War nerds all over the world are in countdown mode, now that the big show's finally ready to start. We've got a right to be a little impatient. After all, it's been eighteen months. The Stones never made their fans wait that long. And what made it worse was that I swear to God, every day of that whole eighteen months the networks ran some story about how the invasion was juuuuust about ready.
But something tells me this time it really will happen. So I've been getting the duplex ready, pacing around the living room going down the checklist for a long spell of war-watching: CNN paid up? Fridge stocked with the essentials -- 8 or 10 liters of Diet Coke, Doritos, instant coffee for those late-night bulletins? If you're the kind of person who gets phone calls, you'll want to make sure the answering machine is on. Me, I don't have that problem. Come to think of it, most war nerds aren't all that sociable. There's probably some deep psychological reason for it, but all I know is I'm glad there won't be anybody interrupting the next few weeks. I'm planning to spend a good ten hours a day glued to the tube, checking out the new weapons in action.
The one people've been asking me about is this MOAB, this new giant conventional bomb. I hate to break everybody's bubble, but's not that big a deal. Just about the most lo-tech weapon you could imagine: a bunch of explosives on a pallet that you slide out the back of a C-130.
People who don't follow weapons development just don't understand that bigger bombs don't mean much. A guided five-pound warhead is a lot more deadly than a five-ton dumpster full of explosives. And that's really all the MOAB is: a truck-bomb like terrorists use, except we drop it from a plane. It's embarrassing, the hi-tech US military scrambling to whip up the kind of big, dumb bomb the Chechens and IRA have been making for years in somebody's farm shed out of two tons of fertilizer and a Radio Shack garage-door opener wired to a detonator.
The question that's more interesting than this MOAB itself is why we had to whip it up at all. I mean, you'd think we already had enough bombs. Which we do. Trouble is, we can't use'em. It's all about the way the rules about using nukes changed. Back in the fifties, when nukes were just entering the inventory, the Army and Air Force tried to make a nuke for every contingency. Some were so huge they scared everybody. We and the Russians both came up with some 150-megaton H-bombs, the kind of weapon only Darth Vader could love, the kind you'd want on the Death Star if you came across a planet you didn't happen to like. They'd be handy if you wanted to crack the earth's crust or blast the moon into dust for making your bedroom too bright, but not the sort of ordnance you'd actually use, unless you wanted your own population inhaling fallout and popping out three-eyed babies for the next 50 years.
But we also went for small nukes. In fact, for most purposes smaller is better with nukes. A nuke is just so damn powerful that most sane military contingencies can be handled with little tac nukes. And as missile systems got more accurate from the fifties to the eighties, warheads could afford to get smaller. If my ICBMs are only accurate to within, say, two miles of the target, then I need a big nuke warhead, but if I can guarantee it'll hit within, say, 100 meters of the target, then a little nuke will do the job. Which is good, because it means a smaller, cheaper, easier-to-store missile system.
By the seventies, warheads were so accurate that even a small warhead could destroy most hardened ICBM silos. It was pretty cool: silo designers kept making better silos, but eventually the nukes won, because the designers realized, Whoa, no matter HOW tough the silo is, a nuke landing right on top of it is going to make this huge crate all around the silo -- and the silo's going to fall over into the crater. So you could have this totally intact silo that was useless, because the launch tube is pointing down into the crater. It'd be great if you had a real grudge against earthworms or something, but for military purposes that's a dead silo, even if the crew survives and the missile's ready to fire.