Even 'Limited' Nuclear War Could Cause 90 Million Casualties in a Few Hours

Princeton University researchers use the Pentagon’s own plans to debunk the idea that nuclear war could ever be small and tactical.
September 16, 2019, 4:29pm
nuclear war
Image: Princeton’s Science and Global Security Lab 

Recently leaked Pentagon plans revealed that the U.S. is prepared, not just for a wide-spread nuclear conflict, but what it called "tactical application" and "limited regional use," suggesting that nuclear weapons can be used without leading to worst-case scenario, apocalyptic devastation. Researchers at Princeton’s Science and Global Security Lab released a video based on the Pentagon’s recent plan that shows how “limited" use of nuclear weapons could still lead to the death or injury of more than 90 million people in a matter of hours.

“This four-minute audio-visual piece is based on independent assessments of current US and Russian force postures, nuclear war plans, and nuclear weapons targets,” Researchers said on a website explaining the video. “It uses extensive data sets of the nuclear weapons currently deployed, weapon yields, and possible targets for particular weapons, as well as the order of battle estimating which weapons go to which targets in which order in which phase of the war to show the evolution of the nuclear conflict from tactical to strategic to city-targeting phases.”

The video, which plays out like a game of Defcon (a video game about nuclear war) or the climactic scene from WarGames, starts with a war between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russia. During this fictional war, Russia launches a nuke at the border of Germany and Poland as a warning shot in hopes of stopping NATO’s advance. The U.S. retaliates with a nuke of its own on the Kaliningrad Oblast, a swath of Russian-controlled land between Lithuania and Poland. These initial, tactical, nuclear launches kill 2.6 million people.

Once both sides have broken the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, Russia launches 300 nuclear warheads with the goal of wiping out NATO. NATO responds with 180 nukes of its own. It escalates from there, and in a matter of hours 90 million people are dead or injured. The researchers said 34.1 million would die immediately, with 57.4 injured. “Deaths from nuclear fallout and other long-term effects would significantly increased this estimate,” they said.

The point the video drives home is that there’s no such thing as a "limited" nuclear war. The Pentagon and Russia both talk about world ending weapons as if they can be used as part of a conventional arsenal. But the problem is that both countries have established systems and procedures that ensure, once one nuke is launched, that all the others will follow.

That was the point of Mutual Assured Destruction, the delicate balance of terror we still live with today.

Unfortunately, Cold War era thinking is back and scarier than ever. The United States pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, an agreement with Russia that limited the range of nukes. The U.S. blamed Russia for the decision, saying the Kremlin's pursuit of nuclear super weapons violated the treaty. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which set goals for the reduction of nuclear weapons, might not survive 2020.