Ask a question about 'Counterforce'
Start a new discussion about 'Counterforce'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
In nuclear strategy
Nuclear strategy
Nuclear strategy involves the development of doctrines and strategies for the production and use of nuclear weapons.As a sub-branch of military strategy, nuclear strategy attempts to match nuclear weapons as means to political ends...

, a counterforce target is one that has a military value, such as a launch silo for intercontinental ballistic missile
Intercontinental ballistic missile
An intercontinental ballistic missile is a ballistic missile with a long range typically designed for nuclear weapons delivery...

s, an airbase at which nuclear-armed bomber
A bomber is a military aircraft designed to attack ground and sea targets, by dropping bombs on them, or – in recent years – by launching cruise missiles at them.-Classifications of bombers:...

s are stationed, a homeport for ballistic missile submarine
Ballistic missile submarine
A ballistic missile submarine is a submarine equipped to launch ballistic missiles .-Description:Ballistic missile submarines are larger than any other type of submarine, in order to accommodate SLBMs such as the Russian R-29 or the American Trident...

s, or a command and control installation. The intent of a counterforce strategy (i.e., attacking counterforce targets with nuclear weapons) is to disarm an adversary by destroying its nuclear weapons before they can be launched, thereby minimizing the impact of a retaliatory second strike
Second strike
In nuclear strategy, a second strike capability is a country's assured ability to respond to a nuclear attack with powerful nuclear retaliation against the attacker...

. A counterforce target is distinguished from a countervalue
Countervalue is the targeting of an opponent's cities and civilian populations. In contrast, counterforce refers to the targeting of an opponent's military personnel, forces and facilities.-Theory:...

 target, which includes an adversary’s population, economic, or political resources. In other words, a counterforce strike is against an adversary’s military while a countervalue strike is against an adversary’s cities.


In nuclear warfare
Nuclear warfare
Nuclear warfare, or atomic warfare, is a military conflict or political strategy in which nuclear weaponry is detonated on an opponent. Compared to conventional warfare, nuclear warfare can be vastly more destructive in range and extent of damage...

, enemy targets are divided into two types: counterforce and countervalue
Countervalue is the targeting of an opponent's cities and civilian populations. In contrast, counterforce refers to the targeting of an opponent's military personnel, forces and facilities.-Theory:...

. A counterforce target is an element of the military infrastructure, usually either specific weapons or the bases which support them. A counterforce strike is an attack which targets these elements whilst leaving the civilian
A civilian under international humanitarian law is a person who is not a member of his or her country's armed forces or other militia. Civilians are distinct from combatants. They are afforded a degree of legal protection from the effects of war and military occupation...

 infrastructure – the countervalue targets – as undamaged as possible. Countervalue refers to the targeting of an opponent's cities and civilian populations.

An ideal counterforce attack would kill no civilians. Military attacks are prone to causing collateral damage
Collateral damage
Collateral damage is damage to people or property that is unintended or incidental to the intended outcome. The phrase is prevalently used as an euphemism for civilian casualties of a military action.-Etymology:...

 however, and this is especially true when nuclear weapons are employed. In nuclear terms many military targets are located in proximity to civilian centres, and a major counterforce strike employing even relatively small nuclear warheads against a nation would certainly inflict numerous civilian casualties. Further, the requirement to use ground burst
Ground burst
A groundburst is the detonation of an explosive device such as an artillery shell, nuclear weapon or air-dropped bomb that explodes upon hitting the ground...

 strikes to destroy hardened
Blast shelter
A blast shelter is a place where people can go to protect themselves from bomb blasts. It differs from a fallout shelter, in that its main purpose is to protect from shock waves and overpressure, instead of from radioactive precipitation, as a fallout shelter does...

 targets would produce enormously more fallout
Fallout or nuclear fallout is the residual radiation hazard from a nuclear explosion.Fallout may also refer to:*Fallout , a 1997 post-apocalyptic computer role-playing game released by Interplay Entertainment...

 than the air burst
Air burst
An air burst is the detonation of an explosive device such as an anti-personnel artillery shell or a nuclear weapon in the air instead of on contact with the ground or target or a delayed armor piercing explosion....

s used to strike countervalue targets; introducing the possibility that a counterforce strike would cause more civilian casualties--over a medium-term view--than a countervalue strike.

Counterforce weapons could be seen to provide more credible deterrence in future conflict by providing options for leaders.

Cold War

Counterforce is a type of attack which was originally proposed during the Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...


Both sides in the Cold War took steps to protect at least some of their nuclear forces from counter-force attacks. At one point the US kept B-52 Stratofortress
B-52 Stratofortress
The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress is a long-range, subsonic, jet-powered strategic bomber operated by the United States Air Force since the 1950s. The B-52 was designed and built by Boeing, who have continued to provide maintainence and upgrades to the aircraft in service...

 bombers permanently in flight; these would remain operational after any counter-force strike. Other bombers were kept ready for launch on short notice, allowing them to escape their bases before intercontinental ballistic missile
Intercontinental ballistic missile
An intercontinental ballistic missile is a ballistic missile with a long range typically designed for nuclear weapons delivery...

s could destroy them. The deployment of nuclear weapons on ballistic missile submarines changed this equation considerably – submarines launching from positions off the coast would likely destroy airfields before bombers could launch, reducing their ability to survive an attack. Submarines themselves, however, are largely immune from counter-force strikes and both sides fielded many such weapons during the Cold War.

A counter-force exchange was one scenario mooted for a possible limited nuclear war. The concept was that one side might launch a counter-force strike against the other; the victim would recognize the limited nature of the attack and respond in kind, leaving the military capability of both sides largely destroyed. The war might then come to an end because both sides would recognize that any further action would lead to attacks on the civilian population from the remaining nuclear forces – a counter-value strike. Critics of this idea claimed that since even a counter-force strike would kill millions of civilians it is unlikely that escalation to a full-scale counter-value war could be prevented.

MIRVed land-based ICBMs are considered destabilizing because they tend to put a premium on striking first. If, for example, each side has 100 missiles, with 5 warheads each, and further that each side has a 95 percent chance of neutralizing the opponent's missiles in their silos by firing 2 warheads at each silo. In this case, the side that strikes first can reduce the enemy ICBM force from 100 missiles to about 5 by firing 40 missiles with 200 warheads, and keeping the rest of 60 missiles in reserve. For such an attack to be successful, the warheads would have to strike their targets prior to the enemy launching a counter-attack. It is because of this that this type of weapon was banned under the START II
START II was a bilateral treaty between the United States of America and Russia on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. It was signed by United States President George H. W...


Counterforce disarming first-strike weapons

  • R-36M (SS-18 Satan). Deployed in 1976, this counterforce MIRV ICBM had single (20 Mt) or 10 MIRV (550-750 kt each) warheads, CEP 250 m. Targeted against Minuteman III silos as well as CONUS
    Conus is a large genus of small to large predatory sea snails, marine gastropod molluscs, with the common names of cone snails, cone shells or cones. This genus is placed in the subfamily Coninae within the family Conidae. Geologically speaking, the genus is known from the Eocene to the Recent ...

     command, control, and communications facilities. Has sufficient throw weight to carry up to 10 RVs and 40 penaids. Still in service.
  • RSD-10 (SS-20 Stiletto). Deployed in 1978, this counterforce MIRV IRBM could hide behind the Urals in Asian Russia, and launch its highly accurate 3 warhead payload (150 kt each, with a 150 m CEP) against NATO command, control, and communications installations, bunkers, air fields, air defense sites, and nuclear facilities in Europe. Extremely short flight time ensured NATO would be unable to respond prior to weapon impact. Triggered development and deployment of the Pershing II by NATO in 1983.
  • Peacekeeper
    LGM-118A Peacekeeper
    The LGM-118A Peacekeeper, also known as the MX missile , was a land-based ICBM deployed by the United States starting in 1986. A total of 50 missiles were deployed. They have since been deactivated....

     (MX Missile). Deployed in 1986, this missile boasted 10 MIRV warheads each with a 300 kt yield, CEP
    Circular error probable
    In the military science of ballistics, circular error probable is an intuitive measure of a weapon system's precision...

     120 m. Decommissioned.
  • Pershing II
    Pershing missile
    Pershing was a family of solid-fueled two-stage medium-range ballistic missiles designed and built by Martin Marietta to replace the PGM-11 Redstone missile as the United States Army's primary nuclear-capable theater-level weapon. The Pershing systems lasted over 30 years from the first test...

    . Deployed in 1983, this single warhead IRBM boasted 50 m CEP with active radar terminal guidance. Short, 7-minute flight-time, variable yield warhead of 5-50 kt, and range of 1,800 km, allowed this weapon to strike command, control, and communications installations, bunkers, air fields, air defense sites, and ICBM silos in the European part of the Soviet Union with scarcely any warning. Decommissioned.
  • RT-23 Molodets
    RT-23 Molodets
    The RT-23 was a Soviet ICBM developed and produced by the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau before 1991. It is cold launched, and comes in silo and railway car based variants...

     (SS-24 Scalpel). Deployed in 1987, this MIRV ICBM carried 10 warheads, each with 300-550 kt yield and a CEP of 150-250 m.
  • Trident II
    Trident missile
    The Trident missile is a submarine-launched ballistic missile equipped with multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles . The Fleet Ballistic Missile is armed with nuclear warheads and is launched from nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines . Trident missiles are carried by fourteen...

    . Deployed in 1990, this intercontinental-range SLBM carries 8 RVs with CEP of 80-120 m and yield of 100/475 kt. Main purpose is second-strike countervalue retaliation, but the excellent CEP and much shorter flight-time due to submarine launch makes it a first-strike weapon. However, that any nuclear power would be willing to place its nuclear submarines close to enemy shores during times of strategic tension is highly questionable. Has sufficient throw weight to deploy up to 14 warheads, but 8 are deployed in current practice.

See also

  • Limited first strike
  • Deterrence theory
    Deterrence theory
    Deterrence theory gained increased prominence as a military strategy during the Cold War with regard to the use of nuclear weapons, and features prominently in current United States foreign policy regarding the development of nuclear technology in North Korea and Iran. Deterrence theory however was...

  • Balance of terror
    Balance of terror
    The phrase "balance of terror" is usually used in reference to the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War....

  • Balance of power in international relations
    Balance of power in international relations
    In international relations, a balance of power exists when there is parity or stability between competing forces. The concept describes a state of affairs in the international system and explains the behavior of states in that system...

  • Peace through strength
    Peace through strength
    "Peace through strength" is a conservative slogan supporting military strength for the purpose of creating peaceful international relations.For supporters of the MX missile in the 1970s, the missile symbolized "peace through strength." The phrase was popular in political rallies during 1988...