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 warfare 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
claimed that the result would be that almost every human on Earth
could starve to death. Other analysts however 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
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. These two bombings resulted in the
deaths of approximately 120,000 people.
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
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.
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 or denied to 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.
1 Types of nuclear warfare
2.1.1 Atomic bombings of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
2.1.2 Immediately after the Japan bombings
2.6 Post-Cold War
2.7 Sub-strategic use
3 Nuclear terrorism
5 In fiction
6 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
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).[dubious – discuss]
[according to whom?]
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.
War strategists such as Henry Kissinger 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[who?] 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
Even the most optimistic predictions[by whom?] 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 predictions, assuming total war with nuclear
arsenals at Cold
War highs, have not been without criticism. 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. 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, India, China, Argentina and Brazil predicted to become world
superpowers if the Cold
War ever led to a large-scale nuclear
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. The
authors of the study 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.
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
miscommunicated messages, and others. A number of these scenarios
actually occurred during the Cold War, though none resulted in the use
of nuclear weapons. Many such scenarios have been depicted in
popular culture, such as in the 1962 novel Fail-Safe (released as a
film in 1964), the film WarGames, released in 1983 and the film Dr.
Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, also
released in 1964.
History of nuclear weapons
History of nuclear weapons and Timeline of nuclear
Atomic bombings of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Main article: Atomic bombings of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Mushroom cloud from the atomic explosion over
18,000 m (59,000 ft) into the air on the morning of August
During the final stages of World
War II in 1945, the United States
conducted atomic raids on the Japanese cities of
Nagasaki, the first on August 6, 1945, and the second on August 9,
1945. These two events were the only times nuclear weapons have been
used in combat.
For six months before the atomic bombings, the U.S. 20th Air Force
Curtis LeMay executed low-level incendiary raids against
Japanese cities. The worst air raid to occur during the process was
not the nuclear attacks, but the Operation Meetinghouse raid on Tokyo.
On the night of March 9–10, 1945, Operation Meetinghouse commenced
Boeing B-29 Superfortress
Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers took off to raid, with 279
of them dropping 1,665 tons of incendiaries and explosives on Tokyo.
The bombing was meant to burn wooden buildings and indeed the bombing
caused fire that created a 50 m/s wind, which is comparable to
tornadoes. Each bomber carried 6 tons of bombs. A total of 381,300
bombs, which amount to 1,783 tons of bombs, were used in the bombing.
Within a few hours of the raid, it had killed an estimated 100,000
people and destroyed 41 km2 (16 sq mi) of the city and
267,000 buildings in a single night — the deadliest bombing raid in
military aviation history other than the atomic raids on
Nagasaki. By early August 1945, an estimated 450,000
people had died as the U.S. had intensely firebombed a total of 67
In late June 1945, as the U.S. wrapped up the two-and-a-half-month
Battle of Okinawa (which cost the lives of 260,000 people, including
150,000 civilians), it was faced with the prospect of invading
the Japanese home islands in an operation codenamed Operation
Downfall. Based on the U.S. casualties from the preceding
island-hopping campaigns, American commanders estimated that between
50,000 and 500,000 U.S. troops would die and at least
600,000–1,000,000 others would be injured while invading the
Japanese home islands. The U.S. manufacture of 500,000 Purple Hearts
from the anticipated high level of casualties during the U.S. invasion
of Japan gave a demonstration of how deadly and costly it would be.
Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman realized he could not afford such a
horrendous casualty rate, especially since over 400,000 American
combatants had already died fighting in both the European and the
Pacific theaters of the war.
On July 26, 1945, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the
China issued a
Potsdam Declaration that called for the
unconditional surrender of Japan. It stated that if Japan did not
surrender, it would face "prompt and utter destruction". The
Japanese government ignored this ultimatum, sending a message that
they were not going to surrender. In response to the rejection,
President Truman authorized the dropping of the atomic bombs. At the
time of its use, there were only two atomic bombs available, and
despite the fact that more were in production back in mainland U.S.,
the third bomb wouldn't be available for combat until
On August 6, 1945, the uranium-type nuclear weapon codenamed "Little
Boy" was detonated over the Japanese city of
Hiroshima with an energy
of about 15 kilotons of TNT (63,000 gigajoules), destroying nearly
50,000 buildings (including the headquarters of the 2nd General Army
and Fifth Division) and killing approximately 70,000 people, including
20,000 Japanese combatants and 20,000 Korean slave laborers.
Three days later, on August 9, a plutonium-type nuclear weapon
codenamed "Fat Man" was used against the Japanese city of Nagasaki,
with the explosion equivalent to about 20 kilotons of TNT (84,000
gigajoules), destroying 60% of the city and killing approximately
35,000 people, including 23,200–28,200 Japanese munitions workers,
2,000 Korean slave laborers, and 150 Japanese combatants. The
industrial damage in
Nagasaki was high, partly owing to the
inadvertent targeting of the industrial zone, leaving 68–80 percent
of the non-dock industrial production destroyed.
Six days after the detonation over Nagasaki, Japan announced its
surrender to the Allied Powers on August 15, 1945, signing the
Instrument of Surrender on September 2, 1945, officially ending the
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.
Immediately after the Japan bombings
After the successful Trinity nuclear test July 16, 1945, which was the
very first nuclear detonation, the
Manhattan project lead manager J.
Robert Oppenheimer recalled:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few
people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the
Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the
prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his
multiarmed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of
worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Decision To Drop The Bomb
Immediately after the atomic bombings of Japan, the status of atomic
weapons in international and military relations was unclear.
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.
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.
Convair B-36 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
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
United States and the Soviet Union.[dubious – discuss]
[according to whom?]
American and Soviet nuclear stockpiles.
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. In the same year the
first US-Soviet nuclear war plan was penned in the US with Operation
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 bombers carrying nuclear weapons 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
Strategic Air Command reached their targets.
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,
Soviet Union would have more difficulty carrying out the
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
Strategic Air Command and instituted a program to update the bomber
fleet to one that was all-jet. During the early 1950s the
B-52 were introduced, providing the ability to bomb the Soviet Union
more easily. 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 in a tactical role. It is debatable whether such use
could be considered "limited" however, because it was believed that
United States would use its 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
utilize atomic weapons on the
People's Republic of China
People's Republic of China in 1951
during the Korean War. 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
Let us imagine how many people would die if war breaks out. There are
2.7 billion people in the world, and a third could be lost. If it is a
little higher it could be half ... I say that if the worst came to the
worst and one-half dies, there will still be one-half left, but
imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would
become socialist. After a few years there would be 2.7 billion people
— Mao Zedong, 1957 
The U.S. and USSR conducted hundreds of nuclear tests, including the
Desert Rock exercises
Desert Rock exercises at the Nevada Test Site, USA, pictured above
during the Korean
War to familiarize their soldiers with conducting
operations and counter-measures around nuclear detonations, as the
War threatened to expand.
The concept of a "Fortress North America" emerged during the Second
War and persisted into the Cold
War to refer to the option of
defending Canada and the
United States against their enemies if the
rest of the world were lost to them. This option was rejected with the
NATO and the decision to permanently station troops in
In the summer of 1951
Project Vista started, in which project analysts
Robert F. Christy
Robert F. Christy looked at how to defend Western
a Soviet invasion. The emerging development of tactical nuclear
weapons were looked upon as a means to give Western forces a
qualitative advantage over the Soviet numerical supremacy in
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 pre-emptive 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. Soviet military planners assumed they could win a
nuclear war. 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
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. The exercise was conducted on
September 14, 1954, under command of Marshal
Georgy Zhukov to the
Totskoye village in Orenburg Oblast, Russia.
A revolution in nuclear strategic thought occurred with the
introduction of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which
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 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. 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
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 "
CONELRAD radio information systems were adopted,
whereby the commercial radio sector (later supplemented by the
National Emergency Alarm Repeaters) would broadcast on two AM
frequencies in the event of a Civil Defense (CD) emergency. These two
frequencies, 640 and 1240 kHz, were marked with small CD
triangles on the tuning dial of radios of the period, as can still be
seen on 1950s-vintage radios on online auction sites and museums. A
few backyard fallout shelters were built by private individuals.
Henry Kissinger's view on tactical nuclear war in his controversial
1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy was that any nuclear
weapon exploded in air burst mode that was below 500 kiloton in yield
and thus averting serious fallout, may be more decisive and less
costly in human lives than a protracted conventional war.
A list of targets made by the U.S.A. was released sometime during
December 2015 by the U.S. National Archives and Records
Administration. The language used to describe targets is "designated
ground zeros". The list was released after a request was made during
2006 by William Burr who belongs to a research group at George
Washington University, and belongs to a previously top-secret 800-page
document. The list is entitled "Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for
1959" and was produced by U.S.
Strategic Air Command
Strategic Air Command during the year
F-101 Voodoo reconnaissance photograph of the
MRBM launch site in San
Cristóbal, Cuba (1962)
In 1960, the
United States developed its first Single Integrated
Operational Plan, a range of targeting options, and described launch
procedures and target sets against which nuclear weapons would be
launched, variants of which were in use from 1961 to 2003. That year
also saw the start of the Missile Defense Alarm System, an American
system of 12 early-warning satellites that provided limited notice of
Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile launches between 1960 and
Ballistic Missile Early Warning System
Ballistic Missile Early Warning System was completed in
A complex and worrisome situation developed in 1962, in what is called
the Cuban Missile Crisis. The
Soviet Union placed medium-range
ballistic missiles 90 miles (140 km) from the United States,
possibly 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. Communication delays during the
crisis led to the establishment of the
Moscow–Washington hotline to
allow reliable, direct communications between the two nuclear powers.
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 no full-scale exchange between the powers would result in an
outright winner, with at best one side emerging the pyrrhic victor.
Thus both sides were deterred from risking the initiation of a direct
confrontation, instead being forced to engage in lower intensity proxy
During this decade the
People's Republic of China
People's Republic of China began to build
subterranean infrastructure such as the Underground Project 131
following the Sino-Soviet split.
One drawback of the MAD doctrine was the possibility of a nuclear war
occurring without either side intentionally striking first. 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
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, 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,
1968 Thule Air Base B-52 crash
1968 Thule Air Base B-52 crash in particular, persuaded
policymakers it was not worthwhile.
Israel responded to the Arab Yom Kippur
War attack on 6 October 1973
by assembling 13 nuclear weapons in a tunnel under the Negev desert
when Syrian tanks were sweeping in across the Golan Heights. On 8
October 1973, Israeli Prime Minister Mrs
Golda Meir authorized Defense
Moshe Dayan to activate the 13 Israeli nuclear warheads and
distribute them to
Israeli air force
Israeli air force units, with the intent that they
be used if
Israel began to be overrun.
On 24 October 1973, as US
President Nixon was preoccupied with the
Henry Kissinger ordered a DEFCON-3 alert preparing
American B-52 nuclear bombers for war. Intelligence reports indicated
that the USSR was preparing to defend Egypt in its
Yom Kippur war
Yom Kippur war with
Israel. It had become apparent that if
Israel had dropped nuclear
weapons on Egypt or Syria, as it prepared to do, then the USSR would
have retaliated against Israel, with the US then committed to
providing Israeli assistance, possibly escalating to a general nuclear
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
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".
Duga-3 early warning over-the-horizon radar system was made
operational in 1976. The extremely powerful radio transmissions needed
for such a system led to much disruption of civilian shortwave
broadcasts, earning it the nickname "Russian Woodpecker".
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. It was believed
(until the 1970s) that a Soviet tank invasion of Western
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 realized by military analysts but highly underplayed by the U.S.
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 Soviet bloc's vision of an atomic war between
Warsaw Pact forces was simulated in the top secret exercise Seven Days
to the River Rhine in 1979. The British government exercised their
vision of Soviet nuclear attack with
Square Leg in early 1980.
Large hardened nuclear weapon storage areas were built across European
countries in anticipation of local US and European forces falling back
as the conventional
NATO defense from the Soviet Union, named
REFORGER, was believed to only be capable of stalling the Soviets for
a short time.
Montage of the launch of a Trident C4
SLBM and the paths of its
FEMA-estimated primary counterforce targets for Soviet ICBMs in 1990.
The resulting fall-out is indicated with the darkest considered as
lethal to lesser fall-out yellow zones.[not in citation given]
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
Strategic Defense Initiative were 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 detectability) 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 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 approach enemy
coastlines undetected 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 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. 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.
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
Year Without A Summer due to the levels of global
dimming sulfate aerosols and ash expelled—it exploded with a force
of roughly 800 to 1,000 megatons, and ejected
160 km3 (38 cu mi) of mostly rock/tephra, that
included 120 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide as an upper
estimate. A larger eruption, approximately 74,000 years ago, in
Mount Toba produced 2,800 km3 (670 cu mi) of tephra,
forming lake Toba, and produced an estimated 6,000 million
tonnes (6.6×109 short tons) of sulfur dioxide. The explosive
energy of the eruption may have been as high as equivalent to
20,000,000 megatons (Mt) of TNT, while the asteroid created
Chicxulub impact, that is connected with the extinction of the
dinosaurs corresponds to at least 70,000,000 Mt of energy, which
is roughly 7000 times the maximum arsenal of the US and Soviet
However, comparisons with supervolcanoes 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.
Moreover, assuming the entire world stockpile of weapons were grouped
together, it would be difficult, due to the nuclear fratricide effect,
to ensure the individual weapons would go off all at once.
Nonetheless, many people believe that a full-scale nuclear war would
result, through the nuclear winter effect, in the extinction of the
human species, though not all analysts agree on the assumptions that
underpin these nuclear winter models.
On Sept. 1, 1983,
Korean Air Lines Flight 007
Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down by Soviet
jet fighters. On the 26th, a Soviet early warning station under the
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
War III", as the Soviet policy at that time was
immediate nuclear response upon discovering inbound ballistic
The world came unusually close to nuclear war when the Soviet Union
thought that the
NATO military exercise
Able Archer 83
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
Although the dissolution of the
Soviet Union ended the Cold
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
In 1996, a Russian continuity of government facility, Kosvinsky
Mountain, which is believed to be a counterpart to the US Cheyenne
Mountain Complex, was completed. It was designed to resist
US earth-penetrating nuclear warheads, and is believed to host the
Strategic Rocket Forces
Strategic Rocket Forces alternate command post, a post for the
general staff built to compensate for the vulnerability of older
Soviet era command posts in the Moscow region. In spite of this, the
primary command posts for the
Strategic Rocket Forces
Strategic Rocket Forces remains Kuntsevo
in Moscow and the secondary is the
Kosvinsky Mountain in the
Urals. The timing of the Kosvinsky facilities completion date is
regarded as one explanation for U.S. interest in a new nuclear "bunker
buster" Earth-penetrating warhead and the declaration of the
deployment of the B-61 mod 11 in 1997; Kosvinsky is protected by about
1000 feet of granite.
As a consequence of the
9/11 attacks, 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.
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
France about 350,
India about 80–100, and
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.
Pakistan's nuclear policy was significantly affected by the 1965 war
with India. The 1971 war and India's nuclear program played a role
in Pakistan's decision to go nuclear.
decided not to participate in the NPT. Pakistan's nuclear policy
became fixated on
India refused to join the NPT and
remain opened to nuclear weapons. Impetus by Indian actions
spurred Pakistan's nuclear research. After nuclear weapons
construction was started by Bhutto's command, the chair of Pakistan
Atomic Energy Commission Usmani quit in objection. The 1999 war
India occurred after both acquired nuclear
weapons. It is believed by some that nuclear weapons are the
reason a big war has not broken out in the subcontinent.
Pakistan still have a risk of nuclear conflict on the issue of war
over Kashmir. Nuclear capability deliverable by sea were claimed
Pakistan in 2012. The aim was to achieve a "minimum credible
deterrence". Pakistan's nuclear program culminated in the tests at
Chagai. One of the aims of Pakistan's programs is fending off
potential annexation and maintaining independence.
A key development in nuclear warfare throughout the 2000s and early
2010s is the proliferation of nuclear weapons to the developing world,
Pakistan both publicly testing several nuclear devices,
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. Iran, meanwhile, has embarked on a nuclear program which,
while officially for civilian purposes, has come under close scrutiny
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. Pakistan's foreign minister had
even warned that it would "use any weapon in our arsenal", hinting at
a nuclear strike against India. 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
Pakistan have been improving somewhat over the last few years.
However, with the November 26, 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, tensions
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
People's Republic of China over Taiwan. Although
economic forces are thought to have reduced the possibility of a
military conflict, there remains concern about the increasing military
China is rapidly increasing its naval capacity), and
that any move toward
Taiwan independence could potentially spin out of
Israel is thought to possess somewhere between one hundred and four
hundred nuclear warheads. It has been asserted that the Dolphin-class
Israel received from
Germany have been adapted to
carry Popeye cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, so as to give
Israel a second strike capability.
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.
On March 7, 2013,
North Korea threatened the
United States with a
pre-emptive nuclear strike. On April 9,
North Korea urged
foreigners to leave South Korea, stating that both countries were on
the verge of nuclear war. On April 12,
North Korea stated that a
nuclear war was unavoidable. The country declared Japan as its first
In the year of 2014, when Russian relationships with the USA had
become worse, it was stated by the Russian state-owned
Russia 1 TV
channel that ‘
Russia is the only country in the world that is really
capable of turning the USA into radioactive ash’.
Nuclear bunker buster
Nuclear bunker buster and Edward_Teller § Decision to
drop the bombs
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
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". 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 dial-a-yield 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
People's Republic of China and the Republic of India
have declarative, unqualified, unconditional "no first use" nuclear
Pakistan maintain only a credible minimum
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". However, this sub-strategic capacity has been criticized
as potentially increasing the "acceptability" of using nuclear
weapons. Combined with the trend in the reduction in the worldwide
nuclear arsenal as of 2007 is the warhead miniaturization and
modernization of the remaining strategic weapons that is presently
occurring in all the declared nuclear weapon states, into more
"useable" configurations. The Stockholm International Peace Research
Institute suggests that this is creating a culture where use of these
weapons is more acceptable and therefore is increasing the risk of
war, as these modern weapons do not possess the same psychological
deterrent value as the large Cold-
War era, multi-megaton warheads.
In many ways, this present change in the balance of terror can be seen
as the complete embracement of the switch from the 1950s Eisenhower
doctrine of "massive retaliation" to one of "flexible response",
which has been growing in importance in the US nuclear war fighting
plan/SIOP every decade since.
For example, 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.
Another dimension to the tactical use of nuclear weapons is that of
such weapons deployed at sea for use against surface and submarine
vessels. Until 1992, vessels of the
United States Navy (and their
aircraft) deployed various such weapons as bombs, rockets (guided and
unguided), torpedoes, and depth charges. Such tactical naval nuclear
weapons were considered more acceptable to use early in a conflict
because there would be few civilian casualties. It was feared by many
planners that such use would probably quickly have escalated into
large-scale nuclear war. This situation was particularly
exacerbated by the fact that such weapons at sea were not constrained
by the safeguards provided by the
Permissive Action Link
Permissive Action Link attached to
U.S. Air Force and Army nuclear weapons. It is unknown if the navies
of the other nuclear powers yet today deploy tactical nuclear weapons
Main article: 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').
A number of other concerns have been expressed about the security of
nuclear weapons in 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 large number of people. However, it could cause
severe disruption and require potentially very costly decontamination
procedures and increased spending on security measures.
See also: Nuclear famine
The predictions of the effects of a major countervalue nuclear
exchange include millions of city dweller deaths within a short period
of time. Some 1980s predictions had gone further and argued that a
full-scale nuclear war could eventually bring about the extinction of
the human race. Such predictions, sometimes but not always based on
total war with nuclear arsenals at Cold
War highs, received
contemporary criticism. A number of Cold
War publications advocated
preparations that could purportedly enable a large proportion of
civilians to survive even a total nuclear war. Among the most famous
of these is Nuclear
War Survival Skills.
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.
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.
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.
The British government developed a public alert system for use during
nuclear attack with the expectation of a four-minute warning before
United States expected a warning time of anywhere from
half an hour (for land-based missiles) to less than three minutes (for
submarine-based weapons). Many countries maintain plans for continuity
of government and continuity of operations following a nuclear attack
or similar disasters. These range from a designated survivor, intended
to ensure survival of some form of government leadership, to the
Soviet Dead Hand system, which allows for retaliation even if all
Soviet leadership were destroyed. Nuclear submarines are given letters
of last resort: orders on what action to take in the event that an
enemy nuclear strike has destroyed the government.
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 110 metres (360 ft)
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. An example of privately funded fallout shelters is the
Ark Two Shelter in Ontario, Canada, and autonomous shelters have been
constructed with an emphasis on post-war networking and
reconstruction. 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
Main article: List of nuclear holocaust fiction
See also: Nuclear weapons in fiction, film, and theater and
apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction
Nuclear warfare and weapons are staple elements of speculative
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Nuclear warfare.
Air Force Global Strike Command
Cuban missile crisis
International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe
List of nuclear close calls
List of states with nuclear weapons
Nuclear weapons and the United States
Nuclear weapons debate
People's Liberation Army Rocket Force
Permissive Action Link
Prevention of nuclear catastrophe
Transition to war
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"Presidency in the Nuclear Age", conference and forum at the JFK
Library, Boston, October 12, 2009. Four panels: "The Race to Build the
Bomb and the Decision to Use It", "
Cuban Missile Crisis
Cuban Missile Crisis and the First
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty", "The Cold
War and the Nuclear Arms Race",
and "Nuclear Weapons, Terrorism, and the Presidency".
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