Nuclear Targeting Strategy

Every President from Eisenhower to Reagan had looked at our nuclear war plans and been appalled. Several, including Kennedy and Carter had resolved to do something about a hair trigger plan that promised to destroy civilization and perhaps all human life. All were defeated by what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, which had the US Strategic Air Command close to its heart.

ON JANUARY 25, 1991, General George Lee Butler became the head of the Strategic Air Command. During his first week on the job, Butler asked the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff to give him a copy of the SIOP[The US Single Integrated Operational Plan for nuclear war]. General Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had made clear that the United States needed to change its targeting policy, now that the Cold War was over. As part of that administrative process, Butler decided to look at every single target in the SIOP, and for weeks he carefully scrutinized the thousands of desired ground zeros. He found bridges and railways and roads in the middle of nowhere targeted with multiple warheads, to assure their destruction. Hundreds of nuclear warheads would hit Moscow—dozens of them aimed at a single radar installation outside the city. During his previous job working for the Joint Chiefs, Butler had dealt with targeting issues and the damage criteria for nuclear weapons. He was hardly naive. But the days and weeks spent going through the SIOP, page by page, deeply affected him.

For more than forty years, efforts to tame the SIOP, to limit it, reduce it, make it appear logical and reasonable, had failed. “With the possible exception of the Soviet nuclear war plan, this was the single most absurd and irresponsible document I had ever reviewed in my life,” General Butler later recalled. “I came to fully appreciate the truth . . . we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”

Butler eliminated about 75 percent of the targets in the SIOP, introduced a targeting philosophy that was truly flexible, and decided to get rid of the name SIOP. The United States no longer had a single, integrated war plan. Butler preferred a new title for the diverse range of nuclear options: National Strategic Response Plans.

Schlosser, Eric. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (Ala Notable Books for Adults) (pp. 456-457). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Command and Control is a gripping and chilling book, which I intend to review shortly. At its center is the Damascus Incident, in which a Titan II missile armed with a ten megaton hydrogen bomb exploded in its silo near Damascus, Arkansas, but that story, and the stories of the heroic responders to the accident is embedded in a detailed and scholarly discussion of the whole issue of how nuclear weapons in the US were controlled or not and made safer or (mostly) not.

From a review quoted on Amazon:

Financial Times “Command and Control ranks among the most nightmarish books written in recent years; and in that crowded company it bids fair to stand at the summit. It is the more horrific for being so incontrovertibly right and so damnably readable. Page after relentless page, it drives the vision of a world trembling on the edge of a fatal precipice deep into your reluctant mind... a work with the multilayered density of an ambitiously conceived novel… Schlosser has done what journalism does at its best when at full stretch: he has spent time – years – researching, interviewing, understanding and reflecting to give us a piece of work of the deepest import.”

Full disclosure: The book is required reading for the Nuclear History class I'm taking.

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