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Book Review February 6, 2003
This One Goes to Eleven Megatons
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
For example, look at the way "nuclear" became a crazed fetish among designers on both sides. It just had to be nuclear for these guys, even when that made no sense at all. Zaluga mentions that the US and USSR both tried to build nuclear-powered bombers. There was a little problem: the reactors kept killing the crews. But that was a sacrifice the designers were willing to make.

Or take the way the Soviet designers solved the problem of bomber range. The whole notion of developing a "nuclear bomber" was that it would have unlimited range. Since they couldn't miniaturize a reactor sufficiently to place it on a plane, they came up with another classic, Naked Gun solution: they planned for the Soviet bombers to attack the US and fly onward to Mexico, where the crews would bail out. Krushchev-and he was a pretty amusing, ridiculous guy himself-actually had to take the Russian nerd-elite in a corner and slap them around for a while, get them to come up with something a little less childish.

Just so you don't think I'm exaggerating, here's Zaluga's account: "When Krushchev visited the plant to inspect the new [Myasishchev 2M] bomber, he was shown a profile of the bomber's flight profile against US targets. The final stage of the flight took the bomber over Mexico, where the crew was expected to bail out, on the assumption that Mexico would be neutral. Krushchev rebuked Myasishchev for such a preposterous scheme...."

That must have been a wonderful scene, Krushchev rebuking Myasishchev. Something like the way Moe, the smart stooge, used to rebuke Curly and Larry. And it must have been quite a briefing when they first showed the crew of the 2M the flight plan, with a little dotted line falling into Mexico and a couple of parachutes over the stylized cacti-drawings: "Everything will be fine, guys. You just bail out over Mexico. If the locals ask you about that gigantic fireball where the plane went down, you tell'em you don't know a thing about it. Tell'em you're hikers. That's it: you were hiking, and you saw a meteor or something fall out of the skies."

One of the funniest aspects of The Kremlin's Nuclear Sword is the learning curve of the designers, which is the classic flatline. They just keep trying the same things. For example, the nitric acid that roasted the Soviet design elite was known to be as dangerous and inadequate as-well, say, as the O-rings on the shuttle. One of the leading designers called nitric acid "the devil's venom." The stuff was feared and loathed by Soviet designers; it would eat through anything, and you couldn't even predict how long it would take to do so. But like those O-rings, nitric acid just stayed in service.

Zaluga's history emphasizes that propellants were the most troublesome aspect of missile design for the Soviets. I'd always assumed that in order to make a missile, one simply put something volatile in a tank and then ignited it like a stove-top element. It seems to be a lot more complicated than that-and the problem obviously continues to plague the post-Soviet Russian armed forces, as demonstrated by the sinking of the Kursk. The Kursk exploded because the hydrogen peroxide used in its torpedoes was unstable and corrosive, just like the nitric acid used in land-based ICBMs. The Russian Navy knew this and continued to use it-another episode of Three-Stooges Meet the Cold War, even after it's officially over.

The Kremlin's Nuclear Sword doesn't mention the Kursk disaster, which presumably occurred after it had gone to print, but it does note the problems caused by "liquid fuels" like hydrogen peroxide on submarines. When inherently unsafe Soviet designs were handed on to the bankrupt and demoralized post-Soviet Russian armed services, it was clear that there would be catastrophic accidents. In fact, Zaluga mentions that a problem similar to the one that blew up the Kursk had already occurred in May 1998.

That's really the story this book tells: a bunch of slapstick nerds playing around with weapons worthy of Shiva, doing the same stupid things over and over, but bigger. At one point the Soviets-just for the hell of it, literally-developed the biggest nuclear weapon ever, the RDS-220, at 150 megatons. In order to let the bomber have a chance to get away, they had to attach four parachutes to the bomb, and they "dialed down" the blast to a mere cozy 50 megatons. They never figured out what it was for. It was too big for any possible wartime use. The designers, apparently, hadn't thought about that. They were the physicist equivalent of the Christopher Guest character in Spinal Tap: "This one goes to eleven."

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