What are the drawbacks of the US making tactical first use of nuclear weapons against terrorist sites?

  • 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.)?

    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.

    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.

    **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?

    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

    The premise of " zero immediate collateral damage against innocent civilians" is completely unworkable. Even the pin point accuracy of drone strikes has collateral damage.

    Suppose a precision nuke that somehow avoids civilian damage? Might as well suppose using an alien death ray from Area 51, if we're going to move into the realm of fantasy scenarios.

  • abelenky

    abelenky Correct answer

    5 years ago

    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.

    *"The location would basically be unusable for eternity."* This is quite an exaggeration.This is how the Hiroshima site looks today/@34.3940644,132.4538477,658m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x355aa20cfb72be19:0x2fa8b78b04761f58!8m2!3d34.394802!4d132.4547748). Looks quite usable to me. But otherwise, good answer.

    Also nuclear weapons are more expensive than conventional ones.

    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 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).

    And properly used neutron bombs create very little radioactive fallout at all. OTOH, Cobalt bombs are especially dirty, making even fallout shelters fairly useless.

    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.

    Also it should be pointed out that the MOAB you linked to is 11 tons... the bulk of what I'd consider "tactical" nukes are in the 10-100 kton range while what I'd consider "deterrent" nukes can range up to the megaton area. I don't doubt there's anything less than 1k ton left in the arsenals.

    Finally, the type is very important in how usable the site is. Long term use is determined by decay chain products, fusion reactions produce little in the way of the worst isotopes but fission can be really messy. Cobalt is apparently particularly bad. No matter what, you'd probably want to leave the area alone for a couple of decades for the irradiated matter to cool off.

    @Kaithar Using nukes in order to limit the recruiting of ISIS is optimistic.

    @Taemyr of course you can't use them effectively for that, I didn't say you could. I just said that there was a benefit to using nuclear weapons, that doesn't imply that they're all that useful for any given application.

    I don't believe anyone has ever produced a cobalt (or gold) plated bomb, which would indeed spread high-radioactive isotopes with 30 year half-lifes around the area.

    @prosfilaes indeed. They were envisioned as a potential terror weapon in the 1950s (and lead to Dr. Strangelove) but never fielded because a ground burst regular nuclear weapon would get the same amount of fallout.

    @Kaithar Which is great if you're the only person is the world with nukes. When you have enemies who also have nukes and are looking for any excuse to knock you off the world stage, then it's not so great.

    @SGR As I commented on Travis's answer, that's pretty much why no one is likely to use a nuke. It's a principle I like to think of as "if you break the rules then the rules no longer protect you".

    @Kaithar - the shock and fear might be greater among the innocent civilian populations than the terrorists. Especially since terrorists would have been given moral/ethical justification for use of nukes, themselves.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM