These Were the Biggest Bombs Ever Made

Giant atomic bunker-busters are long gone, replaced by smaller munitions, as Steve Weintz recounts

These Were the Biggest Bombs Ever Made These Were the Biggest Bombs Ever Made

Uncategorized September 2, 2013 0

Testing the bomb that became the B-53, in 1958. Wikimedia Commons photo These Were the Biggest Bombs Ever Made Giant atomic bunker-busters are long... These Were the Biggest Bombs Ever Made
Testing the bomb that became the B-53, in 1958. Wikimedia Commons photo

These Were the Biggest Bombs Ever Made

Giant atomic bunker-busters are long gone, replaced by smaller munitions, as Steve Weintz recounts

The U.S. is reportedly readying its arsenal of deep-burying, fortification-smashing, non-nuclear bombs for a possible attack on Syrian chemical weapons sites.

American bunker-busters are big, to be sure—30,000 pounds for one model. But until the 1990s the U.S. relied on much more powerful nuclear weapons for destroying buried targets. And the Soviet Union had an even grander device.

In 2011 the Pantex plant in Texas completed dismantling one of the last Cold War monsters, an early-’60s-vintage U.S. Air Force B-53 nuclear gravity bomb.

Using the same “physics package” as the Titan II ICBM warhead, the 12-foot-long B-53 was fitted with huge parachutes and an aluminum-honeycomb crumple zone; its nine megatons of fission and fusion power could pulverize granite mountains and reduce whole cities to radioactive ash.

Within strategic-arms treaties, the U.S. managed retain a few in reserve until the late ‘90s — when smaller, more accurate nuclear and conventional weapons were deployed in the same bunker-busting role.

The B-53 had a venerable pedigree, able to trace its design lineage back to the very first solid-fuel radiation implosion device ever tested, the 15-megaton Shrimp exploded in the 1954 Castle Bravo test.

The Soviets had their own, even bigger munition: the Tsar of Bombs, or “Big Ivan” as it was known to its creator Andrei Sakharov.

A Big Ivan is tested in 1961. Russian government video

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered several nuclear spectacles to be staged during U.S. Pres. John F. Kennedy’s first year in office in 1961, and Sakharov’s 100-megaton bomb was to be the climax.

No bomb so gigantic had yet been designed or tested, but when the premier notified the world of the forthcoming test, to commemorate the October Revolution, Sahkarov and his team got cracking. One did not want to fail Krushchev.

The team decided to substitute inert lead for uranium in the third-stage tampers; this cut the bomb’s yield in half, but also greatly reduced the fallout, which could have boosted atmospheric radioactivity by 25 percent.

In less than 10 months, the Arzamas-16 weaponeers developed and built an enormous device as large as a small tank — a bomb so big that the Bison bomber to carry it required radical surgery on its bomb bay in order to fit just part of the 26-foot weapon’s bulk inside the fuselage.

If anything displayed the military impracticality of such a weapon it was this, for the slow turboprop Bison was slowed further by drag and maximum payload. There was no target in Western Europe big enough to merit such a blow, even if the lumbering Bison made it through air defenses.

Big Ivan was released over the Novaya Zemlya Test Range on Oct. 30, 1961 and exploded at 13,000 feet altitude. The detonation was measured at 57 megatons and produced a magnitude-five earthquake.

Everything was obliterated out to 16 miles from ground zero, everything knocked flat out to 30 miles. Unprotected observers could have received third-degree burns over 60 miles away.

The microscopic remains of Big Ivan are embedded in the bones of everyone alive on Earth at that time. Fortunately, today the destruction of buried targets such as Syria’s chemical sites is a much more surgical affair.

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