Because of recent media frenzy over nuclear explosives and ballistic missile tests by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, a.k.a. North Korea), and US President Donald Trump’s angry threats in response that imply nuclear retaliation, I thought it might be useful to remind you of why nuclear weapons are obsolete as military tools for the United States.
The Atomic Bomb was invented during World War II (1939-1945), the energy of explosion being generated by the runaway fission of a temporarily clumped, or imploded, mass of uranium 235 or plutonium 239. By 1952 the Thermonuclear Bomb had been developed; these types of bombs can produce a much higher yield of explosive energy than fission bombs. Thermonuclear bombs are complex devices that combine a “primary” fission bomb and a “secondary” fusion bomb within a heavy metal case. The secondary is a container holding deuterium and tritium gases, or lithium deuteride salt. A thermonuclear bomb explosion involves three steps. First, the standard fission bomb is triggered to implode and generate intense X-ray radiation from the hot fissioning uranium 235 and/or plutonium 239. Second, the X-rays flood the interior of the bomb’s metal case. Third, that intense radiation pressure implodes the initially low-density secondary to the point that the nuclei of its fuel atoms fuse, and nuclear radiation is emitted. This radiation is the “E” of Einstein’s famous equation E = mc^2, where “m” is the amount of nuclear mass converted by the fusion reactions. Clearly, all this happens very quickly, before the bomb case shatters because of the exponential build-up of explosive pressure within it. By the 1960s, ballistic missile technology had been developed sufficiently to carry men to the Moon, or thermonuclear bombs around the world, and bomb designs had been refined for compactness so several could be carried on a single missile.
Because both fission and thermonuclear bombs produce so much explosive energy, and both prompt and lingering radioactivity (radiation and fallout), they are intrinsically large area-destruction weapons. This property could compensate for the poor targeting accuracy of 1940s and 1950s bomber airplanes and missiles. However, the major military drawback of this wide area radioactive destruction is that a massive amount of collateral damage and civilian death is inevitable with the destruction of each concentration of enemy military forces or facilities, which was the intended purpose of the bombing. Lingering radioactivity would not only be a severe health risk to the hapless residents of the bombed-out area, but also to any occupation forces that would wish to exert control over the area after the bombing (or the war).
Today, wide area-destruction bombs are unnecessary for the military purposes of the United States (and other technologically advanced nations) because pinpoint targeting accuracy is possible using the Global Positioning System (GPS). The GPS project was launched by the US Department of Defense in 1973 and became fully operational in 1995. Civilian use has been allowed since the 1980s. Also, advances in electronic and computer technologies have been applied to refine the control and guidance of ballistic and cruise missiles, and aerial drones. Today, chemical explosives – without radioactivity – can be delivered very precisely to “enemy” targets, and a great deal of this has actually been happening for years now.
So, nuclear weapons are obsolete for advanced military powers like the United States. It is also true that modern GPS-guided “delivery vehicles” with chemical warheads are much less expensive to produce than nuclear weapons. The true cost of each bomb and missile will include a share of the overall costs for building and maintaining the infrastructure that produced it. That infrastructure cost is monumental for nuclear weapons, not only because of the complexity of producing the radioactive metal, gas and salt fuels, but also because of the catastrophic legacy of long-term toxic radioactive waste management we are left with.
But, wouldn’t an atmospheric nuclear explosion be useful as an anti-missile defense? Again, destruction vehicles against “incoming” ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones can be devised with chemical explosive warheads, and multiple warheads per missile (like World War II “flak”), because of today’s advanced radar and satellite detection systems, computers (for fast calculation of flight paths), and GPS-guided missile technologies.
Even ten years ago, the obsolescence of nuclear weapons was so obvious that four of the leading foreign policy and military planners of the United States issued a joint public statement to the effect that “We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal.” Those individuals were: George P. Shultz (Reagan Administration secretary of state from 1982 to 1989), William J. Perry (Clinton Administration secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997), Henry A. Kissinger (Nixon Administration national security advisor and secretary of state from 1969 to 1973, then Ford Administration secretary of state from 1973 to 1977) and Sam Nunn (chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee from 1987 to 1995). (You can read more about that at: Nuclear Weapons Obsolescence, December 11, 2008, http://dissidentvoice.org/2008/12/nuclear-weapons-obsolescence/)
So, will the United States attack (“defensively” of course) North Korea with nuclear weapons, because of the perceived threat of the DPRK’s nuclear-tipped ballistic missile capability? I don’t know, but it would not be necessary. I have no doubt that US satellite and other airborne electronic surveillance systems can detect DPRK nuclear warhead manufacturing and storage sites, as well as ballistic missile launch sites, and could if necessary destroy them with precision-targeted conventional explosives. Intelligent diplomacy in concert with the United Nations should be able to eliminate the necessity to use force against the DPRK.
In conclusion, whatever the actual military threat, or perceived threat, or hyped threat (to frighten and shake down the American public for more military industry subsidies), there is no need for the use and maintenance of nuclear weapons by the United States – or anybody who cares to live in a civilized world.
Now published at Dissident Voice: