[Beowulf] Re: "hobbyists"

Robert G. Brown rgb at phy.duke.edu
Thu Jun 19 10:14:09 PDT 2008

On Thu, 19 Jun 2008, Kilian CAVALOTTI wrote:

> On Thursday 19 June 2008 06:58:44 am Robert G. Brown wrote:
>> Getting too big
>> or two small an explosion can either kill your own troops or not kill
>> all of the enemy on an actual battlefield.
> To add some more OT stuff to this thread, I don't think a nuclear weapon
> has ever been used (or even considered being used) to kill troops on a
> battlefield. Some cluster bombs (hey, back on topic! :)) are probably
> enough for this purpose.

Never used, but then, only two have been used on humans at all, both
strategic.  This is a GOOD thing...;-)

However, since the early fifties or sixties, MOST of the nuclear weapons
on the planet were, and probably remain, "tactical" nukes that are
indeed intended (at least nominally and in terms of their delivery
systems) for use on battlefields or to achieve tactical advantage in
hypothesized less-than-total wars, not strategic dissuasion from those
wars happening.  NATO and the Warsaw pact were basically a row of armies
supported by tactical nukes on both sides for most of my lifetime up to
the fall of the Soviet Union (which wasn't all that long ago).  You
might think your tanks were better, but you knew that the other side
would nuke your tanks if they ever broke through the line of
defense-in-depth opposing them EVEN IF they shrank from a total MAD
strategic exchange.

Enhanced radiation weapons (neutron bombs) were designed almost totally
as tank (or small city, small fortification) killers -- you detonate one
over a concentration of armor, the neutrons go right through the tank
and both bodies in the tank (killing the latter by paralyzing them in a
matter of minutes) and an hour later your tanks roar past all the more
or less undamaged armor (seizing it for your own use, dumping the
bodies, dead yet or not, as desired) with little danger from residual
radiation.  Or ditto with city-killing -- kill the people, preserve much
of the infrastructure.

> IMHO, a nuclear weapon is mainly a dissuasion weapon, ie, one you claim
> you own to make your ennemies think twice before they strike you. Or
> that you use against civilians to make your point louder, and let your
> ennemies understand they'd better surrender.
> That's why I find the association between "nuclear weapon"
> and "battlefield" a bit irrelevant.

I'm merely reciting the doctrine that was openly avowed government
policy for most of my life.  Strategic nuclear arms were and are
primarily connected to long range delivery systems. At one point they
were megaton bombs on B-52s run by SAC (strategic air command), at one
point ICBMs in silos with multiple warheads scattered all over the
midwest, at one point submarine launched ballistic missiles, at one
point air or sub or ship launched cruise missiles (that could swing
either tactical or strategic where ballistic missiles were pretty much
strategic).  Mutual Assured Destruction of both military and
non-military targets a long ways away on both sides.

HOWEVER, at the same time MAD was in place, the east and west fought a
number of wars and went through a number of crises associated with those
wars.  Korea, Viet Nam, Warsaw pact rebellions in Poland and
Czeckoslovakia, the Cuba Missile Crisis.  And the US and USSR were faced
off in Europe that entire time.  There was a very strong feeling that
the USSR would invade Europe and try to conquer it the first moment they
thought they could get away with it.  There was a very strong feeling
that either side, if they got to the point where they had an
overwhelming strategic advantage in nukes, would be tempted to launch a
first strike and incapacitate the strategic deterrence of other side,
then achieve tactical victory at their leisure -- the tactical nukes
made the prospect of success in the latter negligible in any war that
would leave something worth invading unbombed in the strategic war.

I used to study all this, seriously.  I was obsessed with nuclear war
from roughly when I was nine or ten until, well, I still am.  I
understood fission and knew how to build a Uranium bomb by the time I
was ten or eleven, and knew "how" to build a plutonium bomb at about the
same, although I didn't learn all the relevant details of the latter
well enough to understand until I read through the NWFAQ.  I recall
writing a paper in fifth grade on how to build bombs, radius of total
destruction, and so on.  I visited Hiroshima when I was ten and went
through the atom bomb museum there with the negative images of human
fingers scorched onto farm tools and the tattered observatory.

So I'd have to disagree.  IIRC, most of the remaining nuclear bombs on
the planet are TACTICAL, not strategic, or at least are mixed use -- aim
at army and they are tactical, aim at a city and they are strategic,
with very few "hot mounted" on strategic (long range) delivery systems.

The biggest ones have been dismantled, as have many of the means of
immediate long-range delivery that were the basis of the MAD strategy.
I'm guessing that a large fraction of the 10,000 or so left in the US
and Russia are cruise missile mounted weapons in the 10-50 KT range
(where most cruise missiles have a range of less than 1000 miles, making
them unsuitable for use as truly strategic weapons, although of course
subs or stealth aircraft can make up the difference).  The thousand or
so in the possession of the rest of the nuclear club are similarly very
likely to be MOSTLY tactically mounted, although most of these countries
could probably remount in strategic delivery vehicles quickly enough if
tensions were to mount for any reason.

This is more than sUFFICIENT to guarantee that no land, sea or air based
assault on the major powers or nuclear club nations (even the smaller
ones) can succeed even if they DON'T resort to strategic punishment of
the attacker (with serious reasons not to do the latter even if
attacked).  Nuclear subs and stealth bombers still give us more than
ample strategic OR tactical delivery capabilities, and I'm sure Russia
and China and England and France have very similar capabilities on a
decreasing scale.

Then there are the mini-nuclear-powers in opposition.  Israel has
tactical scale nukes that are ready for either strategic or tactical
use.  Tactical scale because fallout doesn't remain at home and the
middle east is tiny -- nuke syria or iraq or iran the wrong time of year
and you'll shower your own farmland with fallout if you're not careful
and maybe even if you are.  One ten megaton bomb on Jerusalem and there
wouldn't be much Israel left -- or Jordan, or Giza, and depending on the
wind I wouldn't want to be living in Egypt or Syria or Iraq.  No army
can invade Israel and succeed, and everybody knows it.  At the MOMENT
Israel can invade any of its neighbors with conventional arms and
PROBABLY dominate them with relative impunity, but if/when Iran gets two
or three nukes, that won't be true.

Pakistan and India are a classical case.  India has had (probably small)
nukes for a rather long time, giving them again both a strategic and a
tactical advantage over Pakistan in their eternal war (it was going on
when I lived in India in the 60's and continues today).  Pakistan had
basically no chance of tactical victory in Kashmir or elsewhere as long
as India could tactically nuke an armored invasion through the
mountains, which would be slow and vulnerable for days.

Pakistan has its own small nukes, and while they probably lack reliable
ranged strategic delivery systems and are still heavily outnumbered and
outgunned in any likely tactical conflict, it changes the balance of
power considerably, in part because there are always extremists (Islamic
and otherwise) in the Pakistani military who are just crazy enough to
engage in first use under non-emergent circumstances.  India would then
proceed to crush Pakistan both strategically and tactically (so far
cooler heads in Pakistan and India recognize this and if anything the
new balance has them moving closer to peace, at least THIS year:-) but
it is hard to envision any sort of strategic use of nukes in this
theater that didn't kill millions of people.

North Korea is yet another theater of interest as it "probably" has
nukes.  South can't invade the North with or without the US's help
because China unfortunately endorses the North, giving them a strategic
deterrent.  Tactically, at this point an invasion of the North might be
over in a matter of days even without nukes -- our weapons systems have
improved that much -- just as they would have been over in Viet Nam in a
matter of months if it weren't for the fact that we "couldn't" invade
the north while the north could invade the south.  So far, NK has no
nukes of its own.  If it did, well, once again you have a batshit crazy
government with nuclear arms, and NK is already working hard on
strategic delivery systems, not just tactical (the difference is
primarily range -- tactical delivery is order of 10 to 100 miles,
targeting e.g.  concentrations of military forces of immediate interest,
which may or may not be cities but probably not as they would be used to
eliminate threats, not make points or punish, at least as long as there
were immediate threats to be faced).

If NK can deliver a nuke to Tokyo, though, they can say "do as we say or
we'll shoot this dog" and their very insanity becomes a bluff nobody
would be eager to call.  It isn't clear how MANY they have -- it might
be none -- but even ten small nukes become a formidable tactical weapon
in a country that geographically concentrates any invading force, and
with long range delivery they can make the cost of invasion (human and
otherwise) very high indeed.  We could, of course, nuke them into
oblivion in a five minute long time on target cruise-missile based
attack and almost certainly eliminate their nuclear arms and delivery
systems in the process (and this is a not unlikely response to any first
use or use at all on their part) but with China backing them and with
world opinion something that MATTERS to us, it is almost certain we
would do this short of nuclear provocation and MAYBE not even then.  If
China repudiated them on a first use (they have far too few weapons to
be a credible strategic OR tactical threat) we could probably eliminate
them on a tactical battlefield in short order IF they squandered their
tactical nukes on strategic targets.

To conclude todays briefing, the level of strategic nuclear risk
globally continues to be quite low (as it has been for maybe 15 years
now).  No major conflicts appear immanent between the major powers,
although Russia has been doing a bit of sabre rattling as they dream of
their former "glory" as an empire and live through the slow process of
building a truly stable and robust modern society.  The level of nuclear
risk in the Koreas is high, with a small risk of strategic escalation to
engagement between the US and China (who both have STRONG reasons to
avoid it).  The risk of nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan is
momentarily low, but chaos in the government of Pakistan continues and I
am certain that there are extremist factions in the military and society
in general that could at any time seize de facto control of their small
nuclear arsenal or launch a destabilizing military action in Kashmir or
back an assasination of Indian government officials.  IMO a war there
would be won by India in a matter of days, probably won by the
systematic elimination of Pakistan's cities and military forces (India
has over 100 nukes and both strategic and tactical delivery systems that
are known to work).  It would be at a huge cost -- I wouldn't be
surprised at millions to tens of millions of deaths, the latter if
Pakistan managed to reach any large Indian city e.g. Mumbai or New
Delhi.  India might forbear to use their weapons against the most
densely populated cities in Pakistan if their major cities were not
reached, but even limited use against "mostly tactical" targets would
kill millions in that densely populated part of the world.

Similarly, at the moment Irael's 100+ nukes are unopposed, making it
simply incredible that they are at any sort of serious tactical risk.
Nobody can invade Israel and everybody knows it.  If it ever looked like
they were actually succeeding, the invasion would end, permanently, a
matter of hours later and it would end in such a way that civilization
would have to re-emerge from the ashes of their former enemies lands
before they ever again became a credible threat.  This makes it actually
quite stable in the region -- much posturing and a high risk of
conventional miniwars, but otherwise little risk of Syria, Egypt, Iraq,
Jordan, Lebanon actually mounting an attack.

I can't quite predict what Iran's immanent nuclear arsenal will do in
the region.  On the one hand, there are plenty of wackos (as there are
in Pakistan).  On the other hand, there are plenty of well-educated and
sane people who have absolutely no interest in launching a nuclear war
over Iraq and Jordan into Israel in the certain knowledge that it would
mean the end of Iran when Israel retaliated.  I >>think<< that it would
primarily give Iran a strategic advantage in its dealings with the
surrounding ISLAMIC countries, a strong tactical advantage in the event
of anything like a US-led invasion (where they could nuke our invading
forces, but where politically we couldn't nuke them back).  One
possibility is that in five years it could actually have a positive
influence in the region as a new equilibrium is reached.  Another is
that nukes are transferred to "terrorists".

Terrorists and extremists are the major nuclear risk.  In the modern
world (as opposed to those whose heads are somehow stuck in the 70's or
80's) control of nuclear arms means nothing more nor less than
controlling access to fissile bomb-grade material.  Any country that has
research-grade physics taught and performed in real universities, that
has an engineering school, that has even modest manufacturing, chemical,
and electronic manufacturing capabilities can build a nuclear bomb given
bomb grade material Highly advanced countries like the US extend this
bomb-building capability to sufficiently motivated private citizens.
Furthermore, sorry, it isn't that difficult to accumulate bomb-grade
fissile material or enriched Uranium capable of being cooked into
Plutonium if one can get Uranium at all.

Israel (and the US, Russia, and I expect China) has managed it a clever
way I will not discuss that costs far less than 1940's technology with
its huge centrifuges etc.  I SUSPECT that they have worked out the means
of producing pure Pu 239 (as opposed to 20% Pu 240 reactor grade)
Plutonium.  If this is true, then a shotgun design becomes possible for
Uranium and building a bomb is trivial once again.

Countries with Uranium deposits are all potential members of the nuclear
club.  I estimate the probability density of nuclear terrorism to be
order of a few percent per year, making it nearly certain that at least
one nuclear device will be used as a terrorist act over the next century
UNLESS the conditions that could lead to it are changed.

Fortunately, there isn't that much Uranium on the planet, and we're
burning it at a furious rate.  We could conceivably deplete the
currently known reserves in a matter of decades; it is NOT a long term
solution to the problem of fossil fuel use.


> Other than that, pretty interesting stuff. I'm unfortunately supporting
> your conclusions.
> Cheers,

Robert G. Brown                            Phone(cell): 1-919-280-8443
Duke University Physics Dept, Box 90305
Durham, N.C. 27708-0305
Web: http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb
Book of Lilith Website: http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb/Lilith/Lilith.php
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