Bigeye bomb

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The BLU-80/B BIGEYE bomb was a developmental U.S. air-launched binary chemical weapon. The BIGEYE was a 500-pound class glide bomb intended to disperse the nerve agent VX, generated from non-lethal binary components only after aircraft release. It was designed under the auspices of the U.S. Navy as a safe chemical weapons alternative in response to chemical weapons (CW) threats from the USSR and other actors. BIGEYE was a tri-Service program with significant U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force participation. Initially approved in the 1950s, the program persisted into the early 1990s.

Background[edit]

As the stockpile of unitary (live agent) chemical weapons began to show troubling leakage, the Department of Defense (DoD) became acutely aware of the military personnel safety hazard and public backlash this created.[1] It is now known that the Soviets experienced the same if not worse leakage issues with their live agent weapons. With this in mind, the Pentagon insisted that it needed a binary chemical weapons program to counter and deter a Soviet or third-world chemical attack.[2] The U.S. Army Chemical Corps was reactivated in 1976, and with it came the increased desire to acquire a retaliatory chemical capability in the form of binary chemical weapons. Initially, the United States was in arms control talks with the Soviet Union, and then-President Jimmy Carter rejected Army requests for authorization of the binary chemical weapons program. The talks deteriorated, and Carter eventually granted the request.[3] However, at the last minute Carter pulled the provision from the budget. This action left the decision on a retaliatory binary chemical weapons option to the Ronald Reagan administration.

History[edit]

BIGEYE (an acronym for Binary Internally Generated chemical weapon within the "EYE" series of 500 pound canister weapons) was the common name for the BLU-80/B, a concept conceived during the late 1950s. During the 1970s at Pine Bluff Arsenal around 200 test articles were produced.[1] Initial production contracts for the BIGEYE were awarded in June, 1988, to The Marquardt Company of Van Nuys, CA, the project's prime contractor for most of the program. The original timeline for the U.S. binary chemical weapons program called for the BIGEYE to be deployed by September 1988.[4] President Reagan authorized the spending of more than $59 million in 1986 to revive the binary chemical weapons program. Under the original timeline, the BIGEYE was to be the second binary chemical weapon to be produced (the first being a binary artillery shell) with binary chemical agent rockets to follow. After a General Accounting Office (GAO) report pointed out numerous flaws in the program the U.S. Senate moved to effectively kill the binary chemical weapons program, including the BIGEYE bomb. In 1989 President George H.W. Bush announced that the U.S. would retain the option to produce such binary weapons. At the time of his announcement, 1992 was the earliest date BIGEYES were expected to be deployed.[2]

Specifications[edit]

The BIGEYE was an air-launched 500 pound-class canister weapon to be delivered by various USN and USAF aircraft [1] It consisted of two separate containers of non-lethal chemicals, stored separately and assembled only immediately before flight, and then combined to generate active chemical agent only after aircraft release. It was the storage separation of less aggressive chemical components that ensured safe storage/handling and simpler maintenance requirements.[1] The bomb was a U.S. Navy weapon design that would atomize the percutaneous nerve agent VX over a targeted area by releasing the binary-generated agent while gliding through the air over the target.[1][3] Inside the weapon, two compounds (non-lethal by themselves) were combined to create the chemical nerve agent VX only after aircraft release.

The BIGEYE bomb weighed 595 lb (270 kg); 180 lb (82 kg) and would have generated the chemical agent VX. It was to have a length of 7 ft 6 in (2.29 m) and a diameter of 13.25 in (337 mm). The glide bomb had a wingspan of 1 ft 5.25 in (438.1 mm). The BIGEYE was not planned to have any internal guidance, propulsion or autopilot systems (hence its "glide bomb" designation.) [5]

Problems and issues[edit]

The 25 year old plus, on again off again, BIGEYE bomb program was plagued with problems and controversy from its outset. Much of the controversy was based on inaccurate and uninformed analysis by the then Government Accountability Office (GAO). The Army Chemical Corps was accused of interest in binary chemical weapons only to enhance its recent reactivation; critics also charged the Army was opposed to arms control talks.[3] Also criticized was the entire idea of a modern American chemical weapons program.[3] Such a program, the argument went, would actually encourage others to develop chemical weapons, as opposed to acting as a deterrent.[2]

The testing, which had mixed results, presented its own set of problems. In 1987 the Navy and Air Force conducted 70+ tests, results which were unfairly characterized as "very inconsistent" by to the GAO.[4] Following a test suspension and subsequent significant design improvements, vastly better weapons function and reliability results were achieved. Problems the Navy encountered with the BIGEYE included excessive pressure build-up, questions about the lethality of the chemical mixture resulting from variable mix times, and overall reliability concerns.[4] Scientists debated the efficacy of the binary weapons program, especially since the BIGEYE had only been tested using simulants, despite the fact that extensive and highly representative kinetic and kinematic simulant tests were performed. This again confirmed GAO's lack of scientific/engineering understanding of the weapon concept/deployment strategy. Unfortunately, GAO's less than informed report led to speculation that binary weapons might be inferior to those of the unitary weapons they were intended to replace despite their inherent safety for US military personnel. The GAO repeatedly backed these assertions without engineering substantiation, maintaining that the BIGEYE was not adequately tested and that it had encountered major technical issues. While the program did encounter major technical issues, the Navy with its USAF and USA partners successfully resolved all of the legitimate engineering issues and developed highly effective mission profiles for the weapon.

In the end, the BLU-80/B BIGEYE binary chemical weapon may well have been the tipping point in chemical weapons disarmament talks with the then USSR, as the Soviets agreed to significant chemical weapons disarmament agreements immediately after successful operational test results of the BIGEYE resulting from improvements implemented by the U.S. Navy's Naval Air Weapons Center, China Lake.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Croddy, Eric and Wirtz, James J. Weapons of Mass Destruction: An Encyclopedia of Worldwide Policy, Technology, and History, (Google Books), ABC-CLIO, 2005, p. 40–42, (ISBN 1851094903), accessed November 11, 2008.
  2. ^ a b c Gordon, Michael R. "Bush Keeping Chemical Arms Option", The New York Times, October 15, 1989, accessed November 11, 2008.
  3. ^ a b c d Mauroni, Albert J. Chemical and Biological Warfare: A Reference Handbook, (Google Books), ABC-CLIO, 2003, p. 38–39, (ISBN 1851094822).
  4. ^ a b c Mauroni, Albert J. Chemical Demilitarization: Public Policy Aspects, (Google Books), Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003, p. 109, (ISBN 027597796X,).
  5. ^ "BLU-80/B Bigeye", Federation of American Scientists, updated February 5, 1998, accessed November 11, 2008.