Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Selling the Nuclear Nightmare

In a waiting room, looking through the October 2010 issue of Pop Sci.

One article was about people selling nuclear-free hideaways, such as space in the "Terra Vivos" line of underground retreats. One development so described is being remodeled from a bomb-resistant AT&T emergency operations center near Barstow, CA, dating to 1965. Amenities will include a gamma ray detector to activate shutters that will close the ventilation system. This was installed to detect H-bomb bursts up to 100 miles away. Projected price: $50,000 for adults, $25,000 for kids. Other companies named were Survival Condos (Kansas) and Hardened Structures (Colorado).

This talk of havoc in the homeland reminded me of one of the more thought-provoking factoids I've come across in 31 years of nonfiction writing. This was while researching an article for Air&Space on the Nike anti-aircraft missile system. The full text is reproduced here as a PDF. These smallish US Army bases ringed major cities and industrial complexes, so as to fight off Soviet bombers. The initial missiles were explosive-tipped Nike Ajax models, and the second generation were nuclear-tipped Nike Hercules. The latter had an adjustable warhead. Some were good for up to 40 kilotons.

Publicly, the story was that if they were ever used, the Nike Hercules fireball would occur at stratospheric altitudes, so the public would not be threatened by our defense measures. That seemed to make sense, given that the bombers we saw in the newsreels were all flying high and leaving contrails.

The reality could have been rather grim, and so was not part of the civics lesson. The reason is this: An enemy pilot was trained to drop as low as possible during the final bomb run, since that gave him a reasonable chance of evading our radar. If he had penetrated this far, one of the few ways for us to stop him from dropping a monstrously large H-bomb -- perhaps the only way -- was for the Army to launch a Nike atomic warhead to bring him down, down low, even if it meant taking out a suburb too. From my article:

In the event of a real attack, the Nike rules of engagement allowed officers considerable freedom of action. According to Dale Nichols, a commander could fire missiles without additional authorization from the AADCP if he saw evidence of hostile nuclear explosions, if the base was under direct attack, or if the radar track of an unidentified airplane showed that it met something called the 'pop-up criteria.'

'That means you exceed Mach 2 and you climb from 2,000 feet to 15,000 feet in less than three minutes,' Nichols says. Flying like that would indicate that an attacker had slipped under the radar screen and was about to loft a nuclear bomb toward the target, then make a climbing turn and flee. Shooting under those conditions was entirely possible, says Nichols, but only if the missiles were up at the time, and they hardly ever were. If a Hercules was launched, the fervent hope was that radiation from its blast would destroy all bombs, including those falling from an enemy aircraft's wreckage. Any fireballs created by the Nike warhead's explosion were supposed to occur tens of thousands of feet up. You didn't want to have the fireball touch the ground,' says Frank Evans; such contact would create a mushroom cloud of radioactive fallout.

'But there might be decisions to make, say if you had a lot of Russian bombers coming in, not just a couple. You might say "To hell with it" and accept some fallout. That's if you knew absolutely it was Russians and they had 25 megatons on board.' The awful decision to push a button overriding the 'minimum burst altitude' setting and triggering a nuclear fireball low enough to scorch American soil would have been the missile commander's alone to make.

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