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Edited by Christian Lowe | Contact

Fun With Nuclear Targeting


My wing o' the blogosphere is all worked up over an article -- in Pat Buchanan's The American Spectator, of all places -- that claims the OVP wants to nuke Iran in the event of another 9/11 attack ... whether Tehran was involved or not:

The Pentagon, acting under instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney's office, has tasked the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM) with drawing up a contingency plan to be employed in response to another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States.

The plan includes a large-scale air assault on Iran employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons. Within Iran there are more than 450 major strategic targets, including numerous suspected nuclear-weapons-program development sites. Many of the targets are hardened or are deep underground and could not be taken out by conventional weapons, hence the nuclear option. As in the case of Iraq, the response is not conditional on Iran actually being involved in the act of terrorism directed against the United States.

Several senior Air Force officers involved in the planning are reportedly appalled at the implications of what they are doing--that Iran is being set up for an unprovoked nuclear attack--but no one is prepared to damage his career by posing any objections.

This particular statement may be exaggerated or flat out false. The author, Philip Giraldi, was a source on Sy Hersh's New Yorker article about attacking Iran. Giraldi loathes Cheney almost as much as I do, though from the opposite side of the spectrum.

Wargaming an attack on Iran has been the hot hobby for pundits since Saddam's toppled statue provided a denouement for Operation Iraqi Freedom (the flight-suit-on-aircraft-carrier action was more like the bloopers that run during the credits). Even James Fallows, writing for The Atlantic Monthly, got in on the act (with slides).

So, what's this got to do with DefenseTech?

Most discussions about target sets leave the impression that the decision to use a nuclear weapon here or there is a deeply rational business, with great care taken not just in the selection of each target, but also to ensure each nuclear weapon is really necessary. After all, if we are going to put a nuclear weapon on a tank factory sitting next to a grade school, you'd think that someone made a careful, anguished decision about the lesser of two evils in a morally ambiguous world.

You might think that, but you'd be wrong.

When General Lee Butler become head of STRATCOM in 1991, he did something very strange. He actually asked to look at each and every target, individually -- something no one else had ever done before:

In his first months at SAC, he personally undertook a painstaking review of the million lines of computer code that constitute the SIOP. For the first time, he saw in detail what happens when broad presidential guidance is translated into actual weapons aimed at actual targets, what he calls "climbing down the ladder of abstraction." He was appalled at what he found at the bottom rung.

For example, of the 12,500 targets in the SIOP at that time, one of them was slated to be hit by 69 consecutive nuclear weapons. It seems superfluous to say that this is crazy, but it is important to understand how the planning process could result in such a figure. At the level of a presidential directive, a document of a thousand words or so, you will have the reasonable-sounding requirement--if you're thinking about war-fighting at all--to, say, target the political and military leadership. That guidance goes to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which in a 15- or 20-page document called a NUWEP (for "nuclear weapons employment policy") adds some detail: for example, what sorts of leadership facilities should be targeted. The NUWEP then goes to the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which in hundreds of pages of a document called Annex C to the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan lists specific facilities to be struck and damage requirements to be met. Annex C then goes to STRATCOM, where the targetting staff figures out which weapons, and how many, to apply to each target to meet the required level of damage.


When I mentioned Butler's 69 weapons to Dr. Bruce Blair, a former Minuteman missileer and acknowledged expert on the operational aspects of nuclear warfighting now at the Brookings Institution, he found in his notes a statement by a high official at SAC in the late 1980s that the highest kill probability for the United States' best weapon against deeply buried, sprawling, hardened command posts was less than 5% (how they calculate this is a whole other matter, but the short answer is, they guess). Blair got out a calculator, assumed a kill probability of 4% for one weapon, and started multiplying. To attain a 50% confidence in destroying the target required 17 weapons. When Blair got up to 69 weapons, the "kill probability" had reached 94%.

The real issue here is that organizations abstract reality to manage it. That abstraction, James Scott pointed out in his book, Seeing Like A State, can produce disasterous consequences such as Soviet collectivization and the Maoist Great Leap Forward.

Most of us intuitively understand the inhumanity of bureaucracies - a perhaps necessary evil in the modern world. This understanding is why General Butler's narrative is so compelling -- a human being acheives a vantage point from which to survey the madness of an inhuman organization. It's Kafka and Joseph Heller in equal measures.

Only an organization would target 69 nuclear weapons on a single facility (later revealed to be the Sofrino missile defense radar) outside of Moscow in a strike designed to minimize "collateral damage". To take another example, STRATCOM calculates only blast damage from nuclear weapons. STRATCOM does not calculate the damage from any fires that would be ignited, even though such fires would be far more damaging than any blast effects. Why? Because fire damage is hard to calculate and, therefore, not real.

Which is where we get to the technology part.

Last fall, Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems & Solutions won a 10-year, $213 million contract "to develop the new architecture and functions" for the Integrated Strategic Planning and Analysis Network (ISPAN) -- STRATCOM's war planning system.

Although the details are classified, the contract website makes clear that the ISPAN doesn't change how STRATCOM does business. ISPAN does not address the fundamental myopia of "kitchen sink" target sets, artificial damage expectencies and rigid delivery schedules that encourage the President to use nuclear weapons before an adversary has time to take protective measures.

That's one reason to be worried about efforts by the OVP to plan to strike Iran -- not because there has been a policy decision to execute the plan (there has not), but because nuclear war planning continues to define the President's options in ways that alienate him from the execution.

--posted by Jeffrey Lewis


As a submariner formerly involved in D5 missile fire control, I will say that the comment from user 'chasmains' is interesting.

Of interesting side note is the recent massive OPLAN 8044 restructuring. Maybe one day the U.S. will decide to deploy maneuverable and/or KEP-type RBs? It's about time for the Trident NGG.

P.S. -

Posted by: Greg Krsak at December 14, 2005 12:43 PM

I stumbled on this blog looking for radiation detector sellers. When I saw the discussion about the 69 nuclear weapons and the radar site, it brought back memories of my tours of duty at JSTPS and my direct involvement in the targeting of just such sites. At that time, up to 1990, we were still hampered by intelligence information deficiencies of all such installations. We knew that the Soviets had installed defensive systems around Moscow. We knew where and we had some estimate of how many missiles they could launch in defense at a maximum. We did not know how fast a reload could be made so we had to take the conservative approach. There were several sites and each had several launchers. So, if you needed to go after senior Soviet military and political leadership to shut down a nuclear war, Moscow was primarily where you would had to go. The real and basic question to the targeting staff: What weight of effort do we commit against the Moscow defensive network? You estimate their capabilities to be the best possible, and your own weapon system probabilities to be the weakest, fully utilizing your own tested ICBM/SLBM/Bomber reliabilities. You then apply these against intelligence estimates of their defensive success against attack. The result of this approach is a pretty high number of weapons on a particular target to knock it out for sure. At that point, you can more assuredly get to the guys you wanted in the first place, the political and military leadership (who, by the way, are launching all of their ICBMs, SLBMs and bombers at undefended US targets, one of which is sure to be near your home and family). (This is where the emotional part is factored in.)

We JSTPS members were just people who spent every day of our tours thinking about how to wage the most effective war against our strongest ever adversary. We developed a unified war plan with a broad spectrum weapons asset list to use, and we assessed the intelligence estimates conservatively. We knew our efforts would determine if our country would survive better off than theirs. We always hoped that it would not come to full scale nuclear war, and it looks like it won't now. But there were questionable times during that era from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the fall of the Wall. Anyone can second guess anyone else. But I am secure in my belief that we did our job well to forestall potentially the worst period in human history.

We always evaluated human losses of all our war plans, both theirs and our own. But it is not peculiar that there are always civilian people around tank factories, military bases, and missile fields. Families and infrastructure support people are always present. Most people never live very far away from their livelihoods. Reprehensible as it may be, there are plenty of politicians who willingly cause their tank factories to be built next to the hospital, the mosque/church, or the elementary school, just so we will have to deal with the moral dilema. Besides, how do you avoid killing people when some of those people are the real threat. An ICBM won't launch unless someone maintains the missile and someone else executes the launch sequence. As we move to computers and unmanned weapon systems it is getting to be a grayer area but it is still the shooter who we have to go after.

Posted by: chasmains at August 23, 2005 11:27 AM

Contrary to a common misconception repeated in your post, fire damage would not exceed or even match blast damage from a thermonuclear weapon detonated in or over a modern American or Russian city. That this is the opinion of the vast majority of experts in the field is even admitted in the article you referenced, though the admission is grudgingly phrased and buried deep in their article. Mass fires are wildly unlikely in such an event, and a "firestorm" even more so. That blast is far and away the primary damaging effect of an air or near-surface burst is the most important reason that fire calculations are not bothered with.
You should know better than to rely on an article so obviously full of errors and inaccuracies, from a source known for over-the-top statements. Exaggerating the already dire effects of thermonuclear weapons only serves to make opponents of nukes sound shrill.

Posted by: robur at July 25, 2005 11:03 PM

I suspect that the US has quietly informed both Iran and North Korea that if we get hit with any WMD that can be traced back to them then we will consider it an attack by them on the US. Similar to Kennedy's statement about nukes launched from Cuba is an attack by the Soviet Union on the US.

Which would result in a full retaliatory response.

Posted by: ted at July 24, 2005 09:31 PM

When trading the markets with computers, we learn to follow statistics and not our gut. If the numbers are properly derived and statistically robust, the wisest course of action is to follow them. I rue the days I didn't.

Posted by: a.Commenter at July 24, 2005 07:20 PM

I sereously doubt the US would nuke anybody even Iran unless we were attacked with WMD's ourselves. I would guess that this "leak" if it is a leak would be more along the lines of phycological warefare. After all what kept the cold war cold for 50+ years colde was not the Soviets change of heart it was the simple fact that they knew that if they or any of thier proxies attacked us with WMD we would retaliate with overwhelming WMD I believe it was called MAD (mutual assured distruction) now one could say MAD would have no basis with Islamic Radicals and that maybe ture with the bomers but the Imams and leadership (humans that are just as corrupt and flawed as our leaders) usually surrender when the time comes. The point, they value thier lives and thier families, the thought of US counter strike widespread on the terrorist supporting nations (Iran would definately qualify cough Hezbollah, Hamas, ect.. also would be Soudi Arabia cough Wahabism, Pakistan cough Madrassa's, Syria Hamas) would make those leaders think twice about helping those same terrorist make a WMD attack on the US hell they may even stop them if they got word of such attack (and they have a world more intell on these terrorist than we could even dream of having) nothing else they may just drop a dime on such a group if for nothing else to try to help advert the MAD responce. Although for this instance the MAD should be renamed maybe AAED (absolute assured enemy distuction)because on the terrorist best day they may kill one even two US cities couple of million civilians but the day after the retaliation will be unworldly and the Muslim population will be devastated. After all the oil is deep underground and will survive even thou the people wont.

Besides we can decide if to follow though on the contingent plan after the fact and if then with a million burnt shadows in NY and couple hundred thousand new cancer patients with 10 yrs life left all hollering vengence you can explain why the Islamic Radicals that preach hate to 10yr olds in Madrasasas and send those same 15yr olds to make suicide runs on the Infedels should be spared after all were is the "smokin gun" right???

Those innocent muslims everyone speaks of should lay down everynight and pray to allah that the great Infedel, big satan, capalist pigs whatever do win this war on terrorism because it is a simple fact that at some point the terrorist if left alone to grow like cancer will get some type of WMD wether nuke (doubtfull) or Chem-Bio(very likely) and they use them those innocent muslims will be in the same basket with radicals and they will all learn why thier ancestors called our ancestors "barbarians".

Posted by: C-Low at July 24, 2005 04:09 PM


What gives with these comments?

The important pasrt of the post is the idea that if some new McVey decides to blow up the Alamo as a protest at Mexican immigration the USAF will nuke Iran!

Does anyone have any confirmation on the story yet from other sources? If confirmed, then surely Cheney has to step down. Who needs a paranoid nutcase in the chain of command?

Regards, C

Posted by: Cernig at July 24, 2005 01:21 PM

Hi -

It's pretty apparent to me that you need to go and read Kahn's Thinking The Unthinkable.

And then go read his Rethinking The Unthinkable.

Because you don't really seem to have thought this one out: uncertainty in nuclear war planning is a fundamental, yet you seem to think that any plan needs to take into account all possible effects of any attack: these are things that are not quantifiable. And "kitchen sink" target sets indicates to me that you don't understand what SIOP is and represents: if you think that SIOP in and of itself is a bad idea, come on out and say so.

But don't hide such a critique inside of snarky complaining about how you think SIOP is being badly implemented.

And yes, I will take some time to critique this post on my blog.

Posted by: John F. Opie at July 24, 2005 10:14 AM

Nuclear bombs keep on falling on Iraq since the early 90's, their children and God will never forget us for this.

Posted by: Abdel at July 23, 2005 11:45 PM

>> After all, if we are going to put a nuclear weapon on a tank factory sitting next to a grade school, you'd think that someone made a careful, anguished decision about the lesser of two evils in a morally ambiguous world.

I once had a chance to talk about this stuff with an ex-USAF colonel who spent a couple of years on the JSTPS. When it came to civilian casualties, he said that the mantra was "Neither target nor avoid."

So if the grade school happened to be next to the tank plant where the moms and dads worked, well, them's the breaks.

Posted by: Allen Thomson at July 23, 2005 04:56 PM


Pat Buchanan's magazine is the American Conservative [sic], not the American Spectator. Oddly enough, as a conservative, I love reading AmSpec, but AmCon is horrid stuff.


Posted by: bbbeard at July 23, 2005 02:08 PM

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