Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Suitcase Nukes

A work of American fiction brings forth a bust of discussion about what happens when nuclear arms reach out and embrace our cities. The boys at QandO remember having a point-counterpoint debate about the existence of the fabled Soviet suitcase nukes. As they themselves say: Start here. Then go here.

The smallest nuclear device ever created by the US, was the W-54 warhead, which was created for use in the Davy Crockett nuclkear bazooka. There was also a backpack version of this device, the Mk 54 SADM. This warhead weighed 51lbs. … We do know, though, that the Sovs did have nuclear 152mm howitzer shells that weighed around 30kg (66 lbs) but they were a) small-yield (from 0.1 to less than 1 kt), and b) required regular and frequent routine maintenance to remain operational

Very short maintenance cycles would, in any event, be required to keep such a device operational. While it is possible to produce a 10kt yield with a fairly light device i.e. slightly less than 100kg (220 lbs), using a minimum of plutonium to achieve critical mass, the device would require the use of tritium to increase the yield. Without proper and regular maintenance, the yield would within a couple of years, decline to minimal levels as the tritium degraded.

Finally, there is the issue of positive control mechanisms (PCM). The soviets were quite keen on separating the authorization to use nuclear weapons from the physical possession of them. In general, the KGB controlled the launch codes with the Armed forces controlled the weapons.

To summarize, fairly small fission weapons are possible but the radioactive metals are called heavy metals for a reason and it is unlikely a single person hauls one around with ease. There is no fuse to light and if you don’t possess the switch encryptions it is not like you can reach in and cross a couple live wires to spark the activation sequence. Finally, the essential feature of radioactive breakdown that unleashes the energy is also the reason the fuel simply disappears over time. These bombs are best when brand spanking new and keeping them at full potential is an expensive ongoing operational effort.

It's not just the requirement to have nuclear scientists (whatever that means), but a rather sophiticated manufacturing/maintenance infrastructire that cannot be built ad-hoc, but that requires sophisticated equipment and facilities generally unavailable anywhere in the Mideast, outside government facilities.

What this all means is that if something thermonuclear happens, it’s because some group fairly recently takes delivery from dealer prep and there aren’t many dealers that don’t keep customer records.