Late last year, the world's news services were abuzz with articles about Russia's new super weapon, an ICBM called Satan 2 that is alleged to have the capability to fly at 17 times the speed of sound, penetrate US ICBM defenses, and destroy an area the size of Texas. But do these claims hold water, and just how big is the nuclear threat that the world really faces in the 21st century? What is the truth about Satan 2?

On October 25, 2016, the Russian state-sponsored news service TASS ran a story on the country's new SS-X-30 missile, also known as the RS-28, "Sarmat," or, by its NATO name, the Satan-2. The media soon combined this with claims that it could erase a land mass the size of Texas and the result was a picture of a superweapon of terrifying dimensions.

Still under development by Russian missile design company Makayev, the Satan-2 is a replacement for the R36M2 Voyevoda (NATO code name SS-18 Satan) and is part of Russia's nuclear weapons modernization program. It's claimed to be a silo-based 100-tonne (110 ton) missile capable of carrying a payload of 10 tonnes (11 tons) consisting of 10 "heavy" or 15 to 24 (the maximum varies by source) "light" warheads. When launched, the missile would reach speeds of Mach 17 to Mach 20 and have a range of 10,000 km (6,200 mi).

The Satan-2 missile(Credit: Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau)

In addition to its range and destructive power, the Russians also claim it can attack targets by flying over the South Pole as well as the North and penetrate the US ballistic missile defenses.

It was an exciting story and for about a week it made the rounds on everything from Twitter to major news outlets. But what was surprising about the coverage was that the Russian claims were accepted almost universally without a trace of skepticism or even context. This was despite the Satan-2, in many ways, is a fairly standard weapon and, in others, the claims didn't even make sense. Never mind being able to destroy an area equal to Texas, saying that it can fly over the South Pole or dodge the US missile defenses should have set the skeptic alarms ringing.

The problem of nuclear weapons

Not to downplay the risks, but we need to ask what the real significance Satan-2 is, and why so many otherwise well-informed people were taken in by the Russian claims?

To answer these questions, we need to look a bit deeper into what the risks posed by nuclear weapons are today. How do they work? What can they do? What can't they do? And what would happen if nuclear war did break out? In answering these questions, we're going to set aside questions of politics, ideology, the morality of nuclear arms and the dubious wisdom of possessing or using nuclear weapons at all. Instead, we'll be concentrating on the science, engineering, and strategy of nuclear arms and their effects.

B-61 Us nuclear weapon(Credit: US Department of Energy)

Part of the problem in discussing nuclear weapons a quarter century after the end of the Cold War is that the topic has largely fallen off the public's radar over the years. In many ways, this is a good thing. Having lived over half my life with the nuclear sword hanging over my head, being constantly reminded about the threat of nuclear armageddon is a welcome change. But it's also led to a lot of ignorance and misconceptions about what nuclear weapons are, the nature of today's nuclear arsenals, and the nature of the modern nuclear threat.

Many still think that the United States and Russia are on the brink of nuclear annihilation, with fingers poised over large red buttons waiting to launch tens of thousands of missiles at one another that will literally destroy all life on Earth. This most definitely is not the case.

Legacy of the Cold War

Part of the problem is that the popular imagination is carrying around significant baggage from the Cold War, which was, by its nature, a war of propaganda. During the struggle, the Western nuclear powers were constantly reassuring their people and allies about the safety and dependability of their nuclear arsenals, as well as the effectiveness of civil defense, while playing down the more graphic details of what nuclear weapons can do.

General Leslie Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer, military and civilian heads of the Manhattan Project(Credit: US Department of Energy)

The emphasis was on safeguards, defense, and, when not minimizing the dangers, at least placing them in context. There was also no enthusiasm for discussing nuclear strategy and tactics.

The Soviets, on the other hand, focused on a relentless, decades-long propaganda offensive against the West. Directly or through agents of influence and front groups in the West, the Kremlin played up the horrors of nuclear war and did its best to convince the Western powers to unilaterally disarm or agree to conditions that would make their nuclear arsenals useless while leaving the Soviets a free hand.

Both of these approaches fed into legitimate fears and moral objections on both sides that were reflected in editorials, books, and films of the day. When all of this got mixed up in the usual blender of political hyperbole and ideology, the result was significant misinformation that people became, and still remain, heavily invested in.

To top all this off, neither side in the Cold War was willing to let on how little they knew about the weapons and how to use them – even to those at the highest levels of government, who often acted on misinformation or ignorance.

Types of nuclear weapons

There are two basic types of nuclear weapons, which haven't changed much in their fundamental design in over 50 years. They also share a lot in common and, at first glance, they seem to achieve similar results, but they actually vary greatly in destructive power.

The first nuclear weapon to be developed was the fission bomb, also known as the atomic bomb or A-bomb, which was first detonated by the Allies in 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico.

A fission bomb uses a heavy radioactive material, usually uranium-235 or plutonium-239. If enough of this material is pure enough and is brought together in one place, the neutrons emitted by the decay of the material's unstable atoms will strike other atoms and cause them split apart. This fission process releases more neutrons and the result is a release of energy. Under controlled conditions, this release is what powers a nuclear reactor, but fission bombs take this a step further.

Put simply, the bomb uses explosives to either bring together a mass of fissile material or to compress a ball of it into a tighter mass. In both cases, this produces what is called critical mass, which starts the fission process, but the material is so large and dense that it heats up and becomes what is called a supercritical mass, which triggers a chain reaction that instantaneously releases energy equivalent to tens of thousands of tons of TNT.

The second type is the fusion bomb, also called the hydrogen bomb or H-bomb. This uses a fission bomb as a trigger, which heats a charge of heavy hydrogen atoms (tritium or deuterium) to a temperature of millions of degrees. This causes the hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium, setting off another chain reaction and an explosion orders of magnitude larger than that of the fission bomb – equivalent to many megatons of TNT.

Today, only United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, the People's Republic of China, and France are known to have detonated a fusion bomb, though others have claimed to have done so.

Hiroshima

When the first A-bomb was detonated at Alamogordo, New Mexico, even the scientists, engineers, and soldiers who created it were unsure of its potential or what to do with it. Some regarded it as just another bomb, like a super-powerful blockbuster. Others saw it as an existential threat that should be buried somewhere and forgotten.

When the first bomb was dropped in anger on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the effect was so sudden, devastating, and dramatic, that it still colors our views on nuclear warfare to this day. Part of the reason was that the US Army Air Corp agreed to leave Hiroshima and a few other cities largely untouched in order to assess the effect of the bomb, so there seemed to be no ambiguity as to what caused what happened next.

At 8:15 am local time, the B-29 Stratofortress Enola Gay released a uranium bomb called Little Boy over the city. Descending on a parachute, a barometric fuse detonated the fission bomb at an altitude of 1,900 ft (580 m). In a millionth of a second, the entire area to the horizon was lit by a flash brighter than the Sun as Little Boy released 16 kilotons of explosive force. Those below who looked directly at it were blinded – those closest lost their sight permanently.

The flash wasn't just bright, it was deadly. It was like opening the door to a furnace blazing as hot as the interior of the Sun. Within 2 km (1.24 mi) of the blast, wood, bamboo, paper – anything that burned – ignited. Exposed skin of people out in the open suffered instant second- and third-degree burns.

The Little Boy fission bomb dropped on Hiroshima(Credit: US Department of Energy)

Back at ground zero, a fireball 36 m (118 ft) wide destroyed everything within its radius and a shockwave rolled across the city center, flattening houses and buildings within 1.7 km (1 mi). After that, a firestorm engulfed the ruins where everything in the vicinity caught fire. This caused a massive up-draught, resulting in a literal whirlwind of fire that turned the city into a furnace that sucked up all the oxygen and grew so hot that it melted iron and even brick.

By the end of the day, that single bomb had killed 70,000 to 80,000 people, with many more injured and more deaths from radiation sickness to follow over the following weeks and months.

After the war, the Allies sent teams of scientists along with the occupation troops to study Hiroshima. The photographs and cine film they sent back set in stone the popular image of the aftermath of a nuclear attack. A single bomb had utterly destroyed a city. Two bombs, the second being Nagasaki on August 10, won a war. Hiroshima had been knocked flat. Universal destruction was everywhere with only a few buildings left standing in ruins while horribly burned survivors walked past eerie shadows left behind by people caught outside at ground zero.

Hiroshima as seen from the Red Cross building(Credit: US DoD)

It was an image that captured the popular imagination and was reflected in countless science fiction films, serious dramas, and popular science articles. It was also the image that haunted generals and politicians and became even more vivid when the USSR exploded its first A-bomb in 1949, sparking a nuclear arms race between the Soviets and NATO countries.

It was an image that was always at the back of people's minds as they tried to figure out how to use, not use, deter use of, or get rid of the bomb. As the years passed, the arm stockpiles grew until the US arsenal peaked at 27,519 warheads in 1975 and the Soviets' reached 39,197 in 1985.

Since then, there have been a number of arms control treaties, while the collapse of the Soviet Empire forced Russia to drastically reduce its stockpiles – ironically, with American help. The Cold War is now over and the reasons for fighting it are fading into history, but the arsenals, though much smaller, still exist.

Who has the bomb?

The question of who has the bomb and how many they have is tricky, because matters concerning nuclear arms tend to devolve into a game of diplomatic poker. Despite various arms control and inspection agreements, nuclear weapon types and numbers still remain shrouded in secrecy as various nations exploit ambiguities, deadlines, and definitions. However, we can divide the nuclear club into the official nuclear powers and the unofficial.

Official powers

The "official" nuclear powers are the ones that possessed nuclear weapons before 1970 and have fusion bombs in their arsenals. Of these, the US and Russia are by far the most important players.

The United States may have had 27,519 warheads in 1975, but today that's down to an estimated 4,480, of which 61 percent are in storage with several hundred slated for retirement. Meanwhile, Russia's arsenal, which it inherited from the Soviet Union, went from 39,197 warheads to about 4,500, of which 1,800 are tactical weapons. 2,700 are in storage and 2,800 are set for retirement.

The other three official powers are Britain, which has a total of 215 warheads of which only 160 are deployed, France's Force de Frappe with 300, and China with about 220 that are kept in storage.

Unofficial powers

The unofficial powers are those who acquired the bomb after 1970, most of who have only fission bombs and very limited delivery systems. These include India with about 100, Pakistan with about 100, and Israel, which is a special case because it's never officially acknowledged having nuclear weapons. The best guess is that it has about 80, though these may include fusion bombs.

The unofficial powers also include North Korea, which is regarded as a rogue state for its record of trafficking in nuclear and rocket technology. It has only six or eight small fission warheads, though it has made unconfirmed claims to have detonated a fusion bomb.

Rounding up the tally is Iran, which does not have the bomb, but is believed to have enough nuclear materials and the facilities to construct a fission device on short notice.

Terrorists

One other group to consider is terrorists. The fear of nuclear blackmail by an individual or group has been a concern since the earliest days of the Atomic Age, but, the fictional SPECTRE notwithstanding, it is highly unlikely.

Contrary to popular myth, nuclear weapons are very hard to construct and the radioactive materials needed to arm one must be highly enriched – uranium or plutonium from a civilian reactor are completely unsuitable. In addition, a bomb may be simple in principle, but building one is a job for experts capable of handling the complex assembly of high explosives, gains, detonators, timers, blast lenses, neutron sources, reflectors, and other components.

However, none of this eliminates the terrifying scenario of a device being acquired from a third party like a rogue state, or stolen from a third world facility and lacking the technological safeguards of the major powers against detonating stolen warheads.

Modern warheads

We've looked at the arsenals, but what about the warheads they contain? Looking at today's inventory and comparing it to the Cold War, the first thing one notices is that the bombs are much smaller. At the height of the conflict, one-megaton bombs were common and the Soviets even tested a 100-megaton bomb. Today, the average is around 250 kilotons for strategic weapons.

Strategic weapons are the ones most people think about when you mention nuclear arms. They're designed to destroy strategic enemy assets, like missile bases, seaports, and industrial centers. They're much smaller than they used to be because the delivery systems are more accurate and strategists have given up directly targeting civilian populations, so giant city killers aren't needed and a large bomb doesn't have to make up for missing the target by destroying everything in a wide area.

Tactical warheads are the other type of nuclear weapon. These are as small as 10 tons (not kilotons). They can be fired from standard rockets and artillery and their job is to take out armored columns. NATO has only about 150 in Europe, but Russia and China favor them, which is one reason their stockpile numbers are as high as they are.

Delivery systems

Of course, a bomb is worthless if it can't get to the target. In fact, the first fusion bomb detonated by the Americans looked more like a small chemical plant than a weapon and was the exact opposite of portable.

Today's warheads are much smaller and are carried by bombers, including the B-52 and B-2, or the Russian TU-95. Some bombs can also be carried by fighter bombers like the F-35 or the Panavia Tornado. However, bombers only make up a small percentage of modern forces and the West's now act as platforms to launch standoff missiles rather than penetrating enemy air space.

By the end of the Cold War, bombers had been largely superseded by the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), which is stored in silos or on mobile launchers and fires its deadly payload over the North Pole on a suborbital trajectory. A typical example is the US Minuteman III, which entered service in 1970. Costing US$7 million each, it can carry three independently targeted warheads (though many are restricted to one by treaty) with a yield of 300 to 500 kilotons each. Its solid boosters can hurl its payload 1,120 km (700 mi) into space at a speed of 28,176 km/h (Mach 23, or 17,507 mph) over a range of at least 13,000 km (8,100 mi).

Other missile delivery systems include the Intermediate range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM), which have ranges of 3,000 to 5,500 km (1,864 to 3,418 mi) and are usually mobile, or the cruise missile, which uses an air-breathing jet engine. The latter can be launched from land, air, ships, and submarines and can fly at about 800 km/h (500 mph) over 1,000 km (620 mi) to deliver a small payload that can be swapped out for conventional explosives.

The third delivery system, and the one that carries half of the US force and the whole of Britain's Independent Deterrent, is the submarine nuclear ballistic missile system. A prime example of the Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) is the Trident D5, which is launched underwater and carries up to 12 warheads. It has a range of at least 12,000 km (7,456 mi) and the payload reaches a speed of 29,020 km/h (Mach 24, or 18,030 mph).

What would happen?

Cold War or no, the fact that there are thousands of nuclear weapons and delivery systems that could that could send them to any corner of the globe is a far from comforting. But what would actually happen if they were ever actually used?

The popular scenario is that in a nuclear war, the Button is pushed, thousands of missiles pop out of the ground, arc over the world, hit their targets, and it's goodnight, Irene. A nuclear war would be swift. It would only last minutes, maybe hours, but certainly less than a week, before both sides were so devastated that they would lose the means to wage war. At the very least, civilization would end. At the worst, all life on Earth would, too.

Test launch of a Minuteman III missile(Credit: US DoD)

This is what Dr Alex Wellerstein, Associate Historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland calls "instant apocalypse" – the idea that there are three or four flashes and everything vaporizes.

"That's not quite right," Wellerstein told New Atlas in a 2013 interview. "Even with the largest bombs, most of the area affected will be different from the center where there's total destruction. A much larger area in the outer ring will be the equivalent of a giant earthquake or hit by winds like tornadoes over a vast area or fires on a vast scale. There are less mundane effects, like radiation exposure, which probably won't kill you instantly, but will make you sick. It isn't a big flash and everybody dies."

So what would happen if the bomb was dropped?

That would depend on many factors. For one thing, the strategy of the antagonists. Would they immediately commit to an all-out deployment of their entire strategic arsenals? Would they only use tactical nukes on the battlefield? Would it be a measured response of one missile launched would be met with one missile in retaliation? What about counterforce, where the goal is to attack only the enemy's means of shooting back?

All of these scenarios have been either considered or official superpower policies over the decades and each has its merits and its limitations. The trouble is, to paraphrase the 19th century strategist Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

If you look at predictions of war in the 1930s, the general view was that because of bomber aircraft and poison gas, no war would last more than a week. By that time, there would either be victory or civilization would be destroyed. However, when war did come in 1939, it lasted six years and chemical weapons were very rarely used and never on more than a small scale.

According to MIT Physicist Kostas Tsipis in a 1984 television documentary, the idea that an all-out nuclear war would last only hours or days is highly unlikely. As it would today, in the 1980s a nuclear attack depended on coordinating a vast armada of bombers, missiles, and submarines. Such an attack would mean a complex synchronization of giving orders, arming systems, and getting planes into the air.

Before and after images of the Hiroshima bombing(Credit: US DoD)

Then there's the question of getting the weapons to the right targets at the right time. Launching all the missiles all at once doesn't mean they all reach their targets at the same time. Some with more distant objectives would have to be launched first and nearer ones later. The same goes for slower weapons, like bombers.

As Tispis points out, the big problem with such an attack is that none has ever been carried out or even practiced in anything other than simulations. No Russian attack missile has ever been fired at US territory, nor has the US fired at Russia. But nuclear war would involve hundreds (in the 80s it would have been thousands) of missiles – missiles that have been sitting in silos or mobile launchers for months and have never been fired in giant salvos.

Minuteman II MIRV warheads(Credit: US Air Force)

As a result, it's impossible to accurately predict how such an attack would play out. Missiles could fail on liftoff, go rogue and self-destruct, or fail to hit targets. And all of this would be in the environment of a nuclear war where other bombs may have already detonated. So bombs may face flash, heat, blast, radiation, and circuit-frying electromagnetic pulse effects polluting the area and survive it all without being destroyed, disabled, or deflected themselves. Today, we can also add the threat of cyberattack where some virus might be lurking in the guidance system or the battery-monitoring software ready to turn a weapon of mass destruction into a lump of metal and high explosives that might not even leave the ground.

Broken back war

This uncertainty was well known to strategic planners as the "broken back" war scenario. Basically, East and West were faced with two nightmare outcomes of all-out nuclear war. On the one hand, it could lead to universal destruction and the extinction of all life on Earth. On the other, both attack and counterattack fail, leaving both sides still capable of fighting on with large reserves of conventional and nuclear forces, but now committed to a global war that could last for decades. Ironically, the latter was the one strategic planners preferred not to make public.

This same uncertainty extended to the effects of the bomb itself and it's a useful tool to help us assess the nuclear threats we face today. Contrary to popular belief, today's nuclear arsenals couldn't destroy all life on Earth and neither could their Cold War counterparts at their height. As we've seen, this idea of universal destruction was produced by images of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and later atomic tests in Nevada in the 1950s.

However, this is misleading because the Hiroshima image was seen through a telescope – at ground zero. Yes, the destruction and loss of life was truly horrendous, but the area of devastation was only the size of lower Manhattan. A few miles away, there was little or no damage.

The same is true even with today's fusion bombs, though on a larger scale. Sitting at ground zero is probably a death sentence, but 10 miles away the much-derided plan of "duck and cover" is sound advice because broken glass is the main threat. If fact, it could have prevented many injuries a couple of years ago during the Chelyabinsk incident.

If the bomb falls

In documentaries about the effects of nuclear weapons, it's customary to use a one-megaton hydrogen bomb as an example, but this monster isn't common in today's inventories, which rely on smaller warheads that land with greater precision, so we'll use a more common large bomb to look at.

In this case, let's look at a simulation involving a US W-88 warhead yielding 475 kilotons launched from a submarine using a Trident D-5 missile. Let's imagine that it is fired at Trafalgar Square in London, which it explodes above at an altitude of 2,400 m (7,800 ft) for maximum effect to destroy or damage everything from Acton in the west to Canary Wharf in the east.

At ground zero, there would be a fireball with a radius of 0.71 km (0.44 mi) – much larger than the Hiroshima bomb. Out to a distance of 8.62 km (5.36 mi), those caught in the open would suffer third-degree burns on their exposed skin due to the flash and most things flammable would be set alight.

Within 5.41 km (3.36 mi) of ground zero, the blast would damage residences and lighter buildings. The fires would feed on the debris and soon a Hiroshima-like firestorm would grow.

The damage would be horrific to the whole of central London, but it wouldn't be as bad as that of a one-megaton device, and the survivors would be spared two dangers. Had this been the larger bomb detonated at ground level, at a radius of 2.5 km (1.6 mi) people would receive a radiation blast of 500 rem, which is enough for 50 to 90 percent fatalities within days or weeks without proper treatment.

Then there would be fallout. The one-megaton blast would hurl tonnes of radioactive earth and dust into the air. With an easterly wind, the fallout would spread as far as Brussels and close to London the radiation could be as high as 1,000 rem (a fatal dose) in areas where it would be dangerous to venture for weeks.

That's with the one-megaton device. However, our 475-kiloton bomb was an airburst, so the radiation and fallout would be negligible. But that would be little consolation to the 675,000 dead and 1.8 million injured in a wrecked city.

It's a terrifying scenario, but bear in mind that the target is Nelson's column in the center of a metropolis of eight million densely packed people. The same bomb dropped on Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota would only kill 3,000 people and even the one-megaton monster would kill only a couple of dozen more. This is important because, having learned the lessons of the Second World War and since, strategic planners no longer regard civilian population centers as primary targets, though cities certainly can contain such targets.

Is the worst case scenario the worst?

Part of the problem is one of numbers and perception. A common mistake in trying to figure out how destructive a nuclear war would be involves some fairly shaky back of the envelope calculations that lead to such misperceptions as the oft-repeated claim that the US and Russia could destroy the world four/five/10 times over.

This thinking sometimes runs along the lines that since one nuclear missile submarine has more explosive force than all the bombs exploded in the Second World War and there are, let's say, 50 of these submarines, then they would cause 50 times as much damage as the war. Or the reasoning is that if so much explosive can kill so many people, then a multiple of that number would kill so many more.

The problem with this is two-fold. First, it's simplistic. With the latter argument, it's a bit like saying that since a bathtub could drown one person and the Pacific Ocean is the equivalent to a hundred of billion bathtubs, then it could drown the human race 10 times over.

In regard to explosive force, it's a bit more complicated. Nuclear weapons experts have spent half a century trying to figure out how destructive the bomb is, but it turns out to be tricky. That's because one big bomb isn't the same as so many little bombs. In fact, the little bombs are often much more destructive because they can be delivered right to the target. Hiroshima was destroyed by one bomb with the explosive force of 16,000 tons of TNT. The German city of Dresden suffered far worse damage from only 4,000 tons of conventional explosives.

Part of this is due to the fact that gigantic explosions like that of an H-bomb behave differently. The larger a bomb is, the more destruction it can cause, but this only increases by the cube root of the bomb's yield, so a law of diminishing returns kicks in as more and more of the blast is wasted going upwards into space or ripping open ground craters – and the later is undesirable because that causes more fallout.

Another part of the problem of evaluating what would actually happen in a nuclear attack is that even the most honest depictions carry over various assumptions. For example, a famous documentary aired by British television in the 1980s quite graphically depicted the effect of the heat flash as identical to standing next to a blast furnace and having the door flung open so that cars exploded and meat in butcher shop windows melted off the bone. This is erroneous because the filmmakers assumed that the heat from a bomb would be a sustained blast.

In fact, while the heat flash is extremely hot, it only lasts for a fraction of a second. The effects can be horrific, but only if someone is caught exposed, facing the detonation without any protection, including that of clothing. When studying the aftermath of Hiroshima, investigators found that most of the burns seen were from fire, not flash, and that clothing or curtains can provide substantial protection.

In our modern cities even more protection is available from the shielding of tall buildings and that brings up another problem with the Hiroshima image. Hiroshima was very different from modern cities. Few buildings were made of concrete, with most made of paper, bamboo, and timber – dry timber.

It was because of this dry wood that the firestorm occurred, as it did for similar reasons in Tokyo and Dresden after conventional bombing raids. This was also the case in the 1950s when the US Defense Department carried out experiments in Nevada using mock ups of homes, hangers, and other buildings during 1953's Encore test blast. The buildings sprang into full blown fires because the desert humidity was only 19 percent.

But modern cities are very different. For one thing, they use a much higher percentage of concrete and brick and most buildings are built to strict fire codes with protections like fire doors to keep tall buildings from turning into chimneys in the event of a blaze. These buildings also act as baffles to absorb and deflect blasts, in much the same way as heavily wooded areas dampen down wind storms in some regions.

Fallout

Perhaps the one persistent threat from the bomb is fallout. Unlike in the early days of the Cold War, this isn't as great a threat in an East/West exchange because ground bursts aren't a favored strategy and they produce the most fallout, while airburst make very little. However, fallout will occur, especially from a rogue state attack, but even then, things aren't exactly what they seem.

Unlike during the Cold War, we now, regrettably, have had the opportunity to not only study the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for a lifetime, but also a field experiment equivalent of a dirty bomb at Chernobyl. Without going into too much detail, the long study of these incidents has provided new insights into fallout and radiation sickness that show that, though they are a fearsome threat to health in a post-nuclear world, the danger may be significantly less than once thought.

Fifty years of studying over 86,000 Hiroshima survivors showed that out of 4,741 cancer cases, only 420 were radiation induced and that genetic damage was much lower than originally feared. At Chernobyl, where radiation contamination was much worse, there was less genetic damage than first predicted and the general effect on the flora and fauna, while severe, was overall less stressful than from a forest fire or conventional pollutants. Though there was an increase in thyroid cancers in children and reported leukemia cases, most of these excess cancer cases had a high rate of recovery and many have been attributed to more aggressive screening in the wake of the reactor accident.

Back to Satan

So what is the truth about Satan? As we've seen, it has a payload of 10 tonnes, can carry over a dozen warheads, has a range of 10,000 km (6,200 mi), and travel at a speed of up to Mach 20. As to how large an explosive yield it has, some sources put it at 40 megatons, while others go as high as 50 megatons. Then, of course there are the claims that it could be used to launch an attack over the South Pole, can destroy Texas or France in one blow, and penetrate US missile defenses.

Is any of this exceptional? The short answer is no. The missile's performance in terms of speed, number of warheads, and payload are comparable to many Western and Russian missiles going back 30 years or even half a century. A 10,000 km (6,214 mi) range, for example, puts it behind the Trident D-5 missile. As to its hypersonic speed, it does look impressive compared to even the fastest jet aircraft ever flown, but Mach 20 is merely the suborbital velocity that any ICBM must achieve.

But what about its incredible explosive power? The 50 megaton claim is based on throw weight. In other words, allocating six megatons of explosives for every tonne of missile. That means, if it carried 10 heavy warheads and no decoys, it would require each one to have a yield of five megatons.

In fact, the missiles carried by Satan-2 are only in the 150 to 300 kiloton range and many of the MIRV spots would be taken up by decoys, so if we assume 20 light warheads, yet make them all 300 kiloton jobs, that works out to a total yield of six megatons. Is this enough to destroy Texas? Maybe Austin or San Antonio, but not the whole state by a long chalk.

As to flying over the South Pole and penetrating missile defenses, being a land missile that would almost certainly launch from Russian soil, it wouldn't even reach Antarctica, much less hurtle past the South Pole to strike ... where is a bit unclear.

However, the missile defense claim is a bit trickier because the US doesn't have a strategic missile defense system for the Satan to penetrate. There's only one active base in Alaska, but it's largely experimental and its purpose is to counter any North Korean missiles that might be targeted at the US West Coast. Against any serious Russian attack, it would be either out of range of the incoming missiles or barely capable of handling one or two.

All in all, the Satan-2 sounds like a pretty standard modern Russian missile. It's probably more accurate and reliable than the previous generation, but a superweapon? That's most likely just the sort of propaganda that the Kremlin enjoys indulging in from time to time, such as with its nuclear tsunami torpedo "leaked" in 2015 or exaggerated claims that followed the unveiling of the new T-14 tank.

Conclusion

Using Satan-2 as the jumping off point for this lengthy look at the potential shape of nuclear war in the 21st century isn't meant to downplay the significance of any such weapon, or to rack the press over the coals. The point is to highlight the fact that our shared knowledge of nuclear weapons and their capabilities has eroded since the end of the Cold War to the point where even fabulist claims like those made for the Satan are received with credulity.

Nuclear weapons are still the single greatest piece on the military chessboard of world diplomacy. If we become complacent about them and the role they play in our world, then we could find ourselves facing a very nasty surprise that shakes us out of that complacency. On the other hand, if we regard them as some all-destroying force that can only lead to the extermination of the human race, then it can lead to fatalism, paralysis, or desperate gambles and brinkmanship.

Edward Tellar, "father of the H-bomb"(Credit: US Department of Energy)

None of this is meant to minimize the danger of nuclear weapons. Far from it. These are the most destructive weapons ever devised by the mind of man and their use in war can only be justified as a deterrent. The warheads used today may be smaller, fewer, and not anywhere near as universally destructive as popular culture portrays them, but they are terrible things.

On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four jet passenger liners and slammed two of them into the Twin Towers in New York and one into the Pentagon, while the fourth crashed when the passengers tried to overpower the hijackers. This attack did not involve nuclear weapons, and "only" destroyed two skyscrapers and killed about 3,000 people, but it paralyzed the world's only superpower, caused the loss of many billions of dollars, nearly crippled the airline industry, and has had massive impacts on the world to this day.

Now imagine a 10 kiloton bomb detonating in Manhattan. Even if the island didn't end up looking like Hiroshima, the toll of death, property damage, and economic disruption doesn't bear thinking about – but if we are to prevent such a disaster occurring in New York, or London, or Paris, or Moscow, or Tehran, or Jerusalem, we have to do just that.

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