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Some of these match-ups are obviously highly implausible such as France vs. the U.S. (well, they did rename their fries once...). Others are not completely improbable, such as China vs. the U.S. or France/UK vs. Russia. The idea behind my question is to gauge the practical strength of each state's respective nuclear arsenals.

Russia and the US have far more warheads than any other nuclear nation state. However, these remaining nations still have between 150-500 warheads each, which sounds respectable enough to destroy or permanently maim either of the two supernuclear powers. (They would obviously be utterly annihilated in return given the difference in firepower)

Would any of these medium nuclear powers be able to effectively deploy those nukes onto Russian or American soil to exert significant damage and destruction?

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    China vs US has been somewhat covered before, incl. accounting for ABM. hypersonics etc. politics.stackexchange.com/questions/69438/… See esp. the last para for a 'game'. Nov 8, 2023 at 18:07
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    "Would any of these medium nuclear powers be able..." This sounds to me more like a technical question than a political question. One would need to find a political angle here like for example do these countries actually make plans for something like this. And I'd say, yes they probably do and even more crazy ones. "... gauge the practical strength of each state's respective nuclear arsenals." Due to limited practical experience (thank God for that) this might be really difficult. Nov 8, 2023 at 21:43
  • I’m voting to close this question because is about a hypothetical situation that is very unlikely to happen and it requires knowledge about countries nuclear weapons stockpiles that is not publicly released.
    – Joe W
    Nov 8, 2023 at 23:37
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    This Q does ask how credible a deterrent France or the UK have towards larger nuclear adversaries. Considering how much both those countries' nuclear programs cost, knowing if it is at all worthwhile does seem politically relevant. And in the, not-wholly-science-fictional prospect of a Trump term 2 and casting loose Europe, not all that remote a speculation either. Nov 8, 2023 at 23:41
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    Define destroy. Nov 9, 2023 at 0:00

2 Answers 2

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The UK posture (and France's) is not about destroying Russia beforehand.

It is to essentially hurt it very badly it in an counterstrike. The UK has 4 Trident subs.

There are four nuclear submarines – Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance – carrying up to 16 Trident ballistic missiles. Each missile is capable of travelling at least 4,000 miles and carries three nuclear warheads.

At least one sub is always at sea. 6000km range x 48 warheads would allow targeting major Russian cities in one region (presumably Western Russia - Moscow, St. Petersburg). That kills a lot of people, Trident's goal was set to kill at least 10M Russians:

Secret files from 70s reveal Trident strike needed 'to kill 10m Russians'

But if you add judicious targeting of concentrated heavy industries near those cities, you could knock out oil refineries, steel foundries, central government offices and workers, main harbors and railway nodes (usually near big cities), agricultural supply chain chokepoints, etc. Can you imagine what that would do to an economy and industrial base in the short and medium term? Agriculture nowadays is so resource-intensive that famine wouldn't surprise me one bit.

A much more elaborate and extensive version of the USAF WW2 1943 raid on Schweinfurt's ballbearing factories which was intended to cripple the German war effort by denying it a key ingredient to all engines. That failed not necessarily because it was a bad idea, but because real-world, not theoretical, bomb accuracies were nowhere near sufficient for that goal (the factories barely got hit). Nukes don't have that problem.

Rebuilding could take decades and in the meantime Russia would be knocked out of the great powers league. If you're a rational great power leader, but one one doesn't care about human costs, that's what your calculus is about: "can my country maintain its status and power base after such a strike?". Not necessarily "are we utterly annihilated?"

This might not work as well against the US, which has a larger number of big cities, distributed more widely. But knocking out LA, NYC, Houston and its refineries, other big coastal ones (as per comment), some heavy industrial cities doesn't take that many weapons. And it's hard to see the US coming out very well out of that.

Credible and effective anti-ballistic missile defenses would change those calculations however. ABM defenses might not change matters much in a Russia-on-USA exchange, but the much smaller volume of warheads by the lower-tier countries means that a capacity to knock out say 100 incoming warheads reliably, especially if that protection somehow covered the whole country, puts you in a wholly different ballgame.

If instead of the UK, you started making those calculations with China's 300-500 and increasing nukes, the pain factor and longstanding diminution of the US's industrial power and economy increases many times.

Any of those countries, including China, having a credible first strike capability against the US or Russia? No way. Too many nukes in both.

Also, with some nuclear countries (Pakistan, Israel to some extent, India to some extent), their nuclear threat factor to Russia, and especially the US, is either limited or essentially zero as they have limited or no delivery capabilities with the required range. Being able to move them into range is one benefit of ballistic missile subs, besides stealth and not being easily targetable.

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  • Israel reportedly has an ICBM. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jericho_(missile)#Jericho_III Nov 8, 2023 at 18:44
  • @Fizz with a range of 4,800 to 6,500 km. That would work for Russia (3000k to Moscow). Not the US. Nov 8, 2023 at 18:46
  • Range is more debatable, see the rest of the piece. Nov 8, 2023 at 18:47
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    OK, I have added some qualifiers. Yet the basic issue remains: range matters, a lot, if you have essentially a regional deterrent force, no subs and Russia/USA are much further than your usual adversaries. Nov 8, 2023 at 18:53
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Several of America's most critical cities are coastal: LA, NYC, DC. And a sub in the Caribbean could reach Houston.
    – Barmar
    Nov 8, 2023 at 23:25
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Sounds like your question is two-pronged: 1) Can these powers deliver nuclear weapons to the US/Russia? and 2) Just how destructive are nuclear weapons anyway?

The answer to #1 is in general yes. See graphic here. A submarine with nuclear weapons in the middle of the Atlantic can hit the entire US mainland. The main uncertainty would be whether US/Russian anti-air defenses can down the missiles before they reach their targets.

The answer to #2 is, in general, very devastating. See source. They simulated a relatively large warhead (800 kilotons) detonated about 500 meters above ground level in a city with 4 million inhabitants. Conclusions are:

  • Within 2 km of the blast zone, 98% of people die instantly.
  • Outside 2 km, the blast is potentially survivable, but the temperatures will still be very high, enough to cause skin to spontaneously combust. They don't estimate how many die, but they do say that buildings will be destroyed and cause debris showers, so there'll still be a lot of death.
  • After the blast dies, radioactive fallout kills anything between 100,000 to 1.44 million people.

So, a single nuclear warhead hitting a city will cause major devastation. Now Russia and the US are both large enough that destroying one city likely won't destroy or permanently main them, but blasting the top 100-500 most populous cities at the same time probably would. The key question then would be how many warheads will be intercepted by air defenses - for that you'll almost surely need classified information to answer.

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  • Intercepted is also a relative term. Some (older) anti-nuke interceptors like 53T6 rely on neutron flux to degrade the incoming warhead. Partial (yield reducing) rather than total degradation is possible, I suspect. Nov 9, 2023 at 3:49
  • @Fizz modern interceptors use kinetic shrapnel that just wipes any targets in an area of space; hitting a warhead with a 1-cm steel ball at relative speed of 18 km/s is destructive enough to at least disable the charge, and has the ability to disperse it with a shockwave. False targets would just slow down from this shower, but they already do relatively zero damage. And no long-term space debris, as launch trajectory of those shrapnel rounds crosses ground, so everything that missed would either burn on reentry, or get lost in extraterrestrial space.
    – Vesper
    Nov 9, 2023 at 11:36
  • @Allure oh I understand; yes I did, yes your answer is not a good fit the way I've constrained it to threats against high-ranking meeting and just talking to each other. OK.
    – uhoh
    Dec 23, 2023 at 12:05

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