RESURRECTING THE TSAR BOMBA…December 19, 2016
Most people here know my routine: sometime during the week, I open up my "finals" folder and sort through all the emails with articles people have sent me, trying to notice patterns and, if there are any, to blog about them, selecting from the articles and stories people send me. This week, however, Mr. V.T. sent me the following story, and when I read it, it recalled old memories. Needless to say, this article went straight to my "finals folder":
So what are the "old memories"? And what do they have to do with our trademark "high octane speculation."
First the "old memories." When Nikita Khrushchev exploded the Tsar Bomba over Novaya Zemlya on Oct 30, 1961, I was four and a half years old. I remember this event. President John F. Kennedy had just taken office a few months before, and then, in April, we went through perilous and anxious days around the dinner table, watching the Bay of Pigs invasion unfold and then collapse, provoking the first major crisis of the new Kennedy Administration. Our family - my father, mother, youngest sister and I - huddled around the dinner table which was positioned so that we could watch a little portable TV, an expensive item back then, and not very good. But it served its purpose.
When Premier Khrushchev exploded the Tsar Bomba, we were similarly so assembled around the dinner table, eating our meal in silence, and watching - as I recall - a CBS news report. A bald Adlai Stevenson, US Ambassador to the UN security council, gave a short statement (you can see this statement here, which is taken from a British newsreel at the time, but the feed ran on the three major US networks back then:)
Our local newspaper also carried a story about it, and I can remember my father, when reading about the size of the bomb, throwing the paper down and saying, partly in anger, partly in frustration, "Chr*st almighty!"
The next year later we had the Cuban missile crisis, and more tense days and anxious moments around the dinner table. Again, an impassioned Adlai Stevenson confronted the Soviet UN ambassador, Mr. Zorin, with pictures of the Soviet missiles, demanding an explanation. Once the crisis was defused, the USA, USSR, and UK signed the Test Ban Treaty, outlawing all atmospheric tests of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons.
Back then, I wondered, with my little boy's mind, what had happened, and why? Why would the Soviet Union first build, and then test, such a large bomb?
I still wonder even now, especially now as it appears Mr. Putin has revived the project.
And this, of course, brings me to our high octane speculations of the day, including some very very high octane speculations. One might even call them "out of this world" speculations.
Why build such a bomb? Why revive it now? The first, and obvious, answer is of course, deterrence. Back then, as we now know, the Soviet Union lagged far behind the USA in its ability to manufacture and deploy operational nuclear and thermonuclear weapons. The "missile gap," on which President Kennedy ran part of his campaign in 1960 against Richard Nixon, has now proven to be a fiction. During the Khrushchev era, the USA had far more theater and strategic nuclear weapons than did Russia, and Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal - that arsenal capable of striking the USA from launch sites in the Soviet Union, lagged far behind. Russia was "ringed in" also by American theater nuclear weapons, including missiles parked in Turkey aimed at it. By exploding such a bomb, Khrushchev was sending messages: "We may not have more, but we can build them very, very big." And it was left for us to guess how many they might have built. (The story now, is, of course, that they only built one.) Indeed, it was the "Tsar Bomba" that formed the real basis for the fictional "doomsday weapon" in Stanley Kubrick's classic dark comedy, Dr. Strangelove. As the above article notes, an air burst of such a gigantic miniature star over the continental USA would pretty much fry all electronics throughout most of the country. Khruschev's subsequent moves, placing Russian theater nuclear missiles in Cuba could be seen as a response to this Russian perception of being "ringed in." A perception that, notably, the Russian government has been voicing in recent years and months, especially since the USA-sponsored coup-d'etat in the Ukraine, and the provocative stationing of NATO troops in the Baltic nations, close to the major northern Russian cities.
In short, we are watching the repeat of a pattern from decades ago. And with modern technology, that old "Tsar Bomba" could be upgraded, its reaction burn made much more efficient, and its weight correspondingly reduced. With advances in technology, it is conceivable that Russian designers could design a bomb with a yield even exceeding the article's claimed 100 megatons.
But another pattern possibly looms behind this disturbing development. We now know that Mr. Khrushchev's wild and erratic foreign policy, manifest most of all in his detonation of the "Tsar Bomba" and the stationing of nuclear theater missiles in Cuba, was in part a measure designed not just to send messages to the USA, but also to appease hardliners within his own party and government. Thus, a similar prospect looms here, for there have been occasional rumblings from Mr. Putin's Russia that certain hardliners within that country view Mr. Putin as being "too soft."
So much for our high octane speculation.
But there may be an even deeper, much more speculative context, in which to view the development. Recall that just a few years ago, prior to the Chelyabinsk meteor incident, then Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, a month before that incident, made a call for the Russian development of an asteroid detection and defense system, preferably as an international effort, but going it alone if required. During that statement, Mr. Medvedev stated that asteroids could be deflected or destroyed with existing Russian technology, including thermonuclear weapons, and "other means" which he did not specify. A 100 megaton hydrogen bomb would certainly destroy a lot of asteroid. There were, indeed, strange things happening in the same time frame: an American and Russian satellite collided in orbit, and event that caused me to speculate that maybe someone made them collide. Medvedev's statement also, coming as it did a mere month before the Chelyabinsk Meteor incident, and the strange videos some posted on the internet that appeared to show something else trailing the meteor immediately prior to its explosion, also raised speculations in some quarters that maybe the meteor was not only deliberately taken out, but that it may have literally been "thrown" at Russia.
So I cannot help but wonder if Russia might be attempting to meet several strategic objectives by reviving the "Tsar Bomba" concept, not only terrestrial ones, but indeed, some strategic objectives that are "out of this world."
See you on the flip side...