Nuclear 101: Weapons

UPDATED to correct typo, sure there’s at least one more in there…

While the primary focus is on nuclear weapons and war, I’m going to talk a bit about other types of special weapons as they can and do play a role in a nuclear war and nuclear strategy. So, let’s start by taking a look at the basic weapons.

First up, the original weapon that opened the nuclear age. Fission weapons derive their energy from breaking apart the atom. To be a bit more precise, a neutron is used to break apart a single atom into two smaller atoms which releases energy and more neutrons which then break apart yet more atoms in a sustained chain reaction. This releases a large amount of energy, which is then measured in kilotons (1 kiloton = 1,000 tons of TNT [note: typo corrected! Thanks for pointing it out]) or megatons (1 megaton = 1,000,000 tons of TNT). Note that pretty much all fission weapons stay in the kiloton range.

In terms of operating systems, there are two types of fission weapons: gun-type and implosion. In a gun-type fission weapon, conventional explosives drive two masses of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) into each other to produce what is called a criticality: the chain reaction necessary for the bomb to function. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a gun-type device.

The implosion device uses a core, or pit, of plutonium surrounded by conventional explosives. The sophisticated explosives create a uniform compression of the plutonium which creates the criticality which then ensures the chain reaction with some form of neutron initiator. If you want more details, you will need to look it up yourself and I note that there is a lot of information out there, a good bit of which is accurate. I will note that you can use HEU as the pit instead of plutonium. In fact, the UN reports that Iraq was doing just that back in the bad old days. It should also be noted that the world’s first nuclear explosion at Alamagordo and the Nagasaki bomb were both implosion devices.

Brief aside, gun devices are easier to build from a technological standpoint but tend to be rather large. Implosion devices are much more technologically challenging on almost every level, but allow a great deal of power in a smaller device.

The next level of weapons are fusion devices. Whereas fission splits, fusion brings deuterium and tritium together to form helium and a whole bunch of energy. Hence the name, hydrogen bomb as deuterium and tritium are isotopes of hydrogen. Edited for clarity and to fix a typo. The energy output of a fusion weapon is much (much much even) higher than a fission weapon.

In discussion on nuclear war, you are going to hear the term “thermonuclear weapons” used. What are they? Simply put, they are a combination of fission and fusion weapon. In grossly over simplistic terms, the fission weapons can be “boosted” by adding in a fusion component. The majority of nuclear weapons in use by major powers today are in fact thermonuclear devices.

Regardless of type, conventional warheads tend to be divided into two areas: Strategic and Tactical. Strategic are mated to longer-ranged delivery systems and are of larger yield. Tactical are intended for use with short-ranged systems and have a much smaller yield. Strategic are intended to take out large areas/targets and tactical are designed to take out a small/limited target and minimize damage outside a limited area. Cough, cough.

There are some specialized types of nuclear weapons. One that hit the news a few decades back was the so-called neutron bomb. This was a device designed to do minimum damage to an area (though it could be argued that it was intended to focus damage to a specific area/target) and neutralize the surrounding area via a massive dose of neutron radiation. That burst of radiation would result in the death of humans (and other animals) hit by it, but leave the infrastructure intact and non-radioactive.

Are there other types of specialized warhead? RUMINT, of course, says yes. Everything from enhanced/tuned EMP to signals to the aliens waiting just outside the solar system. May have to pull some of them into some fiction I need to write, but for purposes of our current discussion the only ones that, if they exist, would have any impact would be enhanced EMP.

No discussion of nuclear weapons would be complete without discussion of issues of criticality and fizzles. Criticality is essential to enabling the chain reaction that is a nuclear explosion. It’s when you get it without wanting to set of such a chain reaction that it becomes a not-so-minor issue.

One way to get an accidental criticality is to bring two masses of material, be it HEU or plutonium, close enough together that a reaction starts. This has happened, in more than one country, when people handling such materials either brought them too close together as part of an experiment (or manufacturing process) and got a flash criticality. This was a short-term event because the materials were immediately separated, though the flash was most often a terminal event for those present.

The other way it can happen is if a fire or other catastrophe some or all of the conventional explosives in a nuclear device. I will simply note that modern weapons make use of specialized explosives and explosives design/layout to minimize the risk of such.

Then there are fizzles. While most of the discussions of learned types focus on boosted weapons, they technically can happen to any type of nuclear explosive. In short, a fizzle is simply an incomplete reaction. In a boosted weapon, the boost doesn’t happen. In a single-type weapon, the chain reaction is not sustained to the planned extent. At worst/best (worse from the user standpoint, best case from the view of the target), the explosion is not as large as planned. RUMINT suggests that there can be odd effects from a fizzle, including some potentially nasty material for clean-up.

You can also have duds. For whatever reason, the bomb does not go off. The conventional explosives may or may not go off, but the core of the bomb does not even reach fizzle status. If nothing goes off, it does make clean-up and containment easier. If the conventional explosives do go off, it can spread radioactive materials around.

Which gives a nice segue into other types of special weapons. In the parlance in which I grew up, CBN for Chemical, Biological, Nuclear.

Chemical covers a range of nastiness from nerve agents to simple caustic compounds. They are intended to incapacitate or otherwise neutralize large groups of ground forces. For those who have not served, having to operate in MOPP gear is hot, nasty, and cumbersome to be polite I am told. I include it here because one of the best ways to deny an enemy use of nuclear weapons is to hit the appropriate storage depots with chemical (or biological) weapons. This prevents ready use and preserves them in case you want to secure them or use them for your own purposes (don’t judge). By the time someone can secure, decontaminate, verify, and then deploy — well, it’s most likely things are already over for the time being.

Biological weapons also cover a range of options. Most people think of killer plagues, and yes there has been research into such (and some countries continue on that to this day). It also includes other vectors designed to incapacitate enemy leadership. Again, there’s a range and if you are really interested, dive in and explore. I include it here primarily because it is a factor that needs to be mentioned, though one scenario may come up in later discussions.

Non-explosive nuclear are best represented by dirty bombs. That is, using conventional explosives to contaminate as large an area as possible by spreading some form of nuclear material including nuclear waste. If, like me, you’ve had the joy of going through the FEMA Weapons of Mass Destruction Course, even a very large and effective dirty bomb is only going to cover a limited area. Pick the right area though, and… While not necessarily practical, you could potentially use a non-explosive criticality to take out key enemy leadership with the right assets. This may or may not get discussed later.

Now, to the topic that generates large amounts of wailing and gnashing of teeth: testing. Yes, testing is needed.

Before computer modeling and simulations because practical, most nuclear weapons design was based on mathematical probabilities and a certain degree of trial and error. Want to know if a new design worked, and worked as planned? Build it and try it.

With the advent of truly advanced computer design and simulations, there came a group who said we no longer needed to do testing of any sort, above ground, underground, or even deep space. There’s just one problem that the smug SOBs who say that computer simulations are all we need don’t get: GIGO. Garbage In, Garbage Out.

Simulations, while often quite good, are no replacement for reality. They can limit the amount of real-world testing required, but they can’t replace it any more than they can replace the need for manual checks of the weapons to detect corrosion in the pits or elsewhere, damage to components from radiation, or any of the other things that need to be checked. They can suggest a schedule of such checks, and maybe even where to spend extra time checking, but they can’t replace the checks, or the tests.

Question for the class: when was the last time we tested either a new or existing design to be sure they either worked as planned or still worked as designed and tested?

Given how much of our nuclear forces are still using designs and components from the mid-1960’s, it’s kind of an important question. Especially since we are at a point where we not only need to modernize our weapons and forces, we need to look at a variety of new warhead and delivery vehicle options to meet new and different threats.

On that note, I think I will stop for the day and on Monday pick up with delivery vehicles and systems. Today is a very quick and broad overview of the weapons, now it’s time to look at how they get from point A to point B.

Yes, I’ve very deliberately not gone into detail on any number of areas and issues. You can write massive tomes and dissertations on any facet of everything brought up today. It suffices to get get some basic information out and avoids becoming a primer if you will.

There are plenty of such out there, and some are fascinating reading. For the purposes of this series of posts, however, the high view should be sufficient.

Some Previous Posts:

Vladimir And The Ukraine

Answers, Ramblings, And A Bit More On Vladimir And The Ukraine

Your Must Read For The Day On Russia

The Puzzles In Play, And The Missing Pieces

Quick Thoughts On Ukraine/Putin

The Thing Behind The Curtain

Missing Pieces And Surprise Pieces

Thursday Update

Not A Lot To Add


Monday Update

Burn Notice

Accuracy, Reliability, And More

Putin, Trump, And The Coming Storm

Three Futures For Russia

Quick Thoughts

Saturday Update

Mismatched Locomotives

War, Ag, Demographics, And The Worst Is Yet To Come

Past, Present, And A Hungry Future

Huge Grain Of Salt

The Moskva

Retribution Inbound

Uncertainty And Preparation

Honest Question

Monday Morning Quick Brief

War Of The Memes

A Little Free Ice Cream

Rumors Of War

Three Times Is…

If It’s Wednesday, This Must Be Moldova

Going Nuclear

How To Spy On The Russians

Here’s Hoping I’m Wrong

Pins And Needles Time

Mock Away

Intel Wars

The Revenge Of HUMINT

A Funny Thing Happened

Rumors of Rumors

Ukraine, Uvalde, Oh My

Very Interesting

A Quick Russia/Ukraine Update



Hmmmm Follow-Up

Ukraine/Russia Tidbit

If You Think

Nuclear What?


Nuclear War Posts In Order:

Nuclear What?


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14 thoughts on “Nuclear 101: Weapons”

  1. Great article, but I noticed a couple technical inaccuracies early.
    1) Deuterium and Tritium are isotopes of Hydrogen. They fuse in a hydrogen bomb (named after the fuel type) to form Helium plus a spare neutron.
    2) Gun type bombs are smaller than implosion type bombs. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was “little boy”, while the one dropped on Nagasaki was “Fat man”, named appropriately for the difference in size and weight. Notably, Bockscar had a hell of a time during takeoff with the sheer weight of Fat man.

    1. Re: comment that Little Boy was smaller than Fat Man ( gun assembled smaller than implosion type). Those were both first of their types. Technology has advanced since. Be careful about using 1945 to make statements about today.

  2. Early in article you have a significant typo. One thousand kilotons is equivalent to 1,000 TONS of TNT, not just 1,000 lbs. Your statement is off by a factor of 2,000. The difference between a pound and a ton.

    1. And so i mirror your mistake myself. What i meant to say is a kiloton is 1,000 tons. I inadvertently put in 1,000. One thousand kT is a megaton — one million tons TNT.

  3. If you are old enough, you may remember that during the Reagan administration the US did an awful lot of underground nuclear testing. It was supposedly done in support of the Star Wars ICBM defense initiative. But there was another purpose, and that was to validate the government’s nuclear weapon design and analysis software. Call the range of good designs as those “inside the envelope,” and designs that wouldn’t fully detonate as “outside the envelope.” It’s rumored that in addition to the designs that were inside the envelope there were a few designs outside the envelope and the software was used to analyze and predict their success or failure. So there may have been some duds that weren’t reported in the newspapers back then. Of course, nobody talks about how good the software was, except I don’t believe that the US would have signed the nuclear test ban treaty banning all nuclear weapons testing if the government didn’t trust it to correctly predict the success or failure of a new nuclear weapon design.

    1. Oh, I’m old enough. I’m old enough that I have referred to Reagan as “Boss” a time or two though I was not an employee of his administration. During his administration, I was focused on Soviet space efforts, along with military. I will say that any models or software developed then really need updating today.

  4. “The other way it can happen is if a fire or other catastrophe some or all of the conventional explosives in a nuclear device. ” needs a verb somewhere .

  5. “Before computer modeling and simulations because practical”

    Think you meant “became” ?

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