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Arms of Armageddon

Spring 2018 • MHQ Magazine

 

  • The Mark 6 atomic bomb was similar in size and general design to the Mark 3 “Fat Man”—the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945—though with a higher maximum yield (160 kilotons). It was designed by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which had been established in 1943 as Site Y of the Manhattan Project for the single purpose of designing and building an atomic bomb.
  • “The Gadget” (1945). The world’s first atomic bomb, for security reasons nicknamed “the Gadget” by the Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists who built it, was of the same design as the “Fat Man” bomb later detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945. Based on the implosion principle, with its plutonium sphere uniformly crushed into a reacting critical mass by an array of explosive charges on its outer surface, the device yielded the explosive energy of 21 kilotons of TNT when it was detonated in a test (code-named “Trinity”) on July 16, 1945. This full-scale replica is on display at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
  • Enola Gay (1945). This now infamous Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, one of 65 modified to carry atomic weapons, was named for Enola Gay Tibbets, the mother of its pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets, who hand-picked the aircraft from the assembly line at Glenn L. Martin Company (now Lockheed Martin) in Omaha, Nebraska. On August 6, 1945, it became the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb. The bomb (“Little Boy”), targeted at the city of Hiroshima, Japan, caused unprecedented destruction.
  • Special Atomic Demolition Munition (1964). The SADM, popularly known as a “suitcase nuke” or “backpack nuke,” was designed to destroy buildings, bridges, power plants, dams, and other such targets, or to render vast tracts uninhabitable, but was never deployed in combat. The SADM was equipped with a W54—the smallest nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal. About 300 were produced in the two years following its introduction in 1964. The army planned to use the weapons in Europe in the event of a Soviet invasion, but all were retired by 1989. The last SADM was dismantled in 1991.
  • Mk-28 Thermonuclear Bomb Casings from the Palomares Incident (1966). On January 17, 1966, a B-52G bomber of the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, carrying four Mk-28 thermonuclear bombs, collided with a KC-135 tanker during a midair refueling operation. The aircraft fell into the Mediterranean Sea near the fishing village of Palomares, Spain, killing seven of the 11 crew members. The bomb casing on the left was recovered by navy salvage teams in 2,800 feet of water after a two-and-a-half-month search; the casing on the right was located on land within 24 hours.
  • USS Lewis and Clark (1965). Launched in 1965, this Benjamin Franklin–class ballistic-missile submarine initially carried 16 Polaris A-3 missiles, each with three W58 warheads. After a conversion in 1972, the Lewis and Clark carried Poseidon C-3 ballistic missiles, each with up to 14 W68 warheads. It was decommissioned in 1992.
  • Blast Doorway to Minuteman II Launch Control Center Delta-01 (1965). From the early 1960s through the mid-1990s, there were 100 Launch Control Facilities for Minuteman II nuclear missiles across the upper Great Plains of the United States—including this one near Philip, North Dakota. Here, two missileers worked and lived on 24-hour-alert duty shifts within the Launch Control Center. The 12-by-28-foot LCC was housed 31 feet below ground in a room suspended by large shock absorbers within a buried, steel-lined, reinforced concrete capsule. Its eight-ton blastproof door had to be opened from inside before an oncoming missile combat crew could enter. A bunk allowed one missileer to sleep while the other kept an eye on the weapons system.
  • Blast Door Art, Minuteman II Launch Control Center Delta-01 (1965). Gallows humor lightened the spartan Launch Control Center. The blastproof door is painted to resemble a Domino’s Pizza box, with a clever adaptation of the company’s tagline. The launch process, including authentication, was designed to take less than a minute; the missiles could reach their targets in the Soviet Union with 30 minutes.
  • Inertial Guidance Module, Peacekeeper ICBM (1986). The inertial guidance module used by the Peacekeeper missile redefined the concept of accuracy for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Its 19,000 individual parts included gyroscopes, accelerometers, three hydraulic thrust valves, and a turbopump.
  • Control Console, Titan II ICBM Site 571-7. For a quarter of a century the Titan II, with its nine-megaton W53 warhead, was the largest operational land-based nuclear missile in the U.S. arsenal. This control console at ICBM Site 571-7 in Sahuarita, Arizona, sits within a buried concrete capsule and is isolated from it by massive springs. On receiving an order to launch and following a set of authentication procedures, the commander on duty and his deputy were to turn keys in separate switches, launching the missile without possibility of recall. The site was deactivated in 1982.
  • Perimeter Acquisition Radar, Safeguard ABM System (1975). Rising 120 feet above the plain in Concrete, North Dakota, and occupying a full acre at its base, this massive electronic eye, fixed on the northern horizon, was designed to watch for potential signs of an incoming Soviet missile. Originally part of the Safeguard antiballistic missile program, it could detect an enemy ICBM 1,800 miles away as it passed over the North Pole, giving the United States a six-minute window to intercept and destroy it. The radar system is still part of Cavalier Air Force Station.
  • B-52 “Stratofortress” Strategic Bomber (1955). With a combat flight radius of almost 5,000 miles, the B-52 was the jet-propelled successor to the B-36. Though it was primarily conceived to carry nuclear weapons, its combat missions have been confined to conventional explosives. The B-52 has been in continuous service since 1955.

 

How close did the world come to destroying itself in the 100 years following “the war to end all wars”? We may never know. But Martin Miller, who chose to spend 10 years of his life photographing the apocalyptic weapons of the Cold War, has documented the frightening and often eerie flotsam and jetsam of the nuclear arms race in Weapons of Mass Destruction: Specters of the Nuclear Age (Schiffer, 2017).

“It has not been my intention to second guess the decision making that led to building what Richard Rhodes [the Pulitzer Prize–winning author and nuclear historian] has called ‘Arsenals of Folly,’ ” Miller writes in the preface to his book.
“Yet as I researched and wrote the historical narrative, the question that kept coming back to me was: Did those who made the decisions really understand what these weapons could do?” For that matter, we might ask: Did anyone really understand what these weapons might have done? Miller’s work as a documentarian
surely helps us contemplate the answers to both questions. 

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