Civil Defense is Dead! Long Live Civil Defense!

North Korea has developed and begun deploying nuclear armed ICBMs capable of hitting Alaska, Hawaii and parts of the western United States. Tensions are rising and Kim Jong Un and Trump are now sparing over a threat to the U.S territory of Guam issued by the regime to fire a salvo of IRBMs at the waters surrounding the American island.

This threat and threats like it have prompted several officials from Korea, Japan and the United States to begin reconsidering the concept of Civil Defense. Hawaii has recently begun a campaign to educate its citizens on how to respond to a North Korean attack and Guam is following suit.

Civil defense has its roots back in World War II where air power was used to devastating effect in Europe and Japan. After the war, it was adopted in the United States in the early Cold War as a counter to the Soviet nuclear threat.

The problem with Civil Defense is that it is an idea that makes people feel better without actually making them much safer. Technology has advanced significantly since the Second World War. The time between the launch of a nuclear weapon and it’s effect on target has been drastically reduced from a warning time of several hours for a bomber to thirty minutes at most for an ICBM and as low as five minutes for a shorter range missile.

The power of the weapons has also increased dramatically. A German V-2 aimed at London carried a 2,200 lb conventional warhead. Fast forward 10 years and Wernher Von Braun’s (yep, same guy) new Redstone rocket carried a W39 thermonuclear bomb with a payload of three times as much and a yield of up to 3.5 Megatons.

This time compression and increase in yield essentially made civil defense impossible for the vast majority of people. As detailed in Garrett Graff’s new book, the United States essentially gave up on civil defense after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The advent of large thermonuclear armed missile forces simply made the idea impractical for most ordinary citizens.

Attempts to revive it have been infrequent and required huge financial, logistical and industrial commitments. In the 1970s and 80s various schemes were worked out. Some Reagan era plan’s went as far as to presume the cities would have to be evacuated several days in advance of a nuclear war and residents relocated to predetermined rural sites. In most cases the plans proved either too complex, expensive or the administration simply lost focus and moved on to other issues.

Today, organized civil defense is almost equally as impractical when it comes to North Korea and will be less practical as yields increase and stockpiles grow.


The issue with civil defense is that it depends on several assumptions; first that there will be sufficient time to warn the public of an incoming attack, second, that the public will act according to plan, and third: that whatever measures put in place to protect the public will be followed through on. In practice this is much harder than it is in theory.

For one thing the detection and 20 minute flight leaves a very small window for locals to react. 20 minutes is quickly turns into 15 when the time needed to detect, confirm and report the launch is taken into account. This of course, assumes that everything goes perfectly.

In terms of planning, circumstances often conspire to destroy even the best laid plans. Garrett Graff goes into some detail about this in relation to the 9\11 attacks where no officials were where the Continuity of Government planners assumed they would be when the attack came.

Most famously, President Bush was reading a book to kids at an elementary school in Florida. Instead of going to Site R, he ended up flying to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Cheney was left in the White House. Both had severe issues with communications that limited their knowledge of the overall situation.

Civilain civil defense would likely experience similar shortfalls. In Hawaii or San Diego one could imagine a situation where war breaks out at an inconvenient time such as a holiday or natural disaster or just an inopportune time of day. It’s not much use having a bunker at home if the war starts at 10:43 AM on a work day.

So yeah, those super rich people buying luxury bunkers? Not Jealous. Good luck flying halfway across the country with 15 to 25 minutes warning.

Proposing that old military installations be renovated to be turned into public shelters is equally absurd for the same reasons. (local governments have said as much). Fixed bunkers in general are representative of an older mode of thinking tied to relatively slow-moving strategic bombers which could take hours to reach their targets after detection. They are, in a sense, dinosaurs of a bygone era.

So what should we do?

The most important thing people can do is not panic. We’ve been through this situation before and have lived with nuclear deterrence for almost seven decades. Kim Jong Un is a rational actor who built these weapons to keep the U.S from toppling his regime. He knows that if he strikes Guam or Hawaii the U.S will end him and his regime in a hail of fire and China won’t come to his rescue. The use of these weapons is therefore very unlikely.

If the U.S wants to restart its civil preparedness it should be practical. Plans should be easy to follow and maintain financially. No plan will protect people completely.  If nuclear war breaks out there will be mass casualties. We will be vulnerable. This is something we need to accept.

Given the nature and likelihood of the threat planning should be cheap and allow for adaptability. High risk areas like Guam, Hawaii and San Diego need to avoid overly complicated and elaborate planning that will almost certainly fail in practice and bankrupt local governments in the process.

Holding yearly drills in high risk areas and conducting a limited (if only somewhat Orwellian) ad campaign to educate the public should do the trick. For the kids maybe they could bring back Bert the Turtle or something. The normal “Code Red” drills they run at school will probably work just as well for a nuclear attack.*

Bert was very alert.

It’s important to remember we’re talking about a very low risk event, a risk that is concentrated in a few strategic locations. Should Guam have a plan? Of course, if we go to war with anyone in Asia Guam will be a target and they should know what to if that happens. But there isn’t really a valid threat to anywhere in the American South or any rural areas within range of the a North Korean ICBM.

In short, we shouldn’t panic. Should people know what to do if they live in strategically vulnerable place? Yes. In same way I should know what to do in earthquake or tornado, even though neither has occurred in my area for years.

Damage from The Great D.C Earthquake of 2013.


*”Code Red” is the drill my K-12 Schools used for emergencies. The principles (get low and get away from doors and windows) are similar enough to nuke drills to be used with little modification.


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