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Race to Oblivion

A Participant's View of the Arms Race

Herbert F. York

Chapter 2: THE RACE BEGINS: NUCLEAR WEAPONS AND OVERKILL


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CONTENTS 5

CONTENTS
Table of Contents57Missile-Gap Mania125
INTRODUCTION78The McNamara Era147
Prologue: Eisenhower's Other Warning9PART TWO: UNBALANCING THE BALANCE OF TERROR171
1The Arms Race and I159MIRV: The Multiple Menace173
PART ONE: TOWARD A BALANCE OF TERROR10The Defense Delusion188
2The Race Begins: Nuclear Weapons and Overkill2711Other Lessons from the ABM Debate213
3The Bomber Bonanza4912The Ultimate Absurdity228
4The Elusive Nuclear Airplane60A Glossary of Acroyms241
5Rockets and Missiles75Index245
6Sputnik106

PART ONE: TOWARD A BALANCE OF TERROR 25

PART ONE

Toward a Balance of Terror


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2

THE RACE BEGINS: NUCLEAR WEAPONS AND OVERKILL

The first atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. At least 66,000 people died immediately as a direct result of the explosion and the fire storm that followed. Tens of thousands more died in the aftermath. About eighty percent of the homes and buildings in Hiroshima were destroyed, and most of the rest were damaged. The bomb weighed nine thousand pounds and was ten feet long and twenty-eight inches in diameter. The explosive it contained was uranium metal highly enriched in the rare isotope U 235. The physical processes of the nuclear explosion took place in less than one one-millionth of a second, and the amount of energy released is estimated to have been about equal to that which would be released in the explosion of fourteen thousand tons of TNT. The bomb was delivered by a B-29 aircraft from the island of Tinian in the Marianas, about fifteen hundred miles from the target. It was exploded several thousands of feet above the ground in order to cover the greatest possible area with high-pressure blast waves and intense heat radiation.

The second atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. At least forty thousand people died immediately from the explosion and the fire storm; many thousands more died in the aftermath. About forty


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percent of the city's structures were destroyed or very severely damaged. The devastation at Nagasaki was less than that at Hiroshima because of the hilly nature of the terrain and the smaller size of the city. This bomb weighed ten thousand pounds; it was ten feet, eight inches long and five feet in diameter. It used a different explosive, the new, chemical element number 94, plutonium. The explosive equivalent was twenty thousand tons of TNT, or, as this is more commonly described, twenty kilotons (1 kiloton = 1,000 tons).

The Emperor of Japan announced his desire to surrender the next day, August 10, 1945. Soon after, the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands later that same year by a force of millions of men was canceled. It seemed perfectly clear at the time that the two A-bombs had directly resulted in ending the war in the Pacific and that their use had saved, in the net, a great number of lives. The explosion of these bombs was widely celebrated because of this.

Subsequent reviews of what was really going on at that time in Japanese ruling circles have indicated that the situation was more complex than it then seemed. We now know that a peace party, centered around the Emperor himself, had been growing and that the first tentative attempts of this party to end the war predated by many months the detonation of history's first nuclear weapon. The general course of the war in the South Pacific plus the ever-increasing high-explosive-bombing and fire-bombing of Japanese cities in 1945 had steadily strengthened the hand of the peace party. It does still seem most likely that the two atomic bombs were of major importance in finally pushing the whole process over the hump, but this assumption cannot be proved.

These two atomic bombs, plus the test device detonated in the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, were the product of the Manhattan Project. This project, unique in purpose, style and magnitude, was a child of World War II and of the political and scientific history of the years immediately preceding that conflict.


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In 1938, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, working in Germany and following up on earlier work by Enrico Fermi and his co-workers in Italy, discovered the process known as nuclear fission. When struck by neutrons, the nuclei of certain heavy atoms split roughly in two and, it was later found, released enormous amounts of energy and a few new neutrons in the process. This experimental discovery was soon followed by theoretical explanations, first by Lise Meitner, a German refugee then living and working in Scandinavia, and later by Niels Bohr (a Dane then visiting Princeton) and John A. Wheeler. Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard (both European refugees then in the United States) and others suggested and soon after confirmed that the fission event took place in such a way as to lead to further fissions under certain special conditions. It was immediately realized that a chain reaction was probably possible and would lead either to enormous explosions or to almost unlimited power production. Szilard, jointly with Eugene Wigner, and later assisted by Edward Teller (all European refugees) then persuaded Albert Einstein (still another) to write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, bringing all of these possibilities to his attention.

This Einstein letter, dated August 2, 1939, resulted eventually in the creation of the Manhattan Project and in the initiation of the nuclear-arms race. To all of these refugees, and to virtually all other Americans, certainly including me, the polities of the situation were stark and simple: Western civilization was endangered by the twin menaces of Nazism and Fascism--these two unmitigated evils would do anything they could to win and destroy us. Anything that would prevent them from winning had to be good. Winston Churchill said in those days that to stop Hitler he would make an alliance with the Devil.

The Manhattan Project eventually cost two billion dollars, most of it spent in the last two years of the war. In terms of rate and scale and compared with the available national resources then, it was and still remains the largest scientific project of all


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time, not excepting the Apollo program to land a man on the moon. It was initiated, directed and managed very largely by physical scientists, although the over-all director was a military man, General Leslie Groves, and the production plants were eventually run by professional industrial managers.

The over-all project consisted of a number of subprojects, each directed by physical scientists. J. Robert Oppenheimer directed the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in a then secret location on a mesa in New Mexico. There the bombs themselves were designed and fabricated. Ernest O. Lawrence directed the University of California Radiation Laboratory, now named after him. There the electromagnetic process for separating uranium isotopes was perfected; the "red lab" served as the pilot plant for the huge Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge where the bulk of the uranium exploded over Hiroshima was processed. Harold C. Urey and John Dunning directed the Columbia University project that led to the huge K-25 gaseous-diffusion plant at Oak Ridge for separating uranium isotopes. This plant processed a part of the uranium that went into the Hiroshima bomb, and soon after the war it completely replaced the Y-12 plant and method as a means for producing U 235. Arthur H. Compton, Fermi, Wigner and others directed the work, first at the Metallurgical Laboratory of the University of Chicago and later at the X-l0 Laboratory in Oak Ridge that laid the basis for the design and construction of the large production reactors at Hanford, Washington. Ultimately these reactors produced the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb as well as for the Alamogordo test explosion. Philip H. Abelson directed work on a thermal-diffusion process for separating uranium isotopes. Although it was started quite late, that work too made an important contribution to the total effort. Nearly all of these men, plus a few other scientific leaders, were involved in (though not in control of) the discussions of what to do with the Bomb after it was ultimately produced.

The Manhattan Project showed what American industry


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and American science could do when fueled by money, patriotism and fear. It has been held up ever since as a model, very often in situations where it is totally irrelevant. But there are other lessons, too.

At the time, all of us thought we were in a serious and deadly race with the Germans for the atomic bomb. Einstein's August 2, 1939, letter to Roosevelt implied this, and a follow-up letter dated March 7, 1940, said, ". . . interest in uranium has intensified in Germany . . . research there is carried out in great secrecy and ... has been extended...." The postwar survey of the situation described in Samuel Goudsmit's book Alsos showed that we were not in feet in any such race. For a variety of reasons, including a mistaken belief on the part of the Nazis that the war would be very short, lack of interest on the part of many German scientists, and resource allocation problems and internal jealousies, the Germans never mounted a serious effort parallel to the Manhattan Project. It was, however, entirely plausible for us to think that they had. After all, fission had been discovered in Germany, and, despite the fact that many physical scientists had fled from the Nazi regime, it seemed that a sufficient number of competent scientists and engineers remained to initiate and carry out such a project in Europe's most technologically advanced country. Furthermore, the bulk of our intelligence effort was concentrated on classical targets; our technical intelligence was not yet sufficiently extensive and reliable to convince us, by its lack of any real reports about a major program, that such a program did not exist,

The Manhattan Project, then, was based on the first of a long series of mistaken beliefs in our being "raced." Because this was the first such case, our mistake in this regard was, in my view, entirely justified, but our subsequent failure to learn anything from repeatedly making this same mistaken judgment about the existence of a "race" is less so. Time after time since then our leaders have become convinced that the


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enemy, or the competition, or whatever one chooses to call it, was up to some technological mischief designed to do us in or at least to cause us very serious trouble. And time after time these convictions proved to be either completely untrue or at least grossly exaggerated. True, the detailed reasons why the Germans did not conduct a Manhattan Project of their own were unusual circumstances applying only to that specific situation, but unusual circumstances are like unusual weather: any specific variety of unusual weather may be rare, but having some kind of unusual weather is usual.

After the war, the great scientific teams broke up. Some men went back to where they had been recruited from. Many others went to new positions. Nearly all thought they were leaving the war and war research behind them. Meanwhile the production plants continued to produce U 235 and plutonium and to fabricate them into bombs, and the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, even though most of its wartime leadership had left, continued to concern itself with the science and technology of nuclear weapons under its new director, Norris E. Bradbury. Up until August, 1949, when the U.S.S.R. tested its first A-bomb, the U. S. enjoyed a complete monopoly on nuclear weapons. In the interim between the end of the war and that date, the U. S. conducted two series of atomic tests. One, called Operation Crossroads, was conducted at Bikini Atoll mainly to determine the effects of nuclear weapons on naval vessels, as well as the general effects of underwater nuclear explosives. The second, called Operation Sandstone, was conducted at Eniwetok Atoll, primarily to test evolutionary improvements in weapons design. The technical situation in those days, as described by Edward Teller in The Legacy of Hiroshima, was frustrating for the scientists involved. Many of them wanted to get on with new and different designs (as a minimum, different in terms of weight, explosive yield and general dimensions), but the military services were having difficulty imagining what they would do with anything different


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from the Thin Man or the Fat Boy (as the first two bombs were called) that had been designed specifically to fit the B-29.

The stockpiles of fissionable materials and atomic bombs continued to grow. We may estimate that the United States had some hundreds of bombs by about 1950 and that each of these could result in a release of explosive energy equivalent to a few tens of kilotons, so that the total explosive yield of the entire stockpile would have been some few millions of tons of TNT. Ralph Lapp estimates that the total at the time was ten megatons ten million tons. By comparison, this amount of explosive is considerably larger than the total used in all of World War II. In particular it compares strikingly with the estimated 2,700,000 tons of explosives that were dropped from the air on Germany. Thus, by 1950 the nuclear-arms race had reached a point such that we could duplicate the destruction of World War II by using nuclear weapons, except that while that conflict had lasted for more than five years, the devastation could now be reproduced in a single day.

Some authors have suggested that the effects of atomic bombs and the viciousness of atomic war have been exaggerated One of the things they have in mind is that if we compare the strictly physical effects of two bombs, one of them a thousand times larger than the other (say a ten- kiloton atomic bomb and a ten-ton chemical blockbuster), then the area subject to some given blast pressure is only one hundred times as great for the larger bomb. Hence, they say, on a per-kiloton basis, atomic bombs are ten times less effective than the largest chemical bombs. The physics of these notions is correct as stated, but this does not completely determine what happens when these weapons are used against human beings and the structures men build. Partly because of complex reinforcing effects, the devastation within the area of effectiveness of an atomic bomb is much more nearly complete than in the case of an attack with chemical bombs. The net result is that A-bombs and chemical bombs are roughly equiv-


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alent to each other on a per-kiloton basis in their ability to destroy life. The great air raids on Hamburg in 1943, which were carried out entirely with chemical explosives, destroyed about fifty percent of the housing but killed only about three percent of the people. Where atomic weapons were used, the percentage of the area of the cities destroyed and the percentage of the populations killed were more nearly equal. Therefore, we may say that by 1950 we had a stockpile capable of somewhat more than reproducing World War II in a single day.

We might have gone on for years slowly accumulating A-bombs and slowly modifying them in an evolutionary way to fit new types of military equipment, if it had not been for two closely spaced events which caught us completely by surprise and which raised new anxieties and generated new possibilities. These were the first Russian A-bomb test, in August, 1949, and the Korean War, which broke out suddenly in June; 1950. The Russians exploded their atomic bomb much earlier than most American experts had predicted. Up to that time, the Russians had not particularly impressed us by either their scientific or their technological capability, and many experts expected that they would require somewhere between a minimum of five and as much as twenty years before they could duplicate the atomic bomb. Of course, since then Russian accomplishments in missiles and space and in science quite generally have completely changed our estimates of Soviet scientific and technological capability, but we must recall that at the time, in the late 1940s, the general view of the Russians was quite different from what it is today.

We still do not know how much the relatively short gap between the first American and the first Russian explosion was due to successes in Soviet espionage, and how much it was due simply to native Russian capability. At the time it seemed to many of us that espionage must have been far and away the main reason they were able to accomplish the job so


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quickly, especially after the devastation that had been wreaked on them by World War II. Having since seen some excellent Russian technological progress in other fields, we are no longer quite so sure that this was the case. We should note, furthermore, that it is always easier to do something a second time, even if the only thing known from the first time is that it can be done.

In order to understand the reaction of many Americans to this new Soviet accomplishment and to the breakout of the Korean War, it is necessary to recall that Stalin was still very much alive and that Stalinism was entering one of its more paranoid phases. The Sino-Soviet bloc was newly forged and seemed to most of us in the West (as well as to the leadership of the Soviet Union itself) to be a monolith of tremendous potential power. The surprise and the fear and anxiety generated in this country by these events brought about a number of changes in American life and politics. Of most interest here was the power struggle that developed within the American scientific community over the issue of whether or not to initiate a priority program to develop the H-bomb, or, as it is more properly called, the thermonuclear weapon.

Instead of deriving its energy from nuclear fission, like an A-bomb, an H-bomb derives its energy from a process called thermonuclear fusion. Thermonuclear reactions had been hypothesized by Hans Bethe in the thirties as being the energy source that powers the sun and the stars. For our purposes here we may say that they involve the transformation of various isotopes of hydrogen, into isotopes of helium. Sometimes another light element, lithium, plays a role which may be crudely likened in some ways to that of a chemical catalyst. These thermonuclear (or fusion or hydrogen or H-) weapons differ in three very important ways from the earlier fission or A-weapons:

First, the energy released per pound of reactants consumed in thermonuclear explosions is between three and ten times as


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great as the energy released per pound of reactants consumed in fission explosions.

Second, the materials needed to construct thermonuclear weapons are much cheaper than the materials needed to construct fission weapons. (There is only one exception, tritium, and it is not important just here.)

And third, thermonuclear weapons, unlike fission weapons, may be of practically limitless size and power. The first hydrogen device ever exploded, the Mike Event on November 1, 1952, was a thousand times more powerful than the first atomic bomb, which had been exploded only a little more than seven years earlier. It is now practical to make hydrogen bombs having explosive yields ranging anywhere from ten times the power of a nominal atomic bomb up to ten thousand or more times that amount. The cost of such bombs is, to a first approximation, practically independent of their explosive yield.

The American scientific community, or rather that part of it which was informed about the nuclear-weapons programs of the late forties, was split deeply over the issue of whether or not to go ahead with the development of the H-bomb on a high-priority basis. The numerically smaller side in the split, led by Edward Teller, felt that such a program was the appropriate U. S. reply to the Russian A-bomb and the political realities most recently illustrated by the Korean War. This Teller party admitted that there was as yet no specific promising idea about how to build an H- bomb, but they contended that a project equivalent to the earlier Manhattan Project would inevitably soon generate one. This group also argued that since the Russians had shown they could produce an A-bomb much faster than anticipated we must expect that they could do the same thing with the still hypothetical H-bomb, and that if they did so first the U. S. would suddenly find itself in serious jeopardy.

The other side, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, opposed the


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initiation of a high-priority program on technical, political and moral grounds. They emphasized that none of the proposed general methods for building an H-bomb was at all promising, and they suggested that even if one could be built it would probably involve so much tritium that it would be quite impractical economically, even if technically feasible. (Tritium is the most reactive of the hydrogen isotopes and the only one that is exceedingly expensive. As it finally turned out, large amounts of tritium are not needed.) Further, and partly because there appeared to be no limit to how big an H-bomb could be if one could be built at all, this group felt that the successful development of an H-bomb would lead to a new and very much graver level of danger not only to civilization but to the human race as a whole. Therefore, this group argued, the development of an H-bomb should be avoided if at all possible. A necessary (though clearly not sufficient) step in avoiding such a development was, of course, our refraining from the initiation of a program such as Teller wanted. Oppenheimer was Chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission at that time, and at a crucial meeting of that body his views were supported by all the members present.

Most politicians, like most scientists, were uninformed about and uninterested in this secret and arcane battle. Of those who were informed and interested, a few, and most of these halfheartedly, supported the Oppenheimer point of view. A larger group very strongly endorsed the views of the Teller party. This group was especially influential, since it included the highest-ranking Air Force officers and civilian officials, plus Lewis L. Strauss, then a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, and some of the key members of the very powerful Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, notably the Chairman, Senator Brien McMahon, now deceased, and then Representative Henry M. Jackson.

The resulting struggle was presided over at first by President


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Truman and then, in its last phase, by President Eisenhower. In January, 1950, President Truman announced his decision that an effort be made to determine the technical feasibility of the thermonuclear weapon. He ordered the AEC and the Defense Department to fix jointly the rate and scale of the program, and he ordered State and Defense to review American foreign policy and military policy in the light of the existing and prospective Soviet nuclear capability. From that point on, the matter was, for all practical purposes, in the hands of the generals and the technologists. They presented a series of faits accomplis that really determined what happened next. After most of the major technical and political issues were resolved, but before all the loose ends were neatly tied together, Dwight D. Eisenhower became President of the United States. He appointed Lewis Strauss at first as his Special Assistant for Atomic Energy Matters, and then later, with the advice and consent of the Senate, as Chairman of the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission. In that role, Strauss proceeded to clean up the loose ends with a vengeance.

The drama has been ably and fully described from all points of view by the protagonists themselves as well as by others, some in semifictional form, and I will refrain from giving my own description of it. What matters here is the results of the struggle: ( I ) the invention of the hydrogen bomb, (2) the establishment of a second nuclear-weapons-development laboratory at Livermore, California, and (3) the defamation of J. Robert Oppenheimer, surely one of the most miserable events in American history and entirely unnecessary to boot, since by that time the first two results had long since been accomplished and the Teller-Strauss view had completely carried the day.

As I mentioned earlier, on the basis of my comprehension of the then existing general political situation, I supported Teller in his efforts to achieve the first of these results, the invention of the hydrogen bomb, and I ended up being the


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first director of the Livermore Laboratory, which was the second of these results. However, along with a number of others who supported the accomplishment of these first two results, I opposed the prosecution of Oppenheimer. But I protested neither very loudly in private nor at all in public; I refrained from doing so for what I think were two good reasons. My first reason was my special relationship with Ernest O. Lawrence, who, as has been widely reported, quite generally supported Edward Teller in his views on all these matters. Ernest was my immediate boss and much more besides. I was extremely fond of him and felt I owed everything I was professionally to him. I still consider myself in a sense to have been his last student. I absolutely could not do anything which would add to the burden these problems were already causing him, and which in fact were making him seriously ill.

My second reason was my relationship with a number of other good friends and colleagues, including especially Harold Brown, John Foster, Gerald Johnson, Mark Mills, Arthur Biehl, Ernest Martinelli, and Kenneth Street, as well as Edward Teller himself. We were all committed to each other in the task of establishing the Livermore Laboratory. Because of the Oppenheimer affair and other problems which predated it, the times were especially difficult and our enterprise was just then in a particularly delicate condition. An open break between me and Teller or Strauss would have very seriously imperiled the whole endeavor, and so I avoided one. I still think that I did right, considering what the circumstances were and how I comprehended them, although sometimes on rainy nights I have some doubts.

The technical development of the H-bomb itself, which flowed steadily forward despite this maelstrom of political events, has been described in Teller's book The Legacy of Hiroshima and elsewhere. In May, 1951, the first thermonuclear reaction to take place on earth was produced at Eniwetok as a part of Operation Greenhouse. The device which pro-


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duced it was not in any sense an H-bomb, but the subsequent analysis and study of the physical environment and sequence of events which enabled the reactions to occur led Edward Teller and others at Los Alamos (especially including Stanislaus Ulam) to invent the basic design which then led directly through only one intermediate step to the practical H- bombs of today. This intermediate step was the Mike Event of Operation Ivy. The explosive mechanism was properly called a "device" and was in no sense a practical bomb, but its successful detonation led immediately to the design of devices that were. The first true H-bomb was tested at Bikini in Operation Castle in the spring of 1954. From then until the test moratorium which began in the fall of 1958, subsequent H-bomb and A- bomb tests were largely devoted to developing nuclear explosives for particular applications. Especially important among these were the warheads of the various long-range missiles that were being developed on crash schedules at the same time. Also as a result of technical progress during this period, it became possible to build nuclear weapons of much smaller dimensions and weight. This permitted widespread deployment and dispersal on high-performance tactical aircraft all over the world, which, in turn, increased the danger of unauthorized use. The authorities responded to this danger with still more complicated gadgetry.

Meanwhile, in early August, 1953, midway between Operations Ivy and Castle, and only nine months after the Mike Event, the Soviets exploded their first crude experimental hydrogen device. They too developed this two years later into a variety of practical bombs and warheads. The close spacing of all these events makes it clear that the Russians started a serious H-bomb research and development program at just about the same time we did, perhaps a little before, perhaps a little after. It is still unclear whether or not restraint on our part would have resulted in restraint on their part, though there certainly is no evidence it would have. Nor is it clear


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whether we really would have lost anything by refraining from going ahead until after they had made a first test. Had we waited, our program would have had much larger and wider support. Such support would most probably have enabled us to catch up easily with the Russians before any politically significant imbalance in the development and deployment of nuclear weapons (both A- and H-bombs) could have developed. In other cases which I will discuss later and which involve both missiles and space vehicles, the overreaction which has occurred whenever we first became aware of their having started something before we did has more than compensated for their earlier start. We have always had plenty of time to block any hypothetical attempt on their Dart to take advantage of their having started first.

In addition to achieving a thousandfold increase in explosive yield by changing from fission energy to thermonuclear energy, we also increased our destructive capacity by accelerating our unit production rate. We expanded existing plants and constructed new diffusion plants for separating uranium isotopes at Paducah, Kentucky, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and new reactors for producing plutonium at Savannah River, South Carolina. By about 1960, we had H-bombs running into the thousands and probably around ten thousand nuclear weapons in all. (By 1964 Senator John O. Pastore was able to say, "We number our weapons in the tens of thousands.") In 1960, John F. Kennedy estimated that the world's nuclear stockpile contained the equivalent of thirty million kilotons, and the Sixth Pugwash Conference used sixty million kilotons as a working assumption. Most of this was in the American stockpile. While most individual weapons were for special purposes such as air defense, tactical applications, and naval uses, the overwhelming bulk of the total explosive power resided in those weapons designed for strategic purposes that is, for the bombardment of enemy cities and strategic military installations. We are therefore safe in assuming that the United


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States possessed at the beginning of the sixties a strategic-weapon stockpile containing twenty to forty million kilotons of explosives, or the energy equivalent of some ten thousand World War IIs, most of which could be released in a matter of hours. We had reached a level of supersaturation that some writers characterized by the word "overkill," an understatement in my opinion. Moreover, we possessed two different but reinforcing types of overkill. First, by 1960 we had many more bombs than they had urban targets, and, second, with a very few exceptions such as Greater Moscow and Greater New York, the area of destruction and intense lethality that a single bomb could produce was very much larger than the area of the targets. Since all or practically all strategic weapons were -by then thermonuclear, it is safe to assume that those Soviet or Chinese cities which were equivalent in size and importance to Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, by that time, targets for weapons from one hundred to one thousand times as big as the bombs used in history's only two real demonstrations of what actually happens when large numbers of human beings and their works are hit by nuclear weapons.

The lethality of bombs in the megaton class, due to blast and thermal effects, increases neither directly wish' the explosive yield nor (as the physics of the explosions might indicate) as the two- thirds power of the yield. Rather, the lethality increases only very slowly in most real applications. But the reason for this is to be found not in the realm of physical phenomena, but in the fact that the size of the bomb has outrun the size of the target and most of the lethal effects are wasted on the sparsely populated areas surrounding the urban centers. Some people may believe, and some officials may argue, that the foregoing is untrue or at the very least irrelevant because our bombs are aimed at "hard military targets" rather than against populations. Unfortunately, such is not really the case, for two reasons: First, certain common military targets such as missile silos will be largely empty when it comes time


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to launch our weapons if we continue to stick with our present policy of deterrence (i.e., the policy of being ready to launch an unacceptably large second strike in retaliation against anyone who strikes first). Second, many so-called military targets are government and command centers such as Moscow and Peking and Warsaw and other capitals, major transport and communication centers such as Kharkov and Kiev, major seaports such as Leningrad and Vladivostok, and major scientific centers such as Novosibirsk. In short, a list of this second type of so-called military targets is for all practical purposes identical with the list of major population centers, and so any such distinction, even though it is often made, is meaningless. To be sure, there are some military targets which are not parts of major cities and which will not be empty when it is time for retaliation. These include, for example, air defense installations in the Far North, but the relatively small number of weapons which would be diverted to them does not substantially change the picture.

So far we have not considered fallout in this discussion of the holocaust that nuclear war can produce. The details of how heavy the fallout is, where it goes and how soon it comes down depend on such factors as the composition of the bomb, the composition of the soil, the altitude of the burst, and the wind conditions at all levels up to one hundred thousand feet or so. For ground bursts, such as would be used against hard targets or against generally soft targets which unhappily happen to contain a hard target within them, we may conservatively and for convenience assume that for every two kilotons of explosive energy about one square mile will be bathed in lethal levels of radioactive fallout within hours after the explosion. Thus, by about 1960 the two major nuclear powers together possessed stockpiles which could bathe tens of millions of square miles in lethal levels of radioactivity, an area larger than the total land area of the two principals themselves. Of course, the fallout would not be distributed uniformly; some


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areas would get much more than a lethal dose and others would get less. Also, much of the lethal area would be outside the boundaries of the two powers. For example, an attack on the U. S. industrial heartland running from Chicago along the Great Lakes to the East Coast megalopolis would result in lethal fallout all over southeast Canada, which is where most Canadians live. Beyond this matter of lethal fallout lies the still more ominous matter of genetic and other long-term effects of fallout on the human race as a whole. This is still not fully understood, but appears to be extremely serious. It is this awesome fallout situation which has led to the various doomsday predictions such as that which was fictionalized in Nevil Shute's On the Beach.

If that's where we were in 1960 in nuclear weapons technology and capability, one might ask, what have we been doing since then and why? The answer to this question is that both the U. S. and the U.S.S.R. have continued throughout the sixties to develop, test and stockpile new, often baroque, sometimes rococo, varieties of A-bombs and H-bombs. The testing of these bombs and other nuclear devices has been conducted underground except for a brief period extending from late 1961 into 1963. The reason for this is that the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which came into force in the summer of 1963 prohibits testing anywhere else. China and France are not signatories and have not complied with this prohibition. In the case of the Soviet Union, these tests and developments have included bombs of still greater size than those developed in the fifties. It is generally thought that a Soviet test in 1961 involved a device yielding about sixty megatons. In the case of the United States, weapons development and testing since 1960 have been largely devoted to adapting A-bombs and H-bombs to special purposes and special environments and to making other qualitative improvements, rather than to making them bigger and more powerful. Thus, our test and development program has been directed toward developing bombs which


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emphasize such special weapons effects as high X-ray yields for use in a hypothetical antimissile defense; to developing techniques for maintaining better command and control over the widely dispersed stockpiles, including especially those in foreign countries; to developing warheads which could better cope with more hostile environments, including very high accelerations and the effects of hypothetical enemy explosions designed to intercept our warheads; and to reducing the size of thermonuclear weapons so that they could be adapted to other special purposes, one of the most important of which is the provision of multiple warheads for a single missile. This last development program goes under the general name of MIRV, an acronym standing for "multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles." Numbers of warheads per missile of more than ten have been mentioned.

One of the political prices paid for getting wide acceptance of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in the Congress consisted in a promise by the AEC to conduct an underground-test program vigorous enough to "satisfy all our military requirements." But, clearly, nuclear-weapons tests and experiments conducted underground are more complicated and less productive than they would be if they were held in the atmosphere. It has therefore been judged necessary to conduct such testing at an even faster rate than in the fifties, when aboveground testing was possible. During the sixties the operations at the Nevada test site were conducted on a year-round basis rather than in batches as they were in the forties and fifties.

Also during the sixties our strategic forces changed over from sole dependence on aircraft (in 1960 mostly B-47s and B-52s) to a combination of land-based missiles (now Minutemen and Titans) plus sea- based missiles (now Polarises) plus aircraft (now mostly just B-52s). The missiles deliver a smaller payload than aircraft do, and a larger part of the payload has to be devoted to coping with severe environmental conditions


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such as those met on reentering the atmosphere or in a near-miss by a hypothetical intercepting explosion. For these reasons, plus the fact that more of our officials had come to appreciate how huge our overkill capability was (even though they may not have used that word), the total yield of our stockpile did not continue to skyrocket upward during the sixties as it had during the fifties. Rather, it probably reached a peak in the early sixties and then either leveled off or began to slowly decrease. However, before anyone breathes a sigh of relief, let me note it is only in the area of total yield and hence total fallout potential that there has been any slowdown in the mad rush toward doomsday. The total number of warheads, and therefore the total number of targets which can be hit, has continued to rise and is about to rise especially rapidly in the near future as a result of the deployment of MIRV. And in the case of the Soviet Union, all of these numbers, including even the total megatons in the stockpile, have been increasing especially rapidly in the last couple of years.

Some, such as Eugene Wigner in his speech to the spring 1969 meeting of the American Physical Society, have seen this decrease in the total megatonnage of our stockpile accompanied by an increase in the total number of individual warheads in our possession as a serious attrition in our over-all capability. This is sometimes referred to as a "virtual attrition" which has been brought about by the Soviet ABM system now deployed around Moscow. The idea here is that whether or not this Soviet ABM system works, the U. S. invention and deployment of MIRV and other penetration devices was prompted by the deployment of the Soviet ABM, and this MIRV deployment is one of the direct causes of the decrease in total megatonnage. It is a fact that our MIRV and other penetration devices (more on these later) were our response to Soviet developments in the ABM field, but even so the concept of "virtual attrition" is basically false, especially in the case of a strategic posture whose purpose is to deter


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war--that is, to be able to make an unacceptable second, retaliatory strike at the cities and other vitals of the nation which strikes first. The notion of "virtual attrition" is based on the false notion that there is such a thing as a "small nuclear weapon." Small nuclear weapons are like northern Mississippi: there is no such thing, except in a detached theoretical sense. Some parts of Mississippi are, to be sure, farther north than others, and some nuclear weapons are, to be sure, smaller than others; but on a human scale, and compared with the structures that human beings ordinarily build, all A-bombs and H-bombs are very large indeed. In his discussion of this matter, Wigner stated that the present single ten-megaton warhead now carried by the Titan was to be replaced by a MIRV warhead consisting of ten individual nuclear warheads of fifty kilotons explosive power each, and he bemoaned what he calculated to be a loss in the lethality of the system. I know of no plan to do any such thing; apparently Wigner had become confused by plans for equipping the Navy's Poseidon missile with a MIRV such as he described. In any case, there simply is no fundamental reason for such a large change (twentyfold) in the yield to occur when single warheads are replaced by MIRVs. Some small decrease is inevitable, but the total area covered by some given blast level is not necessarily reduced; on the contrary, it normally increases somewhat.

Even so, let us suppose Wigner's notion about the plans for a MIRV for Titan were true. Each of those ten 50-kiloton warheads is almost four times as big as the warhead which gutted Hiroshima and killed nearly one hundred thousand people in the process. Except in the narrowest technocratic interpretation, it makes absolutely no sense to call such bombs small. Unless, perhaps, either Moscow or Leningrad is the target, the imaginary Titan MIRV (i.e., the real Poseidon) is deadlier and more vicious than the real single-warhead Titan.

Between 1950 and 1960, the explosive yields of nuclear weapons changed a thousandfold, the means for delivering


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them (subsonic aircraft) changed rather little, and the number of persons in the Sino-Soviet bloc who were "at risk" to the U. S. strategic forces changed from a few million to a few hundred million, or by about a hundredfold. Between 1960 and 1970, the explosive yields of nuclear weapons changed very little, the speed of the delivery systems increased thirtyfold (from subsonic aircraft to supersonic Mach-25 intercontinental rockets), but the number of persons in China and the U.S.S.R. who were at risk remained more or less a few hundred million. The reason for the lack of a significant increase in the number of persons at risk during the second decade, as contrasted with the huge increase during the first decade, is obvious: it is the supersaturated, or "overkill," capacity we reached in about 1960. This static situation has been maintained now for almost ten years despite all the breakthroughs and other technological advances that took place during the sixties, and we may therefore reasonably expect that new breakthroughs and deployments of new types of weapons in the near future will similarly produce little or no change in the number of persons at risk on either side. However, as we shall see, the situation has worsened in other ways. And, unless some large change happens, we can expect it to continue to do so.


NUCLEAR POLICY STUDIES: GRAPHICS & TEXTS: LINKS:
Nuclear Designs: Great Britain, France, and China in the Global Governance of Nuclear Arms
[Transaction Publishers, 1996]

British SSBNs

French SNLEs
Other Sites
"Comprehensive Test Ban" [28 February 1996] and a 21 June 1996 addendum on China's CTB policy. The Acheson-Lilienthal Report [16 March 1946]: Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy. Re CTB

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