13 December 2011

Violet Club: Quite Possibly the Worst Nuclear Bomb Ever Fielded

The warhead, or physics package, of the Violet Club bomb
When taking a look at the development of British nuclear weapons following the Second World War, it has to be viewed in the context of a piece of legislation in the United States that was passed in 1946- the McMahon Act or the Atomic Energy Act. Sponsored by Senator Brien McMahon of Connecticut who chaired the Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy, this legislation is better known for its creation of the Atomic Energy Commission and the placement of nuclear weapons development and nuclear applications under civilian rather than military control. However, one consequence of the McMahon Act was the stipulation that nuclear weapons development be restricted from US allies- this affect the United Kingdom and Canada who had provided scientists and support to the wartime Manhattan Project. As a result of being shut out of American nuclear weapons development, the British set about to create their own air-dropped weapon which would be fielded in 1953 at RAF Witttering- though somewhat amusingly the first aircraft that could carry the bomb, designated Blue Danube, the Vickers Valiant, didn't become operational until a year later. The purpose of this wasn't just a message to the Soviets, but also to the United States that Britain was more than capable of fielding its own nuclear deterrent despite the McMahon Act. 

On 1 November 1952 the United States detonated its first fusion bomb (H-bomb) in the Ivy Mike test at Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific. Given that the British were still shut out of US nuclear development by the McMahon Act, despite the fact that the Blue Danube fission bomb (A-bomb) was still a year out from being operational, strategic imperatives meant that Britain had to develop it's own H-bomb and the program was launched in 1954. In the UK, many military systems were assigned code names under the Ministry of Supply's "rainbow codes"- hence, "Blue Danube". In the development of an H-bomb, the casing had its own code name and the actual warhead, called the physics package, had another code name. The casing of the H-bomb was based on the Blue Danube casing and was designated Violet Club while the physics package was designated Green Grass. 

But before the code names had been settled upon, the British H-bomb had a different name- "Interim Megaton Weapon"- implying that it was a high-yield weapon but not a true thermonuclear or H-bomb/fusion weapon. And this is really at the heart of the history of the Violet Club and its historical legacy. First, it indicates that Violet Club was intended to be a temporary weapon and secondly, it wasn't a fusion bomb as was commonly believed by *both* the Soviet Union and the United States. 

The warhead or physics package of the bomb was based on earlier warhead designs that were named Orange Herald and Green Bamboo. Orange Herald was a lighter version of Green Bamboo and the designs were projected to be the new fusion warheads for the Royal Air Force's V-force, the Blue Steel stand-off missile, and the planned Blue Streak intermediate-range ballistic missile. Testing of Orange Herald showed that it had failed to boost the fission reaction to create a fusion reaction. The failure of the warhead designs left the British scrambling for a high-yield weapon and this became the Green Grass warhead of the Interim Megaton Weapon that was based on design elements of the earlier Green Bamboo and Orange Herald designs. As was the case in the United States, interservice rivalries in Great Britain meant that the Army wanted highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear landmines in Europe and the Royal Navy wanted HEU for the reactors for its planned nuclear-powered submarine fleet. The Royal Air Force was of the feeling that the HEU that had so far been produced in British reactors had to be used or it would be lost to rival services, so that was one of several motivations to rush the Interim Megaton Weapon into service as it would use a significant amount of HEU.

Schematic of the Green Grass warhead showing how the ball bearings were used.
It was the design of the Green Grass warhead that went into the Violet Club that made it for all practical purposes a useless weapon. A hollow sphere of HEU was surrounded by a system of 72 explosive lenses that compressed the HEU to critical mass and detonation. But here was the problem. In the Green Grass warhead, the mass of HEU was in *excess* of the critical mass once compressed by the explosive lenses. That meant if the warhead were crushed or damaged during handling, it could partially detonate. American designs avoided this by having an HEU core that was inserted into the physics package usually by the bombardier once the bomber was in flight, thereby "arming" the bomb once the core was inserted. Without the core inserted, the HEU mass in the American designs was below the critical mass. The solution by British designers was to fill the center of the HEU sphere with 20,000 steel ball bearings to prevent the sphere from being crushed and reaching critical mass. To arm the bomb, a plastic plug was removed from the bottom of the warhead (accessible via a hatch on the underside of the Violet Club casing) that allowed the bearings to flow out, thereby arming the bomb. 

While it may sound like a creative solution, there were several issues: 
  • The weight of the ball-bearings increased the bomb's weight to 11,250 lbs which was greater than the capacity of not only the bomb release mechanisms of the V-bombers but also the ground-transport equipment of the bomb. 
  • The outflow of bearings took at least half an hour under ideal conditions- in cold weather, the bearings could freeze together, making arming the weapon near-impossible. 
  • Once the bomb was armed by allowing the ball-bearings to flow out of the center of the warhead, there was on way of making the weapon safe again. In fact, engine running was prohibited even with Violet Club "safed" as it was feared vibration would cause the plastic plug to fall out and inadvertantly arm the weapon. 
  • Because the bomb was armed irreversibly, airborne alerts were impossible because take off and landing were too hazardous to attempt with an armed Violet Club. 
  • Dispersal of the V-force to outlying fields was impossible as the bomb couldn't be flown to the dispersal airfield and the bomb transport equipment couldn't handle the Violet Club when it had its ball-bearings in place. 
The Blue Danube- the Violet Club looked similar externally.
While the Air Staff of the RAF ordered twelve Violet Club bombs, only five were made and as British author Chris Gibson put it in his book Vulcan's Hammer "From the RAF's point of view, that was five too many." With such an unwieldly weapon, why was it even fielded? First of all, remember that the British were classifying the Violet Club as megaton-class weapon by calling it the Interim Megaton Weapon. It definitely wasn't a megaton weapon, perhaps more 400 kilotons at best, but certainly the Operation Grapple tests at Christmas Island in 1957 did indicate to the Americans the British were succeeding at fielding their own H-bombs- even if those test detonations failed to created the desired thermonuclear reaction. So who was the target of the Violet Club? While serving notice to the Soviet Union that Britain was still a force to be reckoned with, it seems that perhaps the Americans were the target, so to speak- with a weapon in their inventory called Interim Megaton Weapon implying that newer designs forthcoming and the Grapple series of tests in 1957 making a good show of things despite failing to work as planned, in 1958 the United States repealed the McMahon Act and resumed full nuclear cooperation with the United Kingdom. The Green Grass warhead used in Violet Club would be the last all-British nuclear weapon as a new Mutual Defense Agreement signed as part of the repeal of the McMahon Act meant British designers now had access to more advanced and compact American designs. In fact, the successor to the much-despised Violet Club, the Yellow Sun Mk.2, used an Anglicized American Mk.28 thermonuclear warhead. But no other fission weapon ever fielded by any other nation approached the explosive yield of the Violet Club.
Source: Vulcan's Hammer: V-Force Projects and Weapons Since 1945 by Chris Gibson. Hikoki Publications, 2011, p47-51. http://www.nuclear-weapons.info/vw.htm, by Brian Burnell.

1 comment:

  1. Well-written article. Liked it so much I could have written it myself.

    One little thing you missed out though ..... The Green Grass physics package (defined as a warhead in English English) was made in larger quantities and installed in Violet Club's immediate successor Yellow Sun Mk.1.

    Thirty seven in total.

    The original 5 installed in Violet Club were retrofitted into YS Mk.1. When eventually the anglicised US Mk.28 warheads were available they were fitted into a YS. Mk.2 casing.

    Brian Burnell