why we still live in a m.a.d., m.a.d. world…
While we’ve been pondering how many nuclear warheads it would take to end civilization, there are people who aren’t just interested in refurbishing the testing the thousands of nukes in the U.S.’ arsenal, but argue for replacement and new bomb development. One of the weapons at the core of the discussion was the W-76, a relatively small weapon usually mounted on Trident missiles and deployed by submarines. Experts say that it accounts for nearly a third of existing warheads, but a number of physicists think it may be a dud due to the design decisions made by Los Alamos during its construction and manufacture in the late 1970s. The hawks say that since our nukes are aging and a significant portion of them may not even perform up to par in the first place, we should be investing in replacements and keeping our stockpiles high. The more nukes we have at our disposal, they reason, the more other nations will want to leave us alone. Worked for the USSR, right?
Though we could make a similar argument from the Soviet side as well. While it’s true that no one wanted any part of starting a nuclear war with the U.S., Soviet leaders also relied on their even larger stockpile to deter an American president from doing anything rash. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, both sides knew full well that a couple of good volleys would leave them with nothing to defend. In the nations of the former USSR, even kids were taught what could happen during a nuclear and how and I remember copying diagrams illustrating the effects of an ariburst vs. those of a surface detonation. This ladies and gentlemen, was MAD in action. And this doctrine still plays a major role in nuclear arms policy, even twenty years after it no longer applied. We will return to MAD in just a moment, but first we need to take a slight detour and look at the design of the W-76 as well as the challenges it faces at it ages before we can continue to talk policy. After all, this is primarily a blog on science and skepticism and we need to try and establish the relevant facts first and foremost.
The exact specifications on the W-76 are top secret, but we do know that it’s light and roughly human sized. At the height of the Cold War, there were some 3,400 warheads built and put into service. According to treaties, more than two thirds of the stockpile is thought to have been decommissioned, leaving somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 active nukes depending on the estimate. It was intended to quickly and efficiently destroy any military installation in range with a thermonuclear blast. However, there might be a bit of a snag when it came to the thermonuclear part. The W-76 has two stages, a fission core, and a fuel of deuterium and lithium (which turns into tritium when bombarded by X-rays). After the fission blast, uranium and plastic shell has to contain the initial heat and turbulence for a few microseconds, and that’s where the bomb’s design was argued to fall short. It’s case is supposedly far too thin, meaning that after the fission blast fills the shell with maelstroms of plasma, the shell could fail before the thermonuclear fuel ignites. There will still be a very powerful explosion and a cloud of fallout, but it would fall far short of its intended yield, reported to be around 140 kilotons.
In response to the criticism, Los Alamos conducted an official inspection and a non-nuclear design test five years ago. According to the lab, the W-76 is in good working order and its design is pretty sound. However, the earliest warheads are approaching the end of their intended lifespan of 30 years. After that, rust, loose wires, or problems in the casing or high explosives intended to trigger fission due to the decay of the radioactive fuel might make the weapon dangerously unreliable if not obsolete. To this extent, the weapons still in service are being refurbished so they can continue working for another several decades. But the skeptics argue that we’ll need to start developing new warheads since there hasn’t been an actual test showing that the W-76 design really works (and there can’t be one due to very sensitive international treaties), and it will eventually be far too much work to keep maintaining them. After all, nukes won’t last forever. But even if Los Alamos is wrong, with up to eight warheads per missile and decades between required tune-ups, the W-76 would work as planned some 90% of the time. So if our nukes are in pretty good shape, why do we need to build more? Why not just maintain the current stockpiles, or even reduce it to a minimum?
One word answer? Fear. People tend to underestimate how powerful nuclear warheads really are. We see all the kilotons, megatons and how many thousand are in what country, but these numbers are very abstract. So exactly how much are a thousand 140 kiloton bombs? What does this mean in practical terms? As was noted in the first link, we already have enough nukes to destroy or poison every populated area on Earth. Why do we have to build even more warheads? So we can cover the wilderness in nuclear fireballs and fallout clouds as well? Yes, there are states that either have nuclear ambitions or capabilities and unfortunately, there’s no way we could or should ever reduce our arsenals down to zero. The genie is out of the bottle and there’s no going back. But just like you don’t need a flamethrower to remove a beehive, firing thousands of nuclear warheads in response to any provocation would cause far more problems than precise, surgical strikes. But hawks whose focus is on keeping all our nukes in top shape and ready to fire at any second are used to intimidation as the only effective tool in preventing war. They’re interested in big numbers, high yields, and matching up arsenals warhead to warhead, output to output. To them, Mutually Assured Destruction is the only effective way to keep their nation safe. Hey, as mentioned before, it worked for the Soviet Union and the United States, didn’t it?