Nuclear attack scenario

We have a sophisticated nuclear defense system, but it is primarily a missile defense system. Suppose a nuclear state with commercial flights to the U.S. uses a commercial airliner refitted as a bomber flying on a filed flight plan on a regular commercial route. Let’s say the destination is Washington Dulles. Coming from the east, that flight path wouldn’t have to divert much to go in the no-fly zone over the Capitol. I don’t know how fast we can scramble jets but I’m guessing 2-3 minutes might not be enough time to get in the air and shoot it down. Even if it stayed on the normal flight path it could probably wipe out a good bit of the DC metro area and still affect our seat of government.

I suppose that would violate the Geneva Convention (I am guessing that military weapons may not be disguised as civilian vehicles) but if you are going to launch a nuclear attack that is probably not your first concern.

How do we game out this kind of fringe scenario?

There is little defense against such a scenario. You rely on Diplomacy, Intelligence (NSA, CIA, Etc.) and MAD to protect against such.

Sorry, and of course Nuclear Non-Proliferation but that is a part of Diplomacy.

One nuke wouldn’t really do much to take out the military power of the United States. It probably wouldn’t even do much to disrupt the country’s command-and-control systems and ability to “massively retaliate”–I’m pretty sure that during the Cold War there was a lot of planning to ensure against any kind of “decapitation strike” eliminating the ability of the U.S. to respond to an attack. Even a worst case scenario (this attack happens during the State of the Union address) wouldn’t leave the U.S. totally without a government or a military.

Any such “terrorist”-style attack would make it hard to identify the responsible party, in a way that wouldn’t apply to launching hundreds or thousands of missiles from your own territory. But all hell would undoubtedly break loose on the American side–the aftermath of 9/11 times a hundred, or a thousand–and God help you if the U.S. did manage to figure out you were behind the attack. (And God help anybody the U.S. thought it had figured out was behind the attack, or anybody in the immediate vicinity of you, or someone the U.S. thought it had figured out was behind the attack. The point is, it would be a very, very high-risk thing to do.)

Much too complicated. Easier to just load your nuke onto a moderate sized cabin cruiser off-shore then sail it up the Potomac. It’s going to be a suicide run, but then so was the OP. “Refitting a commercial jet into a bomber” is like “refitting my Family Truckster into a Formula One race car.”

The jet doesn’t have to be refitted into a bomber. It’s obviously a one-shot suicide run. Strap your bomb into the first few rows of first class, climb to a reasonable airburst height, and pop the piñata. It’s way more effective than a ground-burst from a cabin cruiser.

I’ve got a limited amount of time before I’m called to do other things, and also in recognition that I tend to write a lot, I mean to keep this short.

The US (and in conjunction, Canada) flies combat air patrol missions and have fighters ready to tee off on air targets at a moment’s notice over key areas, the Capitol surely being one of them. This is under the aegis of–and I swear I didn’t make up this name–“Operation Noble Eagle”.

In short, there’s fighters queued and ready to strike air targets, and there are established “outer zones” which give defensive fighters some time to determine if the suspicious flight was in error or needs to be “corrected”.

Of course it is. But I was going with the OP, not reality.

This is a good point. The other day I saw a fighter jet tailing a Cessna at about 1500 feet altitude, quite close, near our local GA airport (general aviation, and as it happens, state of Georgia). No idea what Cessna did to attract the attention, but I imagine he was suitably impressed.

If it was me, I’d probably do something along the lines of putting the bomb in the cargo hold as normal cargo (probably easiest way to get it on a commercial airliner).

Then when near Washington, I’d drop the cabin pressure to neutralize the passengers and crew, but fly the normal route until I was at the closest point to where I wanted to be, then floor the thing, and get to the best place to set it off. That’s ideally right overhead of the WH or the Pentagon, but it might be at some specific altitude if you want an airburst (largest radius of destruction), or near ground level, if you want to leave a smoking crater.

The hope would be that the distance between where you diverge from your flight path and your target would be too short for any lurking CAP fighters to intercept you, and too short for any sort of AAA to actually shoot you down. That’s the catch; I’m sure there’s some kind of anti-aircraft missiles or possibly even guns near the National Mall, even if it’s just some SS agent with a Stinger missile launcher standing on the roof.

Do airports have radiation detectors to protect against that?

They started placing radiation detectors at some US airports in the 90s. I don’t know how far that went and I imagine they like to keep the details pretty quiet. My guess would be this was stepped up after 9/11 and Homeland Security was created.

But also, in the OP’s scenario, how good are the radiation detectors (and other security measures) in all the foreign airports which originate flights that then fly directly to Washington, D.C.?

And, of course, if your Hostile Power is willing to take the risk of putting the bomb on Air [Hostilia] leaving from their own capital city on a direct flight to D.C., they could surely circumvent any and all security precautions. There wouldn’t even need to be any passengers to overcome to begin with, just a handpicked pilot crew willing to die gloriously for the Motherland. Of course, that also increases the chances that, even in all the confusion and (radioactive) fog of war, the United States will be able to put two-and-two together and figure out which country to obliterate.

I think the war crimes committed in your scenario are far worse than disguising military weapons as civilian vehicles.

I agree with the gist that the discussion of war crimes is not relevant to the scenario of what is clearly a terrorist attack, despite the OP mentioning a “nuclear state”. A nuclear state carrying out a pre-emptive nuclear strike needs to take out a military infrastructure that includes multiple hard targets and missile shields, and nobody believes that it would not immediately precipitate a full-scale nuclear war; in any case the number of warheads involved will be “a lot”.

Operation Noble Eagle has armed jets ready to be scrambled at a moments notice now, but that wasn’t always the case. Noble Eagle began Sept 14th 2001 in response to the 9-11 attacks.

The two F-16s scrambled that day to intercept United 93 had no armaments and intended to use their planes to ram United 93 to bring it down.

Two F-16 fighter pilots from the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard, Marc Sasseville and Heather “Lucky” Penney, were scrambled and ordered to intercept Flight 93. The pilots intended to ram it since they did not have time to arm the jets; this was in the days before armed jets stood ready to take off at a moment’s notice to protect the capital’s airspace.[[142]](United Airlines Flight 93 - Wikipedia) They never reached Flight 93 and did not learn of its crash until hours afterwards.[143]

Also, whoever did it has to know the US will come for them full-bore and nothing would stop that. Even countries like China and Russia would step back and tell whoever it was that they are on their own. Whatever country did it or harbors the people who did it will be invaded and likely lots of other countries would help since they would all be freaked out by such an occurrence.

That does not help the people who got nuked but it has to make someone wanting to do it think twice. If they are doing it for something like getting the US out of the Middle-East it would probably have the opposite effect.

The is a subset of the MAD part of it. MAD = Mutually Assured Destruction.

If let’s say N. Korea was behind it. N. Korea would cease to exist as a country. It would be a far worse place then it is now of refugees and the Government and Military would be eliminated completely. All planes, bunkers, ships, tanks, APVs, missile launchers, power plants, communication centers and probably even trucks would be gone. We might not leave bridges or warehouses when we were done. It would be frightening honestly.

AIUI, the OP isn’t asking how to shoot the airliner down (easiest thing in the world, just send National Guard fighters with missiles to go get it), but, rather, how to detect that such a airliner has nukes aboard in the first place. That would require all sorts of intelligence and knowledge.

If so then we can’t once the plane is flying.

It would have to be stopped before it got started with intelligence thwarting the plan (or at least knowing that Flight 123 has a nuke on board).

I’m not convinced the reaction would be to completely annihilate the country at fault. Sure, the retribution would be terrible and might involve a nuke or two but overreaction of the sort you’re talking about would be just as morally reprehensible as those countries are also full of innocent civilians.

What are the chances that a nuclear-armed country, under a rain of incoming and unstoppable nuclear missiles, chooses not to respond because it was already all over and what’s the point of killing more people? It’s probably higher than you think - I’ve heard ex-politicians and advisors saying they would not act to destroy their opponent when faced with that scenario. By that point the MAD theory has already failed.

Anyway, this is a tangent. In the OPs scenario there might not be much that can be done once the plane is in the air and if it’s still a secret. But organising such a brazen attempt would not be an easy thing to keep quiet. Probably best to keep an attack like that as simple as possible like using a Cesna as someone already suggested.