Nuclear Technology: Arms Control in Prespective

By Wilson, A. H. | Contemporary Review, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Technology: Arms Control in Prespective


Wilson, A. H., Contemporary Review


LAST month George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin provided some much needed welcome news by agreeing to slash more than two thirds of America's and Russia's nuclear weapons. President Bush said that this will 'liquidate the legacy of the Cold War'.

Contemporary International Relations (IR) text books note that, at the height of the 'second Cold War' between 1985 and 1990, the (then) Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States of America (USA) held between them a total of some 21,200 intercontinental, strategic, nuclear weapons, despite a previous series of arms 'limitation' treaties. Numbers subsequently fell as both sides implemented the first stage of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991. In addition, the text books note that the largest nuclear device ever exploded in a test explosion achieved a yield of 50-52 megatons (being the equivalent of 50-52 million tons of 'conventional' explosive -- Tri Nitro Toluene -- T.N.T.). This device was some 4000 times more powerful than either of the two 12.5 kiloton atomic bombs (equivalent to twelve thousand five hundred tons of T.N.T.) which totally destroyed first Hiroshima, then Nagasaki in Japan at the end of the Second World War. These facts raise the following questions:

1. Why were so many weapons required?

2. If one 12,500 kiloton weapon could totally destroy a city, why was such an increase in power subsequently needed?

3. What has actually been given up in the various arms control and limitation treaties?

Contemporary IR literature tackles these questions from various perspectives and interpretations; this article will address them at the more pragmatic levels of the mechanical and operational. In order to do so, it first establishes the histories both of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, and then makes relevant technical points. Together these will provide answers to the first two questions above. The article then looks at how developments in delivery systems underpinned each of the 'limitation' and 'reduction' treaties to show what has been 'given up'.

Starting then with nuclear weapons, they first appeared in 1945 when a single US aircraft dropped a single atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. The city was destroyed. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on the 9th of August, with similar results. Japan surrendered on 14 August.

The USA remained the only atomic power until 1949, when the USSR acquired an atomic capability. Other countries followed in due course, some publicly (UK 1952, France 1960, China 1964), others covertly, despite the 1968 'Non-Proliferation Treaty'. Of these some have subsequently admitted possession of nuclear weapons (South Africa 1991, India and Pakistan 1998), possession by others remain speculative, but may include Israel, North Korea, Brazil. Following the breakup of the USSR into its component states, Ukraine was left with some ex-Soviet weapons, but in return for economic aid is currently working to dismantle its stockpile.

Both the USA and the USSR developed and tested thermonuclear (hydrogen) bombs, the USA in 1953, the USSR in 1954. A hydrogen bomb is triggered by an atomic bomb, and so could only be developed by countries that already had an atomic weapon capability. (Although in theory they might be triggered by other means, no country has apparently yet achieved this.) A hydrogen bomb produces a vastly increased explosive effect, hence the 50+ megaton explosion noted in the introduction. It is however, relatively simple to 'progress' from atomic weapons to hydrogen bombs, and it is likely that the UK, France and China also now have this capability, although not yet tested.

The first single bombs used were dropped on Japan by aircraft, flying at virtually the limit of their range. In the early 'Cold War' possible targets initially were cities. Because the range capability of the available aircraft could be calculated, observed, or found by espionage, in the early days defence planners could calculate possible approach routes from any given airfield to any given target. …

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