As the war in Ukraine escalates, Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun to make threats about the use of nuclear weapons. To be clear, it remains incredibly unlikely with these weapons would actually be used. Their use would mark an unprecedented escalation in a conflict that is more likely to stay contained in a region where is taking place, even if the humanitarian impacts of the war are felt globally.
In the incredibly unlikely scenario that these weapons were used, what would this mean for the Bay Area? As West Coasters, we are physically closer to Russia than any other place in the continental United States. (Alaska is closer than us to Russia, but it’s also thousands of miles from the rest of the country.)
Does this put us in an especially vulnerable position? Could Russia’s offensive nuclear weapons reach us in the unlikely event of actual nuclear aggression?
The Bay Area’s Nuclear History
Concerns about nuclear aggression in the Bay Area are nothing new. The Bay Area’s proximity to Russia (and formerly, the Soviet Union) has impacted us before, and our region has a deep nuclear history.
Beginning in 1953 with the Cold War, the Bay Area played host to several of America’s 300+ Nike missile sites. Although these sites stopped operating in the 1980s, several can still be seen around the Bay Area, and one in the Marin Headlands (site SF-88) has even been preserved as a historical attraction by the National Parks Service.
If the Soviet Union had attacked the United States with nuclear bombers, they would have likely left Russia, and reached California as one of their first destinations. The Bay Area’s Nike missiles were installed to counter this threat. If a Soviet raid was detected, crews stationed at sites like SF-88 would have fired their missiles in a counterattack, directed by radar installed on top of Mount Tamalpais.
The Nike missiles were themselves topped with nuclear warheads. The idea was that these nuclear missiles would fly near incoming Soviet bombers, explode in a nuclear blast, and take the bombers out while they were still over the Pacific Ocean.
Operating these missiles was demanding work. According to a history of the Bay Area’s Nike sites, crews worked amid tight security, with platoons of soldiers and German Shephards guarding each missile site. If they heard the order “blazing skies,” they knew a Soviet attack was imminent and would rush to launch their missiles. Many crewmembers had families living nearby, adding to the pressure. “We were terminal defense,” one former Nike crew member said. “If something got through us, then there would be no families.”
Russia’s Long-Distance Capabilities
Today, Russia has the most nuclear weapons of any country, with approximately 6000 weapons. Most of these are on reserve status. But experts believe that at least 1,500 weapons are in a ready status and could be used. Many of these are tactical weapons. That means that they would be used over a shorter distance, to support a conventional war — something that Russia threatened to do as recently as 2021.
In terms of a threat to America and the West Coast, however, the nature of nuclear war has changed since the early days of the Cold War. Nike missiles were eventually phased out in the 1980s because new weapons were developed that didn’t need to be delivered using slow-moving bombers. These newer weapons are designed to strike across continents.
Russia’s arsenal includes intercontinental ballistic missiles, which could be launched from Russian soil and could reach nearly any target in the world. They’ve also reportedly recently developed hypersonic weapons, which could fly fast enough to be nearly impossible to shoot down. In the worst-case scenario of a nuclear strike, this is more than sufficient firepower to reach most parts of the United States, including the Bay Area.
Since we’re near the coast, we’d also have to worry about nuclear-armed submarines. These vessels can strike with nuclear warheads over a much shorter distance, leaving less warning and less time for missile defense systems to activate.
Obviously, that’s worrying. Although our proximity to Russia no longer makes the Bay Area especially vulnerable — as it did during the early Cold War — we’re still just as vulnerable as any other part of the country or world to a nuclear threat.
Does Something Like the Bay Area’s Nike Sites Exist Today?
In the 1950s-1970s, the Bay Area had our Nike sites to help counter nuclear threats. Have defenses evolved to counter the evolving long-range weapons that could threaten our region and the rest of the US? In short, if Russia’s threats turned out to be more than just saber-rattling, could we defend ourselves?
Concerningly, it’s hard to say. A recent study indicated that America does not have any real defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Department of Defense disputes the study, however. It’s certainly possible that the United States military has developed secret defenses that are not disclosed to the public. Defending against a threat from an arsenal as large as Russia’s, however, would be tactically challenging.
What is known is that a nuclear attack on the Bay Area by any nation would be devastating. Because San Francisco is densely populated, a strike there would kill tens of thousands of people, according to an analysis from the Chronicle. The only good news is that strategically, a strike would be more likely to target nuclear military installations than civilian population centers. We don’t have many of those in California, so our risk is reduced somewhat.
Again, it’s incredibly unlikely that such a strike would be launched, at least during the current conflict. It would almost certainly be met with counterstrikes from America and its NATO allies, and even Putin is unlikely to provoke such an attack. A more likely nuclear threat in the short term is mismanagement of the Chernobyl site, which Russia now controls.
But make no mistake: if nuclear weapons were used, the impact would be global. It would impact the Bay Area, and nearly everywhere else in the world. That’s why de-escalation, diplomacy, and other tactics are seen as the best move forward. People on both sides of the conflict presumably hope that these measures can bring about peace, and nuclear weapons remain only a theoretical threat.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Bold Italic. Cover photo courtesy Alf van Beem/Public Domain