The Cruise Missile From Hell

It’s 1955, and the United States and the
Soviet Union are locked in the deadly embrace that’ll come to be known as the Cold War. Just five and a half years ago the Soviet
Union shocked the world by detonating their own atomic bomb, a feat achieved by the infiltration
of the American Manhattan Project by Klaus Fuchs, a Soviet spy. Originally vetted by the British, Fuchs had
penetrated the British atomic bomb project known as Tube Alloys in 1941 and was eventually
shipped to the US in 1944 to work on the American bomb. Now the two superpowers are jockeying for
global leadership, and for many in the highest ranks of their respective militaries and governments,
an ultimate confrontation between Communism and Capitalism is all but inevitable. In this truly final world war, it will be
atomic bombs that determine the winner. Both superpowers have achieved a balance of
sorts however, with the Soviet Union and its communist bloc allies achieving ground superiority
through their far superior numbers in tanks and infantry. With West Germany, France, and Britain still
reeling from the destruction of World War II, the United States has countered with a
massive European reconstruction plan, pouring hundreds of billions of dollars in aid money
into Europe- even to its former enemies in Western Germany. Ten years after the end of World War II, the
democracies of Europe are finally on their feet again, American taxpayers funding much
of the reconstruction of nations devastated by the most destructive war in history. The West’s economic might is backed up by
American nuclear power, and its arsenal of nuclear weapons is keeping the Soviet Union
and its hordes of tanks at bay. America’s Strategic Air Command has nuclear
bombers on constant patrol over the north pole, twenty four hours a day, seven days
a week, ready to move to their failsafe points at the slightest provocation from the Soviet
Union. Since World War II the United States has become
the world leader in aeronautics, and it enjoys the benefits of a fleet of long-range bombers
which can strike deep into Soviet territory. The Soviets lack an adequate long-range bomber
with the lift capacity to carry nuclear weapons into American territory, and thus their focus
instead turns towards rocketry. Under the guise of scientific discovery, both
nations have undertaken an intense effort to develop ever more advanced rockets, but
Soviet engineering and know-how is far ahead of the Americans and in 1957 the Soviet Union
trumps the United States’ best efforts by launching sputnik, the first manmade satellite. While the world marvels at the tiny beach-ball
sized artificial moon orbiting the earth, American defense officials are in a near full-blown
panic. Not only have the Soviets proven they have
better, more capable, and more reliable rockets than the Americans, but that they may very
soon be able to place nuclear warheads on their rockets. In that case, America’s single advantage in
the nuclear arms race- its fleet of long-range bombers- would be all but nullified as nuclear-armed
rockets would be far faster and completely indefensible against. The Soviets would have a first-strike capability
that could put the US out of action before it can mount a response. While SAC’s long-range alert bomber fleet
would still incinerate a dozen or more Soviet cities, it would be the US who would be the
clear loser in a nuclear war. Even worse, the sophistication of putting
a satellite into orbit hints at the capacity to build advanced guided missiles which could
shoot down SAC’s bombers long before they got to their targets. Efforts to develop advanced rockets are immediately
doubled, and the US at last takes the space race seriously. However, some defense planners are now looking
at SAC’s twenty four seven bomber fleet with a skeptical eye, and determine that the United
States needs a far more survivable nuclear deterrent. Submarines have long been thought of as ideal
nuclear platforms given their incredible stealthiness and difficulty in neutralizing, yet development
of sub-launched nuclear weapons depends entirely on the US’s rocketry program. In the meantime, a new weapon is needed that
addresses the key vulnerabilities of the SAC’s nuclear alert bomber fleet: their relatively
slow speed and their vulnerability to interception. Attention is turned to one of America’s ongoing
bleeding-edge and highly secret scientific endeavors, a program known as Project Pluto. The aim of Project Pluto is to dramatically
increase the speed of American nuclear bombers through the use of nuclear-assisted ramjet
engines. Originally designed in 1919, ramjet engines
are incredibly simple devices with no moving parts. While in a regular jet engine a fan is used
to compress incoming air, which is then ignited and forced out the rear to produce thrust,
a ramjet engine uses the aircraft’s own forward motion to compress the incoming air using
a ‘stovepipe’ like opening which funnels the high-speed air into a small area. This compresses and superheats the air, which
then requires nothing more than the injection of fuel and exposure to a flame to ignite
and produce extremely high velocity exhaust. Capable of speeds up to Mach 6, or 4,600 mph
(7,400 km/h), the ramjet is an ideal choice for increasing the speed of America’s bomber
fleet. Yet at such extreme speeds the bomber would
disintegrate, and so the ramjet was changed tracks to serve as an engine for smaller,
unmanned vehicles such as missiles. This is where Project Pluto stepped in, and
saw the potential in using ramjet engines to completely replace SAC’s nuclear fleet
with a fleet of unmanned nuclear missiles. By using a nuclear reactor as a fuel source,
the ramjet-equipped unmanned missiles could fly for months, possibly even for years, and
were largely limited only by the durability of the materials used in their construction. In a typical ramjet a highly reactive fuel
is constantly squirted into the super heated and compressed air much the same as in a regular
jet engine, so while a ramjet is exponentially more reliable than a mechanical jet engine
and has a performance that only increases with acceleration, it has the same basic limitation
in endurance that a regular engine has: it can only fly as far and as long as it has
a supply of fuel for. Project Pluto however sought to break this
limitation by installing a large missile with a miniature nuclear reactor, with the intense
heat of the reactor itself superheating the incoming air until it was expelled with so
much force that it provided thrust. No fuel would be needed, and the missile could
fly for as long as the reactor held out. In 1957 the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory
began serious study of the nuclear ramjet idea. First they would need to shrink the size of
existing nuclear reactors considerably, from the size of a small locomotive to about that
of an average car. The flight reactor would need a power output
greater than 500 megawatts, but to prove that the concept could work a reactor was first
built with a power output of 155 megawatts. This reactor could heat incoming air to a
temperature of 1976 degrees Fahrenheit (1080 C). This was well in excess of the 1004 degree
Fahrenheit (540 C) required to sustain flight. The nuclear ramjet, insane as it sounded,
could actually work. To test the engine under realistic conditions
though a huge test facility was constructed at Jackass Flats in Nevada. The facility would include a mile of oil well
casing pipe to store 119,050 pounds (54000 kg) of air compressed at 245 atmospheres. Before entering the engine, the air was then
heated by passing through a specially designed vessel containing 500 tons of ball bearings
superheated by a gas furnace. The engine was then able to be run at full
power for up to one minute, and in this and subsequent tests through 1961 the only issue
discovered was some minor cracking of the ceramic fuel rods. Soon tests began on the Tory II-C, the first
full-scale flight-weight reactor capable of sustained speeds at low altitude of Mach 3. Tory II-C was tested extensively in the Nevada
desert, and proved that it was more than capable of sustaining extremely high speed flight
at low altitudes for months at a time. Representing an incredible breakthrough in
materials technology, the Tory II-C was one of the great, and most secretive, technological
breakthroughs of the Cold War, and for the first time a nuclear reactor was shrunk to
a size small enough to fit on an aircraft. Development of the missile itself was immediately
approved to several sub contractors. The SLAM missile as it would come to be known
would be America’s chief nuclear deterrent. It would be stored on American missile bases
safely out of reach of Soviet bombers and launched only in times of increased tension. With the ability to be at their failsafe points
in an hour or less and to then loiter for months at a time, the SLAMs would effectively
make the use of SAC’s nuclear alert fleet obsolete- a good thing too because not only
were the bombers vulnerable to interception and their bases vulnerable to a nuclear first
strike, but the massive fuel consumption of maintaining bombers on twenty-four seven patrols
in the sky was creating a huge bill for the US Air Force. In time of increased international tension,
the US would respond by pre-launching a dozen SLAMs to begin their long-term alert patrols. The missiles would be launched by solid-fuel
booster rockets which would get the SLAM up to operational speed where its ramjet could
be kicked on, and then it would loiter in holding patterns over the Pacific Ocean and
the North Pole for months. As tensions mounted, more SLAMs could be put
in the air, and each SLAM could be equipped with either a single large warhead, or multiple
smaller warheads. In case of war each SLAM would ‘hit the deck’
and fly at speeds of Mach 3 as it penetrated the Soviet Union at treetop level. This would make them impossible to detect
with radar, and their incredible speed would make them impossible to shoot down even if
detected. This is where the truly evil genius of the
SLAM was realized though, as the reactors could be built so that they would irradiate
the incoming air. Thus a SLAM could deliver its payload to target
cities and then simply be ordered to fly around the Soviet Union in circles, spewing a trail
of radioactive death in its wake that would kill all living beings below it. With its incredibly low flight profile, the
supersonic shockwaves of the Mach 3 missile flying overhead at just above treetop height
would also kill people and destroy structures beneath it. Lastly, as it neared the end of its operational
lifetime after months of flying around irradiating the Soviet Union, it could then be ordered
to crash into a populated area or agricultural areas, where it would spread radioactive debris
over a huge swathe of land. Despite the feasibility of building such a
weapon, ultimately cooler heads prevailed and the SLAM was canceled completely. This cruise missile from hell proved to be
so devastating and outright evil that it was decided constructing them would be too great
a provocation for the Soviets to ignore, and it was feared that they would then build their
own. With the weapon being completely impossible
to defend against, the United States did not want to risk forcing the Soviet’s hands into
building their own SLAMs. Capable of not just delivering nuclear weapons
to their targets, but of then irradiating the surrounding countryside for months at
a time, SLAMs proved to be far more destructive and evil a weapon than even hydrogen bombs,
and it’s for all our good that though the US proved it could build them, it chose never
to do so. Yet in 2018 Russian President Vladimir Putin
announced a major expansion of Russian nuclear capability, to include the use of nuclear-powered
missiles. Sadly it may seem that a fate we once thought
averted may ultimately befall us once more. Do you think weapons like the SLAM should
be banned? Let us know in the comments! And as always don’t forget to Like, Share,
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