Nuclear war

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"Castle Romeo" atomic bomb on Bikini Atoll , 1954
The intercontinental ballistic missile Titan II equipped with a 9 megaton - W53 -Sprengkopf was one of the most powerful nuclear weapons that were kept by the United States during the Cold War. Such globally deployable missiles would be the weapons of choice in a nuclear war.

As nuclear war or thermonuclear war is called a war , of having nuclear weapons is out.

The only use of such weapons in a conflict so far has been the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Nuclear war has been possible since the beginning of the Cold War . With the arms race , that is, the development of huge nuclear arsenals by the super and other nuclear powers , nuclear war became a real threat to the survival of mankind.

After there was no direct armed conflict between the superpowers during the Cold War, the risk of a global nuclear war sank considerably. Today, the risk of a possible use of nuclear weapons is more likely to be located in regions with emerging economies with nuclear weapons such as India , Pakistan or North Korea .

Types of use of nuclear weapons

  • Tactical nuclear warheads are designed for use against the enemy’s troops or infrastructure on the battlefield, which is why their delivery systems have a relatively short range;
  • Strategic nuclear weapons aim at strategic targets, especially in the deep enemy hinterland such as command centers, bunkers, rocket positions, airfields, ports, industry, etc. Usually their explosive power is several times greater than that of tactical nuclear weapons, their delivery systems have a large to very large range

In theory ( flexible response ), tactical nuclear weapons should also be used in doses, i.e. without triggering a massive nuclear counter-attack.

A massive nuclear strike (with strategic, to a lesser extent also with tactical nuclear weapons) pursues the goal of destroying all of the opponent's nuclear weapons before he can use them as a first strike or preventive strike - i.e. to prevent a second strike . In order to destroy the target even if some warheads are shot down, it is necessary to shoot down several warheads per target.

In a major nuclear "exchange of blows" between the two superpowers , there would probably be no winner, because the destruction would be unimaginable and both sides are theoretically able to destroy each other several times (so-called overkill ).

Possible consequences

Estimates of the effects of a major nuclear "exchange of blows" range from the death of millions of people in a very short time to the destruction of the entire human species and all other complex life forms, as well as the collapse of the earth's ecosystem and the stability of the global climate .

Calculations are available for Germany. After the “ Göttingen Eighteen ” atomic physicists refused to build nuclear weapons themselves in 1957, a further need for discussion became clear in the political debate: What would Germany look like after a “limited” nuclear war and what could be done to avoid this war? The Association of German Scientists (VDW) was founded primarily for this purpose : Between 1964 and 1970, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker prepared the study "Consequences of War and War Prevention", which contains detailed calculations. Horst Afheldt was the strategist, Philipp Sonntag the lead programmer for the calculation models of the study. The results were widely discussed in Germany and at Pugwash conferences and published for the general public; they are briefly presented below.

Tactical nuclear war

Nuclear weapons of 20 kt near the former border with the GDR

Even limited scenarios from the “first hours” of a nuclear war showed that enormous damage can be done quickly. It was assumed that a motorway bridge near the border near Königslutter would be destroyed by a bomb with an explosion strength like the one in Hiroshima or Nagasaki (see picture). Depending on the wind direction and strength, the fallout could reach cities like Wolfsburg or Braunschweig - or not even villages nearby.

Strategic nuclear war

Even the deployment of a single hydrogen bomb, in the picture 20 Mt (more than a thousand times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb) on Hamburg, can contaminate surfaces in several countries, depending on the wind direction.

A hydrogen bomb of 20 Mt TNT equivalent on Hamburg

20 atomic bombs of 2 Mt TNT equivalent (more than a hundred times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb), that would be three percent of the Soviet medium-range missiles at the time of the Cold War, detonated on the floor of the largest cities in Germany, would kill 15 million and also millions of people injured and radiation sick cause whose chances of survival are low due to a lack of outside support. A radioactive dose of 1000 r ERD ( Roentgen Equivalent Residual Dose, total radiation dose on the ground in days and weeks after the explosion) means certain death, 100 r ERD means radiation sickness.

20 nuclear weapons of 2 Mt each on large cities

The Prognos AG contributed a calculation model with which the consequential damage in individual branches of the economy was estimated.

Overall, it was found that for the period around 1970:

  • the danger of escalation was great that it would have been technically, militarily and politically difficult to avoid the ongoing escalation after the start of a limited nuclear war: attempting preventive strikes is militarily obvious.
  • Civil defense cannot effectively limit the damage. Even the use of around ten percent of American tactical battlefield weapons, similar to around two to three percent of Soviet medium-range weapons, would destroy Germany with many millions of dead and injured so permanently that social functions and rescue measures would collapse completely and reconstruction and recovery would no longer be possible would be foreseeable.


With the help of a system analysis of the study (pp. 303–416), Horst Afheldt and Philipp Sonntag showed how the arms race with strategic nuclear weapons leads to a continuously increasing risk of escalation, which undermines all security: By giving the opponent a “first Strike ”against whose nuclear missiles anticipates, one can try to limit its counterstrike. But even your own defense missiles cannot effectively limit the counter-attack, so that an exchange of blows always ends in disastrous conditions for both of you. Even radical assumptions about the probability of a hit hardly change the result: There is no viable path to security, except through joint arms limitation and disarmament. The discussion of such calculation models at the Pugwash conferences prepared the jointly agreed arms limitation of the superpowers USA and USSR .


From detailed calculations of the study "Consequences of War and War Prevention" results:

  • Defense leads to destruction. Even the use of a small number of nuclear weapons leads to the collapse of society and immeasurable suffering. Even ten percent of a single weapon system, the American tactical nuclear weapons, would lead to genocide and permanent uninhabitability in Germany if used according to military (and most other conceivable) aspects. The use of both sides leads to escalation in the type of weapon and the area and can hardly be limited politically.
  • The attempt to prevent war through deterrence is dangerous to escalate. Even with “good will” on the part of those responsible - after the start of acts of war, which can also be triggered by misunderstandings and accidents - it is technically, militarily, and politically controllable. Just three percent of a single weapon system in the former Soviet Union, the medium-range missiles, could have destroyed Germany in terms of sustained genocide and long uninhabitability for a large number of animal species. From 1962 to 1984 there were more than 500 Soviet medium-range missiles.

The human factor

One of the decisive factors for avoiding nuclear disasters of all kinds is the - until further notice inevitably risky - influence of the “human factor”, of behavior, especially in dangerous situations. In the United States, over 100,000 people have had jobs related to the manufacture, storage, and possible use of nuclear weapons, over three percent of whom have been retired annually for mental illness, alcoholism, substance abuse, or disciplinary problems.

There is an abundance of emotional causes which can lead to a politically “actually” unwanted triggering of nuclear catastrophes and acts of war. Historically, many escalations to the more intensive use of weapons were not factually justified, but a consequence of stress, of excessive demands on people in the midst of catastrophic and / or warlike developments. The examination of (often age-related) illness histories of political leaders in the highest state positions revealed a high degree of correspondence between dangerous actions and associated illnesses and emotions. New actions by terrorists, governments-in-exile, putschists, etc. were not foreseen several times and insufficiently considered in the defense against damage. Laboratory simulations showed a high willingness to obey even in the case of unethical instructions. Serious accidents at nuclear power plants were usually based less on design errors than on gross operating errors . The spread of nuclear weapons among technically only partially capable nations can accordingly lead to far-reaching accidents with radioactivity.

Global proliferation of nuclear weapons

The danger of nuclear war is by no means averted, especially globally, in particular it is growing in the course of proliferation to a larger number of nuclear powers.

On the situation in 2008, Oliver Thränert from the Science and Politics Foundation notes : “The international regime to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons is in a deep crisis.” The capacities for the construction of nuclear weapons are currently growing due to the significant global expansion of nuclear power plants is only partially convincingly "peacefully justified" with economic motives. The progress of precision technology in mechanical engineering opens up new options for weapon technology, although the following has been the case for decades: Defense missiles are far more expensive than attack missiles and are usually ineffective.

Politically, local arms races are conceivable, which could lead to a new type of escalation risk. A conventional strike against nuclear factories can lead to military escalation. Such actions, as well as a lack of technical mastery of nuclear technology, can lead to nuclear accidents and large-scale radiation.

The taboo on the use of nuclear weapons and “dirty bombs” (conventionally with radioactivity), which has been in effect since 1945, could be broken “politically unintentionally” in such a way and lead to nuclear catastrophes that cannot or can hardly be contained politically.

In 2004, Russian President Putin announced a modernization of the atomic delivery system. In 2007, Helmut Schmidt pointed out the current challenges of nuclear arms control and emphasized the constructive attitude of leading American military strategists, some of whom were previously intensively involved in armament.

It is true that there is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty , to which several countries feel they are not bound and have developed or are developing their own nuclear weapons. In addition to the official nuclear powers USA , Russia (as the successor to the Soviet Union ), the People's Republic of China , France and Great Britain, there are several states that are suspected of possessing nuclear weapons themselves or that openly admit this ( Israel , North Korea , India and Pakistan ). There are also states that are suspected of developing nuclear weapons ( Iran ).

Research history

The scientific knowledge about the possible consequences of nuclear weapons lagged behind the development and positioning of the weapons. It was not until 1954 as part of Operation Castle that the possibility of transporting fallout over long distances was first described. Damage from EMP was only detected in the 1960s after high-altitude weapon tests. The nuclear winter was first considered in the 1980s .

Critical situations

During the Cold War in particular, there were a number of incidents that researchers or the public perceived as potential causes of nuclear war. Between 1956 and 1995 there were at least 20 documented critical situations. The following events gained particular prominence:

  • October to November 1962: Cuban Missile Crisis
  • September 26, 1983: Stanislaw Evgrafowitsch Petrov , officer on watch in the air surveillance, received reports from the warning system about approaching missiles. However, he decided not to carry out the basic order to counterattack, thus preventing the Soviet Union from launching a nuclear counterattack. The alarm turned out to be a false alarm; Caused by a satellite misinterpreted as rocket launches reflections of sunbeams near an American launching base.
  • November 1983: The preparations for the NATO nuclear war maneuver Able Archer 83 were allegedly interpreted by the Warsaw Pact states as a real covert nuclear attack, among other things because there were plans to mask their own attack as an exercise.


  • Herman Kahn : On Thermonuclear War . Princeton University Press, 1960, 651 pages.
  • Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker : Consequences of war and war prevention . Hanser Verlag, Munich 1970, 699 pages.
  • Philipp Sonntag : Prevention and alleviation of nuclear disasters . Osang Verlag 1981, 284 pages.
  • OTA, United States Congress / Office of Technology Assessment: Nuclear War Consequences. The Office of Technology Assessment Report . (Series of publications Democracy, Security, Peace, 7) Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, Baden-Baden, 1983, 205 pp. ISBN 978-3-7890-0753-8 .
  • Jonathan Schell : The fate of the earth: Danger and consequences of a nuclear war , DTV-Verlag, 1984, ISBN 3-423-10258-6
  • Nigel Calder : Atomic Battlefield Europe. Report on the likelihood of a nuclear war in the 80s (original title: Nuclear Nightmares ). German by Rüdiger Lentz . 2nd Edition. Hoffmann and Campe, Hamburg 1981, 239 pages, ISBN 3-455-08830-9
  • Bruce G. Blair: The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War . Brookings Institution , Washington DC, 1993, 364 pp., ISBN 0-8157-0984-6 .

Web links

Wiktionary: nuclear war  - explanations of meanings, origins of words, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. p. 189 of the study
  2. ^ Prevent and Relieve Nuclear Disasters. Pp. 100-147.
  3. ^ Prevent and Relieve Nuclear Disasters. P. 132 and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Nov. 1980, pp. 15-20.
  4. Thränert, pp. 1-6.
  5. Russia - nuclear armament against the other threat. In: . November 17, 2004, accessed October 18, 2019.
  6. Helmut Schmidt: Armament - America, lead by example . In: The time . No. 11/2007 , March 8, 2007 ( [accessed on September 22, 2019]).
  7. Peter C. Sederberg: Nuclear winter: Paradoxes and Paradigm Shifts in Peter C. Sederberg: Nuclear Winter, Deterrence and the Prevention of Nuclear War , New York, 1986, pp. 3-14
  8. Benjamin Bidder: Forgotten Held - The man who prevented World War III. In: one day . April 21, 2010, accessed August 28, 2019 .