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Sometimes, the unthinkable becomes a legitimate option. Other times it's downright commonplace.
Nuclear warheads are currently the most powerful weapon in humanity's arsenal. They are the most destructive thing we have the capacity to deploy, and as such are treated as a last resort, a final option when all other possibilities are exhausted. They are to be used only when the consequences of not using them are worse than the consequences of using them. This has happened only twice in Real Life; in fiction, however, this situation comes up a lot more often.
The Nuclear Option is the well-considered and appropriate use of nuclear weaponry by a legitimate authority. Perhaps the enemy has already launched nukes at allied targets, or maybe It's the Only Way to Be Sure. Maybe the target is Nigh Invulnerable and a nuke is the only way to crack through its protections, or maybe some Cool Starships are flinging nukes at each other in otherwise empty space. See Explosions in Space. Maybe the situation is already so bad that the potential for massive collateral damage doesn't matter anymore. In any case, the Nuclear Option is, ultimately, a good idea, or at least reasonable. Unlike an Empty Quiver, the Nuclear Option is ordered by a legitimate authority; unlike Nuke'Em, it's neither overkill nor likely to backfire; and unlike Deus Ex Nukina, the nuke does something that actually makes sense.
- Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Not only are the devices extremely effective in almost every time they're deployed, but the Zentradi are astounded that humans have the technology to make "Reaction Weapons".
- Subverted in the novels of Robotech, where Nukes are part of a set of weapons labeled as "Conventional Weapons" and does little to hurt them. Instead, alien-enhanced "Reflex Missiles," are used instead.
- Used repeatedly in multiple Gundam series, notable for not only avoiding the Nuclear Weapons Taboo but portraying nukes as dangerous and powerful weapons, but not evil incarnate.
- The Universal Century timeline has prodigious use of nukes.
- The Backstory of the One Year War features the One Week Battle that opened the conflict, where nuclear weapons are used by The Federation in a partially-successful attempt to stop a Colony Drop, and then used by both sides during a major fleet battle not long after. The carnage resulting from both of these occasions causes both sides to sign the Antarctic Treaty, banning the use of WMDs of any kind.
- Mobile Suit Gundam has M'Quve attempt to launch nuclear weapons when it becomes clear that he's lost the battle, but Amuro in the Gundam manage to destroy the missiles before they can detonate.
- Mobile Suit Gundam The 08th MS Team includes a suspiciously powerful explosion attributed to a "fuel-air bomb"; whether this is the Nuclear Weapons Taboo temporarily reinstated or an in-universe attempt to circumvent the above-mentioned Antarctic Treaty is open to debate.
- A more blatant attempt to circumvent the treaty took place at the end of the series as the EFF assaulted Ginneas Sakhalin's mountain base by sending waves of GMs into certain death traps. Their hope was that one of the reactors on their doomed mobile suits would happen to melt down.
- The second half of Gundam 0080 revolves around trying to prevent a neutral colony from being nuked.
- Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory prominently features a nuclear-equipped Gundam, though it's only part of the plan, and the effects seen when the nuke is eventually used are wildly unrealistic.
- Chars Counterattack has the good guys using nuclear missiles in space in an attempt to prevent a Colony Drop; they're portrayed quite accurately, in contrast to the previous example.
- The Cosmic Era timeline has more than its share of nukes as well.
- The Universal Century timeline has prodigious use of nukes.
- In Ghost in the Shell:Stand Alone Complex, terrorists demanding civil rights for the refugees interred in Japan attempt to acquire plutonium and hole themselves up in a refugee camp turned into a fortress, threatening to nuke a city if the military assaults their stronghold. While it is not actually known if the terrorist have enough plutonium or are bluffing, the Powers That Be that actually rule over Japan decide to call in a favor from the Americans and order a nuclear strike on the island. It would then be claimed that the terrorists accidentaly blew up themselves. The uprising would be over, the nuclear thread be removed, and the political establishment emerged greatly strengthed, as the population would accept any curbing of their few remaining rights to prevent that ever happening again.
- In Neon Genesis Evangelion, "N2 mines" (the N2 stands for Non Nuclear) are the weapons of last resort against the Angels. Of course, given that its a Giant Robot show, they're almost completely ineffective, in order to show how awesome the Evas are in comparison.
- Lyrical Nanoha features the Fantastic Nuke being fitted to the local Cool Ship when it becomes clear they're up against something that has eaten planets. The procedures surrounding the fitting and use of an Arc-En-Ciel make it clear that this is the weapon of last resort, while the key-based interlock and apparent use of the Two Man Rule (priming the weapon for firing and firing it require the coordinated action of two different people in different areas of the ship) make the nuclear weapon analogy pretty clear.
- Judge Dredd has used it a few times:
- "The Apocalypse War" storyline had Dredd defeat the Sov Block by nuking them. With their own nukes.
- During the "Judgement Day" arc, Dredd had several cities nuked that had been overrun by zombies.
- There is a scene in one of the Marvel Zombies issues where Director Fury was deliberating whether or not to resort to this while New York was rapidly being devoured. Unfortunately, before it could be implemented, Quicksilver was infected, and infected every nation in the span of a few minutes.
- In An Entry with a Bang!, nukes soften up the marauding pirates before they make Earthfall and massive nuclear rearmament is in progress in a bid to construct a shield of sorts to ward off future hostile interlopers from a BattleTech faction.
- In Neon Exodus Evangelion, a nuclear cruise missile is used to destroy the demoness Natlateth. Notably, it needs special command codes from Mission Control in order to launch.
- In Conquest of the Emperor: The World of Naruto the invading OC villians get rid of Madara and his white zetsu army this way.
- In Independence Day, the army tries conventional bullet weapons, missiles and (it is implied) other conventional weapons, but they are all repelled by the aliens' shields. Ultimately, after great tribulation over the matter, the painful decision of using nukes is taken. Only one strike is made (annihilating a large city) before it is realized even they are ineffective.
- A direct shout-out to George Pal's War of the Worlds, even down to the aircraft used - in WOTW, the Northrop YB-49 flying wing jet bomber (which was NOT a film prop but an actual USAF prototype); in ID4, the Northrop B-2 flying wing jet bomber.
- Very similar to Independence Day is Mars Attacks (Film) in which every single possible weapon was fired at the spacecraft and the only option left is the bomb. But unfortunately, the aliens just inhaled it.
- Armageddon uses a nuke to split an asteroid in half. Falls under Nuclear Option rather than Nuke Ex Machina because they're using a nuke to provide what nukes actually provide — namely a very large explosion. Still a case of Did Not Do the Research, though, because a nuclear explosion wouldn't have been big enough to do what it did in the movie.
- Subverted in Monsters vs. Aliens.
- In the Starship Troopers novel, certain soldiers are occasionally armed with tactical nuclear rockets. They're drilled extensively to "get their money's worth" out of their use.
- Dune has "atomics", though their use against human targets is frowned upon with threats of "planetary obliteration". Paul Atreides uses them anyway, arguing that he wasn't attacking humans, he was attacking the Shield Wall, an uninhabited geographical feature.
- The semi-canonical Dune Encyclopaedia has two instances of its use, while the last two books written by Frank Herbert himself are set in a post-Great-Convention universe where the rules no longer apply.
- The Empire From the Ashes trilogy has nukes at the midpoint of the destructive scale. More powerful than kinetic kill and high explosive warheads, but less powerful than antimatter and gravitonic weapons. The first book, featuring a more subdued conflict on a single planet, treats nukes with a healthy respect. The second flings them around like nobody's business, since the fighting took place entirely in open space.
- The aliens fought in the second book refer to nuclear weapons as the "lesser thunder" (antimatter being the "greater thunder").
- Bolo: the titular tanks are programmed to protect humans, so they only use the Nuclear Option if all humans are out of harm's way. Of course they're also armed with fusion cannon as an alternative.
- Considered several times in The Salvation War, many more if the thread discussions are included. A nuclear weapon ends up being used to vaporize the angelic Incomparable Legion of Light.
- In the Wing Commander novel Fleet Action, the Kilrathi use Strontium-90 clad nuclear weapons to render several human worlds uninhabitable, and nearly succeed at doing so to Earth before Krueger's Big Damn Heroes moment.
- Although technically not nukes, in the same novel humans use matter/antimatter bombs as part of a plan to destroy the enemy supercarriers from the inside, when regular space weaponry fired at them from outside proves ineffective against the massively protected ships.
- Posleen War Series: The Chinese used nukes to try to slow down the Posleen, but failed to slow them for more than a day, winding up not only destroyed as a fighting force, but poisoning the Yangtze River for thousands of years.
- In When The Devil Dances and Hell's Faire, deployment and use of nukes is a significant issue, thanks to a president that's very against them. However, they do eventually get authorized for use, as area denial weapons to kill large numbers of Posleen after the Rabun Gap defenses are breached, including flushing the nearly the entire US nuclear missile arsenal to nuke the Gap, just to get some warheads past the absurdly accurate anti-air fire from Posleen hardware.
- Though they are never actually used, characters in Night Watch occasionally mention having nukes on standby in case the situation escalates, as nukes are the only things that can blast through all seven layers of Twilight.
- The starships in Honor Harrington use these as standard missiles, generally armed with stand-off laser heads to reduce the effectiveness of point defence. That said, the few times that a contact nuke (as opposed to said laser heads) has got through, usually due to Rafe Cardones' sheer awesomeness, it has burned out or destroyed nearly every sidewall generator, particle shield, sensor array and weapon system mounted on the affected area of the ship. It generally dies quickly after Harrington gets a clear shot at this area.
- The Lensman universe offers the super-atomic bomb, which is used in vast numbers to attack ships that have just 'jumped in' via hyperspatial tube and are still getting themselves in order. The trope is really only played straight on both sides later in the series, when it becomes clear to our hero that what Galactic Civilization is facing is not disorganised outlaws and criminals but essentially the evil mirror of itself.
- It Gets Worse. In later instalments antimatter bombs of planetary mass are used by the tens of thousands in single battles.
- Stewart Cowley's Terran Trade Authority universe throws nukes around A LOT. Spacecraft: 2000-2100 AD is a guidebook to the ships of three civilisations, detailing propulsion, crew, armament etc. Most of the ships of all three species (human, Alpha Centauri, Proxima Centauri) whose function is surface attack are nuclear-capable: a few are specifically designed as interstellar strategic nuclear strike ships with single, large-yield warheads, while tactical nuclear weapons of various descriptions are listed as standard armament fit on many types.
- Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files uses this trope both literally and metaphorically. In Turn Coat, it is revealed that this is Warden Donald Morgan's preferred method of dealing with a particularly nasty breed of Eldritch Abomination. Less literally, it is frequently mentioned that, in-universe, bringing in mortal (non-supernatural) authorities into a supernatural conflict is regarded as the nuclear option by the various supernatural nations. Ironically, this is less due to mankind's posession of ACTUAL nukes, and more due to mankind outnumbering the monsters (or near-monsters) enormously.
- In The Tripods a submarine from one of the pre-capping navies, belonging to La Résistance launches an ICBM at a tripod city unsuccessfully. The hero hears about it several generations later.
- The Stargate series loves the bomb, and uses it with increasing frequency as the series progresses. One was used in the movie, a few were used in Stargate SG-1, and nukes seem to be the primary weapon of Stargate Atlantis. Their starships use nukes as standard armament.
- Captain John "Nuke 'em" Sheridan from Babylon 5 — so nicknamed by actor Bruce Boxleitner, who portrayed him. He uses nukes a lot.
- In the Doctor Who episode "The Poison Sky", UNIT attempts to use the world's nuclear weapons to take out the Sontarans, but fails when the Sontaran mole (Clone Martha) sabotages their computer systems.
- The Osterhagen Project from the season 4 two-part finale ("The Stolen Earth/Parting of the Ways") was a series of 25 nukes embedded in critical locations in the Earth's crust, so we could blow the planet apart if humanity's prospects were so bleak that killing the entire planet and its population was a desirable option. The nukes were amplified by alien technology in order to give them the oomph needed.
- Nuclear weapons are used on occasion in Battlestar Galactica Reimagined. The most infamous use would be the Cylon nuking of the Twelve Colonies, though that is generally portrayed as entirely inappropriate use of unprovoked force throughout the series, with many of the Cylons themselves realizing later that it was actually their (or at least their leaders') own paranoid Only Way To Be Sure in regards to the possible threat posed by humanity.
- In the original Battlestar Galactica Classic episode "Experiment in Terra", the Galactica comes across a planet where one nation has launched nuclear weapons against another nation, which launched weapons in retaliation.
- A Romulan commander used an "old-style" nuclear weapon against the Starship Enterprise in the episode "Balance of Terror". It did considerable damage, including radiation damage to many of the crew members.
- Raccoon City is nuked in the Resident Evil series after most of the populace has been zombified, because It's the Only Way to Be Sure. Whether or not actual nukes were used, however, is the subject of much debate among fans.
- Degeneration, the spin-off CGI movie, confirms that nuclear missiles were actually used.
- Halo has nukes as standard armament on human ships, though in generally small numbers. A typical human ship will have an offensive armament of a MAC cannon, ten or twenty missile pods with dozens of missiles each, and three or four nukes. In the books, there are also nuclear grenades. They're basically just nuclear bombs the size a football that the Spartans can load onto a Covenant ship and destroy.
- In Bungie's earlier Marathon series, nukes are instead the favored weapon of the marauding aliens. The Pfhor deployed them without pause against the ancient S'pht, your colony at Tau Ceti, and against the Marathon herself. Of course, when that fails, it's time to break out the Trih'Xeems.
- The Metal Gear series is named after and revolves around Humongous Mecha that can launch nuclear missiles, and your job is to destroy them. It also features a use of the 'Davy Crockett' hand-held nuclear missile launcher at one point.
- The ending of Resistance 2 has the heroes attempting to use a
nukefission bomb to destroy the Chimeran fleet. It actually works as planned, but the ending implies Hale was too late to stop the Chimera's master plan, leading to a Sequel Hook.
- The flash game Exmortis 2 has a nuke being dropped in the midst of an invading horde of demons, in the middle of the USA. It doesn't stop them at all, but it proves to everyone how truly fucked they are.
- Midway through Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, the only way to destroy the shield of the massive Leviathan Seed poisoning the planet Elysia is to assemble and drop a Chozo Theronian Thermonuclear Bomb on it, which successfully works.
- In a much smaller scale, the Large Missiles (and later, Kojima Missiles) in Armored Core series. Kojima missiles are eerily close to real nuclear weapons.
- In Mass Effect, salarian STG captain Kirrahe determines that re-purposing his ship's drive core as a twenty-kiloton nuke is the only way to destroy Saren's krogan cloning facility on Virmire and needs your help to make it happen.
- And then there's "Arrival", where Shepard sets off The Project an asteroid ramship that hits an active Mass Relay, setting off an artificial supernova that kills 300,000 civilians. The disaster averted? The eponymous Arrival of the Reapers, which would have spelled doom for the entire galaxy, is pushed back a few more months, giving the Citadel races precious time to prepare.
- In Sword of the Stars, the first Hiver fleet that visited humanity was driven off only after Earth broke out its ICBM stockpile. In-game, your missile warhead options start at nuclear fission and go up from there.
- The Earthling Cruisers from Star Control carry fire-and-forget homing nukes and point-defense laser systems as standard. The nukes are leftovers from a previous war, stored in underground 'Peace Vaults' for about fifty years.
- Fantastic Nuke category: in the final mission of Warcraft III, Furion decides to mount a final Desperation Attack using a booby-trap on the sacred Mount Hyjal, with the elves' World Tree as bait. The massive explosion results in the destruction of thousands of night elven spirits, the death of the World Tree, and the loss of their immortality, but it works.
- The SCP Foundation has a ten megaton nuclear warhead located under each one of their containment Sites. This is justified because if whatever they were containing got out, it'd be a Fate Worse Than Death for humanity as a whole.
- In addition, at least one nuclear device has gone off in Active Duty.