Monday, June 22, 2009

Open Source Nuclear Targeting (

One of my students recently pointed me towards a well researched and thought-provoking article by the the Federation of American Scientists titled, From Counterforce To Minimal Deterrence.

The article laid out the FAS's argument against the US's current nuclear strategy, Counterforce, in favor of their suggested alternative, Minimal Deterrence. Under this proposed strategy, the US would maintain only about 500 nuclear weapons or just enough to deter anyone foolish enough to consider using a nuke on the US. Currently, according to the FAS, the US has about 5200 active nuclear weapons.

Anyone interested in the argument and counter-argument on this proposed strategy shift should see the FAS site. What really caught my eye, however, was the notional target set that the FAS developed in support of their position. They decided to target Russia and set up their list such that they could effectively threaten punishment sufficient to make the use of nuclear weapons by Russia appear undesirable. In other words, how many targets and of what type would you have to be able to take out in order to be able to deter (in this hypothetical case) Russia from using nukes on the US?

In the end, the FAS settled on 12 targets. You can sort of see them in the image below or you can download the KMZ file from the FAS and see them on Google Earth. Hitting the 12 targets with relatively small 3 kiloton bombs (Fat Man, by way of comparison was 21 kilotons) destroys everything within 1000 feet of the blast and continues to damage everything within a little more than a mile from the blast. The FAS projects some 46,000 dead and another 67,000 wounded from strikes on these 12 locations.

As horrific as these casualty counts are, the FAS suggests its strategy, designed to deter potential aggressors with this level of force, yields results that are substantially better than those of previous US government funded studies including one in 1979 that used less than 100 of the more than 20,000 nukes the US had in its stockpiles at that time. That study resulted in estimates of 836,000 to 1,458,000 dead and another 2.6 to 3.6 million wounded.

Obviously, this analysis only works for state actors and rational state actors to boot. No amount of nuclear weaponry is likely to deter determined non-state actors (the some 10,000 weapons in the US arsenal at the time did nothing to stop 9/11 for example...). Likewise, irrational state actors are equally unlikely to be deterred by large stockpiles of nuclear weapons believing, as they tend to do, that nuclear explosions have no impact on divine beings.

It does leave one wondering, however, about the fragility of the modern state. If an attack (albeit one that completely destroys) only 12 targets is sufficient to bring a modern state to its knees (or to make it think that it will be brought to its knees which seems to be closer to the goal of deterrence), how many and, more gruesomely, which targets would do the same to China or the EU or the US?

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]