The B53 ‘Bunker Busting’ Thermonuclear Bomb

In the late 1950s the US military began development of a bomb capable of destroying deeply buried bunkers. The result was a bunker busting unguided thermonuclear bomb. Durng a visit to the Atomic Testing Museum, in Las Vegas, Matt had the chance to take a look at a decommissioned B53 up close.

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B53 on display at the Atomic Testing Museum (Matthew Moss)

The B53 is a two-stage high-yield thermonuclear weapon, designed as a bunker buster, that could deliver a massive shockwave deep underground to the deepest Soviet command and control bunkers. Developed between 1958 and 1961, the B53 was intended to combat deeply emplaced Soviet bunkers with a yield of 9 megatons. It used a highly enriched uranium core as its primary fission stage with Lithium-6 deuteride as its second stage fusion element. The warhead itself was developed from the earlier Mk46 warhead, the experimental TX-53 was tested at the Pacific Proving Grounds as part of Operation HARDTACK I, which saw no less than 35 nuclear test detonations. Codenamed HARDTAK OAK, the TX-53 was detonated aboard a floating barge on 28th June 1958, with a yield of 8.9 megatons. The detonation created a cloud 78,000 feet (23.8 km) tall.

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Cloud produced by HARDTACK OAK (Los Alamos National Laboratory Archive)

Designed to be dropped from the Strategic Air Command’s B-47, B-52 or B-58 bombers, the B53 is a gravity bomb which free fell to its target and could be air or surface detonated. The bomb itself weighed 8850 lbs or 4014kg and the casing is 12.5 feet long (3.8m) and just about 50in (1.27m) in diameter. The bomb’s outer-casing is split into a nose section, a two-piece central casing and the rear assembly with four fins which housed the parachute assembly. They were built by the Atomic Energy Commission between 1962 and 1965, over 340 bombs were built. Initially designated the Mk53 it was re-designated the B53 in 1968, when the US Air Force updated its ordnance nomenclature.

The bomb itself could be deployed in four ways: a delayed surface burst, a free fall air burst, a parachute retarded air burst (the B53 had five parachutes at the rear which can be deployed) or an immediate contact surface burst. Here we can see the panel to control the parachute deployment, with markings for safe, free fall and retard.

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Declassified general diagram showing the assemblies of the B53 (US DoD)

The B53 was obsolete in terms of its safety by the early 1980s with none of the more modern safety features such as an Enhanced Nuclear Detonation Safety (ENDS) additionally its explosive lens, consisting of a mix of RDX and TNT was not an insensitive munition – meaning it wasn’t designed to resist detonation from external stimuli or damage. The B53 also had no Fire-Resistant Pit (which prevents the spread of radioactive material in the event of a far), Permissive Action Link (which prevent unauthorised arming) or Command Disable safety measures.

B53 at the Pantex Plant in Texas about to begin the dismantling process (National Nuclear Security Administration)

Many of the B53s in US inventory were decommissioned in the mid-1980s, and by 1987 just 50 were retained in inventory. The last of these were disassembled and decommissioned by October 2011 – after being in service for 50 years. The B53 was replaced in its bunker busting role by the smaller B61 Mod 11.


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Bibliography:

Operation Hardtack I Fact Sheet, US Strategic Command Centre for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction, (source)

Operation Hardtack I 1958, US Defense Nuclear Agency, (source)

‘Scrapping the Unsafe Nuke’, Federation of American Scientists, (source)

Hardtack OAK footage courtesy of Atomicarchive

 

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