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  • The Bomb and the Nuclear Posture Review

    Posted on April 22nd, 2017 Helian No comments

    A Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is a legislatively mandated review, typically conducted every five to ten years.  It assesses such things as the role, safety and reliability of the weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, the status of facilities in the nuclear weapons complex, and nuclear weapons policy in areas such as nonproliferation and arms control.  The last one was conducted in 2010.  The Trump Administration directed that another one be conducted this year, and the review is already in its initial stages.  It should be finished by the end of the year.  There is reason for concern about what the final product might look like.

    Trump has made statements to the effect that the U.S. should “expand its nuclear capability,” and that, “We have nuclear arsenals that are in very terrible shape.  They don’t even know if they work.”  Such statements have typically been qualified by his aides.  It’s hard to tell whether they reflect serious policy commitments, or just vague impressions based on a few minutes of conversation with some Pentagon wonk.  In fact, there are deep differences of opinion about these matters within the nuclear establishment.  That’s why the eventual content of the NPR might be problematic.  There have always been people within the nuclear establishment, whether at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency within the Department of Energy responsible for maintaining the stockpile, or in the military, who are champing at the bit to resume nuclear testing.  Occasionally they will bluntly question the reliability of the weapons in our stockpile, even though by that very act they diminish the credibility of our nuclear deterrent.  If Trump’s comments are to be taken seriously, the next NPR may reflect the fact that they have gained the upper hand.  That would be unfortunate.

    Is it really true that the weapons in our arsenal are “in very terrible shape,” and we “don’t even know if they work?”  I doubt it.  In the first place, the law requires that both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense sign off on an annual assessment that certifies the safety and reliability of the stockpile.  They have never failed to submit that certification.  Beyond that, the weapons in our stockpile are the final product of more than 1000 nuclear tests.  They are both safe and robust.  Any credible challenge to their safety and reliability must cite some plausible reason why they might fail.  I know of no such reason.

    For the sake of argument, let’s consider what might go wrong.  Modern weapons typically consist of a primary and a secondary.  The primary consists of a hollow “pit” of highly enriched uranium or plutonium surrounded by high explosive.  Often it is filled with a “boost” gas consisting of a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen.  When the weapon is used, the high explosive implodes the pit, causing it to form a dense mass that is highly supercritical.  At the same time, nuclear fusion takes place in the boost gas, producing highly energetic neutrons that enhance the yield of the primary.  At the right moment an “initiator” sends a burst of neutrons into the imploded pit, setting off a chain reaction that results in a nuclear explosion.  Some of the tremendous energy released in this explosion in the form of x-rays then implodes the secondary, causing it, too, to explode, adding to the yield of the weapon.

    What could go wrong?  Of course, explosives are volatile.  Those used to implode the primary might deteriorate over time.  However, these explosives are carefully monitored to detect any such deterioration.  Other than that, the tritium in the boost gas is radioactive, and has a half life of only a little over 12 years.  It will gradually decay into helium, reducing the effectiveness of boosting.  This, too, however is a well understood process, and one which is carefully monitored and compensated for by timely replacement of the tritium.  Corrosion of key parts might occur, but this too, is carefully checked, and the potential sources are well understood.  All these potential sources of uncertainty affect the primary.  However, much of the uncertainty about their effects can be eliminated experimentally.  Of course, the experiments can’t include actual nuclear explosions, but surrogate materials can be substituted for the uranium and plutonium in the pit with similar properties.  The implosion process can then be observed using powerful x-ray or proton beams.  Unfortunately, our experimental capabilities in this area are limited.  We cannot observe the implosion process all the way from the initial explosion to the point at which maximum density is achieved in three dimensions taking “snapshots” at optimally short intervals.  To do that, we would need what has been referred to as an Advanced Hydrodynamic Facility, or AHF.

    We currently have an unmatched suite of above ground experimental facilities for studying the effects of aging on the weapons in our stockpile, including the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Z Machine at Sandia National Laboratories, and the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility (DARHT) at Los Alamos.  These give us a very significant leg up on the international competition when it comes to maintaining our stockpile.  That is a major reason why it would be foolish for us to resume nuclear testing.  We would be throwing away this advantage.  Unfortunately, while we once seriously considered building an AHF, basically an extremely powerful accelerator, we never got around to doing so.  It was a serious mistake.  If we had such a facility, it would effectively pull the rug out from under the feet of those who want to resume testing.  It would render all arguments to the effect that “we don’t even know if they work” moot.  We could demonstrate with a very high level of confidence that they will indeed work.

    But that’s water under the bridge.  We must hope that cooler heads prevail, and the NPR doesn’t turn out to be a polemic challenging the credibility of the stockpile and advising a resumption of testing.  We’re likely to find out one way or the other before the end of the year.  Keep your fingers crossed.

  • A Few Hints from Philip Hone on the Cause of the Civil War

    Posted on March 19th, 2017 Helian No comments

    Slavery.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Who was Philip Hone?  Well, he was born in 1780, died in 1851, and lived in New York City.  He was the son of a German immigrant who became wealthy in the auction business.  He was active in the Whig Party, and even claimed he supplied it with its name.  However, his real gift to posterity was a very entertaining and informative diary covering the years from 1828 until his death.

    Do you have trouble remembering even the names of all those Presidents who were in office between Monroe and Lincoln, not to mention anything they actually did or stood for?  Philip Hone can help you out.  He knew some of them personally and had much to say about them, both good and bad.  He was as much in awe about the railroad, steamship and telegraph as we are about jet travel and the Internet.  He gives us an insiders look at the economy and culture of New York in the early 19th century, as well as vignettes of some its most distinguished visitors.  He also confirmed what most people other than Marxist historians and southern elementary school teachers have known all along; the Civil War was about slavery.

    It’s odd, really, that so many people are capable of denying something so obvious.  The northerners who lived through the events in question thought the Civil War was about slavery.  The southerners alive at the time thought it was about slavery.  Foreign observers were in virtually unanimous agreement that it was about slavery.  Source literature confirming it is available in abundance.  It doesn’t matter.  As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, ideological narratives, no matter how ludicrous, can trump historical facts with ease.  So it is with slavery and the Civil War.

    I know I’m not likely to open closed minds, but as my own humble contribution to historical integrity, I will help Mr. Hone spread the word.  There are many allusions to the slavery question in his diary.  In the entry for November 17, 1837, we learn that passions were already running high nearly a quarter of a century before the first shots were fired at Ft. Sumter:

    The terrible abolition question is fated, I fear, to destroy the union of the States, and to endanger the peace and happiness of our western world.  Both parties are getting more and more confirmed in their obstinacy, and more intolerant in their prejudices.  A recent disgraceful affair has occurred in the town of Alton, State of Illinois, which is calculated to excite the most painful feelings in all those who respect the laws and desire the continuance of national peace and union.  Alton is situated on the left bank of the Mississippi, and opposite the slave-holding State of Missouri.  An abolition paper was established there, called the “Alton Observer,” which, becoming obnoxious to the slaveholders, was assailed and the establishment destroyed, some time since, by an ungovernable mob; an attempt was recently made to reestablish the paper, which caused another most disgraceful outrage, in which two persons were killed and several wounded.

    In the entry for October 22, 1939, Hone set down his thoughts on the famous “Amistead” incident:

    There is great excitement in relation to the arrest of two Spaniards, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, the owners of the revolted slaves who were taken on board the “Amistead,” and are now in prison in Connecticut.  This outrageous proceeding is the work of the abolitionists, who, in their officious zeal, have obtained affidavits from the wretched Africans, who, ignorant of our language, probably knew not what they were swearing about.  These affidavits, charging their owners with assault and battery, were made the grounds of this arrest, and the Spaniards are in prison.  Writs of habeas corpus have been issued, and the subject is now submitted to the judges, who, it is hoped, will see reason to discharge the men who escaped so narrowly from the conspiracy in which the lives of other white men were sacrificed.  The fanatics are working day and night to make this bad matter worse; under the specious cloak of an abstract opposition to slavery, they are blowing up a flame which may destroy the Union, and light up a civil war between men who have no interest so strong as to belong to a brotherhood of patriots.

    Hone disliked slavery, but disliked the abolitionists even more.  To him they represented a gratuitous threat to the Union.  Speaking of the Whig convention to nominate a candidate for President on December 9, 1839, he writes,

    The accursed question (slavery, ed.) is destined to mix up with all national questions, and in the end to alter the essential features of our government, if not to cause a separation of the States and a dissolution of the Union.  The opposition to Mr. Clay from this quarter is so strong, that even if nominated he could not (in the opinion of a majority of the convention) have been elected, and it was perhaps good policy to take (William Henry) Harrison, who may succeed if the friends of Mr. Clay exercise that magnanimity which it appears they could not calculate upon from a portion, at least, of the friends of his rivals.

    Speaking of the famous battle over the right to petition Congress against slavery in 1842, we learn that the South wasn’t the only source of agitation for disunion.  Indeed, it came from none other than a former Yankee President as well – John Quincy Adams:

    The House of Representatives presents every day a scene of violence, personal abuse, and vulgar crimination, almost as bad as those which disgraced the National Assembly of France in the early stages of the “Reign of Terror.”  Mr. Adams, with the most provoking pertinacity, continues to present petitions intended to irritate the Southern members, and by language and manner equally calculated to disgust his friends and exasperate his enemies, and does something every day to alienate the respect which all are disposed to render to his consummate learning and admirable talents… Among other insane movements of the ex-President, he has presented a petition praying for a repeal of the Union, because the petitioners are deprived of the privilege of agitating the terrible question of slavery; and their right to bring forward a proposition so monstrous, and his to be their organ of communication with the Congress of the nation, is enforced with the indomitable obstinacy which marks all his conduct of late.

    As Hone’s life nears its end, references to the “accursed question” become more frequent.  The entries for 1850 include the following:

    The great South Carolina senator (John C. Calhoun, ed.) died in Washington, on Sunday morning, March 31, of a disease of the heart… the South has lost her champion; slavery, its defender; and nullification and (we are compelled to say) disunion, their apologists.

    The dreadful question of slavery which has cast an inextinguishable brand of discord between the North and the South of this hitherto happy land, has taken a tangible and definite shape on the question of the admission of the new State of California into the Union with the Constitution of her own framing and adoption.  The flame is no longer smothered; the fanatics of the North and the disunionists of the South have made a gulf so deep that no friendly foot can pass it; enmity so fierce that reason cannot allay it; unconquerable, sectional jealousy, and the most bitter personal hostility.  A dissolution of the Union, which until now it was treason to think of, much more to utter, is the subject of the daily harangues of the factionists in both Houses of Congress.  Compromise is at an end.

    When will all this end?  I see no remedy!  If California is admitted with the prohibition of slavery which themselves have adopted, or if the national district is freed by the action of Congress from the traffic in human flesh, the South stands ready to retire from the Union, and bloody wars will be the fatal consequence.  White men will cut each others throats, and servile insurrections will render the fertile fields of the South a deserted monument to the madness of man.

    One can find more or less the same sentiments in literally thousands of source documents.  The Civil War was fought over slavery.  I know that learned history professors, Confederate heritage zealots, and southern school teachers will continue to gasp out their denials even if they’re buried beneath a dump truck full of diaries.  I can only offer the humble, and probably futile suggestion, that they return to the real world.

    Aside from his comments on the slavery issue, Hone’s diary is a trove of observations and anecdotes about a great number of other happenings of both historical and personal interest.  For example, for those interested in comparing the news media then and now,

    There is little dependence upon newspapers as a record of facts, any more than in their political dogmas or confessions of faith.  If they do not lie from dishonest motives, their avidity to have something new and in advance of others leads them to take up everything that comes to hand without proper examination, adopting frequently the slightly grounded impressions of their informers for grave truths, setting upon them the stamp of authenticity, and sending them upon the wings of the wind to fill the ears and eyes of the extensive American family of the gullibles.

    Hone was convinced that early instances of election fraud proved that universal suffrage would not work, or at least not in big cities;

    The affair is an unpleasant one… It discloses a disgusting scene of villainy in the conduct of our elections, and proves that universal suffrage will not do for great cities.  It proves also the necessity for a registry law, which is a Whig measure, and has been violently opposed by the very men who are now so sensitive on the subject of illegal voting, when it works against them.

    The astute author has some good words to say about my own alma mater:

    In the list of noble young fellows whose gallant conduct, indomitable bravery, and military accomplishments in the Mexican war redound to the glory of West Point, their military alma-mater, there are several New York boys, sons of our friends and associates, who, if they ever get back, will come to their homes covered with glory, jewels in our city’s treasury, the pride of their parents and the children of the Republic.  These are the fruits of a West Point education.  Shame on the malignant demagogues who have labored to overthrow such an institution!

    Hear, hear!  When it came to sports, they didn’t believe in half measures in those days:

    The amusement of prize-fighting, the disgrace of which was formerly confined to England, to the grief and mortification of the moral and respectable part of her subjects, and the disgust of travelers from other countries, has become one of the fashionable abominations of our loafer-ridden city…  One of those infamous meetings took place yesterday on the bank of the North river in Westchester, the particulars of which are given at length in that precious sheet (The New York Herald, ed.) and others of a similar character.  Two men, named Lilly and McCoy, thumped and battered each other for the gratification of a brutal gang of spectators, until the latter, after one hundred and nineteen rounds, fell dead in the ring, and the other ruffian was smuggled away and made his escape from the hands of insulted justice.

    As they say in the blogosphere, read the whole thing.  You’ll find much similar material as seen from a somewhat different perspective than you’re likely to find in your average high school history book.


  • 3+2: More Tinkering with the Nuclear Arsenal

    Posted on October 10th, 2016 Helian No comments

    It really seems as if the weapon designers at the nation’s three nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia, never really believed that nuclear testing would ever end.  If so, they were singularly blind to the consequences.  Instead of taking the approach apparently adopted by the Russians of designing and testing robust warheads that could simply be scrapped and replaced with newly manufactured ones at the end of their service life, they decided to depend on a constant process of refurbishing old warheads, eliminating the ability to make new ones in the process.  When our weapons got too old, they would be repeatedly patched up in so-called Life Extension Programs, or LEPs.  Apparently it began to occur to an increasing number of people in the weapons community that maintaining the safety and reliability of the stockpile indefinitely using that approach might be a bit problematic.

    The first “solution” to the problem proposed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy (DOE) responsible for maintaining the nuclear stockpile, was the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW).  It was to be robust, easy to manufacture, and easy to maintain.  It was also a new, untested design.  As such, it would have violated the spirit, if not the letter, of Article VI of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).  If it had been built, it would also very likely have forced violation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the U.S. has signed, but never ratified.  It was claimed that the RRW could be built and certified without testing.  This was very probably nonsense.  There have always been more or less influential voices within NNSA, the Department of Defense (DoD), and the weapons labs, in favor of a return to nuclear testing.  That would not have been a good thing then, and I doubt that it will be a good thing at any foreseeable time in the future.  In general, I think we should do our best to keep the nuclear genie bottled up as long as possible.  Fortunately, Congress agreed and killed the RRW Program.

    That didn’t stop the weaponeers.  They just tried a new gambit.  It’s called the “3+2 Strategy.”  There are currently four types of ballistic missile warheads, two bombs, and a cruise missile warhead in the U.S. arsenal.  The basic idea of 3+2 would be to reduce this to three “interoperable” ballistic missile warheads and two air delivered weapons (a bomb and a cruise missile), explaining the “3+2.”  In the process, the conventional chemical explosives that drive the implosion of the “atomic bomb” stage of the weapons would be replaced by insensitive high explosives (IHE).  The result would supposedly be a safer, more secure stockpile that would be easier to maintain.  The price tag, in round numbers, would be $60 billion.

    I can only hope Congress will be as quick to deep six 3+2 as it was with the RRW.  The 3+2 will require tinkering not only with the bits surrounding the nuclear explosive package (NEP), but with the NEP itself.  In other words, its just as much a violation of the spirit of Article VI of the NPT as was the RRW.  The predictable result of any such changes will be the “sudden realization” by the weapons labs somewhere down the line that they can’t certify the new designs without a return to nuclear testing.  There’s a better and, in the long run, probably cheaper way to maintain the stockpile.

    In the first place, we need to stop relying on LEPs, and return to manufacturing replacement weapons.  The common argument against this is that we have lost the ability to manufacture critical parts of our weapons since the end of testing, and in some cases the facilities and companies that supplied the parts no longer exist.  Nonsense!  The idea that a country responsible for a quarter of the entire world’s GDP has lost the ability to reproduce the weapons it was once able to design, build and test in a few years is ridiculous.  We are told that subtle changes in materials might somehow severely degrade the performance of remanufactured weapons.  I doubt it.  Regardless, DOE has always known there was a solution to that problem.  It’s called the Advanced Hydrodynamic Facility, or AHF.

    Basically, the AHF would be a giant accelerator facility capable of producing beams that would be able to image an imploding nuclear weapon pit in three dimensions and at several times during the implosion.  Serious studies of such a facility were done as long ago as the mid-90’s, and there is no doubt that it is feasible.  In actual experiments, of course, highly enriched uranium and plutonium would be replaced by surrogate materials such as tungsten, but they would still determine with a high degree of confidence whether a given remanufactured primary would work or not.  The primary, or “atomic bomb” part of a weapon supplies the energy that sets off the secondary, or thermonuclear part.  If the primary, of a weapon works, then there can be little doubt that the secondary will work as well.  The AHF would be expensive, which is probably the reason it still hasn’t been built.  Given the $60 billion cost of 3+2, that decision may well prove to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

    The whole point of having a nuclear arsenal is its ability to deter enemies from attacking us.  Every time people who are supposed to be the experts about such things question the reliability of our stockpile, they detract from its ability to deter.  I think a remanufacturing capability along with the AHF is the best way to shut them up, preventing a very bad decision to resume nuclear testing in the process.  I suggest we get on with it.

  • Women in Ranger School! What’s with That?!

    Posted on August 25th, 2015 Helian No comments

    No doubt if you’ve been following this story you’ve noticed the howls coming from the usual quarters.  Take it with a grain of salt.  There’s no reason for Ranger School to be “dumbed down” for women to pass if the mission is anything like it was when I went through.  Upper body strength isn’t critical for Ranger type missions, and that includes rock/mountain climbing, rappelling, etc.  The premium is on being able to pack a serious load under adverse conditions of sleep and food deprivation, tolerate extremes of heat and cold, and “function” when you’re assigned to lead small unit operations.  A strong woman can do all those things.  There are ranger units, but the ranger and airborne badges are also marks of prestige.  Women should have the right to wear them if they can handle the physical and mental challenges.

    When I went through, they found out I was a good swimmer, so I was appointed “far shore lifeguard” of my ranger training unit.  That meant I had to strip and carry a rope across streams when we came to them and make a rope bridge so the others could shinny across without getting wet.  I suppose I would have left my jockey shorts on if women were around.  Once the ranger sergeants just had me stand in freezing water up to my neck and pull the short guys across a deep spot by the webbing on their helmets.  When I finally got out I couldn’t straighten out from hypothermia.  We still had to wade through 600 yards of cypress swamp, but I was very fortunate to find a big fire when we finally got through that.  It’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to dying, and years later four guys did die of hypothermia.  They’re probably more careful now.  The next day it was so cold (in Florida!) that my sodden fatigues started freezing on my body.  Fortunately we all had two pair, so I stripped them off, buried them, and put on my dry ones.  No doubt they’re still down there rotting away somewhere.

    We got one C ration a day (we’re talking about the ancient times before MREs), and were starving at the end of the swamp phase.  The first signs were dizziness when you went from a prone position to standing up.  Some of the guys started hallucinating at the end.  My ranger buddy seriously believed he was standing in line at Mama Leoni’s Restaurant in New York City at one point.  I got kind of worried about him.

    Occasionally Huey helicopters would pick us up to take us from one mission to another, with “aggressors” usually waiting for us when we reached our landing zones.  We would sit on either side with our legs dangling over the edge holding onto a little strap “seat belt.”  Those chopper pilots were crazy, and I could swear my feet brushed against the top of the forest foliage one time.  By that time I was so dazed it didn’t bother me.

    In those days we parachuted in to Eglin for the swamp phase from a combat training altitude of 800 feet.  Actual combat jumps were from 500 feet.  After my stick landed I looked up and saw the next one jump.  One guy’s chute was nothing but a ball of silk.  His reserve caught him a fraction of a second before he would have hit the ground.  When a later class jumped in a guy died when he landed on an old concrete airstrip and fell backwards, driving the rim of his steel helmet into his neck.  There were a few “laig” (leg, non-airborne infantry) rangers around, but they were rare.

    I didn’t notice any powder rooms when we were on the march.

    Airborne-Ranger-Tabs-with-Wings

  • Nuclear Update: Molten Salt, Rugby Balls, and the Advanced Hydrodynamic Facility

    Posted on August 7th, 2015 Helian No comments

    I hear at 7th or 8th hand that the folks at DOE have been seriously scratching their heads about the possibility of building a demonstration molten salt reactor.  They come in various flavors, but the “default” version is a breeder, capable of extracting far more energy from a given quantity of fuel material than current reactors by converting thorium into fissile uranium 233.  As they would have a liquid core, the possibility of a meltdown would be eliminated.  The copious production of neutrons in such reactors would make it possible to destroy the transuranic actinides, such as americium and curium, and, potentially, also some of the most long-lived radioactive products produced in fission reactions.  As a result, the residual radioactivity from running such a reactor for, say, 30 years, would potentially be less than that of the ore from which the fuel was originally extracted in under 500 years, a far cry from the millions commonly cited by anti-nuke alarmists.  Such reactors would be particularly attractive for the United States, because we have the largest proven reserves of thorium on the planet.  Disadvantages include the fact that uranium 233 is a potential bomb material, and therefore a proliferation concern, and the highly corrosive nature of the fluoride and/or chloride “salts” in the reactor core.  More detailed discussions of the advantages and disadvantages may be found here and here.

    The chances that the U.S. government will actually provide the funding necessary to build a molten salt or any other kind of advanced reactor are, unfortunately, slim and none.  We could do such things in the 50’s and 60’s with alacrity, but those days are long gone, and the country seems to have fallen victim to a form of technological palsy.  That’s too bad, because private industry won’t take up the slack.  To the extent they’re interested in nuclear at all, the profit motive rules.  At the moment, the most profitable way to generate nuclear energy is with reactors that simply burn naturally occurring uranium, wasting the lion’s share of the potential energy content, and generating copious amounts of long-lived radioactive waste for which no rational long term storage solution has yet been devised.  In theory, DOE’s national laboratories should be stepping in to take up the slack, doing the things that industry can’t or won’t do.  In reality what they do is generate massive stacks of paper studies and reports on advanced systems that have no chance of being built.  Enough must have accumulated since the last research reactor was actually built at any of the national labs to stretch back and forth to the moon several times.  Oh, well, we can take comfort in the knowledge that at least some people at DOE are thinking about the possibilities.

    Moving right along, as most of my readers are aware, the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, did not live up to its name.  It failed to achieve inertial confinement fusion (ICF) ignition in the most recent round of experiments, missing that elusive goal by nearly two orders of magnitude.  The NIF is a giant, 192 beam laser system at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) that focuses all of its 1.8 megajoules of laser energy on a tiny target containing deuterium and tritium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen.  Instead of generating energy by splitting or “fissioning” heavy atoms, the goal is to get these light elements to “fuse,” releasing massive amounts of energy.

    Actually, the beams don’t hit the target itself.  Instead they’re focused through two holes in the ends of a tiny cylinder, known as a hohlraum, that holds a “capsule” of fuel material mounted in its center.  It’s what’s known as the indirect drive approach to ICF, as opposed to direct drive, in which the beams are focused directly on a target containing the fuel material.  When the beams hit the inside walls of the cylinder they generate a burst of x-rays.  These are what actually illuminate the target, causing it to implode to extremely high densities.  At just the right moment a “hot spot” is created in the very center of this dense, imploded fuel material, where fusion ignition begins.  The fusion reactions create alpha particles, helium nuclei containing two neutrons and two protons, which then smash into the surrounding “cold” fuel material, causing it to ignite as well, resulting in a “burn wave,” which spreads outward, igniting the rest of the fuel.  For this to happen, everything has to be just right.  The most important thing is that the implosion be almost perfectly symmetric, so that the capsule isn’t squished into a “pancake,” or squashed into a “sausage,” but is very nearly spherical at the point of highest density.

    Obviously, everything wasn’t just right in the recently concluded ignition experiments.  There are many potential reasons for this.  Material blowing off the hohlraum walls could expand into the interior in unforeseen ways, intercepting some of the laser light and/or x-rays, resulting in asymmetric illumination of the capsule.  So-called laser/plasma interactions with abstruse names like stimulated Raman scattering, stimulated Brillouin scattering, and two plasmon decay, could be more significant than expected, absorbing laser light so as to prevent symmetric illumination and at the same time generating hot electrons that could potentially preheat the fuel, making it much more difficult to implode and ignite.  There are several other potential failure mechanisms, all of which are extremely difficult to model on even the most powerful computers, especially in all three dimensions.

    LLNL isn’t throwing in the towel, though.  In fact, there are several promising alternatives to indirect drive with cylindrical hohlraums.  One that recently showed promise in experiments on the much smaller OMEGA laser system at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) is substitution of “rugby ball” shaped targets in place of the “traditional” cylinders.  According to the paper cited in the link, these “exhibit advantages over cylinders, in terms of temperature and of symmetry control of the capsule implosion.”  LLNL could also try hitting the targets with “green” laser light instead of the current “blue.”  The laser light is initially “red,” but is currently doubled and then tripled in frequency by passing it through slabs of a special crystal material, shortening its wavelength to the shorter “blue” wavelength, which is absorbed more efficiently.  However, each time the wavelength is shortened, energy is lost.  If “green” light were used, as much as 4 megajoules of energy could be focused on the target instead of the current maximum of around 1.8.  If “green” is absorbed well enough and doesn’t set off excessive laser/plasma interactions, the additional energy just might be enough to do the trick.  Other possible approaches include direct drive, hitting the fuel containing target directly with the laser beams, and “fast ignitor,” in which a separate laser beam is used to ignite a hot spot on the outside of the “cold,” imploded fuel material instead of relying on the complicated central hot spot approach.

    Regardless of whether ignition is achieved on the NIF or not, it will remain an extremely valuable experimental facility.  The reason?  Even without ignition it can generate extreme material conditions that are relevant to those that exist in exploding nuclear weapons.  As a result, it gives us a significant leg up over other nuclear weapons states in an era of no nuclear testing by enabling us to field experiments relevant to the effects of aging on the weapons in our stockpile, and suggesting ways to insure they remain safe and reliable.  Which brings us to the final topic of this post, the Advanced Hydrodynamic Facility, or AHF.

    The possibility of building such a beast was actively discussed and studied back in the 90’s, but Google it now and you’ll turn up very little.  It would behoove us to start thinking seriously about it again.  In modern nuclear weapons, conventional explosives are used to implode a “pit” of fissile material to supercritical conditions.  The implosion must be highly symmetric or the pit will “fizzle,” failing to produce enough energy to set off the thermonuclear “secondary” of the weapon that produces most of the yield.  The biggest uncertainty we face in maintaining the safety and reliability of our stockpile is the degree to which the possible deterioration of explosives, fusing systems, etc., will impair the implosion of the pit.  Basically, an AHF would be a system of massive particle accelerators capable of generating bursts of hard x-rays, or, alternatively, protons, powerful enough to image the implosion of the fission “pit” of a nuclear weapon at multiple points in time and in three dimensions.  Currently we have facilities such as the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility (DARHT) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), but it only enables us study the implosion of small samples of surrogate pit material.  An AHF would be able to image the implosion of actual pits, with physically similar surrogate materials replacing the fissile material.

    Obviously, such experiments could not be conducted in a conventional laboratory.  Ideally, the facility would be built at a place like the Nevada Test Site (NTS) north of Las Vegas.  Experiments would be fielded underground in the same way that actual nuclear tests were once conducted there.  That would have the advantage of keeping us prepared to conduct actual nuclear tests within a reasonably short time if we should ever be forced to do so, for example, by the resumption of testing by other nuclear powers.  With an AHF we could be virtually certain that the pits of the weapons in our arsenal will work for an indefinite time into the future.  If the pit works, we will also be virtually certain that the secondary will work as well, and the reliability of the weapons in our stockpile will be assured.

    Isn’t the AHF just a weaponeer’s wet dream?  Why is it really necessary?  Mainly because it would remove once and for all any credible argument for the resumption of nuclear testing.  Resumption of testing would certainly increase the nuclear danger to mankind, and, IMHO, is to be avoided at all costs.  Not everyone in the military and weapons communities agrees.  Some are champing at the bit for a resumption of testing.  They argue that our stockpile cannot be a reliable deterrent if we are not even sure if our weapons will still work.  With an AHF, we can be sure.  It’s high time for us to dust off those old studies and give some serious thought to building it.

    ICF

  • On the “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” of World War I

    Posted on May 31st, 2015 Helian 2 comments

    More than a century has now come and gone since the start of World War I.  Numerous books and articles have been published to mark the centennial, often differing sharply with each other in their interpretations of the events and personalities concerned.  My personal favorite is The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark.  I’ve been reading quite a bit of the source material myself lately.  As I speak German, these have included memoirs of many of the key players on the German side.  In reading his book, I noticed that Clark was very familiar with everything I’d read.   I also noticed that everything I’ve read was a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the material he quoted in detail.  Clark also generally refrains from categorizing every historical personality as either a “good guy” or a “bad guy.”  I avoid reading histories written by journalists, because so few of them manage to avoid this moralistic pigeonholing.   It’s much easier to understand historical events if, as Clark puts it in his introduction, one “remains alert to the fact that the people, events and forces described… carried in them the seeds of other, perhaps less terrible, futures.”

    Not everyone agrees with Clark.  Even a century later there are others, even among professional historians, who remain obsessed with the question of “war guilt.”  For example, John C. G. Röhl, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Sussex, recently published a life of Kaiser Wilhelm II, in which he insisted that Germany’s last Kaiser managed to concoct World War I almost single-handedly.  I’ve also seen several articles, such as this one that appeared on the conservative Australian Quadrant website, that are still harping about “German militarism” as if the war had ended yesterday.  If the Quadrant author is to be believed, the “ideological and cultural pathologies” of Wilhelmine Germany were direct forerunners of Nazism.

    I doubt it.  Germany could certainly have broken the chain of events that led to war.  So could Austria-Hungary, and so could Russia.  The question of who, among these three, not to mention the other belligerents, was really the chief culprit was hardly as obvious in the days immediately preceding the clash of arms as the historians of the victorious powers so often asserted when it was over.  Writing two days after Russia had begun her “partial” mobilization in response to Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia, Lord Bertie, at the time British ambassador in France, wrote in his diary,

    It seems incredible that the Russian Government should plunge Europe into war in order to make themselves the protectors of the Servians.  Unless the Austrian Government had proofs of the complicity of Servian officials in the plot to murder the Archduke (which they did, ed.) they could not have addressed to the Servian Government the stringent terms which the Austrian Note contained.  Russia comes forward as the protectress of Servia; by what title except on the exploded pretension that she is, by right, the protectress of all Slavs?  What rubbish!  And she will expect, if she adhere to her present attitude, France and England to support her in arms.

    A day later he wrote,

    I cannot believe in war unless Russia wants it.  The Military party in Germany may think the present moment more favourable for Germany than it is likely to be later, when the reforms in the Russian Army will have been carried out and the strategic railways, converging on the Russo-German frontier, will have been constructed, but I cannot think that the German Emperor and his Government desire war.  I do not believe that they were accessories before the fact to the terms of the Austrian Note to Servia.  If, however, the Emperor of Russia adhere to the absurd and obsolete claim that she is protectress of all Slav States, however bad their conduct, was is probable, Germany will be bound to support Austria, and France will have to help Russia.

    In fact, that’s exactly how it looked to Kaiser Wilhelm himself.  As he noted in his memoirs, it was clear that if Germany fulfilled her treaty obligations to defend Austria against a Russian attack, it would certainly bring France into the war.  The Germans knew they would be facing a two front war, and reacted accordingly.  He also confirmed Bertie’s surmise about the conflict between the German civil and military officials in the days leading up to war.  In his words,

    The foreign office… was so hypnotized by the idea of “peace at any price,” that it completely ruled out war as a possible element of Entente policy, and was therefore unable to correctly assess the signs that war was possible.  Therein lies yet another proof of Germany’s desire to preserve the peace.  This attitude of the foreign office gave rise to certain contradictions between it and the General Staff and the Admiralty, who gave warning as their duty required, and advised preparations for defense.  These difference persisted for some time.  The Army could never forget the fact that it was the fault of the foreign office that they had been surprised.  And the diplomats were piqued that war had come in spite of their efforts.

    The memoirs of the Kaiser and some of the other key players in the war and the events leading up to it are often dismissed with a wave of the hand as mere justifications after the fact.  In fact, while self-justification is a typical motive, memoirs can’t simply be invented out of whole cloth, and invariably reveal a great deal about the character of the authors, regardless of how they choose to construe the facts.  Wilhelm was no angel.  He was paranoid, a narcissist, became an anti-Semite, especially after the war, and had an unfortunate penchant for bombast and bluster.  However, he was not the rabid warmonger portrayed by Röhl and many others, either.

    Perhaps the most damaging indictment of Germany was written by her ambassador in Great Britain before the war, Prince Karl Lichnowsky.  His assessment, currently available under the title, The Guilt of Germany for the War of German Aggression, pointed out the folly of Germany’s crash naval building program in alienating England.  He saw the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, as a man dedicated to preserving the peace, and an honest broker in his dealings with Germany and the other European powers.  Grey had suggested a conference of the powers, similar to the one that had preserved the peace of Europe during another spat over the Balkans a couple of years earlier, as a way to avoid war.  Lichnowsky considered Germany’s decision to refuse this offer suicidal, and a major contributing factor to the onset of war.  His assessment of Grey and British policy in general was probably a great deal more accurate than that of the Kaiser and the German foreign office.  Their paranoia about the supposed perfidious, anti-German intrigues of England’s King Edward VII and his foreign secretary is evident in the Kaiser’s as well as several other memoirs.  However, in spite of that, one cannot simply ignore the reply of von Jagow, German foreign secretary at the time, which is also included in the volume referred to above.  According to Jagow,

    We could not agree to the English proposal of a conference of Ambassadors, for it would doubtless have led to a serious diplomatic defeat.  For Italy, too, (Germany’s ally at the time in the Triple Alliance with Austria, ed.) was pro-Serb and, with her Balkan interests, stood rather opposed to Austria… The best and only feasible way of escape was a localization of the conflict and an understanding between Vienna and Petrograd.  We worked toward that end with all our energy.

    In retrospect, this “way of escape” may have appeared a great deal more “feasible,” in view of the fact that the actual alternative turned out to be Germany’s crushing defeat in the World War, but that outcome did not yet seem inevitable.  In fact, Germany did seek to localize the conflict, as is evident from the source material.  As for the German naval building program, I doubt that its aim was really to outstrip or seriously threaten British domination of the seas.  Again, one cannot simply dismiss what has been written about the subject on the German side.  According to the one man most often associated with the program, Admiral von Tirpitz, Germany’s battle fleet was necessary in order to protect her coast against a combination of France and Russia or any other two naval powers other than Great Britain.  She never aimed at more than an 8 to 5 ratio of naval power in favor of England, and would have been satisfied with 3 to 2.  There is no credible evidence that Tirpitz or the Kaiser aimed at anything beyond this.

    There is a great deal of additional material in Tirpitz’ memoirs of interest to students of events leading up to the outbreak of war.  For example, he could not understand why Germany had not simply mobilized in response to the Russian mobilization, and left the moral odium of an actual declaration of war to its enemies.  In his words,

    Did not (German Chancellor, ed.) Bethmann really consider the enormous disadvantages which were created for us by our not leaving the act of declaration of war to the enemy?… my feelings revolted at our having to assume the odium of the attacking party in the face of the world, on account of the jurists of the Foreign Office, although we could not at all intend to march into Russia, and although we were in reality the attacked party.  I therefore asked the Chancellor, as the meeting broke up, why the declaration of war had to coincide with our mobilization?  The Chancellor replied that this was necessary because the army would immediately send troops over the frontier.  The reply astonished me, because at the most it could only be a question of patrols.  But through these days Bethmann was so agitated and overstrained that it was impossible to speak with him.  I can still hear him as he repeatedly stressed the absolute necessity of the declaration of war, with his arms uplifted, and consequently cut short all further discussion.  When I asked Moltke afterwards the actual relation between the crossing of the frontier and our declaration of war, he denied any intention of sending troops over the frontier forthwith.  He also told me that he attached no value to the declaration of war from his own point of view.

    Thus the riddle, why we declared war first, remains unsolved for me.  It is to be assumed that we did it out of formal legal consciousness.  The Russians began the war without any declaration, but we believed that we could not defend ourselves without such a statement.  Outside Germany there is no appreciation for such ideas.

    That’s for sure!  In retrospect, it’s hard to find fault with his reasoning.  Unfortunately, I can’t write a complete history of the start of World War I in a blog post.  Suffice it to say that I agree with Clark that the notion that it was all Germany’s fault, with Kaiser Wilhelm the “bad guy” extraordinaire, is nonsense.  There was plenty of blame to go around.  What’s the point?  I suppose that I tend to be dubious of the value of morality tales posing as history.  In reality, there are no good guys and bad guys.  The terms “good” and “bad” are artifacts of the human tendency to attribute objectivity to moral judgments.  In fact, they do not exist as things-in-themselves, but are better understood as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.  I read history to gain an understanding of why things happened the way they did, and what motivated individuals to act the way they did.  That information is often lost in works that seek to portray certain individuals as “good,” and others as “bad.”  Understanding of real human beings and the complexity of human motivations and behavior are sacrificed when one seeks to create a collection of wooden puppets that all fit neatly in one of these two moral pigeonholes.

    worldwar1

  • Do We Really Need New Nukes?

    Posted on December 2nd, 2014 Helian No comments

    If an article that just appeared in the LA Times is any indication, the agitation for jump-starting the nuclear weapons program at the Department of Energy (DOE) and the three nuclear weapons laboratories (Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia National Laboratories) continues unabated. Entitled “New nuclear weapons needed, many experts say, pointing to aged arsenal,” it cites all the usual talking points of the weaponeers. For example,

    Warheads in the nation’s stockpile are an average of 27 years old, which raises serious concerns about their reliability, they say. Provocative nuclear threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin have added to the pressure to not only design new weapons but conduct underground tests for the first time since 1992.

    “It seems like common sense to me if you’re trying to keep an aging machine alive that’s well past its design life, then you’re treading on thin ice,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman-elect of the House Armed Services Committee. “Not to mention, we’re spending more and more to keep these things going.”

    Thornbury also offered support for renewed testing, saying, “You don’t know how a car performs unless you turn the key over. Why would we accept anything less from a weapon that provides the foundation for which all our national security is based on?”

    Such comments are entirely typical. They would make a lot of sense if the U.S. nuclear weapons program existed in a vacuum. However, it doesn’t. It exists in a world with several other major nuclear powers, and they all have the same problems. Under the circumstances, the fact that such problems exist and are shared by all the nuclear powers is less significant than the question of which nuclear power is best equipped to deal with them. The question of who will benefit by the building of new weapons and a resumption of nuclear testing depends on the answer to that question. If one country has a significant advantage over its rivals in dealing with a common problem as long as the status quo is maintained, then it would be very ill-advised to initiate a change to the status quo that would allow them to catch up.  At the moment, the United States is the country with an advantage. As noted in the article,

    The U.S. has by far the greatest archive of test data, having conducted 1,032 nuclear tests. Russia conducted 715 and China only 45.

    Beyond that, we have the ability to conduct tests with conventional explosives that mimic what goes on in the initial stages of a nuclear explosion, and superb diagnostics to extract a maximum of data from those tests. Perhaps more importantly, we have an unrivaled above ground experimental, or AGEX, capability. I refer to machines like Z at Sandia National Laboratories, or the NIF at Livermore, which are far more capable and powerful than similar facilities anywhere else in the world. Those who say they can’t access physical conditions relevant to those that occur in exploding nuclear weapons, or that they are useless for weapon effects or weapon physics experiments, either don’t know what they’re talking about or are attempting to deceive.

    As far as the NIF is concerned, it is quite true that it has so far failed to achieve its fusion ignition milestone, but that by no means rules out the possibility that it ever will. More importantly, the NIF will remain a highly useful AGEX facility whether it achieves ignition or not. Indeed, before it was built, many of the weapons designers showed little interest in ignition. It would merely “muddy the waters,” making it more difficult for the diagnostics to precisely record the results of an experiment. The NIF could access weapons-relevant conditions without it. In fact, in spite of its failure to achieve ignition to date, the NIF has been a spectacular success as far as achieving its specifications are concerned. It is more than an order of magnitude more powerful than any previously existing laser system, its 192 laser beams are highly accurate, and its diagnostic suite is superb.

    Another problem with the resumption of testing is that it will lead to the development of weapons that are much more likely to be used. Once the nuclear genie is out of the bottle, it will likely prove very difficult to put it back in. For example, again quoting the article,

    John S. Foster Jr., former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and chief of Pentagon research during the Cold War, said the labs should design, develop and build prototype weapons that may be needed by the military in the future, including a very low-yield nuclear weapon that could be used with precision delivery systems, an electromagnetic pulse weapon that could destroy an enemy’s communications systems and a penetrating weapon to destroy deeply buried targets.

    The commonly heard narrative at DOE goes something like this: “We need to develop small, precise, penetrating nuclear weapons because they will be a much better deterrent than the existing ones. Potential enemies are unlikely to believe that we would ever use one of the high yield weapons that are all that remain in the current arsenal. They would be far more likely to believe that we might use a small bunker buster that would minimize the possibility of significant collateral damage.” The problem with that narrative is that it’s true. We would be far more likely to use such a weapon than the ones in the current arsenal, and there would be no lack of voices within DOE and DoD calling for its use if an appropriate opportunity ever arose.

    I can understand the agitation for a resumption of testing. It’s a lot sexier to make things that go boom than to serve as custodians for an aging pile of existing nukes. Unfortunately, the latter course is the wiser one. By resuming nuclear testing we would really be unilaterally surrendering a huge advantage, playing into the hands of our enemies and destabilizing the nuclear landscape at the same time.

  • The American Mercury is Online!

    Posted on January 16th, 2013 Helian 3 comments

    As I was going to and fro on the Internet, and walking back and forth on it, I stumbled across a site that has made the content of every issue of H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury available online.  It’s a wonderful resource if you’re interested in the politics, history, literature, etc., of the 20’s and 30’s, or just want to read something entertaining.  The Sage of Baltimore was a great editor, and he won’t disappoint.  He was at the helm of the magazine from the first issue in January 1924 until December 1933.  The site actually includes issues up to 1960, but the content went downhill after Mencken left, and the Mercury eventually became something entirely different from what he had intended.  Many other interesting periodicals are available at the site, as well as books and videos.  You can visit by clicking on the hyperlinks above or point your browser to:

    http://www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury

    and

    http://www.unz.org/Home/Introduction

    H. L. Mencken

    H. L. Mencken

  • Obama, Romney, and the British Debacle at El Alamein

    Posted on November 6th, 2012 Helian No comments

    In an article entitled “Hitler’s Second Front,” that appeared in the November 1942 issue of the Atlantic Review, one T. H. Thomas confidently predicted disaster for the British forces in North Africa.  In his words,

    Roughly speaking, Rommel is sixty miles or so away from winning the war.  There looms up close at hand the prospect of a decisive victory – one which would involve an irreparable disaster to the Allied conduct of the war.

    In the mustering of forces for this battle, the enemy has now the advantage of position.  At one time British convoys could still take the direct sea route to Alexandria, but German dive bombers then appeared over the central Mediterranean.  By now it has actually become Mare Nostrum.  The British forces in Africa and the British fleets had no planes with which to strike back in kind.  British factories do not produce them.

    British tanks were hopelessly outclassed by the Germans:

    These actions (earlier fighting in north Africa) also brought into the field German medium tanks armed with 75’s (i.e., 15 pounders) against British tanks carrying nothing larger than 2-pounders.  The effective range of the German guns is said to be over three times that of the 2-pounders.  This contrast has dominated the fighting in Egypt since that day.  The British 2-pounder is an excellent tank against infantry positions.  In the naked landscape of Libya, mechanized warfare develops the situation of duels between tank and tank, or tanks against anti-tank artillery.  On this footing, the heaviest British tanks were hopelessly outranged.

    Victory, was out of the question for the British.  It was merely a question of hanging on for dear life until the various nostrums proposed by Mr. Thomas could be applied:

    The narrow front at El Alamein has become the keystone of the whole arch of Allied resistance east of Suez.  Here, as on every other front, the pressing task is to avoid defeat – the question as to how the war is to be won does not yet arise.

    As it happens, on this day 70 years ago, just as Thomas’ prophecy of doom was appearing on the newstands, the question of how the war was to be won did arise.  Rommel’s “hopelessly superior” forces had been smashed by a British offensive after nearly two weeks of brutal fighting.  The remnant was in speedy retreat, leaving Hitler’s Italian allies, who had fought well at El Alamein, helplessly mired in the desert without food, ammunition or fuel.  Quoting from the Wiki article on the battle:

    It had not been the first time that the Allies had had numerical superiority in men and equipment in the Western Desert, but never had it been so complete and across all arms. Furthermore, in the past—except in field artillery—they had struggled with the quality of their equipment. But with the arrival of Sherman tanks, 6-pounder anti-tank guns and Spitfires in the Western Desert, the Allies at last had the ability to match the opposition.

    Allied artillery was superbly handled. Allied air support was excellent in contrast to the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica which offered little or no support to ground forces, preferring to engage in air-to-air combat. This overwhelming air superiority had a huge effect on the battle…

    In the end, the Allies’ victory was all but total. Axis casualties of 37,000 amounted to over 30% of their total force. Allied casualties of 13,500 were by comparison a remarkably small proportion of their total force. The effective strength of Panzer Army Africa after the battle amounted to some 5,000 troops, 20 tanks, 20 anti-tank guns and 50 field guns.

    So much for Mr. Thomas’ prophecies of doom.  The Atlantic described him as follows:

    A military hitorian who served with distinction on the staff at GHQ in the First World War, T. H. Thomas is well qualified to appraise the developments of the war.

    I have no information on what became of him after he penned the article, although I didn’t put a great deal of Google time in searching for him.  If he had written the same stuff in Germany or the Soviet Union, no doubt he would have been shot as a defeatist.  However, the Allies were remarkably tolerant of pacifists and defeatists during the war.  I suspect that such tolerance played a major role in the rapid collapse of France, and may have cost Hitler’s other enemies dearly if he had not been so completely outmatched by the forces arrayed against him.  Be that as it may, there were many other T. H. Thomases writing similar disinformation about Hitler and the phenomenon of Naziism, the likelihood of war, the probable outcome of the war, etc., during the 30’s and 40’s.  I know of none whose careers suffered significantly as a result.  Apparently they just swept their past mistakes under the rug, and kept writing more of the same.

    Fast forward 70 years, and a new generation of pundits has been busily enlightening readers as to the reasons why either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney will inevitably win the election.  Half of them, more or less, will be wrong, and the other half, more or less, will be lucky.  Given the number of pundits and the laws of probability, a random few will be very lucky, predicting not only the outcome, but the exact tally of votes in the electoral college.  No doubt these lucky ones will be celebrated as geniuses, at least until the next election.  Except for Cassandra, successful fortune tellers have always prospered.  However, those who put too much faith in them would do well to recall the example of Mr. Thomas.

  • On the Military Value of Horses and Bayonets

    Posted on October 24th, 2012 Helian No comments

    President Obama’s snarky response to Mitt Romney’s observation about the dwindling number of ships in our navy in their final debate seems to have gone viral over the last couple of days.  Here is the quote for those of you who, like me, become nauseous when watching political debates:

    Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets

    I have no comment on who out-snarked whom but, having attended the military academy at West Point and served in the military for a while thereafter, I can at least throw in a few anecdotes.  Touching on horses, the old riding hall (Thayer Hall) was still there in my day, and remains there now.  However, it was converted to classrooms in 1956.  The contractors made a very competent job of it, because there was little left to remind one of its old function when they were done, and it served its new mission very well.  The building had a high wall facing the Hudson river next to the old riding field, and they used to march us down there to practice our “command voices” by shouting “Ma! Mo! Ma! Mo!” at the wall and listening to the echo.

    As for bayonets, my father, who served in Patton’s Army in World War II, said they routinely threw them away as so much useless extra weight on their way across Germany.  However, we were still trained in their use in my day (the late 60’s).  They were considered good for morale, and I could probably still perform a convincing imitation of “butt stroke series number one” and “butt stroke series number two,” growling fiercely at the end as I plunged my blade into the heart of an imaginary enemy.  There’s no doubt that bayonet training helped to get us in shape during “Beast Barracks,” the first two months of every cadet’s career.  Try double timing with an M-14 with fixed bayonet at port arms to some field in the hot sun and then performing all the traditional gyrations for an hour or so, and you’ll understand why.

    When asked, “What’s the purpose of the bayonet?” the proper response was to shout at the top of one’s lungs, “To Kill!”  When we returned to the barracks after training at the double-time, we would chant, “To kill! To kill!” in cadence with our steps, holding our weapons with fixed bayonets at full port arms in front of us.  Apparently some of the more tender-hearted officer’s wives on base were quite shocked to hear this, and complained to the Superintendant.  As a result, our class was the last to learn that the purpose of the bayonet was “To Kill.”  Its new purpose sounded rather more innocuous, but unfortunately I no longer recall what it was.

    Of course, bayonets were included in our parade equipment, and we used to fix them on our weapons during marching drill.  Once, while we were marching in platoon formation, one of the more inept plebes (first year men) happened to be marching behind me.  At the command of “Present Arms!” he swung his M-14 a bit too far in front of him, plunging it up to the hilt through my fatigue shirt and cutting a nice scratch along my back.   After struggling for a while, he finally managed to extract it.  I’m sure the incident wasn’t “funny” to him, as plebes who became “famous” in that way came in for some nasty hazing in those days, but I still always smile when I think about it.  As for parades, bayonets add a nice touch as they glitter in the sun when the Corps of Cadets marches out onto the plain.  By all means, take one in if you’re ever in the area.

    While bayonets may no longer be as useful as they were at Yorktown, the mystique about them remains.  As I recall, there were plans in my day to mount bayonet studs on the noses of Army helicopters.  I’m not sure if they were ever actually carried into effect.