Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW) are hard to define precisely. Their definition has become even more problematic in the era of non-state terrorist threats. TNW were often thought of as lower yield and opearating over shorter distances than multi-megaton, inter-continental strategic weapons, but such definitions are from the perspective of the Cold War nuclear calculus between the United States and the Soviet Union. Today, a small country may have a few nuclear devices of "tactical" size, but they may be enough to deter their neighbors, a strategic deterrant.

The fireball ascending at Frenchman's Flat, Nevada from a test of history's first atomic artillery shell.  The shell was fired from the Army's 280-mm Atomic Cannon. The MK-9 artillery shell was propelled a distance of seven miles, culminating in a 15 kiloton airburst.  Hundreds of high ranking military officers and members of the U.S. Congress were present, including Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson and designated Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Arthur W. Radford. Operation Upshot-Knothole, Test Grable, 25 May 1953
The fireball ascending at Frenchman's Flat, Nevada from a test of history's first atomic artillery shell. The shell was fired from the Army's 280-mm Atomic Cannon. The MK-9 artillery shell was propelled a distance of seven miles, culminating in a 15 kiloton airburst. Hundreds of high ranking military officers and members of the U.S. Congress were present, including Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson and designated Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Arthur W. Radford. Operation Upshot-Knothole, Test Grable, 25 May 1953.

Today in WW II: 21 Jul 1944 US forces land on Guam.   

What are Tactical Nuclear Weapons?

This Olive-Drab.com page will describe tactical nuclear weapons from the perspective of the battlefield, usable by a theater commander, for example to offset a numerically superior force. They will be targeted based on rapidly changing local circumstances, not pre-targeted like a strategic deterrant. However, under present conditions, using even the smallest nuclear weapon is considered a "threshhold decision" and is under the control of the highest national authorities, not local commanders, in all nuclear nations.

Tactical nuclear weapons range from nuclear landmines and nuclear artillery shells to warheads air-dropped from planes or delivered by missile. Using the Hiroshima bomb yield (15 kilotons) as a yardstick, TNW yields range from small (0.1 kiloton ) to huge (1 megaton = 1,000 kilotons). TNWs are generally not the subject of arms control treaties and are not physically controlled by the sophisticated mechanisms employed for strategic weapons. As such they may represent an increasing danger of proliferation and of acquisition by terrorists.

In the 21st Century, tactical nuclear weapons become strategic in the hands of terrorists. A 100 kiloton weapon delivered into a port city by a ship would destroy much of the city, hardly a "tactical" attack. For a review of the smallest tactical nuclear weapons, the so-called "Suitcase Nukes", visit the linked Olive-Drab.com page.

History of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

The development of tactical nuclear weapons by the United States in the early 1950's was a consequence of the success of U.S. nuclear weapons designers in creating miniature nuclear explosive devices. These "mini-nukes" were the basis of nuclear munitions including high-caliber artillery, ground-to-ground missiles, combat support aircraft, and sea-based torpedoes, missiles, and anti-submarine weapons. By the early 1970's the U.S. TNW arsenal contained more than 7,000 warheads by published estimates, the majority deployed in Europe to defend against a potential Soviet attack and to demonstrate U.S. commitment to NATO.

During the same period, Soviet tactical nuclear weapons were deployed, starting in 1954 with a small bomb to be carried by the Il-28A tactical jet bomber. In the period 1975-1990, the Soviet Union was believed to have a peak of over 20,000 tactical nuclear weapons, their growth driven by Red Army doctrine that favored their use if war came in Europe.

Nuclear Artillery Shells

W79 nuclear artillery shell

The United States introduced artillery-fired atomic weapons in its defense arsenal in 1953 (see top photo). Six types were deployed over the years, including the W70-3 and the W79. The W79 Artillery-Fired Atomic Projectile (AFAP) was first deployed in 1981, designed to be fired from an 8-inch artillery piece. The primary purpose of these weapons was to strengthen deterrence by improving the capability of NATO battlefield commanders to stop a Warsaw Pact armored thrust into Western Europe, an impossible job with conventional arms.

Nuclear artillery shells have been phased out of the U.S. stockpile, the last one having been reported destroyed in 2003.

Surface to Surface Nuclear Missiles

762mm Honest John Rocket on M289 Honest John Missile Launcher Truck, 5 Ton, 6x6
762mm Honest John Rocket on M289 Honest John Missile Launcher Truck, 5 Ton, 6x6.

Nuclear-armed free rockets or guided missiles were considered an extension of U.S. Army field artillery and weapons systems were introduced such as the Honest John (photo above), the Little John, the Sergeant, Corporal, Lacrosse, Davy Crockett and others. Development of the Honest John (variously designated M31/M50/MGR-1) started in May 1950, with units deployed to Europe by 1954, the first nuclear-capable field weapon of the U.S. Army. Honest John remained in service until the early 1980s.

The MGM-52 Lance was developed to replace the Honest John and Sergeant missiles, the first testing beginning in 1965. Lance entered service in the USA in 1972, and production ended in 1980. There were two versions in service in 1990, the MGM-52B and MGM-52C. No successor weapon is planned.

The U.S. Navy developed its own surface-to-surface missiles for ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore use, for example Talos. The ASROC (Anti-Submarine ROCket) could deliver a nuclear payload in the form of a nuclear depth charge that used a W44 warhead.

All of these weapons systems had optional nuclear warheads, forward positioned at U.S. controlled facilities in Europe, Asia or other locations.

Cruise Missiles

A Cruise Missile, a pilotless aircraft with sophisticated guidance equipment, can be submarine launched (SLCM) or launched from other naval, ground or air platforms (e.g. AGM-86B/C).

The Tomahawk cruise missile, mainstay of the U.S. arsenal, was designed to fly at extremely low altitudes at 550 mph (880 km/h), launched by a solid rocket booster, then flown by a turbofan engine. The first operational use was in Operation Desert Storm, 1991, with immense success. The Tomahawk long range, subsonic cruise missile can attack targets on land (Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM)) and at sea (Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile (TASM)). The TLAM can be fitted with either conventional unitary warhead (TLAM\C), nuclear warhead (TLAM\N) or submunition dispenser (TLAM\D). U.S. Navy destroyers are the typical launch point for the Tomahawks. The photo to the right shows a Tomahawk cruise missile launched to attack targets in Iraq from the stern vertical launch system of the cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67), 3 September 1996.

Air-Dropped Tactical Nuclear Weapons

In addition to its strategic bomb systems, the United States has two types of air-dropped bombs that can carry a tactical nuclear warhead, the B61 and B83. The accurate, low-level supersonic strike can penetrate hardened targets such as a deep bunker. Current designs call for yields equivalent to 5 kilotons or less of TNT.

Status of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

During the period September-October 1991, U.S. President George Bush and then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed on informal unilateral, parallel steps to reduce and manage their TNW stockpiles. While no formal agreement exists, on 27 September 1991, President Bush announced a number of initiatives affecting the entire spectrum of US nuclear weapons. The United States removed all tactical nuclear weapons, including nuclear cruise missiles, from its surface ships and attack submarines. The nuclear equiped UGM-109A TLAM-N Tomahawk was withdrawn from service in 1992, though conventional versions remain operational. The Soviet Union completed its similar withdrawals to storage facilities and the two countries agreed to reduce their air-launched arsenals.

At the end of 1991 and in early 1992, Russia agreed to withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons deployed in the territories of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakstan. In December 1996, NATO pledged to refrain from deploying tactical nuclear weapons on the territories of the future new members of NATO.

Although progress has been made, TNW stocks and deployments are hard to verify and much uncertainty remains.

Encyclopedic coverage of U.S. nuclear weapons is provided by Nuclear Weapons of the United States: An Illustrated History , by James N. Gibson. Another good resource is Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Emergent Threats in an Evolving Security Environment , by Brian Alexander, Alistair Millar.

Find More Information on the Internet

There are many fine websites that have additional information on this topic, too many to list here and too many to keep up with as they come and go. Use this Google web search form to get an up to date report of what's out there.

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