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Long-term robustness of Soviet and Russian nuclear armaments

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cheater:
Hi all,
first of all, I do not wish to make a political topic here. This is purely a technical question that I hope people will answer based on facts they can present.

I was wondering recently how probable it is that Russian nuclear ICBM warheads are in fact functional. Assumedly like in any arsenal some percentage will be duds, but the question is what percentage. I soon figured that I don't know anything at all about those systems:

- What sort of technology is used for the warhead and detonation device? What sort of assembly? I don't even know details like is it vacuum tube, magnetic, or mechanic; and are they using wires or boards; are they soldering, crimping, wire wrapping, brazing, using screw terminals, springs, ... Are there any documents on what such a device looks like in Russia's armament? What were the general manufacturing techniques used by the Soviet union in those days? I honestly don't even know during what years those things were all produced.

- What sort of maintenance is necessary for the items to continue to function - and what is the manpower needed to do that? Are there any reports of the maintenance being especially good or bad?

- I understand that nuclear tests of any sort of size can be sensed from anywhere in the world. And of course you don't know if a weapon works until you fire it. When's the last time such a test has been carried out by the Soviet or Russian Government?

- What sort of knowledge is necessary to continue maintaining the items? Is it conceivable that very few people really know how to confidently work on those things in the first place?

- Other than the explosives themselves, what other systems are necessary for a successful delivery of such a payload? Does the ground site have to be special in some way, does it have to have special equipment? How difficult to operate or maintain could this equipment be?

I would ask that everyone keep politics out of this thread. Of course we know what's going on and everyone is grown up and knows who's right or wrong. However if stuff like that happens this thread will be derailed and there will be no knowledge to be gained from it. We all know we can go to Twitter or Facebook to talk about politics.

Please avoid reductionist arguments, or bad faith arguments. Stuff like "Oh it's Russia with their kleptocracy, of course things don't work" just doesn't cut it. Saying "I saw Russian trucks weren't turned so the tires on them broke" doesn't cut it as well. Keep it to what you specifically know either of the devices themselves or of Russian manufacturing industry from the time the devices were built.

Please avoid arguments such as "even one working is bad enough". We know it's bad. We're trying to learn here, not make geopolitical decisions. I am not the head of NATO, I'm just a guy who doesn't know how a type of device works, and just like a toaster or a VCR, I'd like to understand what is involved in keeping it in function.

xrunner:
Good question I was wondering the same thing the other day. I guess because of the state of affairs. But it must be something akin to say having a FM radio and making sure it would actually make sound from the speaker without turning the audio stage on. You can make visual tests and applying power to certain parts of the system. But in the end if all the tests you can do (without actually firing it off) pass, the you assume it has to work, because it can't do anything else but work, if it passes all the tests up to a certain point. According to the laws of physics it would have no other outcome other than than to blow up ...  :-//

Of course all that presumes it is delivered properly by some other system that might fail ... Yea so a certain % of the systems are not even going to make it to the target anyway. Who knows how many?

cheater:

--- Quote from: xrunner on March 21, 2022, 02:24:50 am ---Who knows how many?

--- End quote ---

Right, that's the point! I'm sure there are nuclear engineers or physicists who are able to answer this question better than you or I.

evb149:
0% probable, hopefully, then perhaps we can have some peace / security eventually.

Anyway technically the answer is not unlike any other failure probability analysis for some piece of electronic or mechanical or chemical etc. system.
Lots of failure points exist, i.e. anything possible that can contribute to a failure can be said to do so with some probability function per hour / year / decade time.
Casing rust?  Metal to metal corrosion?  Paint flaking off?  Moisture seal degradation?  Gasket leak? Transistor failure due to metal migration?  Software failure due to Y2k?  Batteries dying / leaking?  Radiation degrading electrical and mechanical systems?  Acidity or salt water vapors in the air causing rust?  Cracks due the thermal cycling being
stored in whatever environments?  Even the chemicals and metals themselves decay, become brittle, micro-crack, transform, ...

Anyway if you want to find some domain specific analysis of this sort of thing just search for budgets / reports / analyses / etc. related to "stockpile stewardship".
The USA anyway has spent many billions of dollars on making everything from super computers to physics super-laboratories in the name of doing that kind of
testing / analysis / verification whether through computer simulation to experimental testing etc.

exmadscientist:
So I know just enough about this stuff to be dangerous... may as well have a go. (Disclaimer, DoE has in the past paid my salary, but not NNSA... I actively preferred not to work for them.)


--- Quote from: cheater on March 21, 2022, 02:07:35 am ---- What sort of technology is used for the warhead and detonation
device? What sort of assembly? I don't even know details like is it vacuum tube, magnetic, or mechanic; and are they using wires or boards; are they soldering, crimping, wire wrapping, brazing, using screw terminals, springs, ... Are there any documents on what such a device looks like in Russia's armament? What were the general manufacturing techniques used by the Soviet union in those days? I honestly don't even know during what years those things were all produced.
--- End quote ---
Initiator is probably plastic explosives. I don't know the mechanical construction or how they age over time. This is the most sensitive bit, at least on a fission weapon. Fusion adds complications of its own. The fusion physics packages are remarkable objects. They definitely go bad over time; I think at least one component of US designs is volatile. But the initiators are even worse, so they're still a major bottleneck.


--- Quote ---- I understand that nuclear tests of any sort of size can be sensed from anywhere in the world. And of course you don't know if a weapon works until you fire it. When's the last time such a test has been carried out by the Soviet or Russian Government?
--- End quote ---
There are test ban treaties in place. The major powers have actually respected these, so it's been a while. Those treaties were a major driver of supercomputer development by the US DoE.


--- Quote ---- What sort of knowledge is necessary to continue maintaining the items? Is it conceivable that very few people really know how to confidently work on those things in the first place?
--- End quote ---
The physics packages are VERY specialized. (DoE has in the past lost information on how to work on one fusion design. That was a problem.) The rest of it, not so much.


--- Quote ---- Other than the explosives themselves, what other systems are necessary for a successful delivery of such a payload? Does the ground site have to be special in some way, does it have to have special equipment? How difficult to operate or maintain could this equipment be?
--- End quote ---
The rest of it is not special. Obviously an ICBM has its own skills needed, but the physics package doesn't make it any easier or harder to build one of those.

In the past, Soviet design tended to favor making bigger versions of crude, inefficient, reliable designs. So that suggests most warheads and delivery systems are probably quite functional. But the fanciest warheads will be the most complex and most subject to needing maintenance or periodic refresh. I imagine they have done these things, or why else would Mayak be so busy? It isn't every day you get to botch an order for a neutrino experiment source, and they have to stay busy....

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