Nuclear Friday: Bombs Aloft

Dropping bombs is always tricky. Accurate bombing is always difficult, which is why bombing never became the decisive war winner in WWII it was predicted to be back in the 1930’s. And bombing is expensive. Aircraft and pilot training are expensive compared to the amount of damage bombing can do.

Nuclear weapons alter the balance strongly in favor of the attacker. In the scale of strategic attrition the damage done is always greater than the cost of the weapon and delivery system. Even so, accuracy still matters. There are high priority targets, perhaps hardened command bunkers, or even the nuclear weapons of the opposing side. Stealth, swiftness, and accuracy can make a huge difference in some situations.

Back in WWII, the best way to assure accuracy was to bomb from lower altitudes. It’s important to remember that you are never just “dropping” a bomb. If it was that simple, range would hardly matter. Bombs are thrown. Bombs don’t fall straight down from the releasing aircraft. They begin their descent with a forward component to their motion equal to the velocity of the releasing aircraft. In an airless setting they would then fall in the perfect parabolic arcs Galileo talked about and that you might have learned to calculate in an introductory physics class. Galileo knew it was more complicated than that. He knew about wind resistance and terminal velocity. He spent a lot of time watching people test cannons and knew that his revolutionary mathematical approach was an idealized approximation. The point is, if you want to understand bombing think of a plane and bomb as a cannon, with the speed of plane as the equivalent of the speed of the cannonball coming out of the barrel.

Looking at it this way, it’s easy to see why being at a lower altitude is so much better. It’s just like shooting a cannon at a closer target. Thinking of the plane as cannon, it’s simple to calculate where the bomb will go is when the plane is flying low and level. Another way it’s easy to figure out where the bomb will go is when the plane is in a steep dive. This is dive bombing. This turns the forward motion of the plane into downward motion of the bomb in a way that is easy on the math, and pilots are able to get an intuitive sense that the plane is a cannon when dive bombing.

It should be obvious that neither low altitude level bombing nor dive bombing will work with nuclear weapons. The pilot and other aircrew would surely die in the blast. Loss of aircraft and pilots might not matter from a strategic point of view, but pilots need to believe there is going to be a return trip. Pilots need alternatives, and they got them: Laydown and Lofting.

Laydown is simply retarding the motion of the bomb by increasing its air resistance with a parachute. This makes the bomb less like a cannonball and gives the pilot time to escape the worst of the blast before the weapon detonates. This is different than the retarding parachutes used when the B-29’s dropped nuclear weapons on Japan. Those bombs really did fall slowly like a person jumping with a simple parachute. They had to. The B-29 wasn’t very fast, and those bombs were airbursts to maximize area of effect. Laydowns are groundbursts to take out hardened targets. The pilot can get away, but the pilot has to fly in the same direction as the approach to get away.  This takes him deeper into hostile territory.

Lofting is a better alternative. It allows for medium altitude airbursts and gets the pilot pointed in the right direction after the attack. Lofting uses the plane like a cannon. Everyone knows that you point the cannon at least a little upward to maximize range. The archers of Agincourt shot their bows at high angles to create chaos in the French ranks. You can use the plane like a bow or a cannon. Releasing the bomb when the plane is climbing sends the bomb in an upward arcing trajectory similar to a mortar shot. The speeds are even about the same as the airburst mortars shot from Fort McHenry. The range is much greater though. Think of mortars fired from a tower on the Chesapeake a half mile tall or higher. And the high angle of release gets the plane into perfect position to escape.

Here’s a short video from the late sixties that shows both a laydown and lofting attack:

The loft release of the second bomb is at 1:57. Notice the plane goes upward faster than the bomb. Don’t worry, the bomb is still moving upward relative to the ground. The aircraft will soon finish a “Half Cuban Eight” escape maneuver similar to the old Immelmann Turn from WWI, and duck lower than the bomb while reaching maximum speed in a shallow powered dive.

And also notice the use of the terms “pipper” and “pickle”. In WWII “pipper” referred to an indicator on the Norden Bombsight. “Pickle” meant to ready bombs for release. In this video the A-7 pilot pickles his second weapon by holding down a red button, but a computer controls the release. In this case it’s a digital computer, ancestor of what you’re reading this on today. And notice the Heads Up Display? The pilot could see targeting information on a semi-transperent screen and still have a full range of vision through the rest of the canopy. This is better than what Luke Skywalker had attacking the Death Star.

The bombs in this video are the B-43 thermonuclear device with a variable yield from 70 kilotons to 1 megaton

What Nuking Cuba would have Looked Like:

Suppose the Cuban Missile Crisis had gone hot. What would it have looked like? I think it might have been contained to a regional nuclear war. An escalation to all out nuclear war would have resulted in the utter destruction of the Soviet Union, and if the 1956 US War Plan is any guide, probably much of Europe and Asia. The US would have been a clear “winner” with perhaps only 25-35 million dead.

But whether you like to think of an early sixties regional nuclear war or an early sixties die off, this is how it would have started:

Notice how the A-4 pilot pretty much has to be an engineer? The computers in the A-7
did the work for the pilot. This pilot has electro-mechanical analog timers and computers, direct descents of the 1940’s loft bombing computers developed by SAAB in Sweden that assured Swedish neutrality in WWII.

This video is from 1959. This is how the US would have splashed missiles in Cuba. The weapon mentioned in the video is the B-7 fission bomb based on the Mk-7 fission core. Variable yield from about 8-60 kilotons. Plenty big enough to splash all weapons in Cuba.

By the time of the Crisis, some A-4’s had been equipped with the much higher yield B-43. The B-43 weighed less than half the fission based B-7.

A Serious Threat:

The only US President since Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis to play the nuclear card was GHW Bush a few times in 1990 and 1991. Bush 41 first threatened that any chemical attack outside the borders of Iraq might be met with a nuclear response.





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