The 5 Most Dangerous Nuclear Threats No One Is Talking About (2023)

Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have occupied a hallowed place in U.S. national security. Indeed, during the dawn of the nuclear era, a whole new academic discipline—strategic studies—sprung up to provide the intellectual foundations for policy makers grappling with these earth-shattering issues. Moreover, while easy (convenient?) to forget today, nuclear weapons were central to America’s strategy for defending Europe from the numerically superior Soviet military.

During the Cold War, much of the debate centered on the U.S.-Soviet nuclear balance. And for good reason; this was both the most likely and most dangerous flashpoint. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons have continued to be a major preoccupation of American statesmen. However, instead of being concerned by existing nuclear arsenal, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has been most consumed by the nuclear weapons “rogue” states and terrorist groups don’t have. Meanwhile, outside of government, the strategic-studies community has been replaced by the arms-control crowd, who pours most of its energies into trying to abolish nuclear weapons instead of trying to minimize the danger of them.

None of these pursuits are unworthy in and of themselves. Nonetheless, they’ve created a vacuum whereby few are talking about (much less solving) the nuclear dangers that actually confront the world today. Unfortunately, these haven’t gone away. With the hope of sparking these necessary conversations, here are the five most dangerous nuclear threats no one is talking about:

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Asian MIRVs

As I discussed last month, the most dangerous nuclear threat the world currently faces is the prospect of China and India acquiring multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). MIRVs allow ballistic missiles to carry up to ten nuclear warheads each one of which can be aimed at a different target.

As we witnessed during the Cold War, the introduction of MIRVed missiles greatly destabilizes nuclear balances, by making nuclear arsenals more susceptible to being destroyed by an enemy first strike. Compensating for this greater danger requires states to build more nuclear weapons and disperse them to more and more places. This will be especially true for India and China, which have maintained extremely small nuclear arsenals relative to the U.S. and Russia.

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Thus, the most immediate impact of China and India acquiring MIRVs will be that they will have to greatly expand the size of their nuclear arsenal. The impact will not be limited to them, however. For one thing, a rapidly expanding Indian nuclear arsenal will leave Pakistan—which is already terrified that it’s arsenal could be destroyed in a first strike—vulnerable. It is likely to respond by expanding its arsenal as much and as quickly as possible, and ultimately by acquiring its own MIRVed missiles (perhaps with the help of China).

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Similarly, Russia has increasingly relied on its massive nuclear arsenal to “offset” its diminishing conventional military power. As China’s military modernization continues, Moscow will become even more reliant on its nuclear weapons to deter the Chinese. Thus, it is absolutely crucial that Russia maintain a large advantage over China in the nuclear realm. A rapidly expanding Chinese nuclear arsenal would greatly jeopardize that. One day we might look back and assess that China’s MIRVed missiles killed U.S.-Russia arms control.

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Pakistan Tactical Nukes

Contrary to popular belief, Pakistan did acquire nuclear weapons to counter India’s arsenal, but rather to “offset” India’s conventional superiority.

Indeed, the decision to pursue nuclear weapons was made at a January 1972 meeting in Multan in south Punjab, Pakistan. The prior month, Pakistan’s military had been badly humiliated in its war with India, which resulted in East Pakistan becoming the independent state of Bangladesh. This halved Pakistan and, as a result, widened the gap with India in terms of population (from 5:1 in India’s favor to 10:1 in India’s favor) and economic potential. It also shattered the prevailing belief in Pakistan at the time that its military was qualitatively superior to the Indian armed forces, and confirmed (in the minds of many Pakistanis at least) that Delhi was bent on dismantling Pakistan.

As a result, it is not altogether surprising that Pakistan is seeking tactical nuclear weapons to use on the battlefield against India, especially in light of Delhi’s “Cold Start” doctrine. After all, NATO deployed tactical nuclear weapons because it sought to use nuclear weapons to offset the Soviet Union’s conventional superiority.

However, tactical nuclear weapons should be concerning to all, especially when fielded by a country like Pakistan. For one thing, fielding tactical nuclear weapons underscores Pakistan’s willingness to use atomic weapons even to counter non-nuclear threats. Moreover, in order to be effective, Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons would have to be kept in a more ready state in order to be usable on short notice. Furthermore, once deployed on the frontlines, the battlefield commanders would likely be granted the authority to use them, raising the danger of a rogue general sparking a nuclear armageddon. Finally, tactical nuclear weapons, especially when deployed, would be more susceptible to theft by any one of the countless terrorist groups that call Pakistan their home.

Usable Nukes

An insane amount of analysis has gone into parsing out how precision-guided munitions and their support systems—achieving much greater accuracy—have impacted conventional warfare. An equally insane amount of apathy has been shown towards how the revolution in accuracy affects nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, the growing accuracy of modern missiles has the potential to greatly undermine strategic stability. Indeed, Keir Lieber and Daryl Press—who are easily doing some of the best work on existing nuclear weapons—even argue that the revolution in accuracy spells the end of mutual assured destruction (MAD).

MAD, and the related tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons, was underpinned by a couple of important assumptions. First, that states had secure second-strike capabilities that made it impossible for states to destroy an adversary’s nuclear arsenal with a surprise attack. Second, that the destructive power of thermonuclear weapons—and the indiscriminate nature of this destruction—made them abhorrent to use. Related to both of these was the notion that no state could win a thermonuclear conflict between two nuclear powers.

As Lieber and Press have brilliantly documented, the revolution in accuracy threatens to undermine many of these assumptions. To begin with, the incredible accuracy of modern missile systems makes a successful first strike far more plausible. This is especially true against states not named Russia and the United States who have relatively small nuclear arsenals (at least for now).

However, after modeling a prospective first strike against Russia’s strategic forces, Lieber and Press concluded that the U.S. could execute a successful first strike with a high degree of probability against even Moscow’s massive nuclear arsenal. In fact, they claimed that U.S. policy makers had actually constructed America’s strategic forces with the goal of strategic primacy (defined as “the ability to use nuclear weapons to destroy the strategic forces of any other country”) in mind. Furthermore, they later concluded that this effort extended beyond nuclear weapons. As they explained in 2013, “the effort to neutralize adversary strategic forces—that is, achieve strategic primacy—spans nearly every realm of warfare: for example, ballistic missile defense, anti-submarine warfare, intelligence surveillance-and-reconnaissance systems, offensive cyber warfare, conventional precision strike, and long-range precision strike, in addition to nuclear strike capabilities.”

Besides jeopardizing MAD, the growing accuracy of modern missiles also potentially undermines the foundation of the tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons. This tradition was built in no small part on the notion that nuclear weapons were morally abhorrent because their massive destructive power and the corresponding radiological fallout would wipe out populations indiscriminately. However, accuracy is the most important determinate of a nuclear weapon’s lethality (Yield of warhead^2/3/ CEP^2). As one scholar explains: “Making a weapon twice as accurate has the same effect on lethality as making the warhead eight times as powerful. Phrased another way, making the missile twice as precise would only require one-eighth the explosive power to maintain the same lethality.” Furthermore, radiological fallout operates according to Newton’s inverse square law.

All of this is to say that with highly accurate missiles, nuclear weapons become a viable weapon of war. As Lieber and Press put it, “the revolution in accuracy permits planners to target an enemy’s hardened nuclear sites using low-yield weapons, set to detonate as airbursts, thereby vastly reducing fallout and collateral damage.” Indeed, using a Pentagon computer model, experts estimated that a U.S. counterforce strike against China’s ICBM silos using high-yield weapons detonated at ground blast would still kill anywhere between 3-4 million people. Using low-yield weapons and airbursts, this figure drops to as little as 700 fatalities!

China’s Military Modernization

China’s military modernization is hardly a hypothetical nuclear threat. At the very least, as noted above, it will force Russia to become increasingly reliant on its nuclear weapons. This is likely to be true of India as well. Moreover, as Bridge Colby masterfully outlined in the latest issue of The National Interest, the U.S. may find in the not-so-distant future that it, too, must once again turn to nuclear weapons to deter a conventionally superior foe in a distant theater.


What are the 5 most likely targets for nuclear attack? ›

Irwin Redlener at Columbia University specialises in disaster preparedness and notes that there are six cities in the US that are more likely to be targeted in a nuclear attack – New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington DC.

Who are the 5 nuclear weapon states? ›

In order of acquisition of nuclear weapons, these are the United States, Russia (the successor of the former Soviet Union), the United Kingdom, France, and China. Of these, the three NATO members, the UK, US, and France, are sometimes termed the P3.

How many nukes are needed to destroy the world? ›

As of 2019, there are 15,000 nuclear weapons on planet Earth. It would take just three nuclear warheads to destroy one of the 4,500 cities on Earth, meaning 13,500 bombs in total, which would leave 1,500 left.

Can the US shoot down nukes? ›

The United States deploys two systems that can shoot down incoming missiles in the midcourse phase of flight: The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system and. The Aegis defense system.

What US cities would Russia target? ›

But from there, as counterforce evolves into counter-value, Russian missiles would begin targeting larger cities, including New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (Washington D.C. would most likely already be hit in the first wave of attacks).

Where in the US is least likely to be nuked? ›

Some estimates name Maine, Oregon, Northern California, and Western Texas as some of the safest locales in the case of nuclear war, due to their lack of large urban centers and nuclear power plants.

Does the US have secret weapons? ›

The U.S. military already has several rudimentary anti-space weapons. The U.S. Navy, for instance, has the SM-3, a missile originally designed to shoot down incoming ballistic missile warheads. Ballistic missile warheads briefly travel the same general route as satellites in low-Earth orbit.

What states are targets for nukes? ›

There are 14 : Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.

Which US state has nukes? ›

This map is private.

Here are the locations of nuclear weapons in the United States: Naval Base Kitsap (Washington) Malstrom Air Force Base (Montana) Nellis Air Force Base (Nevada)

What countries would survive a nuclear war? ›

The study published in the journal Risk Analysis describes Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu as the island countries most capable of producing enough food for their populations after an “abrupt sunlight‐reducing catastrophe” such as a nuclear war, super volcano or asteroid strike.

How many miles would one nuke destroy? ›

The volume the weapon's energy spreads into varies as the cube of the distance, but the destroyed area varies at the square of the distance. Thus 1 bomb with a yield of 1 megaton would destroy 80 square miles. While 8 bombs, each with a yield of 125 kilotons, would destroy 160 square miles.

Where would a nuclear bomb hit in the US from Russia? ›

A Russian nuclear attack would likely focus on high-value targets in North Dakota or Montana.

Can the US shoot down a Russian nuke? ›

But Russian nuclear missiles are more sophisticated than those from North Korea, Soofer said. So the US would need to fire multiple interceptors at an incoming Russian missile to destroy its warheads, and the system could quickly get overwhelmed.

How long would it take a nuke to reach the US from Russia? ›

It would take a land- based missile about 30 minutes to fly between Russia and the United States; a submarine-based missile could strike in as little as 10 to 15 minutes after launch.

What would happen if the US and Russia went to war? ›

A full-on war would require major disruptions in the economy, which is already reeling under inflation and supply chain pressures. The U.S. would also have to shift its focus and resources away from the rising threat of China, which would put American strategy in the Pacific in a precarious position.

Which US cities would Russia hit first? ›

  • A nuclear attack on US soil would most likely target one of six cities: New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington, DC.
  • But a public-health expert says any of those cities would struggle to provide emergency services to the wounded.
Jan 1, 2023

What will the doomsday clock be in 2023? ›

The "Doomsday Clock," created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to illustrate how close humanity has come to the end of the world, moved its "time" in 2023 to 90 seconds to midnight, 10 seconds closer than it has been for the past three years.

Which US states would get nuked first? ›

The cities that would most likely be attacked are Washington, New York City and Los Angeles. Using a van or SUV, the device could easily be delivered to the heart of a city and detonated. The effects and response planning from a nuclear blast are determined using statics from Washington, the most likely target.

Where is the safest place to live in a nuclear war? ›

The Smart Survivalist named the Nordic country as the safest place in the event of a nuclear war. “Because Iceland is isolated from the rest of the world by the North Atlantic Ocean, it would be very difficult for a nuclear missile to reach Iceland without being detected first,” it said.

Would humans survive a nuclear war? ›

But the vast majority of the human population would suffer extremely unpleasant deaths from burns, radiation and starvation, and human civilization would likely collapse entirely.

What is America's strongest weapon? ›

B53 nuclear bomb
Place of originUnited States
Service history
In service1962–1997
Production history
14 more rows

Can the US stop a nuclear missile? ›

Is the U.S. able to stop a nuclear attack? David Barash, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington who has written about preventing nuclear war, told Newsweek the chance of the U.S. intercepting a nuclear-armed Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) is "extremely low."

What is the most secret unit in the US? ›

SOG is considered the most secretive special operations force within the United States, with fewer than 100 operators. The group generally recruits personnel from special mission units within the U.S. Special Operations community.

Will there be a war in 2023? ›

The most likely conflicts to occur in 2023, according to a recent survey of foreign policy experts, include China aggression toward Taiwan; an escalation of the conflict in Ukraine; growing civil unrest in Russia; a security crisis triggered by North Korea's development and testing of nuclear weapons and long-range ...

Is Hawaii a target for Russia? ›

While the prospect of a Russian or Chinese attack on Hawaii is not likely, it is important to be prepared for any potential contingency. The Indo-Pacific region is critical to U.S. national security, and we must work with our allies to maintain a free and open region.

What to do if a nuclear bomb hits? ›

STAY INSIDE: Take shelter unless told otherwise.

If possible, turn off fans, air conditioners, and forced-air heating units that bring air in from the outside. Close windows and doors. Close fireplace dampers.

Where does the US shoot nukes from? ›

Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming; the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana; and the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota.

Does Mexico have nuclear weapons? ›

Mexico is one of few countries possessing the technical capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. However, it has renounced them and has pledged to only use its nuclear technology for peaceful purposes following the Treaty of Tlatelolco in 1967.

Where are the US nukes stored? ›

The location with the most nuclear weapons by far is the large Kirtland Underground Munitions and Maintenance Storage Complex south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Most of the weapons in this location are retired weapons awaiting dismantlement at the Pantex Plant in Texas.

What will happen if nuclear war starts? ›

The existence of nuclear weapons has a strong impact on the environment. Nuclear war would mean a climate disruption with devastating consequences. The world would fall under a nuclear winter, be subject to a deadly global famine and exacerbated effects of global warming.

How long after nuclear war is it safe? ›

For the survivors of a nuclear war, this lingering radiation hazard could represent a grave threat for as long as 1 to 5 years after the attack. Predictions of the amount and levels of the radioactive fallout are difficult because of several factors.

How deep underground do you have to be to survive a nuclear blast? ›


Building down to a depth of about ten feet will provide ample protection, but any deeper makes it hard to dig out in the event of a collapse.

How far do you have to be from a nuke to survive? ›

The resulting inferno, and the blast wave that follows, instantly kill people directly in their path. But a new study finds that some people two to seven miles away could survive—if they're lucky enough to find just the right kind of shelter.

How long would a nuclear winter last? ›

Surface temperatures would be reduced for more than 25 years, due to thermal inertia and albedo effects in the ocean and expanded sea ice. The combined cooling and enhanced UV would put significant pressures on global food supplies and could trigger a global nuclear famine.

What would happen if a nuclear bomb hit New York? ›

A nuclear bomb dropped on New York City could kill 264,000 people — the most of any city on this list. The city's total injury count would also be harrowing: About 512,000 people would be hurt.

What would happen if a nuclear war broke out between US and Russia? ›

In an all-out nuclear war between Russia and the United States, the two countries would not limit to shooting nuclear missiles at each other's homeland but would target some of their weapons at other countries, including ones with nuclear weapons. These countries could launch some or all their weapons in retaliation.

How likely is Russia to use nukes? ›

Most nuclear experts say the likelihood of Russia actually using a nuclear weapon is still relatively low, but given Putin's current predicament, and his public statements, the threat is seen as increasing. Bunn said his best estimate is that there's a 10 percent to 20 percent likelihood that Russia might use a nuke.

What would happen if a nuke hit Boston? ›

“Multiple nuclear warheads, each more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, would strike the city,” he said. “In the center near the Charles River, there would be a fireball with intense temperatures that would kill hundreds of thousands instantly. ... The total deaths in Boston would be 3 million.

What would happen if a nuke hit Houston? ›

If an 800-kiloton nuclear bomb was detonated at the intersection of Congress and Texas in downtown Houston, 204,150 people would immediately die.

What country has the best missile defense system? ›

Top 5 best anti-aircraft missile systems in the World
  • #5 – Chinese HQ-9 long-range anti-aircraft missile system.
  • #4 – U.S. SAM MM-104 “Patriot”
  • #3 – French-Italian SAMP-T complex (Eurosam)
  • #2 – Israeli SAM or GTAM David.
  • #1 – Russian anti-aircraft system S-400 Triumf.

Where are the most likely nuclear targets in the US? ›

Irwin Redlener at Columbia University specialises in disaster preparedness and notes that there are six cities in the US that are more likely to be targeted in a nuclear attack – New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington DC.

How long would it take a nuclear missile to reach the US from North Korea? ›

According to the Chinese study, a North Korean missile could reach the US in 33 minutes if the US fails to intercept it.

Who are nuke probable targets? ›

The six most likely target cities in the US are as follows: New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. These countries will stay prepared to combat any type of nuclear attack shortly. The nuclear impact could destroy the city and this will lead to a disaster.

What are the potential nuke targets list? ›

Nuclear Targets by State 2023
StateUS Nuclear Target NameUS Nuclear Targets Type
North DakotaMinto AFBMinuteman III ICBM bases (highest priority)
UtahHill AFBNuclear Storage Depot
VirginiaPentagon, TheCommand/Control Target
WashingtonJim Creek Naval Radio StationCommand/Control Target
10 more rows

What are the most likely states to get nuked? ›

The cities that would most likely be attacked are Washington, New York City and Los Angeles. Using a van or SUV, the device could easily be delivered to the heart of a city and detonated. The effects and response planning from a nuclear blast are determined using statics from Washington, the most likely target.

What are the safest places from nuclear war? ›

These countries include not just Australia and New Zealand, but also Iceland, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. There would "likely be pockets of survivors around the planet in even the most severe" scenario, the researchers wrote in the study.


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