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From movies like Dr. Strangelove and War Games to folk anthems like Dylan's "Masters of War," Cold War pop culture is full of chilling depictions of nuclear war planners at their secret arithmetic. The disturbing truth is that the real American war plan for attacking Russia -- the SIOP, or Single Integrated Operational Plan -- has always been shrouded in impenetrable secrecy. The plan exerts enormous influence over weapons programs and arms control debates, yet is beyond the reach of all but a handful of military planners. Even presidents have been largely unable to influence it.

The NRDC nuclear war plans project uses a computer simulation to reveal what nuclear conflict would look like if it occurred today. The project shows that while the Cold War is long over, American nuclear war plans have hardly changed at all. The war plan still requires some 2,600 warheads to be on alert and trained on Russian targets at all times.

NRDC's simulation will allow those outside of the "nuclear priesthood" to examine the nuclear war planning process. The result of that open analysis, we believe, should be the elimination of SIOP in its current form -- a giant step that permits deeper nuclear arms reductions and a less risky global future.

The SIOP | NRDC's Simulation | What Nuclear War Looks Like | Looking Ahead

The SIOP War Plan

More than a decade after the end of the Cold War, both the United States and Russia maintain vast nuclear arsenals. The United States still has 550 ICBMs -- long-range missiles that can reach Moscow in a half an hour -- stored in silos throughout the West. A single U.S. nuclear submarine carries up to 192 warheads and could kill or maim about a third of Russia's population, some 50 million people. The United States has 18 of these submarines. All told, the explosive power of America's nuclear warheads is 100,000 times greater than the single Hiroshima bomb. And our nuclear war plan keeps many of these weapons on hair-trigger alert.

Since the Eisenhower administration, the SIOP war plan has dictated how U.S. nuclear forces would be used in a war. With broad guidance from the president, the secretary of defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the staff of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) works out the inscrutably complex details of the plan. It is STRATCOM that designs and maintains the list of targets for nuclear attacks.

The targets war planners identify include Russian nuclear bases and other military targets, urban industrial targets, and leadership headquarters. Using sophisticated computer programs, planners calculate how hard each target will be to destroy and how many nuclear weapons should be assigned to it. They take a large number of variables into account -- the explosive power of different weapons, how resistant the target is to attack, the impact point, the proximity of civilians to the target, the choreography of many different types of weapons arriving at different times, and fallout patterns, among others. In Eisenhower's day the plan described simple one-blow massive attacks -- with projected fatalities approaching half a billion -- but over the years the plan has evolved into a more complex array of "attack options," including many smaller plans based on the controversial notion that it may be possible to fight a limited nuclear war.

The war plan looms large in the thinking of military and Pentagon planners. Dr. Bruce Blair, a nuclear-warfare expert and former Minuteman ICBM launch control officer, has said that the targeting process at the heart of SIOP "defines our procurement needs. It defines our policy toward deterrence and the way we frame the problem of deterrence generally." In other words, targeting choices determine how many weapons are "needed" and therefore drive weapons production and policy.

Because of the extreme secrecy that surrounds the war plan and its extraordinary complexity, the only people who really know what the SIOP is are the war planners themselves. In the past, when this tiny group has said it needs this bomb or that, or so many B-2 bombers, it has been difficult for anyone to question them. Even presidents -- who have final say over the use of nuclear weapons and keep the nuclear "football" containing SIOP launch codes and attack options with them at all times -- have only a superficial understanding of the consequences of an attack, according to a former head of STRATCOM, General George Butler.

And so the surreal business of planning for the apocalypse -- which involves the projected deaths of tens or hundreds of millions of people and the prospect of turning vast areas into radioactive wastelands -- continues to be conducted beyond the reach of public scrutiny, and is resistant to civilian efforts to gain oversight. It's hard not to think of Dr. Strangelove's crazed General Ripper saying, "Today, war is too important to be left to politicians."

NRDC's Nuclear War Simulation

NRDC's nuclear war plans project addresses the disparity between what war planners know and what they're willing to tell civilians. For the first time, a group outside the "nuclear priesthood" has fashioned an analytic tool that allows them to simulate nuclear war, assess the effects of the use of nuclear weapons, and arrive at their own well-supported conclusions regarding nuclear weaponry and war planning.

NRDC's nuclear war simulation uses high-speed computers, customized software, and declassified data to get close to duplicating the tools that SIOP planners use. NRDC has compiled its own databases of information on weapons, population, effects, and targets to recreate the most important calculations of nuclear war planning, and combined these databases with a vast quantity of data from open sources. This data includes commercial data on the Russian infrastructure, official arms control data on the structure of Russian nuclear forces, declassified U.S. documents, census and meteorological data, digital maps, satellite imagery, and information on the effects of nuclear weapons.

Using the simulation tool, NRDC analysts can select targets, choose warhead types and delivery systems, and design an attack. When the program is run, it produces a footprint of the attack in appalling detail: zones of destruction radiating out from ground zero, radiation doses to human tissue, crater dimensions, fallout dose rate, and the number of projected deaths.

What Nuclear War Looks Like

With the arms-reduction process at a standstill and the Bush administration pursuing a potentially destabilizing missile defense program, the insight NRDC's nuclear war plans project allows into the SIOP's grim blueprints is timely. The project's report, which presents analyses performed using the nuclear-war simulation tool, details two simulations of nuclear attacks on Russia -- a major "counterforce" attack against Russia's nuclear forces and a "countervalue" attack that uses a minimal arsenal to inflict severe damage on Russian cities.

The results are clear. A "precision" attack against Russia's nuclear forces -- with an arsenal of about 1,300 warheads -- would kill 8 to 12 million people and injure millions more, while destroying most of Russia's nuclear weapons. In a "countervalue" attack, the U.S. could kill or injure up to 50 million Russians with a mere 3 percent of its current arsenal of more than 7,000 strategic warheads. There is no such thing as a surgical nuclear strike; nuclear weapons are simply weapons of mass destruction, and their effects are complex, unpredictable, and ultimately uncontrollable.

Looking Ahead

Russia is a country on the brink of crisis, enduring widespread poverty, deteriorating healthcare and shortfalls in electricity, services and raw materials -- hardly the looming superpower of yesteryear.

In fact, a spate of recent disasters, including the sinking of the Kursk attack submarine, indicates that Russia may not even be capable of maintaining the nuclear technology and infrastructure it inherited from the Soviet Union. At a Russian nuclear submarine port in east Asia, sailors and civilians have been observed digging up the cables that connect sub communications to nuclear command headquarters and selling them to pay the bills.

Yet despite the disintegration of the Soviet empire, U.S. strategies for waging all-out nuclear war against Russia remain intact. "Russia's defense budget is currently about 3 percent of ours. When you come to appreciate that fact, you realize the U.S. is in possession of a vastly redundant arsenal," says NRDC nuclear researcher Robert S. Norris. "Sure, it's been reduced. But what we have now is basically Cold War Lite."

President Bush's decision to forge ahead with building a missile defense system -- in violation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty -- could destabilize the world's nuclear balance of power. In keeping with Cold War logic, a bolstered U.S. defense may well cause Russia to respond. And even if the United States radically reduces its nuclear arsenal, which is unlikely under the Bush administration, pouring billions of dollars into a missile defense system will give the U.S. what nuclear activists call an "aggressive nuclear posture" in the eyes of the world.

The United States has an overwhelming economic and military advantage over Russia. The two countries are no longer at ideological odds, and have no territorial ambitions on each other. But American nuclear war plans do not reflect this sea change. We continue to target Russia with nuclear weapons and devise options and plans for their use, a process that by its nature reduces Russia from flesh and blood to models and scenarios. President Bush has said that "today's Russia is not our enemy" -- but if words and actions are to correspond, major reforms of American nuclear war planning must be undertaken.

U.S. leaders should take the first step and scale down the arsenal to reduce the nuclear danger. It is NRDC's hope that this demonstration of the unimaginable destructive power still with us will create pressure to rethink the country's nuclear war planning policies.

Based on The U.S. Nuclear War Plan: A Time for Change, a June 2001 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

last revised 6/17/2001

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