Military boffins and their scary new bang sticks

Category: General bloggery

So I was both disturbed and fascinated by this BBC story about a new gun the US military has rolled out. Mostly fascinated, I’ll admit.

I have a kind of nerdy obsession with things like this – I used to spend hours on a site run by the Federation of American Scientists, which details all sorts of nasty goings on in the military world (the FAS was set up by scientists from the Manhattan Project, who invented the nuclear bomb. They felt they’d been manipulated and set up an organization to monitor government use of science. Anyway…). So this story was a natural for my liberal side to tsk over – and my techy side to drool at.

Basically, it’s about a gun that measures its distance to target, then sets a timer on explosive bullets so that they go off above or behind people who are, say, hiding behind a wall.

Funnily enough, I always thought one of these would be handy when playing MW2 on the Playstation. That’s not me claiming I invented the thing, by the way – just that I invented in my head. You can’t sit on these things, is what I’m saying. My brother, for example, once came up with the concept of an REM alarm clock that would wake you when you were at your most alert (even if that was a little before your alarm time) so you would leap out of bed feeling refreshed rather than groggy. Now it’s one of the most popular paid iPhone apps.

It pays to get in there quickly, huh.

Anyway, on that note – and in reaction to the story about the fancy new bang stick – I thought I’d ramble on about some disturbing military / techy developments that I reckon will be imposing themselves on us within our lifetimes. So, with the quick disclaimer that I think war is disgusting, here are two enthusiastic predictions for the future of EvilTech:

Low-yield nukes. The gun in the BBC story is part of a trend to pack more punch into a smaller space. That thing looks like it would have a magazine of about ten exploding bullets, for example, and you can guarantee that military types are working on making smaller, more powerful shells, so that soldiers can carry around more bang in a smaller package. But what happens when you take that idea to the extreme end of the spectrum?

You get something called low yield nukes.

At high school we were taught that a nuclear explosion only occurs in fissile material if there is a critical mass – around 11 kilograms of Plutonium 239 will do it (that’s what all the fuss is about with North Korea, Iran et al – you beg borrow or steal two halves of a critical nuclear mass, work out a way to slap them together, deliver the whole schebang inside a rocket, and hey presto – you’re in the N club). But this rule about critical mass turns out to be breakable: if you take a sub-critical mass of plutonium – ie, less than 11kg. Possibly a lot less – and compress the living bejesus out of it by setting off explosions all around, it compacts and goes critical with an enormous-yet-more-manageable whumpf.

So what? Well, the idea is that if you can squeeze this sort of arrangement into an artillery shell, you could blow up a city block, but leave the rest standing.

And if you could squeeze it into bullet – then you could blow up a tank with a pistol.

It sounds ridiculous, right, but nano-tech is making things like this possible, and believe you me, there are people out there who are very, very keen to start testing. Recent attempts to make a low-yield nuclear “bunker-busting” bomb (after the Tora Bora incident at the beginning of the Afghan war) were only halted because, hey, there are actual proper treaties that the US has signed banning this kind of carry-on. They’ll keep trying though.

Anyway, let’s get nerdier and talk about anti-matter.

The other possible way to make high-yield micro explosions has been discussed in sci-fi books by Ian M Banks. In his Contact novels Banks sometimes talks about A/M missiles, which are anti-matter / matter explosives.

Its been long known that when an atom of matter meets an atom of anti-matter they annihilate in a very, very strong release of energy, but recent developments at the Cern Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator make this more real-world feasible.

Basically, storing anti-matter atoms is tricky, as you can imagine, because any time an anti-matter atom touches anything from our ‘real’ normal-matter universe it’s destroyed with a bang. But now the folks at Cern have been able to create and store antimatter particles using very strong magnetic fields as “bottles”.

Now, think for a moment like an evil old general who cares only about blowing people up, and just imagine what you could do if you could nano-tech that magnetic technology into something the size of – again –a bullet.

The gun would go off – the bullet fly out – it would hit its target, and the magnetic field holding the antimatter particles inside their “bottle” would smash open, letting out one hell of a destructive genie – the anti-matter would cause a massive explosion from just a few atoms.

So if and when that kind of technology gets perfected, you’ve then got a world where people could blow up a skyscraper with something as small and concealable as a pistol. Which is a nasty kind of thought.

Luckily all this is – currently – just sci-fi malarky. But it’s feasible malarky – and I think it will happen in our lifetime. So long as no one points the weird looking contraption above in our direction.


  1. Hi Greg, I think the CERN / antimatter weapon idea was exploited in Angels&Demons by Dan Brown (yeah I admit I actually read it…). As you said, it pays to get in there quickly… but on the bright side, looks like you have some potential bestseller ideas on that blog :)

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