Superjumbos

I’ve always been intrigued by “superjumbos, which I unscientifically define as “any airliner which is bigger and/or can carry more passengers than a 747.” Perhaps the only mass-produced superjumbo has been Airbus’ doomed A380, a luxurious plane that was nonetheless brought down by an inability to be used as a freighter and a shift away from the “hub and spoke” model that it was designed for.

But with the hub and spoke model in place, and with air travel increasing, the superjumbo does make at least conceptual sense. The justification works like this: If, thanks to a lack of runway space, you can only get X number of flights per major airport, you might as well give them to a bigger plane. To oversimplify it, the choice isn’t between two planes with 300 passengers each or one with 600, it’s between one with 300 or one with 600.

Granted, there are many, many practical obstacles too, like if your superjumbo needs more engines and/or is less fuel efficient (neither an unreasonable thought). But the place for these aerial titans is a legitimate one. Or at least an excusable one with regards to getting one or more of the many on the drawing board designs into alternate production.

And of course, mammoth aircraft that, unlike the A380, were designed to be heavy freighters, do have a niche role in carrying big and oversized loads. See the late An-225 (which had a passenger variant proposed!) and the Super Guppy/Beluga/Dreamlifter oversized transport planes.

It’s all food for thought. After all, what aviation enthusiast doesn’t like gargantuan planes?

The Nuclear Assumptions

The one thing going in the would-be nuclear terrorists favor is that nuclear weapons have a lot of “slack” built into their design. IE, they can be ridiculously “inefficient” and still be devastating. Even a rough-implosion sub-kiloton warhead is still a much hotter, radioactive version of this:

But that’s it. Everything else works against them. There’s a lot of attention paid to nuclear material ever since the 1940s for obvious reasons. The materials require specialized personnel and are hazardous (radiation is the least of the worries-both uranium and plutonium are extremely flammable, for one). I used the analogy of Y2K in my review of the best book on the subject that I’ve read.

While reading Brian Michael Jenkins’ own book, one passage jumped at me. This was Jenkins, a renowned terrorism and security expert, talking about how the yields increased.

We have too easily slid from the scientists’ first estimates of terrorist nuclear devices with yields likely to be in the tenths of a kiloton range to a now-assumed standard of a ten-kiloton terrorist bomb. The worst case has become the baseline assessment.

-Brian Michael Jenkins. Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Kindle Locations 3611-3612). Kindle Edition.

And yet, both seem valid. Ten kilotons is slightly less than Little Boy, an extremely simple “bang two chunks of HEU together” design whose biggest limiter is that it requires a lot of fissile material. Less than a kiloton is what’s often theorized for a very basic implosion design, necessary with plutonium as the explosive material. Since in the 1970s there was justified fear around the glut of plutonium, that is not an unreasonable assumption. Likewise, it’s also not unreasonable to assume that with access to Little Boy levels of material (Cold War “Surplus”?) one could make a Little Boy level bomb.

There are no real case studies to go on. Aum Shinrikyo conducted the only known and most credible attempt to acquire nuclear weapons by a terror group. It never got beyond basic theoretical designs, as has every other terror daydream. With a (thankful) sample size of zero, all planners can do is base the possibilities on theory.

The Hungry King

High-intensity warfare uses up a LOT of artillery shells. Like, a lot. How much? Well, these charts from the Light OPFOR Tactical (for eastern calibers) and FM 101-10-1/2, 1987 edition (for western calibers) give a notional example. They’re not identical-the OPFOR norms chart is shells fired towards a target while the FM 101-10-1 one is shells used up by a certain artillery piece per day-but they both show how much metal and explosive is going to fly (the answer: A lot).

Artillery is called the “king of battle”, and the king can get very, very hungry sometimes. Moving large quantities of heavy, highly explosive shells is no small feat, and to succeed or fail with that task means the difference between victory and defeat. A conventional Fuldapocalyptic World War III in the 1980s would have a massive quantity of artillery shells fired every day.

The Plutonium Red Team Study

In the mid-1990s, a “Red Team” (simulated adversary) was launched by the Sandia national laboratory. It looked at all the processes for disposing of excess plutonium (especially after the fall of the USSR) and studied their potential vulnerabilities for unsavory acquisition of nuclear materials. The report is a very interesting read.

Everything from fuel assemblies to mixed/ceramic encased disposed plutonium is studied. The vulnerabilities studied include both accessing it at the storage site and separating the weapons-usable material. It’s quite interesting, yet gives the impression that most nuclear thieves would need to be employed by either a state or the cast of Payday 2. Which is kind of the point, showing the difference between more and less plausible points of failure.

The Mountain Flip Flop

Despite otherwise having little in common save for lots of mountains, Switzerland and Afghanistan have a shared reputation in popular culture as being impregnable, untameable countries. Which led me to go: What if circumstances flip-flopped their history and outcomes?

In Central Asia, a Dari-speaking nation arises in the mountains of what we’d call northern and central Afghanistan. Close to many major trade routes, it takes advantage of its geographic security and reputation for studious neutrality to develop a thriving financial sector. This and the wealth generated by it enable this to develop a reputation for exporting luxury, advanced artisanal goods as well. Meanwhile in Europe, an artificial clump of different ethnicities in the Alps becomes a weak, tumultuous, war-torn “western Yugoslavia”.

Yes, it’s a very soft alternate history. But it’s the kind of thing that alternate history was made for, and it’d work great as a story’s setting.

Weird Wargaming: The Axis Contraptions

After World War II, various veterans of the vanquished (to put it that way) offered to design and make various military platforms. Only a few actually entered production. Kurt Tank designed the HF-24 Marut and sputtered-out Pulqui jet fighters. An Italian submachine gun, the TZ-45, found its way into the Burmese Army. Most fell victim to the same culprits: A combination of Cold War military aid and cheap Allied surplus sweeping them aside, while not being high-performance enough to beat them that way.

Yet for alternate historians/wargamers/writers wanting to add various wunderwaffe to their scenarios, it’s not that implausible that a few could slip through here and there. They’d mostly be out of the way unless history moved to that region (for instance, the Willy Messerschmidt-designed HA-300 would undoubtedly see service in the Arab-Israeli Wars if it entered mass production.) But they could still be done.

What would be most interesting would be the really exotic and large Luft 46 aircraft and wunderpanzer tanks. Those would probably need veto-able foreign engines (or other less obvious components) and would be no picnic to design. But they would be the most fun to play.

People Playground Peoples

People Playground Peoples

My favorite go-to relaxing game now, especially after I’ve discovered the massive and excellent mod scene, is People Playground. I of course act out a lot of scenarios-ok, a few types of scenarios, involving the mysterious mad science facility. And here are the “roles”.

Subjects

Represented usually by the default “humans”, subjects are the test subjects who are either being killed in terrible ways (don’t feel too bad for them, they struggle to walk several steps) or rebelling in some form (and usually ending up getting killed in terrible ways).

Technicians

Dressed in work-esque outfits, technicians usually sport some kind of chemical mask. They’re often placed by pieces of machinery, where they operate them and oversee experiments (very, very frequently becoming collateral damage). Unlike troopers, technicians mostly use a min-max arsenal-either finicky destructive contraptions or simple/improvised-type weapons that they built themselves.

Troopers

Troopers are the enforcement arm of the facility, being dressed in various kinds of military uniform and carrying a large variety of conventional weapons. Don’t worry, they always get killed in quantity too.

Commanders

Clad in various types of ornate and/or formal clothing, commanders wield sidearms and direct the “experiments”. However, a field commander is just as vulnerable as anyone else on the playground.

The Warhead Mystery

David Seed’s magisterial analysis of nuclear terrorism in fiction has confirmed one large suspicion I had about such books: The warhead MacGuffin is, far more often than not, stolen or donated by a sinister benefactor instead of being scratch-built. The Sum of All Fears is one big exception, just as how Red Storm Rising has Iceland invaded and the war staying completely conventional from start to finish. Because I love overthinking stuff like this (in violation of the wise words of literary theorist Mr. Hippo that not every story has to have significance), I have a few possible theories.

Theory 1

Theory 1 states that this is an example of being, even accidentally, technically reasonable. There are large practical issues with constructing even the simplest Little Boy-esque designs. The biggest and most obvious is appropriate fissile material, but there’s more that’d be hard to do and harder to do in secret. Of course, most authors would probably be going with their gut telling them it’s just easier to skip that step. Seeing so many writers get absolute basic technical details wrong makes me think it’s more a broken clock being right at that moment than anything else.

Theory 2

Theory 2 is less generous and states that it’s because it’s easy to write, means you don’t have to research, and can just say “here, they got a nuke.” Even The Sum of All Fears, as (over)-researched at it was, did this in a way by almost literally dropping the Israeli bomb into the laps of the antagonists.

Theory 3

Theory 3 is simply the result of bandwagoning. Because everyone else is having the nukes being sold or donated, the authors are simply writing what they know. Tom Clancy is weird in that while a lot of people adopted his themes, his exact style is not replicated nearly as much (and understandably so)

_ _ _

The warhead issue symbolizes something I’ve noticed about fiction: Realism is often not really that much of an asset. Roughly speaking, a lot of the people won’t know any better, many of the ones who do know won’t care, and a giant subset of those who do care will find issue no matter what. This combined with thrillers almost always succeeding and failing based on execution and not concept means my advice would just be to write what you’re comfortable with.

My personal take is this: Since I’ve been reading so much on the topic, and since I find the stolen/gifted nuke overused, I feel like I’d have the warhead be scratch-built if I wrote a book on the subject.