Here’s a news item you may have missed over the holidays. The “doomsday planes” are being upgraded. Four E-4B flying command posts that would be used by U.S. leaders to manage military operations in a nuclear war will receive communications upgrades to enhance their “connectivity” during a conflict that could spell the end of civilization as we know it.
The reason you may have missed the story is that almost nobody besides InsideDefense.com reported it. National media were too busy covering more weighty matters like the efforts of North Korean agents to suppress a Sony film farce that insults the Dear Leader, and the attack on a French satirical magazine by a motley crew of extremists. How could nuclear Armageddon compete with that?
In fairness, the proposed upgrades to the “national airborne operations center” are just part of a routine reprogramming request that the Pentagon has submitted to Congress. But how often does any facet of the nation’s nuclear complex see the light of day in national media? Other than cheating scandals and an occasional misplaced weapon, the media have ceased paying attention to the most likely way in which America might one day disappear forever.
America’s military hasn’t. One of the four doomsday planes is kept on continuous alert and manned at all times. The planes are designed to stay airborne as long as a week with aerial refueling. All of the on-board equipment is hardened against nuclear effects, including the cockpit windows which are covered with mesh similar to that on your microwave oven. If called into service because of a nuclear crisis, the heavily modified Boeing 747s could each carry a crew of over a hundred specialists for managing the conflict, with communications transmitted through satellite uplinks and a wire antenna trailing five miles behind the plane. If the president and defense secretary have been killed, there are plans in place for devolving command to the most senior official still available.
U.S. military planners take this threat so seriously that when the president goes overseas, one of the doomsday planes always follows. It needs to be nearby at all times, as does the military aide within a few yards of the president carrying nuclear launch codes and communications gear. Similar provisions have been made in Russia, which maintains most of its intercontinental ballistic missiles on a high state of alert for fear of losing them in an American first strike.
The Russians are improving the survivability of their long-range missiles by deploying more of them on mobile launchers that can’t be targeted as easily as fixed silos. But you probably haven’t heard about that either, so let me tell you a bit about them. Most of the missiles will likely be equipped with four warheads that can be independently targeted. We don’t know what the explosive force of each warhead is, however a typical yield for the Russian strategic force is around 500 kilotons — equivalent to half a million tons of conventional high explosives.
There’s nothing conventional about nuclear weapons, though. When a conventional munition is exploded, it heats the immediate vicinity by a few thousand degrees. The heat of a nuclear blast at its center is more akin to tens of millions of degrees. So if one of those 500-kiloton warheads is exploded a mile above Boston or Dallas, everything within a one-mile radius is destroyed, heavy damage extends to three miles, and fires will be widespread out to five miles. Not that it will matter to most of the people near ground zero — they will be killed immediately by blast effects or a wind-spread firestorm that expands faster than they can escape (initial wind speed: 700 miles per hour). People further away will linger longer before succumbing to the effects of prompt and delayed radiation. Electronic devices will be shut down for a hundred miles in every direction due to the electromagnetic pulse generated by the blast.
And that’s just the effects from one nuclear warhead. Russia has over 2,000 nuclear warheads capable of reaching America, a fact that will not change materially if pending arms-control agreements are implemented. That’s actually a big improvement from where things stood at the end of the Cold War, when Russia had over 40,000 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons in its arsenal; the number has shrunk by 90% today if you don’t count the weapons awaiting disassembly.
However, there things are likely to sit for the foreseeable future, because as you undoubtedly have heard, Washington and Moscow aren’t getting along these days. In fact, the relationship is going so poorly that many in the Russian capital fear an attack from the West, which is one reason why strategic rocket forces are kept on a high state of alert. The likelihood of new arms agreements in such circumstances is not high. Besides, U.S. arms-control strategy is grounded in a series of assumptions about how to stabilize the strategic balance that requires giving Russia an “assured destruction” capability against America, so arms agreements aren’t going to eliminate the specter of nuclear war. U.S. military experts figure that if the arsenals on each side fall much below a thousand “deliverable” warheads, cheating would be encouraged by the prospect of achieving military advantage in a future nuclear exchange.
Thus the main protection Americans have against Russian nuclear aggression today is Moscow’s awareness that the U.S. force could ride out a surprise attack and then retaliate by laying waste to the Motherland. That strategy appears likely to work well as long as Russian leaders are rational and don’t make miscalculations in a crisis. If they are crazy, or prone to mistakes, or lose control of their arsenal during a period of instability — well, then all bets are off. You see, a corollary assumption of the way the U.S. currently practices nuclear deterrence is that America’s own homeland can’t be well-defended. That might make Russians worry about the credibility of their deterrent, leading to a destabilizing arms race.
So here we are, apparently doomed to live with the possibility of nuclear war indefinitely. Just ten of the warheads in the Russian arsenal, optimally targeted, could collapse the U.S. electric grid. Fifty would be sufficient to render uninhabitable every U.S. city with a population of over half a million souls. Two hundred would effectively wipe out the U.S. economy, destroying all major transportation, communications, medical and financial networks. There is no guarantee that the nation could ever recover from such a catastrophe (maybe China could pick up the pieces).
Why doesn’t this story get more attention, since it’s the only manmade threat that really could wipe out our civilization? One possible reason is that people think nuclear war is very improbable – a failure of imagination, as Thomas Friedman put it after the 9-11 attacks. Another reason, perhaps, is that they’ve simply gotten used to the danger, and prefer not to think about the unthinkable. But a third possibility, which would be worth testing, is that a majority of Americans believe they are defended against nuclear attack, even though in the common-sense definition of that term they are not.
Somehow, Americans have arrived at a time in their history when they spend hundreds of billions of dollars shoring up the security of countries on the other side of the world, but have almost no protection against the one danger that could obliterate everything they cherish. This isn’t just a catastrophe waiting to happen, it is a political cause waiting to be embraced.