Nuclear overkill: The quest for the 10 gigaton bomb

Copy of the Tsar Bomba, the AN-602 hydrogen bomb.

Copy of the Tsar Bomba, the AN-602 hydrogen bomb.

AP
Declassified documents reveal the US targeted population centres with high explosive hydrogen bombs, which besides intensifying the Cold War, led Russia to kick start a massive nuclear build-up of its own.

A detailed list of nuclear targets and target systems declassified in December 2015 reveals chilling details about US war plans, including the “Systematic Destruction” of population centres in the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe.

According to the ‘Strategic Air Command Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959’, available at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, major cities, including Moscow, Leningrad, Beijing, East Berlin and Krakow (Poland) were high priorities for atomic bombings.

The most disturbing part of the study is a proposal by Edward Teller, the Strangelovian inventor of the hydrogen bomb, to produce a 10 gigaton (10,000 megaton) warhead that would detonate with an explosive power 166,666 times the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

With clinical detachment, Teller illustrated the power of his doomsday weapon: “A 10,000 megaton weapon, by my estimation, would be powerful enough to set all of New England on fire. Or most of California. Or all of the UK and Ireland. Or all of France. Or all of Germany. Or both North and South Korea. And so on.” We are talking just one bomb.

When the then chairman of the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Israel I. Rabi, heard about Teller’s 10 gigaton proposal, he is reported to have said: “It would have been a better world without Teller.”

On October 30, 1949, Rabi and Enrico Fermi, the man who ushered in the nuclear age, co-wrote a Minority Annex to the GAC report on Building the H-Bomb, recommending against the creation of the hydrogen bomb: “A decision on the proposal that an all-out effort be undertaken for the development of the "Super" cannot in our opinion be separated from consideration of broad national policy. A weapon like the "Super" is only an advantage when its energy release is from 100-1000 times greater than that of ordinary atomic bombs. The area of destruction therefore would run from 150 to approximately 1000 square miles or more.

"Necessarily such a weapon goes far beyond any military objective and enters the range of very great natural catastrophes. By its very nature it cannot be confined to a military objective but becomes a weapon which in practical effect is almost one of genocide."

Oppenheimer’s angst

Julius Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, agreed with Rabi and Fermi. He co-wrote in the Majority Annex of the GAC report: “We base our recommendation on our belief that the extreme dangers to mankind inherent in the proposal wholly outweigh any military advantage that could come from this development. Let it be clearly realised that this is a super weapon; it is in a totally different category from an atomic bomb. The reason for developing such super bombs would be to have the capacity to devastate a vast area with a single bomb. Its use would involve a decision to slaughter a vast number of civilians. We are alarmed as to the possible global effects of the radioactivity generated by the explosion of a few super bombs of conceivable magnitude. If super bombs will work at all, there is no inherent limit in the destructive power that may be attained with them. Therefore, a super bomb might become a weapon of genocide.

“We believe a super bomb should never be produced. Mankind would be far better off not to have a demonstration of the feasibility of such a weapon, until the present climate of world opinion changes.”

Oppenheimer suggested the US, as the larger superpower, lead by example: “To the argument that the Russians may succeed in developing this weapon, we would reply that our undertaking it will not prove a deterrent to them. Should they use the weapon against us, reprisals by our large stock of atomic bombs would be comparably effective to the use of a super. In determining not to proceed to develop the super bomb, we see a unique opportunity of providing by example some limitations on the totality of war and thus of limiting the fear and arousing the hopes of mankind.”

Some members of the US nuclear establishment believed Teller was bluffing. They thought he just wanted to be the centre of attention as a former whiz kid. Rabi said his talk about such a device was an advertising stunt, and not to be taken too seriously.

But Teller – and his new supporters in the SAC – was dead serious.

Target lists: Civilians in the crosshairs

The SAC had drawn up two target lists. Part I consisted of 3400 Designated Ground Zero (DGZs) targets. It was the sum total of all targets on the Soviet side as well as Eastern Bloc plus China.

Part II consisted of 1209 DGZs targeted by a larger – still classified – number of nuclear weapons. About 76,000 kg of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium was available to fuel the atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs earmarked to inflict the desired level of destruction. That is an incredible amount of overkill against unarmed civilians.

Says the National Security Archive: “What is particularly striking in the SAC study is the role of population targeting. Moscow and its suburbs, like the Leningrad area, included distinct “population” targets, not further specified. So did all the other cities recorded in the two sets of target lists. In other words, people as such, not specific industrial activities, were to be destroyed. What the specific locations of these population targets were cannot now be determined. The SAC study includes the Bombing Encyclopaedia numbers for those targets, but the BE itself remains classified (although under appeal).”

The SAC study does not include any explanation for why the civilian population was being targeted, but it does provide a chilling peek into the mindset of the US military and political leadership. It was “likely a legacy of earlier Air Force and Army Air Force thinking about the impact of bombing raids on civilian morale”, says the National Security Archive.

For example, in a 1940 Air Corps Tactical School lecture, Major Muir Fairchild argued an attack on a country’s economic structure “must be to so reduce the morale of the enemy civilian population through fear—of death or injury for themselves or loved ones – they would prefer our terms of peace to continuing the struggle, and that they would force their government to capitulate”.

The only likely reason the mad scientists – and their military fan boys – did not have their wishes granted was the lack of a delivery system for a bomb with a yield of 10 gigatons.

But that did not prevent Teller from wanting doomsday weapons that could be delivered by missiles or aircraft. In another outburst, in the early 1960s, he suggested yields up to 1,000 megatons. It was still too big for American rockets but a 25 megaton bomb, the B-41, had the largest yield of any weapon in the US stockpile and it stayed in service until the 1970s. To get an idea of the size of these weapons, click here for images of the B53, 600 times more powerful than bomb that flattened Hiroshima. As large as a minivan, it was dismantled in 2011.

Russia: Bang for bang

To be sure, the Russians weren’t sitting idle. The American hydrogen bomb test on October 31, 1952 not only intensified the Cold War but placed the Russian atomic programme into high gear. Although the Americans were the first to go nuclear, Russia caught up and then overtook the US. Led by Andrei Sakharov, Russia tested its first fusion-based device on August 12, 1953 in central Siberia. The bomb had a yield of 400 kilotons. Though not nearly as powerful as the American bomb, it was a more practical weapon because it was small enough to be dropped from an airplane.

Russia then staged the largest nuclear test in history – the 50 megaton ‘Tsar Bomba’ or the King of Bombs – on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya on October 23, 1961. For practical reasons it was tested at half its explosive strength. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said, “It could have been bigger, but then it might have broken all the windows in Moscow, 4,000 miles (6400 km) away.”

Everything about the Tsar Bomba test was of a gigantic scale. The 26-feet (length of a minibus), 27,000 kg devise was so large that the Tu-95 Tupolev strategic bomber’s bomb bay doors and fuselage fuel tanks had to be removed. The bomb was attached to an 800 kg parachute, which gave the aircraft as well as an observer Tu-16 plane time to fly about 45 km away from ground zero.

The nature of the blast – 3000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atom bomb – offered an indication of the Tsar Bomba’s true potential. People 100 km away experienced some third-degree burns and its shock waves could be felt as far as northern Finland located 1000 km away.

A Russian cameraman on board the observer aircraft later wrote about the giant ball of fire that rose 67 km high into the stratosphere: “The ball was powerful and arrogant like Jupiter. Slowly and silently it crept upwards....Having broken through the thick layer of clouds it kept growing. It seemed to suck the whole earth into it. The spectacle was fantastic, unreal, supernatural.”

Like Oppenheimer – who upon seeing the frightening power of the bomb started quoting verses from the Gita, the Hindu holy book – Sakharov too underwent a change. For, the Russian scientist understood the grim implications of what he and his team had just achieved: “We were stirred up, but not just with the exhilaration that comes with a job well done. For my part, I experienced a range of contradictory sentiments, perhaps chief among them a fear that this newly released force could slip out of control and lead to unimaginable disasters.”

He later wrote: “We, the inventors, scientists, engineers and craftsmen, had created a terrible weapon, the most terrible weapon in human history; but its use would lie entirely outside our control. The people at the top of the Party and military hierarchy would make the decisions. Of course, I knew this already – I wasn’t that naive. But understanding something in an abstract way is different from feeling it with your whole being, like the reality of life and death. The ideas and emotions kindled at that moment have not diminished to this day, and they completely altered my thinking.”

In fact, on the night of the test, when the scientists, politicians and generals had a dinner at which Sakharov was asked to give the first toast, the legendary scientist, to the disappoint of some hardliners, said: “May all of our devices explode as successfully as today’s, but always over test sites and never over cities.”

Sakharov was right in wishing that none of his bombs were used in anger. If the Tsar Bomba was dropped over central England, it would have caused lethal radioactive fallout as far as Eastern Europe. Besides, it was impractical as a weapon. Although Khrushchev claimed he had a 100 megaton warhead in East Germany, transporting such a massive, bulging weapon all the way to the US would have pushed Russian strategic aircraft to their limits – not a safe method of nuclear delivery.

Had only a few dozen of these megaton warheads been detonated by either superpower, the result would have been catastrophic for Earth. A full nuclear exchange of several thousand nuclear bombs would have reduced the planet to a lifeless wasteland.

The scary thing about the Cold War was that while the strategic arms reduction talks did succeed in cutting the number of missiles and warheads deployed, the actual size of the bombs was never limited.

Perhaps the best comment on the depressing nature of nuclear bombs was made by a Russian witness to the Tsar Bomba test. At first he saw a powerful white flash over the horizon and after a long period of time he heard “a remote, indistinct and heavy blow, as if the earth has been killed”.

The opinion of the writer does not necessarily reflect the position of RIR.

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