Since the first inklings of the potential power of nuclear reactions in the 1920s there has been a scramble to develop the most destructive weapons known to mankind. Nuclear weapons have only ever been used in anger on two occasions (Nagasaki and Hiroshima – Japan, 1945) and the effect was devastating. By modern standards the atomic bombs used in these instances were pretty small at less than 20 kilotons. A kiloton represents the equivalent explosive force of 1,000 tons of TNT. Many modern devices are rated in megatons, i.e. a million tons of TNT.
In addition, dropping a bomb out of a plane is pretty conservative and unimaginative compared to some of the crazy delivery systems dreamt up during the Cold War era. During this period the development of new ways to eradicate mankind were taken to the extreme.
Below I have listed some of my favourite nukes ranging from those capable of opening the very doors of Hell to those that just make you wonder what they were thinking.
5. Atomic Annie – Nuclear artillery
The M65 atomic cannon, affectionately named Atomic Annie was an enormous great gun that was capable of firing a nuclear device. It could hurl a shell with almost the same destructive force of the Hiroshima bomb less than 20 miles – that’s probably close enough to toast your marshmallows on the nuclear fireball. Apparently the gun could be packed up in 15 minutes ready for transporting. Sounds like a good idea, foot to the floor watching the mushroom cloud in the rearview mirror and praying the wind direction didn’t change.
The official rationale for developing this kind of weapon was to keep the USSR at bay in Europe should they ever try to roll their tank divisions west. I like to think it was actually a psychological statement to make the Ruskies think if NATO are that nuts then probably best not to even think about it.
4. Blue Peacock / Brown Bunny – Nuclear landmines
This animal theme nuke was developed by the British in the 1950s. Whilst it was never actually deployed it gives an interesting insight into the thinking and gaffer tape engineering approach of the day.
Originally code named Brown Bunny, the system was renamed Blue Bunny and finally Blue Peacock. These were not light decisions and probably involved much discussion and tea drinking at the very highest level of the British military. The idea was to bury 10 large nuclear devices around the plains of North Germany – not sure how the Germans felt about this?! The devices were either to be triggered by an eight-day clockwork timer or remotely. There would also be an anti-tamper mechanism that would wet the bomb of the moment anyone fiddled with it.
Once deployed the idea was to render the whole area a radioactive wasteland that would be impassible by the superior Soviet army. It seems that even in the crazy Cold War days this was a little extreme and the project was canned in 1958.
Now, here’s the best bit. One of the operational problems of the design was the extreme cold of the northern winter freezing the electronics and rendering the system useless. Whilst various forms of insulation were contemplated one boffin is on record as suggesting the use of live chickens! These would be housed in the casing with a supply of food and water with their body heat keeping the weapon’s components operational.
Records of Blue Peacock were released on April 1st 2004 leading to speculation this was an April Fool’s joke – apparently they were deadly serious.
3. Davy Crockett – Nuclear rifle
The M28 Davy Crockett weapon system is described as a tactical nuclear recoilless gun for firing nuclear projectile. Yes, that is correct, a gun for firing nukes! OK, so it was somewhat bigger than the sort of gun a lady might carry in her handbag, but its still a gun. Obviously one of the dangers of calling this a gun is it is probably legal to one in Texas!
Developed in the 1950s the Davy Crockett was intended for use as a last ditch weapon against the Soviet army should they have come spilling into Germany through the Fulda Gap. It was capable of firing an M388 atomic round around 1.25 miles (2km). Fortunately for those firing this weapon the projectile was only about as powerful as 20 tons of TNT although that’s quite a bang, including mushroom cloud, for something that can be carried by a couple of soldiers. The radiation dose was thought to be instantly lethal within 500 feet (150m) of the detonation site and likely fatal at up to a quarter mile (400m). So, you wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable pulling the trigger and watching the mushroom cloud go up.
2. Tsar Bomba – The biggest nuke ever
Not wanting to be outdone with their weapons of mass destruction the Russians developed the most powerful nuclear weapon of all time. The original design was for a 100 megaton bomb but common sense obviously prevailed and the bomb was scaled back to a mere 58 megatons.
So lets put that into perspective. This is the equivalent of 10 times all the conventional explosives used in World War II or 1,500 times the power of the Hiroshima / Nagasaki bombs.
The amount of devastation this size weapon would create is virtually unimaginable. A fireball 7km (4 miles) across would occur at the centre of the detonation. A zone of total destruction would radiate for 35km (20 miles) in every direction. The “thermal radiation radius” would be nearly 80km (50 miles) in all directions – that means third-degree burns and spontaneous fires.
To really put this into context try the NukeMap app which will show the effect the Tsar Bomb would have on your hometown.
Apparently part of the reason the Soviets developed this mind-numbingly powerful bomb was to make up for the lack of accuracy in their targeting systems. I guess the idea was if you can’t get within 10 miles of your target then just make a bomb that destroys the whole f*****g country. The good news though is it was one of the “cleanest” nukes developed. I.e. the radioactive fallout was quite low.
1. Project Pluto – SLAM
Towards the end of the 1950s the Americans began to worry they may be losing the race to create the ultimate apocalyptic weapon. After all the Russians had just launched Sputnik raising the unpleasant proposition that they might be in a better position to rain death and fire on the people of America rather than the other way around. This simply would not do. What was required was the most awesome machine of cataclysmic destruction ever built. With a nod to the Roman god of the Underworld, Project Pluto was launched.
Also known as the SLAM (Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile), the concept was a atomic powered missile the size of a freight train that would travel at three times the speed of sound skimming treetops. The planned use was to load the missile with any number of atomic bombs which would be dropped onto various targets making the SLAM somewhere between a cruise missile and unmanned bomber.
The powerplant was to be a nuclear powered ramjet engine and this was successfully developed and tested. One advantage was once the nuclear reactor was started it could go on for months. The drawback was the unshielded engine would spew out lethal doses of ionizing radiation as it went. But this was seen as an advantage by some and it was even put forward that once its bombing run was completed this radioactive monster could be left to fly back and forth over Russia indefinitely, dosing them up with gamma and neutron radiation.
To top it off it was also thought that the noise from the engines might be literally deafening and the shockwave from this supersonic lump might actually be able to kill people on the ground.
I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that Project Pluto never mad it out of Hades. It was actually considered “too provocative”, or in other words the Ruskies might have had to build one too. That, and cheaper, more effective means of mutually assured destruction came along.