Monday, February 2, 2015

Nuclear Strike of the Month (February 2015): Target Khersones Airbase

NUKEMAP Depiction of a W-76 Air Burst Over Khersones Airbase

Welcome to a new monthly feature here at FutureJacked - the Nuclear Strike of the Month.

In this series I want to illustrate various ways attacks using nuclear weapons can play out.  I will be using Dr. Alex Wellerstein's online NUKEMAP tool to generate the estimates of the blast and follow-on effects.

My rationale is to show a wide range of nuclear attack scenarios short of all-out thermonuclear war. The idea is to give readers a feel for the destructive power of nuclear weapons, provide scenarios as thought experiments for your own planning, and to discuss what nuclear weapons can and (sometimes more importantly) what nuclear weapons can't do.

For a variety of reasons, it is my opinion we will see nuclear weapons used in warfare sometime between now and 2030. We might as well brush up on the basics.

Nuclear Strike of the Month: Khersones Airbase

This month we will review what a nuclear attack on Khersones Airbase in Crimea would look like.

The Scenario
Amidst a backdrop of collapsing oil prices, a series of currencies crises, and collapsing stock markets, tensions continue to rise in Ukraine. NATO sends in sufficient numbers of weapons, advisors, and military contractors which allow Ukrainian forces to begin marching eastwards once again, retaking areas lost to the rebels in late 2014 and early 2015.  The rebel militias are routed at the Donetsk airport and a breakout occurs at Mariupol, creating huge encircled pockets of militia fighters which suffer at the hands of famine and Ukrainian Punitive Battalions.

NATO tanks are spotted on the M04 headed towards Luhansk and significant numbers of military contractors are spotted in  Kharkiv. After an escalation in the war of words between Russian and Western leaders and a massacre of civilians outside of Luhansk (which each side blames on the other), President Putin appears on television to announce all measures will now be employed to ensure the safety of Russia and the Russian people.

Two days later, a nuclear warhead detonates over Diego Garcia. The Russian Foreign Minister then asks if the West is now ready to understand just how important Ukraine is to the Russian national interest.

There is a near total meltdown in the Western Press.  The Chattering Classes erupt in incoherent rage, the political classes in the West are united in their desire to punish Russia, and military leaders sweat over just where this will lead.  The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff receive their orders to prepare a measured target for retaliation.

The Air Force is selected to deliver the blow, which will fall on a spit of land southwest of Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia.  The airbase at Khersones can easily be spun as a significant military target, hitting Crimea in punishment for its defection from Ukraine scores some points, and this retaliation delivered near a major port for the Black Sea Fleet is viewed by Western leaders as sending the message that freedom and democracy won't be cowed.

Eastern edge of the W-76 Blast Effects

The Attack
The stealth drone arced across the Black Sea. Pulled from the bowels of advanced weapons laboratories and painstakingly reviewed in its final checkdown at Sandia National Lab, the drone and its 100 kT W-76 nuclear warhead were never spotted on radar.

The attack was timed with dawn and the citizens of Sevastopol were caught between the rising sun to the east and a blast announcing a man-made sun springing to life in the west.  Homes, apartment buildings, and tidy little vacation cottages collapsed throughout the western Haharins'kyi District. Localized fires sprung up, but no firestorm was generated from the attack.

Detonating just shy of one mile over the earth, the blast caught most people in their homes. The deadliest portions blast radiation were limited to the airport. Ships and boats bobbing in Kozacha and Komyshova Bays were heaved onto land or shredded into floating debris.

As this was an air burst, fuzed to maximize the overpressure from the blast, the radioactive fallout was minimal and most of that carried out over the Black Sea.

The Aftermath

The initial hours were chaotic.  Russian sailors and local firefighters dug through the rubble of homes and businesses.  Tens of thousands of residents streamed away from the blast zone and several hundred thousand residents of Sevastopol began making their way to the north and east.

The final estimate of deaths came to 2,000, with those injured just over 30,000.
Russian sailors and officers looking south from their ships in Sevastopol Bay readied themselves for what the next ratchet up in the tit-for-tat game of geopolitics would bring.  U.S. planners were grimly satisfied their soldiers, sailors, and airmen at Diego Garcia had been avenged.

Thoughts and Plans

It is important to review the blast intensity and the layout provided. You will see a lot of narrow streets and buildings which one can assume use a lot of unreinforced masonry in their construction - the kind of building a 5 psi blast wave would shred in seconds.

How would first responders get to the scene?

Would the shoreline be an option for evacuation or staging of relief forces?

How soon would enough people be confident of the lack of fallout to even proceed into the area?

What sort of plans would be necessary to mitigate the worst of the effects?

Many people carry around in their minds that nuclear bombs are world-ending type devices.  The weapon in this scenario is roughly 10 time the power of the bomb which detonated over Hiroshima and optimized in its blast height for destruction, not fallout production.  The W-76, warts and all, is a big part of the U.S. arsenal and would be probably play a big role in a future nuclear war. The vast majority of the city is unscathed.  Much infrastructure would remain intact.  The loss of life would be bad, but not catastrophic.  In other words, what if we light off a few of these weapons in anger in the coming years, without it spiraling out of control into a total strategic thermonuclear holocaust, resulting in "acceptable" damage to both those dropping the nuke and those on the receiving end?  What if military and political planners find ways to use nukes in warfare and we erode the stigma associated with their use?  That is what worries me most about the potential for this new era we are stumbling towards.  That worries me a lot.

Clown Show Disclaimer

Due to the subject matter of this post, it will be necessary to provide the following disclaimer. Blog posts like this tend to bring out battalions of comment trolls ready to gin up the Clown Show of name-calling, knee-jerk willful misinterpretation, and angry discourse generating much sound and fury, but which in the end, signifies nothing.

I am not promoting nuclear war, nor am I attempting to paint any potential Russia nuclear strikes in retaliation for war in Ukraine as justified, nor a counterstrike in Crimea as justified.  I am attempting to provide a plausible scenario which might lead to the exchange of nuclear weapons and use that scenario to help you in whatever plans you may be putting into place to deal with this new era we find ourselves in.

While I do personally think the West is insane to disregard Russia's national security interest in having a Ukraine that is nominally friendly towards Russia, or at least not home to tanks and missiles of a potential enemy (NATO), I am not at the U.S. State Department, nor do I have any influence on my country's political leaders. Just as I would have agreed with President Kennedy's stance during the Cuban Missile Crisis that Russian missiles in Cuba were a no-go, I can intellectually understand why Russia would regard the current events in Ukraine as having far more importance to their long-term security than any interest the U.S. should have in Ukraine.  Just as the U.S. would be upset with Russian arms in Mexico, I can see why Mr. Putin, et al, don't want NATO forces on their borders. That doesn't mean I like Putin.


Fred said...

Interesting idea...

I been thinking how would this Ukrainian situation be different if Ukraine did not disarm their nuclear warheads (assuming Russia would have allowed them to keep it at the time).

Also how will this affect Iran's decision about nuclear proliferation.

I thought of you with this because when you were at Rolla you were not a big NPT person.

Flagg707 said...

@Fred: A lot of people are wondering how things might have transpired if Ukraine had not given up their nuclear weapons.

That said, who would they nuke? Western journalism aside, there are not formal Russian armored columns in Eastern Ukraine. Just how much use would a nuke be in a civil war? We may get to find that answer out.

And yes, I have disagreements still with the NPT. If the world political situation devolves sufficiently, that particular piece of paper may not be as significant as it has been over the past 40 years - for good or for ill (and most likely for ill).