Testing Satellites … by Nuking Them
Here’s the challenge. You want to make sure your military satellite is tough enough to withstand the radiation from a nuclear blast. Here’s the problem. You can’t just put the sat in orbit and nuke it. That’s illegal and dangerous. Plus, you’ll need to study the spacecraft after the... Read more
The Concrete Battleship
This story originally appeared on Oct. 21, 2014. Throughout history, coastal fortifications have guarded strategic seaports. And until recently, forts easily outgunned ships. Hence legendary British admiral Horatio Nelson’s quip—“A ship’s a fool to fight a fort.” But you don’t have to fight a fort when you can just... Read more
How to Nuke a Submarine
Can you kill a sub with a nuke? It seems pretty obvious that a nuclear explosion deep in the ocean should sink a submarine, but you need to be sure if you’re gearing up for World War III. During the heyday of nuclear testing in the 1950s, the U.S.... Read more
The Strange History of Sci-Fi Super Fuels
They sound like something out of a movie villain’s secret rocket base, but exotic and toxic fuels with names like “pentaborane” and “HEF-3” were once the height of cutting-edge Cold War technology. Of all the sources about such science-fiction stuff, the most entertaining is the one written by a... Read more
Yes, the CIA Flew U-2 Spy Planes From Aircraft Carriers
On May 1, 1960, the Soviet Union shot down a CIA U-2 spy plane and captured its pilot, Francis Gary Powers. It was an international crisis for America’s intelligence agencies. A planned summit between Pres. Dwight Eisenhower and Premier Nikita Khrushchev was scuttled, much to Eisenhower’s embarrassment and to... Read more
NATO Bombed Soviet Submarines With Tiny, Annoying Magnets
At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had so many hundreds of deadly submarines at sea that Western war planners willing to try almost any possible countermeasure, however goofy sounding. Some seemingly crazy ideas proved actually worthwhile, such as the underwater Sound Surveillance System—a vast chain... Read more
Giant Submarines With Huge Guns
A century ago submarines presented as much of a challenge for naval war planners as drones do today. Like airborne and surface stealth decades later, underwater stealth was a game-changer — but how to use it? Until the missile age, a wide variety of naval missions and vessels tried... Read more
The Death Star That Might Have Been
A long time ago in an era much like ours, the United States poured billions into its “Star Wars” missile defense program. What those billions actually bought is still highly classified, so much so that we know very little about the various exotic space weapons conceived during the late Cold War. One... Read more
The Plot to Nuke Japan’s Fleet
Less than a year after the formal end of World War II the United States tested its new superweapons in peacetime. Operation Crossroads in 1946 at Bikini Atoll tested the effects of nuclear weapons on naval fleets and harbors. While burrowing through the vast Manhattan Project archives historian Alex Wellerstein turned... Read more
His Majesty’s Scary Steam Subs
Like the airplane, the submarine evolved in the early 20th century into a real weapon. But for the British Royal Navy, this posed a dilemma. The Admiralty’s battle plan for its revolutionary new dreadnoughts foresaw high-speed clashes between rival fleets armed with very-long-range guns. The new dreadnoughts and battlecruisers launching from... Read more
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