Nuclear terror attack on US - how does the US respond if the bomb is known to be from Pakistan?

What might the US response be if it were certain that a nuclear bomb from a Pakistani lot had been used in an attack on American soil?

Say most of Philadelphia had become history due to a nuclear attack in an act of terrorism and that the evidence was incontrovertible that a Pakistani bomb had been used (assuming it is even possible to know and prove such a thing, although I believe it may be). What should/would a response entail?

I believe the declared US policy is to retaliate against Pakistan no matter how strong the latter may protest that ‘we had no idea’ or ‘it honestly wasn’t us’. Sounds somewhat constraining if so.

Assuming a sane POTUS I imagine similar to the ultimatum given to Afghanistan after 9/11. Hand over everyone, give us full access to investigate everything, no ifs, no buts.

The more complicated thing is if they say no. They are a nuclear armed power, they don’t have the range to reach the US,but could reach our allies, including Israel (and obviously India). Do we attack Pakistan, even though they could nuke our allies? Something (if the decide to do the brinksmanship route) they would do.

Hell they could even go full game theory and decide to nuke Russia or China (or threaten to) in the hope of bringing them into the war.

Even without nukes invading Pakistan would be a vastly more difficult undertaking than invading Afghanistan.

Where is that declared? Seems pretty unlikely to me.

Sorry, I wasn’t clear. I meant that their policy is to retaliate against ANY country in such a circumstance. And, in my hypothetical, that would be Pakistan.

ETA: But “any” now seems absurd. UK? I must be misremembering.

Oh yeah, I believe that is the stated policy for any attack on the US using WMD by a nation state (even against US troops, not just the US mainland IIRC).

But presumably in the case in the OP, a non-state terrorist group got hold of a Pakistani nuclear warhead and took it to the US. That is not the same thing as Pakistan launching a missile at the US.

Also its presumably it is just policy, not a law or anything binding. Even if another country did attack the US with WMD, there is nothing forcing the POTUS to order a nuclear attack in retaliation, if there was a good reason not to do so.

I’d guess the reason for that policy is as a deterrent to nations (e.g. North Korean or Iraq in 2003/1991) that might be tempted to use WMD against the US.

Seriously, and without any attempt to politicize, I think an important question here is: “In this hypothetical, is Trump the President?” Because our response is likely to be very different if we have a typical president vs. our current one.

Beyond the immediate retaliatory response in the case of a (perceived) ICBM attack from a major nuclear power (Russia, China, France, Great Britain) that threatens the ability to retaliate there is no explicit doctrine in how to deal with a nuclear attack beyond what is essentially the whims of the President and the guidance of his Cabinet and advisors (specifically, the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and the National Security Council). In the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is perhaps the closest a sitting President has come to launching a nuclear attack, it was a minor Cabinet official (Llewellyn E. “Tommy” Thompson Jr.) who advised him to seek a path of de-escalation even as national security advisors were recommending preemptive nuclear attack.

It should be possible to identify the country of origin of the nuclear material used in the attack on the basis of isotope ratios, but that doesn’t mean that the specific actors are identified, particularly in the case of a nation like Pakistan where access protections like Permissive Action Links are not built into the design of nuclear devices, and where some rogue element of the military structure could act independently of the nominally civilian government.

It is frightening that the retaliatory response of the most powerful nation of the world is essentially dependent upon the whims of one executive who wasn’t even appointed by a popular vote and who has essentially zero understanding of nuclear deterrence theory, but this is the world we live in, and we can only hope in such a circumstance that response is mediated by professionals who have spent their careers considering such a contingency, but ultimately, whomever is President makes that decision. And Trump is not a person who makes regularly good business decisions, much less decisions that affect the strategic security of nations.


Pakistan, presumably, is claiming that the nuke was stolen. When did they discover this fact? And when did they notify us that they were missing one of their nukes? If they notified us (and the other potential targets) before the bomb actually went off, then they just might be sincere. If they didn’t, then at the very least their silence was partially enabling the attack, and it becomes much more plausible that the bomb wasn’t “lost” or “stolen” in the first place. And then, Mr. Alvi, are you going to give US forces complete and absolute access to all of your records, all of your facilities, and everything else they might want to check? You have a half hour to reply, after which “all of your facilities” will be the empty set.

There’s a significant difference between an attack by Pakistan and an attack by some third party using a Pakistani weapon. In the scenario described by the OP, Pakistan wouldn’t be responsible for the attack but they would be responsible for their apparent failure to adequately safeguard their nuclear weapons.

I agree with griffin1977; the American response to a terrorist attack using a Pakistani nuclear weapon would be to insist that Pakistan co-operate with a thorough and unobstructed investigation to be conducting in Pakistan with American investigators.

But that makes the response by the US even more tricky. The civilan government can go “that’s awful! whatever you want! don’t blow us up!” But that doesn’t mean the pakistani military (who have much of the real power) are going to go along with it. What does the US do then.

In the situation the OP describes even a very competent, mentally balanced, well informed president could still be dragged into a hideous ground war with nuclear power, even if no one wanted it (outside the terrorists who planted the bomb). The current POTUS will doing well if he goes through four years of running the presidential twitter feed without getting us into a hideous ground war with a nuclear power.

Why would Pakistan hit Israel? For shits and giggles? Pakistan’s actual aim at that point would be to keep the US at bay. We don’t need to guess how that would be done. Any reasonable nuclear threshold is going to be crossed if we are looking at an Afghan or Iraq type operation. So the efforts would be to stymie such an event. There would be phone calls to nearby states, telling them in no uncertain terms that if they host or assist US military operations in any way, they can expect to be dealt with

Attacking those hosts (with nuclear missiles, which would be the only way they could realistically threaten them) would result in catastrophic nuclear retaliation by the US. So why stop there? You might as well threaten ALL the US’s allies.

Israel has no direct involvement with anything here, so it would be a waste of time and material.
Not sure why you think that the only way most of the hosts can be attacked, places like Qatar, Bahrain and S Arabia already have infrastructure are within range of conventional assets and the first and third are places where Pakistani troops already deployed.
It’s true that a nuclear attack threat would be made to them probably both implicitly and explicitly.

But they are high profile US ally (with alot of influence on the US) within range of their missiles. Why wouldn’t they threaten them? And any other US ally their missiles can reach. Once they start launching missiles they are getting flattened by the US, they would need to make attacking Pakistan seems as damaging to the US as possible.

Hence why they might even target China or Russia, even the chance they might get involved could possibly dissuade the US.

Alongside much larger vastly better equipped US troops. Pakistan could never military threaten anyone the US is protecting. Except by launching a ballistic nuclear missile at them (a conventional airborne attack would barely get off the ground)

I don’t think you could attack Pakistan the same way in retaliation as if Pakistan directly attacked America. It’s the difference between Mr. Smith the Gun-owner directly shooting you (attempted murder) and Mr. Smith carelessly leaving his gun safe unlocked and thus allowing a crook to steal them and use them to shoot you (in which Smith is guilty only of negligence.) Negligence can’t be punished the same as murder/attempted murder.

I genuinely can’t understand the logic here. Why would “I might nuke Russia / China” be a deterrent to the USA in the first place? That sounds more like a bonus, if anything.

Secondly, how would you expect that China / Russia would respond to these Pakistani threats? Would it be to try to tell the USA to do whatever Pakistan wants? Or would they tell Pakistan they better fucking not?

How is adding a couple of regional nuclear powers to one’s enemies list (when one is already staring down the barrel of the global superpower) the smart play?

ETA: and if you’re Russia or China and the USA is on the nuke-the-shit-out-of-people warpath, “getting involved” is the LAST thing you want to do. You want to sit as quietly in the corner as possible and hope no one notices you there.

Good luck explaining that differentiation to the nation after a nuke just wiped out Philadelphia, and the body bags are being filled. It would take a VERY level headed president not to get dragged into immediate military action.

Especially as the facts would almost certainly point to somewhere between to two extremes. Yeah it wasn’t the Pakistani government that sent the nuke that attacked the US, but it wasn’t a random terrorist who stole without anyone knowing. There would most likely have had to be some collusion from inside the Pakistani military. In as far as you can say for a purely made up hypothetical, of course :slight_smile:

How does that make things worse? Your getting nuked to glass by the US anyway. Getting nuked to glass twice is not really any worse.

Completely, UNLESS the warpath the US is taking will result in you getting nuked. Then you intervene to do anything to convince the US not to go down that path.

That’s the thing once Pakistan has played (or threatened the nuclear card) its in their interests to threaten to nuke everyone they can. Then its not just you trying to convince the US not to attack you, its everyone else too.

TIL that in need of dissuading the worlds only superpower Pakistan is going to threaten the other two great powers (Chiva and Russua) on the globe one of which is Pakistan’s greatest strategic ally and the other a country with who relations are on the upswing.

Seriously, let’s just fire nukes at every city in range, tell pilots to fly to the limits of their fuel and then drop nukes, tell sub captains to sail as far as they can and let their CM’s rip.

It’s less crazy than what’s been suggested here.

Well if Pakistan had nuclear submarines then they would need to threaten anything crazy like attacking third parties. They would just have to say “sorry about Philly and all, but if you attack us we’ll attack you back”. (Just like Russia or China would, if it was their nuke the terrorists used)