Monday, 15 October 2012

The weak link

One of the things that is fascinating about the cold war is the absolute primacy that nuclear weapons took in military minds over all other considerations, and the ever more intricate measures designed to compensate for various weaknesses of the human body that could compromise the delivery of said weapons to their targets. The crews of the bombers were very much secondary considerations, in monetary and strategic terms far less valuable than their cargo. The most striking example of this is a piece of equipment issued to RAF bomber crews, to be worn in the event of a real bombing run into Soviet territory. Although the crew was in no danger of being adversely affected by the bomb they were carrying, as they would turn away on releasing it and be far enough away when it detonated to avoid the flash and blast, their route over Europe at the outbreak of war would become a morass of smaller explosions. Landmines, artillery pieces, rockets and tactical bombs would all be emitting blinding nuclear flashes, which could disable bomber crews and render them useless. To combat this eventuality, pilots were issued with an eye patch, so that in the event of being exposed to a nuclear flash they could remove the patch from their unharmed eye and continue to their target. Of course, once the weapon had achieved its objective of flattening a Russian city, in a strategic sense the crew became worthless. Whilst a conventional bomber would return to base to be used for another mission, it was widely accepted that the bases the RAF’s Vulcan, Victor and Valiant bombers had departed from would have become radioactive craters. Indeed, due to the UK’s small size, high population and density of high value military targets, it would be amongst the first NATO countries to be hit, and would definitely be hit the hardest. It’s debatable whether these men would have had anything of a country to come back to. They knew that if they ever had to do the job they were trained for, their families would almost certainly be dead, and the crews back on the airbase would be incinerated minutes after they had seen the bombers off.

Indeed, with the advent of the ICBM, warning times were cut to minutes, and the incredibly valuable weapons and bombers suddenly became incredibly vulnerable. Ever more drastic measures were devised to cut launch times, and at the 1960 Farnborough airshow RAF bombers demonstrated the ability to board all crew, start the engines and get in the air from a standing start within 1 minute and fifty seconds. Our American cousins, in their time honoured tradition, took a rather more brash approach to the problem, namely strapping a shitload of rockets on to their bombers so they could make much shorter take off runs (see picture. I guess if you’re going to go and flatten a city, subtlety doesn’t matter that much).
Pretty soon, however, the US air force received enough funding that it could keep a significant portion of its forces in the air AT ALL TIMES. Its quite hard to explain how monumentally expensive this process was, and how much of a logistical challenge it represented. The B-52 carries 40,000 gallons of fuel, and getting that fuel up to the bomber in itself incurs massive costs, as a fully crewed refueling plane must precisely rendezvous with it, which has its own running costs, and so it goes on. This mid air wizadry was just one example of the exploits of a country at the peak of its self-belief and technical prowess. B-52s constantly circled the North Pole, ready to pounce through the Soviet Union’s back door at a moment’s notice. The US air force kept at least one EC-135 airborne command post plane in the air from 1961 until the collapse of the Soviet union in 1991, with an air force general on board to take command of nuclear forces in case his ground based colleagues were taken out in a sneak attack. In the American system, the human body was the weak link. This was because the cold war was unlike any other in history. Whereas the tempo of previous wars was dictated by human needs (soldiers cannot fight 24 hours a day and must sleep, eat and find shelter), missiles, satellites and computers are subject to no such restrictions. With the capability to refuel a plane in the air anywhere in the world, the only thing stopping the US air force keeping bombers in the air for weeks at a time was the amount of fatigue its pilots could tolerate – as this link points out (, it was de riguer for crews to spend 24 hours in the air. Such was the drive to extend the endurance of bombers that nuclear propulsion was looked into, and the soviet and American air forces both fitted test planes with nuclear reactors. A plane equipped with a reactor could stay in the air for months at a time. In reality however the idea turned out to be ludicrously impractical, the massive weight of the reactor severely decreasing the weight of bombs that could be carried, and the huge amounts of radiation generated requiring the crew to be shielded behind several inches of lead. Once again the vulnerability of the human body became a limiting factor.

These innovations helped to give rise to the merging in popular culture of the tropes of nuclear apocalypse and the usurpation of humanity by its mechanical creations. Part of the reason that the iconography of the Terminator series resonates so deeply (forgive the fanboy proselytizing) is that it reflected trends in the real world. The real kicker though, is that we don’t need an omnipotent machine à la Terminator's Skynet to turn nuclear weapons against us, because by definition a nuclear war would be a war removed from human agency, needs and objectives, a war for wars sake. You can’t put the lid back on Pandora’s box.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


I’m going to get a bit in depth this week and take a look at the effects of nuclear weapons. What does it say about us as a species that we created, or even conceived, such things?

More to the point, what would it actually be like to experience a nuclear attack? This a question that tickles the human interest in the macabre. On detonation, a nuclear weapon produces what is known as a “thermal pulse”, a wall of heat that travels out from ground zero at the speed of light, instantly setting fire to any flammable material within line of sight. Houses, trees, grass, rubbish in bins and human beings would burst into flames. Jonathan Schell, in his fascinating book “the Fate of the Earth”, cites that after the detonation of a twenty megaton weapon (with the equivalent power of 20 million tons of TNT) “people caught in the open twenty three miles from ground zero would be burnt to death”. In concentric circles further away from the point of detonation, people would receive burns that would later prove fatal, and many miles further out would be blinded if they happened to be looking in the wrong direction.

After the thermal pulse comes the blast wave. This is the air displaced by the energy of the detonation, pushed away at hundreds of miles an hour, much faster than a hurricane. Buildings made of anything less substantial than re-enforced concrete don’t stand a chance. Anyone who managed to evade the thermal pulse in the open would be picked up and bodily hurled with lethal force. Those who had taken shelter indoors would either be crushed as their houses crumpled like paper cups, or in more sturdy structures be eviscerated as windows erupted into razor sharp fragments. Cars, buses and train carriages would fly hundreds of metres. Although the blast would extinguish the initial fires started by the thermal pulse, others would reignite in its wake as ruptured gas mains spilled out into every street and petrol tanks under garages burst open.

Next is the firestorm. When enough material within a certain area is on fire, the volume of inrushing air feeding the fire becomes so great that it enters a positive feedback cycle, only putting itself out when all flammable matter has been exhausted. Those who had survived the thermal pulse and blast wave would have to escape quickly or be sucked into the firestorm, as again winds reached hundreds of miles an hour, but this time in the opposite direction.

Finally comes the fallout. Fallout is any material, generally buildings and earth, which is vapourized and sucked up by the initial explosion and thus made extremely radioactive. It then falls back to earth with the prevailing winds and can render wherever it lands uninhabitable for weeks, hence the need for “fallout shelters”. So, anyone who had somehow survived the previous three effects and sought refuge downwind of the blast would be subjected to potentially lethal radiation. It must also be remembered that even if the area you are in did not receive a direct hit, depending on the winds fallout can travel many hundreds of miles, so that in a large scale attack there would be very few places unaffected. Thus there can be no outside help, because every city is just as burnt, blasted and irradiated as any other.

There are many, many less immediate effects of nuclear weapons, the most important of which are the social effects. All the comforts of modern life would evaporate. There would be no electricity, no gas, no running water, no working toilets, no rubbish collection, no petrol left in the pumps. There was mass panic buying in the UK recently at the threat of petrol shortages. Imagine the scenario of millions of terrified, hungry people trying to take to roads to find some modicum of safety. Petrol would become worth its weight in gold, and people would easily kill for it.

Food supplies would be drastically cut, as modern farming depends on petrol driven machinery and artificial fertilizers. Regaining even a subsistence level of farming would be difficult, as traditional non-mechanised methods have essentially been forgotten. What few doctors survived the attack would find their hospitals in ruins, their supplies buried in the rubble, each one overwhelmed by hundreds of horrendously wounded patients. It’s very unlikely that any new supplies would reach them. They would soon find themselves trying to treat people without clean bandages, antibiotics or drugs. Not only this, but millions of human and animal corpses would lie rotting in the streets and fields, spreading disease amongst a catastrophically weakened population.

Whilst all of this was going on, the ecosystem itself would very probably be dying, as what trees and plants weren’t irradiated would be denied sunlight by the billions of tons of smoke and soot filling the atmosphere. Day would become twilight, and ash from millions of incinerated trees would settle on everything like snow. Respiratory ailments could become endemic for years afterwards. So, as Schell points out, both manmade and natural systems would breakdown irrevocably.

As President Jimmy Carter put it in his farewell speech, “the survivors, if any, would live in despair amid the poisoned ruins of a civilization that had committed suicide”. Not only might we kill civilization, but our race and our planet as well. Pretty bleak stuff really, isn’t it?

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Space probes, light houses and pacemakers

Bit of a lengthy post this week folks, but bare with me, it’s going somewhere…

You might think of nuclear energy as being used in only two ways; in a nuclear reactor in a power plant helping you boil the kettle, or in the core of a nuclear weapon. However, it turns out nuclear energy can be used, and produced, in some more unusual ways.

Not only do radioactive isotopes constantly give off radiation at a known, steady rate, but they also give off heat, sometimes for many years. Some of them are warm to the touch, and plutonium 238 will actually begin to glow red hot if you cover it with an insulating material (as seen in the picture above). This property is exploited in devices known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators (or RTG’s), which convert this heat into electricity for powering systems that must function for long periods of time without maintenance, such as space probes.

As with many other areas of nuclear history however, the deeper you look, the more peculiar it becomes. It turns out that plutonium batteries were used, in a very limited number of cases, to power pace makers. Its pretty hard to think of an element more hostile to life than plutonium; massively radioactive and poisonous, and a key component of most nuclear weapons, yet here it is playing a role in preserving life.

RTG’s were utilised for one more unlikely task; powering lighthouses in remote regions of the Soviet Union. It was a bit much to ask someone to man a conventional lighthouse on the vast, icy wastes of the north Russian coast, so they were instead fitted with RTG’s that would require no maintenance over their lifetime.

This though gives rise to a very frightening possibility. Because the RTG’s are in such remote locations, someone could nick a cheeky bit of radioactive material and nobody may ever notice. What’s the big deal you say? Surely no one can make a nuclear bomb out of that? Well, not strictly speaking, but they could make a crude, so-called “dirty bomb”. This is a conventional explosive strapped onto a quantity of a radioactive isotope, which spreads it over a given area and renders it uninhabitable. Imagine what would happen to the UK economy if one of those went off in the city of London’s “square mile”…

Indeed, the whole of nuclear history is fraught with fears of weapons or nuclear materials going missing. The fact remains that it’s actually pretty easy to mislay a nuclear weapon. The US alone has 5113 of the things, so they’re bound to drop one behind the sofa occasionally. It is believed that they have lost eleven, often in tragically comic circumstances, such as when a jet armed with a 1 megaton bomb rolled off the deck of an aircraft carrier in 1965, immediately sinking to the bottom of the ocean and taking its pilot and its lethal cargo with it.

Perhaps even more sinister than the possibility of these weapons getting into the wrong hands is the possibility of computer error in missile warning systems. The most chilling example is the so called “Norwegian rocket incident’ of 1995. American scientists had informed the international community they would be launching a research rocket that would follow a trajectory similar to that used by nuclear missiles, but apparently not all parts of the Russian military had been told. The appearance of the rocket on radar screens caused a mass panic, and the briefcase containing Nuclear launch codes was presented to then president Boris Yeltsin, who had seconds to make a decision. Blind luck prevailed as Yeltsin decided not to launch. I leave you with the cheerful thought that this situation could recur at any time, and not end quite so well…

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Grandma’s pre-apocalyptic interior decorating spree.

Not to get all literary theory on everyone, but have you ever stayed in a relatively cheap chain hotel and found yourself vaguely unsettled, unable to escape the notion that this is not a space actually designed for people? Walking the identical, silent, endlessly right angling corridors is an experience akin to the more unpleasant types of dream, the ones where you’re convinced you’ll never wake up. The toilets come shrink wrapped in plastic as if no one’s ever used them before, and the meticulous cleaning of each uniform room between occupancies ensures that no trace of previous guests remains.

Finally, the colour scheme is formulated to in no way stimulate any kind of emotional reaction. These are not spaces to live in, they are spaces that carry out the task of keeping a human being alive without any pleasantries. They are an un-house if you will.

But there is a touchstone amongst un-houses, the “Über-un-house”, a fallout shelter designed by an architect named Jay Swayze and located in Las Vegas (it couldn’t be allowed to exist anywhere else). It is, simultaneously, a concrete realization and unintended pastiche of all the paranoia, fear and denial that drove the American cold war psyche. It also looks a bit like how your granny would decorate her house if you slipped some acid in her tea.

The most striking feature of the shelter is that it is actually a space within a space; a ranch house with an adjoining patio and “garden” of AstroTurf, the whole enclosed within a concrete shell painted with clouds and alpine scenes. Bizarrely, the garden includes a guesthouse (who’s going to be dropping in?), and is also furnished with a barbeque disguised inside a fake boulder and a small swimming pool. Fibreglass trees merge into the ceiling, and there’s even a fully kitted out Christmas tree in case the end of the world happens to fall during the festive season (those sneaky godless commies!) It’s sort of like the bastard love child of Walt Disney and the American plastics industry.

Once you get inside though, the kitsch goes off the Richter scale. The dining room is covered floor to ceiling in tasseled fabric, and comes with a full set of crockery including a gravy boat. The bathroom looks like the set of a 70’s porn film, sporting a pink bidet and sunken bathtub surrounded by mirrors and Greek columns. And there are chandeliers EVERYWHERE. It’s like a particularly camp, hallucinogenic hell. It manages to be at the same time utterly banal and somehow massively offensive – there’s something that rankles about the image of the occupants indulging in such (admittedly tacky) luxury whilst the world burns above them.

See this video for a tour of the house.

Friday, 27 July 2012


As late as the year of my birth (1989) Europe was still poised to be the first battleground in the final showdown between capitalism and communism. There seems something bizarre about fully mechanized war raging across what we would recognise as essentially the Europe of today, a Europe of Motorways, shopping malls and suburban housing developments. It's fascinating to speculate what form this war would have taken; retreating armies setting fire to civilian petrol stations to deny the enemy valuable resources, tank battles raging across farms and parks, soviet parachutists descending on the Champs Elysee and perhaps even, in the latter stages, Parliament Square and the Northwood Naval Headquarters just down the road from me.

The armies of NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced each other over a vast frontier from the Norwegian Arctic circle to Turkey’s black sea coast, and they both knew two very important facts. First, there could be no stopping the Warsaw Pact forces if they closed those two thousand mile wide pincers. They outnumbered NATO in every respect, able to mobilise millions of men and countless thousands of tanks and combat aircraft. Although there were hopes that NATO’s superior technology could stem the tide, it seemed inevitable that the sheer momentum of Warsaw pact armour would smash through. Secondly, NATO would attempt to counter this eventuality by using tactical nuclear weapons as a “force multiplier”, a brilliantly conceived, and rather brazen euphemism meaning that they would multiply the effect of the sparse men on the ground. In a way, the fact that both sides possessed tactical nuclear weapons made it both impossible to lose and impossible to win, as they functioned as a form of “get out of jail free card”. It would be far too tempting to let fly if the situation became desperate, with Soviet tanks rumbling inexorably towards the Brandenburg gate. The exhausted allied commander in the field, stretched to the limit of his mental resources, in command of trailer mounted missiles that could be deployed at very short notice, might have to make a split second decision to cut off an enemy offensive at the vital moment, without waiting for an order from the top of the command chain.

However, once that precedent had been breached, there would be no turning back. At the very least, the floodgates would be opened on the use of tactical weapons in all their variety, with nuclear torpedoes, depth charges, rockets, artillery shells and even landmines going off all over the shop. This in itself raises the issue that its kind of hard to run a conventional war with nuclear munitions mixed in- if a division of tanks could be erased by one landmine, or a massively valuable aircraft carrier battle group, equating to billions of dollars of hardware, sunk by a single torpedo or a bomb from a single aircraft, why not just get it over with and wipe out a few enemy cities? It seems highly unlikely that the Warsaw Pact forces would have gamely accepted NATO’s use of tactical weapons to make up for numerical inferiority without throwing something bigger back in return...

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Project Horizon, or: Let's Nuke the Moon!

Have you ever noticed how a bad idea often seems to make sense at the time? Like a kebab after a night out, or firing a nuclear missile at the Moon? Yes, that’s right, both the Soviet Union and the USA seriously considered hurling an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile at the moon as a show of technical prowess and an attempt to cow the other into submission. The USA’s idea, known as project A119, was to detonate the warhead just on the dark side of the Moon’s terminator line, throwing a cloud of dust deep into space to maximise the visibility of the explosion.

Combine testosterone with egotism (which, when you get right down to it, are the driving forces of most history before women could vote) and this is what you ultimately end up with. Much as I am willing to defend many of the qualities of my gender, I seriously doubt a woman would have come up with an idea this patently stupid. Not to mention the fact that the moon is a traditional symbol of femininity; make what you will of the image of a missile plunging into its pristine landscape, untouched since the creation of the earth.

But project A119 simply scratched the surface of the bizarre lengths a country love drunk for nuclear weapons was willing to go to. In the same year, the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency tendered a proposal for a base on the moon, under the name “Project Horizon”, to house twelve soldiers. So far there’s nothing too crazy about that, apart from the dubious ethicality of the first human contact with an extraterrestrial body being militarised.

But then the craziness really ratchets up a notch. What if the Soviet Union established its own moon base? A Moon Base gap couldn’t be tolerated. The American base would be defended against Soviet infiltration by Claymore mines specially modified to puncture space suits and Davy Crockett rockets armed with 0.01 Kt yield nuclear warheads. Apart from the obvious explosive effects, these would apparently generate an instantly lethal radiation dose of 10,000 REM within 500 feet, and a probably fatal dose of 600 REM within a quarter of a mile.

The scenario can’t help but become a parody of the cold war as a whole. In the event of a Nuclear conflict on earth, what possible good could one country’s astronauts being in control of the moon do when their homeland was reduced to molten radioactive slag? They would be in possession of a dead world, devoid of the means of sustenance or any hope of rescue (just like their commanders back on Earth marooned in subterranean bunkers).

Perhaps the final word on the speculative confluence of space and nuclear war should go to Philip Wylie and his 1963 novel Triumph. In the novel, the houseguests of an improbably well prepared millionaire take refuge in the luxurious fallout shelter he has built in the mountain beneath his mansion when the sirens sound. Their attempts to make radio contact with the outside world are responded to only by astronauts stranded in an orbital weather station, desperately requesting orders. One of the characters posits that at least the astronauts are in “a box seat. But at what a cost”; the radiation-drenched earth above the bunker might as well be the vacuum of space for how hostile it has become to life.

Monday, 9 July 2012

This kiss you give

So, here we find ourselves in 2012. It’s a bit boring really, isn’t it? We put petrol in our cars, we shop at Tesco every week and we go to work, all without the constant looming threat of fiery nuclear annihilation. Oh sure, North Korea is launching a few rockets for shits and giggles, but to be honest they’re just a schoolboy pariah nation. It seems we sadly can’t rustle up monolithic empires of terror these days like the good old USSR. Now there was a conglomerate of socialist republics that really knew how to scare the shit out of you! Thousands of missiles, submarines and bombers on hair trigger alert, ready to obliterate every single living piece of matter in the western world. It must have added a certain frisson to life. Pondering whether to order  dessert or not? Fuck it, could get nuked tomorrow! Want to buy a Porsche instead of sending the kids to private school? Well what good will knowing Latin do them in a Post-nuclear waste land where they have to learn how to eke a bleak, hollow existence growing crops from irradiated soil whilst defending themselves from gangs of roving cannibals bent on feasting from their emaciated flesh?

But I digress. Let us look back to October 1980. This was a time when “Enola Gay” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, a song about the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, could reach number 8 in the charts. Imagine trying to sell that in the age of Simon Cowell! “Well, what we want to do, right, is record this subversively dark and multi-faceted homage to the B-29 bomber that dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Uh, that’s right; it's going to be about the plane. Only it's kind of not, because the plane was named after the pilot’s mother, so there’s a whole undertone regarding the male appropriation and thus inadvertent perversion of matriarchal imagery. And it’s going to have an upbeat melody with a slightly sinister synth backing”.

Now, as I write this, the UK number 8 is “Starships” by Nicki Minaj, which I have nothing against and indeed have found myself humming along to on several occasions. However, I can’t help but draw a detrimental comparison between these two songs when Ms Minaj enthuses the listener to

“Fuck who you want and fuck who you like”.

Indeed Nicki; an apt if stark indictment of the cultural concerns of our time.  Of course, I’m not claiming that the 80’s were a strenuously righteous and intellectual decade, festooned as they were with coke addled hair metal bands and manufactured pop. It does seem though that the eminent possibility of the skies raining death at any given moment sharpened creative vision a little. One of the most immediately obvious (and geeky) examples would have to be James Cameron’s conception of the Terminator as the primeval foe, a skeletal hand rising from the flaming rubble of nuclear conflict (definite future posts ahoy!)

As Andy McCluskey’s lyrics point out, the “kiss” that Enola Gay gives “is never, ever going to fade away”. He’s reminding us that even if nuclear weapons are never used, even if they never do any physical damage, the possibility of their use is enough to draw a scar across our creative imaginations. That we now know the darkest depths we can plumb as a race. We know that we could, if we felt like it, undo every living man woman and child on the face of the earth and all that humanity has achieved. That those warheads are locked away in bunkers and submarines and bomb bays, gently oozing the warmth of radioactive decay, biding their time. 

Everything's in the air

It would seem that defining elements of a nightmare are imminence, inescapability and paralyzing horror. You’re riveted to the spot whilst something is creeping closer, just out of your field of vision, or you have to give a presentation at work in ten minutes but you’ve prepared nothing and you’re suddenly standing in your underwear. Watching Lucy Walker’s documentary Countdown to zero made me realise that being the premier of a major nuclear power (for our purposes Russia or the USA) presented with definitive proof of incoming, nuclear armed ICBM’s more acutely concentrates these qualities than any nightmare could. An ICBM is imminent because its atmospheric re-entry speed is 2.5 miles per second, or 150 miles per minute. It’s inescapable because no existing force can impede it once it has left its silo. It’s horrifying precisely because of these qualities, there is so little time for a response, and neither option is promising; refuse to fire back and allow your citizens to be sacrificed, or retaliate and drag the rest of the world onto the funeral pyre.

The further you look into the mentality inculcated by the existence of ICBMs, the more tense and nightmarish the whole enterprise becomes. To make sure you extract full use from your force, it makes sense to maintain your missiles on a “launch on warning” posture, meaning launching your own missiles before waiting for what you assume to be an enemy missile hits your soil. Even worse, an attack would not be indicated by thousands of missiles arcing over the horizon in a definite indication of hostile intent. Instead, it would be started by a single missile detonated at high altitude in order to generate an electro-magnetic pulse and destroy all unshielded electronics in the enemy country; a detonation at 300 miles altitude would in one fell swoop wipe out the communications of almost all of the US and Canada. Thus, there would be seconds to detect a single missile, interpret whether it was a civilian rocket launch or even just a radar error, and determine what your own ICBM force should do. Even assuming communications remained intact; the president would have between thirty seconds to twelve minutes to make a decision. You can’t make a cup of tea in thirty seconds and I can barely pick something off a menu in twelve minutes; imagine deciding the fate of the world in that time! There’s no way a human being can make that decision. It is the quintessential nightmare situation.

And if you do decide to strike back, there must be a brief interval where everything is in the air. The missiles of the two opposing states will (figuratively at least) pass each other in flight, tracing essentially the same route in opposite directions, completely irreversible. Not only that, but ICBMs even correct themselves in flight, their onboard computers taking star sightings as they surge out of the atmosphere and reach the top of their brief parabola to correct their course in the extremely unlikely event of navigational error. There’s something really quite sinister about the idea of that mechanical eye, faultlessly calculating velocities and trajectories in the unimaginable cold of space, aiming to within a handful of metres...

Still, there’s just about time for that cup of tea though.