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.