Robert ZarateNuclear Weapons that Went to War

No Wonk’s virtual bookshelf would be complete without an electronic copy of the following historical study of nuclear weapons in Third World-conflicts and crises (23 megabyte PDF):

William Yengst, Stephen Lukasik and Mark Jensen, Nuclear Weapons that Went to War (NWTWTW), DNA-TR-96-25, draft final report sponsored by the U.S. Defense Special Weapons Agency and Science Applications International Corp., October 1996, unclassified.

Before continuing, I want to thank Mr. Yengst (of SAIC) and Dr. Lukasik (the former director of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, under whose tenure ARPANET began) for permitting me to post a copy of NWTWTW.

Sponsored by the Pentagon’s Defense Special Weapons Agency (which was incorporated into the new Defense Threat Reduction Agency in 1998) and Science Applications International Corporation, Nuclear Weapons that Went to War uses exclusively public-source information to examine the impact of nuclear weapons in an array of crisis and conflict situations in the Third World. In particular, it devotes sixteen chapters to careful-yet-consciously-tentative studies of the following cases:

  • Application of Nuclear Weapons Against Japan (1945)
  • Nuclear Weapons for the Korean War (1950-1953)
  • Nuclear Weapons for Dien Bien Phu (1954)
  • Suez: Nuclear Threat after a Lightning War (1956)
  • Lebanon: Acting from a Position of Strength (1958)
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)
  • Nuclear Weapons and the Assault on the Liberty (1967)
  • The Capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo (1968)
  • Nuclear Weapons for the Battle of Khe Sanh (1968)
  • Sino-Soviet Border Dispute Initiates a Nuclear Threat (1969)
  • Israeli Nuclear Weapons and the 1973 “October War”
  • South African Nuclear Weapons to Deter Communist Angola (1984)
  • Soviet Nuclear Weapons Deployment in Afghanistan (1979-1987)
  • Nuclear Weapons in the Falkland Islands (1982)
  • Nuclear Weapon Considerations during Desert Storm (1991)
  • Taiwan Dilemma (1958, 1996)

In NWTWTW‘s preface, Yengst et al. write that their study provides:

  • Evidence of conditions under which nuclear weapons were seriously considered for use.
  • Cases in which improvements can (or should) be made in weapon planning, operations, and security.
  • Descriptions of political, military, and public reactions that resulted when use of nuclear weapons was imminent.
  • A basis for war games situations in which new weapons, strategies, and tactics can be evaluated.

They continue:

Several ground rules were observed in preparing this report. First, it does not address the Cold War competition between the U.S. and USSR. Second, it covers all U.S. and foreign crises and conflicts that could be found in which nuclear weapons were considered for use or mistakenly brought into combat. Third, it is based entirely on data and information from unclassified sources. Although classified sources could provide greater insight into the details and add credibility to each event, the report will have wider distribution and utility as an unclassified document. Fourth, each historical event is presented as a stand-alone situation in which three elements are addressed:

  • Description of the situation, its background and resolution.
  • The role of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
  • Lessons learned from the crisis or conflict.

To insure that the material of this report is credible and clearly presented, it has been submitted to a team of senior military and political experts for review and refinement before publication. However, the research was not exhaustive and future readers may be able to contribute further insights into the studies (italics added).

So, what say you, Readers of the Wonk? What further insights into these case studies can you contribute?

P.S. Yengst and Lukasik have put together a 2007 update and commentary to NWTWTW; I’ll post a link to that in this entry at a later time.


  1. Princeton Scotch

    On Dec 5 ’52 an idea was drummed up to clear the land of enemy troops in Korea. Truman was told by Representative Albert Gore Sr. and a few days later to Eisenhower by MacArthur. “One of the ideas that was considered was to clear the enemy forces by nuclear bombing and sowing the fields [with] radioactive materials (waste from nuclear reactors) to cut the entire peninsula off from its Communist supplies.”

    Man This is too good to make up. Is Al Jr. proud of his daddy?

  2. Carl (History)

    Fascinating. Thank you for this.

  3. 3.1415 (History)

    There are some high dramas that need some fact check. On page 393 about the 1996 China-US standoff and the Chinese threat to nuke Los Angeles, the authors wrote that “Ambassador Charles Freeman reported from Beijing that a Chinese official stated …”. It should be Chas, not Charles. And Chas was never an US Ambassador to China. James Sasser manned the position from Feb. 14, 1996 to July 1, 1999, which covered this dramatic period ( Chas was indeed once our ambassador, but to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992. Whether Chas passed the “nuke LA threat” from our Chinese friends needs to be verified. But this juvenile threat enjoys wild circulation in the policy circles in the US and is widely used in Washington to discredit the value of China’s NFU. Thus the danger of hearsay.

  4. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    I’m sorry but the historical ignorance displayed by the author in the first sentence of the third paragraph of the article on Taiwan is intolerable. It undermines the credibility of anything else he might have to say on this issue. Taiwan was not a US ally during WWII. It was occupied by Japan. China was our ally and at the time was led by a divided government that consisted of both the Communists and the Nationalists and the US had ties with both. We kept our Embassy in Nanjing after the Red Army took the capital and tried, however disingenuously, to broker an agreement in the Chinese civil war after Japan’s surrender. As part of the terms of that surrender, Taiwan was returned to China. This was first affirmed in the Cairo Declaration of 1943, and reiterated in clause 8 of the Potsdam Declaration, which outlined the terms for Japan’s surrender.

    And one other thing, in the first paragraph the author implies that that Taiwan had a representative government in 1958. I hope I don’t have to explain to the readers of this blog why that implication is offensive, and can only hope (and that is a small hope indeed) it is the product of a poor choice of words rather than historical ignorance.

  5. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    Was this really written in 1996? Does anyone here agree with the description of the PRC offered in first sentence of the 4th paragraph? Writing in the present tense he calls China “a police state” with “a poorly run economy”. Since the characterization of China’s foreign policy as “aggressive” is understandable in light of the events of the mid-1990s, I’ll let that slide, but this depiction of the PRC, combined with the obvious failure of the author to do his homework on the history of the dispute, betrays a strong bias that prejudices his characterization of the events of the crisis.

    If the same type of historical ignorance and subjective bias is evident in the other studies – something I am unqualified to judge – then the only value this might have to the readers of this blog is as a case study in political psychology. At least as far as the piece on Taiwan is concerned, this is anything but a “careful” study.

  6. dylan (History)

    According to Freeman’s subsequent explanation, the Chinese military officers threatened Los Angeles only in the context of retaliation for a US strike on the PRC.

  7. 3.1415 (History)


    The link has expired. The updated one is at:

    What matters is that most people who have heard the Chinese “nuke LA” threat regard it as a provocation, not a retaliation. It was quoted out of context, perhaps purposefully by many. The practice is rather like Karl Rove’s classic maneuver in the Texas gubernatorial election that produced W. Is Anne Richards lesbian? Did China threaten to nuke LA?

  8. William C. Yengst

    With respect to Gregory Kulacki’s comments concerning Chapter 17, “The Taiwan Dilemma,” his criticism of my unfortunate wording is largely justified. With twelve years of hindsight, if I were writing the report today, I would leave the subjective statements out, since they had no bearing on the history of the nuclear weapon deployments or conclusions.

    At the time the NWTWTW report was being prepared (early 1996), the second deployment of U.S. nuclear capable forces in support of Taiwan was in progress and I was encouraged to add a chapter to summarize it and the earlier (August 1958) events. As an engineer, not a diplomat, I introduced the subject with a focus on what happened and failed to test my statements with respect to political sensitivity. There was no need to characterize the PRC as having a government by “totalitarian rule” or a “police state, with a poorly run economy and aggressive foreign policy.” Obviously, these statements would be offensive to some; although, at the time, they were widely used in editorials by the U.S. media.

    The reference to Ambassador Chas (not Charles) W. Freeman Jr. of page 393 was indeed an error, which I apparently picked up from the local newspaper (the cited San Diego Union Tribune article in endnote 10). As an earlier commentator noted, Chas Freeman was the ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Desert Storm and Desert Shield period (1990-1991); however, he had previously served in the American Embassy in Beijing (1981-1984) and was Director of Chinese Affairs for the U.S. Department of State (1979-1981). The same newspaper (endnote 10) credited Chas, as an authority on Chinese actions, with quoting an ‘unnamed’ Chinese official, who said, “the U.S. will not interfere in the dispute, because it cares more about Los Angeles than it does Taipei.” Again, I should have checked into details, but it had little influence on U.S. responses, as I indicated in a subsequent sentence of the same paragraph (“This threat was quickly discounted…”).

    I undoubtedly used poor introductory wording and should not have made politically insensitive statements when they were not needed to relate the historical weapon deployments. I believe the deployment events and conclusions are accurate.

  9. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    I want to thank Mr. Yengst for his comments and especially for the note on his background as an engineer.

    I also want to add that the only thing I personally found offensive was the failure to get the history of the dispute correct. The characterization of Taiwan as a representative government in 1958 is offensive to the people of Taiwan, and most especially to those advocating independence. For those who are curious type “Taiwan” and “2-28” in the search window on your browser.

    Bias is inevitable and probably cannot be avoided. The facts, however, are not open to debate. Whatever your views may be on the question of self-determination for the people of Taiwan today, historically, and legally, it was considered a Japanese occupied territory that was returned to China after the war. It was not until the 1990s that this interpretation was questioned by independence advocates and the Taipei government. That break with a long-standing status quo agreed to in Taipei and Beijing precipitated the military crisis that led to the events that Mr. Yengst describes. This is not an insignificant consideration when assessing the mainland’s behavior.

  10. Yossi (History)

    A wonderful book!

    I’m reading it now and find a lot of very interesting and important info. The authors access to classified material (which they could use but not cite) lends more credibility to their conclusions.

    We shouldn’t be too harsh on the historical accuracy point. Some mistakes are inevitable and exist in every scholarly study. None of us is immune.

  11. Andrew S. Mason

    With regards to the section covering Operation Desert Storm a strong circumstantial case can be made to suggest Iraq launched as many as nine CW loaded Scuds against US forces based in Saudi Arabia during the earlier part of the ‘Air War’ phase of the conflict. If so proven, these actions would completely nullify the author’s conclusion that the available US nuclear capability served as a credible deterrent against any kind of Iraqi WMD usage.

    Factors suggesting that Iraqi CW Scuds were used include:

    a) Saddam Hussein indicated that Iraq would use the full weight of its ready missile force following his January 20th 1991 radio broadcast:

    “The response of Iraq will be on a larger scale, using all the means and potential that God has given us and which we have so far only used in part.”

    b) Saddam Hussein stated that he would issue orders to “the concerned people” to use WMD as evidenced by the released tape recording transcript as contained in the Iraq Survey Group Final Report of September 30th 2004:

    “I will issue a letter, signed by me, listing the commands and the alternative plans and probabilities of this mission, which should be followed literally.”

    c) Numerous chemical alarms sounded throughout North Eastern Saudi Arabia during the following days.

    d) Former Royal Air Force Corporal Richard Turnbull told the UK House of Commons Defence Select Committee in 1995 that his detection equipment indicated the presence of chemical agents at Dhahran on the night of January 20th/21st 1991:

    “On the night of 20/21 January 1991 a Scud missile was intercepted by a Patriot missile over Dharran (sic) airfield and the warhead exploded on landing 400-500 yds from our position. Within seconds all the pre-positioned NAIADs and our CAMs were sounding the alarm.”

    e) James Tuite III, of the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses Expert Panel, told Lord Lloyd’s independent public inquiry into Gulf War Illnesses (held in London in 2004) that 14,000 chemical agent alarms were employed with US forces, and that on average they had sounded two or three times per day each:

    “They went off two or three times a day per alarm during the air war, which is more than 1,200,000, 1,700,000.”

    f) The embedded press contingent reporting the 1991 conflict from within Saudi Arabia operated under strict censorship guidelines which spelled out twelve categories of information that they should not publish. These included the effectiveness of enemy countermeasures and the vulnerabilities of US forces.

    g) Most of the NBC incident desk logs drawn up during the 1991 conflict were lost, supposedly when there were placed near an area designated for the shredding and destruction of unwanted records.

    h) Significant questions surrounding Iraqi claims that it had unilaterally destroyed all remaining Scud missile stocks during the summer of 1991 remained current throughout the period of UNSCOM, UNMOVIC and ISG inspections.

    i) Iraq admitted that it could not account for nine chemically capable ‘special’ warheads at the Warhead Technical Evaluation meeting held between Iraqi and UNSCOM officials in Baghdad on February 6th 1998.

    j) The ‘official’ counts of Scud missiles used by Iraq during the 1991 conflict vary between sources, with 86 or 88 missiles (at targets?) often quoted. Iraq admitted to the consumption of 93 missiles, although one DoD account suggests the space-borne detection of 97 missiles. One UK Ministry of Defence account of recorded missile launches for January and February 1991 collectively contains the highest figure to be seen, at 102 missiles fired. (N.B. 102 – 93 = 9)

    k) There are contradictions and discrepancies concerning Scud missile attacks in the available contemporaneous documentation. Some contemporaneous documentation is heavily redacted or is not available. Examples of these documents are the CIA’s daily spot reporting for January 20th and 21st 1991 and US Space Command’s records of detected Scud missile launches during the Gulf conflict. FOIA requests have revealed that the UK’s British Forces Middle East war diaries for the 1991 Gulf War period are currently ‘lost’.

    l) The UNMOVIC reports – ‘The Cluster Document – UNRESOLVED DISARMAMENT ISSUES – IRAQ’S PROSCRIBED WEAPONS PROGRAMMES – 6 March 2003’ and ‘DRAFT WORK PROGRAMME – 17 March 2003’ both state:

    “Although UNSCOM reported that all but two of the 819 declared imported Scud-B combat missiles had been “effectively” accounted for, the stated consumption of some missiles could not be independently verified. This was the case for 14 Scud-B missiles as targets in a missile interception project. While such use is supported by some documentation contained in the so-called Scud files, it is questionable whether Iraq would have really used, what were at that time, valuable operational assets in the pursuit of such a project. Furthermore, available data could only corroborate a very small number of declared missile launches at that time. It cannot be excluded that Iraq retained a certain numbers of the missiles. The additional information Iraq provided on 8 February 2003 on the missile interception project does not resolve the outstanding questions.


    “Iraq purchased Scud missiles with conventional (high explosive) warheads. Iraq used several missiles in testing that did not require the use of a warhead. UNSCOM did not find any indigenously produced warheads that had been filled with high explosive, but did find some that had been filled with agent. The foregoing suggests that all of Iraq’s indigenously produced warheads had been intended for special purposes.”

    The following is the warhead material balance taken from Iraq’s declarations of 1998 and is published in United Nations document S/1999/94 dated 29th January 1999:

    S99-94 Table 3 (copied and highlighted by writer)

    If the above UNMOVIC contention is correct, then Iraq (as highlighted) has declared the use of six ‘special’ (possibly CW) indigenously produced warheads during the 1991 Gulf conflict.

    The ‘Cluster Document’ further states:

    “In order to address the broader question of the existence of a possible Scud-type missile force, Iraq should provide specific documentation in support of its declarations. An example would be the two reports written by the missile force commander on 30 January 1991 and in May 1991 that, on the basis of Iraq’s own declarations and outside information, are known to exist. The first report could help clarify the state of the combat missile force at the end of the Gulf War. The second report could allow clarification of the status of the missile force just after the adoption of resolution 687 (1991). Iraq should also provide technical documentation concerning the interception missile project in order to support its declaration on the use of Scud-B missiles as targets in the project. The provision of the two diaries that relate to the unilateral destruction of the proscribed missile propellants should also be provided. Iraq’s most recent response to UNMOVIC’s request on these matters provides no further clarification.”


    Cluster Document

    Draft Work Programme


    m) The Iraq Survey Group final report includes previously unseen information ostensibly prepared for Iraq by its National Monitoring Directorate in support of its 12,000 page CAFCD about Scud missiles and their associated warheads (similarly unavailable under FOIA requests), which the CIA/ISG had taken at face value, as they seemingly have no further information with which to contend the Iraqi accounting claims. Much of the previous work previously done by UNSCOM and UNMOVIC on this issue has not been taken into account, nor is it substantively referred to. In particular, no specific reference is made to the nine still ‘missing’ CW/special warheads, and no general reference is made to the two undeclared reports written by the Iraqi missile force commander (Unit 223) in 1991 which were known to exist but were seemingly not handed over to UNMOVIC. These reports could well have helped to clarify the exact status of the available Iraqi combat missile force throughout the period of the Gulf War, and may well have proven to be the ‘smoking gun’ as far as proof of possible earlier Iraqi WMD transgressions were concerned, the fact of which may well explain their apparent non-disclosure.

  12. RA (History)

    the link to Nuclear Weapons that Went to War (NWTWTW), is redundant. can you please repost it so that one could access the document.thanx