure, may be used to protect the thyroid from ingested radioactive iodine in the event of an accident or terrorist attack at a nuclear power plant, or the detonation of a nuclear explosive. KI would not be effective against a dirty bomb unless the bomb happened to contain radioactive iodine, and even then it would only help to prevent thyroid cancer. KI will not save anyone who has received a lethal dose of radiation or even reduce the risk of other cancers.

History Nuclear Attacks

See Also


Man-made Disaster

Snippet from Wikipedia: Nuclear warfare

Nuclear warfare (sometimes atomic warfare or thermonuclear warfare) is a military conflict or political strategy in which nuclear weaponry is used to inflict damage on the enemy. Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction; in contrast to conventional warfare, nuclear warfare can produce destruction in a much shorter time and can have a long-lasting radiological result. A major nuclear exchange would have long-term effects, primarily from the fallout released, and could also lead to a "nuclear winter" that could last for decades, centuries, or even millennia after the initial attack. Some analysts dismiss the nuclear winter hypothesis, and calculate that even with nuclear weapon stockpiles at Cold War highs, although there would be billions of casualties, billions more rural people would nevertheless survive. However, others have argued that secondary effects of a nuclear holocaust, such as nuclear famine and societal collapse, would cause almost every human on Earth to starve to death.

So far, two nuclear weapons have been used in the course of warfare, both by the United States near the end of World War II. On August 6, 1945, a uranium gun-type device (code name "Little Boy") was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, a plutonium implosion-type device (code name "Fat Man") was detonated over the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Together, these two bombings resulted in the deaths of approximately 120,000 people.

After World War II, nuclear weapons were also developed by the Soviet Union (1949), the United Kingdom (1952), France (1960), and the People's Republic of China (1964), which contributed to the state of conflict and extreme tension that became known as the Cold War. In 1974, India, and in 1998, Pakistan, two countries that were openly hostile toward each other, developed nuclear weapons. Israel (1960s) and North Korea (2006) are also thought to have developed stocks of nuclear weapons, though it is not known how many. The Israeli government has never admitted nor denied having nuclear weapons, although it is known to have constructed the reactor and reprocessing plant necessary for building nuclear weapons. South Africa also manufactured several complete nuclear weapons in the 1980s, but subsequently became the first country to voluntarily destroy their domestically made weapons stocks and abandon further production (1990s). Nuclear weapons have been detonated on over 2,000 occasions for testing purposes and demonstrations.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resultant end of the Cold War, the threat of a major nuclear war between the two nuclear superpowers was generally thought to have declined. Since then, concern over nuclear weapons has shifted to the prevention of localized nuclear conflicts resulting from nuclear proliferation, and the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) carried a 9 Mt W53 warhead, one of the most powerful nuclear weapons fielded by the United States during the Cold War.]]

Nuclear warfare (sometimes atomic warfare or thermonuclear warfare) is a military conflict or political strategy in which nuclear weaponry is used to inflict damage on the enemy. Compared to conventional warfare, nuclear warfare can be vastly more destructive in range and extent of damage, and in a much shorter time frame. A major nuclear exchange would have long-term effects, primarily from the fallout released, and could also lead to a “nuclear winter” that could last for decades, centuries, or even millennia after the initial attack.<ref>National Academy of Sciences</ref><ref>Encyclopædia Britannica.</ref> Some analysts claim that with this potential nuclear winter side-effect of a nuclear war almost every human on Earth could starve to death,<ref>Overview of the Doomsday Clock from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists</ref><ref>The Nuclear Winter: The World After Nuclear War, Sagan, Carl et al., Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985</ref> While other analysts, that dismiss the nuclear winter hypothesis, calculate that with nuclear weapon stockpiles at Cold War highs, in a surprise countervalue global nuclear war, megadeaths to billions of casualties would have resulted but billions of people would nevertheless have survived the global thermonuclear war.<ref name=“”> Critique of Nuclear Extinction - Brian Martin 1982</ref><ref name=“”></ref><ref name=“ReferenceA”> the global heath effects of nuclear war</ref><ref> Long-term worldwide effects of multiple nuclear-weapons detonations. Assembly of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, National Research Council.</ref>

Only two nuclear weapons have been used in the course of warfare, both by the United States near the end of World War II. On August 6, 1945, a uranium gun-type device (code name “Little Boy”) was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, a plutonium implosion-type device (code name “Fat Man”) was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. These two bombings resulted in the deaths of approximately 200,000 people from acute injuries sustained in the detonations.<ref>


After World War II, nuclear weapons were also developed by the Soviet Union (1949), the United Kingdom (1952), France (1960), and the People's Republic of China (1964), which contributed to the state of conflict and extreme tension that became known as the Cold War. In 1974, India, and in 1998, Pakistan, two countries that were openly hostile toward each other, developed nuclear weapons. Israel (1960s) and North Korea (2006) are also thought to have developed stocks of nuclear weapons, but their governments have never admitted to having nuclear weapons. South Africa also manufactured several complete nuclear weapons in the 1980s, but subsequently became the first country to voluntarily destroy their domestically made weapons stocks and abandon further production (1990s).<ref name='GlobSec1'></ref>

Nuclear weapons have been detonated on over two thousand occasions for testing purposes and demonstrations.<ref name='NukeTests'></ref>

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resultant end of the Cold War, the threat of a major nuclear war between the two nuclear superpowers was generally thought to have declined. Since then, concern over nuclear weapons has shifted to the prevention of localized nuclear conflicts resulting from nuclear proliferation, and the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Types of nuclear warfare

The possibility of using nuclear weapons in war is usually divided into two subgroups, each with different effects and potentially fought with different types of nuclear armaments.

The first, a limited nuclear war (sometimes attack or exchange), refers to a small-scale use of nuclear weapons by two (or more) belligerents. A “limited nuclear war” could include targeting military facilities - either as an attempt to pre-emptively cripple the enemy's ability to attack as a defensive measure, or as a prelude to an invasion by conventional forces, as an offensive measure. This term could apply to any small-scale use of nuclear weapons that may involve military or civilian targets (or both).

The second, a full-scale nuclear war, could consist of large numbers of nuclear weapons used in an attack aimed at an entire country, including military, economic, and civilian targets. Such an attack would almost certainly destroy the entire economic, social, and military infrastructure of the target nation, and would probably have a devastating effect on Earth's biosphere.

Some Cold War strategists such as Henry Kissinger<ref></ref> argued that a limited nuclear war could be possible between two heavily armed superpowers (such as the United States and the Soviet Union). Some predict, however, that a limited war could potentially “escalate” into a full-scale nuclear war. Others

have called limited nuclear war “global nuclear holocaust in slow motion” - arguing that once such a war took place, others would be sure to follow over a period of decades, effectively rendering the planet uninhabitable in the same way that a “full-scale nuclear war” between superpowers would, only taking a much longer (and arguably more agonizing) path to the same result.

Even the most optimistic predictions

of the effects of a major nuclear exchange foresee the death of many millions of victims within a very short period of time. More pessimistic predictions argue that a full-scale nuclear war could potentially bring about the extinction of the human race, or at least its near extinction, with only a relatively small number of survivors (mainly in remote areas) and a reduced quality of life and life expectancy for centuries afterward. However such exaggerated pessimistic predictions, assuming total war with nuclear arsenals at Cold war highs, have not been without considerable criticism.<ref name=“”/> Such a horrific catastrophe as global nuclear warfare would almost certainly cause permanent damage to most complex life on the planet, its ecosystems, and the global climate - particularly if predictions about the production of a nuclear winter are accurate, it would also change the balance of global power, with countries such as Australia, New Zealand, China, Argentina and Brazil predicted to become world superpowers if the Cold war ever turned hot.<ref name=“”/>

A study presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December 2006 asserted that even a small-scale regional nuclear war could produce as many direct fatalities as all of World War II and disrupt the global climate for a decade or more. In a regional nuclear conflict scenario in which two opposing nations in the subtropics each used 50 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons (c. 15 kiloton each) on major population centers, the researchers predicted fatalities ranging from 2.6 million to 16.7 million per country. Also, they estimated that as much as five million tons of soot could be released, producing a cooling of several degrees over large areas of North America and Eurasia (including most of the grain-growing regions). The cooling would last for years and could be “catastrophic”, according to the researchers.<ref>ScienceDaily - Regional Nuclear War Could Devastate Global Climate</ref>

Either a limited or full-scale nuclear exchange could occur during an accidental nuclear war, in which the use of nuclear weapons is triggered unintentionally. Postulated triggers for this scenario have included malfunctioning early warning devices and/or targeting computers, deliberate malfeasance by rogue military commanders, consequences of an accidental straying of warplanes into enemy airspace, reactions to unannounced missile tests during tense diplomatic periods, reactions to military exercises, mistranslated or misscommunicated messages, and others. A number of these scenarios actually occurred during the Cold War, though none resulted in the use of nuclear weapons.<ref>Alan F. Philips, 20 Mishaps That Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War.</ref> Many such scenarios have been depicted in popular culture, such as in the 1962 novel Fail-Safe (released as a film in 1964), and the film How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, also released in 1964.


Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

During the final stages of World War II in 1945, the United States conducted two atomic bombings against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first on August 6, 1945, and the second on August 9, 1945. These two events are the only use of nuclear weapons in war to date.<ref>


For six months before the atomic bombings, the United States intensely firebombed 67 Japanese cities. Together with the United Kingdom and the Republic of China, the United States called for the unconditional surrender of Japan in the Potsdam Declaration issued July 26, 1945. The Japanese government ignored this ultimatum. By executive order of President Harry S. Truman, the U.S. employed the uranium-type nuclear weapon code named “Little Boy” on the city of Hiroshima on Monday, August 6, 1945,<ref name=“DOE-HIRO”>

page on Hiroshima casualties.</ref><ref name=eyewitness>Adams, S. & Crawford, A.. 2000. World War II. First edition. Printed in association with the Imperial War Museum. Eyewitness Books series. New York, Doring Kindersley Limited.</ref> followed three days later by the detonation of the plutonium-type weapon code named “Fat Man” over the city of Nagasaki on August 9.

Within the first two to four months after the bombings, acute effects killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki,<ref name=“rerf-deaths”>

</ref> with roughly half of the deaths in each city occurring in the first 24 hours. The Hiroshima prefectural health department estimates that - of the people who died on the day of the detonation - 60% died from flash or flame burns, 30% from falling or flying debris, and 10% from other causes. During the following months, large numbers died from the chronic effects of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illnesses. In a U.S. estimate of the total immediate and short-term causes of death, 15–20% died from radiation sickness, 20–30% from flash burns, and 50–60% from other injuries, compounded by illnesses.<ref name=“Truman”>Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey: The Effects of the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, June 19, 1946. President's Secretary's File, Truman Papers. ''2. Hiroshima.'', page 22 of 51.</ref> In both cities, most of the dead were civilians.<ref name=“Spirit1999”>

</ref><ref name=“ModernJapan”>

</ref><ref>Trinity and Beyond: The atomic bomb movie. Dir. Kuran, P., Nar. Shatner, W.. 1997. VHS. Goldhil Video, 1997.</ref>

Six days after the detonation over Nagasaki, on August 15, 1945, Japan announced its surrender to the Allied Powers, signing the Instrument of Surrender on September 2, 1945, officially ending the Pacific War and, therefore, World War II, as Germany had already signed its Instrument of Surrender on May 7, 1945, ending the war in Europe. The two atomic bombings led, in part, to post-war Japan's adopting of the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, which forbade the nation from developing nuclear armaments.<ref>

</ref> The role of the bombings in the surrender of Japan, the ethical justification of the US for using them, as well as their strategic importance, is still hotly debated.<ref name=“Military History 1994”>The Collins Encyclopedia of Military History, Dupuy & Dupuy, BCA 1994, page 1308</ref>

Immediately after the Japan bombings

Immediately after the atomic bombings of Japan, the status of atomic weapons in international and military relations was unclear. Presumably, the United States hoped atomic weapons could offset the Soviet Union's larger conventional ground forces in Eastern Europe, and possibly be used to pressure Soviet leader Joseph Stalin into making concessions. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union pursued its own atomic capabilities through a combination of scientific research and espionage directed against the American program. The Soviets believed that the Americans, with their limited nuclear arsenal, were unlikely to engage in any new world wars, while the Americans were not confident they could prevent a Soviet takeover of Europe, despite their atomic advantage.

Within the United States the authority to produce and develop nuclear weapons was removed from military control and put instead under the civilian control of the United States Atomic Energy Commission. This decision reflected an understanding that nuclear weapons had unique risks and benefits that were separate from other military technology known at the time.

bomber]] For several years after World War II, the United States developed and maintained a strategic force based on the Convair B-36 bomber that would be able to attack any potential enemy from bomber bases in the United States. It deployed atomic bombs around the world for potential use in conflicts. Over a period of a few years, many in the American defense community became increasingly convinced of the invincibility of the United States to a nuclear attack. Indeed, it became generally believed that the threat of nuclear war would deter any strike against the United States.

Many proposals were suggested to put all American nuclear weapons under international control (by the newly formed United Nations, for example) as an effort to deter both their usage and an arms race. However, no terms could be arrived at that would be agreed upon by both the United States and the Soviet Union.

File:US and USSR nuclear stockpiles.svg

On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan (see also Soviet atomic bomb project). Scientists in the United States from the Manhattan Project had warned that, in time, the Soviet Union would certainly develop nuclear capabilities of its own. Nevertheless, the effect upon military thinking and planning in the United States was dramatic, primarily because American military strategists had not anticipated the Soviets would “catch up” so soon. However, at this time, they had not discovered that the Soviets had conducted significant nuclear espionage of the project from spies at Los Alamos, the most significant of which was done by the theoretical physicist Klaus Fuchs. The first Soviet bomb was more or less a deliberate copy of the Fat Man plutonium device.

With the monopoly over nuclear technology broken, worldwide nuclear proliferation accelerated. The United Kingdom tested its first independent atomic bomb in 1952, followed by France in 1960 and then China in 1964. While much smaller than the arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union, Western Europe's nuclear reserves were nevertheless a significant factor in strategic planning during the Cold War. A top-secret White Paper, compiled by the Royal Air Force and produced for the British Government in 1959, estimated that British atomic bombers were capable of destroying key cities and military targets in the Soviet Union, with an estimated 16 million deaths in the Soviet Union (half of whom were estimated to be killed on impact and the rest fatally injured) before bomber aircraft from the U.S. Strategic Air Command reached their targets.

After the successful Trinity (test) July 16, 1945, which was the very first nuclear detonation, the manhattan project lead manager J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled:


The 1950s

Although the Soviet Union had nuclear weapon capabilities in the beginning of the Cold War, the United States still had an advantage in terms of bombers and weapons. In any exchange of hostilities, the United States would have been capable of bombing the Soviet Union, whereas the Soviet Union would have more difficulty carrying out the reverse mission.

The widespread introduction of jet-powered interceptor aircraft upset this imbalance somewhat by reducing the effectiveness of the American bomber fleet. In 1949 Curtis LeMay was placed in command of the Strategic Air Command and instituted a program to update the bomber fleet to one that was all-jet. During the early 1950s the B-47 and B-52 were introduced, providing the ability to bomb the Soviet Union more easily. <!– Deleted image removed:

urged the socialist camp not to fear nuclear war with the United States since, even if 'half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist'.<ref>“Instant Wisdom: Beyond the Little Red Book”. TIME. September 20, 1976.</ref>]] –> Before the development of a capable strategic missile force in the Soviet Union, much of the war-fighting doctrine held by western nations revolved around using a large number of smaller nuclear weapons used in a tactical role. It is debatable whether such use could be considered “limited” however, because it was believed that the United States would use their own strategic weapons (mainly bombers at the time) should the Soviet Union deploy any kind of nuclear weapon against civilian targets. Douglas MacArthur, an American general, was fired by President Harry Truman, partially because he persistently requested permission to use his own discretion in deciding whether to use atomic weapons on the People's Republic of China in 1951 during the Korean War.<ref>Nuclear Chronology 1945-1959

</ref> Mao Zedong, China's communist leader, gave the impression that he would welcome a nuclear war with the capitalists because it would annihilate what he viewed as their “imperialist” system.<ref>“Instant Wisdom: Beyond the Little Red Book”. TIME. September 20, 1976.</ref><ref>Robert Service. ''Comrades!: A History of World Communism.'' Harvard University Press, 2007. p. 321. ISBN 0-674-02530-X</ref>

, with one of which being the detonations of the Desert Rock exercises at the Nevada Test Site, USA, pictured above during the Korean War.]] Several scares about the increasing ability of the Soviet Union's strategic bomber forces surfaced during the 1950s. The defensive response by the United States was to deploy a fairly strong “layered defense” consisting of interceptor aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles, like the Nike, and guns, like the Skysweeper, near larger cities. However, this was a small response compared to the construction of a huge fleet of nuclear bombers. The principal nuclear strategy was to massively penetrate the Soviet Union. Because such a large area could not be defended against this overwhelming attack in any credible way, the Soviet Union would lose any exchange.

This logic became ingrained in American nuclear doctrine and persisted for much of the duration of the Cold War. As long as the strategic American nuclear forces could overwhelm their Soviet counterparts, a Soviet preemptive strike could be averted. Moreover, the Soviet Union could not afford to build any reasonable counterforce, as the economic output of the United States was far larger than that of the Soviets, and they would be unable to achieve “nuclear parity”.

Soviet nuclear doctrine, however, did not match American nuclear doctrine.<ref name=“”>Military Planning for European Theatre Conflict During the Cold War</ref><ref>Nuclear Strategy differences in Soviet and American thinking</ref> Soviet military planners assumed they can win the nuclear war.<ref name=“”/><ref> Why the Soviet Union thinks it can fight and win a Nuclear War, Richard Pipes, Professor of History Harvard University 1977</ref><ref name=“”> Previously Classified Interviews with Former Soviet Officials Reveal U.S. Strategic Intelligence Failure Over Decades</ref> Therefore, they expected a large-scale nuclear exchange, followed by a “conventional war” which itself would involve heavy use of tactical nuclear weapons. American doctrine rather assumed that Soviet doctrine was similar, with the mutual in Mutually Assured Destruction necessarily requiring that the other side see things in much the same way, rather than believing - as the Soviets did - that they could fight a large-scale, “combined nuclear and conventional” war.

In accordance with their doctrine, the Soviet Union conducted large-scale military exercises to explore the possibility of defensive and offensive warfare during a nuclear war. The exercise, under the code name of “Snowball”, involved the detonation of a nuclear bomb about twice as powerful as that which fell on Nagasaki and an army of approximately 45,000 soldiers on maneuvers through the hypocenter immediately after the blast.<ref>Viktor Suvorov, Shadow of Victory (

), Donetsk, 2003, ISBN 966-696-022-2, pages 353-375.</ref> The exercise was conducted on September 14, 1954, under command of Marshal Georgy Zhukov to the north of Totskoye village in Orenburg Oblast, Russia.

A revolution in nuclear strategic thought occurred with the introduction of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which the Soviet Union first successfully tested in August 1957. In order to deliver a warhead to a target, a missile was much faster and more cost-effective than a bomber, and enjoyed a higher survivability due to the enormous difficulty of interception of the ICBMs (due to their high altitude and extreme speed). The Soviet Union could now afford to achieve nuclear parity with the United States in terms of raw numbers, although for a time, they appeared to have chosen not to.

Photos of Soviet missile sites set off a wave of panic in the U.S. military, something the launch of Sputnik would do for the American public a few months later. Politicians, notably then-U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy suggested that a “missile gap” existed between the Soviet Union and the United States.<!–This was a savvy political ploy, as the US administration almost certainly knew better, and also knew that they could not be corrected without violating military security. It should be pointed out, though, that Dwight D. Eisenhower's own Gaither panel had also overestimated Soviet nuclear capabilities in their 1957 report.:// One result of this, however, was that the Soviets believed the vulnerability actually existed, with resulting temptation; luckily, cooler heads prevailed. After Kennedy won the 1960 Presidential election, the “missile gap” (conveniently) went away.–><!–This political interpretation needs to be attributed or made neutral.–> The US military gave missile development programs the highest national priority, and several spy aircraft and reconnaissance satellites were designed and deployed to observe Soviet progress.

Early ICBMs and bombers were relatively inaccurate, which led to the concept of countervalue strikes — attacks directly on the enemy population, which would theoretically lead to a collapse of the enemy's will to fight. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union invested in extensive protected civilian infrastructure, such as large “nuclear-proof” bunkers and non-perishable food stores. By comparison, smaller scale civil defense programs were instituted in the United States starting in the 1950s, where schools and other public buildings had basements stocked with non-perishable food supplies, canned water, first aid, and dosimeter and Geiger counter radiation-measuring devices. Many of the locations were given “Fallout Shelter” designation signs. Also, CONELRAD Radio information systems were adopted, whereby the commercial radio sector would broadcast on two AM frequencies in the event of a Civil Defense (CD) emergency. These two frequencies-640 and 1240 marked with small CD triangles on the tuning dial can still be seen on 1950s-vintage radios on online auction sites and museums. Also, the occasional backyard fallout shelter was built by private individuals.


reconnaissance photograph of the MRBM launch site in San Cristóbal, Cuba (1962)]] An extensive, complicated, and worrisome situation developed in 1962, in what is called the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet Union placed medium-range ballistic missiles

from the United States - a move considered by many

as a direct response to American Jupiter missiles placed in Turkey. After intense negotiations, the Soviets ended up removing the missiles from Cuba and decided to institute a massive weapons-building program of their own. In exchange, the United States dismantled its launch sites in Turkey, although this was done secretly and not publicly revealed for over two decades. Khrushchev did not even reveal this part of the agreement when he came under fire by political opponents for mishandling the crisis.

By the late 1960s, the number of ICBMs and warheads was so high on both sides that it was believed that both the United States and the Soviet Union were capable of completely destroying the infrastructure and a large proportion of the population of the other country. Thus, by some western game theorists, a balance of power system known as mutually assured destruction (or MAD) came into being. It was thought that any full-scale exchange between the powers would not result in an outright winner, with at best one side emerging the pyrrhic victor, and thus both sides were deterred from risking the initiation of a direct confrontation, instead being forced to engage in lower intensity proxy wars.

During this decade the Peoples Republic of China began to build subterranean infrastructure such as the Underground Project 131 following the Sino-Soviet split.

<!–these next two paragraphs should be elsewhere in the text, not in “1960s”–> One drawback of the MAD doctrine was the possibility of a nuclear war occurring without either side intentionally striking first. Warning system\Early Warning Systems (EWS) were notoriously error-prone. For example, on 78 occasions in 1979 alone, a “missile display conference” was called to evaluate detections that were “potentially threatening to the North American continent”. Some of these were trivial errors and were spotted quickly, but several went to more serious levels. On September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov received convincing indications of an American first strike launch against the Soviet Union, but positively identified the warning as a false alarm. Though it is unclear what role Petrov's actions played in preventing a nuclear war during this incident, he has been honored by the United Nations for his actions.

Similar incidents happened many times in the United States, due to failed computer chips,<ref>June 80: Faulty Computer Chip, 20 Mishaps that Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War, by Alan F. Phillips, M.D., January 1998, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation</ref> misidentifications of large flights of geese, test programs, and bureaucratic failures to notify early warning military personnel of legitimate launches of test or weather missiles. For many years, the U.S. Air Force's strategic bombers were kept airborne on a daily rotating basis “around the clock” (see Operation Chrome Dome), until the number and severity of accidents, the 1968 Thule Air Base B-52 crash in particular, persuaded policymakers it was not worthwhile.


By the late 1970s, people in both the United States and the Soviet Union, along with the rest of the world, had been living with the concept of mutual assured destruction (MAD) for about a decade, and it became deeply ingrained into the psyche and popular culture of those countries. Such an exchange would have killed many millions of individuals directly, and possibly induced a nuclear winter if enough soot from firestorms reached the stratosphere, which was believed to have the potential to decrease post war agriculture yields, and with that lead to the death of a large portion of humanity and - potentially - the collapse of global civilization.

On May 18, 1974, India conducted its first nuclear test in the Pokhran test range. The name of the operation was Smiling Buddha, and India termed the test as a “peaceful nuclear explosion”.

According to the 1980 United Nations report General and Complete Disarmament: Comprehensive Study on Nuclear Weapons: Report of the Secretary-General, it was estimated that there were a total of about 40,000 nuclear warheads in existence at that time, with a potential combined explosive yield of approximately 13,000 megatons. By comparison, when the volcano Mount Tambora erupted in 1815 - turning 1816 into the Year Without A Summer due to the levels of global dimming sulfate aerosols and ash expelled - it exploded with a force of roughly 1,000 megatons, however it must be noted that comparisons with supervolcanos are more misleading than helpful due to the different aerosols released, the likely air burst fuzing height of nuclear weapons and the globally scattered location of these potential nuclear detonations all being in contrast to the singular and subterranean nature of a supervolcanic eruption.<ref name=“ReferenceA”/> Nonetheless, many people believe that a full-scale nuclear war would result in the extinction of the human species, though not all analysts agree on the assumptions required for these models.<ref name=“”/>

The idea that any nuclear conflict would eventually escalate was a challenge for military strategists. This challenge was particularly severe for the United States and its NATO allies because it was believed (until the 1970s) that a Soviet tank invasion of Western Europe would quickly overwhelm NATO conventional forces, leading to the necessity of the West escalating to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, one of which was the W-70.

This strategy had one major (and possibly critical) flaw, which was soon realised by military analysts but highly underplayed by the U.S. military: conventional NATO forces in the European theatre of war were far outnumbered by similar Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces, and it was assumed that in case of a major Soviet attack (commonly envisioned as the “Red tanks rolling towards the North Sea” scenario) that NATO - in the face of quick conventional defeat - would soon have no other choice but to resort to tactical nuclear strikes against these forces. Most analysts agreed that once the first nuclear exchange had occurred, escalation to global nuclear war would likely become inevitable.

The 1980s

SLBM and the paths of its reentry vehicles.]]

File:US nuclear strike map.svg

-estimated primary counterforce targets for Soviet ICBMs. The resulting fall-out is indicated with the darkest considered as “lethal” to relatively fall-out free yellow zones.<ref>Continental US Fallout Pattern for Prevailing Winds (FEMA-196/September 1990)</ref>]] In the late 1970s and, particularly, during the early 1980s under U.S. President Ronald Reagan, the United States renewed its commitment to a more powerful military, which required a large increase in spending on U.S. military programs. These programs, which were originally part of the defense budget of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, included spending on conventional and nuclear weapons systems. Under Reagan, defensive systems like the Strategic Defense Initiative became emphasized as well.

Another major shift in nuclear doctrine was the development and the improvement of the submarine-launched, nuclear-armed, ballistic missile, or SLBM. It was hailed by many military theorists as a weapon that would make nuclear war less likely. SLBMs - which can move with “stealth” (greatly lessened detectibility) virtually anywhere in the world - give a nation a “second strike” capability (i.e. after absorbing a “first strike”). Before the advent of the SLBM, thinkers feared that a nation might be tempted to initiate a first strike if it felt confident that such a strike would incapacitate the nuclear arsenal of its enemy, making retaliation impossible. With the advent of SLBMs, no nation could be certain that a first strike would incapacitate its enemy's entire nuclear arsenal. To the contrary, it would have to fear a (near certain) retaliatory second strike from SLBMs. Thus, a first strike was a much less of feasible (or desirable) option, and a (deliberately initiated) nuclear war was thought to be less likely to start.

However, it was soon realized that submarines could “sneak up” close to enemy coastlines and decrease the “warning time” (the time between detection of the missile launch and the impact of the missile) from as much as half an hour to possibly under three minutes. This effect was especially significant to the United States, Britain and China, whose capitals all lay within 100 miles (160&nbsp;km) of their coasts. Moscow was much more secure from this type of threat, due to its considerable distance from the sea. This greatly increased the credibility of a “surprise first strike” by one faction and (theoretically) made it possible to knock out or disrupt the chain of command of a target nation before any counterstrike could be ordered (known as a “decapitation strike”). It strengthened the notion that a nuclear war could possibly be “won” - resulting not only in greatly increased tensions and increasing calls for fail-deadly control systems, but also in a dramatic increase in military spending. The submarines and their missile systems were very expensive, and one fully equipped nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed missile submarine could cost more than the entire GNP of a developing country.<ref>

</ref> It was also calculated, however, that the greatest cost came in the development of both sea- and land-based anti-submarine defenses and in improving and strengthening the “chain of command”, and as a result, military spending skyrocketed.

South Africa developed a nuclear weapon capability during the 1970s and early 1980s. It was operational for a brief period before being dismantled in the early 1990s.

On Sept. 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down by Soviet jet fighters. On the 26th, a Soviet early warning station under the command of Stanislav Petrov falsely detected 5 inbound intercontinental ballistic missiles from the US. Petrov correctly assessed the situation as a false alarm, and hence did not report his finding to his superiors. It is quite possible that his actions prevented “World War III”, as the Soviet policy at that time was immediate nuclear response upon discovering inbound ballistic missiles.

The world came unusually close to nuclear war - although perhaps not as close as during the Cuban Missile Crisis - when the Soviet Union thought that the NATO military exercise Able Archer 83 was a ruse or “cover up” to begin a nuclear first strike. The Soviets responded by raising readiness and preparing their nuclear arsenal for immediate use. Soviet fears of an attack ceased once the exercise concluded without incident.

Post–Cold War

Although the dissolution of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War and greatly reduced tensions between the United States and the Russian Federation, the Soviet Union's formal successor state, both countries remained in a “nuclear stand-off” due to the continuing presence of a very large number of deliverable nuclear warheads on both sides. Additionally, the end of the Cold War led the United States to become increasingly concerned with the development of nuclear technology by other nations outside of the former Soviet Union. In 1995, a branch of the U.S. Strategic Command produced an outline of forward-thinking strategies in the document “Essentials of Post–Cold War Deterrence”.

As an effect of the 9/11 attacks on the USA, American forces immediately increased their readiness to the highest level in 28 years, closing the blast doors of the NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center for the first time due to a non-exercise event. But unlike similar increases during the Cold War, Russia immediately decided to stand down a large military exercise in the Arctic region, in order to minimize the risk of incidents, rather than following suit.<ref></ref>

The former chair of the United Nations disarmament committee stated that there are more than 16,000 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons ready for deployment and another 14,000 in storage, with the U.S. having nearly 7,000 ready for use and 3,000 in storage, and Russia having about 8,500 ready for use and 11,000 in storage. In addition, China is thought to possess about 400 nuclear weapons, Britain about 200, France about 350, India about 80-100, and Pakistan 100-110. North Korea is confirmed as having nuclear weapons, though it is not known how many, with most estimates between 1 and 10. Israel is also widely believed to possess usable nuclear weapons. NATO has stationed about 480 American nuclear weapons in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Turkey, and several other nations are thought to be in pursuit of an arsenal of their own.<ref>London Free Press - Disarmament expert warns of nuclear threat Non functioning link</ref>

A key development in nuclear warfare throughout the 2000s and early 2010s is the proliferation of nuclear weapons to the developing world, with India and Pakistan both publicly testing several nuclear devices, and North Korea conducting an underground nuclear test on October 9, 2006. The U.S. Geological Survey measured a 4.2 magnitude earthquake in the area where the North Korean test is said to have occurred. A further test was announced by the North Korean government on May 25, 2009.<ref>Urgent talks after N Korean test</ref> Iran, meanwhile, has embarked on a nuclear program which - while officially for civilian purposes - has come under close scrutiny by the United Nations and many individual states.

Recent studies undertaken by the CIA cite the enduring India-Pakistan conflict as the one “flash point” most likely to escalate into a nuclear war. During the Kargil War in 1999, Pakistan came close to using its nuclear weapons in case the conventional military situation underwent further deterioration.<ref>BBC News| South Asia| Pakistan 'prepared nuclear strike'</ref> Pakistan's foreign minister had even warned that it would “use any weapon in our arsenal”, hinting at a nuclear strike against India.<ref>“Pakistan May Use Any Weapon,” The News, Islamabad, May 31, 1999</ref> The statement was condemned by the international community, with Pakistan denying it later on. This conflict remains the only war (of any sort) between two declared nuclear powers. The 2001-2002 India-Pakistan standoff again stoked fears of nuclear war between the two countries. Despite these very serious and relatively recent threats, relations between India and Pakistan have been improving somewhat over the last few years. A bus line directly linking Indian- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir has recently been established. However, with the November 26, 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, India currently will not rule out war with Pakistan.

Another potential geopolitical issue which is considered particularly worrisome by military analysts is a possible conflict between the United States and the People's Republic of China over Taiwan. Although economic forces are thought to have decreased somewhat the possibility of a military conflict, there remains worry about the increasing military buildup of China (China is rapidly increasing their naval capacity), and that any move toward Taiwan independence could potentially spin out of control.

Israel is thought to possess somewhere between one hundred and four hundred nuclear warheads. It has been asserted that the submarines which Israel received from Germany have been adapted to carry missiles with nuclear warheads, so as to give Israel a second strike capability.<ref>Israel buys 2 nuclear-capable submarines from Germany - The Boston Globe</ref> Israel has been involved in wars with its neighbors in the Middle East (and with other “non-state actors”) on numerous prior occasions, and its small geographic size and population could mean that, in the event of future wars, the Israeli military might have very little time to react to an invasion or other major threat. Such a situation could escalate to nuclear warfare very quickly in some scenarios.

In the Persian Gulf, Iran appears to many observers to be in the process of developing a nuclear weapon, which has greatly heightened fears of a nuclear conflict and arms races in the Middle East—either with Israel or with one or more Arab states (a “Shia-Sunni” conflict).

On March 7, 2013, North Korea threatened the United States with a pre-emptive nuclear strike.<ref>

</ref> On April 9, North Korea urged foreigners to leave South Korea, stating that both countries were on the verge of nuclear war.<ref>

</ref> On April 12, North Korea stated that a nuclear war was unavoidable. The country declared Japan as its first target.<ref>


Sub-strategic use

The above examples envisage nuclear warfare at a strategic level, i.e. total war. However, nuclear powers have the ability to undertake more limited engagements.

“Sub-strategic use” includes the use of either “low-yield” tactical nuclear weapons, or of variable yield strategic nuclear weapons in a very limited role, as compared to battlefield exchanges of larger-yield strategic nuclear weapons. This was described by the UK Parliamentary Defence Select Committee as “the launch of one or a limited number of missiles against an adversary as a means of conveying a political message, warning or demonstration of resolve”.<ref>UK Parliament, House of Commons, “Select Committee on Defence, Eighth Report”, ://, 20 June 2006. Fetched from URL on 23 December 2012.</ref> It is believed that all current nuclear weapons states possess tactical nuclear weapons, with the exception of the United Kingdom, which decommissioned its tactical warheads in 1998. However, the UK does possess scalable-yield strategic warheads, and this technology tends to blur the difference between “strategic”, “sub-strategic”, and “tactical” use or weapons. American, French and British nuclear submarines are believed to carry at least some missiles with these types of high-tech warheads for this purpose - potentially allowing a strike as low as one kiloton (or less) against a single target. Only the People's Republic of China and the Republic of India have declarative, unqualified, unconditional “no first use” nuclear weapons policies.

Commodore Tim Hare, former Director of Nuclear Policy at the British Ministry of Defence, has described “sub-strategic use” as offering the Government “an extra option in the escalatory process before it goes for an all-out strategic strike which would deliver unacceptable damage”.<ref>House of Commons - Defense - Eighth Report - THE 1998 STRATEGIC DEFENCE REVIEW</ref> However, this sub-strategic capacity has been criticized as potentially increasing the “acceptability” of using nuclear weapons. The related consideration of new generations of limited-yield nuclear weapons by the United States (i.e. “bunker busters”) has also alarmed anti-nuclear groups, who believe it will make the use of nuclear weapons “more acceptable” or likely.

Also of note is that the United States adopted a policy in 1996 of allowing the targeting of its nuclear weapons at non-state actors (“terrorists”) armed with weapons of mass destruction.<ref>Daniel Plesch & Stephen Young, “Senseless policy”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December 1998, page 4. Fetched from URL on 18 April 2011.</ref>

Nuclear terrorism

Nuclear terrorism by non-state organizations or actors (even individuals) is a largely unknown and understudied factor in nuclear deterrence thinking, as states possessing nuclear weapons are susceptible to retaliation in kind, while sub- or trans-state actors may be less so. The collapse of the Soviet Union has given rise to the possibility that former Soviet nuclear weapons might become available on the black market (so-called 'loose nukes'). While no warheads are known to have been mislaid, it has been alleged that at least some very small or suitcase-size bombs might be unaccounted for.

A number of other concerns have been expressed about the security of nuclear weapons in other, newer nuclear powers with relatively less stable governments, such as Pakistan, but in each case, the fears have been addressed to some extent by statements and evidence provided by those nations, as well as cooperative programs between nations. Worry remains, however, in many circles that a relative decrease in security of nuclear weapons has emerged in recent years, and that terrorists or others may attempt to exert control over (or use) nuclear weapons, militarily applicable technology, or nuclear materials and fuel.

Another possible nuclear terrorism threat are devices designed to disperse radioactive materials over a large area using conventional explosives, called dirty bombs. The detonation of a “dirty bomb” would not cause a nuclear explosion, nor would it release enough radiation to kill or injure a lot of people. However, it could cause severe disruption and require potentially very costly decontamination procedures and increased spending on security measures.<ref>



The predictions of the effects of a major countervalue nuclear exchange include millions of city dweller deaths within a short period of time. Some predictions argue that a full-scale nuclear war could eventually bring about the extinction of the human race; however such pessimistic predictions, assuming total war with nuclear arsenals at Cold war highs, have not been without considerable criticism.<ref name=“”/> Nonetheless, a number of Cold War publications advocate preparations that can allegedly be taken in order to allow the majority of civilians to survive even a total nuclear war. Among the most famous of these is the aptly named Nuclear War Survival Skills.<ref name=NWSS1>


To avoid injury and death from a nuclear weapons heat flash and blast effects, the two most far ranging prompt effects of nuclear weapons, schoolchildren were taught to duck and cover by the early cold war film of the same name. Such advice is once again being given in case of nuclear terrorist attacks.<ref></ref>

Prussian blue, or “Radiogardase”, is stockpiled in the US, along with potassium iodide and DPTA as pharmaceuticals useful in treating internal exposure to harmful radioisotopes in fallout.<ref></ref>

Publications on adapting to a changing diet and supplying nutritional food sources following a nuclear war, with particular focus on agricultural radioecology, include Nutrition in the postattack environment by the RAND corporation.<ref></ref>

Many countries maintain plans for continuity of government following a nuclear attack or similar disasters.

The Soviet government believed they could win, not only a strategic nuclear war, which they planned to absorb with their extensive Civil Defense schemes and infrastructure dispersal,<ref name=“Richard Pipes 1977”>



</ref> but also win the conventional war that they predicted would follow after their strategic nuclear arsenal had been depleted.<ref>


A number of other countries around the world have taken significant efforts to maximize their survival prospects in the event of large calamities, both natural and manmade. For example, metro stations in Pyongyang, North Korea, were constructed

below ground, and were designed to serve as nuclear shelters in the event of war, with each station entrance built with thick steel blast doors.<ref>


</ref> While examples of privately funded fallout shelters are the Ark Two Shelter in Ontario, Canada, one of the best known privately constructed autonomous shelters, with a focus on post-war networking and reconstruction.<ref></ref> In Switzerland, the majority of homes have an underground blast and fallout shelter. The country has an overcapacity of such shelters and can accommodate slightly more than the nation's population size.<ref>



In fiction

Nuclear warfare and weapons are staple elements of science fiction.

See also


Further reading

External links

* Nuclear weapons

nuclear_warfare.txt · Last modified: 2020/03/12 18:36 (external edit)