WMD Weapons of Mass Destruction Visual Chronology


Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.Although the term WMD has become a part of our daily lexicon, it remains very much an abstraction for most of us. This series of images offers a retrospective look at some of these weapons. Most subjects are drawn from the Cold War period during which there was a very real threat to the survival of civilization itself. The last sixty years has seen a frenzied tango between strategy and technology that has left us with a chilling array of doomsday machines…

“The Gadget” (Trinity Atomic Bomb) 1945

gadget atomic bomb

The “gadget” was the code-name given to the first nuclear explosive developed under the Manhattan Project during World War II, which was tested at the Trinity test site on July 16, 1945. It was so called because it was not a deployable weapon, and because revealing words like “bomb” were not used during the project for fear of espionage. It was an implosion-type plutonium device, similar in design to the “Fat Man” bomb used three weeks later in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan.

Bombing of Hiroshima

“Little Boy” (Hiroshima Atomic Bomb) 1945


Little Boy” was the codename of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets of the 393d Bombardment Squadron, Heavy, of the United States Army Air Forces. It was the first atomic bomb to be used as a weapon. The second, the “Fat Man,” was dropped three days later on Nagasaki.

“Bockscar” (Nagasaki B-29 Bomber) 1945

bockscar bomber

Bockscar, sometimes called Bock’s Car or Bocks Car, is the name of the United States Army Air Force‘s B-29 bomber that dropped the “Fat Mannuclear weapon over Nagasaki on August 9th,1945, the second atomic weapon used against Japan. The name painted on the aircraft after the mission is a pun on “boxcar,” after the name of its aircraft commander, Captain Frederick C. Bock.

Bombing of Nagasaki

“Fat Man” (Nagasaki Atomic Bomb) 1945

Fat Man” is the codename for the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States on August 9, 1945, at 10:47 PM (JSP). It was the second of the only two nuclear weapons to be used in warfare to date, and its detonation caused the third man-made nuclear explosion. The name also refers more generically to the early nuclear weapon designs of U.S. weapons based on the “Fat Man” model. It was an implosion-type weapon with a plutonium core, similar to the Trinity device tested only a month earlier in New Mexico.

B-36 Strategic Bomber 1948

B-36 Bomb Bay 1948

The Convair B-36 “Peacemaker” was a strategic bomber built by Convair and operated solely by the United States Air Force (USAF) from 1949 to 1959. The B-36 was the largest mass-produced piston engine aircraft ever made. It had the longest wingspan of any combat aircraft ever built (230 ft or 70 m), although there have been larger military transports. The B-36 was the first bomber capable of delivering nuclear weapons that fit inside the bomb bay without aircraft modifications. With a range greater than 6,000 mi (9,700 km) and a maximum payload of 72,000 lb (33,000 kg), the B-36 was the first operational bomber with an intercontinental range. This set the standard for subsequent USAF long range bombers, such as the B-47 Stratojet, B-52 Stratofortress, B-1 Lancer, and B-2 Spirit.

Mk-6 Atomic Bomb 1951

The Mark 6 nuclear bomb was an American nuclear bomb based on the earlier Mark 4 nuclear bomb and its predecessor, the Mark 3 Fat Man nuclear bomb design. The Mark 6 was produced from 1951-1955 and saw service until 1962. Seven variants and versions were produced, with a total production run of all models of 1100 bombs. The basic Mark 6 design was 61 inches in diameter and 128 inches long, the same basic dimensions as the Mark 4 and close to the Mark 3. Various models weighed 7,600 to 8,500 pounds. Early models of the Mark 6 utilized the same 32-point implosion system design concept as the earlier Mark 4 and Mark 3; the Mark 6 Mod 2 and later used a different, 60-point implosion system. Various models and pit options gave nuclear yields of 8, 26, 80, 154, and 160 kilotons for Mark 6 models.

M65 280mm Atomic Cannon 1951

The M65 Atomic Cannon, often called Atomic Annie, was a towed artillery piece built by the United States and capable of firing a nuclear device. It was developed in the early 1950s and fielded by 1953 in the European and Korean theaters.

B-47 Strategic Bomber 1951

The Boeing Model 450 B-47 Stratojet was a medium-range and medium-size jet bomber capable of flying at high subsonic speeds and primarily designed for penetrating the airspace of the Soviet Union. A major innovation in post-World War II combat jet design, it helped lead to the development of modern jet airliners. Although the B-47 never saw major combat use, it served the United States Air Force from 1951 through 1969 and was a mainstay of the U.S. Air Force‘s Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Mk-17 Thermonuclear Bomb 1954

The Mark 17 and Mark 24 were the first mass-produced hydrogen bombs deployed by the United States. The two differed in their “primary” stages. The MK 17/24 bombs were 24 feet 8 inches (7.52 m) long, 61.4 inches (1.56 m) diameter. They weighed 21 tons. The two weapons had yields in the range of 15 megaton TNT equivalent. Total production of Mk 17s was 200, and there were 105 Mk 24s produced, all between October 1954 and November 1955.

B-52 Strategic Bomber 1955

The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress is a long-range, subsonic, jet-powered strategic bomber operated by the United States Air Force (USAF) since 1955. Beginning with the successful contract bid on 5 June 1946, the B-52 design evolved from a straight-wing aircraft powered by six turboprop engines to the final prototype YB-52 with eight turbojet engines. The aircraft first flew on April 15th, 1952 with “Tex” Johnston as pilot. Built to carry nuclear weapons for Cold War-era deterrence missions, the B-52 Stratofortress replaced the Convair B-36. Although a veteran of a number of wars, the Stratofortress has dropped only conventional munitions in combat. The B-52 carries up to 70,000 pounds (32,000 kg) of weapons. The USAF has possessed B-52s in active service since 1955. The bombers flew under the Strategic Air Command until SAC was disestablished in 1992 and its aircraft absorbed into the Air Combat Command (ACC). This remained the case until February 2010 when it became part of Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC). Superior performance at high subsonic speeds and relatively low operating costs have kept the B-52 in service despite the advent of later aircraft, including the Mach-3 XB-70 Valkyrie, the supersonic B-1B Lancer, and the B-2 Spirit. 2005 marked the B-52’s fiftieth anniversary of continuous service with its original primary operator. (Others in this class are the English Electric Canberra, the Tupolev Tu-95, the C-130 Hercules, the KC-135 Stratotanker, and the Lockheed U-2)

Atlas-D ICBM 1959

The SM-65 Atlas was a missile designed by the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division and built by the Convair Division of General Dynamics. Originally designed as an ICBM in the late 1950s, Atlas was the foundation for a family of successful space launch vehicles now built by United Launch Alliance. The Atlas rocket family is today used as a launch platform for commercial and military satellites, and other space vehicles.

Blast Door, Minuteman II ICBM Control Bunker 1965

An ICBM launch facility (LF) is an underground vertical cylindrical container for the storage and launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). They typically have the missile some distance under the surface, protected by a large “blast door” on top. They are usually connected, either physically or electrically, to a launch control center. ICBM Launch facilities are synonymous with the term missile silo, used in common nomenclature.

Minuteman II ICBM Control Bunker 1965

The US Atlas missile used four basing schemes. The first were vertical, above-ground launchers at Vandenberg AFB, California. The second was stored horizontally in a warehouse- / shed- like structure with a retractable roof at F. E. Warren AFB, WY. The third was somewhat better protected, stored horizontally in a concrete building known as “coffins,” then raised to the vertical shortly before launch. These rather poorly protected systems were a side effect of the cryogenic liquid fuels used, which required the missiles to stand empty and then be fueled immediately prior to launch. The fourth version of the Atlas ICBM (the Atlas F) were stored vertically in underground silos.

Commander’s Station, Minuteman II Bunker 1965

The Atlas was fueled in the silo and then had to be raised to the surface for launch. It could not be launched from within the silo. The Titan I missile used a similar silo basing scheme to the Atlas F. Things changed with the introduction of the Soviet UR-100 and the US Titan II missile series. Both used new liquid fuels that could be stored in the missiles, thereby allowing for rapid launch. Both systems were then moved to the silo system. The introduction of solid fuel systems in the later 1960s made this even easier.

Deputy Commander’s Station, Minuteman II Bunker 1965

The silo has remained the primary basing system for land based missiles since that time. However, the increased accuracy of inertial guidance systems has since rendered them somewhat less protected than they were in the 1960s. The US spent considerable effort in the 1970s and 1980s designing a replacement, but none of the complex systems were ever produced. China, the USSR and the US all developed mobile ICBMs.

USS Lewis and Clark Ballistic Missile Submarine 1965

USS Lewis and Clark (SSBN-644), a Benjamin Franklin-class ballistic missile submarine, was the first ship of the United States Navy to be named for the explorers Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838), who carried out the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806. The contract to construct Lewis and Clark was awarded on 1 November 1962, and her keel was laid down by Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company at Newport News, Virginia, on July 29th, 1963. She was launched on the 21st of November, 1964, sponsored by Mrs. M. F. Engman and Mrs. M. G. Sale, and commissioned in December of 1965 with Commander John F. Fagan, Jr. in command of the Blue Crew and Commander Kenneth A. Porter in command of the Gold Crew.

Inertial Guidance Module, Peacekeeper (MX) ICBM 1986

Peacekeeper production began in February 1984. Under plans prepared by Strategic Air Command, 50 Minuteman IIIs assigned to the 400th Strategic Missile Squadron, 90th Strategic Missile Wing, F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, were removed and replaced with Peacekeeper missiles, which had an estimated service life of twenty years. Peacekeeper deployment was scheduled to begin in January 1986 and initial operational capability was set for December of the same year. The second increment of 50 missiles would replace Minuteman IIIs belonging to the 319th Strategic Missile Squadron at F.E. Warren. The expected completion date of the deployment was December 1989.

B-1B Strategic Bomber 1986

The Rockwell (now part of Boeing) B-1 Lancer is a strategic bomber used by the United States Air Force. First envisioned in the 1960s as a supersonic bomber with sufficient range and payload to replace the B-52 Stratofortress, it developed primarily into a low-level penetrator with long-range and supersonic speed capability. Its development was stopped and restarted multiple times over its history, as the theory of strategic balance changed from flexible response to mutually assured destruction and back again. It eventually entered service more than 20 years after first being studied. The B-1B production version has been in service with the United States Air Force (USAF) since 1986. The Lancer serves as the supersonic component of the USAF’s long-range bomber force, along with the subsonic B-52 and B-2 Spirit. The bomber is commonly called the “Bone” (originally from “B-One”). With the retirement of the EF-111 Raven in 1998 and the F-14 Tomcat in 2006, the B-1B is the U.S. military’s only active variable-sweep wing aircraft.

Midgetman ICBM Hardened Mobile Launcher 1988

The MGM-134A Midgetman, formally designated as the Small Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (SICBM), was an intercontinental ballistic missile developed by the United States of America. The Midgetman grew out of a requirement expressed in the mid 1980s by the US Air Force for a small ICBM which could be deployed from road vehicles. Fixed silos are inherently vulnerable to attack, and with the increasing accuracy of submarine launched ballistic missiles there was a growing threat that the Soviet Union could launch large numbers of missiles from off the coast, destroying most of the US ICBM force before it could be used. By producing a mobile missile which could not easily be targeted by enemy forces, the Air Force hoped to negate this possibility. It was also a response to the Soviet development of SS-24 (rail mobile) and the SS-25 (road mobile) ICBMs.

B-2 Strategic Bomber 1989

The Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit (also known as the Stealth Bomber) is an American heavy bomber with “low observable” stealth technology designed to penetrate dense anti-aircraft defenses and deploy both conventional and nuclear weapons. Because of its considerable capital and operational costs, the project was controversial in Congress and among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Congress slashed initial plans to purchase 132 bombers to just 21.

The cost of each aircraft averaged US$737 million in 1997 dollars. Total procurement costs averaged US$929 million per aircraft, which includes spare parts, equipment, retrofitting, and software support. The total program cost, which includes development, engineering and testing, averaged US$2.1 billion per aircraft (in 1997 dollars).

Twenty B-2s are operated by the United States Air Force. Though originally designed in the 1980s for Cold War operations scenarios, B-2s were first used in combat to drop bombs on Serbia during the Kosovo War in 1999, and saw continued use during the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One aircraft was lost when it crashed on takeoff in 2008.

The bomber has a crew of two and can drop up to 80 x 500 lb (230 kg)-class JDAM GPS-guided bombs, or 16 x 2,400 lb (1,100 kg) B83 nuclear bombs in a single pass through extremely dense anti-aircraft defenses. The B-2 is the only aircraft that can carry large air to surface standoff weapons in a stealth configuration. The program has been the subject of espionage and counter-espionage activity and the B-2 has provided prominent public spectacles at air shows since the 1990s.

Photos by Martin Miller

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