Exposing the U.S. Nuclear War Plan A Time for Change
Based on The U.S. Nuclear War Plan: A Time for Change, a June 2001 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
NRDC's nuclear war simulation provides an open, independent assessment of the U.S. nuclear war plan, and shows it is a Cold War relic in need of major reform.
From movies like Dr. Strangelove and War Games to folk anthems like Dylan's "Masters of War," Cold War pop culture is full of chilling depictions of nuclear war planners at their secret arithmetic. The disturbing truth is that the real American war plan for attacking Russia -- the SIOP, or Single Integrated Operational Plan -- has always been shrouded in impenetrable secrecy. The plan exerts enormous influence over weapons programs and arms control debates, yet is beyond the reach of all but a handful of military planners. Even presidents have been largely unable to influence it.
The NRDC nuclear war plans project uses a computer simulation to reveal what nuclear conflict would look like if it occurred today. The project shows that while the Cold War is long over, American nuclear war plans have hardly changed at all. The war plan still requires some 2,600 warheads to be on alert and trained on Russian targets at all times.
NRDC's simulation will allow those outside of the "nuclear priesthood" to examine the nuclear war planning process. The result of that open analysis, we believe, should be the elimination of SIOP in its current form -- a giant step that permits deeper nuclear arms reductions and a less risky global future.
The SIOP War Plan
More than a decade after the end of the Cold War, both the United States and Russia maintain vast nuclear arsenals. The United States still has 550 ICBMs -- long-range missiles that can reach Moscow in a half an hour -- stored in silos throughout the West. A single U.S. nuclear submarine carries up to 192 warheads and could kill or maim about a third of Russia's population, some 50 million people. The United States has 18 of these submarines. All told, the explosive power of America's nuclear warheads is 100,000 times greater than the single Hiroshima bomb. And our nuclear war plan keeps many of these weapons on hair-trigger alert.
Since the Eisenhower administration, the SIOP war plan has dictated how U.S. nuclear forces would be used in a war. With broad guidance from the president, the secretary of defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the staff of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) works out the inscrutably complex details of the plan. It is STRATCOM that designs and maintains the list of targets for nuclear attacks.
The targets war planners identify include Russian nuclear bases and other military targets, urban industrial targets, and leadership headquarters. Using sophisticated computer programs, planners calculate how hard each target will be to destroy and how many nuclear weapons should be assigned to it. They take a large number of variables into account -- the explosive power of different weapons, how resistant the target is to attack, the impact point, the proximity of civilians to the target, the choreography of many different types of weapons arriving at different times, and fallout patterns, among others. In Eisenhower's day the plan described simple one-blow massive attacks -- with projected fatalities approaching half a billion -- but over the years the plan has evolved into a more complex array of "attack options," including many smaller plans based on the controversial notion that it may be possible to fight a limited nuclear war.
The war plan looms large in the thinking of military and Pentagon planners. Dr. Bruce Blair, a nuclear-warfare expert and former Minuteman ICBM launch control officer, has said that the targeting process at the heart of SIOP "defines our procurement needs. It defines our policy toward deterrence and the way we frame the problem of deterrence generally." In other words, targeting choices determine how many weapons are "needed" and therefore drive weapons production and policy.
Because of the extreme secrecy that surrounds the war plan and its extraordinary complexity, the only people who really know what the SIOP is are the war planners themselves. In the past, when this tiny group has said it needs this bomb or that, or so many B-2 bombers, it has been difficult for anyone to question them. Even presidents -- who have final say over the use of nuclear weapons and keep the nuclear "football" containing SIOP launch codes and attack options with them at all times -- have only a superficial understanding of the consequences of an attack, according to a former head of STRATCOM, General George Butler.
And so the surreal business of planning for the apocalypse -- which involves the projected deaths of tens or hundreds of millions of people and the prospect of turning vast areas into radioactive wastelands -- continues to be conducted beyond the reach of public scrutiny, and is resistant to civilian efforts to gain oversight. It's hard not to think of Dr. Strangelove's crazed General Ripper saying, "Today, war is too important to be left to politicians."
NRDC's Nuclear War Simulation
NRDC's nuclear war plans project addresses the disparity between what war planners know and what they're willing to tell civilians. For the first time, a group outside the "nuclear priesthood" has fashioned an analytic tool that allows them to simulate nuclear war, assess the effects of the use of nuclear weapons, and arrive at their own well-supported conclusions regarding nuclear weaponry and war planning.
NRDC's nuclear war simulation uses high-speed computers, customized software, and declassified data to get close to duplicating the tools that SIOP planners use. NRDC has compiled its own databases of information on weapons, population, effects, and targets to recreate the most important calculations of nuclear war planning, and combined these databases with a vast quantity of data from open sources. This data includes commercial data on the Russian infrastructure, official arms control data on the structure of Russian nuclear forces, declassified U.S. documents, census and meteorological data, digital maps, satellite imagery, and information on the effects of nuclear weapons.
Using the simulation tool, NRDC analysts can select targets, choose warhead types and delivery systems, and design an attack. When the program is run, it produces a footprint of the attack in appalling detail: zones of destruction radiating out from ground zero, radiation doses to human tissue, crater dimensions, fallout dose rate, and the number of projected deaths.
What Nuclear War Looks Like
With the arms-reduction process at a standstill and the Bush administration pursuing a potentially destabilizing missile defense program, the insight NRDC's nuclear war plans project allows into the SIOP's grim blueprints is timely. The project's report, which presents analyses performed using the nuclear-war simulation tool, details two simulations of nuclear attacks on Russia -- a major "counterforce" attack against Russia's nuclear forces and a "countervalue" attack that uses a minimal arsenal to inflict severe damage on Russian cities.
The results are clear. A "precision" attack against Russia's nuclear forces -- with an arsenal of about 1,300 warheads -- would kill 8 to 12 million people and injure millions more, while destroying most of Russia's nuclear weapons. In a "countervalue" attack, the U.S. could kill or injure up to 50 million Russians with a mere 3 percent of its current arsenal of more than 7,000 strategic warheads. There is no such thing as a surgical nuclear strike; nuclear weapons are simply weapons of mass destruction, and their effects are complex, unpredictable, and ultimately uncontrollable.
Russia is a country on the brink of crisis, enduring widespread poverty, deteriorating healthcare and shortfalls in electricity, services and raw materials -- hardly the looming superpower of yesteryear.
In fact, a spate of recent disasters, including the sinking of the Kursk attack submarine, indicates that Russia may not even be capable of maintaining the nuclear technology and infrastructure it inherited from the Soviet Union. At a Russian nuclear submarine port in east Asia, sailors and civilians have been observed digging up the cables that connect sub communications to nuclear command headquarters and selling them to pay the bills.
Yet despite the disintegration of the Soviet empire, U.S. strategies for waging all-out nuclear war against Russia remain intact. "Russia's defense budget is currently about 3 percent of ours. When you come to appreciate that fact, you realize the U.S. is in possession of a vastly redundant arsenal," says NRDC nuclear researcher Robert S. Norris. "Sure, it's been reduced. But what we have now is basically Cold War Lite."
President Bush's decision to forge ahead with building a missile defense system -- in violation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty -- could destabilize the world's nuclear balance of power. In keeping with Cold War logic, a bolstered U.S. defense may well cause Russia to respond. And even if the United States radically reduces its nuclear arsenal, which is unlikely under the Bush administration, pouring billions of dollars into a missile defense system will give the U.S. what nuclear activists call an "aggressive nuclear posture" in the eyes of the world.
The United States has an overwhelming economic and military advantage over Russia. The two countries are no longer at ideological odds, and have no territorial ambitions on each other. But American nuclear war plans do not reflect this sea change. We continue to target Russia with nuclear weapons and devise options and plans for their use, a process that by its nature reduces Russia from flesh and blood to models and scenarios. President Bush has said that "today's Russia is not our enemy" -- but if words and actions are to correspond, major reforms of American nuclear war planning must be undertaken.
U.S. leaders should take the first step and scale down the arsenal to reduce the nuclear danger. It is NRDC's hope that this demonstration of the unimaginable destructive power still with us will create pressure to rethink the country's nuclear war planning policies.
A Time for Change
Through the use of personal computers, customized computer software, and unclassified databases, the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) is now able to model nuclear conflict and approximate the effects of the use of nuclear weapons. For the first time, this allows nongovernmental organizations and scholars to perform analyses that approximate certain aspects of the U.S. nuclear war plan known as the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP).
Initiated during the Eisenhower administration, the SIOP is the war plan that directs the employment of U.S. nuclear forces in any conflict or scenario, and is the basis for presidential decision-making regarding their use. The plan results from highly classified guidance from the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Joint Chiefs of Staff then set requirements for how much damage our nuclear warheads must achieve. Most of the requirements call on U.S. Strategic Command to target Russia, but China and other nations are also viewed as potential adversaries.
The SIOP's logic and assumptions about nuclear war planning influence U.S. national security policy, arms control strategy, and international politics. Though the Cold War has ended, and the SIOP has been through a number of reforms as forces have been reduced, it continues to dictate all matters concerning the U.S. preparations for nuclear war. It establishes mock nuclear war scenarios and requirements that shape U.S. negotiating positions in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) arms control process. The SIOP also determines what number of nuclear warheads must be kept at various alert levels.
As the SIOP is one of the most secret documents in the U.S. government, it is difficult to discover what the specific assumptions are upon which it rests. Congress has been powerless to influence the SIOP, and even presidents have only a superficial understanding of the process of nuclear war planning. The secrecy is ostensibly justified to protect certain characteristics about U.S. nuclear forces and warheads, various nuclear weapons effects information, and the specific targets chosen in Russia. But all of these data are known well enough today to provide a quite sophisticated approximation of the actual SIOP assumptions, and the effects of its various nuclear war scenarios. One of the most significant changes since the end of the Cold War has been the greater openness in Russia whereby a high quality database of nuclear, military, and industrial targets can be created using open sources.
Given the central role of the SIOP in national security, nuclear weapons, and arms control policy, NRDC decided to create a tool that will help the nongovernmental community assess nuclear war planning and its impacts. We have compiled our own databases of information on weapons, population, effects, and targets to recreate the most important calculations of nuclear war planning. We integrated an enormous quantity of data from open sources, including commercial data on the Russian infrastructure, official arms control data about the structure of Russian nuclear forces, declassified U.S. documents, census and meteorological data, U.S. and Russian maps and charts, U.S. government and commercial satellite imagery, and U.S. nuclear weapons effects data and software.
Using these resources, we developed a suite of nuclear war analysis models based upon the ESRI ArcView software program. From this model and a database of weapons and targets, we constructed and analyzed in detail two quite different scenarios of a possible nuclear attack on Russia:
- A major U.S. thermonuclear "counterforce" attack on Russian nuclear
forces. For this attack, we employed approximately 1,300 strategic warheads
using current U.S. weapons. We calculated the damage to these targets and
the resulting civilian deaths and injuries.
- A U.S. thermonuclear "countervalue" attack on Russian cities. For this attack, we used a "minimum" force (150 silo-based intercontinental ballistic missile warheads or 192 submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads). We assessed the ensuing civilian deaths and injuries.
Fighting Real Nuclear Wars: The ResultsWe used actual data about U.S. forces and Russian targets to approximate a major counterforce SIOP scenario. Our analysis showed that the United States could achieve high damage levels against Russian nuclear forces with an arsenal of about1,300 warheads -- less than any of the proposals for a START III treaty. According to our findings, such an attack would destroy most of Russia's nuclear capabilities and cause 11 to 17 million civilian casualties, 8 to 12 million of which would be fatalities.
Our analysis concluded that in excess of 50 million casualties could be inflicted upon Russia in a "limited" countervalue attack. That attack used less than three percent of the current U. S. nuclear forces, which includes over 7,000 strategic nuclear warheads.
One of the historic tenets of nuclear orthodoxy -- influential in inspiring the original SIOP -- was that countervalue attacks against cities and urban areas were "immoral" whereas counterforce attacks against Soviet (and later, Russian) nuclear forces were a better moral choice. The implied assumption and intent was that attacks could be directed against military targets while cities and civilian concentrations were spared. In reality, things are not so simple, nor can there be such pure isolation between civilian and military. Most difficult of all is to find moral benchmarks when it comes to the targeting of nuclear weapons.
Our analysis challenges that basic assumption. Even the most precise counterforce attacks on Russian nuclear forces unavoidably causes widespread civilian deaths due to the fallout generated by numerous ground bursts. While the intention to avoid civilian casualties is important and is probably included in the guidance, nuclear weapons by their nature live up to their billing as "Weapons of Mass Destruction." We saw this clearly in our simulation of a counterforce attack. We found the effects were complex and unpredictable and therefore uncontrollable from a war planner's perspective. These included such variables as the proximity of urban centers to military targets, whether the population was sheltered or not, and the speed and direction of the wind.
The point here is not to argue for attacking Russian cities or for attacking Russian forces as U.S. nuclear policy. But given the vast number of deaths that occur with the use of a few weapons, we have to ask why the U.S. nuclear forces need to be so large? If the United States can destroy Russia's standing forces and cause 11 to 17 million casualties in a counterforce attack, should not that be enough to "deter" any conceivable attack by Russia? To go a step further, if the United States went to a minimum force, it would still be able to cause upwards of 50 million casualties. That fact too should be enough to convince Russia or anyone not to use nuclear weapons against the United States.
In light of the findings from our computer simulation of the two nuclear scenarios, we are more convinced than ever that the basic assumptions about U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, and the possession of huge nuclear arsenals needs to be re-examined. The logic of the nuclear war plan expressed in the current SIOP ignores the grotesque results that would occur if the weapons were used. Those results need to be exposed.
What We Recommend
1. Unilaterally reduce U.S. nuclear forces and challenge Russia to do the same. The sole rational purpose for possessing nuclear weapons by the United States is to deter the use of nuclear weapons by another country. Recommendations for specialized arsenals to fulfill a variety of illusory roles for nuclear weapons are expressions of irrational exuberance. At this stage in the disarmament process, a U.S. stockpile numbering in the hundreds is more than adequate to achieve the single purpose of deterrence. Even that number, as we have seen, is capable of killing or injuring more than a third of the entire Russian population, and destroying most major urban centers.
2. Clarify the U.S. relationship with Russia and reconcile declaratory and employment policy. In his May speech at the National Defense University, President Bush said, "Today's Russia is not our enemy." That said, the United States has not yet decided whether Russia is our enemy or our friend, or something in between. The act of targeting defines an individual, a group, or a nation as an enemy. We continue to target Russia with nuclear weapons and devise options and plans for their use. The process itself reduces Russia from flesh and blood to models and scenarios, allowing the contradictory stance to continue. If our words and our actions are to correspond, it is obvious that major changes must take place in the way the United States postures its nuclear forces and plans for their use.
3. Abandon much of the secrecy that surrounds the SIOP and reform the process. Any discussion of U.S. nuclear policy and strategy is undermined by the fact that most of the details surrounding the SIOP are highly guarded secrets. Because of compartmentalization, only a very few have an understanding of the SIOP. The presidential and Pentagon guidance too is so closely held, that no one can question the assumptions or the logic. The nuclear war planning function now resident within U.S. Strategic Command has become a self-perpetuating constituency that needs fundamental reform. Much of the secrecy that surrounds the SIOP can be abandoned without any loss to national security. Therefore, a joint civilian-military staff, with Congressional involvement and oversight, should plan the use of nuclear weapons.
4. Abolish the SIOP as it is currently understood and implemented. Having a permanent war plan in place that demands widespread target coverage with thousands of weapons on high alert is a recipe for unceasing arms requirements by the Pentagon and a continuing competition with Russia and others. It is for this reason that we conclude that the over-ambitious war plan is a key obstacle to further deep arms reductions. The current SIOP is an artifact of the Cold War that has held arms reduction efforts hostage. It is time to replace it with something else.
5. Create a contingency war planning capability. Under new presidential guidance, the United States should not target any country specifically but create a contingency war planning capability to assemble attack plans in the event of hostilities with another nuclear state. This new paradigm would alleviate the requirement for possessing large numbers of weapons and eliminate the need for keeping those that remain on high levels of alert. This shift would also help break the mind-set of the Cold War. We are in agreement with President Bush when he says that we must get beyond the Cold War. We believe, however, that his approach is not the "clear and clean break with the past" that he says he wants. Instead, by assuming a wider range of uses for nuclear weapons, by making space a theater for military operations, and by considering new or improved nuclear warheads for a future arsenal, President Bush is offering more of the same.
6. Reject the integration of national missile defense with offensive nuclear deterrent forces. Current, worst-case SIOP planning demands that both the United States and Russia prepare for the contingency of striking the other first, though it is not stated U.S. or Russian declaratory policy. Introducing national missile defense, which invariably complements offensive forces, will exacerbate the problem. The technological challenges of national missile defense are formidable, the price tag enormous, and if deployed, will provoke a variety of military responses and countermeasures, leaving the U.S. less secure rather than more secure. China, for instance, has long had the ability to deploy multiple warheads on its ballistic missiles and has chosen not to do so. Currently only a small number, less than two dozen Chinese single-warhead missiles, can reach the United States. A guaranteed way to increase that number would be for the United States to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and to deploy a national missile defense system. Furthermore, national missile defenses would likely undermine opportunities for deeper reductions.