Politics & Policy

Nuclear Thunder

The U.S. is as vulnerable to atomic warheads as skinny-dipping soldiers are to machine-gun fire.

According to a March 2001 CBS News/New York Times survey, 64 percent of adults believe America “has a missile-defense system to protect against nuclear attacks.”


Imagine that China or Iran lobbed an atomic bomb at the U.S., or even that a British submarine accidentally launched a nuke at America. President Bush could do absolutely nothing but click on the news and watch his constituents sizzle.

Bush’s ballistic-missile defense (BMD) proposal is designed to prevent this grim scenario. Meanwhile, most Americans trust in a BMD program that does not exist. Simply put, the U.S. is as vulnerable to atomic warheads as skinny-dipping soldiers are to machine-gun fire.

Bush does not promote BMD simply to rattle his sword or deviously channel the budget surplus from “human needs” into the Pentagon.

His premise is that poor children cannot enjoy “full funding” of Head Start if they have been vaporized.

Since the Berlin Wall burst in 1989, Americans have forgotten the bone-chilling dangers of atomic weapons. For a refresher, peruse The Effects of Nuclear War, a classic, Cold War federal report at http://fas.org/nuke/intro/nuke/7906/. This 1979 Office of Technology Assessment study forecasts the impact of a surprise, nighttime, surface detonation of a single, one-megaton warhead on downtown Detroit.

The initial explosion would cremate some 70,000 citizens and their possessions in temperatures briefly reaching 20 million degrees. Outside this 1.7-mile radius, thermal radiation damage would be “roughly analogous to the effect of a two-second flash from an enormous sunlamp,” the report says. People would suffer third-degree burns up to five miles away.

The blast quickly would generate 180-mph winds, creating “fatal collisions between people and nearby objects” within a four-mile radius. Related “overpressure” would “blow people out of typical modern office buildings.”

Within a week, the report assumes, a steady, 15-mph northwesterly wind would spread radioactive fallout of at least 90 rems in strength from Detroit, through adjacent Windsor, Canada, across Lake Erie to Cleveland and eventually Pittsburgh.

“People exposed to enough fallout radiation will die, and those exposed to lesser amounts may become ill,” the study indicates. Ten percent of those subject to 300-rem radiation soon would perish while those receiving 90 rems would endure nausea and weakened resistance to disease.

Of the 1.32 million Americans within 7.4 miles of ground zero, the OTA predicted 220,000 fatalities and 430,000 injuries.

Proper decontamination would require radiation to decay in isolation from three years in Detroit’s outskirts to eight years downtown. Widespread cancers and genetic damage would follow for up to 40 years.

These are conservative assumptions. A larger weapon, detonated at noon at 5,000 feet, would cause more grave and enduring mayhem.

BMD would help America neutralize an atomic device before it could ruin Motown or anyplace else. Today’s most promising technology would attack missiles before they reached outer space. A system deployed on Aegis-class Navy cruisers near unfriendly nations essentially would use heat-seeking missiles to destroy hostile rockets as they rose relatively slowly, trailed by flaming gases.

Aegis could be deployed for $8 billion in three years, the Heritage Foundation estimates. BMD’s pricier and more complicated elements could be added as they prove effective. These space- and land-based components would hunt any missiles that slipped past Aegis, as they speed above Earth, then close in on their terrestrial targets.

Bush’s detractors dismiss BMD since an Iraqi agent, for instance, could carry a suitcase-sized nuke onto an Amtrak Metroliner straight into Washington’s Union Station. This is akin to arguing that since some hoodlum might shoot an NYPD officer fatally between the eyes, the entire force should discard the bulletproof vests that shield their torsos.

Why not rely on arms control? Even if President Bush and Russia’s Vladimir Putin agreed to reduce warheads dramatically, America still would remain naked to deliberate, inadvertent, or unauthorized attack from those weapons, to say nothing of missiles launched from countries like North Korea whose treaty signatures lack credibility. BMD, not treaties, ultimately could guard America from, say, a Russian, Timothy McVeigh-like, “mad soldier” who might want to get his photo in Pravda by turning the Hollywood sign into smoke.

Defending American citizens from incineration is the minimum politicians should do to earn their pay. President Bush should insist on swift BMD deployment, despite the carping of his critics. If these nervous nellies were intellectually consistent, they would abandon their umbrellas when thunderclouds fill the summer skies. Perhaps their blind faith would keep them dry.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.