The Doomsday Scenario: An Apocalyptic Book Report

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Awhile back, Justin asked if anyone wanted to do a book report on the Doomsday Scenario. So here it is.

Anyways, I’ll cut straight to the chase. There’s no especially stunning revelations to be had from the documents that were declassified. There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s of historical interest, but honestly, I didn’t see anything there that would necessitate the document’s reclassification. Perhaps the general who had it reclassified knew something I don’t, but it looks to me a lot more like a classic case of standard-issue government paranoia. I’m sure they were just trying to err on the side of caution. i.e., Reclassifying something never got anyone fired, etc. But the contents of the document really are mostly harmless.

But that doesn’t make them uninteresting:

Sections of the document:

  • Capability Assumptions (declassified, then reclassified)
    • USSR’s Nuclear Capabilities (declassified, then reclassified)
    • Warning Capabilities (declassified, then reclassified)
  • Military Effects (still classified)
  • Situation Assumptions (declassified, then reclassified)
  • Policy Assumptions (declassified, then reclassified)
  • Weapon Effects (still classified)

The document laid out the following scenario for an all-out nuclear attack on the US by another nuclear superpower (obviously, in this case, by the USSR):

Submarine-launched weapons would arrive at their targets almost completely without warning. Weapons placed by clandestine means would be detonated without warning. An air defense warning of a large-scale manned aircraft attack could have been received on the Canadian border and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts from a few minutes to three hours before the aircraft reach their bomb release lines. Interior areas have between one and three additional hours of warning time. The document’s conclusion was that strategic warning cannot be assured.

Approximately 50% of the USSR’s bombers would be successfully intercepted and shot down before reaching their bomb release lines. The remainder would successfully drop their bombs. Tactical nuclear weapons would be used by both sides for support against military naval and ground targets.

Note: Remember that the weapons being considered at the time were on the scale of the weapons that were in use in 1958. Kiloton weapons are expected to be air burst. Megaton scale weapons will be surface burst.

Population of the United States in 1958:
140,000,000

Killed Recover Total
Blast and Thermal 12,500,000 12,500,000 25,000,000
Nuclear Radiation 12,500,000 12,500,000 25,000,000
Total 25,000,000 25,000,000 50,000,000

Almost 18% of the population is killed or fatally injured in the hypothetical attack. Another 18% are injured, but may recovered.

The USSR would target:

  • US and allied military installations
    • Atomic weaponry delivery sites
    • Atomic weaponry production sites
    • Coastal naval bases
    • Concentrations of ground forces
    • Ports and airfields servicing international transportation
  • The District of Columbia
  • Large industrial centers
  • Large population centers
  • Aiming errors and miscalculations result in random surface bursts

The results of the nuclear strike:

  • Massive medical crisis
    • Major injuries include radiation poisoning and serious burns
    • Burn injuries are exceptionally difficult to treat
    • Difficult to determine whether a radiation patient is a hopeless cause
  • Transportation crisis; roads are clogged
  • Government control very difficult to maintain
  • Economy in chaos, stock markets frozen in response
  • Food that isn’t stored in a shelter is in danger of contamination
  • Housing crisis requires voluntary and enforced billeting.
  • Community systems fail: water, sewer, electricity unavailable.
    • Potable water can be imported
    • Generators can be run
    • Waste disposal is a major problem
  • Communication networks fail due to destruction or clogging
  • Electric power down almost everywhere due to destruction of substations
    and distribution lines

Of course, obviously, the scenarios examined by the report dealt purely with a large scale nuclear attack, and not the single weapon attacks by terrorists or rogue nations we currently are concerned with. However, many of the same vulnerabilities that were addressed directly or indirectly by the document and that were an issue in 1958 are still a significant problem today. For instances, the document warns of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons smuggled onto US soil by clandestine methods, and then detonated without warning. These tactics were expected and anticipated in 1598, and 48 years later, we’re still inspecting only 5% of the cargo containers that enter the United States. To say nothing of the problem of a nuclear weapon being detonated while still within their container prior to inspection. Which would actually end up being particularly disasterous because of the high volume of contaminated water and steam that would likely result. (A detonation over water is usually considered to be the dirtiest type of nuclear attack.)

That said, while it certainly isn’t very reassuring, I find myself of the opinion that the issue of container inspections is something of a logistical nightmare. To properly and safely deal with the containers, they would have to be inspected by US customs officials before they even left their port of origin. If it weren’t political suicide to say so, I have a feeling we’d be hearing a lot more of the people involve protesting that they’re already doing the best they can, and that there really isn’t any good way to patch this particular security hole effectively. But no one really wants to hear that.

So where do we go from here?

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