Field of Science

An Excellent Primer

The Bomb: A New History
Stephen Younger
Ecco, 2009

Stephen Younger's book on the bomb is a very good primer on nuclear weapons, but somewhat limited by its length. Mr. Younger who is a veteran weapons designer and defense official begins with a succinct history of nuclear weapons and then goes on to review the major weapons and delivery systems in the United States and other countries. He talks about the deterrence triad in the United States; bombers, ballistic missiles and especially submarine-based nuclear missiles that can pack the biggest punch most efficiently. Also included are short discussions of developing and already developed arsenals in other countries including Russia, China, Southeast Asia, France and Britain. Younger writes about the modern weaponization of Russia which is in progress and discusses the status of development in other countries. The discussion also includes a general overview of nuclear weapons effects including thermal, blast, radiation and electromagnetic effects and a chapter on ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ targets and their targeting. Younger contends that a weapon of about 10kT yield would be sufficient to destroy or seriously damage most major cities and installations in the world, except extremely hardened underground facilities. Compare this with the W series of warheads in the US arsenal, many of which pack an explosive force equivalent to several hundred kilotons of TNT.

Younger also discusses nuclear proliferation and the problems inherent in terrorists constructing a bomb. His list of measures for combating such terrorism include a discussion of not just technical measures like missile defense and more efficient border security, but an insightful paragraph on the valuable role of intelligence and especially human intelligence in thwarting terrorists’ attempts to secure a weapon or material in the first place. He also narrates the efforts expended by the Cooperative Threat Reduction Initiative in securing nuclear weapons and reactors in the former Soviet Union. These efforts also involve the dismantling of conventional weapons. While people constantly warn that terrorists might end up constructing a crude nuclear device and while there is some merit in this suggestion, it’s not as easy as it sounds. As Younger says, the devil is in the details, and while much of the general information on nuclear weapons is publicly available, it is far from trivial for any terrorist outfit to actually surmount the many intricate scientific and engineering problems encountered in actual weapons construction. The construction of a plutonium implosion weapon is especially daunting given the excessively exacting conditions that the weapon’s core and outer explosives have to satisfy. A more detailed discussion of dirty bombs is missing from this narrative. Also, while Younger’s analysis of anti-nuclear weapons measures is clear, what is missing is a crucial discussion of countermeasures that can be easily developed against missile defense. These countermeasures have been convincingly demonstrated time and time again to be able to thwart even sophisticated missile defenses. In addition, new missiles such as the Russian SS 27 have been apparently designed to manuever and baffle such defenses.

One of the most informative chapters in the book talks about replacing nuclear weapons with conventional weapons. With better targeting and accuracy, the need for megaton weapons is virtually non-existent. Pinpoint targeting can take out the most crucial command and control centers for nuclear weapons without causing high numbers of casualties. Many new conventional weapons can do the tasks previously reserved for nuclear weapons and and thus lower the spectre of the nuclear threat. In fact, some tasks like hitting biological weapons facilities can be safely accomplished only with conventional weapons, since nuclear weapons might well disperse dangerous biological or chemical material into the surroundings. Even hardened bunkers can be destroyed by especially hardened warheads. In addition, replacing nuclear weapons by conventional weapons can go a long way in nuclear disarmament.

Further on, Younger has a valuable analysis of the security of the US nuclear arsenal. This analysis made me realise that the problem is more complicated than it seems at first sight. The issue is simple. The US has declared a moratorium on nuclear testing in 1992. Congress cut funding for new nuclear weapons research. However, many of the weapons in the US arsenal have extended their shelf lives and it’s not certain whether they would work as designed, an ability that is crucial for deterrence. Doubts have especially been raised about the plutonium ‘pits’ at the center of implosion weapons. Computer simulations can aid in such predictions, but the only sure criterion for judging the workability of a design would be a test, an act that would have deep repurcussions for non-proliferation. In addition, many of the production and manufacturing units that built these weapons have been shut down since 1992. Perhaps most importantly, talented personnel who were competent in nuclear weapons design are gradually fading away with very few new recruits to replace them. Sometimes it is easy to forget that even if they are terribly destructive, nuclear weapons provide an immense and exciting scientific and engineering challenge for technical minds. To partly counter this, the US government has poured billions of dollars into the three national laboratories that still work on nuclear weapons- Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia. Massive basic science facilities have been developed at these three laboratories to retain personnel and attract new blood. Nonetheless, nobody really knows whether the nation would be able to gear up for producing new weapons if it becomes necessary, and nobody has been really able to say when and why it would become necessary in the first place. The problem is quite a pressing one and the solution is not clear.

Finally, Younger talks about the future of nuclear weapons. He examines the three positions that have been taken on nuclear weapons. The abolitionist position was recently made popular by a panel of four non-partisan experienced political leaders (Nunn, Perry, Kissinger and Schultz). While this position may be tenable in principle, in practice it would need constant and complete verification which may be difficult. Then there are the minimalist and moderate positions. Younger himself adopts the moderate position which calls for about 1000-2000 relatively low yield non-strategic weapons on missiles and submarines. It is not easy to decide what number is efficient for deterrence, partly because deterrence dictates that analyses of this number should not be publicly disclosed in the first place! But whatever the number, Younger does not see nuclear weapons disappearing from the face of the earth anytime soon. As he concludes in this primer, hopefully the world can enter a state of security in which rogue states don’t have weapons, bombs and material are secured, and deterrence works as planned. While this succinct primer does not provide the answer to whether such a state will actually be achieved, it certainly provides a slim and good introduction to all basic nuclear issues to the layman that should make him or her think and decide for themselves.

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