Science Fiction Problems: Nuclear Weapons
Posted by erikthereddest
Hello all! Sorry for the late post! I’d like to get back to some science fiction stuff this week, focusing on one issue that Brian has already covered in one respect: nuclear weapons. In his post way back in December of last year, Brian talked about how nukes simply don’t work like everyone assumes they do if deployed in space. No atmosphere means no explosion, so all you really get is an unimpressive glow and a bunch of radiation that all the spacecraft are already shielded against.
What Brian didn’t cover, however, is the use of nukes everywhere else. Many science fiction stories don’t take place in space at all, or at least take the majority of their time planet-side. In this case, nuclear weapons would not run into the problems Brian describes, but I contend that the way in which many sci-fi stories handle nukes in the future is unrealistic. To start with, they tend to ignore some of the basic, current generation technologies we have developed as defenses against these weapons, and fail to take into account how the cold-war style arms race of better offenses vs. better defenses would likely take this technology even further.
Layered Missile Defense
Currently, the practical way to deliver a strategic nuclear missile is in either the warhead of an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) or in a Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM). I say “strategic”, because this only covers the large and extremely destructive missiles prone to global annihilation of all human life (and thus the ones typically used in the climax of many stories). As anyone aware of the modern threat of nuclear terrorist attacks knows, nukes can come in all shapes and sizes, in practically any form from a large gravity-launched bomb to a tank shell, or a suitcase. The smaller, more surgical nukes are typically called tactical nuclear weapons, and the situations in which they could be used and the defenses against them are too vast to cover all at once. For now, let’s talk about the big ones, which are more likely to become a major plot point anyway.
For strategic nuclear weapons, delivered in missiles, we have several layers of defense:
The above image is a diagram of the typical strategies employed to defeat a ballistic missile. These missiles exit the atmosphere first before reentering to plummet down over the target. It is easier to destroy these missiles, given fair warning, before they exit the atmosphere, and so this is the primary mission of missile defense. Detection relies on a number of factors, from intelligence to satellite surveillance, but once a launch is detected, the first line of defense goes into play. This usually would take the form of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) ballistic missiles, which basically just slam into the launched missile and destroy it with pure force. However, as you might have noticed from the image, the Airforce has a recently added option, the ABL or AirBorn Laser system. Essentially, if the military is nervous that a launch could take place, they can deploy a plane which is armed with a high-powered chemical laser that can detect, track, and destroy a ballistic missile before it exits the atmosphere. Pretty cool, huh?
If these primary measures fail (God help us all), and the missile reaches orbit, the second line of defense comes into play. This takes many forms, and the military takes no chances, utilizing practically anything it can. The standard at the moment are high-speed, high-impact Patriot Missiles, which are launched from high-priority target sites like airbases or from mobile launchers on land or sea.
These can be pretty effective, but the major issue (and greatest fear) comes from a newer variation on the ballistic missile that came out of the Cold War: the MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle).
This turns the ballistic missile into something similar to a cluster bomb, delivering several smaller warheads to a target rather than one big one. As you can see from the above diagram, once the missile leaves the atmosphere, it separates, launching multiple smaller missiles once it reenters. These individual missiles can target multiple targets several miles apart, target the same target for a cumulative effect, or be decoys to help the actual warheads to reach their target. Depending on the situation, multiple high-velocity MIRV’s could overwhelm missile defenses.
Scary, huh? It’s also fairly complicated and happens very quickly, which is why I think many stories or movies don’t go into much detail about it. However, if it is inconvenient for your nukes to actually find their mark in your story, you can use these defenses to have them defeated, easily or by a hair’s margin.
Well that’s enough for this week. Next week I’ll get into a few ways some stories have handled nukes, and where I personally think the tech will go in the future. Until then, what are some stories you’ve read or movies you’ve seen that use nukes in a non-cliché way? Any particularly sci-fi ones (not in space)? Let me know in the comments below!