A doomsday timeline

There's one old (German, 1985)  book on late Cold War issues - especially nuclear war - that impressed and no doubt also influenced me much. For German readers; ISBN-3-922508-33-2. It appears to be a translation of a Scientific American publication.

The most interesting page of it is about the timeline of a hypothetical Soviet nuclear attack on the U.S.. This surprise first strike scenario includes submarine-launched missiles launched from not far off the East Coast and a huge ICBM strike. It's interesting because the timeline shows how illusory the idea of an immediate retaliation (before ICBM silos were hit) was, and how very much the nuclear deterrence rested on the ability to command and execute a second strike well after that first strike.

long exposure photo of an ICBM test

I referred to this timeline several times in discussions over the past and now that I rediscovered the book in my way too big private library I will reproduce it here. Next time I refer to the timeline I can simply drop a link to this.

first few seconds:
coordinated launch of hundreds of ICBMs from Soviet silos as well as 4 to 5 SLBMs from a SSBN off the coast

after 2 minutes:
first transmission of attack warnings by satellite-based infrared sensors and early warning radar chain

after 2 to 7 minutes:
period available (5 minutes) for decisionmaking and ordering of a non-disrupted "launch under attack"
after 7 minutes:
exoatmospheric explosions of 4 to 5 SLBM warheads over the North American continent (about one Megaton TNTeq each at abut 480 km altitude); likely damage in U.S. landline and radio communication devices by electromagnetic pulse (EMP) created by the exoatmospheric explosions

after 8 minutes:
latest possible time for arrival of the order for retaliation attacks in command centers in order to complete the launch procedures in time before x-ray radiation becomes too intense for launching missiles

after 8 1/2 to 21 minutes:
launches of additional SLBMs (then still too inaccurate to defeat ICBM silos, launches delayed to maintain surprise)

after 10 minutes:
last possible moment for launching ICBMs to avoid damages by intense x-ray radiation during flight at high altitudes

after 12 minutes:
first probable confirmation of the ICBM attack by BMEWS radar

after 12 to 15 minutes:
available period to make the decision for a retaliation strike after confirmation by BMEWS radar (x-ray issues may not be avoided any more, ICBM counterattack may fail partially or entirely)

after 14 to 27 minutes:
explosions of thermonuclear warheads of SLBM missiles above ICBM silos to suppress them with x-ray radiation (waves of explosions with one minute spacing)

after 15 to 21 minutes:
required period to relay the launch orders through emergency communications

after 21 minutes:
last possible time for the retaliation launch orders to complete launches prior to thermonuclear explosions of ICBM warheads close to the ground

after 24 minutes:
last possible time to avoid damages by thermonuclear explosions during the boost phase

after 25 to 30 minutes:
first thermonuclear explosions of ICBM warheads at U.S. ICBM silos

One can see the concerns about detection delays, suppression of communications, damages to ICBMs by x-ray radiation and damages to ICBMs by nearby thermonuclear explosions. Launches from the 31st to the 50th minute would furthermore face the problem that the (few?) surviving and 100% functioning missiles would need to rise through the dust and debris clouds of those explosions.

The attackers would have their own set of problems, mostly with reliability, dispersion and the difficulty to place multiple warheads on one target without the first explosion and its effects causing harm to the later strikes on the same target. One missile per silo would yield an unsatisfactory probability of silo destruction due to the reliability and dispersion issue.

The whole scenario did not include a first strike on the SLBM force or nuclear warheads in relatively dispersed storage. The easily-destroyed strategic bomber force was ignored as well (think of it as easy prey for SLBMs).

In the end, the wargames and operational research showed that both an immediate retaliation was unrealistic AND a satisfactory disarmament in a first strike was unrealistic. This may have kept the peace in the 70's and 80's.

The issues of the scenario did no doubt change in the meantime. The sensors used were changed, and more importantly SLBMs could have been upgraded with satellite navigation (GPS, GLONASS), so the entire attack could be completed within 8-9 minutes with an all-SLBM strike. The Cold War ended just in time before this became a practical possibility.


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