NBC Weapons: Nuclear Warfare Realities


May 2, 2024: Iran’s nuclear weapons program benefited greatly from more than $40 billion provided by the U.S. government since Hamas attacked Israel in October 2023. This money was part of more than a hundred billion dollars in oil revenues withheld because of economic sanctions. Many financial and political analysts correctly predicted that Iran would use some of those billions to increase support for attacks on Iranian enemies. This included a January 27, 2024, attack by Iranian proxies in Iraq on an American base in Jordan which killed three American soldiers, and the massive direct Iranian drone/missile attack on Israel on April 13, 2024. The attack was a colossal failure, doing little damage to Israel and wounding only a few civilians.

Iran was humiliated by this failure and vowed to try again as soon as possible after they figured out how to carry out an effective attack against the impressive Israeli defenses that blocked the first attack. That includes finally completing their decades of work on building nuclear weapons. The Iranian air defense system is also in bad shape, with worse personnel who in 2020 shot down a civilian airliner in a blind panic similar to that of the 1904 Russian Baltic Fleet attacking a British North Sea fishing fleet in panic that those were Japanese torpedo boats. That is nothing new as members of the Iranian religious dictatorship have complained about that for decades.

There were also complaints about how Israel previously carried out devastating commando raids on Iranian nuclear weapons facilities in addition to developing Stuxnet, a very specialized software system used to sabotage Iranian centrifuges in an underground facility where uranium was refined into weapons grade material. The centrifuges were controlled by a computer that had no connection to the internet. Stuxnet got around that by secretly copying itself onto floppy disks and thumb drives for years as the software sought the system Iran was using for its centrifuges. Stuxnet wasn’t detected by the Iranians until 2010. Israel has also assassinated key Iranian nuclear weapons scientists. In 2018 Israeli operatives stole half a ton of documents related to the Iranian nuclear weapons program and got the material back to Israel. Israel invited foreign experts to examine the Iranian files and authenticate them, which was what the nuclear weapons experts did. At first Iran refused to acknowledge the theft of these incriminating documents that documented how the Iranian nuclear program worked and where it was at. In 2021 Iranian officials admitted that Israel had stolen the data on the Iranian nuclear program and complained how that led to the United States re-imposing economic sanctions on Iran.

It took Iran three years to get another American president to lift some of those sanctions and release $40 billion of Iranian income that had been seized and held until the sanctions on Iran were lifted. Another nuclear weapons program disaster in 2021 was a bomb going off in the Natanz uranium processing facility where Iran refined uranium until it was weapons grade. Natanz was fifty meters underground and difficult to bomb from the air because a special penetration bomb had to be used and success was not guaranteed. Planting a bomb and detonating it did work for Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence agency, who hired some anti-government Iranians to help with the Natanz operation.

Iran spent a lot of those billions by giving pay raises to the Iranian regular military and the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) forces. Payments were also made to Iran-backed militias and terrorist groups in Lebanon and Syria. These bonuses were to enable and encourage more violence against Israel and enemies of Iran in Syria. These expenditures left most of the $40 billion untouched and the Iranian people demanded that some of the money be used to revive the Iranian economy and restore the prosperity so many Iranians lost over the last few decades. Instead, Iran launched the expensive April 13, 2024, attack on Israel, using 320 weapons, including ballistic and cruise missiles as well as armed UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). This attack was an embarrassing failure because few of these weapons hit Israeli territory and no damage was inflicted on any civilian or military facilities. One transport aircraft was destroyed and a few civilians were injured by fragments of Iranian missiles that fell to earth after the missiles were destroyed overhead.

On April 19th Israel launched air strikes on Iranian air defense systems. Israel used air-to-ground missiles and appeared to be testing the reactions of the Iranian air defense system. Israel revealed that they did not attack any nuclear weapons research facilities.

Israel has the best BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) systems in the world, but those weren’t the only reason for Iran’s April 13 low success rate. The other reasons were that most Iranian missiles turned out to be poorly maintained and unreliable. Half the missiles that did work missed because of inherent inaccuracies rather than guidance system failures. The former applies only to missiles that work as designed. Missile accuracy is determined by a term called CEP (circular error probability) which means that 50 percent of ballistic missile warheads which work will land within their CEP distance from the target and the other half comes down outside the CEP. If a warhead, or its target, is big enough, a warhead which comes down outside its CEP can still hit and, if a nuke, even destroy its target, which will usually apply to city targets.

For example, the U.S. Air Force Minuteman 3 ICBM has a CEP of about 110 meters. Iran’s ballistic missiles have significantly greater CEP’s, which doesn’t matter for those launched at city targets, but matters a great deal for those aimed at hardened targets such as underground air bases, missile silos and nuclear weapons storage bunkers.

Iran’s attack on Israel dramatically illustrated the importance of missile serviceability. They sought to overcome Israel’s BMD defenses with a simultaneous attack by too many missiles for the defenses to engage. Iran closed its airspace for eleven hours on the morning of the day before the attack, then reopened its airspace, and closed it again the next day when the attack went off. The obvious reason for this was a discovery that not enough ballistic missiles could be made ready for a launch the first time but were by the next day.

American military analysts found that most of the 120 Iranian ballistic missiles which failed to penetrate Israel defenses did so because they were unreliable. There are many ways this can happen, usually involving going way off course. Determining how many of a country’s ballistic missiles will detonate close enough to their targets to do the damage expected by their warheads is done with the following formula:

Serviceability means what proportion of the ballistic missiles available are actually ready to be launched (not what proportion the owner thinks are ready). Reliability is the proportion of missiles which are actually launched work as designed.

Serviceability as a percentage multiplied by Reliability as a percentage multiplied by 50 percent for CEP. As an example, 80 percent Serviceability times 80 percent Reliability equals 64 percent times 50 percent CEP equals only 32 percent of available ballistic missile warheads will hit their targets. That is how dramatically lower the number of effective ballistic missiles is relative to simply counting their total numbers. For city-busting with nuclear weapons, probably another quarter as many missiles which work would be close enough to destroy their targets, which here would be 40 percent, not 32 percent.

Serviceability and Reliability vary with circumstances and, for fictional alternate history stories, the date and type of missile fuel, as in non-storable liquid, storable liquid, or solid propellant. Most Iranian ballistic missiles use some sort of liquid fuel. During the Cold War, in which the Soviets were expected to make a surprise attack, Soviet peacetime Serviceability and Reliability was poor enough that Russia needed 3-7 days to prepare for a surprise attack. American Serviceability and Reliability were based on only a few hours to prepare.

Medium, intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missiles using non-storable liquid fuel have very low Serviceability rates and low Reliability rates. Those using storable liquid fuel have lower Reliability rates because they still rely on complicated pumps. Soviet and now Russian ballistic missiles have always had lower Serviceability and Reliability rates than American due to inadequately trained crews. This was greatly magnified during the early 1960’s when the Soviets were installing their first generations of ballistic missiles and had not adequately developed uniform operating/training procedures.

Most Iranian ballistic missiles use some sort of liquid fuel. Iranian project management is less competent than Russians, their operations personnel are better motivated but have less technical skill, and it is still developing uniform operating/training procedures. With a week of preparation, Iranian strategic ballistic missiles probably rate 75 percent Serviceability, 65 percent Reliability and 700 meter CEPs. With this degree of accuracy Iranian missiles can hit Israeli cities but not a more compact military target. 75 x 65 = 48.75 percent x 120 missiles = 58.5 of the Iranian ballistic missiles got to the CEP point. Half of those (29) would have impacted within their 700 meter CEP and half farther away. Since the Israelis can predict where ballistic missiles will hit, those 29 were a threat, 24 were intercepted (82.7 percent) and five hit on or very near an Israeli airbase.

Two alternate history science-fiction series illustrate how use of these techniques can make better, or worse, stories. The only one which ever got it right was Operation Anadyr, by James Philips, starting with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Philip's nuclear war-fighting scenario was superb, and his graphic depiction of a shattered British government trying to keep its surviving population alive was first-rate and horrifying. The other politics were weird but he needed a surprising villain to keep interest going through 1966.

The second series was The Great Nuclear War of 1975, by William Stroock. His war-fighting scenario is so awful that it turned his series into fantasy. He uses nuclear weapons as rampaging plot devices to produce whatever magical effects he wants, however inconsistent, contradictory, and impossible they are.

Stroock’s other military stories are good but here he obviously did not do his homework, not even the most basic issue of Circular Error Probability. He simply assumed every nuclear missile, warhead and other weapon of the Soviets worked perfectly. His otherwise good non-nuclear World War Three series also assumes that both sides’ weapons work perfectly, which is a general fault by military fiction writers. That simply doesn’t fit nuclear war fiction.

Stroock also ignores Russia’s 500 IRBM’s (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles) based in the Baltic States and aimed at Western Europe, which survived his American first strike intact. Philips has Europe destroyed in his scenario, which is excessive for 1962, but he does consider and depict the implications of that. In 1962 probably only 100-150 warheads would detonate close to their intended targets. By 1975 it would probably be more like 200-300, enough to annihilate Western Europe because of improved Soviet launch crews and procedures, particularly given several days after the initial American strikes to improve Serviceability before fallout killed their crews.

And Stroock has the Soviets destroy almost every American city larger than Wheeling, West Virginia, which would have effectively destroyed the United States. Perhaps only 80 million of our pre-war 215 million population would survive to 1977-78. His post-attack scenario is good but simply does not apply to the actual level of destruction his war-fighting scenario creates.

-- Tom Holsinger




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