The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'nuclear weapons'


Details have emerged about the Soviet Union's nuclear "doomsday machine". Officially known as "Perimeter", but nicknamed "Mertvaya Ruka" ("Dead Hand"), this was a nuclear dead man's switch of sorts; a system which, when armed, could launch massive nuclear retaliation against the United States, even in the event of the entire Soviet nuclear command system having been wiped out in a first strike:

Perimeter ensures the ability to strike back, but it's no hair-trigger device. It was designed to lie semi-dormant until switched on by a high official in a crisis. Then it would begin monitoring a network of seismic, radiation, and air pressure sensors for signs of nuclear explosions. Before launching any retaliatory strike, the system had to check off four if/then propositions: If it was turned on, then it would try to determine that a nuclear weapon had hit Soviet soil. If it seemed that one had, the system would check to see if any communication links to the war room of the Soviet General Staff remained. If they did, and if some amount of time—likely ranging from 15 minutes to an hour—passed without further indications of attack, the machine would assume officials were still living who could order the counterattack and shut down. But if the line to the General Staff went dead, then Perimeter would infer that apocalypse had arrived. It would immediately transfer launch authority to whoever was manning the system at that moment deep inside a protected bunker—bypassing layers and layers of normal command authority. At that point, the ability to destroy the world would fall to whoever was on duty: maybe a high minister sent in during the crisis, maybe a 25-year-old junior officer fresh out of military academy. And if that person decided to press the button ... If/then. If/then. If/then. If/then.
Once initiated, the counterattack would be controlled by so-called command missiles. Hidden in hardened silos designed to withstand the massive blast and electromagnetic pulses of a nuclear explosion, these missiles would launch first and then radio down coded orders to whatever Soviet weapons had survived the first strike. At that point, the machines will have taken over the war. Soaring over the smoldering, radioactive ruins of the motherland, and with all ground communications destroyed, the command missiles would lead the destruction of the US.
Perimeter is supposedly still operational (though, presumably, not armed at the moment, or at least one would hope not).

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It has been revealed that, during the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher threatened a nuclear strike on Buenos Aires unless the French handed over the codes for disabling Argentina's (French-made) missiles.

Mr Mitterrand — who once described Mrs Thatcher as "the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe" — went on: "One cannot win against the insular syndrome of an unbridled Englishwoman. Provoke a nuclear war for a few islands inhabited by three sheep as hairy as they are freezing! But it's a good job I gave way. Otherwise, I assure you, the lady's metallic finger would have hit the button."
Then again, would Britain have been able to launch a nuclear strike without US approval back then? These days, the British nuclear arsenal is operated under contract by a US defense firm, whose technicians apparently have instructions to require confirmation from the Pentagon before launching missiles. Then again, it is not entirely clear how difficult it would be for a determined Britain to get around these restrictions, or indeed that Reagan (who, famously, once went on air and announced, in jest, that the US was launching a massive nuclear strike against the "Evil Empire") would have vetoed a strike on Argentina.

Meanwhile, Mitterrand got his own back with the Eurotunnel, triumphing where Napoleon had failed, at least in his own mind:

France, he said, would have the last word. "I'll build a tunnel under the Channel. I'll succeed where Napoleon III failed. And do you know why she'll accept my tunnel? I'll flatter her shopkeeper's spirit. I'll tell her it won't cost the Crown a penny."

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Popular Science looks at how hard it would be for terrorists to build a nuclear bomb. The answer: not too hard, if they could obtain some uranium, settled for a simple, Hiroshima-type device, and could find a way of getting such a device weighing several tonnes into position without it tripping radiation detectors. As far as radioactive mayhem goes, a dirty bomb would be considerably easier, and capable of turning Manhattan into Pripyat.

On a tangent: the UK Atomic Energy Authority says that 30kg of plutonium that went missing from Sellafield (i.e., 7 nuclear bombs' worth) is just a "paper loss", and nothing to be worried about.

A BNG spokesman said: "There is no evidence to suggest that any of the apparent losses reported were real losses of nuclear material.

That's good to know; all of us here in London are very relieved to hear that.

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Ah yes; it has emerged that the British had plans for chicken-powered nuclear weapons; or, more precisely, a nuclear landmine kept warm by a flock of live chickens inside its casing. The mine would have been buried underground in West Germany in the event of a Soviet invasion, with the chickens generating sufficient heat to keep it operational for a week. It is not clear why the plans were abandoned.

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Nuclear weapon designs handed over by Libya to US authorities have been found to have originated in China. Could this mean that the proliferation of nuclear weapons to rogue states/terrorist groups is part of a US/Chinese proxy war? If so, that suggests a few other possibilities: what if, for example, the movement known as al-Qaeda is funded behind the scenes by China; what if, say, 9/11 was intended as a stern warning from China in some acrimonious underground negotiation (would the gerontocrats who ordered the Tienanmen massacre have any qualms about killing thousands of innocent foreigners to make a point?), and the invasion of Iraq (whose WMDs and terrorist links remain elusive) was intended as the reply? Or is that too far-fetched? (Paging Mitch...)

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Australia is giving itself the option of acquiring nuclear weapons, by maintaining a nuclear power programme (unnecessary for energy-generation needs, incidentally) which could be used to start a bomb programme, and reaching an agreement to buy tactical nukes from our benefactors in Washington.

"There is no doubt in my mind that a main purpose of Lucas Heights is to maintain Australia's capacity to develop nuclear weapons," the former adviser said this week. "It is Australia's insurance policy against the future, just in case the US does not come to our aid. We are way more advanced in nuclear technology than Saddam Hussein ever was."
"The new reactor they are building is very large for the purposes they claim it will be used for," he said. "To fulfil its medical functions, the reactor would only need to be a fifth to a tenth of the size of the one they are building.


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North Korean defectors testify about weapons programme, government-run heroin export industry, suggesting that North Korea gets a big chunk of its funds from its heroin and methamphetamines industry, and that the government thereof is essentially the world's first nuclear-armed drug cartel (though given its penchant for kidnapping useful talent from overseas, that's not too surprising). Though weren't there rumours of the Soviets having massive opium plantations in their Asian republics to bring in hard currency in the '80s or so?

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The peace dividends are coming quickly; there are now plans to bomb the moon with "bunker buster" missiles just in case Saddam's hiding there to liberate reserves of water stored in buried reserves of ice. Hey, if it works for oil, why not water?

Which all reminds me of how the US Air Force planned to detonate a nuclear bomb on the moon during the late 1950s, just to show them Russkies who's boss.

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The Pentagon declares that France is no longer an ally and must be "contained". Pentagon Policy Advisory Board Richard Perle also declared that the UN Security Council, on which France has a permanent seat, is irrelevant. Multilateralism, and the post-WW2 ideal of resolving conflicts through debate and consensus, edges one step closer to collapse. (via die puny humans)

(France is one of the small number of "legitimate" nuclear powers. Perhaps now that France is no longer worthy of trust (in the ways that, say, Israel and Pakistan, are) we can expect the USA and Britain demanding that France abandon its weapons of mass destruction or face military intervention? Won't Ann Coulter be pleased when that happens.)

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Some good news: of the 2,400 nuclear warheads that were in the Ukraine, over 90% have been accounted for. That's a load off everybody's mind.

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Don't Panic: A retired US military weapons/munitions/training expert has written this explanation of chemical/biological/nuclear weapons, how the various types work and how to survive attacks (and it's a lot easier than you'd think):

Bottom line on chemical weapons (it's the same if they use industrial chemical spills); they are intended to make you panic, to terrorize you,to herd you like sheep to the wolves. If there is an attack, leave the area and go upwind, or to the sides of the wind stream. They have to get the stuff to you, and on you. You're more likely to be hurt by a drunk driver on any given day than be hurt by one of these attacks. Your odds get better if you leave the area. Soap, water, time, and fresh air really deal this stuff a knock-out-punch. Don't let fear of an isolated attack rule your life. The odds are really on your side.

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A fascinating treatise on the design of permissive action links; i.e., how to make sure that no-one can detonate your nuclear weapons without your authorisation:

Precise timing -- that's the key to my idea for a highly effective PAL. First, design the weapon to make the firing sequence as inherently complex and critical as possible. Vary the chemical composition and detonation velocities of the various pieces of high explosive so they have to be detonated non-simultaneously. Then store all of the required timing data in encrypted form in the weapon's memory. Better yet, encrypt everything (program and data) except for a small bootstrap that accepts an external key and decrypts everything for firing. Include this decryption key in the "nuclear weapons release" message from the "National Command Authority"

(thanks, Toby.)

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