April 17, 2006
Lightweights: The Iranian Nuclear ThreatBy J.R. Dunn
The sabre—rattling coming from Tehran has more rattle than sabre to it. Iran is making threats on which it cannot deliver. Literally.
The Federation of American scientists site features a useful guide to
Now, a kilogram is equivalent to 2.2 pounds, which puts the maximum warhead weight of these missiles at 2,200 pounds, just over a ton. And that set me to thinkin', because a random item that has stuck in my mind the way a burr sticks to a pants leg is the weight of the Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima —— a rough 10,000 pounds.
I checked the figure. The weight of the Little Boy was 9,700 pounds, or 4400 kg, almost four times the maximum payload weight of the Shahab series missile.
Now it's true that nuclear weapons have shrunk in size and weight since 1945 (the smallest was the U.S. Army Special Atomic Demolition Munition [SADM — no joke], which weighed in at 154 pounds), but those appeared only after years of development. This country's first lightweight bomb, the Mk. 7 Thor, was introduced in 1952, seven years after the Little Boy. Early models were big for a reason — because the technology demanded it. The physics dictate certain engineering solutions that, once you know your way around, can be finessed. But first, you have to go by the rules. And the rules say that a U—235 gun—type bomb is going to weigh several tons.
Which means it can't be deployed on a Shahab missile.
Even if such a warhead could be cut down to a minimum, it's still going to weigh too much. The tricks used to make ultrasmall weapons require extremely advanced engineering. (One of these is the fact that plutonium, the major nuclear weapon fuel, is very energetic — you can do more with less of it. But that wouldn't help the Iranians even if they did have plutonium, because — again, by the very nature of things —— the Fat Man, the Nagasaki bomb, weighed more, at 10,265 lbs., than the Little Boy.)
This means that, if the Iranians were to roll out a bomb tomorrow, they would not yet have a weapon, because they don't have a delivery system. The missiles — and that includes the Shahab—4, capable of reaching Israel — can't handle the load. Iran possesses no strategic bombers. Their top—of—the—line fighter is an upgraded version of the Northrop F—5, a light ground—support aircraft. Yes, they could use terror techniques — a bomb aboard a freighter or an airliner —— but you can't fight wars with freighters, and we keep an eye on airliners these days.
None of this should come as a surprise — the Shahab is a version of the North Korean Taep'o—dong—2, in turn derived from the venerable SCUD, itself a lineal descendant of the German V—2. The V—2 was not suitable for carrying nuclear weapons. Although both the U.S. and the USSR took home and launched plenty of them during the postwar period, when it came time to design their own ICBMs, they started from scratch. Neither the R—7 or the Atlas owed anything to the V—2. (To put matters into perspective, the payload of the R—7 was over 10,000 lbs.; a rough match to the Atlas, which in 1958 hoisted its entire 9,000 lb. main stage into earth orbit.)
If the Iranians really want atomic rockets, they'll have to build their own. Or alternately, shrink their nuclear weapons. Either procedure will require years.
This does not mean that we can relax. The point of the Bomb (as they called it when I was a child) is that it's a symbol more than anything else. Whoever possesses it automatically becomes Death, destroyer of worlds, and sense can no longer can no longer be spoken to him.
And, as leaders with little use for sense, that's why the ayatollahs want the Bomb. Nuclear weapons don't exist to be used. Any state that dared would become a rabid dog among nations and be treated as such. But they make a fine stick to gesture with, none better, and that's what the ayatollahs want — the big stick. With a pile of nukes (whether deployable or not, it makes no difference) and their reputation for irrationality, the rulers of Iran could act with the same style of impunity that the USSR reveled in during the Cold War. There would be no need of an actual nuclear strike under those circumstances. The rewards would appear in any case.
But for the moment, the Iranians are running a huge bluff. The bluster and chest—thumping, the conveniently—scheduled military exercises, the claims of weapons beyond their ability to manufacture (some even straining at the limits of the physically possible), all mark an obvious campaign to stampede the weaker spirits of the West until Iranian plans can be set in concrete.
The thing about bluffs is, they often work. In March 1936, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht into the Rhineland, demilitarized since World War I under the terms of Versailles Treaty. The European governments, terrified at what the response might be, scarcely raised their voices. Years and many millions of lives later, it was discovered that Hitler had only a handful of combat—ready battalions.
If Ahmedinejad is a Hitler, as the international media insists, then he's the Hitler of 1936, the man of few battalions. There's little chance that Western intelligence doesn't know this. He and the ayatollahs had better start working on Plan B.
Among many other things, J.R. Dunn was the editor of the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years.