The US and Russia have reportedly just done a swap of captured spies who are each involved in gathering secrets about nuclear weapons systems. Sounds like serious stuff, except that the systems don’t work particularly well, and the information probably wasn’t actually secret. Let’s discuss.
First up, the Russians. You’ve surely read elsewhere about the alleged Russian sleeper cells that were uncovered by the FBI late last month. Among the various charges brought against the members of the spy ring was that they were allegedly trying to steal nuclear weapons technology. It sounds scary and even scarier when you read the criminal complaint and find that one of the spies, Donald Howard Heathfield, supposedly met with a US nuclear weapons researcher in 2004 to discuss something called nuclear ‘bunker-buster’ warheads.
And I suppose it would be pretty scary, if nuclear bunker-busters weren’t completely busted. The idea was floated by the administration of President George W. Bush around 2002, as a way to keep US weapons designers busy, while fighting the fledgling war on terrorism. The concept was to fire a nuclear warhead at a deeply buried bunker full of nasty stuff. Supporters claimed the warhead would be powerful enough to destroy the bunker, and any chemical or biological weapons it contained. Because it was exploding underground, they argued, it would be safe.
But scientists outside the weapons establishment subsequently showed there was no way a nuclear weapon dropped from an aircraft could penetrate deep enough to contain its own fallout. To see why, check out this video (embedded below) from American show Mythbusters, in which they fired a .50 calibre rifle into a swimming pool. The incredibly powerful round tears itself apart when it hits the water; a nuclear penetrator would do the same if it hit the earth. As a result, it could only go a few meters before exploding and releasing a nasty cloud of radioactive dust into the atmosphere. Congress thankfully listened to science and the programme died in 2005.
So much for that closely guarded nuclear secret. And on the other side, it gets even murkier. The Americans have reportedly swapped a number of the alleged spies for Igor Sutyagin (pictured right), a nuclear scientist who has spent much of the past decade incarcerated in frosty Arkhangelsk. Sutyagin was doing time for allegedly divulging sensitive information on Russia’s nuclear weapons systems—particularly the network of radars and satellites that are supposed to warn of a nuclear strike from America.
But what did he divulge? Well principally that the network wasn’t working very well. Sutyagin was an author on Russian Nuclear Forces, a document that shows Russia presently has only three operating satellites capable of spotting the infrared plume of a missile launch. That lets them watch US territory for only 12 hours a day, a pretty dismal warning system by any standards.
Still, that sounds like a pretty serious nuclear spy right? Except that Sutyagin claims that he was able to patch together all his information from unclassified news reports and Russian defence documents. And he did most of his “spying” in the open while working for the Institute of U.S.A. and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
And actually, I’ve just been reading Herman Kahn’s classic tome “On Thermonuclear War,” and I think Sutyagin was probably doing Russia a favour. Of course it’s not so good to be lose sight of your chief nuclear rival for half of each day, but honestly, if you’re going to, and you’re not on a war footing, then it’s probably really important to let them know. The US doesn’t want to accidentally trigger a nuclear war any more than Russia does, and knowing the periods during which the former superpower is blind from space will help prevent that from happening.
Of course one can never be sure, but on the face of it, all of this spying seems to have generated very little in the way of top-secret technical details for either government. Nevertheless, it does make for good press, particularly when some of the spies are photogenic (no offence, Igor).
Credit: D. Sutyagin/Wikipedia