58 thoughts on “The Nuclear Nightmare”

  1. “If so, it’s will be the fault of the feckless and naive who were trying to make it go away by pretending it doesn’t exist.”

    Utterly and completely.

  2. Perhaps the biggest fault of modern diplomacy is the perception that geopolitical stability is attainable or desirable. Largely this is due to the Cold War which imposed a balance of terror on the world and helped maintain the stasis of geopolitical boundaries and entities in most of the world outside of Africa in the post-WWII era.

    However, geopolitical stability is not the norm historically. If you look at Pakistan or Iran, for example, you’ll see that the modern incarnation of both states is only a few decades old. Also, we are now seeing a great deal of instability borne out across Africa and the middle east. Some of it in countries with WMD programs and stockpiles. Some of it in countries capable of developing nuclear weapons. We tend to imagine that the boundaries and states we see today in the world will be the same in the future, but there is no guarantee of this. In another few decades it’s quite possible that war, civil unrest, and so forth will have reshaped the boundaries and the political entities of these regions in much the same ways as the boundaries of Europe fluctuated up until the mid 20th century. For example, perhaps Libya and Egypt will become a single country, or perhaps Iraq will fracture into several countries, or perhaps there will be a new Caliphate comprised of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc.

    How that will impact the development of nuclear weapons and the equations of nuclear deterrence is an exercise left for our future selves.

  3. MAD worked with the USSR because you had two roughly equal military powers, and roughly equal size (i.e. big) states where state survival was the ante.

    This is notthe case with Mideast nations or actors or terrorist organizations.

    To rely on MAD in the ME is folly.

    1. MAD also worked because each side had time to figure out what was going on and retaliate, should that be necessary. Sufficient surprise to wipe out a retaliatory strike never was possible between the US and the USSR. Nuclear powers in the Middle East would be far closer together. So how well will MAD work, when you’re worried that your opponent might attack you first and might succeed at wiping out your nuclear weapon capability?

      1. We’ve seen India and Pakistan dance close to that edge, in spite of being ‘saner’ than some of their neighbors. What we consider tactical and theater weapons and ranges are fully strategic for them…

    1. LA hopefully has adequate sensors to pick up such a thing. I doubt all cities and critical industrial areas are as well secure.

      1. ‘Adequate sensors’?

        Take a look at a map of LA sometime (or just about any American city), they are enormous, and the range at which a reasonably well-sheilded bomb would be detected is very short indeed. Even a reasonably crude bomb would fit nicely inside of an SUV, do you propose that we can (or would) inspect every single SUV-sized vehicle? The idea that we are going to be able to simply spot an incoming bomb with anything less than a permanent police state is nonsense….

        Even if such a thing were possible however, what is to stop the ‘bad guys’ from simply bringing the parts into place one at a time, and placing them in a stationary (and better sheilded) basement somewhere? Manhattan (small and dense) would be an ideal target for this. Failing that, there are any number of non-urban targets that would be easily brought in proximity to a terrorist bomb. Check out John McPhee’s “The Curve of Binding Energy” for an intriguing list…

        1. do you propose that we can (or would) inspect every single SUV-sized vehicle?

          You mean you haven’t noticed the radiation detectors? They’ve been up for years – square boxes about a foot on a side, suspended above roadways on the same supports used for green highway message signs or traffic lights.

          1. To repeat, do you suggest that we inspect every SUV-sized vehicle? Detectors (assuming that they work properly when and where they exist…) are limited in value and suffer the same problems (false positives being most common) with detection and processing of information as any large anti-terror surveillence plan.

            A reasonably competent terrorist (and we can reasonably assume that anyone who gets a hold of a nuke would fall into that category) can easily do a few ‘dry runs’ with harmless materials to check out their routes, or as I mentioned earlier, simply bring sub-assemblies into the target area one piece ata time. Really, this isn’t that hard, drug dealers have been moving reasonably significant cargos under the watchful eye of law enforcement for some time without much difficulty.

        2. A friend of mine undergoing thyroid chemotherapy was told that he might set off radiation detectors if he went to a major city or through a tunnel. Assuming that’s true, it sounds like we’re already inspecting every car, much less SUV

          1. So what do they do when they get a ‘hit’? How do they identify and stop the specific vehicle, assuming it’s got a bomb? If it’s a got a bomb, why would it stop? And if it is stopped, what will keep them from exploding the device?

            Granted, it’s better than nothing, and I guess it’s aimed more at stopping the smuggling of materials to make a bomb, but I can’t see that it would be of much use in preventing the use of of an already assembled bomb.

  4. The leaders in the USSR and the PRC didn’t like our politics, but they didn’t want to chance dying either, so MAD ‘worked’.

    The big problem with a nuclear Iran or Pakistan is that many of their leaders are followers of a radical philosophy that REWARDS dying in jihads. So if they set off a nuclear exchange, even if they might be annihilated, they think they STILL win!

    So like Gregg said and I totally agree, to rely on MAD in the ME is folly.

  5. Even if Iran had nuclear weapons the chance of them using them directly is quite low. However the more countries that get nuclear weapons the higher is the probability they will get used. Even if states don’t use them directly they can still sponsor a terrorist attack. All it takes is a ship with a nuke on it.
    There was a fairly sizable investment in missile interception in the last decades particularly in the US and Israel. Some programs were downsized or cut like ABL but those systems we never practical to begin with. The laser systems in particular need high power efficient solid state or other non-chemical lasers to be available in order to become practical and economic and there are ongoing defense investments in that area.

    1. Godzilla wrote:

      “Even if Iran had nuclear weapons the chance of them using them directly is quite low.”


      1. You are assuming the Iranian leaders aren’t interested in perpetuating their regime however this flies in the face of their own history.
        Even if they were to expand their borders the only viable targets would be Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan would probably end up being disputed with Pakistan which has nuclear weapons of its own. If they got into Iraq there would likely be a NATO intervention. Their border with Iraq is mostly well defined except for the chunks Saddam appropriated during the Iran-Iraq war. The present Iraq government is Shia and seems to have reasonably good relations with them. It makes no bloody sense. Israel as a target? Makes no sense either considering: a) Israel has nuclear weapons of their own they can use to retaliate via their nuclear triad. b) Israel shares no border with Iran. c) Israel has advanced air to air defenses making any such attack a crapshoot at best unless you can saturate their air defenses which they won’t be able to do.
        Iran wants the nuclear weapons as an insurance policy related to foreign intervention against their regime. The insurance ceases once they use them so why should they?

        1. And YOU are assuming that the Iranians believe that there would be consequences, which is not necessarily their thinking on this matter. They have seen the West back down time and again in the face of endless provocations. Their own ideology regards us as effete and decadent, and their own observations confirm this.

          A direct attack on Israel would certainly bring revenge (would it? perhaps…), one on the US, likely, but depending upon how it was done, perhaps not. Western Europe, on the other hand….well, that might be another kettle of fish entirely. Say a terror strike was launched against Belguim by a terror group (a front for Quds) as part of a coordinated effort to undercut sanctions? The Iranians would deny everything (yes, I know, the bombs can be fingerprinted, but that wouldn’t stop the Iranians from denying this, and it wouldn’t stop Russia and China from pretending to believe them…), and even ‘cooperate ‘ in bringing a few miscreants to justice. They would demonstrate their willingness to use a bomb, and the rest of the world would take the hint…

          As for the Iranians wanting the bomb as an insurance policy against foreign intervention…how do you knw this? They are well aware that the West (or Israel) would, if they chose to, anhiliate their regime at any time whether or not they have a bomb. In fact, having a bomb (it might be argued) would give the West MORE, not less, reason to strike. Just because deterrence was used by civilized nations one way in the past, doesn’t mean that the Iranians think of it the same way now. A bomb, on the other hand, would be an excellent way to deter/prevent western intervention in a CONVENTIONAL war locally where Iran was beating up on its neighbors.

          All of this is speculation of course, but there is no particular reason to believe that your speculation is any more credible than Gregg’s, and perhaps quite a bit less.

          1. You assume Iran would be able to win that conventional war. However their material conditions are pretty bad. Try checking out their tanks for example. Most of them are locally upgraded 60s-70s tanks. They certainly have a large population but that is the only thing they presently have going for them. You can’t win a modern war just with poorly equipped infantry.

        2. “You are assuming the Iranian leaders aren’t interested in perpetuating their regime however this flies in the face of their own history.”

          I assumed nothing. I simply asked you to defend your statement.

          “Even if they were to expand their borders the only viable targets would be Afghanistan and Iraq. ”

          Why? Are you suggesting there is no possible way that a bomb built in Iran can be used anywhere besides Afghan and Iraq? If so, why?

          “Iran wants the nuclear weapons as an insurance policy related to foreign intervention against their regime. The insurance ceases once they use them so why should they?”

          Who says they have to be the user?

        3. targets would be Afghanistan and Iraq.

          The Arabian peninsula is the obvious target you are missing. Saudi Arabia currently produces a tenth of all oil just by itself.

          1. While it isn’t impossible that they would want to launch a nuclear attack on Saudi Arabia the repercussions would be rather horrible if they failed to destroy the Saudi Air Force in that attack. Saudi Arabia is one of the largest users of the F-15. They also have a sizable Tornado IDS and Eurofighter Typhoon fleet. Unlike Israel the Saudis are well in range to launch air strikes on all their territory. The scenario makes no sense.

          2. Unless the Saudis have nukes, how much can their air force really do to Iran? It’s got world-class equipment, but how good is it at real force projection?

          3. Godzilla, all they have to do is back a coup. Nuclear weapons would be brandished to discourage superpowers from intervening. And they probably could take over Saudi Arabia with a mass amphibious invasion. I’m not at all impressed just because the Saudi Arabia air force has the latest toys.

  6. The big problem with a nuclear Iran or Pakistan is that many of their leaders are followers of a radical philosophy that REWARDS dying in jihads. So if they set off a nuclear exchange, even if they might be annihilated, they think they STILL win!

    Those guys like others dying in jihads. Themselves? Not so much.

    I’m not a fan of Iran getting a bomb. We should prevent that from happening as much as is sensibly possible. But I also don’t think that bomb strikes are the only tool available to us.

    1. Really? and what are the alternatives that you suggest? Sanctions are clearly not working (have they ever?), and the clock is running out. What are your alternatives, and why should we believe that they would work?

        1. Keep in mind that Assassination as a method of war is something that can be done by anyone. When war is the province of large military establishments, those who can field such establishments have an advantage. Almost anyone can field an assassain, which means that by adopting such tactics, we would forfeit our advantage in this area.

          I am also not as sure as you are that assassination is all that effective. The Israelis aren’t reluctant to employ such ‘weapons’, yet they acknowlege that these are only a supplement, not a replacement, for conventional military options.

          1. Quite right. Modern man has much difficulty with assassination or ‘playing god.’ However, it was not always so and still isn’t in much of the world (Putin seems to have no problem with it.)

            Don’t imagine they do not try to assassinate American presidents. The secret service are not just potted plants, ya know.

            It’s a lot cleaner and effective than just dropping bombs. Take power from those that keep their people in line with force and you could have some very appreciative populations. I think we’ve seen a lot of that in both Libya and Iran but never took advantage of it. We should have.

            We’ve scaled back our humint. For the cost of a single air craft carrier we could scale back up and get even more bang for the buck.

    2. “Those guys like others dying in jihads. Themselves? Not so much. ”

      Upon what basis do you assume that the leaders would sit in the middle of the bazaar with all the other sacrificial lambs and await annihilation? I agree with you that they love it when other people are the martyrs, but explain why you think they would not be “elsewhere” during the retaliatory strike?

      That is, if there is one…..If jihadists lit one off, are you convinced Obama would actually fire a nuke?

      My money says no.

      1. I absolutely agree with you.

        Then again, it is important to recognize that almost any American president would be hard pressed to use nuclear weapons in retaliation. After all, if a nuke was detonated in say, Kabul, would an American president be willing to incinerate say, Tehran (roughly 5 million people) in retaliation? You don’t have to be as feckless as Obama to take a pause at that…

          1. Why bother with a nuke for that kind of target? Short of using a nuke ‘because’, the same job can be easily handled with conventional aircraft in a sustained operation. No, if you are going to use a nuke, the likely target is one with a large number of people in it…why take the political heat for using a nuke, only to get it from the other side of the political divide for wimping out with a target choice.

  7. Well, an adversary has to realize that the elimination of a handful of our large cities would keep the Democrats from every again surprassing 100 electoral votes. Targeting the blue dots means the endless plains of red will be free to pursue a glass-parking-lot foreign policy. Some might call me a cynic. Other’s might call me a day-dreaming optimist. I’m just pointing out the long-term reality of the situation.

    1. Do you really believe they would hesitate to nuke a city even if it were the center of the largest Islamic presence in America? You simply can not presume they would act as rationally as you would.

      I’ve seen it again and again. When some thug causes harm, rational people keep asking the same stupid question, “How could they?” After centuries of history, this must be the stupidest question ever to come from the mind of a rational person.

    2. Okay, I was just pretending they would act rationally, even though the odds of it are remote. But in theory, packing all the vegetarian peace-loving Democrats into dense little high-value targets and keeping the gun-toting blood-thristy vengeful maniacs dispersed in self-sufficient highly-survivable areas makes strategic sense.

      Of course, for those who don’t care to look three moves ahead, nuclear chess can be a very short game.

  8. If Iran, or one of the other terrorist supporting regimes in the area, gets an atomic bomb, they may deploy it in a way difficult to trace back to the source. Ballistic missiles and bomber aircraft are not the only delivery means possible. That millions of fellow muslems might be killed in the blast and by fallout would be considered acceptable martyrdom.

  9. I think the fear of a small fission weapon is blown all out of proportion.
    Look at pictures of the actual bast damage ring in Hiroshima, this was in a land of paper houses. If Iran gets atomic weapons and is dumb enough to use them the problem will be taken care of, until then a repeat of the the 1700 Cascadia Tsunami would kill far more people than any conceivable single fission weapon. The Indonesian tsunami of 2004 killed ~ 250K people. Hiroshima casualties are listed as 70K, and Nagasaki at 40K, this is the count by an organization, the U.S. gov, that had every possible incentive to inflate the numbers and enhance the perceived effectiveness of its brand new weapon.

    An exchange of hundreds of fusion weapons between the U.S. and USSR is a totally different kettle of fish….

    Now if you live in a city that would make a good symbolic target, I might not be as calm about the whole thing… still the structural damage for a small fission weapon will be less than 2mi in radius, so if you more than 3 mi from the symbolic target center, sleep well.

    1. Hiroshima was hit with a bomb that is (by today’s standards) quite small, and reasonably clean. Any terrorist weapon would likely be very, very dirty (especially since it would be a ground burst, which would limit its destructive radius, but massively increase the fallout), and likely somewhat larger, depending upon how good their technology is. Modern American cities are very dense compared to Hiroshima, so a blast radius of say, 2km, would kill upwards of 1 million, and cause at least $1trillion in damage. Lets not foreget the economic aftershocks (look at the mess post-9/11) as well, and these could last years.

      You also ignore the potential secondary effects of such a weapon. Knock out downtown Manhattan (and radiate it to boot), and you have knocked out most of the transportation links on the East coast for some time to come. The political consequences would be traumatic at best (George’s rather grisly suggestions notwithstanding), and I don’t even want to consider the social impacts.

      Compared to an all out ‘wargasm’, it is trivial, compared to pretty much everything else….

      1. 1 million people within or near a blast radius of 2 km? The vast majority of the US isn’t that dense. At least in the West we like to spread out rather more than that. It does sound like a good reason to applaud the natural tendency of the most Americans to live in suburbs or beyond.

        I agree with Paul Breed. Nuclear weapons are powerful, but not as powerful as everyone has been brainwashed to believe. I have no doubt that a nuclear bomb would scare a lot of people half to death, but I really don’t think that is very rational. Neither the blast damage nor the radiation fallout will really be as dangerous as is commonly believed.

        Massive effort has been spent over the last 67 years for good or ill to convince everyone that nuclear weapons are horrible and should never, ever be used for any reason. The demonization of all things nuclear (sadly including nuclear power) has been all too successful. The response to last year’s earthquake in Japan shows all too sadly that rational thought and planning about most things “nuclear” is just not happening anymore.

    2. “I think the fear of a small fission weapon is blown all out of proportion.”

      Keep in mind that the fear is not limited to actual blast, heat or radiation damage – although that would be horrific by American standards.

      There’s also the horrifying concept (to the West only) of the nuclear genie being out of the bottle.

      On top of which diplomacy is unalterably changed:

      For example, one could never again threaten an Iraq-like invasion of any ME nation. Disregarding whether or not we would want to do it again (and there ARE circumstances where we would might), that threat is no longer available to you in the diplomatic conflict.

      And some jihadist leader in some cave somewhere could be given control of a bomb and threaten to glass, say, Kabul. Few US lives….but still you are faced with a nuked city.

      Now what will you do?

      You gonna bet the lives of the people in Kabul that James Bond (Skyfall is great by the way) can find and disarm the bomb? Every time?

    3. This is just plain ignorance. We’ve advanced a great deal since the 1940s and every engineer on Earth has within their grasp very easy techniques for increasing the yield of simple nuclear weapons (such as D/T boosting, Beryllium reflectors, natural Uranium tampers, etc.). More so, the know-how necessary to build an atomic bomb is probably equivalent to that necessary to build a full thermonuclear bomb, especially if it doesn’t need to be lightweight. And in that case you’re talking about yields up to megaton range. Additionally, Hiroshima is perhaps not the best comparison point, as the population density of that city in 1945 is low compared to most modern cities (NYC has about 30x the density).

      Equivalently sized US cities to 1945 Hiroshima would be Tampa, FL or Lexington, KY. Almost any other city in the 50 largest US cities has a population density from 2 to 10x higher than Hiroshima did.

      And the idea that a “mere” 40k or 70k death toll should be written off as inconsequential is ridiculous. More so when you consider that even a Hiroshima sized explosion could result in more than half a million dead if it happens in LA or several million dead if it happens in New York or Chicago. The last time the US lost more than half a million citizens while fighting a war was the Civil War.

      1. So why is it that the North Koreans are testing 4-kiloton bombs, the Pakistanis nothing more than 10-15 kilotons, and even the Indians couldn’t manage more than 40-60 kilotons when they wanted to demonstrate their nuclear supremacy to Pakistan?

        For the record, natural uranium tampers don’t increase the yield of simple nuclear weapons because natural uranium tampers have been part of the simplest nuclear weapons from the beginning. Beryllium reflectors don’t increase the yield of simple nuclear weapons because beryllium tampers don’t do anything a natural uranium tamper doesn’t do except weigh less. D-T boosting does increase yield but is not simple, and the know-how to build a Teller-Ulam type thermonuclear bomb is vastly greater than that needed for a fission bomb. In particular, you almost certainly need live-fire test data from a fission bomb before you can credibly design a Teller-Ulam device. See e.g. the British experience before we took pity and gave them our H-bomb designs.

        An entry-level nuclear weapon by a power that does not have a history of successful nuclear weapons tests is almost certainly going to be in the 5-50 kT range. That is what one can confidently and reliably develop from scratch, without being extravagantly wasteful of fissile material.

        Also, FWIW, the population density of Manhattan (not NYC as a whole) is ~26,000/km^2, compared to ~13,000/km^2 for the urban core of Hiroshima in 1945. 2x, not 30x. Detonating even 5 kilotons in downtown Manhattan would be a nightmare in fact, and you probably want to focus on that fact rather than any fantastic exaggeration.

        1. The Norks are likely unable to produce anything better (the technology for a useful D-T trigger isn’t trivial, and while it can be done with a Uranium bomb, a Plutonium one is far, far easier to do), but the Pakistanis have built and tested bombs considerably larger than 10-15kt, and the Indians claim to have tested a megaton range weapon (the evidence on either side is shaky)

          1. India’s most extravagant claim is for a weapon with a yield of 2-300 kilotons; independant analysis of the seismic signature of India’s nuclear tests gives a yield of 30-35 kilotons. Similar analysis indicates that the Pakistanis have never conducted a test of larger than 8-12 kt total yield and that for multiple devices detonated simultaneously. The largest observed yield for a single test of a Pakistani device is 4-6 kt. It is then hardly surprising that North Korea’s one successful test was independently assessed at 3-6 kt, seeing as how the Norks were anchor customers of the A.Q. Khan network.

            North Korea and Pakistan could probably do better than 4-6 kt if freed of the weight and volume constraints of a missile warhead, but not orders of magnitude better. Possibly the 13-20 kT yield of the old (and heavy) Chinese DF-2 warhead they reportedly started with. And the odds of a terrorist group getting a custom-designed terrorist-optimized nuclear bomb are close to nil.

            Really, the odds of terrorists getting atomic bombs of any type are close to nil, but if they manage to get one by way of Pakistan, North Korea, or in the future Iran, it would likely be a repackaged A.Q. Khan Mark I nuclear missile warhead with a known yield of not more than six kilotons. That’s bad enough, so please enough with the exaggerations.

  10. Even if we are not the target of a nuke we may get the fallout, so other country’s nuclear war might effect us and we should be concerned about who has nukes and the likelihood of them being used.

  11. It makes no bloody sense.

    This is the foundational flaw in your argument, Godzilla. What makes sense depends on who you ask. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else and often doesn’t. If it exists, it can be used. That should not be acceptable to anyone that knows it makes no bloody sense.

    This is why a combination of adults and human intelligence is so important. Anyone on the world stage advocating nukes for anything but a counterstrike should be targeted for assassination and it should be carried out as close to when the words leave their lips as is possible. Had we done that in Iran already the Iranian people would be closer friends to us than the Japanese (why Nippon?)

    This kind of speech, by anyone that could plausibly carry out the threat, can never be tolerated. Letting it slide is completely irresponsible.

    We do not live in fear of UK nukes. Why? Because they have semi responsible adults in leadership. We don’t even fear Russian, Chinese or Indian nukes for the same reason.

    It’s not the same with Iran, N. Korea or even Pakistan. FOR THE THAT SAME REASON. Let the leaders of those countries fear the consequences of calling for the destruction of other nations when they have nukes to carry out those threats.

    Adults know that sometimes it is a time to kill.

    1. It’s also worth noting that pretend insanity is an effective strategy in MAD. If you think the other side is a bit crazy, then you might be less aggressive with your brinkmanship (because you’re worried that the leadership of the other side might start firing nukes at that point). North Korea is a master of this (as well as being more than a bit crazy on top of it).

  12. Here’s a Nukemap that lets you pick a location and nuke it with bombs of various yields. The Tsar bomba is absolutely terrifying. Just one of them would turn all of Dallas into a massive crater. The pressure wave would flatten the surrounding cities and everything else beyond that burned to a crisp.

  13. Paul Breed – Even a small weapon could cause havoc if properly deployed. This theme has been used in fiction, so no nasty ideas are being given; but what would be the effect, for example, of 20kt being detonated in just the right place on Cumbre Vieja?

    Even a really small semi-fizzle could be devastating if used, for example, in the middle of an LNG storage depot.

    1. but what would be the effect, for example, of 20kt being detonated in just the right place on Cumbre Vieja?

      Or certain points on the Yellowstone hotspot? Near the peak of Mount Rainier? Nukes might not be effective at these potential geological weak spots, but it would be quite the threat should someone resort to extortion.

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