Leave it to Russia to design a nuclear weapon that would kill more people than ever before. The Tsar Bomba was the biggest nuclear device ever built – 50 megatons or the equivalent of 50-million tons of TNT. Had it been targeted at New York City it could have killed millions of people in the metro area and the devastation could reach other states. By comparison, the largest nuclear weapon possessed by the United States at the time – the B53 – could only manage a yield of nine megatons. This Tsar Bomba, the king of bombs, was clearly a device of epic proportions – thousands of times the killing power of the devices dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Cold War Was Hot with Nuclear Devices
Made at a critical point during the Cold War beginning in 1956 and lasting until 1961, in the days of Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Nikita Khrushchev, the Tsar Bomba was tested in 1961 and it set the world on edge. Take a quick look at this thing’s size. The device weighed 60,000 pounds. It was 26-feet long and nearly seven feet in diameter. Nothing like that could fit in an airplane’s bomb bay. It took a specially-made bomber to carry it.
The Test of the Tsar Bomba
The October 1961 test itself was incredibly shocking. A train had to carry it to the airbase. Then a reconfigured Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber flying at 34,000 feet dropped it near Mityushikha Bay on Severny Island in the Arctic. Tsar Bomba had a parachute to allow it to slowly float down to the detonation point at 13,000 feet.
It Blew Everything Away
The National World War Two Museum wrote a profile of the test in a description that was unbelievable. When the blast started it created a mushroom cloud that witnesses spotted nearly 100-miles away. The cloud was 40-miles high into the stratosphere. The blast radius was 150-miles to easily eliminate all life, according to the Museum. The fallout was recorded as far away as Scandinavia. Seismometers revealed a blast equivalent to a category five earthquake.
The Test Created Noteworthy Names
The pilot of the Tu-95 bomber, Andrei Durnovtsev, was made a Hero of the Soviet Union after the test because the crew was given a 50-50 chance of surviving. Future Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov played a substantial role in the development of Tsar Bomba. The device, known as a hydrogen aerial bomb, was based on “not only the energy from fission but also secondary fusion, which makes the explosion much stronger,” according to Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty.
Could There Have Been Something Bigger?
Khrushchev wanted even more thermonuclear development after the Tsar Bomba test. He ordered more bomb evaluations – 79 additional tests. The Soviets even thought they could make a device bigger than the Tsar Bomba.
Thankfully the Soviets figured out that the Tsar Bomba was impractical. The Tu-95 would have flown too slow and risked alerting radar detection making it an easy target for NATO air defenses. It couldn’t be lifted from an intercontinental ballistic missile or launched from a submarine.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw the folly of a thermonuclear arms race, even though Khrushchev clearly wanted a nuclear advantage. But Andrei Sakharov was frightened about all these tests that both sides embarked upon. Cooler heads eventually prevailed and the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of August 5, 1963, was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain. Tsar Bomba had ushered in an era that was not to be repeated.
Meet the Tu-95: The Bomber That Dropped the Tsar Bomba
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.