August 20, 2013

Simulating Nightmares

In keeping with the chipper and upbeat nature of the last post, one of the Brickmuppet's crack team of Science Babes informs us that the Federation of American Scientists has recently started running simulations of various scenarios involving nuclear exchanges between the USA and China.

Their published report on the subject is here.

This is a sobering document. The scenarios examined would seem to be beyond possibility...until one remembers the events of 1914 and 1939.

A couple of things leap out. Fallout shelters, despite the protests of the ignorant are a very good thing to have in this sort of situation.

Neutrality does not apply to Tijuana, Quebec, our friends the Bahamians or the Maritimes. 

I question the FAS's targeting assumptions, although it cheers me greatly not to see a big smouldering scab in place of Hampton Roads, I can't fathom that an area with this many military assets would escape while they'd waste a missile on Detroit. This dubious supposition may reflect the fact that China's nuclear deterrent is counter-value, not counter-force, that is, the Chinese ICBMs target cities rather than US Missile batteries. Chinese missiles have big 3 or 5 megaton city buster warheads (assumed to be 4MT in the FAS study).


The FAS study assumes that China has around 20 ICBMs which is the official line, but the Russians credit them with a somewhat larger ICBM force and around 1800 warheads albeit mostly medium range for use against Russia and India and only half on alert. Other estimates go as higher.

The US by contrast can't currently make new nukes and isn't developing any. The FOGBANK fiasco from a few years ago shows what can happen when a technological capability atrophies.

This has implications.

Deterrence rests on the assumption that an attack on the US is national suicide. If the US is attacked by nukes right now it will go full Jacksonian as is our habit when we are REALLY pissed off. The rape of Atlanta or the bombardment of Japan will pale in comparison to what would befall the entity stupid enough to do such a thing. US bombs have much lower yields than other nations but they are all over 300 kilotons and there are about 2000 of them. A society that incited the use of such weapons upon itself would pass into history as completely as the Minoans, the Toltecs or the Carthaginians. This is true for most of the  other nuclear nations as well. That's why there haven't been any nuclear attacks since Nagasaki. Note though that as our deterrent decays and/ or is whittled away in arms control treaties the notion that a nation, especially one led by admirers of Mao Tse-Tung  might come to the conclusion after ruthless cost benefit studies of omelets versus eggs that any retaliation would be endurable.

The FAS study is science fiction now, it's an exceedingly unlikely set of scenarios. However that may not be the case in a decade or so.

There's also the unpleasant possibility of a nuclear nation in the grip of someone who is utterly bat-scat bonkers and to whom deterrence is of limited value...which brings up a question I've had for a couple of months about the seemingly 'gimp' performance of the North Korean nuclear tests. None have even been as powerful as Little Boy. The biggest was 10 kilotons and a few were only a few hectotons, but it occurs to me that these are all  in the ballpark of the weapons built around the now decomissioned W-54 warhead the US developed in the 1960's. Weighing only about 50 pounds its yield could be varied from 200 tons of TNT to one kiloton. It was used in backpack bombs, air to air and air to ground missiles and a perfectly functional but somewhat dubiously conceived atomic bazooka. Impressively, the W-54 warhead was able to give a yield of 6 kilotons as demonstrated in the SOCORRO shot of the Hardtack 2 test series, though tactical applications of the weapons that used it  required lower yields.

Because the bazooka only had a range of 2.5 miles so 6 kilotons would be demoralizing to the bazookateers.

I mention this because it is possible that North Korea might not be botching their tests. They might be trying to build something akin to the 50 year old W-54. 50 pounds....suddenly those IRBMs which can (occasionally) put a 200 pound satellite into orbit have a rather different potential. The ability to put 7 or so 1-6 kiloton devices in the general vicinity of a city (I'm certainly not talking about MIRV's ) might be available in a few years. If small weapons are what their developing however, a much more likely threat (assuming that they ARE crazy)  might be as backpack nukes delivered to terrorists. Note that Iran and North Korea are cooperating regards rocketry and nukes. 

Using the new and improved online nightmare facilitator here are some simulations of the w-54 at various settings. This will also give a fair idea of what to expect from crude terrorist devices as well, though those will probably be dirtier due to inefficiency. For some reason the simulator defaults to Manhattan. Alex Wellerstien must not like Manhattan.

.02 kilotons is basically a blockbuster...

...with the added effect of lethal radiation. Small nukes give off a lot of rads in comparison to heat/blast. The green is the extent of lethal radiation, the tiny inner colored circles represent additional mischief.

1 kiloton was generally the top yield setting for this physics package.

From center to  outside: Orange=fireball/plasma Red=heavily reinforced buildings demolished almost precisely overlapping is Dark Yellow= wood and most combustibles spontaneously burst into flame Dark Grey=most normal buildings (residential/non-reinforced brick ect) demolished. Light Yellow= 3rd degree burns on all exposed skin. Leaves, fabric other & flammables are  likely to burst into flame. Green=horrible radiation death (see Barefoot Gen) Light Grey=all windows smashed.

An airburst at the same yield...note the difference.

6 Kilotons was as far as I know the maximum yield produced by the W-54 warhead.

This is a fearsome amount of damage from a 50 -100 pound weapon. Imagine large numbers scattered over the general area.

A groundburst creates nasty  fallout, which I omitted for clarity from the other images. Unlike Hiroshima and Nagasaki this leaves ground zero HIGHLY radioactive and craps death a good distance away.

A 5 megaton hit. This is the standard  city-buster warhead on China's DF-5 ICBM. All of lower Manhattan is razed as is much of Brooklyn and Staten Island. Everything in orange is or soon will be engulfed in a firestorm

Because I can't get my head around them ignoring Hampton Roads, and I don't want New Yorkers to think I dislike them as much as Alex Wellerstien seems too.

As to why ground zero is the administration building at ODU...I have no comment.

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at 01:36 PM | Comments (9) | Add Comment
Post contains 1145 words, total size 9 kb.

1 Why do they think the Chinese are operating on a value-vs.-capacity strategic framework?  The Soviets weren't during the Cold War, and American assumptions otherwise resulted in a lot of mis-deployment and strategic malinvestment.  I'd hate to think that they're just repeating the mirroring errors of previous generations.

Posted by: Mitch H. at Tue Aug 20 15:44:46 2013 (jwKxK)

As to why ground zero is the administration building at ODU...I have no comment.
Switching to a completely different topic, did you ever get credit for that class that you posted about a while back?

I passed a radiological monitoring class back in the mid-80's, and bought the same, Cold War model radiation detector after 9-11.  However, it's not exactly user-friendly.  Maybe I should get one of those new-fangled digital models...

Posted by: Siergen at Tue Aug 20 15:52:52 2013 (Ao4Kw)


Sorry to disappoint you, but North Korea is "botching their tests".

They've been trying to run their plutonium breeding cycle too long, to get a larger yield of plutonium out of it.

Which works, but it has the drawback that you get a lot more Pu240 and Pu241 mixed in with your Pu239, and that makes the weapon detonation change.

Those low-yield blasts have been bombs in which the critical mass wasn't assembled fast enough, well enough, to produce full yield. (The technical term is "fizzle".) Excess 240 and 241 in the plutonium is almost certainly the reason why.

Low yield small nukes aren't based on Uranium or Plutonium. They use different isotopes entirely, and North Korea doesn't have the ability to create those kinds of isotopes.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at Tue Aug 20 18:01:24 2013 (+rSRq)

4 I should say, that low yield nukes aren't based exclusively on uranium and plutonium. They require a hot neutron source in the package, made of some other element/isotope entirely. North Korea doesn't have the ability to create that other stuff. (It requires a particle accelerator and they don't have one.)

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at Tue Aug 20 18:03:46 2013 (+rSRq)

  Sorry to disappoint you, but North Korea is "botching their tests".

That word "disappoint"; I don't think it means what you think it does. 

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at Tue Aug 20 18:55:36 2013 (F7DdT)

6 Re: Hampton Roads, I live almost literally next to Wright-Patt. I don't have to worry much about surviving a nuclear war.

Posted by: Suburbanbanshee at Tue Aug 20 21:16:09 2013 (cvXSV)

Why do they think the Chinese are operating on a value-vs.-capacity strategic framework?  The Soviets weren't during the Cold War, and American assumptions otherwise resulted in a lot of mis-deployment and strategic malinvestment.  I'd hate to think that they're just repeating the mirroring errors of previous generations.

I think it has to do with their assumed small number of ICBMS . The idea is they cant make a meaningful dent in the us nuclear force but can eliminate 20 cities which would devastate the country for years.

I'm pretty sure that that early on the USSR actually DID focus on a countervalue strategy for similar reasons, however as their accuracy and number of missiles increased dramatically they eventually switched to you point out this was not appreciated at the time. 

Pete may some thoughts on that

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at Tue Aug 20 22:05:09 2013 (F7DdT)

8 Assuming the upper left corner of that map is Seattle, it doesn't look so good for me....

Posted by: Mauser at Wed Aug 21 03:15:10 2013 (TJ7ih)

9 I never knew anything about strategic studies or decision-making, sorry.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at Wed Aug 21 03:17:50 2013 (l231P)

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