The US gets nuked: ability to respond?

With North Korea making increasingly warlike noises, I’ve been contemplating the following hypoetical scenario, and how the US would be able to respond.

Let’s say that North Korea manages to stage a successful decapitation strike against the US. To get around their lack of long-range missles, they’ve fitted up a merchant ship (operating under a “flag of convenience” nation, like Liberia or the Bahamas) to carry short-range missles covertly. This ship sails to the US’ east coast and, at the appointed hour (timed to coincide with the beginning of hostilities against South Korea), launches a nuclear strike against the DC area. The missles target Washinton (to get the President and Congress), Arlington, VA (to get the Pentagon) and Langeley, VA (to get the CIA headquarters). The strike occurs mid-morning, in an attempt to strike while most people are at work. The strike is as successful as could be hoped: the president is in Washington, and Congress is in session debating the latest budget stalemate. Whatever warnings they get, if any, are not early enough to do anybody any good, so the only survivors are people who were fortunate enough to be out of the DC area that morning.

At this point, few people would argue that retaliatory strikes would be in order, but would the US actually be able to organizer any such strikes? Is there anyone in the military who would have the authority to respond (who is likely to still be alive in this scenario). Even if we assume the Secretery of Agriculture was in Iowa touring wheat fields that day, and survived the strike, the “nuclear football” and the Secret Service agents who carry it are probably gone, so could a strike even be ordered? And is it likely that we would even be able to catch the ship and trace it back to North Korea? How long do you think it would be before a proper response could be formulated?

According to this, there are two land-based alternatives should the Nuclear Command Center in the Pentagon go down, one mobile command and two or more aircraft designated as command centers. With five backup facilities I’m pretty sure there are at least an equal number of contingency plans designating who gets to push the big button if the chain of command breaks.

Not to mention that your scenario also means that battlefield commanders in S. Korea would be under attack, and presumably (although no one will say so on the record) equipped with standing orders on how to use tactical nuclear weapons.

That thud you heard was the blast door closeing in Cheyenne mountain.

Skybird, this is Dropkick with a red dash alpha message in two parts. Break. Break…

At least one or more of the members listed in the Presidential Succession Act is kept far away from the president just for this reason. Even if the prez, vice-prez and a bunch of other are killed, chances are very good that one of the 15+ people in line would become president with the authority to retaliate.

In the case of NK, immediate retaliation wouldn’t be needed as they probably used most of their nukes. I’d imagine that who ever would become president would have the power to launch a strike in a matter of a few hours.

Let’s answer your questions in succession.

[W]ould the US actually be able to organize any such strikes? Yes. The operational plans necessary to guide the retaliatory responses towards North Korea do not solely exist in D.C. The list of people in line for the U.S. Presidential Succession is lengthy, and it is unlikely that all of them will be killed in your proposed attack. (But see, the reports from the Continuity of Government group, which argue differently.) You might find this National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive interesting in guiding any further research you wish to do on the subject. Here’s a Congressional Research Service article on the subject of U.S. C&C, circa 2006.

Moreover, the Nuclear Command and Control System also is not solely based within D.C., and has multiple airborne command posts, each capable of directing the U.S.'s nuclear deterrent forces, provided authorized civilian authority exists. I have not read of any contingency plans for the TACAMO aircraft’s USSTRATCOM commander’s ability to independently target and command the release of special weapons in the absence of civilian authority (e.g., every body on the succession list being killed), but I’ve no doubt such plans exist.

So, the assets needed to strike NK still exist after your attack, the means to communicate with and command such assets still exist, and the civilian authority to initiate the process may still exist. Plus, the plans for retaliation have already been drafted. I’m not sure if they’re still called SIOP–something or other, but they’re still around. It’s not like there’s only one football—to do their jobs, the TACAMO planes have to have a reasonably identical copy.

*s it likely that we would even be able to catch the ship and trace it back to North Korea? As a proponent elsewhere of the exploding shipping container method of rogue-state/non-state actor nuclear weapon delivery, I don’t think you’d actually have a ship left to trace. That said, the Coast Guard and Navy have gotten very good at tracking the sorts of large ships that your plan would use. Ships are slow, and there are few places to hide on the open sea. So while I couldn’t guess at the exact time it would take to identify the launch point, intercept the launching vehicle and kill it/board it, it would surprise me if it would take more than a few hours for the whole process. Tracing it back to NK would take longer, I’d think, and it would be interesting whether the data miners at NSA could ID the responsible actor first from the ship (or other intercepts), or whether the radiochemists from the NNSA would do it. I still am unclear how you could ID bomb debris as coming from a reactor that you in theory have no reference sample from, but there you go.

How long do you think it would be before a proper response could be formulated? The nuclear responses are already in the modern version of the SIOP. So, the rate-limiting step will be identifying the existing national command authority, whoever that is, and figuring out which part of the plan to execute. (who the US is retaliating against.) Conceivably, IMHO, you could do it while the NK cruise missiles were still in the air.

Googling “U.S. nuclear command and control” will give you many more links and reports. The Brookings Institution has a large archive of this sort of thing.

EDIT: Ninja’d on much, oh well. I hope the links are of some interest anyway.

Unlikely said ship would ever get up the Potomac.

I think the question the OP is asking is who would have the authority to order a nuclear strike if the President and everyone else in the direct line of succession were killed. (Which is not an impossible scenario. We’re talking about sixteen people, all of whom work in one city.)

I’m not privy to this information but I would speculate that some orders have already been given. I would assume that standing orders exist that authorize generals and admirals to retaliate if a surprise nuclear attack eliminates the civilian government.

There is a story from WAAAYYY back of a foul-up at Cheyenne mountain that goes like this:

There are dual computers (Univac is what I heard - incredible) which do threat detection. One is online at any given time, the other is being maintained and tested after maintenance.
The test involves a simulated attack from the USSR.
The story goes that one day, when trying to perform the test, the tape was loaded to the live machine. At that moment everybody assumed Armageddon was at hand, the te sequence to launce was begun. Supposedly, someone finally realized that they were looking at a test scenario and the tape was removed and everybody got to exhale.
According to this story, there was a 15 minute window left before the button was pushed.

Remember where the internet came from? I suspect that even is you nuked the Capitol during the State of the Union speech (President (I think the Cabinet as well) and both houses of Congress in one room) and had assassins take out the cabinet member who is kept away just to prevent a decapitation strike. After all that: there are still a half-dozen buttons in places you don’t know about.
One of those command planes was airborne 7/24/365 fro the duration of the Cold War.

I’m sure North Korea’s missiles could hit Washington from further away than the Potomac.

Not to hijack this into a discussion of the 2nd Gulf War, but it has been speculated that we may have attacked a country (conventionally) on shaky evidence. So now we have a nuclear strike destroying our government at the same time NK attacks SK. There is not really a very long list of countries with nukes, a smaller list of ones that would even remotely conceive of using them against the US. And an attack on South Korea. I don’t think we would wait for proof, we would probably just assume and nuke NK either way.

(We might have egg on our face when we find the nukes actually were stolen from China by Prince Humperdinck to trick us into attacking [del]Guilder[/del] North Korea.)

It’s not really clear who would be in charge in the immediate aftermath of everyone in the lince of succession being killed, but a proper successor could be chosen if days or even hours. It’s usual for the entire Congressional member ship to be in DC at the same time, a sole surviving Representative could (assuming he’s a natural born citizen over 35) elect himself as Speaker thus ascending to the Presidency.

Even if the entire Congress is destroyed the Senate can be quickly reconstituted with gubernatorial appointees who’d then elect one of their number as president-pro-term who’d then take office as POTUS. And in addition to the Designated Survivor from the Cabinet it’s make customary as of late from some members of both Houses to stay away from the State of the Union.

In any event it’s safe to say that North Korea would be sterlized in a matter of hours.

Gray Ghost, you may have been ninja’d but I for one appreciated the depth and citation quality of your post.


(ps as an answer to your question of IDing nuke contaminants, could it also be a process of elimination? “It isn’t ours, it isn’t any of the EUs, and it’s someone we don’t have on record at all. Hmmm… that leaves NK and Iran, and since they nuked SK also, I think we have a winner!”

That’s why we put WOPR in control of such things. Just hoping the Soviets don’t have their Doomsday Device operational. At least until we can get Skynet online.

Here’s a detailed report on the incident you describe. Yes, it was a mixed-up training tape, and yes, we were a few minutes away from retaliation.