Warfare, Nuclear

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Editor: William A. Darity, Jr.
Date: 2008
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,712 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1400L

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Warfare, Nuclear

Nuclear warfare consists of armed conflict between states in which one or more sides employ nuclear weapons. Because no war since World War II has involved nuclear weapons, how such a conflict would be triggered and executed is largely a matter of theoretical speculation. Furthermore, the sophistication and destructive scale of the nuclear weapons used against Japan pale in comparison to modern weapons. A nuclear war between two nuclear states would result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. The areas surrounding locations hit with nuclear weapons would be highly contaminated with radioactive fallout. In addition, depending on the number of weapons used, such a war could have long-term devastating effects on the earth’s ecosystems and atmosphere. Because today only a few countries possess nuclear weapons, the number of conflicts that could conceivably escalate to nuclear war is limited. These countries include the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan, India, and most likely North Korea. Proliferation to additional countries remains a continual problem for international security.

The destructive power of nuclear weapons makes nuclear warfare fundamentally different from traditional conventional warfare. The single fifteen-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima, for example, destroyed 80 percent of the city, immediately killing between 66,000 and 80,000 people and injuring roughly 70,000. As Wilfred Burchett (1945), the first journalist to report on the devastation, put it: “Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller has passed over it and squashed it out of existence.” The city of Hiroshima estimates that the total killed from the explosion and subsequent radiation poisoning is over 240,000. Nagasaki saw high casualties as well, with 39,000 immediately killed and 25,000 injured, and many others who later died due to radiation poisoning.

How nuclear weapons would be used in war, and whether a nuclear war between two nuclear powers could even be won, has been a central problem facing military strategists and planners. Because of the devastating effects of nuclear weapons, they are less useful in battle than conventional weapons. However, because such weapons exist and because no country can be sure of what another’s Page 31  |  Top of Articleintentions would be in the event that they were to gain a dominant nuclear advantage, the major nuclear powers have continued to develop nuclear war strategies. That said, nuclear powers have shown extreme caution when conflict develops with other nuclear powers, out of fear that a minor crisis could escalate into an unwanted nuclear war; this was displayed during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Nuclear powers have also been reluctant to use their nuclear capabilities in conflicts against a nonnuclear power, as with the United States in Vietnam or Israel in its 1973 war with Egypt and Syria.


Nuclear strategy makes distinctions between counterforce and countervalue. Counterforce strategies are intended to affect an opponent’s capabilities, whereas countervalue capabilities affect an opponent’s will. Counterforce targets an opponent’s armed forces and military-industrial installations, limiting the opponent’s ability to retaliate in a counterattack. A country that struck first in a nuclear war would most likely employ a counterforce targeting strategy. Countervalue strategies target an opponent’s cities—that is, things of human and emotional value. A country that feared a nuclear attack by an opponent would threaten a countervalue retaliation with the hope that even the possibility of its opponent losing one city would be enough to deter a nuclear first strike. Of course, for a countervalue deterrent to be effective, the country being deterred must believe that at least some of its opponent’s nuclear arsenal would survive a first strike. It also must believe that the damage that that remaining arsenal could deliver would outweigh the benefits gained from striking first. With nuclear weapons it is oftentimes difficult to distinguish between what constitutes a counterforce and what constitutes a countervalue target. Military targets are often found in population centers and given the large radius of damage caused by a nuclear attack it is extremely difficult to target the one without hitting the other. For example, when U.S. war planners began looking for military-industrial targets across the Soviet Union after 1945, every sizeable Soviet city was deemed to contain military targets.

The logic behind counterforce and countervalue, as well as first-strike versus second-strike capabilities, is encompassed in the idea of mutual assured destruction (MAD). MAD describes a state of affairs in which both sides’ nuclear forces are such that a sufficient percent would remain after an attack that it would still be possible to bring about the near total destruction of the attacking state. The hope of MAD was that this mutual suicide pact would prevent either side from ever being tempted to use nuclear weapons. In order for MAD to be viable, however, it required the United States and the Soviet Union to stockpile large quantities of nuclear weapons and to develop targeting lists of single targets that would be hit multiple times. In addition, U.S. and Soviet force structures were designed to survive a possible first strike. Achieving this involved spending on difficult-to-target nuclear forces, such as submarines, hardened missile silos, and continually in-flight bomber fleets.


Those who wanted to maintain a strategic nuclear balance put emphasis on developing less-accurate, single large warheads that would be unable to hit anything smaller than area targets. Such missiles would be effective against countervalue targets, which do not require precise accuracy to be effective; but would be less effective hitting silos or airfields.

It was feared, however, that a number of innovations and weapons systems could disrupt this strategic balance. Such a disruption could lead one side to perceive a “window of opportunity” in which they would be tempted to launch a preventive war before new technological innovations either restored the balance or shifted first-strike advantage to the opponent. For example, declarations of “bomber gaps” or “missile gaps” by United States politicians, particularly in the late 1950s and early 1960s, led many to fear that (alleged) Soviet advantage could lead to a devastating first strike. The development of multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs), which are intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) carrying multiple warheads that can be individually programmed to hit separate targets, was also seen as destabilizing, as one missile could target multiple ICBM silos. This offensive advantage, it was feared, could tempt one country to launch a preemptive attack out of fear that it would suffer a debilitating blow if it were not the one to attack first.

Another potential innovation capable of disrupting strategic balance is some form of missile defense system. While an effective missile defense system could protect a country from nuclear annihilation, it would also provide it with an overwhelming first-strike advantage, as its opponent would be unable to retaliate, regardless of the number of surviving nuclear forces. There would also be an incentive to strike sooner rather than later, as military history has shown that all defenses are eventually penetrable.

Arms control agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War were primarily designed to stabilize the strategic balance between the two sides. By limiting each side’s ability to gain first-strike advantage, the hope was that neither side would be tempted to carry out a preemptive first strike. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Page 32  |  Top of Article(SALT I and II), the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I and II), and the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) were all designed to provide a framework in which the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia) could maintain a nuclear balance without engaging in a costly and potentially dangerous arms race.


Since the end of the Cold War, fears of a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia have subsided. However, a number of concerns still remain. India and Pakistan, which both officially declared their nuclear status with a series of tests in 1997, have a long history of conflict, specifically over the contested Kashmir region. This history of conflict, their contingent border, and an underdeveloped command and control system, make a nuclear exchange (either intentional or accidental) a very real possibility.

It is also feared that a “rogue” state could develop a nuclear weapon and be able to hold the world hostage by threatening to use it against a major world city if its demands were not met. While the world could easily retaliate if such a threat were carried out, the question remains whether there would be a willingness to risk giving up an important city in the first place. It is this potentiality that has led world leaders to take aggressive stances (with mixed success) against such potential proliferators as North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Libya.

The final fear is that a terrorist organization would be able to acquire a nuclear device by stealing, buying, or being given it from a country’s arsenal. This is a particularly difficult scenario because normal countervalue threats would not have a very strong deterrent effect on a small, decentralized, apocalyptic terrorist organization.


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Schelling, Thomas C. 1966. Arms and Influence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Waltz, Kenneth N. 1990. Nuclear Myths and Political Realities. American Political Science Review 84 (3): 731–745.

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David R. Andersen

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3045302941