The Little Boy (15 kilotons) and Fat Man (21 kilotons) atomic bombs, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively, remain to this day the only nuclear weapons to have been used in combat. These bombs destroyed cities, killed or injured hundreds of thousands of people, and caused long-term health problems for thousands more. Carnage and destruction are the first things that come to mind when it comes to nuclear weapons.
But nuclear bombs have not only been used to destroy cities. At the start of the Cold War, the tactical (small-scale) use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield was not only well researched, but also considered.
US General Douglas MacArthur wanted to use nuclear weapons in Korea, and the Eisenhower administration debated their use to aid the French during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. During the Vietnam War, some members of the US military considered using tactical nuclear weapons, especially when Khe Sanh was under siege.
Weapons fired from missile silos or submarines were not always suitable for such uses, being more designed for wholesale destruction, and the panoply of other nuclear weapons developed during this period shows how seriously this possibility was taken.
Air-to-air missiles and rockets
In the early 1950s, the large formations of Soviet nuclear bombers approaching the United States or Western Europe were seen as a major threat.As a result, the United States 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 in the centre, or at least near a formation of Soviet bombers. With a speed of Mach 3 and an explosion radius of over 300 meters, it would have been impossible to avoid, ensuring destruction by the blast or shock wave that would ensue.
Up to 3,000 Genies were built after their introduction in 1957, and served in the US and Canadian Air Forces until the 1980s. In 1961, the Falcon AIM-26, a 0.02 kiloton air-to-air missile, was introduced, before being withdrawn from nuclear delivery service in 1972.
The Soviet R-33, introduced in the 1980s, could carry nuclear warheads. Its Russian successor, the hypersonic R-37M, is under development and could be equipped with nuclear capability.
In 1953, the US military tested the M65 atomic gun at the Nevada test site. Nicknamed 'Atomic Annie,' the atomic cannon fired a 15 kiloton nuclear shell, which exploded at a distance of 11 kilometres. The towed gun was based on the large railway guns captured from the Germans during World War II, and it could fire 280mm nuclear or conventional shells up to a distance of 32 kilometres. Its sheer size was necessary, as any atomic weapon requires the user to fire it further than the blast wave's radius. The more powerful the bomb, the more powerful the cannon needs to be.
In a few years, up to 20 examples were built and sent to US military bases in West Germany and South Korea. They were in service from 1953 to 1963, when smaller, cheaper conventional guns arrived that could still fire nuclear shells.
The Davy-Crockett Nuclear Weapons System, a recoilless rifle
In 1961, the M65s were joined by the Davy Crockett Nuclear Weapons System, a smooth bore recoilless rifle capable of firing a 0.01 or 0.02 kiloton warhead. Its operators affectionately called the warhead 'atomic watermelon.'
The guns were available in two versions: the 'light' 120mm (called M-28) and 'heavy' (called M-29) 155mm calibres. They were used 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 of stopping Soviet tanks in the Fulda breach. They were also sent to South Korea. They were not very accurate, however, and the radiation posed a threat to both operators and the enemy - so much so that the army recommended that they only be fired from high or entrenched positions. They were retired in 1967 before being scrapped in 1971.
The Soviets also developed nuclear artillery. Four 2A3 Kondensator self-propelled howitzers were built in the late 1950s, but the program was cancelled in 1960. Instead, the Soviets chose to focus on missile development. However, they continued to manufacture conventional guns capable of firing nuclear artillery shells, instead of fully making the switch to missiles and self-powered devices.
Nuclear naval war
Tactical nuclear weapons could have been most practical at sea. Both NATO and the Soviet Union were concerned about large enemy fleets, and enemy nuclear missile submarines posed a massive threat, making their destruction of paramount importance.
A whole arsenal of naval nuclear weapons have been developed, including nuclear torpedoes, depth charges, anti-submarine missiles, and anti-ship missiles.
Soviet plans to fight aircraft carriers called for up to 100 bombers to strike a single aircraft carrier. Up to 80 of them were to carry anti-ship missiles like the Kh-22 and the Kh-55, some of which could be armed with nuclear warheads with a power ranging from 200 to 350 kilotons.
Anti-submarine weapons were particularly powerful. In 1962, the US Navy tested the ASROC RUR-5 system in the Pacific Ocean 685 kilometers west of San Diego, California. A 10 kiloton warhead exploded some 180 meters deep, creating a huge mushroom cloud and rocking the USS Razorback submarine (submerged more than 3 kilometres away) for 45 seconds.
Another system, UUM-44 SUBROC, worked in a similar fashion, but the missiles were launched from submarines underwater and were equipped with 250 kiloton thermonuclear warheads.
Equally intense was Soviet naval nuclear weapons. The RPK-1 Vikhr anti-submarine missile system launched missiles with 10 kiloton warheads, and some of its torpedoes had yields of up to 20 kilotons.
The P-700 Granit, a missile that could be launched from Soviet ships or submarines, could carry a massive 500 kiloton war head.
The Special Atomic Demolition Ammunition (SADM) was small enough to fit in a large backpack, but still had a yield of one kiloton. It was meant to be placed by small, specially trained teams who would set up a time counter before attempting to escape.
Mark Bentley, an army veteran, said someone had to stay to make sure the bomb was not compromised. 'We all knew it was a one-sided mission, a suicide mission,' he told the Green Bay Press Gazette in 2019. But NATO commanders were convinced that the best way to match the numerically superior Soviet and Warsaw Pact military on their playing field was to reduce them as much as possible.
One way to achieve this, it was believed, was to use SADM detonations to irradiate natural passages like the Fulda Breccia or the valleys of the Alps, thus channeling the Soviets into combat zones or to positions more easily defended.
Special forces could also be parachuted behind enemy lines to detonate SADMs at airfields, power stations, bridges, railway stations and ammunition depots, or swim to ports and coastal targets and detonate them there.
Fortunately, they have never been used. The American Atomic Munitions Demolition School closed in 1985, and in 1989 all ADMS were withdrawn from service. A number of Soviet defectors claim that the Soviet Union created similar devices and in fact smuggled them into the United States.
Nuclear land mines
Finally, for one of the wackier, and simultaneously grimmer examples of applied atomic weaponry, meet another variant of the Atomic demolition munitions (ADMs), colloquially known as nuclear land mines.
Similarly to their hand-detonated cousins, these were meant to channel or block ennemy forces, creating areas of movement denial. The main prototype developped was the W54, a 40 by 60 cm, 23 kilogram (50lb) cylinder. It had a mechanical pressure or timing detonator.
You might say, that's plenty grim, but where's the wacky? Well, it turns out the British government also developped a larger nuclear land mine in the 50's, dubbed Blue Peacock. The thing is, it was meant to be buried in cold environments, and the device wasn't self-heating. Their solution? Put a chicken in it. That's right, in one of the the most technologically advanced devices of the time, one crucial component was a flapping, clucking, feathery, pebble-pecking avian.