Fifty-five years ago, the USSR detonated a 50-megaton bomb over an uninhabited island north of the Arctic Circle. The most powerful thermonuclear weapon ever built by man, aptly called the Tsar Bomba, gave the USSR nuclear parity with the USA.
The Super Bomb was a Necessity
The “thaw” in Soviet-US relations resulting from, amongst other things, Nikita Khrushchyov’s visit to the USA in autumn 1959 ended on 1 May 1960, when the Soviets shot down a US U-2 spy plane flown by CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers in their airspace as it performed photographic aerial reconnaissance of the Baikonur cosmodrome and a number of Soviet military and nuclear facilities. Powers parachuted safely, the Soviets captured him, and he admitted the military nature of his mission. As a result, Khrushchyov cancelled the scheduled opening of an east-west summit in Paris. The incident prompted a marked deterioration of US-Soviet relations, especially after US-backed Cuban emigrants bungled an attempt to invade Cuba in April 1961. The Moscow-proposed moratorium on nuclear tests by the USSR, the USA, and the UK, in effect since 1958, left the USSR lagging far behind the USA in the size of its nuclear arsenal. By 1960, the Americans used the moratorium to bring the number of their nuclear and thermonuclear warheads to 18,600 from 7,500 in 1958. In July 1961, Khrushchyov decided that he had enough of the moratorium and decided to start work on super-powerful thermonuclear weapons to restore nuclear parity with the USA. He also announced the need to build a 100-megaton thermonuclear bomb as a means of forcing the Americans to wake up to reality.
The Tsar Bomba
A four-man development team of nuclear physicists… Viktor Adamsky, Yuri Babaev, Yuri Smirnov, and Yuri Trutnev… had the responsibility to design and build a three-stage thermonuclear device in just 15 weeks. Officially designated the AN602 thermonuclear bomb, the Tsar Bomba used the common three-stage Teller-Ulam design. The primary fission reaction compressed a secondary mixed fission/fusion fuel layer, which in turn compressed a large tertiary thermonuclear payload, essentially stringing a pair of hydrogen fission reactions together to generate enough energy to activate fusion in a uranium payload.
At 09.00 on 30 October 1961, a specially modified Tu-95 strategic bomber took off; it carried the Tsar Bomba and a Tu-16A flying laboratory accompanied it. They headed for a testing range on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. At 27 tonnes, the Tsar Bomba weighed nearly as much as the Tu-95 that carried it; it was so big that groundcrew had to cut off the bomb-bay doors to fit it in. At 11.30, the crew released the device from 10,500 metres, using a parachute to retard its fall so that the bomber and its companion craft had sufficient time… 188 seconds… to leave the area. The bomb went off at an altitude of 4,200 metres. The calculated power of the unprecedented explosion was 51.5 megatons. In reality, its power was between 57 and 58.6 megatons. The fireball from the explosion was 4.6 kilometres across; it was visible 1,000 kilometres away, despite dense clouds. The mushroom cloud rose up to almost 70 kilometres and had a diameter of 95 kilometres. For about an hour after the explosion, people observed radio signal distortions hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre due to ionisation of the atmosphere. The shockwave circled the planet three times. On Dikson Island, some 800 kilometres from the range, the shockwave shattered windows, bringing the sound of cannonade with it.
Even though the Tsar Bomba wasn’t an active service weapon, its creation confirmed the USSR’s ability to have as many megatons of nuclear might as it desired. With this realisation in mind, the USA stopped their nuclear buildup. On 5 August 1963, the USSR, the USA, and the UK signed a treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater. Thus, the test of the Tsar Bomba played a crucial role in achieving nuclear parity between the USSR and the USA. This prevented nuclear war.
30 October 2016