Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Nuclear Strike of the Month (August 2015): Target Whiteman Air Force Base

Nuclear Attack on Whiteman AFB by three 1 MT warheads, two as groundbursts
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: Whiteman Air Force Base

This month we will examine a nuclear strike on Whiteman Air Force Base. Whiteman is located in west-central Missouri and is home to the 509th Bomber Wing. The 509th flies the B-2 Stealth Bomber and is a critical asset in the United States' ability to project power across the globe.

This month we will drill down a little deeper than we have in previous iterations of the Nuclear Strike of the Month series. We'll use Google Maps to help you as a civilian get a feel for scenario planning a nuclear attack. This can help you form and then test whatever nuclear response plans you think are necessary.

The Scenario
Historians, many of them working by candlelight, would continue to puzzle over just how the Great Eurasian War started, much as their predecessors wondered over how World War I ignited and got out of hand. Maybe it was as simple as the Tanner Hypothesis, or maybe it was the dark side of the herding impulse natural to large populations.

Either way, the three missiles that hit Whiteman Air Force Base as part of the group of exchanges that snowballed after the nuking of the Chinese fleet off of Taiwan and the leveling of the Port of Los Angeles, opened the new and deadliest phase of that war.

American B-2 bombers had wreaked havoc over North Korea, helping the ROK forces shatter the offensive which had turned Seoul into a battleground, and had lately turned their attention to targets on Hainan.

That the base might be attacked was at least understood. What most civilians had not understood was that the strikes which took out Whiteman, raining down on the tips of Chinese missiles, would be conducted in a manner to ensure that base and its supporting infrastructure would not be a factor in the war from that moment on.

Three missiles detonated over Whiteman. DF-41s. One megaton each. These were single warhead versions, not the MIRV'd missiles which Pentagon analysts at the time assumed were being held in reserve for possible attacks on more densely populated regions of the US. Two of the strikes were groundbursts, fuzed to ensure as much damage as possible to any underground or hardened facilities, and one airburst, to maximize as much blast damage for surface targets.

The Attack
This is a multiple warhead attack on a military installation using warheads far in excess of the weapons modeled to date in our Nuclear Strike of the Month series, but which also include groundbursts.

As we discussed in Nuclear Emergencies, groundburst attacks generate intense amounts of fallout and result in a massively disrupted environment (not just blast effects, but fallout and contamination spread over a vast area, forcing populations to remain under cover for days or weeks and contaminating the environment for years or even decades - with major effects on agriculture and transportation).

Below is a close-up of strike effects on the immediate area of the base:
Three 1MT strikes on Whiteman AFB, showing immediate blast zone
The combined fireball would engulf well over 5 square kilometers, incinerating the Knob Knoster State Park and setting fires on the outskirts of Warrensburg and Sedalia (the two largest towns nearest the blast).

The immediate casualties are estimated to be on the order of 30,000, with over half of them deaths. The base itself would be rendered inoperable. As we are not privy to the details of the base, while there might be underground bunkers and support facilities which survive, access to them would be extremely limited.

Losing a key military base is a significant event, but it is the long term disruption caused by the radioactive fallout which made this strike far more deadly than would have been otherwise the case:
Blast and Fallout pattern for three 1 MT strikes on Whiteman AFB, two as groundbursts
And on a larger scale:

Blast and Fallout pattern for three 1 MT strikes on Whiteman AFB, two as groundbursts, with Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago as reference

Here is a description of what the fallout patterns mean, using the NUKEMAP model:

As the radioactive debris settled across Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois, the magnitude of the attack became clear.

The dose rate estimates shown here are the start point. Anyone caught out in the open in a radiation field of 100 R per hour and unable to get inside a well-shielded shelter (and out of any contaminated clothing - and pray you didn't inhale too much fallout) is going to be very sick or dead within days.

As we covered in Nuclear Emergencies, the radiation given off by fallout decays away in intensity according to the 7:10 Rule of Thumb. The takeaway is, the longer you can shelter in place and not ingest or inhale radioactive materials, the safer you'll be from contamination. More details can be found in this document from FEMA on the aftermath of nuclear attack.

The Aftermath
Using Google Maps, centered over Warrensburg, Missouri, and moving out, let's focus on the infrastructure affected by this attack.

An intense scar of radioactive contamination covers a wide swath of Interstate 70. The intensity of the fallout would render the highway unusable for the near term. The Annual Average Daily Traffic count for this area of I-70 is well over 20,000 vehicles. Alternate east-west routes, including Highways 50, 24, and 36, would also be closed for much of mid-Missouri. Missouri has the 7th largest highway system in the country and this would result in significant knock-on effects for commercial, military, and civilian road transportation, not to mention problems with refugee traffic, as every vehicle and probably every occupant of every vehicle exiting the blast and fallout zones would be contaminated.

Rail Freight Networks in Missouri
Rail transport would also be dramatically affected. Central Missouri is crossed by lines owned by BNSF, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and Kansas City Southern. While the fallout pattern drifts the major contamination away from the critical yards in Kansas City, the tracks themselves, as well as any rail cars traveling on them as the fallout comes down, would be contaminated. This could result in the tracks becoming denied for use except for the most extreme of emergencies for some weeks after the attack. What's more, the UP line passes in parallel to Highway 50 just north of Whiteman. That line would be severed and the ability to repair it would be severely impaired by the radiation fields from the attack. It would likely have to be abandoned.

In addition, the fallout would rain down heavily over the Missouri River, with not-insignificant fallout making it to the Mississippi. Barge transport for bulk commodities could be heavily affected. Think coal transport for power plants, grain and corn from the interior for shipment to processors or for export out of New Orleans. Decontamination of barges would not be an easy task.

Other considerations would include any towns or cities which still get drinking water from the Missouri River and the destruction of the agricultural (both row crop and herd animal) potential of most of the state north of the Missouri River.

While the death toll would not be extreme for a war time attack, the knock on effects on transportation and food would be immense.

Thoughts and Plans
Some things to ponder for your scenario planning include:
  • How would first responders handle this kind of widespread disaster? Turn the northern and eastern part of the state into a quarantine zone? Check all the roads in and out of this area and consider how it would be policed or enforced.
  • How many hospitals are in this path of devastation? Columbia, Missouri, home to the University of Missouri and a number of hospitals is right on the fringe of the major fallout path. Along with Jefferson City, these are the main hospitals between St. Louis and Kansas City. What happens if the wind shifts a bit and the city, and its hospitals, are also covered with radioactive debris? Even at a low level this has major impacts on the operation of those facilities and their ability to handle injuries and refugees.
  • That idea to build a combination tornado and fallout shelter might look to be a good choice in this kind of event...
Use the NUKEMAP tool to play around with scenarios such as this. Think in terms of how you would react if the attack came while you were at home or at work. As I stated in the book, shelter is your best option in a situation with significant fallout. And far more important than any lead shielded jock straps would be filter masks. Even painter masks or basic surgical masks will keep the worst of the particles out of your lungs. Internal contamination is far more of a problem than external radiation doses in most cases.

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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