So if you're trying to build a Tom Clancy style political situation in a story about a nuclear exchange between a country and a superpower, would this be possible, or would it trigger the second superpower to launch as well?

Two scenarios:

  • USA vs North Korea

  • Russia vs Mexico

Alliances are considered irrelevant in this question.

  1. If America launched nukes at North Korea, would China be able to estimate their trajectories and speeds accurately enough to not feel obligated to fire back? Since the American missiles could actually be aimed at China instead for a surprise attack.

  2. Same type of scenario as the first but the USA would be reacting to a Russian launch instead.

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    $\begingroup$ Have you given any thought to when during the flight the defender's rules of engagement will require them to respond? Obviously the later you get in a flight, the better you will be able to predict it's landing spot. As an extreme example, consider the UK, whose nuclear arsenal is all stored "Fail deadly" on submarines, meaning they can retaliate long after their entire country is leveled, including all of the military and civilian leadership. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Dec 10 '17 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ Many nuclear delivery methods cannot be tracked by satellite (air-launched, cruise missiles), or do not use ballistic paths (FOBS, cruise missiles), or have shorter travel time than retaliation can be decided (sea-launched, MRBM). If your story's leaders are foolish enough to go nuclear without considering the possibility of third-party misunderstandings, then your world's gonna burn...fast. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Dec 10 '17 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ Heads up, the US would probably nuke North Korea from very close, from their bases in South Korea or ships. No ICBMs crossing the Pacific. Fun fact: NK can hit Seoul with conventional artillery in less than a minute. $\endgroup$ – Emilio M Bumachar Dec 11 '17 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ That's a good point actually. The Chinese probably wouldn't even have time to react before it hit the ground. $\endgroup$ – Raznarok Dec 12 '17 at 0:01

There can be no certainty about targets only approximate target areas. Use of MIRV (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle) technology allows an incoming missile to deploy multiple warheads capable of landing several hundreds of kilometres apart and perhaps even further apart by use of hypersonic aerofoils. Some MIRVS also carry decoys such as aluminized balloons or electronic noisemakers which increase the uncertainty over the number of incoming warheads and their targets.

So unless the real target was many hundreds of kilometres beyond the borders of its neighbour doubt would remain.

In summary the US might know depending on the actual target location in Mexico as Mexico is a large country, but China could not be certain as North Korea is a relatively small country.

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    $\begingroup$ And FOBS which deliberately conceals -or changes- the target. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Dec 10 '17 at 1:38

Real world case:

The missile launched from off the coast of Norway and headed northeast from there.

The Russians were going ape, they saw what looked like a sub-launched missile heading for space over their northern lands--the sort of trajectory you would use if it was going to do an EMP attack. That caused the highest nuclear alert the world has ever seen.

In reality, the missile never entered Russian territory at all. It was heading for arctic territory--a sounding rocket looking at the aurora.

(The Russian radars could see that it came from off the coast--they couldn't see it came from a launch complex on an island off the coast. The burn looked exactly like a sub-launched missile because it was--it was an older SLBM motor repurposed for scientific use. Their bureaucracy lost the launch notification that had been sent out.)

  • $\begingroup$ Nice example but could you tie it up and link back to the question? It asks how accurately they can track. $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf Dec 10 '17 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ @LioElbammalf, it was an example of what Russian sensors couldn't tell apart. So it gives not a complete answer but one bound to the question. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Dec 10 '17 at 5:38
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    $\begingroup$ @LioElbammalf You think the answer isn't highly classified?! I was giving the only example I am aware of where the information leaked. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Dec 11 '17 at 16:01

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