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Better luck next time Blofeld! Five Bond plot myths busted

What do you mean, 'why don't we just nuke them, boss?'

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The Jet Pack

James Bond arrived late to the jetpack party. The 1966 Bell-Textron rocket belt used in Thunderball (and which popped up again in Die Another Day) has an ancestry that is, in high-tech terms, ancient. The cover of the August 1928 edition of Amazing Stories magazine depicted a character using a very similar device to slip the surly bonds of Earth.

The Jet Pack International pack: Fuel will run out in thirty seconds and counting

That device, though, is powered by some mad science from the fertile imagination of E E ‘Doc’ Smith. The first ‘real world’ jet packs came a little later when those freewheeling loons the Nazis dreamed up the Himmelstürmer flightpack in 1944.

It enabled the user to undertake short, trouser-burning hops over minefields or other obstructions rather than actually fly. Like a lot of Nazi scientific developments the Himmelstürmer was scooped up by the US as part of Operation Paperclip at the end of WW2 and added to America’s Cold War arsenal. Frankly, it wasn’t a whole lot of use and despite numerous attempts to develop more sophisticated versions the jet pack seemed doomed to remain a footnote in aviation.

But you can’t keep a good idea down. In sci-fi the jet pack never went away. And of course where sci-fi leads, savvy entrepreneurs follow. Jet Pack International builds a 800 horsepower piece of kit that updates the clunky Thunderball job. Jet Pack International’s device is a hydrogen peroxide fuelled model it claims is faster than any similar device: rated to carry an 180lb pilot at speeds of up to 80mph. Tested with a speed gun at Knockhill Racing Circuit in 2009 the pack secured the official world jetpack speed record by flying at 68mph.

Jet Pack International tends to demonstrate its device at air shows and film premieres. The company’s performance pilot Nick Macomber used one to fly the Olympic flame past the National Space Centre in Leicester in the run-up to this summer’s Olympics.

OK, so the technology is there in theory, but is it practical? The Jet Pack International machine has a flight time of about 20 to 30 seconds and you get to cover a quarter of a mile. In theory, that might be fine for a short hop up and over the wall of a Chateau but not much else. Also, it’s not like Bond could leap into one and take off without special training, says Troy Widgery, founder of Jet Pack International’s parent company Go Fast.

Widgery told the Register: “There are only maybe a dozen people qualified to fly one of these things right now. There are more people that have walked on the Moon. I’d say you would need in the region of fifty hours training before we signed you off to fly one of our jet packs solo.”

An ordinary pilot's licence is easier to get, and probably a lot more useful. With that in mind, you might be better off buying a small helicopter: the Robinson R2 comes at half the price, around $100,000. If you really do prefer the rush of the wind in your hair with your vertical take off, though, then Gen H-4 mini helicopter might be more your thing. This was offered at a mere $59,000 and could fly for an hour as opposed to the jetpack's rather useless 30 seconds. Alas, it's no longer available - but Q branch could doubtless whip one up in short order, or a Little Nellie style autogyro (as seen in You Only Live Twice) can easily be obtained and might be better for some missions.

But Jetpacks? Largely useless. Must do better, Q.

The Hungry Boat

The Spy Who Loved Me, with Moonraker, owes the least to the novel from which it takes its name. In that sense it’s one of the “purest” Bond adaptations – all film and little Fleming.

In The Spy Who Loved Me, megalomaniac aquarium enthusiast Karl Stromberg manages to unobtrusively modify a gigantic supertanker – the Liparus - to swallow entire ballistic missile submarines whole. His goal is to steal NATO and Soviet subs, triggering a war as each side suspects the other of a nuclear attack. While such a war might sound far-fetched, the idea of the Liparus is not quite so crazy - at least as far as size goes.

(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. TM Danjaq, LLC. All Rights Reserved

The hard bit was finding the totally un-findable submarines

The largest oil tanker ever built was the Seawise Giant, also known under various other names. Fabricated in 1979 by Sumitomo Heavy Industries at the Oppama shipyard in Japan it was, after some last-minute modifications, 458m in length with a draft of nearly 25m. By just length and size you might fit in as many as eight smallish ballistic missile submarines such as the Soviet 658 type (known to NATO as "Hotel class", famously featured in the movie K-19: The Widowmaker). You might conceivably cram in as many as four enormous 941 type Akula ("Shark") boats ("Typhoon class" to NATO: as seen in The Hunt for Red October). There would be potential stability issues with bow doors open and a large inner compartment flooded, but that’s not the tricky part.

First you need to find your missile sub. People don't put nuclear missiles on submarines at great expense for fun or because it's cool. They do it for just one reason: it makes the missiles just about impossible to locate, and thus just about impossible to take out with a pre-emptive strike. British and American attack subs did achieve a good deal of secret success during the Cold War by picking up Soviet boats as they left port and trailing them from very close range, but Stromberg didn't need any of that. He could apparently find a patrolling missile sub - even a quiet British one as opposed to a noisy Soviet - at will. He could probably have used this amazing ability to destabilise the balance of terror and trigger a nuclear war right off, without faffing around with any supertanker.

Not content with having done this, Mr Stromberg then moves on to further feats: starting by persuading two highly-trained naval crews, charged with a major part (or all, in the case of the Brits) of their nation's operational strategic nuclear deterrent, to surface and sit still for long enough for a slow-moving and far from nimble supertanker to line up and do all the fancy bow door engobblement part.

In the film, this paralysis is achieved by some sort of ECM/EMP device that disables the submarine’s command and control systems and forces it to the surface. Could such a marvel exist?

The Register spoke to a former Royal Navy marine engineer officer who served in two Polaris ballistic missile submarines and one Swiftsure class attack boat at the height of the Cold War. If anyone knows about mid-70s submarine technology, it’s him. We asked our expert – we are forbidden to name him by the Official Secrets Act – whether there was anything that could force a sub to the surface without breaking it.

“I struggle to see how an external source could prevent the crew of a submarine from using the steering, diving and propulsion controls manually to escape from the gigantic submarine-eating tanker,” our mariner said, “especially when that movie was made - submarines in those days didn't use digital computers at all!”

Transmitting any electronic signal through water would require ridiculous enormous amounts of energy even at very short range. Certain very low radio frequencies will reach round the world and penetrate water to shallow depths, but they can't carry enough power to do more than communicate with a sub - as opposed to interfere with it. Again, Stromberg has at a stroke achieved a world-shaking scientific and engineering breakthrough here.

The actual gulper-ship by comparison is a trivial matter. Floating dock ships certainly do work. They were invented during WWII to carry landing craft long distances; the British used two, Fearless and Intrepid, during the Falklands War in 1982. The modern civilian equivalent is the ships used to transport large floating objects, such as bits of oil rigs or warships that have carelessly run aground and wiped off their propellers.

These sealift vessels have a flat deck which is underwater when the ship floods down; the ship to be carried is floated into position above it and the carrier ship is then pumped out to come up under its cargo and lift it out of the water - all a bit conspicuous for a master criminal trying to twock a submarine.

However, flooding down when stopped to load or unload a vessel in sheltered waters is a very different prospect from a moving super tanker in open waters gulping down a stationary 8,000 ton submarine (or maybe 24,000 ton if we're talking about a Typhoon, though admittedly these weren't at sea until the '80s).

“The challenge of building a ship large enough without internal bulkheads to stow three objects 400 feet long, 35 feet wide and 55 feet high without collapsing under its own weight, let alone withstanding the stresses of a ship at sea, would I think defeat the finest modern engineering minds,” our informant says.

Back to the drawing board, Stromberg.

The Floating Bomb

In The World Is Not Enough the supervillain Renard, played by Begbie Robert Carlyle, and Sophie Marceau’s Elektra King somehow get the idea that introducing a sufficient quantity of weapons grade plutonium into the reactor of a Russian submarine will induce it to explode. The idea in the film is to use the submarine's destruction to make the Bosphorus radioactive, cutting off global oil supplies via any other route than the pipeline owned by King’s company.

To use plutonium as a weapon, you normally force it together almost instantaneously using conventional explosive until the critical mass is so compact that the neutrons it is peppering itself with can cause an extremely fast runaway chain reaction - so fast that huge, cataclysmic amounts of energy are liberated before the mass has a chance to melt or otherwise spread itself out. Then there’s a colossal explosion: this is how a 1950s-vintage atom bomb works.

Alternatively you can use an ordinary chemical explosion to scatter radioactive material far and wide, contaminating and poisoning everything within a radius dependent on factors like wind and rain - the so-called “dirty bomb.” Unfortunately the dirty bomb idea is largely bollocks - such a device could never put any significant piece of territory off limits for any serious amount of time - so you need a proper nuclear detonation, to really mess a place up and contaminate it.

Our former naval man explains the unfeasibility of the submarine-bomb method. Getting the plutonium into a submarine's reactor is a major engineering operation that would involve cutting a huge hole in the submarine's hull, a hull that is made of several inches of especially toughened steel.

Next you must lift off the lid of the reactor, which weighs around 50 tons. This is a job normally done only after about three months with the reactor shut down and the submarine inactive in a secure, well-equipped naval base to allow for dismantling without the residual heat from fission product decay melting the reactor fuel and causing a much more localised release of radiation.

After all that you must find space for some plutonium and re-assemble the lot before the reactor and its new fuel start up themselves and began an uncontrolled reaction. To create a problem with implications beyond the submarine's immediate vicinity - ie, a bomb-style explosion - you would need to somehow ram the whole reactor core down into a subcritical mass in a tiny fraction of a second, the way a warhead does.

The resulting instant blast, not to mention the likely fatal radiation doses sustained beforehand in pulling the reactor to bits by hand and furtling about in its guts, “might spoil even the most dedicated suicide bomber's day,” our former naval man tells us. So, again, not terribly feasible. One does note that the 671RTM Shchuka type ("Pike" class, "Victor III" to NATO, the sub specified in the movie) were equipped to carry certain nuclear-tipped weapons, potentially offering Renard a much simpler way forward (though removing any need to burgle plutonium out of old weapons silos ashore beforehand). However given The World Is Not Enough's post-Soviet, post-various-treaties setting, these would probably no longer be present.

Scratch off another one!

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