Russia's anticipated use of Neutron bombs in Ukraine
UPdATE 29 OCTOBER 2022
The US Government is reacting to the Russian tactical nuclear threat by moving upgraded and high quality nuclear warheads to Europe. Manifestly a nuclear exchange is stil anticipated and the US Government appears to be taking the view that if it happens it would be better to confine it to Europe.
Firstly, as always, let us define our terms.
A neutron bomb, officially defined as a type of enhanced radiation weapon (ERW), is a low-yield thermonuclear weapon designed to maximize lethal neutron radiation in the immediate vicinity of the blast while minimizing the physical power of the blast itself.
The neutron release generated by a nuclear fusion reaction is intentionally allowed to escape the weapon, rather than being absorbed by its other components. The neutron burst, which is used as the primary destructive action of the warhead, is able to penetrate enemy armor more effectively than a conventional warhead, thus making it more lethal as a tactical weapon.
... the neutrons destroy all of the DNA in your body and render your cells incapable of making proteins.
So your body very quickly fails and dies.
DNA encodes proteins.
Proteins do jobs in your body - e.g. enzymes are made of proteins and enzymes catalyse chemical reactions in your cells.
No enzymes then your cells fail.
[This results in] very quick death.
It is important to point out that neutron bombs are an extremely inhumane weapon. Their detonation may take hours or days to kill people in the 'desth radius'. Those people's pre-death pain and suffering will be extremely high.
Because they have never been used in combat, nobody knows what the 'death radius' from a neutron bomb epicentre might be. The Encylopeida Britannica estimates it as a radius of up to 2 km, but provides no support for its calculation.
Russian and American neutron bombs
Although through defecting Cold War spies we know that the Russians have (had?) a neutron bomb programme, we know virtually nothing about it, including how many they have or from what armour their warheads can be launched.
It is known that Russia inherited the USSR's neutron warhead equipped ABM-3 Gazelle missile programme. Russia is the only country known to deploy a dedicated neutron bomb warhead weapons programme.
The Americans had a series of neutron bomb programmes the details of which were made public. These neutron bombs were some of them to be affixed to ballistic missiles and some to be fired by artillery. Research and production petered out in the late 1970's and early 1980's due to public opposition to a weapon whose exclusive purpose was to kill people; this was considered inmoral. During that period, and afterwards, we have no idea what steps the Russians were taking to develop neutron bombs and to the best of our knowledge they have never tested one although they have been manufacturing them.
The Americans are known to have manufactured the W66 neutron bomb warhead to be affixed to ballistic missiles with a low warhead payload of 65kg. Its ostensible purpose was to knock out ICBM's, although it was never tested.
[Neutron bombs] were first operationally deployed for anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs). In this role the burst of neutrons would cause nearby warheads to undergo partial fission, preventing them from exploding properly. For this to work, the ABM would have to explode within approximately 100 metres (300 ft) of its target. The first example of such a system was the W66, used on the Sprint missile used in the US Nike-X system. It is believed the Soviet equivalent, the A-135's 53T6 missile, uses a similar design.
This was in the 1970's. Artillery-based neutron bombs were developed by the United States during the 1980's. No known US research and development on neutron bombs took place after the end of the Cold War.
Save for a fair inference that the Russians have developed neutron bomb thermonuclear warheads that can be attached to their high-speed inertial guidance mechanism highly accurate Kalibr cruise missiles, we know nothing about Russian neutron bomb research and creation as of today. We do not know how many they have and we do not know their payloads. (A Kalibr can take a payload of up to 450kg; the Americans were manufacturing neutron bombs of around 65kg.)
Hence we do not know the 'death radius' of contemporary Russian neutron bombs. (Given that the only way of testing this is to use one on a population; and given that this has never been done by either side, nobody knows what the death radius is of any neutron bomb.)
Pre-detonation political indications
We consider the following BBC article from early Wednesday evening EET 19 October 2022 worthy of consumption; although it does exhibit political bias, it is replete with factual assertions that seem likely to be accurate:
Now consider the following.
China, Kazakhstan and a number of other countries [allied with Russia] have told their citizens to get out of Ukraine immediately.
British Miniater of Defence Ben Wallace cancelled an entire day's important activities at the shortest of notice on 17 October 2022 to attend meetings at The Pentagon in Arlington, VA apparently to discuss the risk of a Russian nuclear strike.
The commander of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine has urged on Russian state television that all Kherson residents and soldiers living west of the Dniepr River evacuate the area immediately.
The Ukrainian Minister of Energy (why him?) has urged that all Ukrainian skies be closed to ballistic missiles.
Supported by US-manufactured HIMARS surface-based ballistic missile systems, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been making progress in a ground-based advance upon Kherson.
Due to its regional strategic significance as a railhead and land bridge, the continued occupation of Kherson is essential for Russia; should Kherson fall, the Russians may be unable to retain Crimea. This would represent a strategic disaster for Russia.
Somewhat cryptically, on Monday 17 October 2022 Russian President Vladimir Putin said that mass bombings of Ukrainian cities would no longer be necessary; and it was not his intention to 'destroy Ukraine', simultaneously with mass bombimgs being executed by Russian Armed Forces aganst Ukrainian population centres, mostly but not exclusively using high-speed (100 kt) drones armed with high explosive warheads, particularly it seems with a view to knocking out electricity / water infrastructure.
In recent days the US President has warned Russia against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, threatening that any such use would be met with overwhelming force. (That naturally gives rise to the question of what prompted the US President, so senior a figure, to issue such warnings.)
Ukraine has introduced a formal news blackout on respect of reportage of events in Kherson oblast and environs. (The Ukrainians say they always do this when advancing, but this would appear rather odd - why black out your wartime successes? Most wartime propaganda is aimed at doing precisely the opposite.)
Russian President Vladimir Putin is hardly a retiring peacenik. In all likelihood he personally authorised his intelligence agents to poison people abroad with Polonium, the most poisonous radioactive substance in the world; and Novichok, a lethal nerve agent left on door handles and park benches. It requires no large leap of the imagination to see him authorising his newly appointed and notoriously ruthless head of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine to use Neutron bombs in such quantities and for such military purposes as he sees fit.
'Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-installed deputy administrator of the Kherson region, has said in a Telegram message posted late on Tuesday that, ‘“In the very near future, the battle for Kherson will begin.”
"The civilian population is advised to leave the area of the forthcoming fierce hostilities, if possible, so as not to expose themselves to unnecessary risk,” Stremousov added.'
Vaguely apocalyptic statemennts from Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday 19 October 2022. 'Vladimir Putin has declared martial law in the four provinces of Ukraine where Moscow controls territory after Russian officials warned of a Ukrainian assault on the key southern city of Kherson. "We are working on solving very complex, large-scale tasks to ensure a reliable future for Russia, the future of our people,” the Russian president said in televised remarks to members of his security council.'
Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has cancelled a planned visit to Kyiv on Thursday for security reasons, according to reports.
Reports have emerged indicating that the Russian Armed Forces intend to detonate a neutron bomb thermonuclear warhead 'above the Black Sea. The purpose of detonating the neutron bomb at altitude is to maximise the death radius from a single payload. Our estimate is that the intended location of detonation of the neutron bomb is at the delta of the Dniepr River southwest of Kherson, before the Gulf of Dniepr. Given the Russian government warning that Kherson oblast residents west of the Dniepr River ought to evacuate, we estimate that the Russian estimate of the death range is about 15km from the epicentre when detonated at the anticipated altitude.
Nevertheless we must add the important rider that we have not seen the Russian nuclear scientists' caclualtions of the death radius for any particular neutron bomb payload at any particular altitude, and we do not know what assumptions they are working to, still less whether those assumptions are robust.
However we tentatively observe that a 30 km 'death diameter', even if the calculations are conservative, is likely to be considered 'quite a big one'.
There are presumably two reasons for detonating a neutron bomb in the Dniepr Estuary. One is because Ukrainian anti-ballistic missile defences don't reach that far. The second is a legal-territorial argument that they haven't dropped a neutron bomb on Ukraine at all but instead on some riparian location subject to the laws of international waters. (Under international law, you cannot unlawfully invade a patch of international non-territorial water.)
At the time of writing these words, Wednesday 19 October 2022, it seems that a neutron bomb detonation is at least six days away. The evidence for this is as follows:
Vladimir Saldo [Russian military governor of Kherson oblast] said Russia would transport 50,000-60,000 people to the Dnieper’s east bank – and then to Russia – at a rate of 10,000 people each day. “We are not going to surrender the city,” he said in a nationally televised interview on Wednesday.
Hence we should not expect a Russian neutron bomb strike before Tuesday 25 October 2022 at the earliest.
The Russian strategy may be a very straightforward and obvious one. You evacuate the city of Kherson, including military forces; you let the Ukrainians overrun the city west of the Dniepr; then you drop a neutron bomb on the city. The city survives; the Ukrainian troops do not. If the dead troops are replaced by new Ukrainian troops, you do it again until they run out. Hence Kherson cannot be taken by the Ukrainians, no matter what; which is what the Russians have been saying. This logic would all appear very Russian to us, and we invite the reader to bear this hypothesis about Russian military intentions in mind.
Post-detonation political indications
Given the limited death range and small destruction epicentre of a neutron bomb (at least an American one), which may be a lot less than some of the urban firestorms initiated through mass use of conventional warheads, retaliation using fully fledged multi-megaton thermonuclear warheads, of the kind that will destroy an entire city and over a period of time kill its entire population, seems unlikely.
This is all the more the case given that the use of one regular thermonuclear warhead would likely result in nuclear Armageddon affecting the entire globe.
A well-known retired US General, Petraeus, has stated that in the event of Russian use of Neutron bombs in Ukraine, the USA / NATO would use conventional weapons to destroy all Russian positions in Ukraine including Crimea. We have no observations on this save for the obvious one namely that it would be a substantial escalation:
Russia is considering the imminent use of a neutron bomb in the Kherson region, to kill Ukrainian troops and/or to disable their US-supplied HIMARS missile systems.
This fact is known on the intelligence networks.
We may assume that a neutron bomb payload would be delivered by a Kalibr cruise missile either fired from the ground or from a Mig-35 fighter.
Although nobody knows because no neutron bombs have ever been used in warfare, we need a working assumption which might be that a single Russian neutron bomb will have a 'death radius' of a few kilometres from the blast epicentre.
The evidence suggests that neutrons radiating from a thermonuclear (hydrogen fusion) explosion strongly penetrate both heavy metal (hence being in a tank does not help) and clothing. They probably also penetrate concrete and brick, so being indoors is no use. They may not penetrate lead sheets; but who has the good fortune to be surrounded by that when in a proximate radius from a neutron bomb explosion?
One possibility is that Russia's (first) neutron bomb detonation will be 'by way of example', over the Dniepr delta with the intention not to kill but to be visible, the threat being made more or less subtly that the next neutron bomb will be detonated over the heads of Ukrainian troops. We are speculating, of course. But this would be a logical approach. Most concerningly, it would let the 'neutron bomb' cat out of the bag. After this, every nuclear power would want neutron bombs. The outcome could be very bad for geopolitics generally.
The 'example blast' approach could also be used to acquire data about the destructive force of Russian manufactured neutron bombs, which currently is lacking because while having produced a lot of neutron bombs Russia (the Soviet Union) is not known ever to have actually tested one.
The reader may be interested to know that Russia's alleged breaches of the START and other treaties limiting nuclear weapons production and ownership was considered by the Russians not to apply to neutron bombs because they are not 'strategic' but 'tactical' weapons. The other major nuclear power, the United States, disagreed but for decades didn't do anything about it.
There may be US-Russian diplomacy underway, presumably in the form of a Russian ultimatum, which may have triggered the meetings in The Pentagon yesterday.
One possible and logical ultimatum provided by the Kremlin to the White House may be that either the United States stops supplying HIMARS missile systems to Ukraine; or Russia starts using neutron bombs to disable them.
Russia's gamble may be that either way, use of Neutron bombs pays off. It will not trigger a fully-blown thermonuclear exchange. It will deter the Americans from participating further in the war in Ukraine, as presumably they have special forces dug in with the Ukrainian forces they are supporting and these people will die.
The assumption - and it is very plausible -. Is that the US President won't escalate, because the first Russian ICBM would hit Washington, DC.
Here is one anonymous analysis.
Let us assume the Russians have delivered an ultimatum 'unless the Americans do X by [date Z - assume it to be Tuesday 25 October 2022], then Russia does Y and Y is detonation of a neutron bomb as discussed.
I am guessing. But my guesses are better than most.
X is the withdrawal of HIMARS systems and non-replacement with something else.
Y is boom.
I think Y will happen.
I think the Americans have decided to call the Russians' bluff.
This is a mistake because Russians never bluff. Ukrainians do but Russians do not. This is what intimate familiarity with the region gives one: this type of insight.
So I think Y will happen in six days.
I don't think the Petraeus scenario will work out. I think this line was fed to Petraeus as a big gob. I think the Americans know that attacking Crimea would trigger a thermonuclear exchange. Crimea is packed with thermonuclear warheads on ICBM's, of a similar model to the Minuteman. So it's 5 minutes to DC or whatever.
The US simply isn't invading Crimea.
That is my general assessment.
So we will see what happens when you let off a high payload neutron bomb. I am sure Russian neutron bombs are high payload. This is the Russian way.
Nor is the US invading Donetsk. It's a city of 1.5 m people. It has been under Russian control at least since 2014 - arguably earlier. The Americans are not invading Donetsk, any more than the Russians are invading Warsaw.
We live in dangerous times. As Einstein astutely observed, 'I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.'
We can draw no other conclusions within any reasonable balance of probabilities at this time.
Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!