By: Nick Haugen and Mark Diglio

(Editor’s Note: This article is an update to an article published in the Combating WMD Journal, issue 8, winter/spring 2012.)

The Army has prepared itself to face nuclear threats since it built and used the world’s first nuclear weapons in combat. Today, the Army requires that all mission-critical systems with electronics be hardened against the nuclear weapon effect of a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) [1]. The HEMP survivability requirement is generally not challenged by combat and material developers. From a threat standpoint, a HEMP can be created by a nation or state with relatively undeveloped nuclear and missile technology. A single nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude can generate a HEMP over a wide area [2]. In terms of hardening, dealing with HEMP is not unlike dealing with other electromagnetic environmental effects (E3), such as lightning, directed-energy weapons, and interference from friendly communications emitters and radars. If one is dealing with a set of E3, adding HEMP to the set earlier in the design is not costly or technologically challenging.

The Army also requires that mission-critical weapons systems be hardened against a broader set of nuclear weapons effects [1]. This requirement is more frequently resisted by developers. The nuclear threat is a less obvious threat than most traditional threats (because few states have tactical nuclear weapons) and is more difficult to harden against.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, there were no clear-cut scenarios involving the use of nuclear weapons against deployed formations. However, the future holds a resurgent Russia with claims upon the Arctic Ocean’s resources and Russian-speaking former Soviet Republics, as well as a nuclear-modernizing China with claims upon the South China Sea. Considering Russia’s substantial tactical nuclear weapons arsenal, the prospects of limited regional nuclear conflict are real [3]. When one does imagine a nuclear weapon being used against our forces, it is easier to imagine a response involving the United States responding in-kind than continuing the conventional fight on the battlefield.

In addition to nuclear threats being less obvious, the hardening against nuclear effects as an afterthought can be daunting. One must deal with thermal radiation, nuclear blast, and initial nuclear radiation (INR). The INR environment is composed of neutrons and gamma rays, considering both dose rate and total dose, which affect electronics in different ways. Most major combat systems are full of vulnerable advanced computer technologies. Added to these challenges is the increasing pressure to save money in the face of significant and ongoing budget cuts.

This article discusses both the strategic and individual program-level benefits of the Army’s requirement to harden mission-critical systems against thermal radiation, nuclear blast, INR, and EMP with an eye to promote the same in Air Force systems. For example, dual-use-capable aircraft (such as the F-35 shown in Figure 1) need protection against EMP nuclear effects.

Figure 1 F-35A Lightning II Aircraft (U.S. Air Force Photo/SSgt Madelyn Brown)


The benefits to the Army’s nuclear hardness program extend beyond the survivability of individual systems. By sustaining the Army’s nuclear survivability program, we dissuade adversary proliferation, sustain the technical knowledge associated with nuclear hardening, and assure mission capability for regional nuclear conflicts. These strategic benefits exist independent of a single system’s capability. The key is maintaining these nuclear hardening requirements for enough systems through the life-cycle maintenance process to realize these strategic benefits for sustained nuclear environment mission capability. Nuclear survivability capability is critical for most aircraft and their supporting systems.

To dissuade adversary proliferation, we must influence a potential nuclear weapon state’s decision on whether or not to develop or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons. (This understanding of dissuasion, distinct from deterrence, as influencing how an adversary competes, is from M. Elaine Bunn [4].) A state’s violating a promise not to proliferate can cause significant costs, such as international sanctions or military intervention (as with Syria and North Korea). Both imposing costs and denying benefits are important elements. If a proliferating state is a potential adversary of the United States—a likely case—then it will see less benefit to possessing nuclear weapons if it knows that U.S. forces are fully prepared to deal with nuclear weapons (credibility). If we field forces that are hardened to the effects of nuclear weapons, there is one less benefit to an adversary obtaining them. On the other hand, if we abandon our hardening program, we present the potential enemy with a softer target, giving that enemy one more weight on the scale in his calculation of whether or not to obtain or use nuclear weapons.

One could argue that the hardness of U.S. Army combat systems is not likely to be a significant driver in this decision. If one considers Iraq’s on-and-off weapons program prior to 2003, it is difficult to imagine Saddam Hussein carefully considering whether or not to develop nuclear weapons on the basis of whether or not the Abrams tank was hardened. However, suppose that the U.S. Army had abandoned its policy of hardening its systems against nuclear weapons. Instead of thinking of the specific hardness level of a specific weapon, Saddam might have more generally concluded that the U.S. military was vulnerable to nuclear weapons and/or was too afraid (or otherwise unwilling) to deal with these weapons.” Hypothetically, this conclusion would have been rational and could have been a significant factor in his decision regarding nuclear weapons development (though more likely averting nuclear weapons possession would serve Saddam as a deterrent from attacking neighbors).

The second strategic benefit of nuclear survivability is sustaining the technical knowledge base. The Army has been able to attract talented engineers and scientists to commit to a career based on knowledge of nuclear weapons effects. This technical knowledge base can be compared to a human body. It is mature and healthy. Its health can be sustained through modest effort and expense. If we allow it to die, however, it would be extremely difficult to replace it with an infant. Even worse, we cannot know when or for what purpose we will need this knowledge base. The Army would face a situation similar to that faced by the Air Force and Navy, which have not sustained the expertise necessary to maintain their strategic ballistic missiles to the point that, according to the Defense Science Board, “current skills may not be able to cope with unanticipated failures requiring analysis, testing, and redesign [5].”

By maintaining the nuclear hardness requirement and consistently applying it, we create a need for material developers who understand the impact of nuclear weapons effects on systems and the technical approaches for addressing those impacts. In addition, we create a need for combat developers to understand how nuclear weapons impact the forces they are developing. We also create the need for parts suppliers to build radiation-tolerant parts. Finally, we sustain our test facilities and their personnel.

As with dissuading adversary proliferation, rational arguments exist against maintaining the technical knowledge base. One could read through the list of aforementioned professionals who need to maintain nuclear knowledge and think that the investment could hardly be worth the cost. In addition, conventional thought might suggest that cutting this initiative is a chance to accept a bit of risk and spend taxpayers’ money on something more pressing. This thought might be true were it not for the modest cost of the Army’s hardening program (such as with the Bradley Fighting Vehicles in Figure 2).

Historically, acquiring and sustaining a system’s nuclear hardness amount to about 1% of a program’s total life-cycle costs. And when one considers the defense budget and the fact that not all systems require full nuclear survivability, this cost is relatively cheap.

For comparison, consider how much the Army spends on big-ticket programs that are cancelled prior to production. How much do they contribute to our long-term security? Implementing modest spending cuts to wasteful programs, incorporating nuclear survivability, and sustaining funding are cheap ways to mitigate long-term operational mission risks.

Certainly, similar opportunities for survivability capability must exist for critical Air Force systems too.

Figure 2 Bradley M2A3s Arriving in Korea, Hardened to Survive Nuclear Weapons Effects at Modest Cost to
the Army (Photo Credit: Glen Curtis)



As noble a goal as achieving these strategic benefits might be, the Army spends money program by program. The weight then falls to the individual Program Manager (PM) who must justify his program costs and the Milestone Decision Authority (MDA) to decide the priority of funded capabilities. The PM might not be able to “take one for the team” and have his nuclear survivability program contribute a wide range of strategic survivability benefits. Instead, he will likely need something specific and relevant to his individual system to justify any costs. Fortunately, there are concrete benefits to an individual program and the Warfighters who use the system.

The most important of these benefits is the preparedness against future threats. In their recent study of ground vehicle modernization in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, Andrew Krepinevich and Eric Lindsey of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments identify the proliferation of nuclear weapons as one of seven trends impacting the future land warfare environment. They find that [6]:

The ongoing proliferation of nuclear weapons and changing attitudes about their use will substantially increase the likelihood that U.S. military forces will confront an adversary that is willing and able to employ nuclear weapons.
Besides noting the increasing likelihood of a nuclear battlefield in the developing world, Krepinevich and Lindsey cite a published Central Intelligence Agency memorandum and congressional testimony that point to Russian development of small-yield nuclear weapons (such as the one being testing in Figure 3) and more flexible employment doctrine [6].

Figure 3 The Small 11-kt Fizeau Nuclear Test at the Nevada Test Site, September 1957 (Trinity Atomic Web Site)

One might challenge the relevance of this assessment when discussing the Abrams and Bradley, as these are cases of matching legacy systems against hypothetical future threats. However, the Abrams and Bradley vehicles will be in service another 20 years. Consider that more than 25 years ago, Russia was a threat in its incarnation as the Soviet Union. Although that threat subsided, it has already resurfaced as an even more complex threat. Who will guarantee that Russia does not use the tactical part of its 12,000 nuclear warheads or that these weapons will remain tightly secured and controlled [7]?

Furthermore, many other weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-capable adversaries might the United States need to deal with in the next 25 years? If our relationship with Russia can change so dramatically in one 25-year period, can it not change again in the next 25 years with other adversaries? Per General Mark Milley, Chief of Staff of the Army, the five growing WMD threats today are Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and violently radical terrorist organizations [3]. Since 1999, Russia’s strategic doctrine subscribes to a policy known as “escalate to deescalate.” This strategy describes a scenario of first use-limited nuclear strikes, for example, to get NATO and the United States to back down from any regional or local confrontations or preemptively in situations critical to national security [8, 9]. With Russia and China expanding territorial claims today and irrational belligerence from rogue states, nuclear survivability is an increasingly relevant requirement for all mission-critical systems and many of their subsystems.

Another benefit to an individual program is that, by sustaining a system’s nuclear hardness, it is much less expensive than trying to recreate it. Just as the Army’s survivability knowledge as a whole is inexpensively maintained—it cannot be easily or quickly recreated—the same holds true with the hardness of an individual system. Currently, the essential parts of a hardened vehicle are tested on a supplier-by-supplier basis, the results are captured in a database, fixes for faulty parts are implemented, and faulty parts are tracked through the fleet of fielded systems, etc.

In the case of the Abrams and Bradley, this management system has been developed and improved over 35 years. Once abandoned, the knowledge of which parts from which suppliers are inherently hard, of how to fix faulty parts, of what parts are in what vehicles, of how to manage the databases that track this information, and of how to test parts for radiation tolerance will surely wither away and die. Surely the cost of recreating this system is an order of magnitude higher than simply sustaining it. And even if today’s user does not want nuclear-hardened vehicles or aircraft, what about the user 10 or 15 years from now? If one justifies a modest savings by sacrificing survivability hardening for today’s user, one is setting up the future user for significant cost growth and even likely failure of meeting future needs.

A third system-level benefit is that hardened systems deter enemy nuclear weapon use. Just as a hardening program throughout the Army impacts an adversary’s decision on whether to develop nuclear weapons, a survivable formation impacts his decision to use them. In this case, the benefit is much more concrete. The impact of nuclear weapons on battlefield formations can be modeled with confidence. Currently, the Army hardens its systems to the level at which humans will survive on the battlefield. If we stop hardening our systems, the radius at which our formations are likely to be impacted by a nuclear weapon extends from the radius at which humans in vehicles are inherently vulnerable to the level at which electronics are disrupted. In extremely rough terms, this leads to a quadrupling of the area impacted. If an enemy can quadruple the area over which his nuclear weapon is effective, he is that much more likely to use it.

A final system-level benefit of sustaining a full Army nuclear hardening program deals with soldier morale. Currently, combat vehicles are designed and built so that if the crew members live, their vehicle works. The consistent message communicated to them is, “After the event, keep fighting,” and “If you live, you still have a mission [10].” However, lowering the level at which we harden vehicles complicates and sours this message. If some or all functions are left unhardened, the message to operators would more likely be something like, “After the event, get your vehicle as close to the rally point as possible before you collapse so that we can repair it and give it to another crew,” or “If the automotive system works but the fire control system does not, you likely will not be with us much longer.” Applying this concept specifically to aircraft (whether parked on the ground or flying in the air), an aircraft’s ability to operate “after the flash” is critical. Even a low-yield, high-altitude nuclear pop can fry unprotected computer, communications, sensors, and control equipment; and the post-attack time is the time when a system is needed most. And trying to add nuclear protection after a system is fielded could prove to be an insurmountable effort and impractical for adding any usable survivability capability.


The U.S. military is facing tough decisions in the near future on how to accomplish its mission with a smaller budget. Naturally, all of the DoD spending needs to be examined to ensure that we are not wasting increasingly scarce resources. However, leaders need to make decisions on nuclear survivability with their eyes wide open. And any decision today to cut a nuclear hardening program will present a significant challenge for future decision-makers as the nuclear weapons threat becomes increasingly more serious and real.


Mr. Nick Haugen served as the Army’s CBRN Survivability Manager at the U.S. Army Nuclear and Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Agency (USANCA) until 2015. Previously, he worked for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, SAIC, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He also served in the U.S. Army from 1997 through 2003 as a combat engineer. Mr. Haugen holds a B.S. in civil engineering from the U.S. Military Academy, an M.A. in security studies from Georgetown University, and an M.A. in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College.

Mr. Mark Diglio has served as the Army’s CBRN Survivability Manager at USCANA since 2016. Previously, he was the Associate Project Manager for the Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization, and he developed and managed Army CBRN filtration and detection systems at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD. Mr. Diglio holds a B.S. in chemical engineering from the Pennsylvania State University, an M.B.A. from the Florida Institute of Technology, and an M.S. in CWMD defense strategic studies from Missouri State University.


References [1] Headquarters, Department of the Army. Survivability of Army Personnel and Materiel. Army Regulation 70-75, May 2005. [2] “Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack.” Vol.1 (Executive Report), 2004. [3] GEN Mark Milley. “Future Threat.” Speech at the Association of the U.S. Army Dwight D. Eisenhower Luncheon, 4 October 2016. [4] Bunn, M. Elaine. “Can Deterrence be Tailored?” Strategic Forum #225, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, January 2007. [5] Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. “Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Future Strategic Strike Skills.” March 2006. [6] Krepinevich, Andrew F., and Eric Lindsey. The Road Ahead: Future Challenges and Their Implications for Ground Combat Vehicle Modernization. Washington: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2012. [7] Norris, Robert S., and Hans M. Kristensen. “Nuclear Pursuits, 2012.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 68, no. 1, January 2012. [8] Sokov, Nikolai N. “Why Russia Calls a Limited Nuclear Strike De-Escalation.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 13 March 2014. [9] Schneider, Mark B. “Escalate to De-Escalate.” Proceedings Magazine, vol. 143/2/1,368, U.S. Naval Institute, February 2017. [10] U.S. Department of Defense. “Nuclear Posture Review Report.” April 2010.