Friday, October 20, 2006

Nukes for Beginners

What with all the news about North Korea and Iran, I figured it might be worthwhile to go over some of the basics of how these things work. There's a lot of misinformation out there. And while there's a lot to be worried about, there's a lot going on that you really don't have to be so upset about.

Now, we all know about radioactivity, and how uranium and plutonium can be used in nuclear reactors to generate electrical power. Just about anything that can give off heat slowly can be goaded into doing it faster. But the devil's in the details.

To make uranium or plutonium go boom, you have to achieve critical mass. There are two ways of doing this.

The easy way is just to get enough highly purified metal in the same place at the same time. Collect enough highly enriched uranium in one lump, and it will explode all by itself, without any outside encouragement. That's how the Little Boy bomb worked. They had two parts of a sphere of uranium, and at the appropriate time, all they had to do was slam them together. The reason this approach isn't taken anymore is that it's all to easy for such a bomb to go off before you really want it to. It doesn't matter if the parts all come together on purpose or by accident, when they're united, it's flame on.

The hard way is to compress the metal so that, locally, it's dense enough to constitute a critical mass. This is somewhat tricky. It requires the use of specially-shaped explosives to squeeze down a sphere of already fairly dense metal in exactly the right way to produce the desired result. Do it wrong, and all you have is a very expensive mess.

What got me thinking about all this, is that NK claims to have designed and built a four-kiloton warhead.

It's freaking hard to build a small-yield weapon. Hard enough that, today, the US doesn't think it's even worthwhile. We've had a few, but only a few. Some, like the AIR-2 Genie nuclear air-to-air missile (Mk. 25 Mod. 1), were made obsolete by guided missiles. Others, like the Davy Crockett nuclear bazooka, were just plain stupid ideas to begin with. (What kind of idiot designs a bazooka with a blast radius that exceeds the range?) But by the late '60s, we'd given the whole lot up as a bad idea. The results don't justify the expense.

But ... if your missiles aren't all that big, you need a small payload if you're going to air-mail it to anybody. We had a similar problem in the late '50s, but we also had Edward Teller.

The easiest uranium bomb to build would be something along the lines of Little Boy: weighing in at something like 4 to 5 tons. The upside: you know it's gonna work, first time, every time. The down side: there's no good way to get it to anybody you think needs blowing up. Dragging a five-ton parcel across somebody's border is bound to attract all kinds of unwanted attention.

So: you have to think small. But that takes a lot of sophistication. It takes very meticulous scientific work, and extraordinarily precise machining. And you have to have done your preparation work right. If your metal isn't of the highest purity, it's all wasted effort. Reactor-grade won't cut it, not even a little bit.

Steven Den Beste had an article up a few days ago, referring to this issue. He was wondering if the North Koreans' plutonium hadn't been refined too hastily. Apparently, if you rush the job, you don't get the right mix of isotopes, and it won't catch.

And if their plutonium is, in fact, just plain bad ... well, they can test all they want. The bomb might make a big, awful mess, but it won't go "boom".

Now, setting one of these off in downtown Seoul would be horrible enough for any ordinary purpose. But it's not something that will inspire fear so much as it will inspire all-consuming homicidal rage. Somehow, I don't think that's the effect Mr. Kim was looking for.

So. Now, we wait to see if they're going to have another go at lighting it off. But can Mr. Kim afford another fizzle? Can his credibility afford it, what's left of it? Can he afford yet another spectacle that enrages what few friends he does have left in the world?

Be afraid, Mr. Kim, be very afraid: that next knock at the door won't be us, it'll be the Chinese secret service. And they won't be happy with you. No, not even a little bit.

UPDATE: Mr. Kim takes the hint, and sings a few verses of the Very Sorry Song to China. (Page down for the lyrics.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Now, This Is Just Sad

A few days ago, we all woke up to the news that North Korea had claimed that it tested a nuclear weapon.

It would appear that the operative word here is, in fact, test.

The word from CNN (and you can believe as much of that as you want to) is that NK had told China that the yield would be about 4 kilotons. Our guys, after looking at the seismic data, say that it looks more like a half-kiloton. Maybe less.

Now, that's just sad. Our first attempt was four times their claimed yield, and our first one worked. Granted, we had the finest scientists in the world working on it, and they're making do with used chewing gum and bailing wire, but still ... These are the big leagues, dude. Four kilotons doesn't even get you in the door of the game room.

In another piece I saw earlier today, Mr. Kim was threatening his neighbors with nuclear-armed missiles.

Memo to Mr. Kim: Before your ego starts writing checks your Army can't cash, do observe that if you're going to make that kind of threat, you need three things:

1) A working atomic weapon

2) A working atomic weapon that's small enough to put on a missile

3) A working atomic weapon that's small enough to put on a missile that is capable of leaving North Korean airspace. (By the way, in colloquial English, NoDong is the perfect name for a North Korean weapon system.)

You appear to be batting zero so far, sir. But do try again. It enrages your friends and amuses your enemies. And it wastes plutonium. Feel free to waste as much as you like.

My earlier statement stands: Your first shot had damn well better be a doozy, because you won't be getting a second.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Time and Tide Wait for No Man

Last time, I made a point that I didn't have time to elaborate on, but I probably ought to. It's not necessarily obvious, and it bears some reflection.

I said: "They (meaning revolutionary movements like al-Qaeda) have about ten years before they either (a) win, or (b) metastasize into fairly conventional criminal syndicates."

It's a pattern we've seen before, in organizations as diverse as the IRA in Northern Ireland and FARC down in Colombia. Both groups started as hard-core revolutionaries, both are now pretty well consumed with self-preservation. And most of that self-preservation takes the form of criminal activites that make their daily bread. And that's not the only place this trend is evident. You can also see it in labor unions, your local PTA, or NASA.

It's called the Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

I can't take credit for it, of course. Credit for this observation belongs to Jerry Pournelle, whose site I link above. But I'll restate it here:

Any organization has two kinds of people working for it. The first kind work for the intended aims of the organization. The second kind work for the organization itself. While organizations tend to be founded by the first kind, eventually they always end up being run by the second kind.

My observation above is a logical extension of this principle.

Any organization, any at all, needs its "organization" men. They're the ones who keep your books straight while the "true believers" are hard at work doing whatever it is that they're supposed to be doing. We've been treated to some stunning pictures from Mars this last week, from a pair of rovers that have far outlived their design lifetimes. Those would never have been possible without the efforts of the men and women who do the scut work of NASA, lobbying Congress for funding, reminding our representatives why their work is important.

But it's important to remember that the scientists and engineers don't run NASA. The bureaucrats do.

No organization is immune. And this has some interesting consequences for revolutionary movements.

Revolutionaries have a sticky problem. In order to overthrow the existing regime, they need the wherewithal to do it: guns, bombs, recruits, facilities. To get those, they need to have people on staff who can get that stuff for them, and manage it. In short, they need Organization Men.

While the movement is young, the original founders are still in charge, and their hand-picked men are in all the important leadership spots. So, all's good. And if they win, they will all move on to posts in the new order, so it's all still good. But if they don't win ...

That's when things get interesting. Revolutionaries have a way of coming to bad, violent ends. So, who ends up getting promoted, when the alter Kampfern start getting fitted for English hempen neckties?

You guessed it: the Organization Men. And why not? They've proven their ability to handle affairs, haven't they?

But here's the problem: they work first for the organization, then for its goals, in that order. Once you have a critical mass of Organization Men in the upper ranks, most of the activity of the group becomes geared towards support and maintenance, with only lip service being paid to the "real" cause.

I mean, what is FARC today but a glorified cocaine cartel? And when was the last time the IRA was politically meaningful? For most of the men in those groups, it's a paycheck, not about changing the world. Not anymore.

And absent a major victory, al-Qaeda is headed down the same road. It's an inevitability. And they're farther down the track than many Americans realize. Remember, they got their start in the early '90s, right after the first Gulf War. Say, fifteen years of organizational history.

And, in the last five years, they've suffered fearful losses amongst their True Believers...

You know, when I consider the amount of paperwork it takes to do anything really worthwhile over here, I can almost feel sorry for them.

Then again, not really. They are welcome, and more than welcome, to as much self-induced agony as they can muster. I wonder if anyone's ever translated Robert's Rules of Order into Arabic? That ought to put a couple of handfuls of sand in the gears...