The US presidential Republican nominee Donald Trump stated that he did not rule out using nuclear weapons in the fight against the terrorist organization ISIS. I would like to gain more information about what would happen if someone did use nuclear weapons.

To bound the defenses of the devil's advocate somewhat, suppose:

  • the nuclear weapons used would be relatively low-energy (bottom 10% in the current stockpile) and small in number (<10 over 4 years).
  • there's zero immediate collateral damage against innocent civilians in these strikes.

What are the likely negative consequences that would follow (any aspect: moral, environmental, political, legal, strategical/militarily etc.)?

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    Every militant group is located in a sovereign nation, by bombing that group, you are also bombing the nation, which might cause some violations of international laws. Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 19:48
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    Retaliation is the first concern. A nation such as Pakistan might then feel far less restraint about sharing nukes with terrorists. Second concern is a potential real religious war (which "the West" would probably lose). That's far beyond the relatively minor so-called 'jihad' acts today. Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 5:47
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    Not one answer is about politics! 7 answers and not 1 answer mentions any specific treaty that could be violated, how congress could react (dems, GOP), if the draft would immediately be needed, etc. One answer mentions it would be impossible for "Europe" to continue collaborating with the US. Which specific countries would immediately leap ship? Which would stand by the US? @pjc50 does a good job, but every other answer just argues that it'd be ineffective and reiterates MAD theory. We know it would be a dumb idea, but if it does happen, what would be the political fallout? Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 23:04
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 23:22
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    The premise of " zero immediate collateral damage against innocent civilians" is completely unworkable. Even the pin point accuracy of drone strikes has collateral damage.
    – mcfedr
    Commented Oct 12, 2016 at 7:24

10 Answers 10


There is no particular benefit to using a nuclear weapon. We have some conventional bombs that rival a small nuke in terms of destructive power, without the lasting fallout.

Using a nuke would basically be using a sledge hammer to swat a fly, leaving lasting radiation damage that affects friendlies, non-enemies, and civilians alike. Once a nuke is used on a site, its not like we can turn that area over to a friendly local force to use and rebuild. The location would basically be unusable for eternity.

It would suggest to allies and enemies the world over that use of nuclear weapons is acceptable, and they might set their own parameters for using such weapons, which could be at odds with our own parameters.

It would hand our enemies a great propaganda tool about the "Great Satan" (or whatever the en-vogue term is), and justify their own actions because we used nukes.

In short: No need; All downside; No Upside.

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    "The location would basically be unusable for eternity." This is quite an exaggeration.This is how the Hiroshima site looks today. Looks quite usable to me. But otherwise, good answer.
    – Philipp
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 20:22
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    Also nuclear weapons are more expensive than conventional ones.
    – ventsyv
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 21:54
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    How unusable the site would be would depend on the type of nuke used. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still quite 'usable' today. Some of the Pacific islands hit with H-bombs, not so much.
    – reirab
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 7:10
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    @reirab I don't think that's from the type. It's more that the H&N bombs were airburst, which eliminates most of the fallout (which is mainly from dirt getting irradiated), while the Pacific islands you're talking about were ground-level explosions (and only the ground-level ones did much lasting damage).
    – Luaan
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 7:36
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    I disagree in one aspect. There is a single very important benefit to using a nuke, the one that they were created for in the first place. Shock and fear. While we have weapons with similar destructive power as a small nuke, there is little that rival the middle and larger ones. And that's kind of the point. The psychological impact of a city killer that can't be hidden from is massive and it's the psychological damage that you want when using a super weapon. That's why very little of the use of nuclear weapons has involved blowing them up.
    – Kaithar
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 7:30


The world has a seventy year history of shunning the use of nuclear weapons as war fighting tools. Use of nuclear weapons by the USA or any other nation would be a huge line to cross, legitimizing their use by all other nuclear powers. This would fundamentally change the current dynamic, with unknown and possibly terrible consequences.

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    Yep, USA uses Nukes vs Islamic Terrorists, Russia uses Nukes vs their own "terrorists". And if nobody follows the example (which is unlikely), immediate condemnation from the United Nations, probably even trade embargoes will follow. The US is important, but the world as a whole has already drawn the line which shouldn't be crossed. Even Pakistan and India refrain from using Nukes.
    – SBoss
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 9:29
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    @SBoss India has a "no first use" policy. Pakistan refrained from using nukes because they know once they use it against India there will be no Pakistan on World Map. Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 11:21
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    @newguy The whole world has a "no first use" policy, that's the point I was trying to make. The USA using first would set a bad precedent.
    – SBoss
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 12:00
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    @SBoss Nope the whole world doesn't have it. Only China, India and North Korea have pledged for "no first use" although North Korea can't be trusted because they have threatened USA time and again. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_first_use Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 12:04
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    I wouldn't be surprised if the Little Dictator decided that since the US used nukes against ISIS, that constituted "first use", so they're then free to lob nukes at Japan (and try for the US too maybe)
    – Doktor J
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 17:44

You can't rely on Stanislav Petrov

Those of us who survived the cold war had it drummed into us that each side had a network of satellites watching each others' launch sites, and at the first sign of a missile heading into the air on a ballistic trajectory the other side would launch all their nuclear arsenal. After all, they can't wait for the nuke to land on one of their launch sites.

It's not clear whether this doctrine of mutually assured destruction is still in place between Russia and the US, but do you want to take that chance? It probably is still in place between India and Pakistan, both of which have ICBMs and a nasty border dispute in Kashmir.

You nuke a terrorist camp in Pakistan, the Pakistani missiles launch, and the Indian ones launch in response. Billion dead overnight. Well done, guys. The worst case is of course the destruction of every Russian, Chinese, American, British, and French city of over 1 million population. I think that's now somewhere above 2 billion people.

The definitive film on this is of course Dr. Strangelove. Stanislav Petrov I mentioned above is the Russian officer who chose to violate orders and not launch when his instruments (wrongly) told him to, thereby not starting World War 3.

(You might be able to avoid this by briefing the relevant countries in advance, and hoping that they don't leak it to the terrorists or go public with it to point out that the US has been taken over by a madman)

'Terrorists' live in cities

This is why "zero immediate collateral damage against innocent civilians in these strikes" is so completely unrealistic. It assumes you have a group of 'terrorists', and only terrorists with no staff or wives, living out several miles from anywhere, not even the local convenience store.

Bin Laden was living "0.8 miles (1.3 km) southwest of the Pakistan Military Academy in Bilal Town, Abbottabad, Pakistan, a suburb housing many retired military officers". Abbottabad is a city of 1.4m people.

ISIS are mostly operating from cities in Syria. Because they need food and fuel like everyone else.

International Law

It's not entirely clear whether it is directly against international law to use "weapons of mass destruction", but you can bet that people are going to start arguing that it is. You will effectively have made it politically impossible for any other country, especially in Europe, to continue collaborating with the US in the "War On Terror".


Even if you don't trigger an immediate nuclear exchange, Russia and China will certainly now have to build up their nuclear arsenals to the point where they can effectively retaliate.

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    While MAD is still a possible outcome, I think the OP is talking about smaller, tactical nukes rather than detectable-while-still-in-flight ICBMs.
    – Geobits
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 13:04
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    Possibly (nuclear Tomahawk cruise?), but the explosion itself is detectable globally. It also means "no first strike" goes out the window; what happens if Russia now decides it wants to deploy nukes against its own "terrorists" and that gets detected as a MAD launch? etc.
    – pjc50
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 13:13

That would make tactical nukes acceptable weapons in conventional wars. With tactical nukes now a legitimate weapon many countries would attempt to buy or develop them as a weapon against conventional invasion.

Next time the USA invades a large country like Iraq it won't be facing old Soviet tanks, it would be facing nukes. Our obsolete T-72 tanks can't scratch the American M1 Abrams? Just carpet-bomb them with nukes/put nuclear mines and see how much they can stand. Our missiles can't reach their aircraft carriers without being shutdown? Just detonate a large nuke near and watch as their fleet sinks or is contaminated with radiation.

It would put USA troops at greater risk without reason.


The only reason to use a nuclear weapon is if you can't do the mission by conventional means.

If your intent is to blow up terrorists you are always better off using conventional weapons. Terrorists will not have anything so big or so hard that conventional weapons can't do the mission.

However, I must disagree with abelenky slightly--I believe there is one case where using a nuclear weapon on terrorists makes sense: If the objective is to destroy a bioweapon. However, that wouldn't be done with a tactical nuke, but rather a big one set to explode very low--and thus very dirty.

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    In fact, in the case of a terrorist NBQ weapon the last thing you want is to nuke the place. What you want is to send troops to the place and capture as many prisoners and intelligence as they can, so you get to know a) where and how did they develop the weapon or whom did they get it from and, very important, if b) you have captured all of their weapons or there is a missing batch that you must try to locate. The last thing you want is to incinerate the whole site and say "Well, I guess the issue is over", no matter what your intelligence says ("yes, we are sure there are WMD in Irak")
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 7:45
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    @SJuan76 If you can capture it, good. If the raid would likely cause it's release you might decide the best option is to try to destroy it. Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 0:32
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    But even if that were the case, then why would the fact that you are targetting a bioweapon or bioweapon facility mean that you need to use a nuclear weapon?
    – user
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 15:56
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    The main MILITARY (rather than political) reason to use a nuclear weapon is not needing the large bomber force that similar destruction through conventional weapons would require, thus less risk to your people . The US wouldn't use a nuclear weapon to destroy a bioweapon site in a first strike, they would (by declared policy of decades) use one to retaliate once that bioweapon has been used against them.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 10:36

As well as the other good points in other answers, it's probably in violation of the US's international treaty obligations. The "official" nuclear states under the Non-Proliferation Treaty have given undertakings not to use nuclear weapons against signatory non-nuclear states. So unless your terrorists are on the territory of a signatory nuclear state (US, Russia, China, the UK, France), a non-signatory state (India, South Sudan, Pakistan, Israel) or a state that has acquired nuclear weapons in contravention of the Treaty (North Korea), it's probably illegal to nuke them. And of course the NPT would immediately collapse and many countries would scramble to develop nuclear weapons.

  • the US always has had the policy to use nuclear weapons in retaliation of the use of any weapon of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, or biological) against them.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 10:37

Using a nuclear weapon against terrorists is a last resort. It will only work if the world agrees. So if Russia, China, the EU, the G20 or something, all agree that this should be done, preferably via the UN, than it might be politically OK, and maybe even legally. I guess this won't happen in the near future, not as first strike.

The problem here is that it will turn against you in the long run. You cross a line, and give North Korea a signal that it's OK to use nuclear weapons.

Russia might agree to let the US bomb IS, if they get their own shot. This is politically not acceptable for the EU (and especially the eastern European countries like Poland with the Russian occupation fresh in mind) and probably many other nations around the world. Plus Russia won't limit itself to one shot. It will always shoot twice, just to let the rest of the world know it can do it.

I hope the US Congress or Senate will overthrow Trump and take over power. I hope there are still enough wise men and women in Washington to not let this happen, but you never know.

If however this happens - no idea. It might very well be that the EU - in the end - lines up with the US, because there is no other option, and you have to deal with it. Russia and China are no real allies here for the EU. China might become one if it acts appropriately.

And we all know that the terrorists have won... Chaos is their victory. Now they're free to do anything. Using a dirty bomb will become a priority. Anything goes.


Dust from Africa has been tracked to South America, and the amount is significant. http://eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov/images/imagerecords/44000/44169/AtlanticOcean_TMO_2010152.jpg

More articles about this can be browsed.

The take-away is that if you nuke the Eastern Hemisphere, there will be nuclear fallout in the Western Hemisphere.

Nuclear contamination doesn't only flow from east to west. Lots of conspiracy theories about how the increase in radiation on the US west coast because of massive, continuing nuclear leakage from Fukushima is not being reported by the mainstream media. But there are hundreds of radiation monitors that are noisily clicking the truth.

Since the world is a globe, then it's only a matter of time before what goes around comes around, wherever the bomb is blasted and wherever you are.

There are more subtle issues, such as: if the US's military activity in the middle-east, including our indulgence in "optional wars" is at least partially responsible for the breaking out of absurdly violent terror organizations, then is it right for the US to compound our own mistaken actions with more military actions of an even greater magnitude, i.e., by going nuke?


Well, the main problem is the same as in much of the existing "war against terrorism": terrorism is rarely a primary act as there are no tangible military goals but a perceived response to an attack or peril emanating from something providing a good canvas for identifying with evil.

Throwing nukes on civilians is not exactly going to help with changing that impression, so to be effective, you should aim for complete genocide and ethnical and ideological cleansings without survivors among friends and relatives.

As the world is becoming more international in its relations, that is an increasingly less realistic goal, even though it cannot be denied that the idea carries a lot of appeal to modern humans as their behavior and decision-making has evolved in tribal contexts over most of their biological existence.


http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2014/07/25/nukes-helped-vietnam/ is an article on a 1968 report on nuking Vietcong troops in Vietnam, with a link to that report. They concluded that the conventional bombing already done on the Vietcong was equal in impact to "3,000 tactical nuclear weapons per year". The target in Vietnam that was vulnerable to nuclear strikes was the US, who had large assemblies of troops in nice neat targetable locations, not the Vietcong who the US was already effectively bombing in those few cases where we had a decent target to bomb.

All this maps directly to modern terrorists. When we have nice neat targets, we can and do use conventional bombs on them. But they're hard to locate and don't usually assemble in nice easy targetable formations, meaning that nuclear weapons would basically just be doing more collateral damage than conventional bombing.

Note also that in World War II, the Allies had no problem leveling Dresden and Tokyo without a single nuke. Nuclear weapons were more flashy and easier to deliver, but even in the optimal case for nukes of city destruction, conventional weapons were up to the job.

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