June 23, 2015

How Many Nuclear Bombs WOULD it Take

...to effectively knock most of the world back into the 7th century?

Well, to physically devastate the planet through blast and heat would take thousands upon thousands of bombs, probably more than existed at the height of the cold war. 

However, all we have to do is bring down the thing that (philosophical advances notwithstanding) makes the modern world modern...our technology.

One could go a long way to doing that with an Electro Magnetic Pulse. There are a few ways to get these, but we're talking about nukes, so one can obtain the effect by detonating a nuclear weapon at high altitude. The sweet spot seems to be an area with a lower limit between 18 and 31 miles up (depending on latitude and other factors) and an upper limit around 300 miles into space. The effects are caused by interaction with the earth's atmosphere and magnetic field and extends to the visible horizon. The effects radii for various altitudes can be seen here...

The actual effects are fairly consistent throughout the area with a horseshoe shaped area containing a zone of very high effects and a small area just north (or south in the southern hemisphere) of ground zero with minimal effects.

Most of the area has between 50 and 80% of the maximum intensity of effects. The effects can be...impressive.

  The electromagnetic pulse (EMP) fused all of the 570-kilometer monitored overhead telephone line with measured currents of 1500 to 3400 amperes during the 22 October 1962 test. The monitored telephone line was divided into sub-lines of 40 to 80 kilometres (25 to 50 mi) in length, separated by repeaters. Each sub-line was protected by fuses and by gas-filled overvoltage protectors. The EMP from the 22 October (K-3) nuclear test caused all of the fuses to blow and all of the overvoltage protectors to fire in all of the sub-lines of the 570 km (350 mi) telephone line.The EMP from the same test caused the destruction of the Karaganda power plant, and shut down 1,000 km (620 mi) of shallow-buried power cables between Astana (then called Aqmola) and Almaty.  

Even assuming these were maximum effects and most areas would receive 30-80% of this effect this messes everything up. 

Back to the question at hand. How many bombs would it take for a not entirely rational government to apply those effects to the entire world?

Well, using the 1470 mile radius of the affected area we get an area of 6,788,670 square miles. The earth has a total surface area  of 196,939,900 square miles (rounded after conversion from km) and 196,939,900 / 6,788,670 = 29.010 so one would need less than 29 of these to send the whole Earth back into the dark ages (less because the nefarious individuals doing his would not need to hit most of the 70% of the surface area that's oceans, Antarctica, or themselves.

Now a small crazy country that wants to do this and had the capability to make 25 bombs a year and a transportable ballistic missile, and a modest merchant marine might discreetly disperse these missiles to where they could be simultaneously launched for global coverage... like so...

Iranian Shabab 4? missiles and their TELs on small container shiip.

Now to what end would they do this?

Well a conquering, convert or die army is kind of like a zombie apocalypse, with fast, tool-using, gun shooting zombies (except they don't often bite) and we've seen some of what can happen when a group like that moves into an area that's demoralized and destabilized...

Of course if this outfit ever encounters a proper modern military, they'll get curb-stomped. 

Note though that if you have the same goal and can demoralize and destabilize the entire world, by say, knocking a good chunk of it back to the 7th century, even if only for a few years...well., these people have a sense of history...

Imagine this transpiring while the whole world is knocked on their behinds by a power failure, starving and desperate, and assume to that kept aside a few nukes for military bases and tactical usage.

That would probably be quite a powerful motive for those who consider modernity itself to be an abomination.

Is this likely? Would it work?....probably not.

But, if you're crazy enough to roll the dice with nukes you're crazy enough to try really crazy crap especially since the EMP doesn't require particularly challenging targeting capability and could conceivably do far more damage than the same nuke could via blast and heat.  

Anyway, I was surprised that you could do it with 20-30 midsize nukes.

UPDATE: Corrected some typos, fixed a hyperling and. umm, removed the picture of Mum-Ra. 

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June 08, 2015

Methods by Which a "Junior Varsity Squad" Might Reach Critical Mass

This post was initially a long, rambling tangent to an earlier post where it didn't really fit. Now it is a slightly longer rambling post that attempts to build off this article with a creative dateline that that was linked to Saturday by Elizabeth Price Foley. . In my estimation it does warrant some more extensive consideration. 

The linked piece talks about the likelihood of ISIS buying a complete atomic bomb. It is a worriesome read to be sure, however, that is not the only way they could mischief with fission. 

The notion of a "dirty bomb" which is an explosive that disperses radioactive waste is already well known. Less well appreciated however, is the very real possibility that  a terrorist outfit could actually build an actual fission device that could realistically be in the same class as the weapon that devastated Hiroshima in 1945. 

Matthew Bunn, who was involved in nonproliferation issues during the Clinton Administration testified before Congress in 2008. amongst his testimony was this bit of joy...
   One study by the now-defunct congressional Office of Technology Assess- ment summarized the threat: "A small group of people, none of whom have ever had access to the classified literature, could possibly design and build a crude nuclear explosive device . . . Only modest machine-shop facilities that could be contracted for without arousing suspicion would be required. 

"How is that possible?" one might ask? After all The Manhattan Project, was a vast undertaking that took six years , thousands of people and most of the electrical capacity of the TVA so one might be excused for skepticism.. 

However, the crux of the endeavor was not manufacturing Little Boy, Little Boy was an afterthought. William Tobey and Pavel Zolotarev suggest (on page 7 of this presentation) that over 90% of the effort of the Manhattan project was getting the fissionable fuels (Oralloy and Plutonium) for the bombs.  The initial bomb  bomb design"Thin Man" was found to be a dud, so effort went into developing the complex implosion system needed to detonate plutonium for what became the Mark 2 bomb design (Gadget, Fat Man, Able and Baker) Mark 1 was redesigned and simplified as Little Boy, a weapon that was so simple that it was not even considered necessary to test it.

 In fact to keep from impacting the main (Fat Man) effort,  its construction was contracted out to 3 machine shops! According to Wikipedia, these were The Naval Gun Factory in Washington D.C. , a Naval Ordinance Contractor in Centerline Michigan and The Expert Tool and Die Company in Detroit. These Government and commercial contractors were given plans for only the components they were to build (so none of them knew what they were building). Little Boy was a hedge in case the much more efficient Fat Man design did not work. 

Well they both worked, but the big difficulty was not their design or construction, it was getting the plutonium and enriching the uranium. 

So...If ISIS can get its hands on 140 odd pounds of Oralloy (highly enriched uranium), and if they somehow had access to a machine shop,...
...then it's entirely possible that they could build something akin to Little Boy. Its significant that the people who built Little Boy were not atomic scientists and did not even know what they were building, only that they were building machine parts to spec.

This is in actuality,  probably more likely than getting ahold of a working nuke. It's disturbingly non-far-fetched in fact, as both the Tobey / Zolotarev presentation linked above and a seperate presentation by the aforementioned Mathew Bunn have overviews of relevant incidents involving weaponizeable fissionables.

This CRS Report for Congress comes to similar conclusions and makes for sobering reading. The scenario involving a crude nuke in a supertanker taking on oil in the Houston Shipping Channel is particularly worrisome, given that so many of out geopolitical opponents would really like to get oil prices up. 

It should be noted that oralloy is not terribly common and the crude, Little Boy type weapons we are discussing here are quite wasteful (needing 140 pounds of oralloy for a critical mass) so any conceivable heist is unlikely to enable for than a few bombs. On the other hand,  global stockpiles of the stuff are measured in tons

How much damage could a small, crude nuke do? 
Well, Little Boy was the crudest of crude bombs ever made. It probably serves as a template for what a non-state group could realistically do given that it was right at the minimum amount of Oralloy for a Uranium weapon without really advanced gadgetry. Bombs made by state actors such as Iran or stolen from Pakistan are likely to be significantly more powerful unless they are advanced weapons designed to be small.  

Little Boy therefore should probably be taken as good ballpark estimate of the yield a crude terrorist weapon might have.

There are uncertainties about how powerful  Little Boy was, with estimates ranging between 13 and 16 kilotons with most references saying around 15 kt, therefore, it seems appropriate to again post a video of the 15 KT Upshot Knothole-Grable test. 

(An extensive overview of the damage assessment can be seen here

A good overview of what would be done to something other than a desert can be found in this report by FEMA and Lawrence Livermore which details the effects of a 10 kiloton improvised nuclear device on Washington DC.

Reactor grade plutonium is much more accessible, but is harder to handle and requires challenging processing. Additionally, if plutonium is used in a gun type weapon (which is what "Thin Man" was) it will fizzle and blow apart before a full detonation, however the Tobey and Zolotarev presentation mentioned previously seems to indicate that a fizzle could approach a kiloton. 

Even if significantly less than a kiloton such a weapon could cause considerable havoc. A Texas City sized explosion with the added effect of radiation pulse, fallout and dispersing toxic plutonium would be devastating. Even a near total fizzle, an Oklahoma City sized blast with the added contamination and associated terror of "OMG!! ATOMIC!1!" would cause panic beyond that seen on 9-11-01. 

More sophisticated implosion devices are extremely challenging, but their use should not be completely dismissed. Such weapons, after all, require the sort of advanced, cutting edge technologies as were available in the late 1930's to mid 1940's. They would allow 4-10 times as many bombs to be made for any given amount of fissionable material, as well as much larger yields. Still, the technical skill, physics knowledge and manufacturing ability required are at once so diverse and specialized that they are vanishingly unlikely to be used by non-state actors. They additionally might, due to their sophistication, require a test, that, upon occurring in ISIS or Boko Haram territory, would most likely inspire a sudden intensity, clarity and unity in response from the western nations heretofore unseen.  So the picture isn't completely grim.

But it is certainly cause for vigilance.

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June 01, 2015

A Necessarily S.W.A.G. Based Overview of the North Korean SSB

Over at Covert Shores, H.I. Sutton has put together an analysis of the North Korean SSB, which is tentatively called the Sinpo class. 

The striking thing is how small it is. This, of course, means it has limited capabilities, but even those limited capabilities should give one pause. Furthermore, it also puts such a vessel within the capability of small countries. 

It is notable that Iran, which has expanded its sub building capability from costal midgets to mid sized submarines, has an active technology exchange program with the DPRK. Indeed, their domestic submarine industry is largely based on North Korean technology and they have tested a similar launch rig already.

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Mobile Crematoria and Other Foreign Affairs Developments

It is being reported that Russia has dispatched mobile crematoriums to burn their dead and thereby cover up the casualties they are suffering in East Ukraine from the world and their own public. 

Apropos of nothing to be sure, but noting that Putin has gotten very vociferous in his defense of the sanctity of the Russian Orthodox Church, I looked up their views on cremation. Golly....

It is unclear what the HELL is actually going on in Kharkov and the Donbass but there are indications that the Ukranians are not collapsing quite yet...

...which may explain this

Looking askance at these developments, Poland and Lithuania, in addition to massively upping their own defense expenditures, are both offering NATO bases and asking the U.S. to deploy troops there....
...Canada and Germany look posed to step up if NATO decides to accept the bases. More from a Canadian perspective here

Such developments have some people anxious which no doubt contributed to this tweet going a bit viral...


Fortunately there is nothing else happening in the w....oh wait.
China is putting artillery and jets on the islands that it has, with incredible speed, made out of reefs it stole from the Philippines and Viet-Nam. Even the Guardian is noting that the Chinese island construction project is unprecedented and worrisome.

In response, the US and the Philippines have just signed an agreement setting up a defensive line in the SCS. Of course the most worrisome issue is that after all the redlines, fecklessness and lassitude of the last 7 years, the Chinese reportedly don't think that the US is a concern. This could lead to a considerable miscalculation on their part.  

The situation with ISIS/ISIL is...sub-optimal to be sure, but take heart. It could be worse...I mean it's not like...oh wait....
ISIS Isn't Wrong About Being Able to Get Nuclear Weapon From Pakistan, India's Defense Minister Says

Meanwhile the efforts to keep the other denomination of crazy from getting nukes is going about as well as expected. It should be noted that Iran has close technical relationships with North Korea which is already a nuclear power. 

North Korea is also facing a terrible drought again which could lead to another round of nuclear rocket testing trying to get food...or it could destabilize a paranoid, insular nuclear power. 

Happily, we can all rest assured that none of the above is of any concern, because all of these things are denied the position of "top story" by the fact that Bruce Jenner looks quite hot for a 65 year old in a one piece, presumably meaning that we can now use plastic surgery and photoshop to make the scary stuff go away. 

Nothing to see here...Move along. 

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Two Hours Well Spent

Here is an FPRI panel with three scholars giving talks on on the First World War. The whole thing is worth your time. The first covers just how unexpected the disaster was and why that was. The second talk (25 and a half minutes in) is also quite interesting, with Rutger's Kate Epstein debunking some long held misconceptions about the British Empire's position and strategy at the beginning of the war. To me the third is particularly fascinating. In it, John R. Schindler (who blogs at Double Cross Committee) goes into detail about role Austria-Hungary played in the genesis of the catastrophe.  That one starts about 43 minutes in.

I was aware that things went to worms for the KuK early on, but Schindler makes it clear that their setbacks were far worse than is generally supposed, making the fact that held on till the end a fairly impressive feat. 

The Q&A is generally worthwhile too. 

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