Friday, October 16, 2015

Nuclear Strike of the Month (October 2015): Target Middle East Tactical Exchange

150 kT Air Burst west of Baalbek, Lebanon, in the Bekaa Valley

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:  Tactical Nuclear Exchange in the Middle East

This month we will examine how nuclear weapons might be used tactically, as part of a direct military campaign. With all the talk recently about the Iranian Nuclear Deal, and now with the intervention of Russia in the Syria mess, I want to postulate a situation where Israel feels compelled to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield to reverse severe setbacks on the battlefield. I'm not including a first strike on Israel by, say, a nuclear-armed Iran or even Russia, because the retaliation Israel is capable of would push any response into a strategic nuclear exchange of damn near old Soviet-US proportions. I'll admit the following scenario is a huge stretch - Israel is not going to lose a conventional engagement in my opinion, but for the sake of trying to see how nukes might get deployed in the Middle East, we'll at least postulate it here.

We are using 150 kT warheads in this model. That may seem a bit on the high end for tactical weapons, and I admit it is a bit arbitrary, so feel free to alter the scenario if you like. I am modeling air bursts here as I am assuming the goal is to do maximum damage while avoiding intense long-term environmental issues and contamination. As usual zoom in and zoom out on the maps and see how exchanges like this compare to our analysis of a groundburst using multi-megaton warheads back in August.

The Scenario
Things really began to go downhill for Israel's strategic situation when the Great Slaughter of Palmyra finished off the last of the Daesh forces in Syria. Assad's revitalized army, along with support from Russian airstrikes, military advisers and special forces, contingents of Hezbollah, and several units of Iranian "volunteers" had chased Daesh out of Aleppo, out of Raqqa (with heavy losses on both sides), ending in the encirclement focused on Palmyra. The other insurgent forces fell rapidly as well, with only a few groups holding out in the extreme North under the protection of Turkey.

Iranian forces allowed a "back door" to remain open for a large number of Daesh forces as part of a Devil's bargain, giving them one chance at passage out of Syria, through Iraq, and into Saudi Arabia, which led several months later to the civil war which brought the House of Saud's focus back home and caused their support for Sunni forces in the general region to shrivel up.

While Syria began the process of rebuilding, they were no longer masters of their own fate, with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah playing influential roles in major policy decisions. While juggling those outside influences, Assad also had to be wary of Turkey moving from occasional attacks on Kurdish positions to a full-blown invasion of Syria.

A series of provocations and miscalculations began to escalate all along Israel's northern border as they looked out across the frontier towards a Hezbollah which was even more emboldened now than they had been since the aftermath of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, to a Syria which now more resembled Lebanon in that Assad might run the official government, but there were strong forces within Syria completely out of his control. When Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah died in a massive explosion just outside of Baalbek, Hezbollah blamed the Israelis, the Israelis blamed it on an internal Hezbollah power struggle, and then rockets began to rain down on Israel from Hezbollah positions. First in ones and twos, then in waves.

Israel responded as they had in 2006, with massive bombardments and a major call-up of forces. What happened next had not been seen in Israel since the first dark days of the 1973 War. Instead of playing to script and waiting in fortifications to be shelled into pulp, waves of Hezbollah small combat teams in trucks and small armored vehicles streamed over the Northern border while at the same time conventional forces from Syria (and apparently led by Iranian officers in many cases) attacked the Golan Heights. These forces were all armed with next-generation tank-killer weapons and MANPADs which turned out to be more effective than intelligence estimates. Waves of drones flew south into Israel, some as kamikaze devices, some as decoys, some as surveillance platforms. While they had little direct effect on the battle, the psychological effect was intense, as swarms of them darkened the skies over Jerusalem and several crashed on the grounds of Dimona.

Then the unthinkable happened - an entire brigade found itself surrounded by Hezbollah forces near Dan, Israel - and they were cut down by a combined Syrian-Hezbollah attack before reinforcements could be brought to bear. The West Bank erupted into flames as sleeper cells sprang into action, bombing Israeli infrastructure and tying down security assets. A police station in a suburb of Haifa fell to a team and the Hezbollah flag was hoisted over the ruins.

The Attack
As the riots in the West Bank turned into actual occupation of Israeli government offices and the takeover of some towns and with the news of Syrian tanks commanded by Iranians victorious over Israeli forces and possibly driving south, and with apparently the latest generation of Russian anti-aircraft weapons in the hands of Israel's enemies - and proving effective in driving off close air support, the fateful decision was made to reset the balance.

Israeli intel identified two major Hezbollah staging areas in the Bekaa Valley and a key supply and transportation depot for the Syrian army. Intense discussions were held with the Russian military attache in Tel Aviv and messages send through back every available back channel - Hezbollah and Syria were to back off, or Israel would use all means at her disposal to stop the invasion. That night, televisions all over the world showed the green flag of Hezbollah flapping in the breeze over a burned out police station outside of Haifa and the Israeli cabinet agreed to act.

Strikes on Baalbek, Qarauon, and near Nawa
Three bombers, each carrying two nuclear warheads, one for delivery, one for backup, simultaneously took flight and, upon receiving the code word "Jephthah" they delivered their 150 kiloton warheads to target.

150 kT strike outside of Baalbek, Lebanon

The attack on Baalbek was meant to disrupt Hezbollah logistics and send a message to the major Hezbollah presence in the Bekaa Valley. Baalbek was damaged significantly, but as it was an airburst, fallout was minimized, though the effects of the blast in a confined valley amplified the damage outside the normal blast zone, shattering windows for hundreds of square kilometers.

Attack near Qaraoun, at the southern end of the Bekaa Valley
The second strike in the Bekaa Valley was detonated over Lake Litani, blasting the dam, and sending a huge wall of water down the valley. Roads were destroyed and those note destroyed by the blast were washed out, choking off a major resupply route for the offensive into Israel.

150 kT blast near Nawa, Syria
The attack on Syrian soil destroyed an armored battalion in transit as well as severely damaging a fuel supply depot which had been set up without the secrecy the Iranians and Syrians had hoped for.

The Aftermath
The psychological effect was almost more devastating than the actual attacks. Just as no one had expected the Russians to come into Syria guns blazing at the end of 2015, no one had expected the Israelis would use nuclear weapons on the battlefield unless either first struck by them or in imminent danger of being overrun by conventional forces. The Israeli cabinet had decided that their enemies needed to be reminded of the force which could be brought to bear on them. That, combined with Israel sorting out its mobilization efforts, resulted in a rollback of Syrian forces all the way to Damascus and an ugly slaughter in South Lebanon the burned out eventually.

Thoughts and Plans
Using a nuclear warhead against an opponent who is not a major state and does not go to war with huge forces arrayed in the field becomes tricky, at least from this armchair warplanner's point of view. Psychological or political effects aside, many of the enemies faced on today's battlefields are dispersed irregulars - they don't line themselves up in nice, nukeable rows like a Soviet tank division.

Use this information in your planning as you see fit.

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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