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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Tsar Bomba - Western Reaction

On October 30, 1961, the USSR tested the most powerful hydrogen bomb in the history of mankind AN602 Tsar Bomba. And although AN602 was tested in a half version and not at full capacity, its TNT equivalent of an explosion was equal to about 58 million tons, which is a record among all nuclear explosions produced on Earth. The bomb could have been delivered to targets in the United States using the large UR-500 rocket. This Proton SL-9 is a two stage launch vehicle ICBM concept, the precursor to the four stage SL-12 Proton-Zond manned lunar circumnavigation spacecraft prototype and later SL-12 three stage Proton-Salyut/Mir/ISS launch vehicle.

The explosion of the Soviet superbomb on 30 October 1961, if less than its initial impact, no doubt contributed to some enduring beliefs in larger Soviet weapons. In the United States, the Department of Defense (DoD) typically tasked national labs to design and build nuclear weapons that produced the specific yield required to destroy one or several types of specific targets. Too little yield and the weapon would fail to destroy the target; too much and the blast would cause unanticipated, unintended, and/or undesirable consequences. The weapon should, for example, have a yield whose subsequent effects would destroy the enemy’s missile base but not harm the nearby town. From the U.S. perspective, the goal was to eliminate an adversary’s ability to fight, not wipe them out. So the yield of U.S. nuclear weapons needed to be like Baby Bear’s porridge: not too cold and not too hot, but just right.

How important a 100 megaton bomb may appear, however, when lesser bombs are already so overwhelming may be questioned. The 100 megaton weapon seemed not merely to correspond with Khrushchev’s natural instinct for magnitude but also to have valuable potential military importance and to pose a further difficult requirement for a defence system, at a time when it is not yet clear that defence will be possible even against missiles which must come much closer to their target before exploding. Even without this complication nobody knows whether either side will really be able to solve the immensely complicated problems of an anti-missile defensive system, towards which these are the first halting steps.

A January 1960 Khrushchev statement referring to a ‘fantastic weapon’ then in the hatching stage may have referred to the 100 megaton bomb.

In May 1961, two Soviet KGB officers deliberately revealed themselves as such to a CIA officer, and told him that they knew he was a CIA officer. The spokesman for the two then asked twice ‘very positively’ that the CIA officer inform Washington that the Soviet Government was soon to make a very important announcement on development of a Soviet military capability which ‘would not be used against the West but would be very effective against the Chinese.’

John J. McCloy, President’s Adviser on Disarmament, met with Khrushchev at latter’s dacha in Putsunda, south of Sochi, 26-27 July 1961. Khrushchev stated that Soviet scientists believed 100 megaton bomb would be most economical cost-wise. He said the Soviets had a rocket capable of lifting such bomb. However, such bomb would require testing. Khrushchev asserted he had told his scientists perhaps US would resume testing and thus help them test their bomb.

Nikita Khrushchev, on 09 August 1961, stated "You do not have 50 and 100 megaton bombs. We have bombs stronger than 100 megatons. We placed Gagarin and Titov in space and we can replace them with other loads that can be directed to any place on earth."

On 30 August 1961, Moscow announced that it would resume atmospheric testing, and forecast explosions running from twenty to 100 megatons. On 5 September, after the Soviets’ third atmospheric explosion, President Kennedy announced a resumption of testing “in the laboratory and underground and with no fallout.”

On August 31, 1961, the President held several meetings to discuss Soviet resumption of nuclear testing. Glenn T. Seaborg, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from March 1, 1961, raised the question of whether the 100-megaton bomb might not have terrible consequences if exploded in the ocean near some populous centers by creating a tidal wave, etc. McNamara and Lemnitzer felt that this was not a serious matter, that this already could be done with some of the smaller weapons.

McNamara recommended that the President say the US had a bomb in the stockpile which can be delivered by current aircraft and that it saw no requirement for bombs of 60-80-100 megatons. He wanted to report that the US believed it could build a 50-megaton bomb within the delivery capability of currently available aircraft and based on currently known technology so that further testing would not be required. The US could also build a 100-megaton bomb deliverable by the B-52, but it would have to be based on a new design which would require testing.

In a wide-ranging interview with C. L. Sulzberger of The New York Times, the Soviet Premier told Sulzberger that the development of several “super powerful bombs” would force the “aggressors to think twice” and that theUSSR was obliged to assure itself of “no lesser capability” than the US, Britain, and France. He claimed that “we shall continue the tests we have started because we cannot ignore the danger that now is being created by the Western countries.” His reference to testing a 100-megaton device, however, was amended to read only the “explosive device” for such a weapon.

On 08 September 1961 the Soviet Union through its official army newspaper, Krasnaya Zvesda, (Red Star) declared today it would drop 100 megaton bombs on bases in England, Germany, Japan or elsewhere in case of a war with the United States. On 10 September 1961, the Soviet Union announced that it would fire a series of "more powerful and improved rockets" into the central Pacific in tests, between Sept. 13 and Oct. 15.

On 15 September 1961 Khrushchev told a visiting delegation of Japanese socialist members of parliament that the Soviet Union has developed a ‘monstrous new, terrible weapon.’ He stated that on 14 September he had been shown a weapon of terrible destruction by military men, scientists and engineers. He is quoted as having said, ‘I have never seen anything like it. It is a method of destroying and exterminating mankind. It is the strongest and most powerful of existing weapons. Its power is limitless.’ The choice of audience, and the context in which Khrushchev’s statement regarding the new weapon was delivered, suggest that he intended the threat implied by this new development to be taken as directed primarily against the Chinese.

In 1961 "new information" [ie, satellite imagery], providing a much firmer base for estimates on Soviet long range ballistic missiles, caused a sharp downward revision in US estimated of present Soviet ICBM strength [National Intelligence Estimate, NIE 11–8/1–61, 21 September 1961]. The US now estimated that the present Soviet ICBM strength is in the range of 10–25 launchers from which missiles can be fired against the US, and that this force level will not increase markedly during the months immediately ahead. The US did not believe that present Soviet capabilities include a missile warhead with 100 megaton yield or a ballistic vehicle capable of delivering such a warhead to intercontinental ranges.

Khrushchev told the 22nd Soviet Communist Party Congress in mid-October 1961 the nuclear testing resumed in September probably would end with the explosion of the superbomb by the end of the month. He said it would be in the 50 megaton range, and added that the Soviet Union had a 100-megaton bomb but would not explode it.

On 17 October 1961 the United States called upon the Soviet Union to reconsider the planned explosion of a fifty-megaton atomic weapon. "Since 1957 the United States has had the technical know-how and materials to produce bombs in the 50-100 megaton range and higher. But we also know that such weapons are not essential to our military needs."

The Associated Press reported 30 October 1961 "Defying world opinion, the Soviet Union today set off in the Arctic the mightiest man made bomb in history. European scientists said it was at least of 50-megaton strength and may have been larger, perhaps even in the 100-megaton range."

Dr. Ralph Lapp, nuclear scientist, expressed belief that the Russian superbomb was a “very dirty” one which would lead to a marked increase next spring in nuclear fallout in the United States. This might have been true if the initially planned three stage [fission-fusion-fission] design had been tested. In this case, possibly half of the entire 100-MT yield would ahve been from the fission third stage. In fact, the third stage was omitted from the 58-MT test. The tested bomb charge was "clean", the thermonuclear reaction accounted for about 97% of the total active substance. And the remaining 3%, i.e. 1.5 megatons were radioactive due to dirty fission. US Public Health Service authorities expressed the view that the Russian nuclear tests will not increase fallout to point where changes in American habits, or diets would be necessary.

American specialists themselves concretized the possible consequences of a nuclear attack on the United States by that power of charges possessed by the Soviet Union. "Only one 100 megaton warhead", they wrote, "dropped on New York, would destroy practically everything in a radius of approximately 36 kilometers and would elicit firestorms and radioactive fallout which would cover the territory of whole states."

The White House said the super-bomb was on the order of 50 megatons and “was a political rather than a military act". A formal statement described the Russian test as “primarily an incitement to frighten and panic the cold war.” It said it did not affect the basic balance of nuclear power.

The statement said the Soviet Union has “deliberately overridden the expressed hope of the world" as stated in the resolution adopted by the U.N. General Assembly two days earlier. The White House said that while the United States itself has ample military power to destroy any nation which could unleash thermonuclear war, ‘We have no wish to use this military power” and are ready as ever to sign a test-ban treaty or to negotiate a treaty for general and complete disarmament.

The DoD Damage Assessment Center (DODDAC) began operating in the Pentagon and at the underground Alternate National Military Command Center (ANMCC) at Fort Ritchie, Maryland, in 1961. In late 1961, at White House request, DASA analyzed the effects of a 100-megaton weapon on the ANMCC, and on proposed Washington, D.C. underground facilities, after the Soviets tested the 58-megaton device.

According to National Intelligence Estimate NIE 11-8-62, July 6, 1962 "The weight of nuclear attack which the USSR could launch will increase with the growth of long range striking forces and a general upward trend in weapon yields. Within the next few years, limited numbers of very high yield weapons in the 25-100 megaton range will be available for delivery by bombers and probably ICBMs... A few very high yield bombs of 25 MT, or even 100 MT, could now be available. It is possible that a few ICBMs capable of delivering these very high yield weapons could be available within the next two years."

In 1962, with respect to the value of a 100 megaton warhead, Edward Teller made the point that if an anti-ballistic missile defense was successful, it very probably would not be able to interdict an incoming nuclear warhead at altitudes above 50,000 or 60,000 feet. He pointed out if this was the case, the 100 megaton explosion at 60,000 feet would be devastating to vast areas (although not to hardened bases); therefore it was concluded that there is a need for warheads of this yield.

By 1963, the JCS had developed a need for a high-yield weapon for use against particular targets and for availability in about four years or more. They explained that the weapon was to be delivered by a B-52, would be a lay-down bomb, and would be more effective against certain Soviet targets than existing weapons. The AEC would develop a lay-down bomb that would weigh 35,000 pounds, could be carried in a B-52, would utilize known technology, no testing would be necessary, the cost would be $20 million, the development period about four years. A more sophisticated and lighter high-yield weapon giving a yield of maximum value from a military point of view would require testing.

On 21 May 1963, President Kennedy instructed AEC to give consideration to the development of a sophisticated high-yield bomb, rather than one based on present technology, and also instructed Defense to look into the question of a delivery system. McGeorge Bundy issued NSAM No. 245, which stated that the President had reviewed the problem of developing a high-yield nuclear weapon and had requested that the problem be re-examined, with attention to be “directed also to the question of developing a high-yield warhead to be delivered by presently programmed missile systems.”

By 1963 a test ban would freeze the present status of nuclear weapons except for modest refinements which can be accomplished in the laboratories without testing. This would mean that the Soviets would preserve their lead in weapons ranging from 6,000# to 25,000# in weight and in yields from 13 to 100 megatons. US estimates led to the conclusions that the Soviets possessed missile delivery warheads of about 25 megatons and were in the process of developing a missile which can deliver a 100-megaton warhead. It was apparent that these large warheads can destroy vast areas from thermal effect if the large megaton warheads are exploded at high altitude. It did not appear that weapons of this type would be useful against US hardened missile sites.

On September 9, 1963, the interim report by the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee, appointed under Senate Resolution 75 of the 88th Congress, on the milltary implications of the proposed limited nuclear test ban treaty, concluded "By virtue of its large, multimegaton weapon tests, it is prudent to assume that the Soviet Union has acquired a unique and potentially valuable body of data on high yield blast, shock, communications blackout, and radiation and electromagnetic phenomena which is not available to the United States. Furthermore, due to the absence of comparable experiments, the United States is not now in a position to evaluate realistically the m111tary effectiveness of the Soviet 50 to 100 megaton terror weapons."

But the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified that they "have not regarded as important the attainment of weapons in the 100-megaton range". They feel that "the types and numbers of megaton-yield weapons available to us now or in the future could give us an adequate capability in the high-yield weapon range." And the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in response to a direct question on this point, replied: "I attach very little importance to this, frankly, Senator. The whole very high yield weapons field is one which has very little, if any, military significance."

National Intelligence Estimate, NIE 11–8–63, 18 October 1963, stated "We continue to believe that the Soviets are developing a large vehicle (with a million or more pounds of thrust), which could be used as a space booster, as a “global” rocket, or as a carrier for warheads yielding up to 100 MT. If test firings begin within the next few months, such a large vehicle could probably have an initial operational capability as an ICBM in the period mid-1965 to mid-1966."

As late as June 1964, Director, Defense Research and Engineering, Department of Defense Harold Brown said that there is no approved program for high yield tests, but he said that tests in the Whetstone program will help us be ready to test weapons in the 100-megaton range should that become desirable. Secretary McNamara said that this aspect of the program is not very expensive, and he thinks that work along this line should continue.

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Page last modified: 16-11-2021 11:34:43 ZULU