Nuclear weapons for dummies
Development of nuclear weaponry involves putting together 3 basic components: know-how, explosive and vehicle.
Component A: know-how
This includes the basic science and the applied technology needed to design and build a nuclear bomb that can be transported and detonated at the desired place and time.
Since the very nature of this hyper-destructive weapon precludes a trial and error approach, a huge volume of research, calculations, modelling and indirect experimentation is required to achieve the required bomb architecture, a working triggering mechanism, etc.
Component B: explosive
The most common ‘nuclear explosive’ is an isotope called uranium 235. It is found in nature, but only in very small concentrations. Natural uranium (which is mined) contains circa 0.7% uranium-235, with the bulk being uranium-238 – which cannot be used as ‘nuclear explosive’.
To produce a workable bomb, uranium-235 needs to be separated from uranium-238 up to a purity of at least 80-90%. Since the two isotopes are very similar – they only differ slightly in the weight of their nuclei – the separation process (dubbed ‘enrichment’) is extremely complex and laborious. It necessitates the design, building and operation of a large number of very sophisticated centrifuges. The process can take many years, but it can be shortened to just weeks or days by designing more efficient centrifuges and increasing their number. In essence, it’s like filling a grain silo with a spoon. It can be sped up by using more people and larger spoons.
Component C: vehicle
To be used as weapons, nuclear bombs need to be transported to the target. This can be achieved by using a bomber aircraft – as was done in 1945 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But bomber planes are easy to detect and can be destroyed in the air, before the bomb is dropped. The ‘modern’ delivery vehicle is the missile. And its simplest embodiment is the ballistic missile. A ballistic missile is very similar to the rockets used to launch satellites and other spacecraft, but it is fired at lower velocity, so that it returns to Earth, rather than escaping its gravitational field into the outer space.
Ballistic missiles are not simple projectiles; they need to carry a sensitive payload (a satellite or a nuclear bomb), which needs to be protected during flight, as well as deployed and triggered at precise moment in time.
Designing and building such missiles (especially long-range missiles that can accurately hit targets hundreds and thousands of miles away) involves huge research and development efforts, as well as lots of testing and experimentation.
If a country (or a rogue regime) wants to produce nuclear weapons, it needs to develop the 3 components above, in whatever order. In the case of a rogue regime, it needs to achieve all that before being stopped by other countries.
This is difficult, because some of the processes involved cannot be hidden forever: installing large numbers of centrifuges involves building a suitable, large-scale facility; even if that facility is hidden underground, the logistics needed to build it can hardly escape the attention of intelligence agencies. Similarly, testing missiles and nuclear devices is relatively easy to detect.
But hiding is not the only tactic at the disposal of a rogue regime intent on developing nuclear weapons; obfuscation is another. Many of the activities necessary to obtain nuclear bombs are similar to the ones practiced in the pursue of civilian applications. Up to a point, Component A activities can be disguised as benign academic research; enrichment can produce explosive material, but also fuel for nuclear energy production, as well as medical isotopes; missiles can be developed as ‘legitimate’ conventional weapons before being equipped with nuclear warheads. This ‘dual purpose’ ambiguity can be exploited to mask the true purpose of a nuclear programme, especially given a media and a public eager to avoid tensions and war. Debates related to the true nature of the North Korean nuclear programme were only really dispelled by that country’s first nuclear test, conducted in 2006.
Military tactics for dummies
One of the most basic military combat manoeuvres is ‘leapfrogging’. In its simplest embodiment, the tactic can be employed by a small unit of – say – 3 soldiers. Let’s call them A, B and C. All 3 march forward from a set position. Upon locating the enemy, the 3 take cover and fire. Then Soldier A leaps forward 10 or 20 yards, while Soldiers B and C maintain their covered positions and fire on the enemy. Once Soldier A has leaped and taken cover again in a more advanced position, Soldier B leaps forward, while A and C maintain their cover and fire… And so on, until the unit closes down on the enemy and gets near enough to begin the final assault.
This is a basic offensive manoeuvre, meant to overwhelm the enemy while minimising the risk to one’s own forces. Experience has taught that, when the force is relatively far away from its objective, this tactic is preferable to the alternative: the 3 soldiers running towards the enemy at the same time. In the latter alternative, after a few seconds the enemy is able to anticipate the route of each of the soldiers and to take aim. In leapfrogging, provided the leaps are short enough, the enemy has too little time to take effective aim; however, their attention becomes focused on Soldier A (the leaping soldier), so they are surprised by the next leap (Soldier B); and so on. The tactic works because the successive movements distract the enemy’s attention, making it difficult for him to learn and react in a timely and effective manner. By the time the enemy figures out the pattern and learns to react, it is usually too late: the attacking force is again achieving surprise by switching to the final assault.
The tactic remains effective, although it has been used countless times, at various command levels. Just replace mentally the 3 soldiers with 3 platoons, companies, battalions or divisions. Or indeed with 5, 7 or 10 divisions!
The same type of logic applies to non-military confrontations – think of business or politics. The principle remains the same: distract attention; deny the enemy the time to read your intentions and prepare a suitable reaction.
How does one say ‘leapfrogging’ in Farsi?
So let’s now turn our inquisitive eye towards the Islamic Republic of Iran and its nuclear programme. Thanks to the recent Israeli intelligence coup, we now know for sure that before 2003 Iran was working hard on Component A: know-how.
I say ‘we now know for sure’, because everybody but the terminally naïve was already harbouring very serious suspicions.
For instance, in a report dated 15 December 2015, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA, the international nuclear watchdog) stated:
“The Agency assesses that a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003. The Agency also assesses that these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities. The Agency has no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.”
In plain talk, Iran was learning how to design and trigger a nuclear bomb. But sometime in 2003, that effort was scaled back or practically terminated. But why? What’s so special about 2003?
Soldier A leaps
For a while before 2003, Iran’s Islamic regime could pursue its nuclear ambitions at very low risk. Not that those ambitions were unknown – information about Iran’s nuclear programme was leaked to the Western intelligence agencies, including through Iranian defectors. But those agencies had at the time – in the aftermath of 9/11 – other priorities. The war in Afghanistan and the mounting tension with Iraq provided additional distraction.
But in March 2003 a multinational coalition led by USA invaded Iraq. The attack was motivated by suspicions that Saddam Hussein’s regime was developing nuclear weapons. The immediate outcome was that Iraq’s Ba’athist regime was toppled; Saddam Hussein was captured and executed.
Now put yourself in the shoes of regime bosses in Tehran – on the other side of a long border with Iraq. Unlike Saddam, you have a relatively advanced nuclear weapons development programme – but are still years away from being able to actually build a bomb. Would you want to continue that programme and provide the coalition with the motivation to deal with you in the same way it did with Saddam? Or would you rather abruptly terminate the programme and hide all evidence that it had ever existed?
The leap is over, then. Soldier A takes cover.
The files were hidden, therefore, but not destroyed. Quite the opposite: they were carefully archived and stored, because they contained the precious Component A: know-how. The files stolen by the Mossad will tell us now how good is the Iranian grasp of Component A; but in all probability, the research was very advanced, as it had been going on for years, with the full support of key regime figures and unimpeded by an ‘international community’ whose attention was focused elsewhere.
Soldier B leaps
But what was scaled down was further work on Component A; the march towards the bomb continued. After 2003, the regime simply prioritised work on Component B: explosive.
In 2006, Iran had hundreds of centrifuges working on enriching uranium; by 2012, it had 10,000. And another 8-9,000 were installed in 2013. Moreover, Iran had developed more efficient, higher capacity centrifuges.
Uranium enrichment as such is not prohibited under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, because of the ‘dual-purpose’ conundrum. Nuclear reactors designed for energy generation use uranium enriched to 3-5%. Enrichment above that limit can be claimed to be conducted ‘for research purposes’; and if one wishes to enrich to 20% and above, one can always claim to produce medical isotopes. That’s exactly what Iran claimed. Using guile, staling tactics and intimidation, it limited the access of IAEA inspectors and thus maintained deniability.
One technical detail needs to be understood: the enrichment process is not linear; it actually accelerates at higher concentrations. It takes longer to enrich natural uranium from natural ore (0.7% uranium-235) to 10%, compared to further enriching the 10% to 20%. That’s because, as the concentration increases, the amount that needs to be processed decreases and the processes become faster. Which means that, given a large enough volume of uranium enriched to 20%, the time needed to produce enough explosive material to build several bombs can be compressed to months, weeks or even days, depending on the number and efficiency of available centrifuges.
The ‘international community’ finally sprang into action, spooked by the prospect of a nuclear armed Islamist regime in the most volatile region on earth. Economic sanctions were tightened; UN Security Council resolutions were issued; even hints of military intervention were uttered.
But did the Islamic Republic really want to enrich enough uranium for a bomb? I doubt it. The time was not ripe yet. Iran had learned to build, install and operate thousands of centrifuges. But it was not ready for the final assault.
Rather, the regime judged that, for the moment, it had made enough progress regarding Component B: explosive; to push any further was to risk a crippling military attack. End of leap. Soldier B takes cover.
So the regime signalled a willingness to concede. Exploiting to the full the West’s reluctance to engage in yet another military conflict in the Middle East, Iranian negotiators drove a tough, tough deal – the bombastically named Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015.
Soldier C leaps
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic switched its focus to Component C: vehicle. The JCPOA placed no limits on missile development. The UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015), which endorsed the JCPOA, contained the following loose clause:
“Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.”
But, since Iran does not have to open its missile programme to any international scrutiny, who’s to say what missiles are “designed to be capable” and which are not? What does “called upon” mean and what happens if Iran, is “called” but does not answer??
Iran’s missile programme did not begin in 2012 or 2015, of course. It started much earlier, with North Korean help. But the pace of missile development now becomes frenetic: in 2015, Iran test-launches at least 3 different ‘brands’ of missiles, with ranges reported as ‘up to 3,000 km’. (This would make them capable of reaching Berlin and Rome. Jerusalem is just 1,000 km away from Iran, as the crow (or indeed the missile flies); Riyadh is just 600 km away.)
The tests accelerate in 2016: in just two days of military exercises in March, Iran test-fires no less than 5 different types of missiles – the Qiam-1, Shahab-1, Shahab-32, Ghadr-H, and Ghadr-F. In September, a new model (dubbed Zolfaghar). A Shahab-3 missile is test-fired in December, as part of a broader military exercise.
In February 2017, Iran test-fires a cruise (guided, rather than ballistic) missile, with a range of between 2,000 and 3,000 km.
In June 2017, 6 Zolfaghar missiles are combat-fired at a target in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, which Iran claims was ‘an ISIS command centre’.
And so on…
In short, the Iranian regime employs a variant of the ‘leapfrogging’ tactic: each component of the nuclear programme is advanced in turn, while the other two are maintained on the slow burner. The latest ‘leaps’ can be dated, as shown, around 2003 and 2015. And we know what ‘leapfrogging’ leads to: the final assault. Or, in this case, the speedy, all-out dash towards achieving operational, deployable, deliverable nuclear weapons. That ‘assault’ will take place when the Iranian regime feels that it has closed down on that target; close enough to be able to achieve it in weeks, rather than months; i.e. before ‘the enemy’ is able to muster a response. The regime may also wait for the right moment in a broader international context. Perhaps a conflagration in a different place; a significant event that further distracts the fickle attention of the much vaunted ‘international community’.
Nobody really knows when that might happen, though of course every ‘expert’ will have an opinion. But the current focus on Component C may well represent Iran’s final ‘leap’.
The time for counter-attack is now.