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Nuclear warfare

Nuclear war, or atomic war, is war involving combatants deploying nuclear weapons.

The United States is the only nation to have actually used nuclear weapons in war, having in 1945 dropped one on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki. However, the term is used mainly to discuss the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons in a war involving two or more nuclear-armed parties.

In general the discussion can be broken down further into subgroups. In the limited nuclear war (sometimes attack or exchange) only small numbers of weapons are used in a tactical exchange aimed primarily at opposing military forces. In the full-scale nuclear war large numbers of weapons are used in an attack aimed at an entire country, both military and civilian targets being "fair game". Soon after the first use of atomic weapons, a doomsday clock was instigated as a symbolic countdown to such full-scale nuclear war.

The Cold War

Before the development of a credible strategic missile force in the Soviet Union, much of the war-fighting doctrine on the part of the western nations revolved around the use a large numbers of smaller nuclear weapons used in the tactical role. It is arguable if such use could be considered "limited"; however, it was thought that the US would use their own strategic weapons (mainly bombers at the time) should the USSR use any sort of nuclear weapon against civilian targets.

Several scares over increasing ability of the USSR's strategic bomber forces surfaced during the 1950s. The defensive response on the part of the US was to deploy a fairly strong layered defense[?] consisting of interceptors[?] and anti-aircraft missiles and guns near larger cities. However this was a small response compared to the building of a huge fleet of nuclear bombers, the idea being that the USSR's huge area could not be defended against attack in any credible way, and they would "lose" any exchange.

This logic became ingrained in the US's way of thinking throughout the Cold War. As long as the strategic force of the US was larger than the USSR's forces in total, there was nothing to worry about. Moreover the USSR simply could not afford to build any reasonable counterforce, the US's economic output was such that they could never catch up.

Things changed with the introduction of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which the USSR first tested successfully in the late 1950s. To get a warhead on target, a missile was far less expensive than a bomber that could do the same job. Moreover it was impossible to intercept them due to their high altitude and speed. The USSR could now afford to go head to head with the US in terms of raw numbers, although for a time they appear to have chosen not to.

Photos of Soviet missile sites set off a wave of panic in the US military, something the launch of Sputnik would do for the public a few years later. Missile programs of their own were given the highest national priority, as were spy aircraft and satellites to check on Soviet progress.

Issues came to a head during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The USSR backed down from what could have been the spark for a nuclear war, and decided to institute a massive building program of their own. By the late 1960s numbers were such that the USSR now had the ability to wipe out the US.

At this point we enter an odd period in human history. With both forces capable of destroying the other country's infrastructure, people started to think that this is the way things should be -- a balance of power system that became known as mutually assured destruction (MAD). It was thought that the possibility of such an exchange was so deadly, that no force would risk ever doing it. This bizarre state of affairs could be summed up as "don't do that, or I'll kill us both".

By the late 1970s people of both the US and USSR had been living with MAD for about a decade. It became ingrained into the popular psyche at a deep level. Such an exchange would have killed many millions of individuals directly and, it was thought, possibly induced a nuclear winter which could, in the worst-case scenario, have led to the death of a large portion of humanity and certainly the collapse of global civilization for decades, if not centuries. Many movies such as The Day After, Threads, WarGames, and Dr.Strangelove depict this scenario, as did the time traveling Planet of the Apes (1968-1973) and Mad Max (1979-1985) serieses of films.

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 in total there were approximately 40,000 nuclear warheads in existence at that time with a total yield of approximately 13,000 megatons of TNT. By comparison, when the volcano Tambora erupted in 1815 it exploded with a force of roughly 1000 megatons of TNT. Many people believed that a full-scale nuclear war could result in the extinction of the human species, but this was not based on any well-supported models.

The idea that any nuclear conflict would eventually escalate into MAD 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 escalating to theater nuclear weapons.

A number of interesting concepts were developed. Early ICBMs were inaccurate which lead to the concept of counter-city strikes -- attacks directly on the enemy population leading to a collapse of the enemy will to fight, although it appears that this was the American interpretation of the Soviet stance while the Soviet strategy was never clearly anti-population. During the cold war the USSR invested in extensive protected civilian infrastructure such as large nuclear proof bunkers and non-perishable food stores. In the US by comparison, little to no preparations were made for civilians at all, except for the occaisonal backyard fallout shelter built by private individuals. This was part of a deliberate strategy on the Americans part that stressed the difference between first and second strike strategies. By leaving their population largely exposed, this gave the impression that the US had no intention of launching a first strike nuclear war, as their cities would clearly be decimated in the retaliation.

The US also made a point during this period of targeting their missiles on Russian population centers rather than military targets. This was intended to reinforce the second strike pose. If the Soviets attacked first, then there would be no point in destroying empty missile silos that had already launched; the only thing left to hit would be cities. By contrast, if America had gone to great lengths to protect their citizens and targeted the enemies silos, that would lead the Russians to believe the US was planning a first strike, where they would eliminate Soviet missiles while still in their silos, and be able to survive a weakened counter attack, in their reinforced bunkers. In this way, both sides were assured that the other would not strike first, and a war without a first strike will not occur. This counter-intuitive strategy was summed up by the "Mad Ditty" popular among foreign policy aficionados in this period, usually recited in a sing-song voice.

"Defense is offense.
Offense is defense.
Killing weapons is bad.
Killing people is good.
The best defense is no defense at all!"

As missile technology improved the emphasis moved to counter-force strikes -- attacking the enemy's means of waging war. This was the predominant doctrine from the late 1960s onwards. Additionally the development of warheads (certainly in the US) moved towards delivering a small explosive force more accurately and with a 'cleaner' blast (fewer long-lasting radioactive isotopes). In any conflict therefore, damage would have been initially limited to military targets, there may well have been 'witholds' for targets near civilian areas. The argument was that the destruction of a city would be a military advantage to the attacked. The enemy had used up weapons and a threat in the destruction while the attacked was relieved of the need to defend the city and still had their entire military potential untouched.

Only if a nuclear conflict was extended into a number of 'spasm' strikes would direct strikes against civilians occur as the more accurate weapons would be expended early; if one side was 'losing', the potential for using less accurate submarine-launched missiles would occur.

The fact remains that "tactical" usage of nuclear weapons against military targets would have caused death, destruction, and hardship on huge scales. Even comprehensive civil defense efforts to protect civilian populations would only partially mitigate the catastrophic effects of nuclear warfare.

Current concerns

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, conflict between the United States and Russia appears much less likely. Stockpiles of nuclear warheads are being reduced on both sides and tensions between the two countries have greatly reduced. The concern of political strategists have now shifted to other areas of the world.

Current fears of nuclear war are mainly centred around India (first test May 18, 1974, the "Smiling Buddha" test) and Pakistan (first test May 1998), two nations whose majority religions and histories, as well as a territorial dispute in Kashmir and mutual possession of substantial (though probably numbered in dozens rather than thousands) nuclear arsenals makes many extremely nervous. In the case of Pakistan, their unstable government and the threat of radical Islamists seizing power and thus control over the nuclear arsenal has raised additional fears, compounded by the fact that a senior member of the development program, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, is a strong Taliban sympathizer.

Another flashpoint which has analysts worried is a possible conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan. Although economic forces have decreased the possibility of military conflict, there remains the worry that a move toward Taiwan independence could spin out of control.

A third potential flashpoint lies in the Middle East, where Israel is thought to possess on the order of one hundred nuclear warheads (although this has never been officially confirmed). Israel has been involved in wars with its neighbors on numerous occasions, and its small geographic size would mean that in the event of future wars the Israeli military might have very little time to react to a future invasion or other major threat; the situation could escalate to nuclear warfare very quickly in some scenarios.

In addition, there is the worry that so-called rogue states such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea (see North Korea nuclear weapons program) may acquire nuclear weapons. Nuclear terrorism by non-state organisations could well be more likely, as states possessing nuclear weapons are susceptible to retaliation in kind. Geographically-dispersed and mobile terrorist organisations[?] are not so easy to discourage by the threat of retaliation. Furthermore, while the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War, it greatly increased the risk that former Soviet nuclear weapons might become available on the black market.

See also: Biological warfare, Chemical warfare, Conventional warfare, Nuclear proliferation, Weapons of mass destruction


  • MIRV -- Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles, nuclear devices carried, usually ten or twelve at a time on a single ICBM, allowing a single launched missile to strike a handful of targets, and allowing a few missiles to strike several targets redundantly.
  • SALT I -- Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. A treaty signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972, limiting the growth of US and Soviet missile arsenals.
  • SALT II -- A treaty designed to further limit the growth of US and Soviet missile arsenals.
  • START -- STrategic Arms Reductions Treaty -- A treaty proposed by Ronald Reagan to reduce the numbers of missiles and warheads.
  • INF[?] -- Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty[?], signed in 1987, which eliminated tactical ("battlefield") nuclear devices and GLCMs from Europe.
  • GLCM[?] -- Ground Launched Cruise Missile.
  • ALCM[?] -- Air Launched Cruise Missile.
  • ICBM --Intercontinental Ballistic Missile
  • SLCM[?] -- Submarine Launched Cruise Missile.
  • SLBM -- Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile.
  • Ballistic missile -- A missile using a ballistic trajectory involving a significant ascent and descent including suborbital and partial orbital trajectories.
  • Cruise missile -- A missile using a low altitude trajectory intended to avoid detection by radar systems. Cruise missiles have shorter range and lower payloads than ballistic missiles, usually, and are not known to carry MIRVs.
  • MAD -- Mutual assured destruction. The doctrine of preventing nuclear war by creating a situation in which any use of nuclear weapons would result in the certain destruction of both the attacker and the defender.
  • ABM -- Anti-Ballistic Missile. Missiles designed to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles. Can also refer to the ABM treaty, signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, which halted the development and use of such systems due to fears that such systems could counter the MAD scenario and, thereby, increase the likelihood that an ABM protected country would use their nuclear weapons aggressively.
  • SDI -- Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly known as Star Wars. A system proposed by Ronald Reagan to use space-based systems to detect, intercept and destroy ICBMs and MIRVs. Criticized for its costs, doubts that it would be effective, and concerns that it would violate the ABM treaty and offset MAD, it was not supported by the US Congress at that time.

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