This article is, of course, speculation. But I believe it to be well-reasoned speculation, and give my reasoning for thinking so. You are free to do your own speculating. The main point of this article is to think about these possibilities in a rational, rather than emotional, way.
Why All-Out Nuclear War Is Highly Unlikely
1) The aggressor nation will want to keep a significant portion of their nuclear arsenal in reserve to deter retaliation. For example, Russia would not want to exhaust its entire nuclear capability in an attack on the USA out of fear that China might try to take advantage of such a situation and attack Russia. Or to prevent a possible retaliation by NATO.
But, you say, that NATO wouldn't come to the aid of the USA. Possibly not, but they may act preemptively to protect themselves from a clearly aggressive Russia in a world in which the USA has been defeated and no longer offers protection for Europe.
2) The aggressor nation would want to exploit the resources (land people, agriculture, energy, minerals, etc.) of the USA after the war, therefore will not want to reduce all of America to a radioactive no-go zone. Conquering and demilitarizing the USA makes much more strategic long-term sense for Russia or China than utterly destroying the USA.
3) The Russians and Chinese both know, like it or not, that the United States is still the world's largest economy, accounting for nearly 25% of the world's economy. To utterly destroy the US would create massive economic problems globally, including for Russia and China. Again, strategically, Russia or China would prefer the US remain mostly intact, although thoroughly declawed, after the war.
But wouldn't the USA retaliate against any limited nuclear strike with an all-out nuclear attack against the aggressor nation? Probably not. The USA would not want to reduce either Russia or China to a radioactive no-go zone for similar reasons. Instead, the USA would likely respond to a limited strike with a limited strike of its own. Both sides would then turn to conventional warfare to win the conflict.
Targets Likely Avoided
Put emotions aside for a moment, and try to think from Russia's or China's point-of-view. You want to take out the USA as a world military power and turn it into a vassal state. You want the USA to remain mostly intact so that you can exploit its resources and finances. You would want to avoid hitting any major financial centers (examples: New York, Charlotte, Chicago), major industrial cities (examples: Houston, St. Louis, Dallas), major seaports (large coastal cities), and any regions where there are resources you want to exploit (major agricultural or energy-producing regions).
Likely Targets For a Limited Nuclear Strike
So, where would Russia or China consider hitting with tactical nukes? Major political and military command & control centers, as well as major communications infrastructure. Obviously, I have no inside information on what Russia or China plans to attack, but here is a list of places I think most likely to be targets, and why.
1) Washington, DC: A highly symbolic, as well as strategic, target. The political and governmental center of the United States. A nuclear strike would decimate most political and government leadership (the President and some other high ranking officials would likely survive). Also, a key military center (the Pentagon).
2) Peterson Air Force Base/Cheyenne Mountain/Colorado Springs, CO: The headquarters of NORAD, probably the second most important military center after the Pentagon, will be a certain target.
3) Various Other Military Bases. There are hundreds of military bases of varying degrees of significance throughout the US . Russia will not attack ALL of them, for the reasons given above, but may hit several of special significance,in addition to Peterson AFB. I won't hazard a guess as to which ones Russia or China will choose to hit, and would recommend not living very near any military base. How far away do you need to be? The farther away, the better, but it really depends on the size of the nuclear weapon used and the prevailing air currents.
4) Denver, CO: Big population (2.9 million in metro area), with few reasons for Russia or China to not target it (surprisingly, Denver is not really a major financial or industrial center). Also, Denver likely plays a major role in the US Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) and/or the "Shadow Government," depending on how accurate certain conspiracy theories are.
Rogue State and Non-State Actors
Both Iran and North Korea are working on nuclear weapons programs and developing ICBMs to deliver them. North Korea is farther along than Iran, and does already have the capability to hit South Korea, Japan, and Guam, and perhaps Hawaii and the west coast states. However, neither Iran or North Korea has, nor will have within the next few years, the ability to wage all-out nuclear war against the USA. Any strike by them will be limited in scope.
Likewise, a non-state actor such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda could either make a "dirty bomb" or acquire a nuclear weapon on the black market (from North Korea, Pakistan, or one of the long-rumored "missing nukes" from the old USSR).
Any attack form a rogue state pr a non-state actor, will be limited to one or two targets, but that is enough to potentially kill hundreds of thousands. Additionally, their attack would likely be motivated by religious extremism or irrational egomania (in the case of North Korea), and will choose a target of opportunity rather than any strategic or tactical considerations listed in this article.
I submit that preppers and survivalists should consider planning for the aftermath of a limited nuclear war. I know many folks resist this idea because "if nukes are ever used, the whole world will be destroyed." However, that is emotional thinking based in fear, rather than a rational analysis of possibilities. In fact, a limited nuclear war is much more likely than an all-out nuclear war. And, as long as you are not in the blast zone or immediate fall-out area, it is survivable.
Free Resource: The 1987 edition of Cresson H. Kearny's Nuclear War Survival Skills is available for free download at