I have occasionally heard tales from different people regarding the secret use of nuclear weapons during the Gulf War. Is such a thing possible? If the U.S. or whoever were setting off nukes, I would think that the Soviets or whoever would probably find out about it. Assuming that they could be persuaded to keep such things a secret, are nuclear explosions detectable by NGO’s?
Nuclear explosions are detectable by satellite detectors and seismographs. It’s hard to imagine a use of a nuclear weapon that could be covered up. It would be noticeable immediately and every activist group in the entire world would have an incentive to get the news out even faster. Guaranteed that it never happened.
Would the blast from a tactical nuclear weapon be detectable that way? Say something like the Davy Crockett with a yield of less than 0.5 kilotons? I think the idea behind this type of weapon was not so much to create a powerful blast as it was to deliver a lethal dose of radiation over a small area.
Actually there was significant difficulty in determining the yield of the detonation and assessing whether it was actually a nuclear explosion versus a very large detonation of conventional explosives. While there was one detection of atmospheric radioactivity (out of some seventy-odd detectors) it’s not clear that it was the result of a nuclear detonation, and many experts belief that the supposed test was faked, either by the government with the intention of extracting greater consideration from the United States, or by the development team to fake success in hopes of not being executed by their Fearless Leader. If there was a real detonation, it was a very small fizzle.
With regard to the o.p., I recommend that you cut down your patronage of Coast To Coast AM to only one or two nights a week. While there has been use of very large conventional weapons which have been mistaken by ground forces as being nuclear due to being on a scale typically unseen in training, the use of a nuclear weapon would leave readily detectable signs; not only could you confirm that a nuclear event occured, but with a modest amount of information that is probably publically available, you could even determine what facility and reactor the weapon material was produced at. The United States has retired all tactical-scale nuclear weapons to either dismantlement and reprocessing, or the Inactive Reserve of the Enduring Weapon Nuclear Stockpile, with the except of Variable Yield (“Dial-A-Yield”) B61 variants and the low yield W80 warhead used on Tomahawk and ACM-129 cruise missiles. Since the United States does not currently maintain the capability to produce highly enriched material suitable for use in nuclear weapons, it would be a foolish waste to use them in a conventional confrontation against a third-rate military force, regardless of the other political, ecological, and strategic implications of deploying nuclear weapons.
Regarding the explosions themselves, while the Soviets are no longer in business, their successors, the Military Space Forces of the Russian Federation maintains satellites in orbit that are designed to detect and track ballistic missile launches and nuclear detonations. Underground nuclear explosions of any significant size, while not visibly detectable from space, will leave signature seismic traces that are fundamentally different from natural seismic phenomena.
In short, no, there are no secret U.S. or otherwise nuclear explosions during the Gulf War. Anyone who claims so, without some specific evidence demonstrating this claim is a crackpot and needs to be locked in a cage with a rabid howler monkey until they come to their senses and stop babbling on about improbable conspiracies.
There’s a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, a multilateral agency not under the control of the US, Russians, or any other single country, that is building a worldwide network of monitoring stations to discover any covert testing of nuclear weapons. Although the system is not yet complete, there is no doubt whatsoever that it would have detected the use of nuclear weapons in Iraq.
FWIW, I didn’t believe that it was possible, but I couldn’t really refute it. Stranger does make a good case that to do so was unnecessary. I did hear something on a show one time about some experts believing that some type of EMP weapon may have been employed. Would that imply a nuclear explosion or can that be created by less exotic means? Or did it just flat out not happen?
There was a lot of buzz about the US deploying directed-energy weapons, but an EMP weapon would be pretty useless against an insurgent force. There have been tests of a directed-microwave anti-crowd weapon, but this is still very much in the development stage, AFAIK. At one time there was a lot of speculation that a terrorist group would use an EMP as a “poor man’s Nuke”, but speaking as a EE, all of these articles seemed to be mostly hot air. The energy available in a chemical explosive, turned into an EMP, would be much less than say, a lightning bolt.
A nuke is certainly one way to produce an EMP, and probably the only way to do so on (say) a city-wide scale. But if you’re just looking to disable a single vehicle at a time, you can do it just by rapidly discharging a big capacitor. In fact, some police departments are experimenting with using such devices to stop a high-speed chase.
In the quoted article one claim by an opponent of the program stands out:*Study Group director Greg Mello: “U.S. national security and our standing in the world would be substantially improved if the pit being celebrated today were simply taken apart. There are hundreds of surplus warheads for the Trident system, and more than a thousand are slated for retirement.*This is technically true; however the surplus warheads slated for retirement are the problematic, failure-prone W76 originally designed for use with the C4 Trident I SLBM. With exception of the partially retired to Inactive Stockpile W78’s originally deployed on the Minuteman III in favor of the W87 that were designed for the Peacekeeper and incorporating all modern safety features (fire-resistant pit, shock-insensitive high explosive shell, one-point safe design, mechanical safing, and enhanced electrical isolation), this remains the oldest and least failsafe of all designs, and has numerous issues which many experts have opined will compromise its reliability. The W88, while not failsafe to modern standards (some of the safety modes were considered unnecessary due to the innate volatility of the Trident II upper stage which is nestled inside the warhead bus), has more modern safe and arm features and is of a much more reliable design, and was never built to planned production numbers owing to environmental contamination and shutdown of Savannah River processing facility, so there is a legitimate argument (at least on that basis) for building new warheads.
The larger questions is whether the citizenry of the United States should bear the expense and responsibility of maintaining a large strategic nuclear stockpile when there is no large strategic enemy, and in an environment where the always-dubious policy of Assured Destruction no longer caries any real validity as a strategic response to a nuclear power. I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: nuclear weapons are essentially useless as a practical battlefield weapon and highly questionable as a strategic deterrent, even in a simple game with only two players of equal parity; the only practical use is as a political staking issue and a negotiating point. It seems like a stupid thing to spend money on to me, but then I feel the same way about Mt. Rushmore and the embargo of Cuba.
You could also produce a significant EMP pulse via a flux compression generator or a so-called “E-Bomb”, as appears(fictionally) in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon or the film Ocean’s Eleven. This could be a relatively compact device which creates a massively compressed magnetic flux and resultant electrical pulse which would destroy sensitive electronics within a certain area. The range would be quite limited as the pulse is absorbed by ionizing air, but the damage would be significant. (A regional range thermonuclear EMP device would be detonated high in the atmosphere so as to maximize downward radiation and minimize the attenuation. An EMP bomb would essentially be the opposite of a so-called neutron bomb; you’d design it to maximize gamma radiation, which would then excite electrical pulses as it is absorbed by the atmosphere, whereas a neutron-radiation device would be tuned to generate a majority share of electrically neutral neutron radiation.)
However, it doesn’t again make much sense for Coalition forces to have applied these in this case; aside from French radars and electronics, most of which were destroyed or confiscated in the First Gulf War, most of the Iraqi army equipment is obsolescent or obsolete Soviet hardware which relied on more electrically-robust tube or heavy-duty solid-state hardware which is essentially immune to EMP at range; the amount of additional pulse it would see would be little more than noise. And against insurgents who have little if any sophisticated technology at hand, it would be worse than useless; you’d do more harm against friendly troops and bystanders than any effect on insurgents.
One other benefit of which is that they use similar explosive technologies as the trigger for a fission bomb, so you can keep ex-Soviet weapons scientists gainfully employed working on them (nobody wants those guys to be desparate for cash). But I don’t think that you could shut down a whole city with one.