Can The United States Stop a Nuclear Missile?

For the last couple of decades, nuclear weapons have mostly stayed out of the news. The reason for this is because the Cold War has started to fade to the back of our minds.  Unfortunately, what is known as the doomsday clock has notched closer to midnight. Closer to an apocalyptic world event than any other time in our history.  Because of this news, nuclear war is back in our minds.  That makes many of us wonder, how would we stop a nuclear missile?

What Would Happen If a Nuclear Missile Was Heading For Us?

Nuclear missile making flight.

Most of us are hoping that any threats are merely empty threats.  But at some point, we might start to wonder; What would happen if there were a nuclear missile heading for us?  Of course, the latest in military defense are highly classified.  Like any defense, the more people that know about the specifics of it, the easiest it is to circumvent them.

We do however know a lot of the basics. Also, The good news is that an incoming nuclear missile doesn’t necessarily mean doom.  We do have some options when it comes to the most crucial part of stopping an incoming attack: Hitting IT before it hits the US!

The only nuclear weapons ever used in war were dropped from planes.  That could still happen but most people today aren’t worried about planes, most are concerned about missiles.

Missles are faster and much harder to stop than planes, and some types can launch from pretty anywhere on the planet.  The most famous are intercontinental ballistic missiles or ICBMs.  ICBMs rockets into space before speeding down at their targets.  They can hit something halfway around the globe within an hour after launch.

Other types of missiles are less famous, but each design is able to go a different distance and carry a different amount of weight.  No matter what type of missile it is, the best time to stop a missile is before it even launches.  Countries continuously use spy planes, radars, and satellites to monitor each other for any signs of missile preparing to launch.  Sometimes, the first hint of a missile is the launch itself.  Missle launches are bright and hot, and the missiles stay hot while they’re flying through the atmosphere.

Space-Based Infrared System / SBIRS

Space base infrared satelite.

The United States has a worldwide network of satellites on the lookout for unusually hot objects flying around.  They call this interface the Space-Based Infrared System.  SBIRS and its predecessors have monitored missiles for decades; Although its heat-seeking capabilities can track wildfires and watch volcanoes for signs of impending eruptions when there aren’t any missile to watch.

Other countries have their own missile defense systems, but they pretty much all share the same goal by making sure that if a missile is being launched from anywhere on the planet, we know about it.  Once a missile is in the air, the only one way of stopping it is by hitting it with another missile.  It isn’t ideal to have a nuclear bomb explode up in the atmosphere and radioactive rain fallout on the world below, but that’s still better than letting it reach its target.

Will They Even Explode If Launched?

Above all that, the nuclear bomb might not even explode when the rest of the rocket does.  A lot of modern weapons don’t bring the explosive parts near each other.  This method is known as arming until they’re about to make landfall.  They do this to make sure that nothing goes wrong during the launch process, or during the flight itself.  The explosion might still destroy the nuclear bomb, or it might end up like the unarmed hydrogen that accidentally fell into a North Carolina swamp back in 1961. They call this the 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash. Nothing happened when it landed, and its uranium core is most likely still fifty or so meters underground.

Missile Interceptor System / ICBM

Missile interceptor system.

Missile interceptor systems use radar, and also the same heat signature that SBIRS uses in tracking their targets.  However, hitting a missile with another missile is undoubtedly not easy.  It would compare to something like shooting a bullet, except each bullet is moving six or seven kilometers per second.  Missiles are much more complicating to build, aim and launch than bullets are.

To make it even more difficult, missile often carry decoy parts that fall off during decent to distract defense systems from hitting the real target.   With so many factors to take into account, it is not surprising that missile defenses need a lot of testing.

Any Nation certainly doesn’t want to test any defenses too often; even it’s not quite perfect.  The reason for this is due to outside observers since every test reveals a bit more information on how it works, and how to get around it.  Another reason they don’t do a lot of nuclear testing is that it’s costly.  Each ICBM defense test cost tens of millions of dollars and takes months in preparation to accomplish this task.

How Many Nuclear Warheads Could We Stop Using ICBMs?

Altogether, the United States is most likely able to stop approximately 24 ICBMs at once, but it’s difficult to know for sure because the military tends not to go around telling people exactly how many nuclear missiles it would take to overwhelm their defense systems.

What we do know, however, is that one single network and groups of submarines in places, like South Korea and Japan, are capable of tracking a hundred smaller missiles at once.  Even they are not perfect since missiles are hard to hit. It is next to impossible for every interceptor system to stop every missile one hundred percent of the time.  Also, military strategy is always evolving, so some places will end up less defended than others.

Old Technology Made New Again

Laser-mounted drone for missile defense.

The military is always trying to develop new technologies to block those holes, and one technology that was first imagined back in the seventies might make a resurgence.   That technology is lasers.  Back then, people figured that satellites with ultra-powerful lasers could overheat and blow up missiles mid-flight.  It was incredibly impractical at the time.  For one thing, lasers powerful enough to overheat a missile from a great distance did not yet exist.

The American military recently announced that it was testing a laser-mounted drone for missile defense.  Today’s lasers are much stronger and smaller than those from decades ago, and drones could quickly get within a hundred kilometers of a missile without endangering lives.

Powerful lasers still aren’t quite compact enough to be mounted and carried by a drone, but a laser defense system might not be so far off.  Or maybe we already have one, and it’s just not public information.  Either way, generations of brilliant scientist and engineers are spending their careers trying to make sure that no nuclear weapon ever hits another city.  We can thank their defense systems in place.  Let us hope we never need them!

Could We Destroy the Earth With Nuclear Weapons?

The Nuke that ended WW2.

Often we talk about how the human race has the ability to destroy ourselves in a way that most species don’t. Well, I guess I should say all species, shouldn’t I?  What we’re talking about when we say this is, of course, nuclear weapons; And how we “Have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the Earth many times over”. Well, good news, we do not.

Regarding pure destructive force, the entire nuclear arsenal of every country on earth, mostly concentrated in the United States and Russia, is about seven thousand megatons.  That’s around the equivalent of seven billion tons of TNT!

To compare, the Chicxulub meteor impact didn’t destroy the earth or even all life on earth, and it was approximately fourteen thousand times more powerful than all Nukes.  Think about it for a second, that’s 14 000 times more power than ALL OF THE NUCLEAR WEAPONS ON EARTH!

Even the relatively mild 1883 Eruption of Krakatoa was four times more powerful than the most potent fusion bomb ever designed.  If every nuclear weapon on earth would simultaneously explode, we’d indeed have some awful things happen to us.  There would be an increase in localized radiation and many unfortunate deaths.  We might end up living in a safer world because of it, especially since those bombs right now are underground in remote areas for the most part.

Apocalyptic Nuclear Winter

The most dangerous possibility, and where the idea of the deadly, apocalyptic nuclear winter comes from, is if those bombs are used to destroy cities.  The bombs themselves would have a significant impact, but the more important bit is the resulting firestorms.  Firestorms sound just like a hyperbolic word for a severe fire, but it’s not.  Firestorms happen when a fire is intense enough to create its own weather pattern.  These weather patterns have increasing winds driving the burning and destruction to project soot and ash high into the atmosphere.  Its exactly what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hiroshima nuclear blast aftermath.

If that happens thousands of times around the Earth, all at once, atmospheric models indicate that yes, it would indeed be awful for our civilization.  We’re talking global decrease in temperatures of up to 25 degrees Celsius for at least a few months.  Afterward up to six degrees Celcius for many years.  That would be terrible news for people, and also the ecosystem we depend on.

Having the majority of city-dwelling humans killed, and also all of the city-based infrastructure destroyed, we would permanently be screwed.  However, I do have confidence that some people would survive.  Though they would survive in a world without the internet and air conditioning, so really, what’s the point?

Thank you for reading this article.  Please share with anyone you may know that would find this information of some benefit. Be safe.

There are nuclear bunkers all over the United States that are free for anyone to use in case of a nuclear strike or even other types of disasters. Click here to find out where the closest bunker is from your home.

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