Vladimir Putin recently brought up the idea of using nuclear weapons. When he talked about invading Ukraine he wasn’t bluffing. About using nuclear weapons, unless a Western invader enters Russia, I’d say he is, because use of nuclear weapons is suicidal.
We don’t talk much about MAD these days, which stands for Mutually Assured Destruction. We now have some ability to shoot down incoming missiles but that ability is limited and in nuclear war no one can afford limited. How many warheads would it take to make a nation no longer function? Let me give you a basic idea. I’m going to use the US to illustrate my example because we’re a lot more familiar with American geography than we are with Russian.
We need an easy indicator of large metropolitan areas. I can think of one: cities with major league sports teams, meaning NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA. How many cities are we talking about? Maybe fifty? The NFL has 32 teams, Major League Baseball has 30, and in both cases there are metropolitan areas with more than one team. There are a few cities that don’t have multiple teams, such as Green Bay. Fifty is probably a generous number.
Let’s imagine for a moment that each one of these metropolitan areas was hit with a single warhead a minimum of five times the megatonnage of the Hiroshima bomb. Fifty explosions. What would that do? Probably more than I’ll talk about so I’ll keep it minimal. None of those cities would function. The areas would be hit with a whole lot of radiation. We wouldn’t be able to travel through those cities or close to those cities. If you look at a map it will become obvious that cities are where interstates converge, where railroad tracks converge, and of course where major airports are. Perhaps more obviously it’s where our people are. Assuming we don’t have incredible environmental disasters like really bad disruptions in weather, radiation clouds that move and kill people, food that can no longer be grown – and we already know it will be difficult to distribute what food is grown, we still wouldn’t be left with much of a functioning country.
Russia has less than half our population, that population is now concentrated in cities, and cities of any size are just about all concentrated in the far west of the country in Europe. In other words, what it would take fifty warheads to do to the US could be done with fewer to Russia.
Fifty warheads. We have over a hundred times that. And we have three ways of delivering them.
One is ICBM’s, or intercontinental ballistic missiles. I don’t know if you’ve followed military technology enough lately to hear about hypersonic missiles but ICBM’s have been hypersonic for over half a century. I doubt Russia would be able to intercept any.
The second delivery system is bombers. But a whole lot of our bombers are stealth, a technology no other country has mastered remotely as well as we have. Even if they can figure out a bomber is there, they then have to be able to track it to shoot it down and thus far we have no indication they can, even though they have what are reputed to be the best antiaircraft missiles on Earth. (And we have various strategems to counter them, even if they manage to spot and track our bombers.)
The third delivery system is submarines. Our submarines are extremely quiet, to the point that the Russians won’t know where all of them are if they know where any of them are, possibly those in port. I think we currently have fourteen Ohio class nuclear submarines, the kind that launch nukes. They are capable of launching twenty-four missiles apiece, missiles which can reach Russia from almost anywhere, but we’re limited by treaty to allow only twenty. But that’s twenty missiles, not twenty warheads. These missiles are MIRVed, MIRV standing for Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles, meaning each missile has multiple warheads that can go to separate targets, a little like an Uber driver with multiple fares. I’ve read two accounts of how many independent reentry vehicles are on each of those missiles. One says eight, the other says twelve. Let’s go with eight. In other words, each of those submarines can deliver a minimum of 160 independent warheads. From one submarine. Each of those warheads has a minimum of six times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb, some are way bigger than that. Remember what we figured out 50 could do and that’s to us. One submarine can basically take out all of Russia by itself, with significant redundancy. Meaning even if Russia managed to take out all of our ICBM’s, which is highly unlikely, and all of our bombers, which they flat-out can’t – keeping in mind that at the moment they haven’t yet managed to take out the Ukrainian Air Force, they can cease to exist as a country if they miss a submarine.
As you can see, MAD still works. MAD is a wonderful acronym because it says what it is. And as I said at the beginning, the use of nuclear weapons is suicidal. Putin can’t win by using nukes. He can just end the existence of his country. I suspect that kind of talk isn’t going over well with the Russian military or, for that matter, the Russian electorate.
Not a saber he should be rattling.