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Such near-shore surprise attacks were a Cold War planner’s nightmare — the probable time to impact would be less than the minimum time required to respond to it. During early 1960s, fear that a Soviet submarine attack targeted against the Strategic Air Command’s bomber bases could destroy America’s B-52 and refueling tanker fleet while still on the ground fundamentally reshaped America’s nuclear forces. While the bomber fleet was maintained on constant alert, the United States rushed development of Atlas, Titan and Minuteman ballistic missiles, giving the country a long-range strike force that could be kept far away from vulnerable coastal areas.
The Navy also developed the Polaris missile, that could be fired from submerged submarines, giving the United States an easily hidden, awesomely powerful second-strike force that provided America with a safe deterrent sufficient to destroy dozens of Soviet cities. The development of the nuclear strike triad continues to shape U.S. defense doctrine to this day, and was almost entirely due to the kind of threat that seemingly manifested itself off the coast of California this week.
The end of the Cold War has not ended the threat. While the likelihood of a sudden, “bolt-from-the-blue” attack by Russia or China is exceedingly low, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile launcher systems makes an asymmetrical attack upon a technologically advanced Western country distressingly possible. A country like North Korea or Pakistan, or one day Iran, could strike a devastating blow against the United States by using a limited number of nuclear weapons to generate an electromagnetic pulse over North America, destroying our power grids and virtually all electronic devices, including vital communications and command and control links. Such an attack, probably the most realistic doomsday threat facing the West today, could easily be carried out by submarines or even cargo ships carrying nuclear-tipped missiles in North American coastal waters.
Clearly, whatever Monday’s event was, the inability of the United States to swiftly even confirm whether a missile even had been launched raises tough questions about whether or not America is in a position to respond to a sudden attack from its coastal waters. Should the contrail over Los Angeles prove to be nothing, America should count itself lucky to have had this as a wakeup call. Next time, it might be the real thing. The time for America to get ready is now.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @mattgurney.
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