Saddam’s Almost-Bomb

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had a legitimate nuclear weapons program that was, by most accounts, very close to building a functioning Fat Man-level device before the invasion of Kuwait. A draft nuclear operations manual was even made. For all intents and purposes, it was destroyed in the 1991 Gulf War and there was no serious attempt to restart it prior to 2003.

The WMD swing-and-miss isn’t really the subject of this post. It was a combination of the inherent untrustworthiness of the Iraqi regime (which still would have more than willing to make genuine WMDs), a desperate desire to avoid a false negative after 9/11, and a bizzare bluff aimed at Iran by a Saddam who was increasingly believing his own propaganda. I have increasingly believed that, after 1991 and especially after 2001, that the Iraq War, or at least the country undergoing a catastrophic meltdown (see the Syrian Civil War), would have been inevitable given that element and the inherent instability of it, but that’s for another time.

Anyway, the Iraqi design was a spherical implosion device centered around 15-18 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium. The first incarnation of it was very wide (over a meter), with the big Tu-16 and Tu-22 bombers being the only delivery systems capable of dropping it. Later it shrank to the point where it could fit inside a ballistic missile, and active programs were focused on making longer-ranged missiles that could carry such a device. The yield is unknown and the only available references to them in open sources I’ve found are understandably redacted. One theory based on text size I’ve seen argued that the small design had the strength of only one kiloton and the big one three, which fits with the yield of early North Korean (pure test) designs. More generous estimates put it around 10-20. Regardless, it was unlikely to be more than low double digit kilotons in terms of blast strength. It’s worth noting that even the lowest-end estimate would still mean a radioactive version of the 2020 Beirut explosion.

Barring the invasion of Kuwait or other serious external interference, the program could have been up and churning out warheads by the mid-1990s. Of course, there would be serious external interference. Israel’s hyped attack on the Osirak reactor arguably owed more to the mania of Menachem Begin than any practical effect. Begin was the admitted inspiration for the supervillain Magneto (to give an idea of his temperament), and someone who embodied Alexander Wallace’s “hurt people hurt people” statement. Osirak was physically unsuited to producing weapons-grade material in quantity, and its destruction led to a much more hardened and dispersed program. Nonetheless, the Israelis would try.

Would they succeed? Would having the bomb actually lead to a calming effect, as argued by some? (Given the Kargil and Ussuri wars, I’m skeptical). As with everything involving the “devices”, there’s a thankfully small sample size to consider. There are many, many unknowns. But the atomic wolf was truly there.

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