Editor’s Note: This is a rebuttal to the video by Ward Carroll (which can be found here).


Recently a video by F-14 RIO Ward Carroll called “The REAL Truth About Nuclear War” was shared. While well-meaning, I don’t believe the video did a good job at dispelling a lot of myths about nuclear war or really discuss what might befall average Americans. I have no special information about nuclear weapons or strategic planning; I’m just a guy who reads a lot. I also may have spent too much time in the Emergency Operations office.

My bona fide that I’m not pulling this out of thin air is that I wrote two novels about nuclear war. Not to shill them, but the titles are Limited Exchange and Late for Doomsday if you want to judge me on my realism. Verisimilitude is an obsession to me so I seriously studied the topic to present the most realistic narrative.

So much fiction is just bad. The research is poor or non-existent, based off pop culture and other fictional depictions or 1950s era war doctrine. Nuclear war isn’t going to extinguish all life on Earth. There are only about 1,700 deployed warheads able to be launched in the US and Russia each; China has 300-400. With a limited number of warheads that can be used the targets have to be selected carefully, meaning a lot are targeted at other missile silos. It is not a free-for-all to smash all your enemy’s stuff.

The main strategy in modern nuclear warfare (at least that we can publicly glean) is mainly counterforce; that is destroy the other’s guys nukes before he can launch. Nukes generally are used against nukes, at least in the classic Cold War US/USSR nuclear war planning. You must nuke the nukes or else the other guy is free to use his nukes against civilian and other military targets so a lot of warheads are tasked in this sense.

Modern launch-on-warning means that we fire on them just before they can launch. This is like a quick-draw cowboy drawing and firing when he sees the antagonist walk into the bar with a hand on his revolver. If strategic forces are at 100% and catch the warning signs in time, the most likely scenario is the warheads hit empty silos and airfields on both sides. Bombing empty targets seems pointless but catching the other guy with his pants down these days is unlikely. One side may get nuked first, but probably not before they can fire.

EMP

EMP will be a component of nuclear war, probably the first detonation to blind our defenses. Though information varies, EMP likely is not as catastrophic as novels and movies portray it. We’ll probably have cars and small electronics. The pulse is seeking ground and it needs enough wiring, like an antenna, to do that. At a minimum, I’d expect the electrical grid and Internet to be fried, meaning our economic infrastructure is toast. A good cyber attack could do the same thing.

Personally, in my scenario I chose to let radios and vehicles work as a plot point, but I honestly don’t know if modern radios can survive an EMP. Older car I think would survive but Teslas are done for. I’d guess only the DoD knows the answer and that’s classified. I would recommend that basic faraday protection for important items with antennas, like radios, be used. In a crisis, store radios with their antennas removed.

Targeting

Nuclear weapon doctrine began an outgrowth of strategic bombing, born in the 1930s and perfected in the 1940s. Bombers with massive multi-megaton bombs (“city busters) would target major cities and industrial targets. The goal was to kill civilians (and morale), destroy war materiel producing factories, and associated military targets. To this day, many people still assume that the Russians will nuke their big city just because.

Bombing cities made sense when bombers were used or ICBMs had accuracy measured in miles. The number of viable strategic nuclear targets has been reduced since the end of the Cold War. Air Force bases and missile fields have been slashed. Bombers are no longer dispersed across the country to large airports. China (and North Korea) might be a different story than Russia (more later).

Arms limitation treaties worked to create a no-use situation because with roughly equal numbers, neither adversary can get an advantage on the other. If it is just an arms race, the guy who can nuke missile silos three times in a row and has 10,000 more warheads to lob at every tank factory, army depot, and saltwater port has a huge advantage in using the bombs. Equal numbers create a zero-sum game.

Fallout

Nuclear fallout is earth and debris that is sucked up by the fireball into the nuclear reaction as it’s happening. The particles are then irradiated and fall back to earth; heavier particles fast and locally and lighter ones further away. Fallout is not like a disease and it is not contagious, nor does it make other stuff radioactive. However, it contaminates things as the particles stick onto or get into other things, just like dust does. It can be cleaned off (in theory).

Fallout is not a given. Appreciable fallout only comes from ground bursts. Ground bursts dig up a lot of soil and debris that becomes radioactive fallout. Such an impact would be necessary to destroy hardened missile silo and military facilities. We’re unlikely to see these outside of the missile fields of the Midwest or away from major underground bases.

Fallout would from these impacts would carry to the north and west generally as they follow the prevailing wind patterns. Areas of additional concern would be near Vandenberg SFB, although they do not have nuclear weapons there, Air Force and Navy bases with nuclear weapon storage areas, and very important military locations with hardened shelters, like Omaha and the Washington DC area. Locally heavy fallout requiring shelter would not be a major concern for most Americans away from these risk areas.

Fallout is also generally directional. Again to avoid fallout, you don’t want to be north or east of a nuclear target. Basically anywhere that is downwind. Yes, wind patterns shift. A children’s book After the Bomb was set in LA and a major plot point was that the single bomb, launched by accident, impacted during a Santa Ana wind event. That meant for several days, the fallout was being pushed out to sea before the wind pattern reversed and blew it back inland.

I recommend the NukeMap to simulate fallout patterns because you can choose the yield of the weapon to get a realistic profile. For most targets, ground detonated weapons will probably be <300 kilotons, not multi-megatons, which would be reserved for the presidential bunker, NORAD, and similar ultra-hard facilities. Those close to a surface burst, but upwind, might not have to worry too much about fatal fallout requiring a shelter. Even so, hoping the wind doesn’t shift is not a plan.

To create appreciable fallout in my books, I assumed surface bursts would be necessary to crater the quays and container storage and handling areas. If COVID-19 could cripple our major West Coast ports, an air burst would do just fine. So I do not believe that for those away from missile silos, nuclear weapon storage areas, and hardened military/government bunkers, fallout will be a significant concern.

Air bursts

Going back to the 1940s mindset, to destroy a city, an airburst is ideal. A bomb detonated at altitude maximizes its downward “punch” from the shockwave and thermal effects over a larger area. Airbursts are the most likely way a city would be targeted to get the maximum amount of destruction. At the typical height and bomb strength, the fireball never touches ground and fallout is minimized—close to non-existent per a lot of sources.

Radiation in these cases is limited to generally directly under the explosion where the initial burst of radiation irradiates everything underneath it. Note that this airburst radiation does not produce fallout. The nuclear reaction going on in the explosion zap downward into the ground in immediate proximity of the fireball. Once the reaction is over, the irradiation stops. Radiation is not contagious to people or particles, so unless the ground and debris beneath is moved, there will be little contamination. If you aren’t near an air burst’s ground zero, radiation poisoning isn’t much of a worry.

Though no major fallout occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the thermal and blast effects were awful. Modern American cities would be just as vulnerable. Fire and blast would be the big killers. So don’t live next to a military base or in the center of a city. Rural residents have an advantage here.

Shelters and radiation poisoning

I got obsessed with “bomb” shelters and nuclear war by finding a “how to” pamphlet at about ten. Now there are two types of shelters: blast and fallout. Blast shelters protect one from overpressure, shrapnel, and debris. These can range from Hesco barriers, to dugouts, to pressurized concrete bunkers. Fallout shelters may have some inherent blast protection built in but are intended to be thickly insulated by dense materials to protect from radiation.

There is a house not far from where I grew up that has a fallout shelter; necessary because the city is downwind from Vandenburg SFB and there was an Air Defense Command base in town. Our neighborhood, even from a small warhead, would have been reduced to concrete pads, but the likely explosion wouldn’t have produced much radiation danger. The stuff blowing from the northwest, as Vandenburg likely would have had at least one surface burst, would have been the killer.

Radiation, like any energetic particle, can be defeated by dense materials or distance. Starting with distance, radiation decreases in strength the further away that you are; this is known as the inverse square law. So two feet from a radioactive source of 100 R/hr, gives you 25 R/hr. That means merely being on the inside of a wall, two feet away from the contaminated fallout outside, you’re getting a fourth of the dosage you would be outside.

I came across this when I was writing about my character building an expedient shelter in the crawlspace beneath his house. Bags of concrete made walls that stopped the radiation, but what to do about the space above? Plate steel isn’t that great of a radiation shield and the living room floor could only take so much loading from concrete bags or soil. Turns out, if the house is intact, the space from the roof to the shelter roof could be adequate depending on the radiation level.

So assuming no protection overhead (wood would offer little, but some protection) even an airgap of ten feet of room and attic, if the Geiger counter read 300 R/hr outside, only 3 R/hr would be coming in through the shelter roof. This is assuming a lot, however, such as no fallout enters your home or shelter. A home with broken windows that fills up with fallout will eliminate any “safe” space. What this means is that overhead protection, which can be a conundrum for emergency shelter construction, is simplified if the structure and windows are intact.

Here’s another cool thing about fallout physics; for every seven-fold passage of time, radiation decreases in strength by a factor of ten, known as the “seven-ten” rule. Radiation weakens with time, but is cumulative, so instead of taking 21 rads over seven hours, it’s only an exposure of 9.8 rads. After a day at that level, probably no effects would be noticed for years with a 24 hour exposure of 24 rads.

One could spend a day in an uncomfortable high protection shelter before going to a space with less protection, like a basement once the radiation level has dropped. If you had to, a coffin-like shelter of concrete bags, sandbags, or other dense materials might suffice during the heaviest fallout and radiation period. Then all you have to do is huddle in the center of your sealed and uncontaminated home.

Clean air is important, especially if you’re drawing from outside or a contaminated source, so an air filter is necessary. There are guides to creating expedient filters and pumps using household materials in both Cresson Kearny’s Nuclear War Survival Skills and Dean Ing’s Pulling Through (the best nuclear war novel, though it’s out of print). If you can stay deep inside a building, with filtered air, radiation from fallout in most areas will be manageable.

Second strike and Chinese usage

China has a few hundred nuclear warheads with plans to increase that number to 1000. As it is, they have no credible “second strike” capability and even their stretch goal doesn’t help. A second strike is the ability to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike against surviving enemy targets from surviving friendly assets or the capacity to fire back if an enemy gets the drop and destroys the primary strike, i.e. silos.

The American and Russian second strike is based on nuclear submarines, SSBNs. Our SSBNs are practically undetectable; China’s not so much. There’s also the question of warheads. China’s six SSBNs (at this time) could carry theoretically a maximum of about 500 warheads. Right now, I’d bet the twelve missiles per sub have a single megaton-class warhead. No way they are putting all their warheads in the subs. The number of warheads in submarines will obviously increase as Chinese proliferation increases, yet I would bet they still keep minimal warheads in the subs for the time being.

If you have a single megaton-class “city buster” warhead per missile, the likely tactic is against cities In contrast with probable Russian counterforce doctrine, if the Chinese have a small number of large warheads, that could be a recipe for a first strike against population centers. China simply doesn’t have the arsenal to take out American nukes, hit strategic sites, and have a credible reserve left over for a second strike or for deterrence against a third party.

Despite what I said earlier about big cities not being the target, which is assuming a Russian strike. Russians have the warheads to hit counterforce and military targets. China’s comparatively few weapons are probably going to target major US cities in the theory that if things get that far, the United States is not willing to trade Honolulu, Los Angeles, and Seattle for victory (or Taiwan). I think that Chinese nuclear strategy is atomic hostage taking of civilians because they don’t have the warheads to blast military targets only.

The good news is that nuclear deterrence works because the weapons are so horrible we all assume no one is that stupid or crazy. Probably not even the Chinese, because a few of our major cities off the map will surely result in the death of the Community Party and modern China. Nevertheless, Americans will be too busy surviving to notice we, with our numerical warhead advantage, glassed Beijing. Unfortunately, desperate people make bad decision when they are losing and a nuclear trump card could be played, China choosing death before dishonor.

Even such a “limited” exchange against major cities with half or less of the Chinese nuclear arsenal, will devastate the United States even if it isn’t directly through the primary weapon effects. Such a “restrained” strike could very well see a couple dozen major cities nuked, but you don’t live in or near a major city, do you?

After effects; starvation and nuclear winter

Nuclear war isn’t entirely about the mushroom clouds and fallout for those beyond the immediately impacted areas. After the exchange concludes  a massive disruption in the economy follows, leading to shortages and starvation. America will be in a historic depression that may result in a new dark age. The 1979 congressional publication The Effects of Nuclear War concluded with a chilling short story “Charlottesville” about the Virginia city’s experience attempting to recover: Spoiler alert: there is an economic collapse, agricultural crisis, and famine.

I believe that nuclear winter is hokum, despite how pervasive it is in media and the popular imagination. Remember how the oil well fires during the Gulf War were supposed to do the same thing? It appears that the models and papers cherry picked data and conditions to create the desired scenario. Scholars note there is little debate on the topic; a lot like climate change. One influential scientist involved in early studies admitted the theory was politically motivated.

What nuclear war appears to result in, accepting the studies at face value, would be a “year without a summer,” not the end of life on Earth or blocking out the sun. Frankly, the breakdown of the economy and society will starve you just as dead as will a new ice age. We’ve survived huge wildfires and volcanic eruptions so we’ll survive a nuclear winter.

Honestly, we don’t know what would happen, but with the misinformation and scandals of “global climate change” science and the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s, I’m highly skeptical. I would put a “traditional” nuclear winter in the same category of EMP being so powerful that it stops your digital wristwatch. I encourage everyone to do their own research.

On the bright side

A nuked city is likely to get an airburst, which means that although the center of the city will be annihilated, fallout will not occur. Those living in the suburbs should be okay. Those downwind of underground facilities will need to worry about fallout and the northeast quadrant of the country will be exposed to fallout, either heavy and from a near source or light as it travels on the wind. Rural, upwind individuals will likely experience no major ill effects any different than a standard total collapse situation, aside from higher cancer rates as worldwide radiation increases.

If you think you might be downwind, consider stockpiling sandbags to build a shelter. Do a little research on how to create air filters, what targets you might be living by, and keep stacking your preps. Keep materials like plastic sheeting to seal windows and openings in your home. If you have a bugout location, plan ahead to get there in time.