- Throughout the Cold War, the prospect of bombers dropping nuclear bombs and submarines launching nuclear-tipped missiles terrified people around the world.
- Those were the major delivery methods, but both militaries developed an array of smaller nuclear weapons for tactical use, and planners in those militaries gave very real consideration to using them.
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The Little Boy (15 kilotons) and Fat Man (21 kilotons) atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, remain the only nuclear weapons used in combat.
Those bombs destroyed the cities, killed or wounded hundreds of thousands of people, and left thousands more with long-term health problems. The carnage and destruction are the first things that come to mind when discussing nuclear weapons.
But nukes weren't just for destroying cities. Early in the Cold War, the tactical use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield was not only researched extensively but actually considered.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur wanted to use nuclear weapons in Korea, and the Eisenhower administration debated using them to help the French during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. During the Vietnam War, some in the US military considered using tactical nuclear weapons, especially when Khe Sanh came under siege.
Weapons fired from missile silos or submarines weren't always suited for such uses, and the array of other nuclear weapons developed during this period show how serious that consideration was.
Air-to-air missiles and rockets
In the early 1950s, large formations of nuclear-armed Soviet bombers approaching the US or Western Europe were seen as a very real threat.
As a result, the US created the AIR-2 Genie, an unguided air-to-air rocket with a 1.5-kiloton W25 nuclear warhead. The idea was to shoot one into the center of, or at least near, a Soviet bomber formation.
With a speed of Mach 3 and a blast radius of 1,000 feet, it would have been impossible to avoid, ensuring destruction from the blast or ensuing shockwave.
Up to 3,000 Genies were built after their introduction in 1957, seeing service with the US and Canadian air forces until the 1980s. In 1961, the AIM-26 Falcon, a .02-kiloton air-to-air missile, was introduced, before being retired from nuclear delivery in 1972.
The Soviet R-33, introduced in the 1980s, could carry nuclear warheads. Its Russian successor, the hypersonic R-37M, is in development and may be nuclear-capable.
The towed gun was based on large railway guns captured from the Germans during World War II, and it could fire nuclear or 280 mm conventional shells as far as 20 miles.
Within a few years, up to 20 were built and sent to US military bases in West Germany and South Korea. They were in service from 1953 to 1963, when smaller and cheaper conventional cannons that could still fire nuclear shells arrived.
In 1961, the M65s were joined by the Davy Crockett Nuclear Weapon System, a smoothbore recoilless rifle capable of shooting a .01- or .02-kiloton warhead. Its operators affectionately called the warhead the "atomic watermelon."
The rifles came in two versions: the "light" 120 mm (dubbed M-28) and "heavy" (dubbed M-29) 155 mm calibers. They were operated by three-man crews and mounted on jeeps and armored personnel carriers but could also be fired from a tripod.
They were deployed to Germany in the hope they could stop Soviet armor in the Fulda Gap. They were also sent to South Korea. However, they were hardly accurate, and the radiation was as a threat to the operators as well as the enemy - so much so that the Army recommended only firing them from elevated or entrenched positions. They were withdrawn by 1967 and were retired in 1971.
The Soviets built nuclear artillery as well. Four self-propelled 2A3 Kondensator howitzers were built in the late 1950s, but the program was canceled in 1960. The Soviets instead chose to focus on missile development. They did, however, continue to make conventional cannons capable of firing nuclear artillery shells.
Nuclear naval warfare
Perhaps nowhere were tactical nuclear weapons more practical than at sea. NATO and the Soviet Union both worried about large enemy fleets, and enemy nuclear-missile submarines were a massive threat, making their destruction of paramount importance.
Soviet anti-carrier plans called for as many as 100 bombers to strike a single carrier. Up to 80 would carry anti-ship missiles like the Kh-22 and Kh-55, some of which could be armed with nuclear warheads with yields ranging from 200 kilotons to 350 kilotons.
The anti-submarine weapons were particularly powerful. In 1962, the US Navy tested the RUR-5 ASROC system 426 miles west of San Diego. A 10-kiloton warhead was detonated some 600 feet underwater, creating a massive mushroom cloud and shaking the submarine USS Razorback (submerged more than 2 miles away) for 45 seconds.
Another system, the UUM-44 SUBROC, functioned similarly, but the missiles were launched from submarines underwater and had 250-kiloton thermonuclear warheads.
Soviet naval nuclear weaponry was just as intense. The RPK-1 Vikhr anti-submarine missile system launched missiles with 10-kiloton warheads, and some of its torpedoes had yields as high as 20 kilotons.
The P-700 Granit, a missile that could be launched from Soviet ships or submarines, could carry a massive 500-kiloton warhead.
The Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM) was small enough to fit into a large backpack but still had a yield of a kiloton. It was intended to be planted by small, specially trained teams that would set a time fuse before attempting to escape.
Mark Bentley, an Army veteran of the program, claimed someone had to stay to make sure the bomb wasn't compromised. "We all knew it was a one-way mission, a suicide mission," Bentley told the Green Bay Press Gazette in 2019.
But NATO commanders were convinced that the best way to even the playing field against the numerically superior Soviet and Warsaw Pact militaries was by whittling them down wherever possible.
One way to do that, it was believed, was by using SADM detonations to irradiate natural passageways like the Fulda Gap or valleys in the Alps, thereby funneling the Soviets into kill zones or toward more easily defended positions.
Special forces could also parachute behind enemy lines to detonate SADMs at airfields, power plants, bridges, rail yards, and ammo storage dumps, or swim to ports and coastal targets and set them off there.
Thankfully, they were never used. The Atomic Demolitions Munitions School closed in 1985, and by 1989 all SADMs were removed from service. A number of Soviet defectors claim the Soviet Union created similar devices and actually smuggled them into the US.