I visited the Titan Missile Museum south of Tucson Saturday afternoon. It was not my first visit, and probably won't be my last. It is one of those places that fascinates me, for it represents how far we've come but at the same time how quickly we can lose it all. What follows are my thoughts and notes from my latest visit.
The end of the world won't come with the push of a button. It will come with the turning of a key. Two keys, to be exact.
The end will come through events beyond our control. It will be random, and hopefully quick. More likely, it will be drawn out and full of tenuous detail. If we are lucky we will be surrounded by those we love and there will be meaning. If we are truly lucky the world won't end at all.
From the time the order to launch is authenticated to the time the missiles leave their silos will be less than a minute. In the end it won't matter where the rockets are launched from, or if we launch ours as a first strike or in retaliation. The world that comes after in either case is not a world we will want to be a part of.
The Air Force officers that fire the missile will have nothing but time on their hands once the missile leaves the silo. There will be four of them down there, two on active duty at the launch counsel and two in the crew quarters. They will be sequestered deep underground in radiation hardened bunkers until they receive further orders. The world they come out to will be forever changed. If the bunker takes a missile strike within about a mile of the base they won't be coming out at all. There will be too much radiation to survive more than a few hours. They are 'safe' underground, but the fresh air supply will be cutoff. The bunker has roughly 21 days worth of air for four people. The US Government has been generous enough to provide them with 30 days worth of food and water. The only rationing they will have to do will be saving their breath. I doubt there would be much to talk about anyway.
They can use that time to do some trigonometry. The Air Force thinks that if the officers know the name of the target, whether it be Moscow, Vladivostok, or some similar missile base in Siberia, they will hesitate to the turn the key when the time comes. Knowing the name of the place you are being ordered to destroy makes it too real. Instead they are only told to program in target 1, target 2, or target 3. They won't know the target that their missile was fired at, but they will know just enough detail to do the morbid calculus to figure it out.
They will know the approximate speed and duration of their rocket's flight. They will know the warhead's detonation settings. They may even know the general direction it was fired. They will know if the warhead was set to blast on impact, or in the upper atmosphere. They will have maps and slide rules. They will have time to draw the great circle and figure out what place was just wiped off the Earth. They will have time to ruminate, but not time to repent. They were just following orders.
The first minute of the rockets flight will powered by the first stage engines. This will put the rocket into the upper atmosphere, roughly 45 miles over the surface of the earth and roughly 45 miles north of Tucson. The rocket will then orient itself by the stars. After the first stage separates the rocket will find the north star and the horizon. It will use this information to determine the appropriate trajectory towards the target. The second stage will then fire for approximately three minutes, gaining enough speed to reach its mission objective. After about three minutes the second stage engines will separate from the reentry vehicle, which contains the ballistic warhead. The reentry vehicle will free fall the distance to the target. They call this the ballistic trajectory. From start to finish, the missile will be in the air for roughly a half an hour. Thirty minutes until the end of creation.
The warhead will most likely be a W53 nuclear bomb, which contains a nine megaton nuclear charge. Nine megatons is equivalent to 9,000,000 tons of TNT. That is equal to 18,000,000,000 pounds of dynamite.
The bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a 15 kiloton charge. Nagasaki had a 20 kiloton charge. The W53 has 450 to 600 times the destructive power of the bombs that ended World War II. If you were to fill a train with boxcars full of TNT, a nine megaton train could stretch the ~1500 miles from San Diego to Brownsville, TX. Long enough to create the misguided border wall - and really, who in their right mind would cross it.
The target settings will determine if the warhead will detonate in the air or on impact. If the target is a city, then the warhead will detonate in the upper atmosphere. This will create a back-pressure that will reign down on the structures below, creating a wide destructive footprint. The back-pressure will destroy nearly every structure within a nine mile radius directly under the blast. From Piestewa Peak in Phoenix a nine mile radius is every structure between the 101/51 interchange and the Broadway curve. From 67th Ave & Northern to the 101 & Indian Bend.
Every unprotected person within a 20 mile radius of the blast would receive lethal burns from the heat of the blast. From Piestewa Peak, that is every single person in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Glendale, Peoria, and most of Mesa, and half each of Chandler, Gilbert, Surprise, Litchfield Park, and Goodyear.
Between 50% and 90% of the people within a 2.5 mile radius of the blast would get radiation sickness within 24 hours of the blast, assuming they have not been burned up or crushed under debris already.
If the bomb detonates above 10,000 feet, then the electromagnetic pulse would be enough to 'brick' every electronic device in the United States and most of both Canada and Mexico. That's every phone, computer, radio, TV and car and truck in North America. None would function, their electronics fried by the EMP burst.
The light from the blast would bombard everyone with x-ray gamma radiation, known as the "Teller Light". Those looking at other people instead of the blast would be shocked to see everyone temporarily turned into moving skeletons for the brief duration of the x-ray exposure.
If the bomb instead detonated on impact instead of in the air, then the blast crater would be at least a mile wide and a quarter mile deep. That is bigger than Meteor Crater. Our own, man-made, asteroid impact. Anything within the crater would be vaporized and thrust in to the upper atmosphere.
All of this destructive power will be unleashed with the turning of a key. Two keys to be exact.
From their bunker, deep underground, the only way that the officers that fire the missile will know that the world has ended will be a green light on an outdated computer counsel that runs off of a paper tape reel and an old clock. The green light will tell them that they have become death, the destroyer of worlds. The clock will tell them... well, nothing. For in that moment, time will be all we have left and will mean nothing at all.
All of which leads to the point of this discussion. There was a time where all of this was considered normal. Where we lived our lives with the acceptance that we have the power to destroy our unique world, as did our enemies, and the only things that kept us from doing it was the fear that if we fired our missiles they would fire theirs right back at us. But now, I don't know. It has been 32 years since the last Titan II missile armed with a W53 Nuclear Warhead was taken off active duty. We still have the capability to bring them back. They do too. We still have active missile silos. They do too.
We go through this election cycle focused on who said what about who, and who deleted this or that email, and we lose site of the stakes. I am not saying that we are returning to those fateful days in October, 1962, but I am saying that we need to remember them and do our best not to bring them back.