Welcome to the first entry of the Nuclear 201 series. While this is still a high-level approach to learning about nuclear war and related issues, it’s time to take a bit more detailed look at some of the issues. In fact, if anyone out there is interested in contributing a guest post on a relevant topic, drop me an e-mail at the address in the upper right. If some things work out, hope to have at least a couple, if not more, guest posts and/or related.
To understand where we are requires some history. The thing is, the history of the nuclear age is fascinating and there are many, many rabbit holes down which we could dive. There are tales of brilliance, stupidity, treachery, and honor. Some are humorous if terrifying, such as scientists and engineers placing bets on if a certain bomb was going to involve the atmosphere in its reaction and reduce the Earth to a cinder — even as the detonation countdown was underway.
While Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 (squared) started the ball rolling, it wasn’t until the 1930s that people got serious about the idea of nuclear power and nuclear explosives. It really was the fact that Nazi Germany was looking into things that spurred the U.S. into pursuing its own research after the famous Einstein letter (which he signed but did not write) of 1939.
The history of this period is complex and fascinating. There were competing theories on how to achieve various milestones, and each group seemingly went its own way. Germany decided on one approach that required heavy water, and the successful effort by the Norwegian underground to deny them what they needed may well have kept them from being first with a bomb. I wish I could remember the name of the book I read on the Norwegian effort that I found excellent, and there was another on the German nuclear program that was accurate and entertaining. Stupid lightning. Trust me, reading up on these efforts, as well as the work of the Four Hungarians of the Apocalypse on the Manhattan Project is well worth your time.
For our Nuclear 201 purposes, one bit of important history is that the Manhattan Project (and quite possibly the Nazi project) were penetrated by the Soviets pretty much from the start. No, the Rosenbergs were not the be-all and end-all of nuclear espionage. Again, several good books out there (beware some recent revisionist histories). Net result was that Stalin was not surprised when Truman revealed The Bomb to him as he was fully briefed and pushing a secret effort of his own to catch up using the info coming in from the various moles in the program.
In the brief window of time where the U.S. was the sole nuclear power on Earth, there were some who thought that status could be made to last forever; some others who thought it could be made to last for years if not decades; and, a few who pointed out that it wouldn’t last long. Since some of their spiritual descendants are active today, let’s take a very quick look at the major schools of thought.
First, there were those who felt that for anyone to develop The Bomb they would have to go through the entire Manhattan Project (or Nazi counterpart) to do so. Even if they did get a few nuclear secrets, the steps had to be repeated and those efforts, especially the need for high-speed centrifuges, would be easily detectable. Warn the country, and if not heeded, take out the project with either conventional or nuclear weapons.
Second, there were those who said that most of the project could be skipped with the right knowledge. Or espionage. This would save years of effort, and the key signs would be the centrifuges and other large-scale activities that would be hard to hide.
Finally, there were those who said the entire project could be skipped since the knowledge was out there, and what couldn’t be stolen could be worked out by smart people. Again, it was the centrifuges and other large-scale efforts that would be the clue that Country X was working on The Bomb.
Then the Soviet’s exploded their first bomb and put to rest the idea that the U.S. would remain the sole nuclear power for any length of time. They also sort of proved the last group right in the process. And thus the nuclear arms race was born.
In some respects, what happened is proof of the Toddler Laws school of thought. Who had the largest? Who had the most unique? Who could make the smallest? Who had the most advanced design? The race was on and both the U.S. and the Soviet Union sought to out do the other in every possible aspect. So much so, that at one point it is believed that the Soviet Union had more than 40,000 nuclear weapons. The U.S. was reported to have a few itself. Great Britain and France appear to have felt that a few hundred each was more reasonable. Maybe.
Now, as this was going on, a number of people questioned what was going on, and eventually various treaties were negotiated to reign things in a bit. This is a decent list of those treaties by year. We could talk for months, if not years, just about the treaties (much like the history of the original projects), but I will for now leave it up to you to decide if that is a rabbit hole you wish to explore.
Those treaties were why Boss coined his famous phrase “Trust, but verify.” I’m not saying that the Soviet Union (or later Russia) had a reputation for violating treaties of all sorts before the ink was dry, but I will say that they had (have) quite the reputation for developing some of the most interesting interpretations of various clauses in various treaties. So much so that the complexities of those interpretations twist things to the point the time-space continuum should have shattered.
What truly matters out of all of this for our 201 purposes is that right now as a result of these treaties the Russians are thought to have approximately 6,257 nuclear warheads with 1,458 ready to launch via missiles, bombers, etc. The U.S. is reported to have approximately 5,550 warheads with 1,389 ready to launch via missiles, bombers, etc. Three sites with information on all nuclear countries are here, here, and here.
The thing to keep in mind is that not all of these are strategic weapons. You have tactical devices and you have some specialized charges as well: shaped charges, atomic demolition munitions, and other oddities. We’ll get more into that soon enough.
Meantime, here’s a bit on how the Soviets used nuclear weapons to put out some oil field fires. Makes me wonder what Red Adair could have done with a few nukes…
Yes, there is a LOT more that we could cover today. Again, trying to keep it high level and point towards places (and topics) for exploration. Neat thing is, more and more keeps coming out about the early days, here and elsewhere, and it just adds more fascinating material to an already interesting field of study. We may well jump back into some of this as Nuclear 201 continues. For now, however, this gives you enough overview to understand what is to come.
SOME PREVIOUS POSTS:
Nuclear 101 Posts In Order:
Nuclear 101: Weapons
Nuclear 101: Delivery
Nuclear 101: Now What?
Nuclear 101: Targeting
Nuclear 101: Scenarios
Nuclear 101: Survival
Some Quick Thoughts
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
Not A Lot To Add
Accuracy, Reliability, And More
Putin, Trump, And The Coming Storm
Three Futures For Russia
War, Ag, Demographics, And The Worst Is Yet To Come
Past, Present, And A Hungry Future
Huge Grain Of Salt
Uncertainty And Preparation
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
How To Spy On The Russians
Here’s Hoping I’m Wrong
Pins And Needles Time
The Revenge Of HUMINT
A Funny Thing Happened
Rumors of Rumors
Ukraine, Uvalde, Oh My
A Quick Russia/Ukraine Update
If You Think
Couple Of Quick Thoughts
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