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A brief history of the nuclear triad (nuclearsecrecy.com)
59 points by danso on July 25, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 16 comments

Interesting tidbit: Vannevar Bush, he of the frequently posted "As We May Think" essay [0], is quoted as being highly skeptical of ICBMs:

> There has been a great deal said about a 3,000 mile high-angle rocket. In my opinion such a thing is impossible and will be impossible for many years. The people who have been writing these things that annoy me have been talking about a 3,000 mile high-angle rocket shot from one continent to another carrying an atomic bomb, and so directed as to be a precise weapon which would land on a certain target such as this city. I say technically I don’t think anybody in the world knows how to do such a thing, and I feel confident it will not be done for a very long time to come.

The debate over ICBMs vs pilots reminds me a lot of the current tech/AI vs. human debates today:

> But it wasn’t just that the USAF was pro-bomber. They were distinctly anti-missile for a long time. Why? The late Thomas Hughes, in his history of Project Atlas, attributes a distinct “conservative momentum, or inertia” to the USAF’s approach to missiles. Long-range missiles would be disruptive to the hierarchy: engineers and scientists would be on top, with no role for pilots in sight. Officers would, in a sense, become de-skilled. And perhaps there was just something not very sporting about lobbing nukes at another country from the other side of the Earth.

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4577865

I'd really like to know just what kind of timeframe he was thinking of when he said "many years" and "a very long time" there. Because that was 1945, and the first ICBM didn't become operational until 1959. With a 14-year interval, I'd be comfortable in saying he was right. Especially since those early ICBMs were so inaccurate that they would have been completely pointless if armed with 1945-era bombs. It took the development of multi-megaton thermonuclear weapons for those early ICBMs to be useful weapons.

Those early ICBMs were also delicate and required a lot of preparation to launch, making them highly vulnerable to attack, and of course they would be prime targets in a war. Bombers could be kept ready to take off in just a few minutes from receiving an alarm, and some could be kept on airborne alert at all times, making part of the force effectively invulnerable to attack. The modern idea of an ICBM, able to launch on warning from hardened silos capable of withstanding a close hit from an enemy weapon, took many more years to come about.

> Especially since those early ICBMs were so inaccurate that they would have been completely pointless if armed with 1945-era bombs. It took the development of multi-megaton thermonuclear weapons for those early ICBMs to be useful weapons.

The Atlas had a CEP of 1.4km, which was good enough for a kiloton-class warhead. Plus, its original warhead was only 1.44Mt. It was mostly lack of priority that delayed the first operational squadron to 1959.

Not if your doctrine is counter-force, which was our doctrine until the utterly evil Robert Strange McNamera (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara see also what he did with Vietnam and then destroying 3rd World agriculture while heading the World Bank (the Edsel, on the other hand, may be something he did the right thing in canning)) changed it to counter-value (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Countervalue). After that, it wasn't difficult for the Soviets to convince themselves and their military, people, etc. that we were evil, for we very much were.

20kt at 1400 meters won't yield 6 psi overpressure. And "only 1.4 megatons"??? That's two orders of magnitude larger than Hiroshima. It took many tests and advancements to go from a fission release to a fission-fusion weapon.

Little Boy, with an effective yield of ~15kt, had a 5psi radius of 3500m.

The "only" in my comment was a response to the assertion that it required "multi-megaton" warheads to make ICBMs practical.

Are you sure about that? The NUKEMAP[0] shows a 15kt airburst with a 5psi radius of 1.67km. And "most residential buildings collapse" isn't going to be very useful against military targets, there I think you're looking more at the 20psi level, which is only 340 meters.

[0] http://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/

It looks like I was going off bad information. I ran the numbers (as best I could) in the Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer[1] and I'm getting a radius of about 1mi. The Wiki author claims to have run the same calculation with the same computer and come up with 2.2mi, though he later contradicts himself by saying the 5 psi contour at Hiroshima was at 1.1mi.

[1] http://www.fourmilab.ch/cgi-bin/Bombcalc?yield=15&yunit=1&ra...

1 mile fits with the NUKEMAP number of 1.67km, so it seems reasonable to go with that unless there's something better. 2.2 versus 1.1 smells like mixing up radius with diameter, but I could be completely wrong about that.

We never had many megaton weapons. Two megaton was about the limit, and most weapons were under 500 kilotons. Accuracy is better. Huge bombs was a dick-waving contest, and after Tsar Bomba, we gave up that game and went for sophistication.

The W38 used on Atlas and Titan 1 was 3.75 megatons. If we consider bomber weapons, the B41 was a 25 megaton weapon with about 500 built. The B53/W53 was a 9 megaton bomb for both bombers and missiles, with around 100 built. There are more beyond 2 megatons; these are examples, not a comprehensive list.

Huge bombs weren't a dick-waving contest, they were partly to maximize the value of an ICBM carrying one warhead, and partly to mitigate inaccuracy. As MIRV became practical and accuracy increased, yields decreased on both sides of the Cold War, because smaller bombs are just plain more efficient if you can put them where they need to go.

They're useful for very hard targets, like dropping two 20Mt or so at the same time at each end of the access tunnel for the Cheyenne Mountain Complex (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheyenne_Mountain_Complex).

Otherwise, at something in the 1 Mt plus or minus level, I forget, a lot of the energy is wasted by being thermally re-radiated out into space.

The Soviets and then the Russians deployed variants of the SS-18 with very large warheads (20-25Mt) until fairly recently - either for EMP purposes or to attack Cheyenne Mountain, Raven Rock Mountain etc.


Is it possible Bush was propagating disinformation for the benefit of US national security?

"The U.S. initiated ICBM research in 1946 with the RTV-A-2 Hiroc project. This was a three-stage effort with the ICBM development not starting until the third stage. However, funding was cut after only three partially successful launches in 1948 of the second stage design" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intercontinental_ballistic_mis...

Anything's possible, but in 1945 skepticism wasn't a ridiculous position to hold. The most advanced rocket in the world at that time was the German V-2, which barely had enough range to reach targets in Britain from launch sites in the Netherlands and whose accuracy proved to be negligible at best. It would take fantastic sums of money to turn the rocket into a weapon with intercontinental range and reasonable accuracy, and while the Cold War made those sums available in 1945 it was still in the future.

Herb York's memoir/autobiography "Race to Oblivion: A Participant's View of the Arms Race", which is noted as a source and linked from the article, is fascinating primary-source reading.


(I don't know if that's a bootleg or an authorized electronic version of the text; hopefully it's the latter since it's unavailable in electronic form via usual channels. I don't feel too bad posting it since it's also the top hit on Google for the title, even above Amazon.)

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