Nuclear Attack Simulator

Table of Contents


Targets in a nuclear war are broadly divided into two categories: counterforce and countervalue. Counterforce targets are the weapons of the opponent, while countervalue targets are objects of value to the opponent -- its cities, industrial plants, and population, for example.

In the early stages of the Cold War, the inaccuracy of weapons, along with the targeting plans of the superpowers, made it likely that any nuclear exchange would deliberately target the urban areas of each country and result in a catastrophic level of damage to both societies. But as time went on, weapons became more accurate. Nuclear planners began to consider whether it would be possible to limit a nuclear war to a counterforce exchange; a war in which only the weapons of each side would be deliberately targeted, and the urban areas would not be struck. By the 1980s, the increased accuracy of weapons resulted in much smaller warhead sizes. In the 1960s, ICBM warheads were in the multi-megaton range, but in the 1980s most ICBM warheads were less than a megaton.

But while the size of the warheads decreased, the number of warheads was greatly increased on both sides. The vast increase in the number of warheads, combined with their greatly improved accuracy, raised the possibility that a successful counterforce strike could be executed. To some, this would be a more humane way to fight a nuclear war. While acknowledging that the term "humane" is a relative one when contemplating nuclear war, a counterforce war was touted as not only a less costly way to wage war (since only a small number of civilians would be killed), but also a more moral way to fight. A counterforce strategy with highly accurate weapons might restore the traditional distinction between combatants and non-combatants, and to a great extent spare the latter from being directly targeted by nuclear weapons.

If this type of nuclear war is realistic, then it must be possible to destroy a large number of strategic nuclear targets while inflicting only a small amount of damage to the civilian population. The purpose of this simulation is to allow you to assess just how plausible it is to fight a low damage counterforce war. You will explore this possibility by using the simulation to plan a counterforce strike against strategic nuclear weapons targets in the former Soviet Union, and observing the amount of destruction that would result to both Soviet weapons and population.

About the Models

Tactical Model

The simulator's calculations are based on the standard calculations that factor in the hardness of the targets and the tonnage and accuracy of the weapons used. These calculations are used to determine both the destruction of counterforce targets, and the dispersion of fallout. Your arsenal represents the major ICBM and SLBM types still in service in the United States.

The targets in the simulation are mostly missile sites in the fomer Soviet Union. Each site contains a large number of silos, each of which is assumed to be hardened to 2000 psi peak overpressure. For this reason a single nuclear warhead is often insufficient to destroy the target; standard doctrine assumes that you allocate two warheads to each silo. Since there are over 900 silos, a counterforce attack of the type you will carry out will use many warheads, each of which will contribute to the overall nuclear fallout.

A few bomber and submarine bases are targeted; these targets are relatively soft (3-8 psi). However, unless your attack is a total surprise, chances are good that many of the munitions targeted for destruction will be on patrol rather than close to home. Command centers are often underneath populated areas and are therefore not included in your list of targets.

Some of your missiles will probably malfunction en route to the target, so that the delivery rate will be approximately 85%. However, you cannot allocate more than two warheads to each target because of the sheer number of possible targets.

Fallout Model

An accurate fallout model is fiendlishly difficult to construct. The fallout calculations used in the simulator are based on idealized models presented in Glasstone 1962 which are intended as estimates for use in civil defense preparation. Actual fallout varies highly with terrain, wind, and rain, which can create "hot spots" of highly enhanced radioactivity.

The wind in the fallout model is 15 miles per hour. Less wind concentrates the fallout nearer the target, while more can spread radiation over much wider areas. At 15 mph, the fallout cloud can extend up to 600 miles from the point of impact, the exact extent depending on tonnage and how many warheads are used. Wind directions are chosen so as to correspond to the general West-to-East flow over Asia, adjusted for the channeling effects of the Ural mountains.

Population densities in the path of the fallout are estimated from a population contour map of Asia. Local concentrations in major cities are represented as an increased average density over the fallout range. In actuality, the deaths in urban areas might vary significantly from the average.

The dosages received by people in the fallout area are affected by whether they can escape the path of the fallout and how well-protected their shelters are. The protection factor, which estimates what fraction of incident radiation reaches the victims, is taken to be eight. Those who take refuge early in hardened bomb shelters could have protection factors as high as 100, but not everyone will be able to find shelter.

Dosage is translated to casualties on a linear scale which measures the probability of the victim dying of radiation sickness. At 250 REM, the number of deaths is assumed to be effectively zero; note that small children, the elderly, and those with existing medical problems could conceivably die at this dosage. 250 REM is sufficient to give most people mild to moderate radiation sickness. At 600 REM, death is assumed to be virtually certain, especially with the probable scarcity of medical care in the wake of an attack. Massive attacks on a small area such as a missile base can produce 600+ REM fallout up to several hundred miles away.


The model used in the simulation is not comprehensive. In figuring casualties, at least two important simplifications were made:

  1. Death from blast and prompt radiation is not counted. While targets will certainly be staffed, the total number of deaths is negligible in comparison to the fallout casualties. The weapons used in the simulation have blast effect radii of at most a few kilometers; in comparison. populated areas are generally at least eight kilometers from military sites. However, some damage and death from dynamic overpressure may still occur in these areas. As noted above, the more powerful weapons of early nuclear years had much larger lethal radii; the USSR possessed 50 megaton bomber-delivered warheads which could have killed nearly everyone not under shelter up to 45 kilometers (28 miles) from ground zero.

  2. Long term deaths are not estimated. All those who can escape the fallout area are assumed to have done so by several weeks after the explosion. Additionally, deaths from cancer and other long-term radiation damage is probably significant but is not calculated here.


The simulator was written by Jeremy Buhler (, based on a program written by Dr. Stoll. It takes into account several known factors about the targets and weapons, including population densities of surrounding areas (see Maps section), "hardness" of target missle sites, and "efficacy" (accuracy and power) of the US missles.

When the simulator is started, three windows will come up on the screen (if they appear as outlines only, click with the left mouse button to position them.) The three windows are: The Information window (green letters on black screen), the Selector window (selects regions, targets, and weapons) and the Buttton (to run simulation.)

Start by choosing a region with the pulldown menu on the Selector Window. To choose a target and weapon combination, click with the LEFT mouse button on the first cell on the first row. Click with the RIGHT mouse button to bring up the list of targets. Click INFO to display information about the site, then OK if you wish to choose it. To choose a weapon, click in the next cell over with the LEFT mouse button, then click with the RIGHT mouse button to view your choices. Press INFO or OK as with the targets. Enter the number of weapons in the final column and press enter.

If you wish, you may repeat the target and weapon selections until the rows are filled. To copy any of the text appearing in the Information Window, just select it with the LEFT mouse button (xcopy), then paste it into a text file by using the MIDDLE mouse button.

Press "the button" to start the simulation run.