FUD, fizzle, dud? Packing the suitcase.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006
There is no end of stuff on the web regarding the Norks and their "nuke". We've likely all seen reports that the Russians are certain it was a nuclear explosion in the 5kt to 15kt range as well as US doubts that it was even a nuclear explosion. Just today we have two very widely diverging articles about this matter. Richard Miniter (at PJM) brings us Was North Korea’s Blast a Suitcase Nuke? Not Likely. John Batchelor brings us Persian Hands (ht: Charles commenting at Belmont Club).

Miniter gives us a reasonably well done explanation for why it was not a "suitcase nuke". Essentially his argument is that there never were suitcase nukes. His conclusion:
For now, suitcase-sized nuclear bombs remain in the realm of James Bond movies. Given the limitations of physics and engineering, no nation seems to have invested the time and money to make them. Both U.S. and the USSR built nuclear mines (as well as artillery shells), which were small but hardly portable—and all were dismantled by treaty by 2000. Alexander Lebed’s claims and those of defector Stanislev Lunev were not based on direct observation. The one U.S. official who saw a small nuclear device said it was the size of three footlockers—hardly a suitcase. For now, the desire to obliterate cities is portable—inside the heads of believers— while, thankfully, the nuclear devices to bring that about are not.
That's fine, I'll take his word for it.

Batchelor tells us that the Iranians bought and paid for both the recent Nork missile test and the nuke test and that both were technical and strategic successes. His conclusion:

The U.N. Security Council warned the North Koreans not to fire the nuke or else. The U.N. Security Council warned the Iranians that it must cease enrichment of uranium or else.

The else clock is running. The six-party talks in East Asia to contain Pyongyang are a sham. The European Union talks in Geneva to contain Tehran are a sham. The U.N. Security Council talks in New York to contain the nuclear weapons proliferators are a sham. The only confab to wait out is the Congressional elections. After that, and regardless of how much noise the appeasers make in the House of Representatives, the fleet sails to defend America and enforce civilization.

That's fine, I'll take his word for it.

Over the past two days I've read twice through Wikipedia's entry about Nuclear Artillery. I am reluctant to give too much weight to Wikipedia. There's no good reason, however, to doubt the accuracy of this particular entry. This stuff about nuclear artillery kept bothering me and what eventually came to mind was the old joke about the two buddies who were camping together. They exited their tent one morning to find a grizzly bear rumaging around. One of them calmly sat down and laced up his sneakers upon which the other commented,

"You don't think you can outrun that bear, do you?"

The answer was, "Of course not. But I don't have to outrun the bear. I just need to outrun you."

On one level nothing more than a little joke about paying attention to the problem one needs to solve and focusing on that rather than what might seem the more obvious problem.

When thinking about nuclear weapons and explosions we tend to see the grizzly bear; mutually assured destruction, entire cities wiped out by ICBMs. Nuclear winters. The end of days. Military thinkers, on the other hand, think about their potential enemies, terrain, logistics, strategy, and tactics. There were reasons, and probably quite good ones, that they developed nuclear artillery shells. And other reasons, again probably quite good ones, that they eventually removed them from inventory.

When reading the Wikipedia article one can see the rather boring and seemingly uninteresting development of various forms of nuclear artillery rounds from 280mm (11 inch diameter), nearly 5 ft. long, 1,000 lb. monsters with yields of several kiltotons of TNT down through smaller sizes, just a few hundred lbs, sub-100 ton yields and ultimately weapons that weighed less than a hundred pounds and yielded as little as 10 tons. I suppose it should be noted that was not limited to "artillery". There were also "mines" known as SADMs (Special Atomic Demolition Munition). The Soviets also engaged in developing these sorts of nukes. And, IIRC, both sides almost certainly developed nuclear torpedos and such.

The point is that these were all tactical weapons. Miniter would seem to have us believe that something which can't be fit into a suitcase and thunked down onto the scale at the airline counter is not "portable". We needn't worry, I suppose, about a terrorist hopping aboard a commercial airliner with a suitcase nuke. OK. But....

Things that weigh 100 - 1,000 pounds might not be suitable for packaging up as luggage but they can be quite portable. There's nary a landscaper alive who can't haul 1,000 lbs a reasonable distance. All you need is lift and a half-ton pickemup. Get yerself a forklift and a small flatbed or dumper and heck, they're small, take two. Something weighing 200 lbs can be manhandled
into all but the tiniest autos by two men and a little boy. I don't find the idea that it twarn't no suitcase nuke the Norks fired up all that comforting.

Batchelor tells us that the Persians, via the Norks, have amply demonstrated both the missile technology and sufficiently small warhead to have created a strategic deterent. Perhaps.

But still.... this idea of nuclear artillery and mines and torpedos - tactical weapons - keeps bothering me. It started when I finally read, instead of scanning, the following:
Other developments also continued. In 1958 a fusion warhead was developed and tested, the UCRL Swift. It was 622 mm long, 127 mm diameter, and weighed 43.5 kg. At its test it yielded only 190 tons; it failed to achieve fusion and only the initial fission explosion worked correctly.
The UCRL Swift was a dud. It fizzled. It was supposed to use a fission explosion to achieve the desired fusion explosion. No fusion, just fission. A fizzling dud.

Next I noticed this:
The Mk-54 Davy Crockett... [w]eighing only 23 kg, the warhead in its casing was 400 mm by 273 mm... yielded 10 tons, but later developments increased that to 1 kt... The warhead was also adapted for the Mk-54 SADM (Special Atomic Demolition Munition), a cylinder 40 cm by 60 cm and weighing 68 kg. Fired by a mechanical timer, it had a variable yield from 10 tons up to 1 kt. (emphasis mine)
That was the late 50's and early 60's. Mechanical timers... variable yield...

I am not a Jimmah-like nukular engineer, I don't play one on TV, and I didn't sleep at a Holiday Inn last night. I am a self-admitted knucklehead. Sometimes I'm downright stupid. But... ummm... this variable yield business, from nearly 50 years ago, sounds like dialing up from fizzling dud to "let's plug the Fulda Gap" to me. OK, OK, 1kt isn't going to plug the Fulda Gap. But....
In 1991 the US unilaterally withdrew its nuclear artillery shells from service, and Russia responded in kind in 1992. The US removed around 1,300 nuclear shells from Europe...
Thirteen-hundred tactical nukes in Europe. Why? By then we had hundreds (thousands?) of strategic nukes. MAD had no use for tactical nukes. But MAD was never "assured". Would we really have responded to a dozen Soviet armored divisions pouring into the Fulda Gap by initiating nuclear annihilation? On the one hand it is enough that the Soviets believed we might. On the other hand it might have been a whole lot more sane to plug the gap with really large craters and piles of rubble and a couple wiped out Soviet armored divisions to delay the remainder long enough to try and avert MAD. No cities lost, just some tanks and bridges and roads and a few farms and other sorts of collateral damage. Let's all just calm down, no need to go gettin' all disproportionate.

The Persions and Norks allegedly have only limited supplies of weapons grade material. Would they really be viewing a handful of small nukes atop a handful of rockets as a true strategic deterent? Or would they figure that one man's tactics are another man's strategy and taking out an aircraft carrier and a big chunk of the battle group, an airbase or two, and a couple Stryker brigades might serve their strategic purposes quite well.

Like I said, sometimes I'm just flat out stupid. And I'm always a knucklehead. But unlike Mr. Miniter I don't really give a hoot about nukes the size of suitcases. I have a more expansive idea of what is "portable" and, therefore, useful for terrorism. And unlike Mr. Batchelor I don't think the Persians or Norks would view a handful of small nuclear-armed missiles as adequate for strategic deterence. If I were them I'd be thinking smaller than that.


Skookumchuk said...

I have often thought exactly the same thing. Were I a terrorist planner, I would not strike at American civilians again. I would strike at those Americans that the left and the MSM don't like or understand - the US military. Small tactical nukes would be ideal for this. And I might wait until some Pelosiesque Democratic Adminstration, since you as a terrorist just might get away with blowing up a barracks in Beirut or a carrier in the Suez Canal without fearing the draconian response that would follow if the same nuke hit an American city. Maybe. Certainly in the eyes of the world you could get away with it. After all, those Murcan hick Jesusland babykillers really had it coming.

Syl said...

Good stuff, Knuck!

Pastorius said...

Thanks for putting all that info together Knucklehead.

I think you might be giving the Iranians a bit too much credit in the reason dept. Basically, in believing that they would be developing nukes for use on the battlefield you are saying you don't believe them when they talk about wiping Israel off the map, or about there being "29 sensitive sites in the United States."

You believe all that was a bunch of Arab bluster (yes, I know Iranians aren't Arab). I stopped believing in Arab bluster on 9/11.

Now, I just take them at their word.

Knucklehead said...


I take them at their word. As I mentioned re: Miniter's article I don't subscribe to the notion that "portable" means one person can carry it around. A nuclear bomb that would fit in an 8 ft. x 4 ft. x 4 ft. crate, regardless of whether it "fizzles" to a mere fission powered 1, 5, or 15 kt, or .5 kt, meets my definition of a portable nuke suitable for terrorist purposes.

The point I think I'm trying to make is that there is a difference between rational (or reasoned) thought - or lack thereof - and stupidity. I don't for a moment think the Iranians or Norks will behave with anything I consider rationality. If they can strike they will.

But they aren't stupid. They know full they don't need a device the size of a suitcase. And they know they can't build dozens of hi-tech, powerful devices and mount them on missles. They aren't going to build an ICBM force capable of wiping out the US.

And using a device or three on a "battlefield" such as the Persian Gulf to wipe out an aircraft carrier and/or an airfield in the UAA or Qattar and/or an armored brigade formed up near their border doesn't mean they couldn't use another one or three slipped into a US port.

They probably cannot build more than a handful of relatively small nukes. I give them credit for enough "reason" to figure out how to put those to most effective use.

Consider if the US did decide it was time to put Iran out of our misery. They don't really live in the stone age. The do have submarines and such. You don't have to get a nuke all that close to a carrier to wipe it out.

What portion of the moonbat world wouldn't believe the Iranians, or Norks, justified in the use of a "tactical" level nuclear weapon defending their poor, little, swarthy and authentic selves from the Big Bad Great Satan?

Do you believe the US would respond to a tactical level nuke (the loss of, say, some capital ships and six or eight thousand sailors) with a strategic nuclear attack? I'm not at all sure we'd do such a thing. I'm not even certain My Fellow Citizens in a large enough majority would support continuing military effort against the Iranians and/or Norks if they hit us hard enough with a tactical level device.

And even if it were a port city or they managed to transport the crate inland to KC or wherever - an act of terrorism - would we REALLY respond with strategic nukes? The whole point of pulling it off that way is so that we can't instantly prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, who did it. Are we going to annihilate Iran and North Korea both?

My suggestion, or perhaps my fear, is that the Norks and Persians have options that we may not respond to. They don't need either extremely large or extremely small nukes. And they certainly don't need ICBM delivery systems. They just need the really large devestation that even a small, even a "fizzled" device can create. In some ways smaller is better.

I'd be less concerned about this Nork Nuke thing if they'd demonstrated an undeniable 300 kt. Then we could tell ourselves they can only build a very few crude and large devices. Small is worse as far as I'm concerned. They can build more of them and they are more transportable.

Skookumchuk said...


The whole point of pulling it off that way is so that we can't instantly prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, who did it.

That, too. Just like anthrax. If you can't know - perhaps will never know - you can't respond.

Either way, whether they plan to attack US forces abroad, which I think might be easier, or if they smuggle one in to a US city, you can't respond if you can't prove who did it.

Rick Ballard said...

"you can't respond if you can't prove who did it."

Sure you can. At some point, if the disruption is great enough, we'll vaporize Mecca and Qum and see what happens afterward. We're a very long way from that point of disruption but you're positing an unchanging political will and historically that isn't a good bet.

If a third of the population is strongly motivated then nothing is off the table. It's never taken a majority to get to the "let's finish this" state. Not in Revolutionary times, not in the Civil War and not to begin involvement in the fighting in WWI or Korea or Vietnam. WWII is the exception rather than the rule and if Hitler hadn't invaded Russia even it wouldn't have been an exception.

Skookumchuk said...

At some point, if the disruption is great enough, we'll vaporize Mecca and Qum and see what happens afterward.

Yes, if it is great enough. But would a dirty bomb that equates to an Oklahoma City times two with say ten radiation deaths be enough to do it? How about one such event every ten years? Would that do it? What we don't want is to become inured to a series of "small" attacks so that these become the norm.

loner said...

And even if it were a port city or they managed to transport the crate inland to KC or wherever - an act of terrorism - would we REALLY respond with strategic nukes?

We would.

Skookumchuk said...

It's never taken a majority to get to the "let's finish this" state.

And that is also very true. And it may well come to that. Still, it is better to know than to not know.

Pastorius said...

Ok, now I understand your point. Thanks for clarifying.

Rick Ballard said...


This is an excellent piece. Thanks for taking the time.

Knucklehead said...

Rick & Syl,

Thanks for the compliments.

I've long been bothered by this apparent notion that nations/regimes such as the Norks and Persians are too Authentic (tm) and Savagely Noble to engineer things that US engineers managed from scratch a half century ago.

Since I have far less doubt than seems the CW that these poor, oppressed victims can manage some tricky engineering for which the basic science has been pretty well known for a long time I further presume they are capable of pondering how to use the products to whatever they consider their best advantage.

At some point it doesn't matter that they are apocalyptic nutballs. They have their vision and they conjure their schemes. They surely have people who advise how to best use the limited tools and resources available to achieve the vision.

Serial killers, mass murderers, ghoulish thugs like Saddam, Hitler, Stalin (the list is long) are, to my way of thinking anyway, clearly nutballs. But if they were just stark raving madmen they wouldn't actually accomplish the evil things they accomplish.

Stark raving madmen manage to kill a few people over a short time. They are the loons who do things like execute a bunch of Amish school girls and then kill themselves or get killed or surrender and spend the rest of their miserable lives in cages.

The truly successful versions of evil madmen are quite good at developing pragmatic methods to achieve their mad visions. They evaluate the world around them to identify the dangers and obstacles they need to be wary of and overcome.

If I'm Lil' Kimmie Ill or Ahmanutter I'm looking out and recognizing the fact that the US military can annihilate me and prevent me from achieving my sick vision. I need to find some way to negate that power and I need to do it with the resources available to me. These nuts aren't the Penguin planning to sieze Metropolis. They are real people who understand the power of "small" actions and milestones along the path to their goals. Their actions will, IMHO, be much more calculated than we are willing to give them credit for. That doesn't mean they are "rational" as we see it, just that they are capable of calculating their moves.

It seems clear to me that a lot of My Fellow Citizens just cannot wrap their minds around the reality of sick nutballs. Nor, apparently, can our "intelligence community". I have stronger faith in our military, but they don't run the show.

Skookumchuk said...


They are real people who understand the power of "small" actions and milestones along the path to their goals. Their actions will, IMHO, be much more calculated than we are willing to give them credit for.

Again, excellent. And part of that is simply having a little sailboat blow up in a harbor or the right kind of aerosol dispersed in a subway station and nobody taking the credit or ever getting caught, with predictable results - a bunch of Americans blaming each other for a generation and the Europeans gloating their heads off. That sort of thing is one of their objectives.