Friday, 27 July 2012
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
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.