What could make the U.S. use nukes, short of WW III?

…Maybe this would belong better in GD or IMHO. I’m not sure.

Anyway, the question is: Under current American political and military policy, what could make the U.S. launch an attack using nuclear weapons, short of getting involved in a major nuclear confrontation with Russia or China?

The only situations that I could think of would be:

a) Retaliation for the use of a WMD (Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical) in an attack on the U.S. or her allies. Say, if Iraq had tried to nerve gas Kuwait during the recent war. Or if terrorists nuked Washington, or something.

And this one doesn’t really count as “launching an attack,” but I’ll include it anyway…

b) Blowing up asteroids; “cauterizing” regions infected with some horrible plague that threatened to wipe out humanity, etc. And I’m not sure about the practicality of the latter.

So…any thoughts?

Project Orion

Also, you mentioned “blowing up asteroids.” This month’s Scientific American discusses various means of preventing asteroids from hitting the Earth, and “blowing them up” is not really favored anymore. A nuclear device that attempts to blow an asteroid up will likely simply produce several smaller asteroids, which, having virtually all of the mass and kinetic energy of the original asteroid, will do just about as much damage as the original asteroid should they strike the Earth.

An idea that does involve using a nuclear device with asteroids is to explode one near an asteroid–the nuclear explosion will ablate the surface of the asteroid facing the explosion, creating a reaction force in the opposite direction and possibly changing the course of the asteroid sufficient to avoid a collision with the Earth.

Well, when the spaces elephants invade we will need lots of nukes . . .

OK, let’s say that Washington has just been nuked by terrorists.

Where do you want the person who is now in charge of the nuclear “football” (i.e. GWB if he’s still around of course, but there’s a chain of succession) to order the retaliation strike?

Let’s say that you find out 24 hours later that the terrorists had used Islamabad as their base while planning the attack on DC.

Do you nuke Islamabad? Do you think that anyone responsible is still there? What about all of the innocent people that would perish in the retaliation?

What possible circumstances could you imagine in which the appropriate response to a terrorist attack is a nuclear strike? The only one that I can think of is if there’s good intelligence that a specific valley in a desolate region (such as Afghanistan) is heavily populated by the terrorists responsible for the DC nuke. Even in this case, however, something tells me that it’s unlikely that the head honchos will hang around.

If we are to believe the former PM of the UK, Saddam was warned prior to the first Gulf war that any use of WMDs against coalition forces would be met with a nuclear response. John Major went on to say he believed the Bush Administration probably said the same thing to Saddam prior to the second Gulf war.

Yes, this thread does belong in GD or IMHO.

Hey bub, I didn’t say that I wanted to nuke Islamabad, I just said that I could imagine that a superpower like the U.S. might nuke a country in retaliation for nuclear terrorism. Yeesh.

And, by the way, I can think of at lease one circumstance and reasoning for a nuclear retaliation to a terrorist attack…it would be attempting to wipe out the terrorist capability for making more nuclear weapons, if that’s how they got ahold of one.

Good hard irrefutable intelligence that a government sponsored/initiated WMD attack from elswhere besides China or Russia (Iran and North Korea come to mind, as well as an Islamically radicalized Pakistan) is eminent - say in the next 2 hours. So unlikely as to be impossible for practical purposes.

A large invasion of the US mainland might also do the trick.

Various outlandish schemes for nuclear mining also come to mind.

Actually, they might wipe out the Middle east and Central Asia if a sufficiently nasty terror attack came though. The reason isn’t about revenge, but rather that this way, you probably get them one way or another, and there won’t be any more attacks like that again. Harsh, but then, humans beings are natural born killers.

Somehow, I can’t see any sane president nuking a city or country just because some loony people came from there.

If that was the case, we certainly would have turned Saudi Arabia and Egypt into smoking craters by now, given the identities of the 9/11 terrorists.

I wouldn’t put it past our leaders to arrange for our own nuclear terrorists, though.

“No, sheikh, it was NOT the president’s order. We had this general, you see, General Ripper, and, and, well, he did a silly thing, you see…”

I can most certainly see a sane president ordering the nuking of a city or country if it has been demonstrated to be supporting terrorists who nuked an American city. WTF do you think would have happened to Afghanistan had they used nukes on New York instead of jet planes? The place would be a series of radioactive pits by now.

Well your definition of sane is pretty sick then…

Considering the bombing capacity of the US Air Force and missiles… its actually counterproductive to nuke things. One Firebombing attack against Tokyo killed more the atomic bombs. Especially if a radioactive cloud wanders into other countries.

Never mind public outrage world wide… but again… does Bush care ?

I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this qualification of “short of WW III”. Given the current world, I find it very hard to understand how any use of nuclear weapons by any country against anyone else could fail to start WW III. Once country A uses nukes, they’ve established that they’re willing and able to use them, so countries B and C, with whom A had shaky relations to begin with, decide that it’d be safest to launch pre-emptive strikes, before A turns their attention to them. In turn, B and C’s rivals now know that B and C are serious, etc.

Use of nukes for peaceful purposes like diverting asteroids is conceivable, but a bomb used to divert an asteroid isn’t really a nuclear “weapon”.

A couple of things should be noted here. “Use” of nuclear weapons is a pretty broad brush to paint with. The fine details get much more dicey. All-out nuclear exchange versus tactical battlefield use versus a single nuke for a ‘surgical’ strike and so on. There are so many levels and possibilities to this question that it is useless to say nukes will be used in XXX circumstance. Depends a lot on the guy with his finger on the button too. Just a guess but a quick gut check tells me Bush would be faster to the “Button” than Clinton would have been (that is not a cheap swipe at Bush…with no circumstances to put that in perspective there is no saying which approach is ‘better’ [very loosely speaking]).

Secondly, there is a difference between asking “should we use nukes in case XXX” and asking “under what circumstances does the United States maintain its right to use nuclear weapons”. The second question is more pertinent as it goes to deterrent. Even if the US chose not to use nukes crossing the line into territory where US policy says nukes are now a valid option is going to be scary for any country. However, just because US policy says we can use nukes does not mean that we will use nukes.

For the policy of when and where the US retains the right to use nukes read Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations: April 29, 1993. The quick and dirty of that document was an extension of when it is ‘ok’ to use nukes…specifically covering the use of WMDs against the US. Also, according to that document, non-nuclear countries are not to ever be attacked with nukes although the reality is there are a few loopholes big enough to slip an ICBM through that could see a non-nuclear country get targeted as well.

The U.S. has been diverting money for research into ground-penetrating bombs or mini-nukes. I could easily imagine these bombs being used against a bunker or underground structure - without the need for a WWIII.


Toward the end of the Nuclear Posture Review is about as close as a factual answer that can be given.

The report is available here: http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/policy/dod/npr.htm

It’s essentially anecdotal, but writing in the aftermath of 9/11 the former British Defence Secretary Michael Portillo claimed that his advisors at the Ministry of Defence had had the rule of thumb that any single, surprise attack resulting in more than 10,000 civilian casualties was one scenario where a nuclear response became recommendable as an option. His point was that part of his immediate reaction on 9/11 was coloured by the fact that - with the death tolls initially suggested in the media being so high - he was having to worry that someone, somewhere was thinking through the practicalities of such a recommendation.

Any terrorist group or nation that nukes a city is essentially making a statement: “We think we can further our goals by nuking this nation’s cities.” Any nation with a sense for self-preservation will feel a very strong urge to make such a statement seem very, very wrong.

The use of nuclear weapons against a city where a terrorist lived is absolutely ridiculous, especially if the terrorist group involved was not state sponsored. In the situation where we destroy an entire city for revenge on a select handful of people we become the terrorists.

I believe it was the book “The Sum of All Fears” that had a scenerio where the president barely decided to not nuke a city that a terrorist lived in (I might be confusing it with another book, its been a while).

This is more a debatable than factual question, so I’ll move this thead to GD.

moderaor GQ

If the government aided the terrorist. That seems reasonable to me.