Sunday Levity(?): Making rubble bounce

It’s not funny, actually

Richard Rhodes writes in Arsenals of Folly—The making of the nuclear arms race:

…during years of the high Cold War, there was always political capital to be earned from exaggerating the dangers or benefits of any particular nuclear strategy or weapons system. But even for those within the two governments with the best of intentions, trying to find security among the shifting and partly obscured maps of both sides’ evolving force structures led to convoluted and sometimes absurd conclusions.

Robert McNamara, for example, visited the Omaha offices of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff for a briefing about the US nuclear target list in February 1961, shortly after he became secretary of defense. McNamara was curious to compare the targeting-system criteria to a target known to have been destroyed, Hiroshima, burned out by a mass fire after a fifteen kiloton bomb, Little Boy, exploded 1,900 feet above the city center on 6 August 1945. This dialogue ensued:

Q.—McNamara—Have you applied your procedures to Hiroshima?
A.—Smith—Yes. 3 DGZs of 8o KT each.

That is, were Hiroshima still a target, the JSTPS would have identified three designated ground zeros (DGZs) within the city and would have assigned three nuclear weapons, each equivalent to eighty kilotons of TNT, to destroy them. Such overkill gives meaning to Winston Churchill’s notorious 1954 comment, “If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.” In the real world, one bomb of fifteen kilotons had been more than sufficient.[Arsenals of Folly]

10 thoughts on “Sunday Levity(?): Making rubble bounce”

  1. No, not funny at all!

    The root of the arms race is threat inflation. I think our own establishment is not inclined to get into this game because of our unique history. But when the non-proliferation ayatollahs beat drums about what Pakistan is doing jacking up its arsenal Indian politics will create pressure for racing.

    So the American non-proliferation wallahs are
    to blame this time…by psyching Indian officials.

  2. Quote from “Pakistan’s nuclear future-worries beyond war” (Sokolski, Henry D, ed)
    Therefore it is likely that Pakistan will target
    mainly Indian cities. Pakistan’s heavy reliance on the
    short-range Ghaznavi/M-11 indicates that its nuclear
    targeting strategy’s object is principally to destroy
    Delhi. Given Delhi’s large size and the relatively limited
    destructive power of 10 kt weapons, it would take at
    least 10 and perhaps up to 20 such weapons to destroy
    or damage enough of the city so that it would cease
    to function.2 This statement may come as a surprise
    to those accustomed by the Hiroshima experience to
    think that one nuclear weapon will be sufficient to
    destroy an entire city. However, Hiroshima was a city
    of about one quarter million people and 24 km2 in area.
    In contrast, Delhi is a city of 12.8 million people with
    an area of 1,055 km,2 which means that Delhi today is
    about 50 times larger (in population and area) than was
    Hiroshima in 1945. A single 10 kt weapon, which was
    airburst at a near optimal height, would have a lethal
    area of about 6 km2 (this is also approximately the area
    in which most structures would be destroyed). Even
    if one considers the area where structures suffer some
    significant damage (as opposed to being destroyed, i.e.,
    where the blast effects are 2 psi or greater), the damage
    area of such a weapon would be around 20 km2. An
    attack on Delhi using twenty 10 kt airburst weapons
    would kill approximately 1.5 million people and injure
    perhaps another 3 million.
    – Gregory S Jones (page 91)

  3. Sundarji’s dictum is relevant here:

    “In war-fighting, whether conventional or nuclear, whilst calculating relative strengths, more is always better. But for deterrence, more is not better if less is adequate.”

  4. Threat inflation indeed, as has been so comprehensively described by Rhodes. I have a review of his book here.

    Also, I wonder if the above-quoted analysis included fire effects. This topic is still debated, but some very authoritative experts have thought that the targeting schemes during the Cold War (and some even now) were grossly exaggerated because the planners failed to consider effects from fire.

  5. It’s not threat inflation. It’s more a case of inflation of a man’s private part – look mine is bigger, type deal.

    The casual nature describing the destruction of Delhi – apparently for what? – means people who do this kind of thing have to be insane.

    That Paki plays the terror games that they play because of its apparent deterrence capability means it is a crazy country run by crazy military.

  6. @chandra,

    It sounds horrible but people do such studies to understand the stakes.

    Of course, such studies are beside the point for any political leader (or citizen) that has half a brain. The smallest bomb is unacceptable.

  7. Assigning 3 80kT nukes to a Hiroshima-sized city will appear to be an overkill, but only when we know from hindsight that a single 15 kT bomb did the job

    But think of a scenario where, unlike Japan in WWII, the adversary knows about nuclear weapons and takes countermeasures against them.

    Therefore, in this two-player “game” a rational military planner must improve the odds of a successful strike. And one strategy that is widely followed is having redundancy.

    I would view the plans of folks at Omaha – and their Soviet counterparts – from this perspective.

    Coming to Pakistan, I’m not too sure if its asymmetry and proximity would let them use nuclear weapons on a large scale against us. Covert warfare with an unstated nuclear threat is a much safer, cheaper and effective option, as we’ve been seeing…

  8. photoman, is there a nuclear defense shield – ie can an exploding bomb be stopped or controlled? The argument of redundancy does not exist, at least in the 60s. Redundancy is about deliver systems, not a plan to drop multiple bombs at the same location when the damage one bomb can do is clear.

    I don’t even think US/Soviets needed Japanese examples – they were making islands disappear during testing – the power of these bombs was amply clear before and since Hiroshima/Nagasaki.

    Of course the number of bombs themselves – that could wipe out the entire planet – says that’s little to do with redundancy during an operation. It has everything to do with bragging rights of “whose is bigger.”

  9. Chandra,

    is there a nuclear defense shield – ie can an exploding bomb be stopped or controlled?

    Not an exploding bomb, but certainly delivery systems like aircraft. Not to speak of device malfunctions.

    Redundancy is about deliver systems, not a plan to drop multiple bombs at the same location when the damage one bomb can do is clear.

    One bomb does no damage if it fails to hit the target (eg. aircraft shot down, device malfunction) – quite plausible in the 1950s and 60s, the early days of nuclear weapons technology. Hence the need to look at multiple ways to hit the target, and still ensure full destruction – this explains the larger explosive power used, IMO. This also explains why there were so many tests!

    Of course the number of bombs themselves – that could wipe out the entire planet – says that’s little to do with redundancy during an operation. It has everything to do with bragging rights of “whose is bigger.”

    This assumes that most, if not all, bombs would explode in a relatively short timeframe – not a likely scenario, IMO. Large dispersed arsenals are also more likely to survive multiple risks – device malfunctions, accidents, and of course detection and destruction by the enemy…

    Of course, I do agree there is an element of propaganda and “psy-war” involved in declaring an inflated nuclear arsenal.

  10. photonman,

    The point about declaring an inflated nuclear arsenal is very apt for a country like Pakistan.
    Posturing and insane behavior earns them military aid from China because it keeps India distracted. This is a huge incentive for chest puffing and bluster for the Pakistani military-jihadi complex.
    India needs to provide the disincentive by declaring open war, rather than fighting a proxy war on Pakistan’s terms.

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