The End of a Nuclear Era
26 October 2011
Yesterday the US dismantled the last B53 nuclear bomb, which was the largest yield nuclear weapon in the US nuclear arsenal, with a yield of about 9 megatons. This was not the highest yield US nuclear weapon ever fielded. This distinction belonged to the B41, with a yield of about 25 megatons. The last B41 was dismantled in July 1976. While the B41 was a very high yield bomb by any measure, it was not the highest yield nuclear device ever built. This distinction belonged to the Soviet-made AN602, commonly known as the Tsar Bomba. The highest yield US bomb ever exploded was the Castle Bravo test, which surprised its builders by an explosion of about 15 megatons, three times the expected yield of 4-6 megatons. The Tsar Bomba was a relatively “clean” bomb, while the B41 was the most efficient production-line nuclear bomb in terms of yield to weight ratio.
The B53 had a very long service life — nearly fifty years. With the end of the B53 we see the symbolic end of an era in strategic nuclear weapons. A bomb like the B53 or the B41 (or the Soviet RDS-9) could have, with a single blast, annihilated a contemporary megalopolis. It is interesting to note that the vastly expanded cities of today began to emerge at about the same time as nuclear weapons were invented, so that in this admittedly bizarre sense, the means of civilization to destroy itself perfectly kept pace with the scope and extent of the expanding urbanization of civilization. Of course, a contemporary megalopolis could be destroyed by multiple warheads, and most missiles and many other delivery systems are MIRVed and therefore have many warheads at their disposal, there is a certain elegance to the strategic calculus of one bomb, one city — this the ethos of the sniper — one shot, one kill — put into practice on a macroscopic scale.
It should be obvious that, had the US and the Soviet Union chosen to continue to design and build bigger nuclear weapons, that this capacity was technically within their grasp. Perhaps it would be possible to build a bomb with a yield of 500 megatons, or perhaps even a gigaton bomb. But there was nothing large enough to destroy to make it worth the while to attempt to build such devices. And then the paradigm or war began to shift. Ultimately, even nuclear weapons design began to incorporate features of precisification. Mature experimentation with nuclear weapons design included innovative shaped charges and miniaturization.
The age of the nuclear weapon as a purely strategic device is passing. Technologies of precisification and miniaturization are useful; you can do something with a precise or miniaturized nuclear device. It may sound odd to remark that a weapon is useful, but we must remember that throughout the Cold War nuclear weapons were strictly useless, present only to guarantee mutually assured destruction. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that nuclear weapons had only a strategic use. If the nuclear powers chose not to build bigger bombs, and eventually chose to decommission and dismantle their largest warheads, this tells us that the strategic situation has changed, and that the strategic calculation has changed with the strategic situation.
The limitation of the size of nuclear weapons and the decommissioning of larger weapons did not come about as a result of political pressure. While the B53 was old, there was no political pressure to eliminate it from the arsenal. The same cannot be said, for example, of the neutron bomb, which was not built for political reasons, or the Swedish nuclear weapons program, which was ended for economic reasons. These strategic decisions were strictly voluntary on the part of strategic planners, and as such they represent the purest expression of strategic thought.
More than a year ago in The Atomic Age Turns 65 I wrote about the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima nuclear blast. There I observed that, “What we now usually call the Second World War was also the First Nuclear War.” I also noted that there has been no Second Nuclear War. In the same spirit of unfamiliar periodization, we could call this period of time from the first use of nuclear weapons to the dismantling of the largest bomb the First Nuclear Age, which lasted less than seventy years. During the First Nuclear Age, bigger was better. Now bigger is no longer better, and we have entered the brave new world of the Second Nuclear Age, in which the proliferation of nuclear weapons seems likely and the concern of nuclear terrorism is a much greater danger than a massive decapitation strike in the form of ICBMs, bombers, and SLBMs.
As the strategic logic of the Second Nuclear Age continues to unfold, nuclear doctrine will continue to change and adapt itself to changed circumstances. In the long term, these changes will eventually be concretely manifested in the nuclear arsenal. Given the slow pace of transition from doctrinal development to weapons production, the fact that world nuclear arsenals are already changing points to the reality of strategic change and confirms the End of a Nuclear Era.
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