Sunday, July 5, 2015

Nuclear Strike of the Month (July 2015)

NUKEMAP simulation of a 500 kT air burst over Terminal Island

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 and we'll be turning to concepts found in Nuclear Emergencies to help evaluate consequences.

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: Port of Los Angeles

For this scenario, we look to the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest port (by volume) in the United States. Here we will red team an attack by a nuclear weapons state in the context of a limited nuclear war.

The Scenario
The Great Eurasian War had started off badly for the U.S. and her allies. While the collapse of Ukraine, the ugly civil wars in the Baltic States, the flipping of key European allies to the Russian camp, and the three-way slaughter which had kicked off between the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia, and the joint Iranian-Iraqi expeditionary forces was bad, it was the initial blows the U.S. Navy took in the Pacific which had led to the largest housecleaning at the Pentagon ever seen. The waves of Chinese anti-ship missiles which struck the carrier group led by the USS George Washington and sent her, along with half of her support ships, to the bottom of the South China Sea, were the great wake-up call which led to the famous series of Congressional hearings, anti-corruption trials, and the sanctioning and brief nationalizations of most U.S. based defense contractors.

While China scored several early naval successes, final victory was still out of reach in her attempt to eject the U.S. as the primary hegemon in the Pacific. Having antagonized Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea with her moves in the South China Sea, she was ringed with small but highly motivated and increasingly capable adversaries. But, it was the utter collapse of the North Korean armed forces which set the wheels in motion for the destruction of the Port of Los Angeles.

North Korea had moved on the offensive in support of China and Russia in the opening days of the Asia theater. The initial bombardment and waves of North Korean attackers had stalled in heavy urban fighting in and around Seoul, which went on for weeks, then months. The counterattack by the South Korean Army, supported by U.S. (and, clandestinely, Japanese) air power, had shattered the assault. Coupled with mass defections and a series of coup attempts in Pyongyang, the campaign which China had hoped to use to keep Japan and South Korea distracted with had become a debacle. South Korea had not yet immediately rushed forces north, recalling the various campaigns of the first Korean War and what had happened when the UN forces had headed towards the Yalu River.

China then made the fateful step to deploy a series of non-nuclear EMP devices over Tokyo, Yokohama, Seoul, Busan, Gwangju, Taipei, Manila, and Ho Chi Minh City, causing considerable damage to the electronic infrastructure of those cities and plunging much of their command and control into short-term chaos.

The fear of nuclear war had haunted the wide ranging series of wars which had erupted across Eurasia, but so far the horrors of a nuclear strike had been averted. However, this series of EMP bursts, on the heels of the new Green-led government in Germany pulling out of NATO and calling for a separate peace with Russia, the U.S. President, under intense pressure from Congress to "do something" after having "lost" Germany, declared the EMP attacks as crossing a red line. One week later, a large Chinese flotilla off the coast of beleaguered Taiwan had been blasted by three nuclear airbursts over the Taiwan Strait, sending 80% of the fleet to ocean floor.

Radiation, Fireball, and Blast effects of a 500 kT shot over the Port of Los Angeles


The Attack

Two days later, a Chinese diesel sub, which had somehow escaped detection, surfaced three hundred miles west of Los Angeles and launched two ICBMs. One of the rockets failed on launch. The other streaked towards LA, detonating high over Terminal Island with the force of 500 kilotons.

The blast was optimized to do maximum physical damage. The shock wave and fireball turned the Port into an apocalyptic landscape of twisted metal, destroyed rail lines, a mish-mash of cranes twisted into heaps on the ground, all illuminated by fires and explosions as the goods crammed into the standard containers, bound for Asian allies or headed into the U.S., turned to ash and smoke.

Most of the people shook from their beds in the LA basin thought a massive earthquake had finally hit LA. Stumbling to their windows or front doors, they instead saw a massive mushroom cloud rising in the west. Wilmington and San Pedro were flattened. Rolling Hills, Lomita, Long Beach, and Carson were a firestorm. Terminal Island itself was a smoking crater.

The Aftermath
Hundreds of thousands of casualties quickly overwhelmed emergency responders. Support from the military was initially slow in coming as well, as the West Coast worried about another wave of attacks. 

That said, the years of improving construction standards and a network of fire departments well trained in working collapsed structures meant thousands were saved who might have otherwise died.

The port itself was obliterated and the Port of Long Beach heavily damaged. The infrastructure feeding the ports, the warehouses, the fuel depots - everything was either burning or destroyed.

The knock-on effects for exports and imports would trickle across the continent. Businesses reliant on "Just in Time Inventory" strategies, LEAN manufacturing, and other metastatic growths of the long-gone positive mood era quickly went dark as components were either delayed or destroyed as a result of this attack.

The various wonks at the Defense Department were actually surprised it was only a 500 kT shot and that it had been timed early in the day. The standard Chinese ICBM was the Dong Fen, with a nominal rating of 5 MT. Was this attack with only 10% of that yield a sign of restraint? And why hit at dawn when such an attack could have used the rush traffic as a force multiplier for the chaos which followed in its wake? Or had the warhead failed to operate at its full capacity and the timing was irrelevant? And what about the second missile which had failed on launch? Was it insurance? Had it targeted the Port of Long Beach?

The first interpretation might allow the parties a chance to step back and reconsider the further use of these weapons. If the other interpretation prevailed in the Pentagon, then the war was about to take an even uglier turn.

Thoughts and Plans
This blast is representative of a large nuclear strike, but it is far below the multi-megaton blasts which can be generated by most any nuclear power.

  • As we've seen in other installments of the nuclear strike of the month series, air bursts generally do not produce significant fallout. This does not mean there won't be many casualties from radiation exposure from the blast, but that it will be a minor component compared to the shock wave and fire ball.
  • Look into the rail networks and other infrastructure destroyed by such an attack. While an agent of massive destruction, nuclear weapons are also agents of disruption for modern economies, especially ones reliant on the rapid movement of trade goods.
  • As we've done previously, zoom out from this attack. Put this into scale and perspective. Think about how nuclear weapons are portrayed in non-technical literature and what you see here.
  • If you live in the LA basin, would your emergency preparations be useful in this scenario? Do you have water? Food? Cash? Imagine the transportation nightmare for people trying to get out of the area. Sheltering in place would probably be your best option - would you be able to?

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 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. Such comments will be deleted. 

I am not promoting nuclear war. I am not attempting to wish such an attack upon any population anywhere.  I am attempting to provide a plausible scenario which might lead to the use of nuclear weapons. My expectation is that you will use this scenario to war game whatever plans you may be putting into place to deal with this new era we find ourselves in and see if you are as ready as you hope.

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