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Since the Cold War, nuclear powers have said "don't mess with me" using the Nuclear triad, nuclear warheads on bomber planers, missile silos, and in submarines. Of these, the most important is submarines. Silos and planes could be wiped out in a first-strike attack, but submarines are stealthy.

If the setting is earth of the not-too-distant-future, what would be the most plausible way for a superpower to strike first and prevent their opponent's second strike?

My ideas so far divide into three categories: 1) sabotaging the subs, 2) blocking the missiles, 3) doxxing the subs.

Sabotaging the subs is probably most realistic. The adversary gets a spy/mole inside the nuclear submarine program, and does something to some vital system (which?) to scuttle all the subs simultanæously.

Blocking the missiles is what most budget goes into researching, but no country can currently block a high percentage of incoming missiles. Hundreds of billions have been spent on this, and it's gotten nowhere, so "one day, someone invented a perfect missile defense" feels like poor worldbuilding.

Unveiling the subs using some sort of enhanced Magnetic Anomaly Detector probably isn't that realistic.

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    $\begingroup$ The only one that actually exists: "mutually assured destruction". There's no way to defend against something you can't attack if you can't find it. There are anti-(short-to-medium, not long range)ICBM missiles, but there are no where near enough of them "44 exoatmospheric interceptors stationed in underground silos around California and Alaska, to protect against low-count ICBM attacks from rogue states." - "97% probability of intercept when four interceptors are launched at the target" and Russia has 5,977 nukes, so no $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jan 17, 2023 at 2:22
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    $\begingroup$ This question is essentially asking a bunch of random people on the Internet to come up with a solution to a problem that entire militaries have failed to solve for decades. I hope you can understand this makes it an objectively poor question. $\endgroup$
    – Ian Kemp
    Jan 17, 2023 at 10:51
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    $\begingroup$ A small nitpick, but normally "nuclear submarine" means nuclear-powered rather than nuclear-armed. $\endgroup$ Jan 17, 2023 at 13:19
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    $\begingroup$ Misuse of the term "doxxing". Are you wanting to publish each sub captain's home address and phone number? Simply "revealing" would be clearer and less confusing. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jan 17, 2023 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because this just basically asks about history. Little is more plausible than what was actually done. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 17, 2023 at 15:33

9 Answers 9

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Sabotage and "blocking the missiles" should both be entirely realistic.

You say "no country can block a high percentage of incoming missiles" but that's assuming they are playing by the rules and that we know what everyone's top secret programs are up to. For story creation purposes, you could easily say that the U.S. has secretly been weaponizing space for years. (Kinda like in Maximum Overdrive where the crisis was ended by a "Russian weather satellite" that launched its nuclear missiles...) The U.S. starts a nuclear war and shoots down all the return fire with what turns out to be a fully operational "Star Wars" program that actually began back in the Reagan era and has been kept secret ever since.

But I think a broad "intel" answer works the best. Sabotage would be one arm of this, but probably not the only arm, or the most important one.

If the U.S. were going to first strike Russia (or China, or both), they would want to spend however long was necessary to first identify and track every single nuclear asset that could be used in retaliation. I envision this less of a James Bond action and more of just a good old long running intel program "tagging and tracking", but there may well be some sabotage along the way. Wouldn't it be a shame if these missile silo hatches didn't open? And if, one day, every single enemy nuclear sub was attacked at the same time because we've known for months or years exactly where they are at all times? And actually that the enemy's warhead production has been low-key sabotaged for years and really none of them work? (Or they work fine, but the missiles themselves are too low quality to survive the launch process.)

Really I think the key item here is that it's not "and then one day, they decided to go to war". Whatever scheme was used to prevent retaliation was something they had been working on for a long time. Certainly years, maybe decades.

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    $\begingroup$ ...And then Russian satellites also did about the same to U.S.'s "first strike" ICBMs while they are in flight. You don't overplay for one side in such games. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Jan 17, 2023 at 6:59
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    $\begingroup$ @vesper Realistically I doubt Russia / the former USSR ever had the funding or tech for such a thing but certainly in a worldbuilding scenario the author can pick how he wants to do it. I always liked the scene in Iron Sky where it turned out literally every country had secretly weaponized space, except for like Norway. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Jan 17, 2023 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ @JamieB Norway is currently working to be the first European country to launch a satellite from its territory. (Source NKR.no) $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Jan 17, 2023 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidR Yeah I think that was some ribbing by the makers of the movie, who were Finnish. (Norway had a ship, too, they were just the only ones who actually followed the treaty and didn't secretly put missiles, lasers and cannons on it.) $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Jan 17, 2023 at 16:40
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Consider what actually happened during the Cold War. At least as the US hopes it did happen -- at times they under-estimated the Soviets.

  • Build nuclear attack submarines with better stealth and sensors than the enemy missile submarines.
  • Use intelligence to detect SSBNs making ready for sea, and dispatch SSNs to lurk near their ports.
  • As the SSBN cruises, a SSN follows. Of course the owner of the SSBN will try to "de-louse" their SSBN, perhaps with their own SSN or with surface and aerial ASW forces. They might also try to establish "boomer bastions," entire sea areas near their port defended by their ASW forces rather individual protection.
  • If the trailing SSN has success, it waits for the attack signal.
  • The trailing SSN is supported, but not replaced by means such as a SOSUS net, ASW aircraft, and possibly futuristic means (orbital radar/lidar to detect the 'wave hump' of a moving sub, thermographs to detect the reactor heat, optical sensors to detect the bioluminiscence of disturbed microscopic lifeforms).

For the near future, the next big thing might be unmaned underwater vehicles or unmanned surface vehicles to trail an enemy SSBN instead of manned subs. The problem is that they might not be able to neutralize it on short notice. So combine them with a ballistic missile version of SUBROC? Or perhaps the UUV do mount the right kind of warhead, but parking a robotic torpedo next to a SSBN in times of crisis could be highly escalatory.

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    $\begingroup$ Yep. Not sure why this question was closed. Global militaries have worked on this problem for decades and have real (if partial) solutions that are actually implemented today. Shooting them all down is a bigger problem, but knowing where they are is a top priority. (And shooting them all down really only requires relatively minor tweaks in the "world building" aspect to make it a reality.) $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Jan 17, 2023 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ This NATO official has a pretty specific answer actually: large numbers of miniaturized sensors underwater. NATO is working on deploying these from robo-subs. $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Jan 19, 2023 at 12:25
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Some good answers here - but I'm going to give a different answers:

Nuclear Submarines are pretty big and there are a very limited number of ports that can service them.

In a fictional setting, one could devise a two-part weapons system:

The first is relatively small, made to look organic (like a rock or similar) and designed to latch onto the Sea Bed. This autonomously fires a very small 'dart' that has a means to attach to a submarine (first thought is magnetic, but IIRC modern subs use Titanium hulls?) and this Dart has a small transmitter that 'blips' at random intervals (Although it uses an algorithm, it uses a combination of water pressure, temperature and speed as the initial bit of randomness).

This Blip might only be done once a day and look like some form of noise to the onboard sensors of the sub, but it's enough for the adversary to know approximately where the Submarines will be (SSBNs when on station on travel at around 5 knots or a brisk walking pace).

The second part of the weapons system is a device attached to Sea/Air assets that transmits a particular signal, when the 'dart' receives this signal, it starts going mental - making all sorts of very easily lock-on-able noise - which leads to the Adversary to be able to initiate a first-strike on all the on-station SSBNs.

This could be co-ordinated with an attack on the Sub Pens/docking facilities to deal with all the ones that are not on patrol.

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    $\begingroup$ Trouble is, if I make a sensor that looks like a "rock or something", the Army guys will try to heat their MREs on it $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Jan 17, 2023 at 12:17
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    $\begingroup$ The problem here is that a transmitter disguised as "a small rock" probably cannot transmit at the frequencies and amplitudes necessary to penetrate seawater and make it to a receiver. A big part of what makes submarines so "stealthy" is that there are so few practical ways to see/communicate through large amounts of seawater. Sound is the easiest, but almost everything in a nuclear sub is designed to detect and control spurious sounds. Then there's the problem of power/batteries... $\endgroup$ Jan 17, 2023 at 15:02
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probably isn't that realistic.

No?

Magnetic anomaly (and other kinds of sensor) have limited range, and need to be put in places where they're not going to be moved by human or natural influences, need to be hard to spot, and need to be accessible so that the data they're collecting can be returned to base.

The solution would appear to be mass production of sensor drones. They could remain silent and undetected for extended periods of time, spread over a huge expanse of ocean, surfacing only to transmit sensor data, either on a prearranged schedule or in an emergency. With much more signal information available, and much more capable data analytics, it becomes increasingly hard to hide your submarines, and there's no real way to know if you've been spotted until the depth charges start falling.

There are countermeasures to the sensor drone network, of course, but they don't look very much like conventional submarines so they are drifting out of the scope of your question.

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    $\begingroup$ Ocean is just too too big. You would need literally millions of sensors, even if they had a larger range than any known detectors. $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Jan 16, 2023 at 23:31
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    $\begingroup$ China has been implanting sensors in the China Sea to be able to detect submarines. Presumably the U.S. has been doing the same along its own coasts. Of course this is mostly for attack submarines; strategic subs carrying ICBMs can fire from half a world away. $\endgroup$
    – Nimloth
    Jan 17, 2023 at 5:45
  • $\begingroup$ @wokopa Such things do exist, but I think it's more like "we saw they crossed this line" rather than knowing where they are at all times. Imagine every existing submarine detection cable also came with drones that would follow any sub the cable detected... We do have lots of cables crossing entire oceans, anyway: cnn.com/2019/07/25/asia/internet-undersea-cables-intl-hnk/… $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Jan 17, 2023 at 21:14
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Just an additional idea for the sabotage route: Maybe your nuclear power inserted a computer virus into the targeting system of the missiles? This would take a lot of preparation and time until all missiles are affected (since they are essentially air gapped and only get updated during maintenance).

For inspiration, you might want to look up Stuxnet. This was a real virus that damaged air gapped equipment used to enrich uranium in Iran.

Also, they might have invented technology to track the submarines. There are already microphones installed on the see floor at strategic places to try and discover submarines nearby - maybe they had a breakthrough on how to track efficiently. A missile is far easier to stop when you know exactly from where it is launched.

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  • $\begingroup$ Sure, I bet there are software components that are single points of failure. If malicious software was shipped in some update, the fleet could theoretically be scuppered. $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Jan 16, 2023 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ Most likely whoever is programming warheads would do that without involving third party software bundled with firmware update, as Stuxnet's implanters managed to use that to deliver payload to Iranian control facility. Also warheads' software is something pretty simple and is usually written from scratch in assembly/C or similar language, thus an attack like Stuxnet's would not be feasible as is. Not saying that they are programmed about once per warhead, and then only coordinates/offsets are supplied, so no "auto-update" is present. Still a vector worthy of investigating. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Jan 17, 2023 at 7:28
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The major challenge with intercepting missiles launched from a submarine is that if they can get relatively close to your coastline before they launch, then it can take only a few minutes for the missile to for the missile go from the submarine all the way to the target.

That is a very short amount of time for the military to make a decision regarding what to do. Within a few minutes they need to...

  • Determine that this actually is a missile and not something else.
  • Get approval from whoever is supposed to authorize a response.
  • Press all the right buttons to arm and fire the anti-missile system.
  • The missiles need to actually intercept the target. Hopefully far away.

Regarding anti-missile systems, the country of Israel currently has a system called the "Arrow" that can shoot down ICBMs.

Arrow system has been in operation for decades with many successful tests. They claim 90% accuracy with one interceptor (so 99.9% when launching 3 interceptors).

One copy of the system consists of mobile launcher trucks and a radar truck. The system is mobile and can be mass produced. To deploy it you just need to set up a parking lot for the trucks to sit at and some housing for the guys running the trucks.

To protect the coastline from submarines, one would place a set of trucks at least every 50 miles or so. Given the range of the trucks you would then have overlapped defense in case one truck fails. Because your missile batteries are spaced so close together the submarine would have to get within 10s of miles from your coastline before you could no longer intercept the target.

This brings up an important point. You need to make sure you zone out the subs to a good standoff distance. The way to do that is have lots of underwater tracking assets. This would probably consist of some larger fixed sonar facilities, satellite imaging, and swarms (potentially thousands) of underwater drones and mines.

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  • $\begingroup$ ICBMs have a pretty high space trajectory, thus positioning those trucks on the shores will make those Arrows require hitting their targets at the higher points of their trajectory starting in an unknown place and ending in a protected area. Also these days ICBMs are pretty well equipped to mask real warheads with debris, not speaking about MIRVs. A single ICBM could easily exhaust your defense line at its trajectory projection without losing its entire striking capacity. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Jan 17, 2023 at 7:33
  • $\begingroup$ "Hopefully far away" isn't actually necessary. An undetonated nuclear warhead is radioactive, but only at the impact site, which is likely outside any city and even if inside the city it's less overall damage than an exploded conventional warhead. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Jan 17, 2023 at 10:04
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There is a flaw in the premise:

Silos and planes could be wiped out in a first-strike attack, but submarines are stealthy.

Strike doesn't mean hit, strike means positive launch detection. There is no undo button once the missile is launched, short of shooting it down yourself. That means the moment the first missile launches, your country started a global thermonuclear war.

There is enough time between the first launch and the first hit that your enemy could retaliate with their silos and planes on top of all their subs. And it would be unreasonable to assume they wouldn't be ready for it either. If nuclear war has to happen, it won't be from a peaceful DEFCON 5 state, it will be from a state of high tension on both sides. You are contemplating the nuclear option after all, there is no reason to believe they aren't too.

The only surefire war to prevent a second strike would be to completely cripple your enemy's nuclear capabilities before you fire your first shot, and its other ballistic capabilities for good measure too (because retaliating with lots of conventional bombs and missiles is always an option).

But if you can do that somehow, firing nukes would not have any tangible benefit.

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Blocking the missiles is what most budget goes into researching, but no country can currently block a high percentage of incoming missiles. Hundreds of billions have been spent on this, and it's gotten nowhere, so "one day, someone invented a perfect missile defense" feels like poor worldbuilding.

This is not as true as you might think - research into anti-ballistic missile tech is relatively limited, because it signals nuclear escalation just as much as missile development does.

During the Cold War, the USA and USSR had a treaty severely limiting anti-ballistic missile armaments (though the article notes that at that point, ABMs could already shoot down submarine-launched missiles, just not the much faster ICBMs). The idea being that claims to a total missile shield would encourage additional nuclear build-up by the adversary to overwhelm it - and would justify that buildup politically, because a superpower with a total shield would have no deterrence from using its nuclear arsenal.

So for your story, just say that the new generation of ABMs (either boost-phase interception or proposed alternatives was more successful than the early, post-treaty attempts at development of these systems.

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  • $\begingroup$ For example, the United States gave $20.4 billion to what it calls “missile defense and defeat” activities in the 2022 budget (missilethreat.csis.org/…). Israel, Russia, etc. also are spending billions on it. $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Jan 17, 2023 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ @wokopa 20B of a 1T budget is peanuts. Over 3x of that is spent on offensive nuclear capabilities, for example. $\endgroup$
    – SPavel
    Jan 17, 2023 at 19:48
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One expects that the US military already has directional neutrino detectors. The suggestion for a realistic method of constructing a neutrino telescope was made about 1982. It would have required a single crystal of highly isotopically pure material massing about 1 ton, and would have cost a few million dollars. The idea is that neutrinos can scatter off phonon modes in such a crystal with a far larger cross section than capture modes. And can be detected directionally giving the ability to build a telescope. Possibly by putting several in an array you would be able to give 3-D location of any strong neutrino source.

The researcher who was trying to get funding gave a talk at the U of Toronto physics department. In the QA session, it was pointed out this could track nuclear submarines anywhere on the planet. A nuclear reactor is a strong source of neutrinos. The remark was made "So this is more disruptive than Star Wars?" (the then-current suggestion to build a space-based anti-missile defense system). The researcher's response was "If it gets me funding, sure."

As far as is publicly known, he never got funding.

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    $\begingroup$ Neutrino detection is rubbish, at least in part because it requuires enormous sensors and has poor localization and suffers from a lot of background noise. I made a few comments about it in the footnotes of this answer. $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2023 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ It bears remembering that people have been working hard on neutrino detection over the 40+ years since your unsourced suggestion was made. To suggest that no-one outside of a secret military group discovered how to miniaturize a neutrino detector is implausible... the sort of conspiracy thinking you get in the comments of "free energy" videos. As an antiproliferation technique, there's no reason to hide it. As a defensive technique, it is pointless to hide it because you want to discourage strikes, not merely defend against them! $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2023 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ The design notes for Brilliant Lances (space combat rules for Traveller The New Era) discuss why GDW took neutrino sensors out of the game - "it was calculated that an Earth-bound sensor would detect only about one neutrino per day from our sun". (Challenge magazine issue 71, page 33.) Simple physics make neutrino detectors a non-starter for this sort of application, no matter how useful they are for local astronomy. $\endgroup$ Jan 17, 2023 at 13:44

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