How to start a nuclear war in one hour

Napoleon told his generals that he could grant them anything except more time. Time is everything, in terrorism as well as war. The constant message of shows like “24” is that there always a ticking bomb, a ticking clock and someone named Mohammed vowing death to the infidels.

So the Pentagon came up with a brilliant idea to save time. Take ICBMs and replace their multi-megaton nuclear warheads with conventional explosives. Within 30 minutes to an hour, any spot in the world, whether a command bunker or a WMD site, could be pulverized by a giant intercontinental ballistic missile descending from outer space at terrifying velocities.

The Prompt Global Strike program, which the Obama administration has embraced, seems like a sensible idea.  In the Age of WMDs, where rogue states brandish them and terrorists will eventually acquire them, there are times when it will take too long to send in an aircraft carrier or cruise missile. A capability to quickly reach any target in the world would be invaluable. Then there is the opportunity to recycle strategic missiles that might have to be scrapped anyway under the new  arms reduction agreement between Russia and the United States.

But wait a moment. We’re talking ICBMs. There was a time – in fact it still is a time  – when a Minuteman or SS-18 Satan plunging through the atmosphere would have triggered a nuclear war. The Pentagon says it can fire these missiles on a lower trajectory so they won’t be mistaken for an attack on Moscow, but even so, there is a  potential for miscalculation (the consequences of that miscalculation can’t even be contemplated). Then there are technical questions. ICBMs are designed to be precision weapons – or rather as precise as you need to be with a 5-megaton warhead. Landing within 400 feet of a Soviet missile silo might work for a nuke, but even with satellite guidance, I wonder if an American Peacekeeper (ha!) missile with a conventional warhead can land close enough to a North Korean command bunker buried inside a mountain. For obvious reasons, ICBMs aren’t tested all that often, and thankfully they have never been fired for real. Silly as it sounds, I still have a nagging fear that somebody is going to forget to remove a line of code, and the missile cheerfully heads toward Moscow instead of Tehran.

I also wonder what kind of target would justify a $70 million ICBM. It would have to be an extremely juicy one, not a bunch of Al Qaeda tribesmen gobbling lamb around a campfire in Yemen. Which goes back to the original issue, namely time. Any target worth an ICBM is bound to be so sensitive that it requires careful consideration. Even if you have intelligence that indicates a North Korean missile is fueling on the launch pad in preparation for a strike on Japan or Hawaii, attacking it is a grave decision. But policymakers will have a weapon that allows them to strike from the United States without having to first deploy aircraft or troops to Asia or the Middle East. No time to use diplomacy to defuse the crisis while the troops are in transit. ICBMs will be tempting to use. Whether they will be useful is another matter.

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9 Responses to How to start a nuclear war in one hour

  1. Rob Bickel says:

    Do you really need a warhead at that point? I mean the thing should be coming in at super ballistic velocities anyways. I still vote yay! on the sheer coolness factor of blowing up a campfire from a vehicle that just went to space and back in less than 30 mins from the other side of the planet. probably all while youre watching nascar on a sunday afternoon 🙂

    • Michael Peck says:

      Good point. Sheer kinetic penetration should do the trick, though I wonder how fast the ICBM can descend through the atmosphere without burning up. Just also realized that if they’re going to test this missile, they’re going to need to fire at a land-based target like a mountain. Firing it into the Pacific Ocean like we usually won’t tell us anything. Not unless we’re planning to bomb Atlantis.

  2. jake brodsky says:

    The point of a ballistic missile is intercontinental speed. There is really only one situation when such speed might be needed: nuclear conflict.

    Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are just as good and just as lethal. They’re also significantly more accurate, and cheaper to use.

  3. Michael Peck says:

    UAVS are not in the same league as ICBMs. A long-range Global Hawk UAV cruises at around 400 MPH, so it would take almost a day to reach Afghanistan from the United States. A Minuteman ICBM could do it in under an hour.

  4. Eric Kugler says:

    It is a cost-saving effort.

    If we fire an ICBM that we have already built, and have no other use for, then we have actually saved money because we won’t have to continue to pay for upkeep.

    Minutemen only cost 7 million not 70.

    And if you assume a 500 kg warhead traveling at 2500 km/h (terminal stage velocity) makes the impact something like 700,000 N of Force over 5 seconds of stopping, or 160,000 pounds of force. And then it explodes.

  5. timnadeau says:

    I am one of those uninformed centrists who just recently found these sites and blogs. Thanks for trying to bring some sense to all the craziness that seems to hog the news lately.

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