Once again, this is a high-level overview. Part of that is because the only means of delivery I’ve never heard seriously discussed (over adult beverages may be a different issue) is using a kite. Everything from balloons to human assets has been discussed, proposed, and possibly even implemented.
Given the size and weight, the original bombs were designed to be delivered by aircraft. To get the bombs to the airfield, however, required ships. My father actually slept on top of the Hiroshima bomb, not knowing what it was, onboard the Indianapolis. Story for another day, but the first bombs were huge, crude (by today’s standards) and low-yield compared to modern thermonuclear devices.
As size and weight came down, the types of planes that could be used for delivery increased. While the big bombers (B-52, etc.) are still the primary delivery vehicle, even fighter bombers and small aircraft can technically carry a bomb. A fact that tends to give planning staff ulcers given some of the scenarios that enables.
Outside of suicide scenarios, the key is the ability to support the bomb and bombing run, and the ability for the plane to be a safe distance away when the bomb goes off. This can mean anything from bombing at high altitude to ensure enough distance; coming in at high speed and lower altitude; or doing a lob toss (idiot’s loop) where the pilot flies a course that releases the bomb onto a ballistic arc to the target while the pilot does a 180 and redlines the engine(s) to get to a safe distance before it goes off.
Rather, those used to be the only options for aircraft. Today, however, you have the ability to use Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM), glide vehicles, and RUMINT has it other options (loitering systems?) are either here or in work. The key to all of these from the U.S. perspective is protecting the expensive highly-trained crew for future use by sending in unmanned systems from a distance. Not every country/power shares that concern.
For years, bombing was the only real option and it remained the most accurate option once the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) became an option. The rocket attacks on London by Germany in WWII were the first use of modern ballistic missiles in war. While they did a good deal of damage and killed a fair number of civilians, they anything but precise and were aimed only in the crudest sense of the word. Even if targeted at a specific landmark, you were doing good just to have it hit in the greater-London area. The inertial navigation systems used on the rockets were not very good, which is not surprising in a first generation system. Yes, yes, they were in use on planes, but no one had ever designed one that could be fitted in a rocket.
When the ICBM came into the picture as a means of nuclear delivery, there had been some improvements to the system, but you still had a Circular Error Probability (CEP) measured in miles. As in the warhead would impact up to several miles off target. As a hypothetical, a U.S. warhead might hit up to a mile off target, while Soviet systems of the day may have had a tendency to hit 10 or so miles off target.
The U.S. response to this was to improve the guidance systems to reduce the CEP such that it was measured in yards, then feet. As seen in non-nuclear use in Iraq and elsewhere, modern guidance systems for missiles, cruise missiles, drones, and loitering munitions can in a number of cases be measured in inches. The problem is that the Minuteman system, our ground-based launch component, is mid-1960s tech. Our Trident Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) are newer than that, but still are based on technology that is 40-50 years old. More on this as we get into strategies and related discussions in the days ahead.
The Soviet response to having such large CEPs was typical. Given problems with manufacturing and technology, they simply made their nuclear weapons more powerful. Didn’t matter if they were a few miles off target, if the bomb was large enough to take it out anyway, along with a hell of a lot of additional real-estate. One of the terms for them you may come across is “city busters.” Even after they stole, bought, or developed improved guidance systems, they have retained that tendency to go for larger warheads — which may say something about the real accuracy of their systems as opposed to what the marketing brochures say…
A brief aside: their problems with technology still persist, and it is telling that the Russians are heavily dependent upon Western companies (looking at you Germany. Though they are not the only government turning a blind eye to companies providing such to Russia, they are the leading one) to provide the components needed for precision guidance in every type of munition.
A couple of other important points to keep in mind when discussing ICBMs. First, they require silos or other launch support. Silos are fixed, expensive, and a target. Mobile launch systems are not as robust but are harder to find/keep track of by an enemy. Silos, because such are very precisely surveyed locations, offer a higher degree of initial accuracy to the guidance system. Mobile launchers tend not to have that precision on launch point since planners rarely count on GPS and other systems being available. Great if it is available, but never count on it.
The second point is that there are two types of missile: solid fueled and liquid fueled. While it is technically possible to make a solid propellant engine I’m told, it’s not a thing with ICBMs.
Solid propellants are limited for the most part to motors: you can start it and it goes until all the fuel is gone. You have no start/stop capability. The advantages to solid fuel pretty much comes down to instant use capability. The disadvantages are that solid motors have a definite lifetime, and require inspection and testing during that time to be sure problems haven’t developed. Cracks and voids are very bad things.
Liquid fuel engines are the alternative to solid motors. While there are arguments to be made over thrust, specific impulse, and other things near and dear to rocket people, the key from an ICBM viewpoint is that they are reliable, easy to maintain, and have a very different inspection and testing regime. Theoretically you also have the ability to start/stop the engines as an additional means of flying an evasive course. A downside to them is that you don’t have instant launch capability, as you have to load the fuel just before launch.
And, yes, you do want to do it just before launch. Attempts to keep them fueled constantly have not worked out well for anyone in the past, just as attempts to use hypergolic fuels have ended badly. In Saturday’s discussion on weapons, remember the comments on designing weapons so that fire, explosions, and other things don’t accidentally set off the weapon? There are good reasons for that other than planes crashing, as it’s quite the faux pas to nuke your own silo(s). Even though having a missile cook off inside it while closed up pretty well takes it out anyway.
It is worth noting that the U.S. has gone with solid motors for pretty much all its missiles. The Soviet Union, then the Russians, have primarily gone with liquid engines for ground-launch. With proper maintenance and testing, both work just fine and can do the job. The key is the maintenance and testing, and I’m trying to decide if I should start in on the history of nuclear war theories tomorrow or do a discussion/rant on the need for testing and what I regard as the abysmal state of America’s nuclear preparedness.
Aside from missiles and aircraft, nuclear weapons can be delivered via glide vehicles, cruise missiles, drones, artillery, and other means. At various points the U.S. and others have explored shoulder-launched systems, human strike teams, and even more far-fetched ideas.
Glide vehicles are not new, and may have even originated as far back as the days of balloons. The idea is simple: create something that has wings/surfaces that will induce motion even as the object drops. Light the fuse and drop it so it heads towards the enemy. Glide bombs were used during WWII, and modern versions can be used for bombing and (one-way primarily) recon. I’m not aware of anyone seriously using them, but they are an option where advanced tech may be limited. The exception to this is the idea of a hypersonic glide vehicle, which is an option reportedly being pursued by the Russians. If successful, it would be a major game changer.
Cruise missiles have been around a while (see the Navaho, aka NeverGo, cruise missile for an early attempt) and with the advent of the drone revolution, have continued to advance. For purposes of our discussions, cruise missiles differ from drones because they operate independent of human control. Drones are flown and while they may have (depending on model) some auto-pilot capability there is usually a human in the loop. Cruise missiles have the ability to come in low and fast, thus evading early warning systems which were (on both sides) primarily developed to detect ballistic missiles. Drones are often stealthy, which opens some interesting possibilities.
Artillery can be used to deliver nuclear weapons. While mostly reserved for tactical weapons, it is theoretically possible for modern systems to launch a strategic weapon. The trick, as always, is to ensure that the launch system is OUTSIDE the blast radius of the device being launched. And, yes, that actually was an issue early on.
While not in use anywhere that I know of, pretty much everyone around the world has looked into some form of man-portable launch system, with at least one shoulder-fired system developed. Problem was, such systems had issues including the slight downside of the person launching the weapon being inside (potentially well inside) the blast zone. Oddly, not a favorite with the troops.
Also, pretty much everyone has looked into the idea of small teams who can be inserted with a weapon into an area (most often by air) who will then place the weapon where needed and then high-tail it out of Dodge with the weapon timed to go off after they are safe. If all goes well.
Finally, you can put a bomb in a van or small truck (might want to beef up the suspension), and drive it to a target that can be reached via roads. Tom Clancy, John Ringo, and others have covered this quite well. Not great for a mass attack, but when we get into strategies it is another concept that can give planners ulcers. Same holds true for large boats/small ships.
So, that concludes a very quick, high-level overview of common, not so common, and even a couple of improbable delivery systems. I wasn’t joking when I said the only delivery system I haven’t heard seriously discussed was kites…
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Nuclear War Posts In Order:
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