The Origins Of Nuclear Weapons
In the 1930s, physicists discovered that isotopes of certain radioactive elements, when exposed to high-energy neutrons, would split, or undergo fission, into two smaller atoms, releasing a large amount of energy as according to Einstein’s equation E=mc2. They also noticed that fission also released neutrons, meaning that with a large enough mass of nuclear material, a chain reaction of great power could occur.
Later, when World War 2 broke out, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt, suggesting the possibility of using nuclear fission to construct a powerful bomb to stop the Nazis with. Following this suggestion, the Manhattan Project was born. Led by Robert Oppenheimer, a team of some of America’s best scientists was gathered in secret to construct a working atomic bomb. Their first breakthrough occurred in 1942 when Enrico Fermi conducted the first controlled nuclear reaction. Eventually, after much research and development, the first test nuclear bomb was detonated at Trinity, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.
However, despite the bomb having been constructed to prevent the Nazis from conducting similar research and building a bomb of their own, the atomic bomb came too late to affect the war in Germany, Germany having surrendered in May after a two-pronged attack by Soviet and Allied forces. The first and only two atomic bombs used in war were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9 respectively, ending the war in the Pacific.
The Soviet Atomic Bomb Project
The Soviets were also interested in the applications of nuclear fission in warfare, and had started a nuclear weapons programme in 1941 under Igor Kurchatov, getting information from the Manhattan Project from two spies, Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall. Eventually, the Soviets detonated their first nuclear weapon, RDS-1 (a copy of the Fat Man bomb used on Nagasaki), on August 29 1949. This kicked off the nuclear arms race, as America and the USSR tried to upstage each other by building more, larger bombs.
Nuclear fission is just one of the nuclear reactions that can be used to generate large amounts of energy – nuclear fusion, the combining of light nuclei into heavier nuclei, generates even larger amounts of energy, and can be used to build even more destructive warheads. However, a nuclear fusion bomb can only be triggered by the high temperatures generated by nuclear fission bombs. Enrico Fermi came up with the idea of the thermonuclear bomb in 1941, and the idea was refined and turned into a workable design by Edward Teller (also known as the father of the hydrogen bomb) and his co-worker Stanislaw Ulam. The first full-size thermonuclear explosion was the “Ivy Mike” test on November 1, 1952, where a thermonuclear bomb with a yield of 10.4 megatons (250 times more powerful than Fat Man or Little Boy) was detonated on the Enewatak Atoll. The Soviets quickly followed, detonating their own thermonuclear weapon in 1953.
The Americans and the Russians eventually tested larger and larger designs, culminating in the Russian Tsar Bomba, a 100 megaton bomb so powerful that it had to be tested at half power to reduce fallout (and allow the plane that dropped it to escape from the blast radius safely) – the blast was still powerful enough to be felt and seen up to 1000 km away. With the advent of thermonuclear weapons, the world would never be the same again – now, weapons powerful enough to cause global catastrophe were in the hands of the world’s two superpowers, which might start a nuclear war at any time. It made the situation of the Cold War much more precarious, and the spectre of nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue states like North Korea or terrorist organizations still haunts the world today.
There are three primary methods for delivering nuclear warheads – air-dropped bombs from bombers, ballistic missiles, or nuclear-armed submarines. Other methods, like nuclear artillery and others, were much less commonly used.
Land-Based Ballistic Missiles
The predecessor of Cold War ICBMs was the V-2 ballistic missile, developed by the Nazis to bomb London in World War 2. The design was copied by the Russians and Americans after Germany’s defeat, leading to the development of a range of ballistic missiles. The first true ICBMs were the Soviet R-7 and the American Atlas, developed in 1957 and 1959 respectively. Both of these were later repurposed as launch systems during the space race.
A later development of the ICBM was the MIRV (multiple insertion re-entry vehicle). This allowed a single ICBM to carry multiple smaller warheads, which could target different locations to spread out the damage the weapon could do. It made the missile’s attack more destructive if all the warheads were launched at a certain location, and also made the missile much harder to intercept, as should 1 MIRV be shot down, the others would still pose a threat. It also allows countries to find a loophole in ICBM restriction treaties, as more warheads can be fitted onto a smaller number of missiles, and only the number of missiles was regulated in the treaties, not the number of warheads. MIRVed land-based ICBMs were considered destabilizing because they tended to put a premium on striking first, thus this type of weapon was banned under the START II agreement.
ICBMS have an advantage over other forms of nuclear weapons delivery in that they are very hard to intercept – an ICBM travels up to 20 times faster than a strategic bomber, and can strike almost anywhere in the world from its launch site. MIRVs also greatly decrease the chance of the missile being intercepted mid-flight. In fact, a major strategy in projected nuclear warfare scenarios is attempting to destroy enemy nuclear silos while the missiles are still on the ground, as intercepting them in mid-flight can be quite difficult. The main drawback of ICBMs is their complexity and cost compared to air-dropped bombs.
ICBMs are limited by nuclear weapons treaties such as SALT I and II (and the more recent START treaty), which limited the number of ICBMs countries can own. The USA and Russia have also decommissioned many of their missiles after the end of the Cold War. However, that has not deterred some countries from developing ICBMs, like Israel, India and North Korea.
Air-dropped bombs were the primary method of delivery for nuclear weapons for the early stages of the Cold War, and they are still the most prevalent method for the delivery of nuclear warheads.
The first air-dropped nuclear bombs were the Fat Man and Little Boy weapons, large, unwieldy devices carried by strategic bombers. Later, as the Cold War progressed and warheads were miniaturized, bombs became small enough to mount on fighter-bombers like the F-16 and F-22. With the advent of stealth technology, nuclear weapons can now be delivered undetected, giving the element of surprise, but due to the end of the Cold War, it is unlikely such a situation will materialize.
Air-dropped bombs are easier to develop than missiles due to their simplicity and the larger size constraints (the bomb does not need to fit into a missile, but can be carried on any plane large enough), but are more easily intercepted, as bombers and fighters are slower than ICBMs and can be shot down more easily.
Several countries own air-dropped nuclear weapons, including several member countries of NATO like Italy and Belgium.
Submarine-launched missiles were first developed by the Germans during World War II. At first, the submarine had to surface to launch the missiles, but due to developments after World War 2, newer missiles could launch missiles while still submerged.
Another breakthrough in submarine-based nuclear weapons was the invention of the nuclear-powered submarine. A submarine powered by a nuclear reactor needs refueling much less often, allowing it to submerge for much longer and travel much further. This gave the submarines almost world-wide reach, allowing them to strike targets undetected and with impunity.
Submarine-launched nuclear missiles are important strategic assets because of their stealthy nature – they can submerge, hiding themselves from the view of spy satellites, making them very hard to track down and destroy. Also, should a nuclear war start, a nuclear-armed submarine can still attack the enemy even if all land-based weapons be destroyed, allowing a nation to retaliate after a crippling nuclear attack, ensuring mutually assured destruction. Also, they can sneak very close to enemy territory and launch missiles, allowing for devastating surprise attacks.
Submarine-launched ballistic missiles, like their ground-based counterparts, have benefited from the inclusion of MIRVs, making their attacks even more devastating.
These missiles are also regulated by nuclear disarmament treaties, reducing their use. Countries that own SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles) include the USA, Russia, Britain, France, India and China.
Other methods of delivering nuclear missiles have been devised, like cruise missiles and nuclear artillery. However, the use of these in strategic nuclear warfare is limited due to the size and power limitations of these weapons, limiting them to tactical uses.
Many of these weapons were installed on the border between the NATO countries and the Soviet bloc in case the USSR attempted a conventional invasion of Europe. The missiles, having a lower power than strategic nuclear weapons, would be used to eliminate USSR forces without causing as much collateral damage as a strategic nuclear weapon.
Done by: Shao Xiong
Many types of new technology were invented during the Cold War. Examples include the space shuttle, the space suit and satellites.
The space shuttle allows humans to go to outer space and return without having to discard parts each time it is used, thus saving money and effort. The space suit allows man to survive outside his spacecraft while in outer space, and satellites allow for nearly-instantaneous communication, which paved the way for later inventions such as satellite television and GPS (Global Positioning System). Today over a thousand artificial satellites orbit earth, relaying communications data around the planet and allowing remote sensing of data regarding weather, vegetation, and human movements to nations who employ them. In addition, much of the micro-technology which fuels everyday activities, from time-keeping to enjoying music derives from research initially driven by the Space Race.
The science developed for space exploration technologies has uses ranging from the kitchen to athletic fields. Dried and ready-to-eat foods, in particular food sterilization and package sealing techniques, stay-dry clothing, and even no-fog goggles have their roots in space science.
Done by: Leon