Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Nuclear warfare
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Nuclear warfare

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

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.

Table of contents
1 Hiroshima to Semipalatinsk
2 The Cold War
3 Current concerns
4 Glossary
5 External links

Hiroshima to Semipalatinsk

The United States is the only nation to have actually used nuclear weapons in war, or on civilian populations, having in 1945 dropped two of them on cities in Japan – one on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki.

For several decades after World War II, the US developed and maintained a strategic force based on the B-36 bomber that would be able to attack any potential aggressor from bomber bases in the US. The possibility of an actual nuclear attack on the US was considered somewhat remote because no other nation had "the bomb". Instead, many strategists were fearful that a rogue general would launch an attack on the Soviet Union independently and without orders. To assuage this fear, the US placed its nuclear weapons under the control of a new, separate agency named The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In the event of a war, the Strategic Air Command (or SAC) bombers would be moved to AEC bases to be loaded with bombs in a process that would likely have taken several days.

Over a period of a few years, many in the US defense community became increasingly convinced of the invincibility of the United States to a nuclear attack. Indeed, it became generally believed that the threat of nuclear war would deter any strike against the United States. Simultaneously, there was some discussion about placing the AEC's arsenal under international control or placing limits on its development.

On August 29, 1949 the USSR tested its first bomb at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan. Scientists in the United States from the Manhattan Project had warned that in time the Soviet Union would certainly develop a nuclear capability of its own. Nevertheless, the effect upon military thinking and planning in the US was astounding.

With the idiomatic cat out of the bag, world-wide nuclear proliferation accelerated, with Britain testing her first atomic bomb in 1952, and France hers in 1960. Notably the Western European arsenals have always been insignificant compared to those of the superpowers, and it was the nuclear weapons of the USA and USSR which were of greatest concern to the world for the remainder of the 20th century.

The Cold War

Though the USSR now had nuclear weapon capabilities, the US still had a massive advantage in terms of bombers and weapons. In any exchange of hostilities, the US would be easily capable of bombing the USSR, while the USSR would have some difficultly arranging the same.

The widespread introduction of jet-powered interceptor aircraft upset this balance somewhat by reducing the effectiveness of the US bomber fleet. In 1949 Curtis LeMay was placed in command of the Strategic Air Command and instituted a program to update the bomber fleet to one that was all-jet. During the early 1950s the B-47 and B-52 were introduced, providing the ability to more easily bomb the USSR.

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 the use of a large number of smaller nuclear weapons used in a tactical role. It is arguable if such use could be considered "limited" however, because it was believed that the US would use their own strategic weapons (mainly bombers at the time) should the USSR deploy any kind of nuclear weapon against civilian targets.

Several scares about the increasing ability of the USSR's strategic bomber forces surfaced during the 1950s. The defensive response by the US was to deploy a fairly strong layered defense consisting of interceptor aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles and guns, like the Nike or Skysweeper, near larger cities. However this was a small response compared to the construction of a huge fleet of nuclear bombers. The main strategy was to massively penetrate the USSR. Because such a large area could not be defended against attack in any credible way, the USSR would "lose" any exchange.

This logic became ingrained in US combat strategy and persisted for the duration of 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 could not afford to build any reasonable counterforce; the economic output of the United States was such that the USSR could never catch up, because the whole country was devastated economically.

A new revolution in thinking occurred with the introduction of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which the USSR first successfully tested in the late 1950s. To deliver a warhead to a target, a missile was far less expensive than a bomber that could do the same job. Moreover, at the time it was impossible to intercept ICBM's 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 appeared 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. Politicians, notably then US Senator John Kennedy suggested a "missile gap" between the Soviets and the US. While a savvy political ploy as they almost certainly knew better and knew they could not be corrected without violating military security. One result of this, however, was that the Soviets believed the vulnerablity actually existed, with resulting temptation; luckily cooler heads prevailed. After Kennedy won the 1960 Presidential election, the "missile gap" conveniently went away. The US military gave missile development programs the highest national priority, and several spy aircraft and satellites were designed and deployed 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 of ICBMs and warheads were so high on both sides that either the USA or USSR were capable of destroying the other country's infrastructure. Thus a balance of power system known as mutually assured destruction (MAD) came into being. It was thought that the possibility of a general thermonuclear war was so deadly neither power would risk initiating one.

By the late 1970s, citizens in the US and USSR (and indeed the entire world) had been living with MAD for about a decade. It became deeply ingrained into the popular culture. Such an exchange would have killed many millions of individuals directly and possibly induced a nuclear winter which could have led to the death of a large portion of humanity and certainly the collapse of global civilization. Many movies such as The Day After, Threads, WarGames, and depict this scenario, as did the Planet of the Apes (1968-1973) and Mad Max (1979-1985) 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's 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 occasional 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 enemy's silos, that might have led 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 (theoretically) assured that the other would not strike first, and a war without a first strike will not occur.

This strategy had one major and very possibly critical flaw, soon realised by military analysts but highly underplayed by the US military: Conventional NATO forces in the European theatre of war were considered to be outnumbered by similar Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces, and while the western countries invested heavily in high-tech conventional weapons to counter this (partly perceived) imbalance, it was assumed that in case of a major Soviet attack (commonly perceived as the 'red tanks rolling towards the North Sea' scenario) the NATO, in the face of conventional defeat, would soon have no other choice but to resort to tactical nuclear weapons. Most analysts agreed that once the first nuclear exchange had occurred, escalation to global nuclear war would become almost inevitable.

So, while official US policy was a clearly stated 'non first-use policy', never to strike first with nuclear weapons, the reality was that the lack of strength of conventional NATO forces would force the US to either abandon Western Europe or use nuclear weapons in its defense. Even though after Soviet collapse investigations by historians and military analysts revealed that the effectiveness of Warsaw Pact forces was rated far higher than they really were, official NATO doctrine had been critically flawed from the onset and global thermonuclear war would have been a very real possibility had actual conflict occurred.

This major flaw, although largely ignored by the military community, quickly gathered public interest and many movies and books were based upon this and several other weaknesses in the policy of mutually assured destruction.

As missile technology improved the emphasis moved to counter-force strikes: ones that directly attacked the enemy's means of waging war. This was the predominant doctrine from the late 1960s onwards. Additionally the development of warheads (at least in the US) moved towards delivering a small explosive force more accurately and with a "cleaner" blast (with fewer long-lasting radioactive isotopes). In any conflict therefore, damage would have been initially limited to military targets, there may well have been 'withholds' 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 were 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.

Another major shift in nuclear doctrine was the development of the submarine-based nuclear missile, the SLBM. It was hailed by military theorists as a weapon that would assure a surprise attack, would not destroy the capability to retaliate, and therefore would make nuclear war less likely. However, it was soon realised that submarines could 'sneak up' to the enemies shore and decrease the 'warning time', the time between detection of the launch and impact of the missile from as much as half an hour to under three minutes. This greatly increased the credibility of a 'surprise first strike' by one of the factions and theoretically made it possible to knock out or disrupt the chain of command before a counterstrike could be ordered. It strengthened the notion that a nuclear war could be 'won' and this resulted not only in greatly increased tension but also in a dramatic increase in military spending. The submarines and their missile systems were very expensive (one fully equipped nuclear powered nuclear missile submarine could easily cost more than the entire GNP of a third world nation), but 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. As a result, military spending skyrocketed.

The fact remains that tactical use of nuclear weapons against military targets would have caused death, destruction, and hardship on an immense scale, and that even limited strategic use would have had a global impact. 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 concerns 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. Both have waged several wars over the conflict in Kashmir and the region as a whole is considered highly volatile, with conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East considerably influencing Pakistani policy, and several assassinations of high-ranking government officials and continuing Hindu-Muslim incidents in India heightening both national and international tension. Recent studies undertaken by the CIA cite the enduring Pakistani-Indian conflict as the most likely conflict escalating into nuclear war.

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 the People's Republic of China over Taiwan. Although economic forces have decreased the possibility of military conflict, there remains the worry that increasing military buildup and 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 between one and four 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, 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 organizationss 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.

On a more positive note, South Africa declared after its transition from an apartheid regime that it had in fact produced about six crude nuclear weapons as a 'last-resort' weapon against a envisioned race war, but that they have now been destroyed. In fact the development laboratories (which are remarkably unsophisticated) and storage facilities have now become a sight-seeing tour.

See also: Biological warfare, Chemical warfare, Conventional warfare, Nuclear proliferation, Nuclear arms race, Weapons of mass destruction, Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice concerning legality of nuclear weapons

Glossary

External links