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Nuclear War, what’s in it for you?

Updated: Mar 9

World War III. Thermonuclear War. Mutually Assured Destruction. There’s a whole lot to unpack, thanks to current events. Here’s a primer to help you navigate nuclear weapons systems, nuclear war strategy, the destructive power of nuclear weapons, and the impact of radiation on the human body—everything you need to know now that Cold War 2.0 is in full swing.

Castle Bravo nuclear detonation
Castle Bravo – test of America’s largest thermonuclear bomb -15 megatons

It’s been nearly 30 years since the first Cold War ended, and about that long since the average person thought about Nuclear War. That all ended several days ago when Russia invaded Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin recklessly began rattling his nuclear saber, threatening a nuclear response if NATO intervenes.


As should be expected, American, British, and French leaders and military chiefs of staff were calm and deliberately stated they were not raising the readiness of their nuclear forces and were not taking Putin’s threat seriously. When questioned by a reporter if he was worried about Putin’s threat, President Biden stated, “NO!” Why was the President so certain in his statement? Because 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and year after year, a significant portion of our US nuclear triad of land-based Minuteman III ballistic missiles, B2 and B52 bombers, and Ohio class ballistic missile submarines are on alert, ready to execute all-out thermonuclear war within minutes. The same is true of our British and French nuclear allies. We don’t have to threaten Mr. Putin with our nuclear sword. It is always at the ready. We know this, and Vladimir Putin knows this.


Let’s put rationality aside for a moment and examine what would happen if Mr. Putin is deranged enough to actually “turn” the key and start World War III. What would happen? How would you be affected? Before I answer the question “Nuclear war, what’s in it for me?” let’s begin with an update on the world’s forces and US and Russian nuclear forces in particular. Then we’ll turn to nuclear warfighting strategy, the destructive effects of a nuclear detonation, and the impact of fallout and radiation on the human body. We’ll wrap up with a nuclear war scenario and its aftermath.

In case you missed it: Energy has been a major factor in the current crisis:

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Russian and US Nuclear Forces

Nine nuclear-capable nations possess 13,080 nuclear warheads and the weapons systems to deliver them. As the graphic shows, Russian and US nuclear forces dwarf the rest of the world with 5,550 US and 6,257 Russian warheads, respectively.

Estimated Global Nuclear Warhead Inventories
Global nuclear warhead inventories (source: www.armscontrol.org)

The START II treaty between Russia and the US limited both sides to 1550 deliverable strategic warheads out of their larger pool of nuclear weapons. China is the third-largest nuclear power with 350 warheads and plans to expand its arsenal to 1,000 by 2030.


Nuclear arsenals are divided into two basic categories based on destructive power measured in tons of conventional TNT chemical explosive strength.

  • Strategic Nuclear Weapons: 300 to 1000 kiloton warheads capable of leveling entire cities and destroying hardened military targets. Strategic nuclear weapons are carried on long-range weapons platforms, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), able to strike global targets

  • Tactical Nuclear Weapons: 3 to 20 kiloton warheads delivered by short or intermediate range weapons platforms. Tactical nuclear weapons are typically used against military targets on an active battlefield, like Ukraine for example

As a point of reference, the first atomic bombs, code-named Fat Man and Little Boy used to destroy Nagasaki and Hiroshima, were about the same size as today’s tactical nuclear weapons, 15 kilotons. Strategic weapons are 20x to 100x more powerful than those early atomic bombs. Since strategic weapons are most likely to be used to destroy cities and other civilian targets, let’s take a deeper look at US and Russian strategic nuclear forces.


The US strategic nuclear forces structure, the nuclear triad:

The US strategic nuclear forces structure
The US strategic nuclear forces structure
  • Fixed Land-Based Force: 400 Minuteman III land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) in hardened silos, each carrying a single warhead

  • Submarine Based Force: 12 Ohio Class Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs), each carrying up to 24 Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). Each Trident missile can deploy up to 8 thermonuclear MIRV warheads (Multiple Independently Targetable re-entry Vehicle), equating to 200 warheads per submarine. Roughly 8 SSBNs are on station at all times.

  • Bomber Force: 20 B2 Spirit deep penetration bombers carrying up to 16 B61 or B83 gravity bombs. 46 nuclear-capable B-52H “stand-off” bombers carrying 20 AGM86D air-launched nuclear cruise missiles (ALCM)

The Russian strategic nuclear force structure, the modified triad:

The Russian strategic nuclear force structure
The Russian strategic nuclear force structure
  • Fixed Land-Based Force: 46 R-36M Satan MIRV ICBMs carrying 10 warheads each, 100 SS-17 Topol ICBMs carrying one warhead a piece, and 14 RS-24 MIRV ICBMs carrying 4 warheads apiece

  • Mobile Land-Based Force: 135 RS-24 mobile MIRV carrying 4 warheads a piece and 18 SS-17 Topol Mobile ICBMs carrying one warhead a piece. Note: the US does not have a mobile land-based missile system

  • Submarine Force: 10 SSBNs – 7 older Project 667BDR Delta SSBNs carrying 20 MIRV R29 SLBMs carrying 4 warheads a piece and 3 Project 955 Borey SSBNs carrying 8 MIRV R30 Bulava SLBMs with carrying 6 warheads apiece. While the number is unpublished, we can assume at least half the SSBN force is deployed at all times.

  • Bomber Force: 55 turboprop TU-95 BEAR bombers carrying 16 Kh-55 nuclear cruise missiles (ALCM) and 11 TU-160 Blackjack bombers carrying 12 Kh-55 ACLMs. The entire Russian bomber force is configured as an airborne stand-off platform for nuclear cruise missiles. The Russians do not have a stealth penetration bomber like the US B2 or soon-to-deploy B21 Raider.

Russian and US tactical nuclear weapons (source: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists)
Russian and US tactical nuclear weapons (source: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists)

The final and most critical element tying any strategic force together is NC3, nuclear command, control, and communications. Both Russia and the US have extensive and highly redundant ground, air, and satellite NC3 systems. Early warning satellites combined with ground and sea-based radar systems provide the leaders of both countries accurate assessment of the size and likely targets of an attack within one or two minutes of launch.


Nuclear War Fighting Doctrine

First and foremost, the United States has always had a NO FIRST USE doctrine. The US nuclear Triad and NC3 are massively redundant, and the US can and will ride out the first wave of an enemy’s nuclear attack before delivering a proportional counter strike. The US Ballistic Missile Submarine Force, in particular, is nearly impossible to find and target, which is why the Russians have devoted over 700 tactical sea-launched nuclear weapons in an attempt to destroy them if we go to war. Our Minuteman III land-based missile act as a sacrificial target for the enemy’s first strike. Even then, in their hardened silos, the Minuteman IIIs can survive a near miss, forcing the enemy to double target US land-based missiles to ensure this potent force is destroyed. Most US bomber and submarine forces would survive this first strike to launch a proportional counterstrike.

NC3 – Nuclear Command Control and Communications (source: Breaking Defense)
NC3 – Nuclear Command Control and Communications (source: Breaking Defense)

While cities close to military installations would be destroyed in a first strike, the sheer size of US and Russian forces require both sides to target each other’s weapons systems, not population centers, at the onset of hostilities. Proportionally striking an enemy’s strategic weapons is called counterforce nuclear targeting. Along with a no-first-use policy, counterforce nuclear targeting is a fundamental principle of US nuclear deterrence strategy. The US leadership would assess an attack, launch a proportional counterstrike, pause, and attempt to negotiate a ceasefire. The cycle of strikes and counter strikes would continue until a ceasefire is negotiated or one side prevails over the other.


Population centers would eventually be targeted at some point in the strike/counterstrike cycle. As we will discuss later, once population centers become targets, the loss of human life becomes horrific. The entire point of deterrence is that nuclear war’s outcome is so horrible that starting the war can never be justified. The acronym MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, is used to describe the nuclear war capability between the US and Russia. It is an apropos acronym, as no sane person would start a nuclear war.


Countries with small nuclear arsenals have no hope of countering the US or Russian nuclear forces. Instead of counterforce targeting, they use a strategy of counter-value targeting. In other words, in the event of a nuclear war, a country like China or North Korea would attack US population centers to slaughter as many innocent civilians as possible from the start. While the US or Russia could easily destroy any other nuclear power, these smaller nuclear powers use the threat of counter-value targeting as deterrence against a first-strike attack.


A major concern for US military planners is that Vladimir Putin could change the former USSR’s policy of counterforce targeting and adopt a counter-value strategy at the onset of hostilities. If he did, he would be signing the death sentence for the entire Russian population and much of the US population.


What about missile defenses?

Both the US and Russia have a limited anti-missile capability, and both nations can defend against a rogue attack by a smaller nuclear power like North Korea. At best, these systems could defend against a coordinated strike of less than 100 nuclear warheads. Even then, missile defenses are less than 100% effective, some warheads would make it through.


Given the costs and limitations of missile defense, the US and Russia entered into the ABM, Anti-Ballistic Missile, treaty in the 1990s. The ABM treaty expired in 2002, however, both countries voluntarily remain in rough compliance even today.


MAD, the threat of total annihilation, not missile defense, remains the best deterrent against nuclear war.


Physical Effects of a Nuclear Detonation

Nuclear weapons are used agast targets in two ways:

  • Air Burst: The warhead is detonated 100M to 1Km above the target to create a large shock wave. Air burst is used against cities and non-hardened targets to maximize the area of destruction. Air bursts create very little nuclear fallout.

  • Ground Burst: The warhead is detonated on the surface or, in the case of penetration bombs, below the ground creating a significant crater and nuclear fallout. Ground bursts are used against hardened military targets like nuclear missile silos or NC3 command centers like Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station in Wyoming

So, what are the effects of a nuclear weapon on a city? As noted, cities are generally targeted using air burst detonations, so let’s limit our discussion to the impact of an air burst weapon using an 800 kiloton Russian warhead delivered by Topol land-based missile on Washington DC. Note: Simulations in the paper are based on Alex Wellerstine’s NUKEMAP weapon simulation program.

800 Kiloton Airburst Nuclear detonation over Washington DC
800 Kiloton Airburst Nuclear detonation over Washington DC

2.5 million people live in the affected Washinton DC area of attack. The blast results in nearly 500,000 fatalities and an additional 800,000 injured. Many of the injured are burn and radiation victims who will eventually succumb to their injuries due to a lack of medicine and medical facilities. The blast’s center is the .9 km Fireball Radius, shown in deep yellow. Everything within the fireball radius is vaporized. A much larger 11 km Thermal Radiation Radius, shown in light yellow, defines the area where all unprotected individuals will receive 3rd-degree burns. The 6.5 km Moderate Blast Damage Radius, shown in gray, defines the region where the bomb overpressure exceeds 5psi. At 5 psi overpressure, most residential buildings collapse, injuries are universal, and fatalities are widespread. In addition, a firestorm is likely to engulf most of the area within the moderate blast damage radius. Finally, the Light Blast Damage Radius, where the bomb overpressure is 1psi, extends nearly 18km from the blast center (shown in light gray). Most glass windows will shatter at 1psi, resulting in significant injuries for anyone near a window. Overall the destructive effects in the light blast damage radius are similar to a Catagory 4/5 hurricane.

Radioactive fallout and radiation impact on humans

Radiation Exposure Human Impacts (source: offgridweb.com
Radiation Exposure Human Impacts (source: offgridweb.com

For those that survive the initial effects of the blast, the next challenge is minimizing the immediate exposure to radioactive fallout. Fallout consists of weapon debris, fission products, and in the case of a ground burst weapon, radiated soil. Fallout particles vary in size from thousandths of a millimeter to several millimeters. Much of the fallout material falls directly back down close to ground zero within several minutes after the explosion, but some travel high into the atmosphere. Fallout’s radiation hazard comes from radioactive fission fragments with half-lives of seconds to a few months. Areas that experience surface weapons strikes will have fallout radiation levels of 1000 rads per hour close to blast center falling to 1 rad per hour, 100 km away. In these areas, fallout exposure is more dangerous than the blast itself. For the survivors of a nuclear war, contamination from long-lived radioactive isotopes like strontium 90, iodine 131, or cesium 137 could represent a grave threat for as long as 1 to 5 years after the attack.


Potassium iodide (KI) tablets help protect the body from iodine-131 isotopes that are naturally absorbed by the human thyroid gland. Strontium-90 behaves like calcium in the human body and tends to deposit in bone and blood-forming tissue (bone marrow). Thus, strontium 90 is referred to as a “bone seeker,” and exposure will increase the risk for several diseases, including bone cancer, cancer of the soft tissue near the bone, and leukemia. Cesium 137 can cause burns, acute radiation sickness, and even death. Internal exposure to Cs-137, through ingestion or inhalation, allows the radioactive material to be distributed in the soft tissues, especially muscle tissue, exposing these tissues to beta particles and gamma radiation and increasing cancer risk.


Except for strontium 90, iodine 131, or cesium 137, most of the radioactive fallout, most of the fallout radioactive elements have half-lives of seconds to minutes. Within 48 hours of a nuclear blast, the radioactive hazard of fallout decreases by a factor of 100. It is critical to shelter in place and minimize fallout exposure for two days minimum, with two weeks recommended if at all possible.


Survivors must limit their radiation exposure to avoid ARS, Acute Radiation Syndrome (aka. radiation sickness). Human radiation exposure is measured in REM (roentgen equivalent man), the body’s exposure of 1 rad of radiation. The onset ARS begins within two days of exposure and usually presents with nausea, vomiting, fatigue, hair loss, and even loss of consciousness at higher doses. Here is a summary of REM exposure and expected health impacts from the CDC:

  • 0.62 REM – normal dose of radiation a typical person receives in a year

  • 1.0 REM - Dose received during a typical CT (Computerized Tomography) scan

  • 50 REM - Dose that causes damage to blood cells

  • 100 REM – The lowest dose that could cause ARS - acute radiation syndrome.Risk for getting cancer moves from 22% to 27%

  • 400 REM - Dose that results in death for 50% of those who receive it

  • 1000 REM - Dose that results in death for 100% of those who receive it

Radiation is invisible. Unless you have a Geiger counter, you have no way of knowing what the rad levels are in your area. If, for any reason, after the blast, you lived in an area with 100 rad per hour fallout radiation, 4 hours of outdoor work would give you a 50% chance of getting ARS. Two weeks later, the radiation level would fall to the 1 to 2 rad level.


The logic behind sheltering in place rather than evacuation is simple. Evacuation would leave you exposed during the fallout period. Better to take your chances in shelter than face certain death by ARS from radiation exposure.


So how could a nuclear war break out? Here is a hypothetical scenario.


Example Nuclear War Scenario

The Ukrainians, aided by the flow of US and NATO arms through Poland, continue to inflict heavy losses on the Russians. While Ukrainian fatalities exceed 35,000 soldiers and civilians, Russian fatalities have surpassed 15,000. It is clear the war will grind on for years, not months, and Putin is facing a new Afghanistan situation. Further, the west’s ever-ratcheting sanctions are bringing the Russian economy to the brink of collapse. Vladimir Putin’s grip on power is teetering. Putin must stem the flow of weapons from the west and decapitate the Ukrainian President and leadership in order to turn the tide in his favor. Conventional arms are not working.

Lviv, Ukraine, 15 kiloton airburst strike, 80k fatalities, 100k injured
Lviv, Ukraine, 15 kiloton airburst strike, 80k fatalities, 100k injured

Putin orders a limited tactical nuclear strike, hoping to force the US and NATO to negotiate or, at the least, stop the flow of arms and eliminate Ukrainian leadership. He chooses a limited tactical nuclear strike package of eight targets, including the Rzeszów-Jasionka Airport in Poland, a primary logistics center for NATO weapons, the logistics and refuge staging area at the Korczowa border Crossing, and Lviv, where President Zelensky and the Ukrainian Cabinet are rumored to have relocated.


While some Cabinet members are in Lviv at the time of the strike, President Zelensky is inspecting the northern front near Belarus. In a twist of fate, Vice President Kamala Harris and 2000 US Army Rangers arrived at the Rzeszów-Jasionka Airport in Poland and died of immediate blast effects. The most tragic strike is at the Korczowa border Crossing, where over 100,000 fatalities of unprotected and exposed refuges immediately succumb to the blast effects and, within a few days of ARS, Acute Radiation Syndrome.


The Russians use the “hotline” to negotiate with their US counterparts and are informed, per US deterrence policy, “We will first respond with a proportional counterstrike, then we will entertain negotiations. The President wanted to ensure President Putin was aware that his limited strike just killed Vice President Harris.”


In less than an hour, an angered, but cool-headed President Biden responds with a proportional counter strike. Minsk, the capital of Belarus, is hit, eliminating Russian puppet leader Alexander Lukashenko and his cabinet. Two additional Russian staging areas are also targeted within Belarus, effectively eliminating the Russian army’s northern front. The remaining tactical strikes take out Russian troop concentrations on the battlefronts around Kyiv, the port of Odesa, and Zaporizhzhia. The strike effectively eliminated the Russian army in Ukraine for all practical purposes. Putin just lost Ukraine.


With the first limited strike and proportional counterstrike ended, President Biden, now transferred to AIR FORCE ONE, requested his communications officer to establish a call on the hotline. While he waited, the President felt a sharp pain in his temple, let out a brief yelp of pain, and slumped dead over his desk. The stress of the last hour induced a massive stroke. President Putin was on the line, but it was impossible for Air Force One communications team to raise the next office in line for the Presidency, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) accepted the call and requested Russia and the US pause all hostilities for 24 hours. A cooling-off period.


Putin demands to talk directly to the President. The Chairman of the JCS informs President Putin that President Biden and President Harris are dead and that Nancy Pelosi is the Commander and Chief. Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin, a gambler and an opportunist believing the US was leaderless and knowing he faced defeat in Ukraine, made up his mind. He would launch a full first strike against the US, and NATO nuclear powers, the UK and France.


Within minutes of being sworn in as President, Nancy Pelosi received word that the Russians had launched a full-scale first strike. It was a knockout strike targeting Washington DC, the Airforce Minuteman III bases, all major US naval bases, UK nuclear forces, French nuclear forces, and most major NATO bases. As it turns out, history would remember Nancy Pelosi as one very tough, very decisive President. Rather than lose her 400 Minuteman III, she agreed to use all of them in counterstrike along with a full complement of one Ohio Class SSBNs Trident II missile load. The UK and France launched uncoordinated strikes to add to the carnage.


Within the span of a single hour, the first strike resulted in 70 million fatalities, 150 million injured, and 100 cities and towns located near military bases destroyed. The US and Russia took the brunt of the attack. Moscow, London, Paris, and Washington DC lay in ruins. The US still retained a significant second-strike capability. The Russians did not.

London, UK, 800 kiloton airburst strike, >900k fatalities,  >2.25m injured
London, UK, 800 kiloton airburst strike, >900k fatalities, >2.25m injured

President Pelosi attempted to negotiate a strategic pause with President Putin. An enraged and seemingly deranged Putin lashed out at President Pelosi then hung up the hotline. She advised the Joint Chiefs to prepare for the worst and have a set of options on the table to counter any Russian move.


Key members of the Russian military, realizing they faced certain annihilation if Putin were not stopped, staged a coup. It was too late. Putin had already ordered a second strike at US and NATO major population centers – it could not be recalled. The Russian Strategic Forces could only muster a 100 warhead second strike at the time, but the damage to major cities was horrendous.

You would think North Korea, China, and Iran would avoid being drawn into this fight at all costs. Iran at least understood that discretion is the better part of valor. China and North Korea did not. China, wanting the US out of the pacific, permanently staged tactical nuclear strikes on all three US Pacific Carrier Battle Groups but only managed to destroy one. The North Koreans launched a limited strike against Japan. Japan’s US-designed Aegis seaborn missile defense system shot down all but one of the North Korean missiles. Tokyo lay in ruins.

Tokyo, Japan 400 kiloton airburst strike,  700k fatalities,  2.6m injured
Tokyo, Japan 400 kiloton airburst strike, 700k fatalities, 2.6m injured

The US didn’t hesitate, targeting North Korea and a broad list of strategic Chinese targets in the second counter strike package against Russia. The second counterstrike ended North Korea as a functioning nation, destroyed 90% of the Chinese Strategic Force, and completely knocked Russia out of the war. A lower-level Russian general opened the hotline, and President Pelosi accepted Russia’s unconditional surrender. Only China remained in the fight.


President Xi launched the remaining 25 ICBMs in his arsenal. Each ICBM aimed at the 25 largest cities in the US, which was an incredibly poor choice in strategic targeting. The Russians had already these cities in their second strike. The Chinese strike was ineffective, adding little to the destruction and fatalities in place. The US second counterstrike on China was highly effective and disproportional. China’s 150 largest cities lay in ruin with the added benefit of permanently removing Primeir Xi and much of the Communist Party.


The US second strike on China effectively ended the Third World War. The western powers had won, but it is hard to call the win a victory. Everyone loses in an all-out nuclear war.


Aftermath – Among the Dead Cities

Within a year of the cessation of hostilities, the US and NATO suffered a 50% population loss. Roughly a third of their arable land remained contaminated. The destroyed city centers would remain uninhabitable for several hundred years. The situation in China and Russia was far worse. Losses exceeded 75% of the population, much of it due to starvation.


The rest of the world suffered too. Fallout propelled into the stratosphere encircled the globe, raising general radiation levels and creating weather-induced radioactive hotspots and resulting fatalities. Like the reduction of global temperatures from the massive Krakatoa volcanic eruption in 1883, the fallout injected into the stratosphere by thousands of nuclear detonations caused a mild “nuclear winter.” The global temperature dropped an average of 2 deg Celcius, reducing crop yields by over 20%, adding another billion deaths to the nearly 2 billion directly killed in the war.


Average life expectancy was reduced by nearly 20 years due to elevated radiation exposure. Almost everyone died of cancer. Congenital disabilities, miscarriages, and infant death increased by a factor of 20x. Persistently high rates of suicide, depression, and post-traumatic stress added to the misery. Random violence and lawlessness were a problem in some areas until civil authority was reestablished, oftentimes by force.


Now reduced to the economic output of third world countries, it would take over thirty years for the US and NATO allies to recover. A period similar to the reconstruction of Japan and Germany after World War II. President Pelosi did not run for reelection. Having lost all of her family in the conflagration, she felt it was time for new leadership. The old political parties ceased to exist. A new American Reconstruction Party emerged, a party leading from the political center. It was going to be a long recovery.


Nuclear war, What’s in it for you? We can answer this in a single word – MISERY!


Reading this hypothetical scenario is very sobering. It should be! Let’s hope cooler heads prevail in our leadership. Till then, we have to soldier on and live our lives.


Actor Slim Pickens, riding an A-Bomb from Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy “Dr. Strangelove or how I quit worrying and learned to love the bomb”
Actor Slim Pickens, riding an A-Bomb from Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy “Dr. Strangelove or how I quit worrying and learned to love the bomb”


Additional Sources

In case you missed it: Energy has been a major factor in the current crisis:

blog - 2022 Predictions - Energy

If you are interested in learning more, here are several sources used as sources for this blog:

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