Nuclear weapons delivery: Wikis


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Nuclear weapons delivery is the technology and systems used to place a nuclear weapon at the position of detonation, on or near its target. Several methods have been developed to carry out this task.

Strategic nuclear weapons are used primarily as part of a doctrine of deterrence by threatening large targets, such as cities. These usually have very large explosive yield. Weapons meant for use in limited military maneuvers, such as destroying specific military, communications, or infrastructure targets, are known as tactical nuclear weapons, and are usually of much smaller yields. Differentiating the two based on yield can be problematic, however. The bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 (with yields between 15 and 22 kilotons) would perhaps be considered tactical by today's standards, though they were used strategically.

Main delivery mechanisms


Gravity bomb

The first nuclear weapons, such as the "Little Boy" and the "Fat Man" devices, were large and cumbersome gravity bombs.

Historically the first method of delivery, and the method used in the two nuclear weapons actually used in warfare, is as a gravity bomb, by a bomber. In the years leading up to the development and deployment of nuclear-armed missiles, nuclear bombs represented the most practical means of nuclear weapons delivery; even today, and especially with the decommissioning of nuclear missiles, aerial bombing remains the primary means of offensive nuclear weapons delivery, and the majority of U.S. nuclear warheads are represented in bombs.

No nuclear weapon qualifies as a "wooden bomb" — US military slang for a bomb that is trouble-free, maintenance-free, and danger-free under all conditions. Gravity bombs are designed to be dropped from planes, which requires that the weapon can withstand vibrations and changes in air temperature and pressure during the course of a flight. Early weapons often had a removable core for safety, installed by the air crew during flight. They had to meet safety conditions, to prevent accidental detonation or dropping. A variety of types also had to have a fuse to initiate detonation. US nuclear weapons that met these criteria are designated by the letter "B" followed, without a hyphen, by the sequential number of the "physics package" it contains. The "B61", for example, was the primary bomb in the US arsenal for decades.

Various air-dropping techniques exist, including toss bombing, parachute-retarded delivery, and laydown modes, intended to give the dropping aircraft time to escape the ensuing blast.

The early gravity nuclear bombs could only be carried by the B-29 Superfortress. The next generation of weapons were still so big and heavy that they could only be carried by bombers such as the B-52 Stratofortress and V bombers, but by the mid-1950s smaller weapons had been developed that could be carried and deployed by fighter-bombers. Today, the United States would deploy B-2 Spirit Stealth Bombers, although they have never been used in those situations.

Ballistic missile

A MIRVed missile (such as the LGM-118A Peacekeeper) can hold multiple nuclear warheads on one missile bus.

Missiles using a ballistic trajectory usually deliver a warhead over the horizon. Some ballistic missiles may have a range of hundreds to thousands of kilometers, while larger intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), including submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), carry out a sub-orbital spaceflight.

Historically, the Soviet Fractional Orbital Bombardment System was designed to carry out a partial orbital spaceflight: a low Earth orbit, with deorbiting after less than one full orbit. The system was phased out in January 1983 in compliance with the SALT II treaty.

An ICBM is more than 20 times as fast as a bomber and more than 10 times as fast as a fighter plane, and also flying at a much higher altitude, and therefore more difficult to defend against.

Early ballistic missiles carried a single warhead, often of megaton-range yield. Because of the limited accuracy of the missiles, this kind of high yield was considered necessary in order to ensure a particular target's destruction. Since the 1970s modern ballistic weapons have seen the development of far more accurate targeting technologies, particularly due to improvements in inertial guidance systems. This set the stage for ICBMs with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) with up to a dozen independently targetable warheads, usually in the hundreds-of-kilotons-range yield, on one ballistic platform (missile bus). This has a number of advantages over a missile with a single warhead. Within limits it allows a single missile to strike multiple targets, or it can inflict maximum damage on a single target by attacking it with multiple warheads, making defense even more difficult than it is already, due to, among other things, the high speed. Soviet plans in the '70s were said to entail dropping one MIRV based warhead every ninety seconds to three minutes on major US targets for up to an hour.

Missile warheads in the American arsenal are indicated by the letter "W"; for example, the W61 missile warhead would have the same physics package as the B61 gravity bomb described above, but it would have different environmental requirements, and different safety requirements since it would not be crew-tended after launch and remain atop a missile for a great length of time.

Cruise missile

Cruise missiles have a shorter range than ICBMs.

A cruise missile is a jet engine or rocket-propelled missile that flies at low altitude using an automated guidance system (usually inertial navigation, sometimes supplemented by either GPS or mid-course updates from friendly forces) to make them harder to detect or intercept. Cruise missiles can carry a nuclear warhead. They have a shorter range and smaller payloads than ballistic missiles, so their warheads are smaller and less powerful.

Unlike conventional cruise missiles, which sometimes use cluster munition payloads, and unlike bombers, nuclear armed cruise missiles have a single warhead.

The AGM-129 ACM (Advanced Cruise Missile) is the US Air Force's current nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile. The START II treaty forbids the USA from using stealth weapons on stealth aircraft, therefore the ACM is only carried on the B-52 Stratofortress. This plane can carry 20 missiles. Thus the cruise missiles themselves can be compared with MIRV warheads. The BGM/UGM-109 Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile is capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but does not in present configurations.

Cruise missiles may also be launched from mobile launchers on the ground, and from naval ships.

There is no letter change in the US arsenal to distinguish the warheads of cruise missiles from those for ballistic missiles.

Cruise missiles, even with their lower payload, have a number of advantages over ballistic missiles for the purposes of delivering nuclear strikes:

- Launch of a cruise missile is difficult to detect early from satellites and other long-range means, contributing to a surprise factor of attack.

- That, coupled with the ability to actively maneuver in flight, allows for penetration of strategical anti-missile systems aimed at intercepting ballistic missiles on calculated trajectory of flight.

Partially for those reasons, nuclear-armed cruise missiles are amongst the least deployed of all nuclear weapons, as their deployment is restricted by treaties such as SALT II.

Other delivery systems

The Davy Crockett artillery shell is the smallest known nuclear weapon developed by the USA.

Other potential delivery methods include artillery shells, mines such as the Medium Atomic Demolition Munition and the (very odd) Blue Peacock, and nuclear depth charges and torpedoes for anti-submarine warfare. An atomic mortar was also tested. Even an 'Atomic Bazooka' was designed to be used against large formations of tanks.

In the 1950s the U.S. developed small nuclear warheads for air defense use, such as the Nike Hercules. Further developments of this concept, some with much larger warheads, showed promise as anti-ballistic missiles. Most of the United States' nuclear air-defense weapons were out of service by the end of the 1960s, and nuclear depth bombs were taken out of service by 1990. However, the USSR (and later Russia) continues to maintain anti-ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.

Small, two-man portable tactical weapons (erroneously referred to as suitcase bombs), such as the Special Atomic Demolition Munition, have been developed, although the difficulty to combine sufficient yield with portability limits their military utility.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the United States and Canada fielded a low-yield nuclear-tipped air-to-air rocket, the AIR-2 Genie.

See also: Nuclear terrorism

Design issues

The Mk-17 was an early U.S. thermonuclear weapon and weighed around 21 short tons (19,000 kg).

The key nuclear weapon design issue related to delivery mechanisms is miniaturization— the physical size of a warhead most generally limits what kinds of delivery systems it can be coupled with. As an example, the first hydrogen bombs weighed over a dozen tons and could only be delivered by the largest of aircraft. Later thermonuclear warheads, which were engineered to fit on the top of missiles, were designed to weigh around a quarter of a ton.

A second issue is accuracy. It has been suggested, for example, that Soviet nuclear weapons were designed to be of greater yield than U.S. weapons to compensate for the lesser accuracy of Soviet delivery vehicles.

Finally, there is the issue of penetration. (See article Nuclear bunker buster) Nuclear weapons designed to detonate in the atmosphere often have a salvage or impact fuse that detonates them if they inadvertently hit the ground. The salvage fuse may even be designed to detonate when the weapon is about to be destroyed by an anti-ballistic missile; this requires an even faster fuse.[1]

See also




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