Max Seddon reports from the fringes (one hopes) of Russian military theory:

One plan to destroy America goes something like this:

“Asymmetric megaweapons” bypass all anti-missile systems and deliver nuclear strikes deep in the Atlantic and Pacific. The explosions trigger gigantic tsunamis that ravage the East and West coasts. The seismic waves activate the long-dormant supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park, smothering the continental U.S. in layers of ash. Aftershocks trigger more tsunamis that wipe out Europe, for good measure.

I am passingly familiar with the Yellowstone Volcano meme but the mention of gigantic tsunamis rang a louder bell. I vaguely remembered that the Soviets had that idea in the 1950s and the early 1960s, that Andrei Sakharov had something to do with it, and that exploding non-nuclear charges in a lake showed its futility.

Apparently, there were two distinct but related Soviet projects involving a (thermo)nuclear attack on the East or West Coast. The first project was an attempted answer to the delivery problem: before long-range ballistic missiles were developed, Soviet planners sought alternatives to bomber planes as a means of bringing nuclear charges to the Lower 48. Submarine-based nuclear-bearing torpedoes were one speculative option. Later, in the early 1960s, the Soviets briefly toyed launching H-bombs from subs to create tsunamis. Neither concept worked.

According to Gennady Gorelik, a biographer of Sakharov,

…the idea of a giant nuclear torpedo to attack coastal targets appeared well before the Tsar Bomb [the 50-megaton H-bomb detonated on Novaya Zemlya in 1961] and even before the Flaky Pie [the first Soviet H-bomb] was tested, and it was not Sakharov’s idea: Stalin himself signed an order to that matter on September 9, 1952. The torpedo was codenamed T-15; it was about 25 meters long and weighed 40 tons.

As for Sakharov’s Tsar Torpedo [a project Sakharov writes about in his memoirs], the idea actually came from across the ocean. A US submarine commander who witnessed the Soviet “Tsar Blast” of 1961, suggested in a journal… that a charge like that might be used as a new kind of marine weaponry. A clipping from that journal made its way to Khruschev’s desk; he ordered “the ministers of medium machine-building [in charge of nuclear engineering] and of defense together with academician M.A. Lavrentiev” to look into the issue… The new type, a supertorpedo, was supposed to generate, as a result of an underwater superexplosion, a superwave (an artificial tsunami) capable of “washing off” [American] imperialism from the face of the Earth. Luckily for the Americans, research put an end to this hypothesis.

Where Soviet nuclear physicists and military engineers failed, it’s going to be Mission Impossible for the current Russian crop. Fortunately for all.


  1. At a guess, I’d say they don’t work because tsunamis are caused more by displacement than explosive energy input. I’ve seen a video of a huge wave crashing onto a shore because a small chunk of a nearby iceberg fell off; the waves created on a river when a ship is launched are huge; and one of the threats to the British Isles is a landslip in Tenerife IIRC.

    I think water transfers energy from an explosion well, hence the devastation of underwater explosions from depth charges. But explosive energy doesn’t cause tsunamis. The Boxing Day tsunami was caused by the sea floor lifting up something like 3 metres: displacement.

    • “…tsunamis are caused more by displacement than explosive energy input.” Thanks Tim. I’m also thinking of this in terms of energy carried by the wave. Apparently a medium-sized tsunami can release an equivalent of 600 megatons, a dozen Tsar bombs. Not quite impossible. But as you say, the explosive energy will have to be channeled so that the explosion leads to massive displacement of water, perhaps by breaking up an iceberg or by triggering an earthquake (not sure if that’s possible at all).

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