|100 kT Air Burst over the Home Base of the Ukrainian 1st Guards Armored Brigade|
Note on the Nuclear Strike of the Month Series: 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: Tactical Exchange over Ukraine
This month's scenario has been particularly difficult to implement. My initial goal was to attempt to show what an exchange of tactical nuclear warheads across Eastern Europe might look like, simulating an eruption of war spinning out from the current hostilities in Ukraine. Properly showing what that would look like and the research required to pin down likely attack sites would make a fine Masters thesis. I therefore scaled back my ambitions and instead show what an exchange of tactical nuclear weapons might look like over the Russian-dominated parts of Ukraine that are at the center of the current conflict.
A new U.S. President is sworn into office, after basing her campaign on being tough and experienced in Foreign Policy matters.This proves helpful as she attempts to pivot the national conversation in the U.S. to foreign policy matters as a distraction from an ongoing slide in the financial markets, scandals erupting around the Federal Reserve Bank's various assistance programs for the banking sector, as well as ongoing and pernicious gridlock in Congress which led at one point to a fistfight between a Congressman from South Carolina and a Senator from Massachusetts, leaving the Senator hospitalized for several days.
In this environment, a major clash erupts around Mariupol, Ukraine. In a matter of two days, assisted by a substantial 5th column in Urkainian ranks, Russian-speaking separatists occupy the city. A multi-pronged counterattack led by Ukrainian armored brigades is crushed and waves of separatist militia units, armed with a wide variety of modern weapons systems from Russia, begin a drive towards the Dnieper River.
The President sends large numbers of advisors into Ukraine, funds training efforts via Private Military Corporations, and begins putting advanced weaponry in the hands of Ukrainian troops.
Tensions rapidly escalate and long negotiations commence between the US and Russia in the UN Security Council. When a strike team of military contractors is captured near Luhansk in the aftermath of an assault on the headquarters of one of the militias, the Russian response goes into overdrive. The dossiers of each contractor are splashed across the RT website and are lead on their news programs. The operatives all have deep ties to U.S. Special Forces and various U.S. intelligence agencies.
Two days later, a Russian surveillance aircraft is shot down. Russia claims it was attacked while in Russian airspace. The U.S. and NATO claim the plane was flying illegally over Eastern Ukraine. Three weeks later, Russia conducts an underground nuclear test for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The next week a hardline member of the Russian Duma is killed in Luhansk where he had been giving a speech in support of the separatists efforts. The tide on the battlefield turned as even larger numbers of NATO advisors were pouring into Ukraine. Media reports show U.S. and U.K. officers leading Ukrainian battalions, accompanied with advanced weapon systems and supported by drone strikes from what are reported in the Western media as Ukrainian drones.
Donetsk fell and Luhansk came under serious pressure. Russian media reports on massive atrocities against Russian-speaking civilians and Ukrainian artillery shells reportedly fall on Russian soil.
Two nights later, a nuclear warhead detonates east of Lviv, in Western Ukraine. It exploded roughly 75,000 feet above the city, blasting out windows in many of the homes and dropping power lines throughout the district. The attack is immediately followed by a television announcement from President Putin, indicating this attack was in response to NATO attacks upon Russia under the guise of assisting Ukrainian troops. He stated bluntly this attack was meant to get the attention of the Western Powers. Russia would not allow NATO troops to conduct armed action on and over the Russian border. The U.S. and its allies could come to the negotiating table in good faith or the world could cross over into the horrors of nuclear war.
The U.S. President responded that evening, stating in no uncertain terms that the U.S. would never bow to nuclear blackmail. U.S. troops had been ordered into Ukraine at the request of the Kiev government in order to secure the country's borders and prevent the use of force to redraw political boundaries in Europe. It was hinted they might cross over into Crimea as part of this action as well.
In the next three days, Russia scattered her ground forces along a wide swath of the border with Ukraine, never having more than a company massed in any one location. All Russian forces were put on high alert.
Four nuclear weapons, each estimated to yield 100 kT were detonated by Russia over ostensibly military and logistics targets across Ukraine. The blasts mostly avoid heavily populated areas and the detonations occur at higher than optimal altitudes. Analysts later assume this is to minimize any fallout which might blow back over Russia.
A day later, Luhansk was leveled by a 300 kT W-87 warhead delivered by a U.S. Minuteman missile, also as an air burst.
Finally the U.S. and Russia agreed to meet in emergency session at the UN after strong-arming from the Chinese government...
Looking this over, I will admit to struggling as to the actual usefulness of nuclear weapons in this context. Tactical nukes might be applicable for attacking hardened positions or massed troop formations, but in the context of a dispersed hybrid war involving separatists and multiple outside players, I had a hard time finding the lever point for making such attacks useful in a regional proxy war context such as Ukraine. There might be a different answer if one were to analyze realistic Pakistan-India conflict scenarios. I am not sure.
One rather unfashionable thing I want to point out is just what this would mean in the larger context. Assuming airbursts, take a look at the five attack sites as we pull the map to broader views:
While I grant you I wouldn't want to be at ground zero, the strategic effect of airburst type attacks would probably be limited, as would the fallout. Yes, groundbursts would be a different story (and one which I am planning for another Nuclear Strike of the Month post), but even then, this is five attacks, totaling roughly 750 kT of explosive power (roughly 20x the force used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and in the context of the world at large - life would go on.
Against dispersed forces, aside from disruption of supply lines, I don't see how a limited tactical exchange has a major effect, aside from the initial shock factor - which should not be underestimated.
There are going to be many, many dead. No question. Especially if you hit a major city. But barring unexpected EMP effects from high altitude bursts, fifty miles away, life is going on. That's what worries me.
The breaking of the taboo is the biggest fear in my mind. Nukes don't end the world. Sorry to break the cardinal law laid down by generations of non-proliferation experts and pundits. Yes, there will be radioactive contamination and horrible death. There is already horrible death in the way we conduct war without nukes (see Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, et al). What concerns me is that we'll use several of these weapons, get a sense that we can get away with it, and then do something colossally stupid like start a major war using strategic nukes and lots of groundbursts. More to come on that in the future.
Clown Show Disclaimer
Due to the subject matter of this post, it will be necessary to provide the following disclaimer.
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 on Luhansk 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.