I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Special Deliveries: Nuclear Ramjets, Mega-Bombs, and Other Cold War Insanities

by Joe DeMartino
March 15, 2012

There’s an old joke about the problem of writing in space.  Traditional ballpoint pens can be used only with difficulty on a rocket or space station -- there’s no gravity to pull the ink toward the tip of the pen, so there’s a lot of shaking and frustration involved. As they were both sending men into space in the same general time period, NASA and the Russian space program set out to solve the problem simultaneously. NASA threw several million dollars worth of research into developing a kind of Space Pen, which utilized complex engineering in order to funnel the ink in the proper direction. It went through several trial phases, experienced numerous setbacks, and ended up being behind schedule and over budget, but NASA eventually found itself with a working Space Pen, which it made standard issue on all subsequent flights.

The Russians used a pencil.

Now, this story is a little too glib to be true (pencils in space evidently can lead to broken pieces of lead floating through the cabin, which is a hazard), but it does illustrate a truism about the contrasting ways in which capitalist America and communist Russia approached problems -- expensive technocracy from the Americans clashing with simple, time-honored solutions from the Russians. There are benefits to both ways of thinking*, but occasionally, you come across a situation in which the merits of both approaches are allowed to shine. It’s just that this particular situation involves the end of the world.  

*The Russian-made AK-47 assault rifle vastly outclassed the American-made M-16 when they were first set against one another, primarily because the AK-47 actually worked when a soldier tried to fire it. The M-16 was prone to jams and needed constant maintenance. It took a very long time to make it more than an overdesigned albatross. On the other hand, you may notice that there is a distinct lack of Soviet flags on the moon.

Putting aside the obvious questions of morality involved in dropping a nuclear weapon on a civilian target, the big problem you have to face if you’re trying to win a nuclear war is: how do we do as much damage as possible to the enemy before he can launch a retaliatory strike. This problem might actually be insoluble -- you’re pretty much going to take casualties no matter what, and the odds are that you’re going to get hit hard enough on the rebound that you won’t have a country* anymore. That being said, your best bet is to hit as hard and as extensively as possible.  

*The interesting thing about nuclear weapons is that we’ve technically had something resembling a full-blown nuclear war since the first city-killers were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Counting every air-burst, underground detonation, and straight-up test by every nuclear nation, the Earth has experienced over 2,000 nuclear detonations. This visualization of the whole thing really puts it into perspective. Why aren’t we living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland if this is the case? Save for the two dropped in anger, the overwhelming majority were detonated in a desert, or tundra, or on top of an isolated island in the Pacific. The worldwide environmental impact has been relatively minor, although the impact on the locations themselves was pretty much exactly what you’d expect from unleashing a miniature sun on a small patch of earth.

Nuclear weapons come in a variety of flavors -- from bombs designed to be dropped from a strategic bomber, to shell-mounted artillery versions intended to wipe out an army instead of a city, to so-called “suitcase nukes”, small enough to be discreetly buried beneath a building or carried in a truck. The most common and scariest modern version, however, and one that was an answer to the problem of how to hit hard and fast enough to win, is one attached to an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. Your standard Minuteman-III [1], which is the United States’ standard nuclear ICBM, is capable of being launched from its silo in a minute flat, at which point it will accelerate to about four and a half miles per second, hitting anywhere on the planet in less than an hour. The U.S. has about 450 of these weapons, split between various facilities and methods of delivery. Russia likely has more, China definitely has less; everyone else has to rely on shorter-ranged or submarine-mounted weapons, which the big three nuclear powers also have. A nuclear-mounted ICBM is a nightmare weapon, a relatively tiny tube hurtling along at a speed that defies interception, capable of delivering guaranteed annihilation to wherever its destination may be. It’s very nearly the worst thing we’ve ever designed.

And yet, it could have been even worse.

The list of never-developed or suspended superweapon projects reads like something out of a list of rejected schemes by a particularly reckless cartoon supervillain. There’s Project Babylon, a theoretical five-hundred foot long megacannon commissioned by Saddam Hussein and designed to shoot shells into orbit. Project MKULTRA, a favorite of conspiracy theorists the world over, was the CIA’s supposed attempt to develop psychic warriors and telepathic spies. There is an actual treaty -- the Environmental Modification Convention -- that specifically bans any attempt to modify the weather for military purposes, which tells you that, at some point, somebody in a DARPA or KGB lab somewhere made at least a cursory attempt to weaponise a hurricane, or deploy a tornado.

Many of these projects were abandoned for reasons of funding or feasibility, or interrupted by a change in regime, or (in Saddam’s case) the assassination of the man hired to actually build the damn thing. For the United States’ Project Pluto, however, the reason spoke to just how crazy the concept was -- it was too dangerous to test.

Project Pluto[2] was an attempt to develop a kind of hybrid between a bomber and a missile -- a so-called Supersonic Low Altitude Missile, or SLAM. Powered by a nuclear ramjet, Project Pluto would have been capable of staying aloft for a month at a time, cruising above the Pacific until called to engage in its final death spiral. While slower than a modern ICBM (Mach 3 or so versus the near-absurd Mach 23 of a Minuteman-III), Pluto would have been a model of fearsome complexity, a total weapon in every sense of the word.

Picture the final flight of a Pluto-class craft. The missile drops from its high-altitude holding pattern and screams along the Russian countryside at a height of a few hundred feet. It’s moving too fast and too low for radar to accurately track it, so shooting it down would be a matter of blind luck. As it reaches pre-determined targets, it would release part of its complement of hydrogen bombs, zooming out of range to drop another one before its first warhead hits the ground. Even being in the path of the weapon was hazardous -- scientists calculated that the shockwave from such a large object moving at supersonic speeds would kill anyone unlucky enough to be outside as the missile passed overhead.

Even if a lucky anti-aircraft battery managed to shoot Pluto down, it would not have been finished with its destructive mission. Nuclear ramjets make fine propulsion systems, but they’re leaky and unshielded. In addition to flattening the countryside with its sonic boom, Pluto would have spent the entirety of its flight spewing radioactivity in its path, contaminating a wide array of land. Even after its complement of warheads was expended, Pluto could continue to kill -- the suggestion was to simply have it fly back and forth across Russia, a supersonic plague-bearer, until it finally crashed into a worthy target. Launching something with Pluto’s capabilities would have been like giving a zombie a bazooka and a suicide vest, then setting him on fire.

Several things killed Pluto’s chances of being developed -- it was expensive, relatively slow, and considered a provocation that would spur the USSR to develop its own version of Pluto. The big hurdle, however, was a matter of simple practicality -- to create a weapon, you need to test it. Where do you go about testing a missile that leaks radiation? Pluto never got beyond a few engine prototypes, thankfully, but we were (and are) still entirely capable of building it.

The provocation argument is an interesting one, incidentally, because as we’re about to see, the Russians were entirely capable of designing their own psychotic weapons systems. Whereas Project Pluto was astoundingly complex and costly, the Tsar Bomba, Russia’s answer to the hard/fast problem, was relatively simple: it was a bomb, see, but a really really big one.

Nuclear weapons are measured in their equivalencies to dynamite--anything smaller can’t quite get the scale across without making the equations messy. The Little Boy bomb, dropped on Hiroshima, was approximately 15 kilotons -- 15,000 tons of TNT, enough to destroy the city  and kill 100,000 people right off the bat. In terms of today’s arsenal, Little Boy would be on the smaller end -- your typical ICBM would be more like a megaton -- a thousand kilotons, or one million tons of TNT.

The Tsar Bomba was 50 megatons[3], and that was only after they reduced it. The original plan called for 100.

What kind of destructive yield emanates from something that large? Plug the Tsar Bomba into the handy  Ground Zero simulator, and you’ll get an idea. To wit: if dropped on Manhattan, the deadlier effects of the bomb would have been felt halfway to Trenton, New Jersey. The less deadly effects, such as actually seeing the damn thing and feeling the shockwave, are best illustrated by this hackily-edited-in-MS-paint map:


The blast was so powerful that it almost knocked the plane that dropped it out of the sky, despite being slowed by a parachute to give the undoubtedly-terrified crew a chance to bang a U-turn and get the hell out of there. You can well imagine the type of devastation that would have resulted from thousands of these things being dropped across the United States and Europe.

As with Project Pluto, issues of practicality put paid to the Tsar Bomba’s future as an effective weapon, although there were plans on the table to ramp up the design to about 500 megatons, which is (in layman’s terms) Way Too Many Megatons. The test over Novaya Zemlya was the largest nuclear detonation ever on the planet, but it was the only one of its kind.

Neither Project Pluto nor the Tsar Bomba were ever used in anger, but the bare fact that they were developed at all makes humanity’s continued existence on this planet seem like a very happy accident. You watch old videos of nuclear survival public service announcements, advising kids to duck and cover if they see a flash, and it seems like the cruelest, most capricious advice imaginable. Duck under the poisonous runaway train in the sky. Cover yourself as a miniature star blooms outside your window. It’s a miracle we made this far.

Then again, those ICBMs are fueled and ready. They’re not as complex as Project Pluto, nor as powerful as the Tsar Bomba, but there are an awful lot of them.

Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at jddemartino@gmail.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.