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Nuclear Targets



Well, this is pretty cool:

The National Security Archive has published what is said to be the most comprehensive and detailed list of nuclear weapons targets and applied weapons strategy that has ever been declassified. The report includes details plans for purposefully targeting civilian populations and military infrastructure for the systematic destruction of the Soviet Bloc.

It is called the Strategic Air Command Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959 and was penned in 1956. The 800-plus page study identifies more than 1,100 airfields tagged for destruction, all prioritized in order of their strategic value.

This makes sense as Russia’s main nuclear delivery system at the time was its growing bomber fleet. Just as well, a similar list of over 1,200 targeted population centers is part of the document, ranging from Berlin to Beijing, with top priorities placed on Moscow and Leningrad.

If you want to spend some of your New Year’s Day considering what could have been and thankfully never was, now you can do so.

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  • GFW

    So they were planning on nuking East Berlin without nuking West Berlin? Just checking…

    • Ken

      You’ve got to expect some collateral damage when you’re rendering the Earth uninhabitable for eukaryotic life.

  • Back in the early 70s I had a simulation game that modeled thermonuclear war. It wasn’t much fun. If you played the USSR, you had plenty of megatons to throw around; but if you played the US, you ended up assigning two nukes to every Siberian railroad bridge. I wonder if people remember how much overkill was on standby during the last half of the Cold War. I guess there was more strategy involved in targeting in 59.

    • Ramon A. Clef

      Was it “First Strike?” I played that game once and put it away forever.

    • The Pale Scot

      With a couple of 20 sided dice to generate accuracy results and this map http://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/ you might have a game of some sort.

      • The Pale Scot

        A relative of a friend of mine was a cavalry officer in Germany, has stories about sleeping next his tank during the Hungarian Revolt.

        He said, according to the friend, that if someone had told him that 40 years from now ME terrorists would be our greatest military threat he would have sectioned 8 the guy.

        Compared to when I was growing up, with 1000’s of 300 kt warheads sitting on ICBMs configured for quick reaction launch. Go fuck yourself RWNJ bed-wetters.

        Just remembered the nuke drill at my school, instead of hiding under a desk they had us line the sides of the halls, don’t know why, until some engineer realized that tiles lining the walls would turn into shrapnel from the shockwave.

        That was the first homeland security theater, 22 mi from Times Square, with refineries and factories all around, we’d have been in the middle of multiple fireballs

        • Michael Cain

          The high school I attended from 1969-1972 sat seven miles off the end of the main runway at Offutt Air Force Base, headquarters for SAC. Everyone recognized the Looking Glass flying command center planes. Nobody bothered with nuke drills — that close to that target, there was no point to it.

          • Captain Oblivious

            I lived in Omaha in the 70s. Everybody there assumed that we were going to get vaporized in a nuclear war. You just hoped it would be instantaneous.

    • Lurker

      If the game was “Raid over Moscow”, it was early 1980’s.

      If you had the game you describe, in the early 1970’s, you were running it on a mainframe. In addition, if it had the depth of targeting you described, it would have been pretty awesome for its time. I mean, such a list of possible targets would have taken tens of kilobytes, if it were as detailed as you claim.

      In fact, it would probably had almost the same level of detail as the USAF C3I system. :-) (Not really, though I hate to spoil my own joke. The unclassified list given is a good example of extremely advanced automated data processing. The lists are obviously in a format that is suited for computer input or output. The USAF C3I system in early 1960’s was pretty advanced and allowed probably limited real-time targeting and sortie assignment.)

      Still, I would be interested to hear what computer you were using for your game.

      • Warren Terra

        It could have been a paper-and-dice simulation, no computer necessary

      • It was a paper and dice game, nothing high tech. I lost interest in simulation games before personal computing became common. I don’t know if additional detail and sophistication would have added much. The fundamental fact was that there were far more weapons than targets. As somebody might have noticed, the only way to win the game was not to play.

    • weirdnoise

      This would have helped a lot in figuring out how many megatons to throw where.

      • Ken

        Ooh, I have a copy of The Effects of Nuclear Weapons with a version of that in the back. It always seemed like something you could use in a game.

        BTW, was the computer game on a dial-up system, maybe offering a choice of Tic-Tac-Toe, Chess, or Global Thermonuclear War?

  • DrDick

    If you want to spend some of your New Year’s Day considering what could have been and thankfully never was, now you can do so.

    No thanks. I lived through that era and am eternally grateful to never have to think about it anymore.

    • c u n d gulag

      Me too!

      Only, I still worry sometimes.

      Still too many nukes around here, and in Russia and China.

      And no shortage of terrorist groups trying to get their hands on nuclear materials that can be made into portable smaller nukes, or dirty bombs.

      But, my level of worry is insignificant compared to my youth, when I really wasn’t sure any of us would be around to live to a ripe old age.

      Well, we did.
      Only I’m not ripening into my old age – more like rotten in into it.

      • Ramon A. Clef

        Terrorists with nukes are the least of our worries, with the American right wing and Putin determined to reinstate the Cold War, but with even fewer rational thinkers in the mix this time.

        • DrDick

          If the Republicans win the election next year, I will definitely have to start thinking about it again.

      • Mark Field

        Fermenting seems like your best option.

        • c u n d gulag

          My liver is well on its way.

    • efgoldman

      I lived through that era and am eternally grateful to never have to think about it anymore.

      Somebody asked me elsewhere how scary the Cuban missile crisis was. I was a senior in high school, in physics class (why I’ve never forgotten that detail, I’ll never know); we fully expected to be vaporized at any time after JFK’s 1000am deadline to Khrushchev. I remember feeling more fatalistic than afraid – I think that was pretty common in my cohort at the time.
      I do remember the relief, when it was clear the crisis had passed.

      I also moved from the reception station to basic training proper on the same day in 1968 that the Soviets moved into Prague and crushed Dubcek’s Prague Spring. It was 50/50 whether we thought (as individuals) that we were going to ‘Nam or to Europe. As it happened, LBJ had no intention of engaging the Soviets.

      • Captain Oblivious

        During the Cuban Missile Crisis, my school had us doing drills where we hid under our desks. I’m not sure what this was supposed to protect us against.

        My father, who was one of only two architects in the county (my mother being the other), called the superintendent of schools (who was a close personal friend) and suggested that it would actually be better to move the students into interior hallways. I don’t recall if this suggestion was taken. Fortunately, Kruschev backed down and we didn’t have any more drills.

        • DrDick

          I like to call those the “kiss your ass goodbye” drills.

  • Yankee

    This makes sense

    Not so much, no. When nonsensicalities are demonstrated by logic, it points to deep problems with assumptions or methods or both.

  • Warren Terra

    I haven’t looked at the list, but assume my general ignorance of Soviet geography etcetera would mean I wouldn’t get all that much out of it – but you’d think there must be a lot of people in the former Soviet bloc with interesting reactions to this list.

    • Lurker

      I read through the document. It was interesting in two issues. One was interesting from general standpoint, the other from my parochial standpoint. planned to use all its nuclear warheads on a single massive attack. After that, there would have essentially no nuclear weapons left in the USA.

      The parochial interest was the fact that Finland was not targeted. We were pursuing a policy of neutrality at the time, as we did until the end of the Cold War. It is gratifying to see that this was successful to such extent that the US did not plan to annihilate us purposely in case the SIOP would have been executed. The resulting fallout would have killed 30-50% of our population and contaminated most of the arable land here, though.

    • ljdramone

      It lists something like 120 Strategic Air Command targets in Leningrad and maybe 170 in Moscow (glanced at the list, don’t remember the exact numbers.)

      The list predates ICBMs, so that suggests SAC bombers would be dropping maybe 25-50 nuclear weapons with a yield of about 1.2 megatons each on each city.

  • Most of my SIOP missions would have had us putting the third or fourth warhead on any given target.

    By the 1970s we were no longer targeting population for the sake of targeting population.

    Not that it mattered. There were plenty of military targets that happened to be located in or near major population centers.

    • Lurker

      In fact, the now-declassified list did not target population as such. It did list population as one of the resources that a target might have. Instead, the primary cause of listing seems to have been some industrial or military facility. What I know about the industry and garrisons in Western Russia and Baltic states, the targeting decisions were pretty sound as such, on a quick reading.

  • Mike in DC

    Minimal deterrence is a better(and much more affordable) strategy. Assume the enemy can destroy 90 to 99% of your warheads in a first strike. How many do you need to make the price too much to bear? Surprisingly few. Around 300 total warheads will accomplish this strategy pretty effectively. Because 3 to 30 nuclear explosions will pretty much wreck the economy and society of any nation on the planet, including the United States.

    • Lurker

      It depends on what you mean by “wreck the economy”. In modern sense, destruction of a two dozen targets might cause a great shock to the logistics and finances of any country, causing the GDP to plunge maybe 20-30%. This is clearly an unacceptable outcome in the US.

      However, in 1950’s, people had just finished waging WWII. Germany had kept on fighting after its industrial capacity had decreased by more than 50%. Soviet Union had seen most of its industry relocated beyond the Ural mountains. For these people, losing 20% of the population and a similar chunk of industry would be a predictable consequence of a victorious total war. For some people, it might even had been quite acceptable. For example, LeMay would probably started a war on such odds, had he been the one to decide.

      In more modern sense, you should remember that the current Russia has seen two pretty recent crises where they have seen their GDP plunge. In early 1990’s, the Russian GDP went down 50%. In 1998, they lost some 30% of their GDP. In the current war against Ukraine, their GDP has gone down at least 15-20%. And simultaneously, they have seen a demographical catastrophe. What you think as an unacceptable consequence of war has been a recurring feature of the Russian peace-time.

      • The Pale Scot

        That would depend on where those 30 bombs landed. If it was only on the east coast the prevailing winds would blow most of the low atmosphere fallout away from land, the higher stuff would enter the jet stream.

        But, if the impacts were in the western US, fallout would spread over agricultural areas, making them unusable for decades at least.

        The biggest what if would be the results of nuclear power plants being targeted, hundreds of tons of radionuclides added to the bombs fallout. (reactors + storage pools nearby)

        We dodged an enormous catastrophe when Al Qaeda targeted the towers instead Indian Point.

    • MyOhMy

      > How many do you need to make the price too much to bear? Surprisingly few. Around 300 total warheads will accomplish this strategy pretty effectively.

      Yes. IIRC, going back into the 1950’s this question was asked and the answer always came back that assured delivery of 200 or so A-bombs would suffice for rational deterrence. Now, if “war fighting” rather than deterrence was the aim, it could go up a lot higher.

      • efgoldman

        Now, if “war fighting” rather than deterrence was the aim, it could go up a lot higher.

        The thing I never understood was the development of “tactical nukes” (Pershing missiles). Yes, I understand that they were lower yield/power, but how did they propose to limit the radiation from traveling beyond, say, the several square miles where the target was.

        • Steve LaBonne

          You talk as though the people planning those things were sane and rational.

          • efgoldman

            You talk as though the people planning those things were sane and rational.

            Yeah, except that it worked. The cost was so great that neither party dared pull the trigger, even during the Korean war or the Cuban missile crisis in October of ’62.
            You can make the argument that the whole enterprise is immoral, and/or a huge waste of resources. Nevertheless the bombs stayed in the bomb bays and the missiles in their silos.

            • wengler

              Yeah, except that it worked.

              Soviet nuclear commanders had authorization to launch more than once, but didn’t(once during the Cuban Missile Crisis, once during Able Archer).

              The US nearly nuked Spain on accident.

              Just a couple years ago the Air Force(MUST DESTROY) misplaced some nukes for a couple hours.

              It works until it doesn’t. Does anyone think that US policymakers are going to react rationally to the rise of China?

  • MyOhMy

    As long as we’re reminiscing, back in the late 1970s when I was toiling in the national security fields inside the Beltway, one of my colleagues was a USAF O5 whose previous assignment had been as a target planner at the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff at SAC HQ in Omaha.

    One day when we had occasion to discuss hypothetical Soviet targeting plans against the US, he mentioned that when he was at JSTPS, they had 78 targets (“Designated Ground Zeros”) in the Moscow area, a fair number being programmed for multiple hits by ICBM, SLBM, bombers just to be sure.

    • deptfordx

      In the recent-ish book Command and Control, which i highly recommend. There’s a report of a study which the General in charge of SIOP commissioned. in the 70’s I think, I don’t have it to hand.

      It concluded that there were so many targets around Moscow, that without a single weapon dropping on the city itself. Anyone who wasn’t in a NBC hardened bunker hundreds of feet underground would within hours receive a massively lethal radiation dose from the fallout.

  • Brett

    I’d love to see the Soviet version of this. Living in Utah, I figure that both Dugway and Hill Air Force Base would be hit by strikes. Bad news for people in Tooele and Ogden, but tens of miles away from where I live and on the other side of mountains.

    But what about targets within the Salt Lake Valley? I guess they could hit the airport and the railroad line in northwestern Salt Lake.

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