Nuclear Darkness

Nuclear Weapons in the U.S. and Russia

  • High-Alert Nuclear Weapons and Launch-on-Warning Capability
  • Accidental Nuclear War Caused by Terrorism
  • Is it possible to have a reliable defense against a nuclear attack?
  • Can the population be protected in a nuclear attack?

The contents of this section have been copied and adapted (as well as supplemented) from the ISANW publication, "Facts About Nuclear Weapons".


High-Alert Nuclear Weapons and Launch-on-Warning Capability

See "No Launch On Warning"

The U.S. and Russia keep hundreds of missiles armed with thousands of nuclear warheads on high-alert, ready to launch with only a few minutes warning.  High-alert status permits the launch a retaliatory nuclear strike before the arrival of a perceived nuclear attack.

Early Warning Systems (EWS), high-alert nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, and nuclear command and control systems, all working together, provide the U.S. and Russia the capability to Launch-on-Warning.

When Early Warning Systems warn of an impending nuclear attack, then decisions have to be made very quickly because the flight times of the missiles are very short.  30 minutes or less are required for a nuclear-armed land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) to travel between the U.S. and Russia and vice versa; 15 minutes or less for a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) to reach its target.

Thus, once the attack is detected, evaluated and passed up the chain of command, the U.S. and Russian president would have at most 12 minutes to make the decision to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike before the arrival of the perceived attack.

In the event an attack is believed to be real, the president must decide whether or not to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike before the arrival of the perceived attack is confirmed by nuclear detonations.  To launch a retaliatory nuclear strike based only upon electronic information derived from Early Warning Systems is to Launch-on-Warning.  If the perceived warning turns out to be false but a retaliatory nuclear strike has already been launched, then accidental nuclear war will have occurred.

The US and Russia are the only two nations believed to have the capacity to carry out Launch-on-Warning (they both have nuclear C3I systems connected to their nuclear weapon systems which  enable them to carry out LoW).

Accidental Nuclear War Caused by Terrorism

Under Launch-on-Warning policy, a false warning due to human error, technical error or terrorist sabotage can result in accidental nuclear war. 

Terrorists could carry out two forms of attacks which could cause a mistaken retaliatory launch using Launch-on-Warning policy.  First, terrorists could create the illusion of an impending nuclear attack.  They could do so by spoofing radar or satellite sensors of Early Warning Systems to imitate a nuclear attack.  This could also be accomplished by introducing computer viruses or software that mimic a full-scale nuclear attack into Early Warning System computers or computers which compromise the nuclear command and control systems.

Rather than create the illusion of an attack, terrorists could also gain access to high-alert nuclear weapons.  They could launch these weapons if they obtain launch codes and access to the command and control systems, or physical control of a weapon system

If the nuclear weapon states would eliminate the policy of Launch-on-Warning, accidental nuclear war based upon a false warning would be prevented (see Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation, )

Is it possible to have a reliable defense against a nuclear attack?

Nuclear weapons can arrive at their targets in all manner of ways.  Weapons do not have come via missiles or strategic bombers, they can be smuggled across borders and arrive in a commercial airliner, a ship or truck.  A bomb can be exploded in the harbor of a nation before it is even taken ashore.  Even the most vicious police state will be hard-pressed to prevent nuclear weapons from entering its territory.
However, since most nuclear weapons in the US and Russia are mounted on some form of missile, the focus for years has been how to defend against a missile attack. Despite decades of research and tens of billions of dollars of expenditures, it has proven virtually impossible to construct a defense system which can reliably detect and shoot down missiles which travel faster than a speeding bullet.

Simple defensive measures, such as employing decoys which resemble warheads, are enough to overwhelm and defeat even the latest versions of missile defense.  US missile defense systems also have extremely limited capabilities in terms of the numbers of missiles which they could engage (even if they had 100% assurance of destroying each target, which they do not).  A single failure of such a system would likely result in the deaths of millions of people

Deploying and expanding these systems has historically only added fuel to an arms race which causes the deployment of more opposing missiles and the development of new technologies designed to overcome any defensive measures.  Furthermore, missile defense systems are often seen by the opposing side as a form of offensive weapon designed to “mop-up” any missiles which would survive a nuclear first-strike.

Thus missile defense systems have tended only to increase the danger and likelihood of nuclear war.  This was the reason that the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was negotiated between the US and the Soviet Union in 1972 – both nations saw that there was no way to “win” by deploying ABM systems. 

As of 2008, there is no reliable defense against even a limited missile attack.

Can the population be protected in a nuclear attack?

It is virtually impossible to protect any population from a nuclear attack with even a single nuclear weapon.  Once a weapon is detonated, those inside the fire zone will not survive the ensuing firestorm, even if they are in a deep basement or underground shelter. Since the firestorm requires only tens of minutes to develop and create air temperatures well above the boiling point of water, along with hurricane force winds which drive the flames horizontally at ground level, there is virtually no time to escape. Strategic nuclear weapons create firestorms over total areas of hundreds or thousands square kilometers or miles.

Those outside the firestorm and downwind from radioactive fallout would need to be in underground shelters stocked with enough food and water to last for about one to three weeks, since it would take that much time before the radioactivity levels come down to levels low enough to preclude immediate sickness or death. 

However, in a large nuclear war, deadly climate change would cause average surface temperatures on Earth to become so cold that it would become impossible to grow food crops for many years.  Even those who escaped the initial fire, blast and radioactivity would eventually starve to death.