With the latest dustup over comments allegedly made by Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump questioning America’s nuclear weapons use rationale, WATM thought it would be worth looking into how popping off a couple nukes on, say, ISIS might actually look.
While a nuclear exchange using even small arsenals like India’s and Pakistan’s would likely result in a nuclear winter, an extinction-level event, a small nuclear attack would not produce a nuclear winter on its own.
So what would happen if America or another nuclear power were to use a single, small, nuclear bomb to end a conflict?
To destroy a city with a small nuclear weapon such as the B61 bomb—capable of explosions from .3 kilotons to 340 kilotons—while minimizing fallout and other repercussions, it would be best to detonate the weapon on the surface at its minimum .3 kiloton yield. This is roughly 2.5 percent the strength of the blast at Hiroshima.
Based on the math, .3-kiloton explosion in the ISIS capital of Raqqa, for example, could be aimed to destroy major infrastructure such as roads without directly hitting the National Hospital or major mosques.
When the bomb went off, a flash of light would fill the sky, blinding anyone looking at it.
A searing heat would accompany the flash, superheating the surfaces of buildings, streets and anything else in the area. Paint, plastics, glues, papers, living tissue and so forth would immediately burn and begin to rise as black carbon. This effect would kill everything in an approximately 160-yard radius from the blast area.
In the following instant, the massive overpressure wave from the blast would rock the surrounding landscape. The wind generated by this blast would pick up all the black carbon, loose objects, sand and rubble, and blast it out from ground zero and up into the atmosphere.
This shockwave would be especially strong — compared to the size of the explosion — in a dialed-down bomb like the B61 at a .3-kiloton setting. Between the searing heat and the shockwave, everyone within approximately 340 yards of the blast would be killed nearly instantly.
All of this would happen in the first second after the bomb detonated.
In the area surrounding ground zero, going from about 340-750 yards, many people would survive the initial explosion with severe burns, internal injuries from the pressure blast, and blindness.
This would produce an estimated 4,400 casualties and 8,900 injuries, according to nuclearsecrecy.org‘s Nuke Map.
In the minutes that followed the blast, fires would quickly spread everywhere there is material to burn. Emergency crews would have to juggle between fighting the fires and treating the wounded.
With the sudden increase in debris and damage to infrastructure, first responders would be unable to move the wounded to hospitals. Surviving doctors — which Raqqa already has a shortage of — would be pressed into service treating the wounded.
Given the Islamic State’s known disdain for civilians, it’s likely these doctors would be ordered to treat militant fighters first.
The irradiated debris from the blast and the fires, including burnt plastics and other toxins, would settle on the ground starting in the first few hours after the detonation. As this material settled, much of it would end up in the Euphrates River which runs to the south of the city center. This would poison the water supplies downriver, including much of Syria and the bulk of Southern Iraq.
Any attempt to render humanitarian aid in the area would be hampered by the severe health risks of operating in an irradiated environment. While all branches of the military have personnel and units trained to operate in a nuke zone, only a small number are true specialists.
And most of these specialized forces are assigned to domestic counterterrorism missions — meaning that pre-staging them forward or deploying them to assist after a nuclear attack would weaken America’s ability to respond to an attack at home.
Meanwhile, there is little evidence that a nuclear attack on the ISIS capital would actually stop them.
Nuclear attacks are designed to work two ways. First, the attack damages infrastructure and the physical warfighting capability of the enemy. But ISIS has relatively few infrastructure needs. It doesn’t manufacture tanks or planes, and it can build suicide vehicles and bomb vests nearly anywhere.
The second way a nuclear attack stops an enemy is by delivering such a psychological blow that they stop fighting. But ISIS fighters are already happy with being cannon fodder and suicide bombers. Martyrdom is martyrdom, nuclear or otherwise.
A nuclear attack on a Muslim city, even the ISIS capital, could also prove to be a prime recruiting tool. It might be used as an example that America doesn’t care about Muslim lives, and “Remember Raqqa!” would be a rallying cry for recruiters and fighters for the rest of the war.
Using the weapons against any other enemy would be even worse. While ISIS would survive and be able to recruit after suffering a nuclear attack, China or Russia could respond with an actual nuclear attack. The resulting exchange would guarantee a nuclear winter.
So maybe it’s best to keep using nuclear weapons as a last-resort deterrent instead of just another weapon in the armory.