61 Years Ago Today

As the old U of C cheer goes: “We are great and we are grand; we make bombs beneath our stands!” Well, not exactly, of course, but I cannot imagine that this event will ever be surpassed at Chicago.
In last year’s anniversary post over on Arcturus I concentrated on the prospects for nuclear power, and some of the risk-management issues associated with it. There are other points of departure … far too many for one post: it was the beginning of Big Science, the beginning of the Atomic Age, the beginning of the first true weapon of mass destruction, the beginning of the end of Imperial Japan, and the beginning of the first real check on Soviet power. Were it not for Project Apollo, it would have been remembered as the greatest milestone of science and technology in the 20th century.
And in spite of Apollo, what happened in Chicago that day has led to a thus-far-inextricable association of military rockets with WMDs. We can project indiscriminate military force to any point on Earth’s surface in three-quarters of an hour. We have had this capability since before I was born, and I am well into middle age. Any use of an intercontinental missile necessarily means mass death; the development of even intermediate-range missiles by authoritarian regimes is among the greatest existing threats to civilization.
Conversely, conventional military capabilities take much longer to act on their targets. Whereas nuclear missiles can be dispatched at a moment’s notice, travel at speeds of the order of 10 km/sec, reach targets anywhere in the world in less than an hour, and involve energetic events of tens of kilotons or greater — non-nuclear weapons, by contrast, may require days to months to prepare for use, are delivered at (low) hundreds of meters per second over many hours (more than a day, in the case of B-2s flying out of Whiteman AFB to Kosovo), cannot reach some areas at all, and pack a punch of, at most, a few metric tons TNT equivalent.
The graph below is a crude representation of this duality (quadrality?). In quadrant I are the WMDs, characterized by energies of up to 1022 ergs or thereabouts, and deliverable in timeframes as short as 103 seconds. In quadrant IV are the much less destructive devices, down to less than 1 kg TNT equivalent, deliverable only over much longer periods, up to months.






























At present, quadrant II weapons do not exist. But what if it were otherwise, that is, if we could deliver non-nuclear weapons (and other military assets) onto targets with the ease and at the speed of weapons in quadrant I? What if rockets could somehow be used to apply discriminate force, to conduct the kind of precise, nonlinear operations that are the centerpiece of US military strikes?
This is not a remotely original idea. Here is a diagram from Bono & Gatland’s Frontiers of Space:

This vehicle, proposed over 30 years ago, was intended to deliver two battalions of soldiers halfway around the planet in less than an hour. A smaller version was to carry 200 troops. Other configurations were to carry heavy weaponry and materiel. But the best present-day application might be something that could deploy a squadron of these.
Just as I was drafting this post, Mike Daley earned “regular contributor” status on Arcturus by sending along Speed Kills, Military Wants More, in which we read that

Speed is becoming an increasingly crucial component of how American forces fight. In the Gulf War, it took days for the U.S. military to identify a target and put a bomb on it. In recent engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, that process was cut to as little as 20 minutes, in some cases.
But this quick response only happens when there are bombers and cruise missiles in the immediate neighborhood. If U.S. forces receive a tip that terrorists are in a part of the world where they don’t have American planes in the sky, it can take hours, or days, to act on that information.
With its proposed speed and range, the Falcon project — co-sponsored by the Air Force and Darpa, the Pentagon’s research arm — aims to make just about the whole world a dangerous place to be a bad guy.

(You can read more about Falcon here, and thumbnails of graphics are here. Perhaps the ultimate example of this sort of thing was, of course, Project Thor. You’ll just have to take my word for it that I wrote the rest of this post before reading the Wired News article.)
In general, quadrant II weapons would greatly ease the constraints of time and expense imposed by the need to have bases located within a few hundred kilometers of the target area. With an array of such vehicles in place, we need no longer spend precious days and weeks in negotiation with jittery allies, or spend billions laboriously staging the relevant weaponry just over the border from an obnoxious regime’s territory. One more reason to keep an eye on the X Prize.

What about quadrant III — slow WMDs? As originally conceived, nuclear weapons fell into this category. Obviously, they don’t now — for us. But terrorist WMDs might fit Einstein and Szilard’s description all too well: “A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.”

5 thoughts on “61 Years Ago Today”

  1. My father worked at Argonne National Lab (operated by the UC) for about 20 years. During that time he spent a number of years developing and testing nuclear reactors. It may not make me popular in the social set, but I share Jay’s pride in this incredible achievement. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is. These scientists and engineers stood in the adjacent room while the reaction occurred. I can think of few instances outside of combat where people layed their lives on the line in such a dramatic fashion to test their theories. They are true American heroes one and all (in the ballsy American sense, not necessarily in Nationality).

    Jim English

  2. Jay, I am liking all this.

    I like the picture of the hypersonic troop transport very, very much.

    There was an article in the Atlantic a few years ago, about how the proliferation of ballistic missiles, even with conventional warheads was going to make our overseas bases untenable. The author’s prescription: haul down the flag and retreat to CONUS. (I love that: “CONUS”. It sounds so 1950s SF — I imagine a man in a silver jumpsuit coming out of a silver rocketship, “greetings, citizens of CONUS!”). But, as John Belushi (another ChicagoBoy for our masthead?) used to say “…noooo”. Forget overseas bases — we’ll base everything here, behind an ABM shield, and be able to arrive with the whole picnic set, troops, guns, ammo, etc., with 45 minutes notice. Of course, we will precede the landing with a wave of attacks launched from our hypersonic drones, which will fling tungsten bars at Mach 4 through the roofs of all identified bad guys in the area. (It all reminds me of Starship Troopers, except EVEN BETTER.)

  3. “Were it not for Project Apollo, it (the first atomic chain reaction) would have been remembered as the greatest milestone of science and technology in the 20th century.”

    I’d definitely rate the Wright Brothers above Apollo. Precisely because it was probably the last last milestone of science and technology to take place outside a university or industrial research lab.

    Discovery of antibiotics, the Green Revolution and computing have had a much greater impact on the daily life of the average person. The discovery of DNA and mapping of the human genome have not yet made their full effect known.

    With all this talk about CONUS, rapid delivery and time on target, the next thing you know people will be resurrecting the nuclear airplane to add to the list.

  4. Dyson pointed out in Weapons and Hope that the nuclear airplane had two problems, one minor, one major. The minor problem was that the reactor could not be adequately shielded within the weight limitations of the airplane. The major problem was that nobody could figure out what the airplane’s mission was.

    Being able to hit a WMD depot or command bunker in the ‘stans without a) killing a million people or b) spending three months and $20 billion staging the necessary hardware does not pose such problems. I expect, however, that there would be quite a tussle over the launch of a space-based weapon to be left in orbit for possible future use against targets on Earth.

    Practical technological advances do indeed deserve to be the big stories, but they usually aren’t; see, for example, this list, on which the Wright Bros come in 4th (and looks like I’m wrong about Apollo 11 beating out the Bomb). That’s a fun site — try comparing the male and female results.

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