APS News

The Back Page

Invisible Nukes

By Irving A. Lerch

Lerch web

Irving A. Lerch

In April, 2010, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, released the Nuclear Posture Review Report, part of the ongoing process of periodic reviews of US defense strategy, arsenals, and deployments.1 In May, the Administration published an inventory of its strategic weaponry. And, of course, political figures on the right immediately criticized the review as an impermissible weakening of US defense while many on the left saw it as more of the same old saber rattling.

The report was notable more for what was left unsaid than for any tweaking of the nation’s strategic nuclear posture. An entire class of nuclear weapons–tactical nukes–was exempted from the review.

Historians David G. Coleman and Joseph M. Siracusa report a conversation recorded in the Kennedy Administration cabinet room between the President and General Shoup, Commandant of the Marine Corps, October 29, 1962, the day after Nikita Khrushchev formally agreed to pull Soviet nuclear missiles out of Cuba.2 General Shoup wondered aloud whether the Russian defenders on the ground in Cuba would have used tactical nuclear weapons against US forces. No one knew whether such weapons were stationed in Cuba but the possibility could not be ignored. Kennedy’s response was, “… my guess is, well, everybody sort of figures that, in extremis, that everybody would use nuclear weapons. The decision to use any kind of nuclear weapon, even the tactical ones, presents such a risk of getting out of control so quickly, that there’s a …” The unspoken conclusion is clear: the consequence would be nuclear holocaust.

Implicit in this exchange and in the scholarly literature purporting to examine the tenets of nuclear war, analysis and theory are the only tools available to attempt to depict the steps leading to and the consequences resulting from the use of nuclear weapons–strategic or tactical (after all there is only one historical example extant). Entire strategies and arsenals of necessity are based on theory. The post WWII era is punctuated with the rise of game theory and other forms of scholarship designed to define, predict, and prepare for nuclear war. But as one scholar has warned:  “Because they are essentially men of ideas, the civilian scholars of strategy have been over impressed with the potential transferability of theory to the world of action.”3

In the early 1960s the 101st and 82nd airborne divisions were organized into a rapid-deployment force (called the Strategic Army Corps) to respond to “brush-fire” wars that were beginning to bedevil US military planners. Hot spots were flaring in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean (Cuba). In order to test the capabilities of these ground forces, periodic exercises called “Swift Strike” were conducted, which invariably included mass parachute jumps of both airborne divisions.

In 1962 I was a young infantry officer in the 101st temporarily assigned as liaison with airborne corps headquarters during a “Swift Strike” exercise in North Carolina. My duties as liaison obliged me to attend the daily corps operations briefings and planning sessions and I was on hand when the corps commander, a three-star general, approved a plan of attack for the following day. The scenario had the two divisions deployed in a foreign country confronting an opposing heavily armored force of larger size although presumably we had the advantage of sizable naval and air support units. The objective was to break out of battlefield containment and to move onto terrain more congenial for maneuver and resupply. To do this, the operations staff recommended the use of five tactical nuclear weapons to isolate the battlefield, destroy enemy reserves and immobilize the enemy’s main formations. I was surprised to learn that the ground commander had authority over nuclear weapons. The general concurred with his operations staff and the mock attack went forward. The exercise umpires unanimously agreed that the corps had won the day.

Except … there was never any discussion of what the enemy would do when his forces were destroyed, or what the political leadership of the invaded country would do in response. Certainly, countless war games played at that time suggested that such an attack with tactical nuclear weapons would escalate uncontrollably. Why was the corps commander allowed to fantasize this outcome? Perhaps the designers of the exercise decided that the “enemy” had no allies and was certainly not part of the Soviet bloc. Then, too, the tactical nuclear weapons of the day assigned to corps and divisions were small, nominally well below a kiloton in yield and presumably below the danger threshold for nuclear war (although some larger warheads–as large as a megaton–had been proposed for “tactical” use by theater commanders).

Fast forward two months, to October, 1962.

Just after midnight sometime during the third week of October, 1962, I was ordered to McCoy AFB just outside Orlando to help prepare for an airborne assault. The air transport was to stage at McCoy and I was to join my airborne infantry company en passant enroute to the combat drop zones in Oriente Province in the Republic of Cuba. This was my introduction to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

McCoy was the assembly point for the various staffs–air force, navy, army–and U2s flew in and out on routine reconnaissance missions over Cuba. Successive waves of paratroopers were to assault the missile storage and deployment sites roughly a day in advance of the main seaborne assault. The C-130 and C-123 troop transport squadrons had been mobilized from reserve units with little airborne operations experience and every detail had to be checked multiple times. But on this occasion, none of the commanders mentioned tactical nuclear weapons. No one dreamed of deploying let alone using them. Presumably this was a reflection of Kennedy’s caution against the provocative deployment of such weapons in an emergency operation.

 The situation turned increasingly grim on October 27 when a U2 out of McCoy was shot down over Cuba. The pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson Jr., was killed. He would be the first–and as it turned out–the last casualty of the crisis. The war had turned “hot” and we were convinced that the invasion order was imminent. We did not anticipate Khrushchev’s offer the following day to dismantle the missiles (for some vague quid pro quo) and that Russian ships were turning away from the quarantine line.

Also, we did not know that a heavily equipped Russian division occupied the area our airborne units were to assault. But even more dangerous was the fact, subsequently acknowledged by the Russian commander on the ground in Cuba (in a conference in Moscow, 1989, attended by senior US, Cuban and Russian participants in the crisis),4 that he had an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons and was prepared to use them on the seaborne troops that would storm ashore the day after the airborne assault. There could be no doubt that the airborne troops could have been destroyed on the ground by the heavily armored and entrenched Russians and the follow-on seaborne invasion could have been vaporized.

The question attending all deployments of tactical nuclear weapons–and a topic of intense discussion on the day that General Shoup and President Kennedy had their exchange was who was in control? Who would decide if and when to use them? If not the commander on the ground, then who? If the decision was in the hands of the political leadership, wasn’t this a tacit admission that the use of any nuclear weapon, however small, was of strategic import? Indeed, subsequent studies would demonstrate that if the President had to authorize the use of tactical nukes in a war zone, then the situation on the ground would radically change in the time it took to study and authorize a request for use. For example, if a command was being assaulted by superior forces it was unlikely that a decision would be forthcoming before the enemy would close with our forces or occupy proximal urban areas, thus barring a nuclear response (for practical and policy reasons, cities were considered strategic targets). In short, there is no such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. In fact, the rapid response force itself was a strategic tool.

President Kennedy would have been forced into a nuclear exchange had the invasion of Cuba gone forward (as he feared). The strategic game would have played out on the ground with tragic consequences. In this light, Kennedy sought to avoid a nuclear confrontation at all costs short of fatally compromising US security. What he could not have known is that similar restraint on the opposing side was lacking. In short, the opposing commander would have seen even a conventional threat against his position as sufficient cause for a nuclear response simply because he was assigned tactical nuclear weapons as part of his arsenal and had the authority to use them to accomplish his mission.

So why does the Nuclear Posture Review avoid any mention of tactical nuclear weapons? Russia has an estimated arsenal of 3,000-4,000; the US 1,700-3,300 (a few hundred of which are stationed in several NATO countries); China about 400; with another 300-400 in the hands of Israel, France, India and Pakistan.5 The future is unbounded with Iran and North Korea joining the club.

Ostensibly our European allies are nervous should we tamper with this arsenal because the NATO force structure and operations plans assume the availability of tactical nuclear weapons. But if the use of even small nuclear weapons inevitably brings on incalculable escalation, how can we afford not to confront the issue? What madness prompts us to pretend that Armageddon comes in labeled packages of 10 kilotons or larger?6

Fifty years ago, the US had a dizzying array of so-called battlefield nukes, ranging in yield from a little over 10 tons of TNT to a kiloton (with larger munitions being considered). These munitions were fired from medium range artillery commonly found in Division and Corps formations to 2-man munitions teams. Some warheads were designed for use in modified rocket-propelled anti-tank recoilless rifles such as those deployed in an airborne infantry company (called the Davy Crockett, the warhead weighed 23 kg and had an explosive yield of 10 tons). Such devices are light-weight, small and therefore portable and easily concealed. The field artillery assigned to infantry divisions consisted of 155 mm towed and self-propelled howitzers, and the atomic shell they fired (the W48 linear implosion-type warhead) weighed a mere 58 kg and had a yield of 72 tons. Today there are many thousands of these weapons spread over several continents (some in the inventories of unstable states) and their whereabouts are difficult to divine. And while strategic warheads are encumbered with complex fail-safe mechanisms engineered to prevent unauthorized detonation, the same cannot be said of tactical weapons.

Nonetheless Vietnam and the wars we are fighting today were and are played out in nuclear-free precincts. Yet the frustrations of Vietnam caused many to push for the use of tactical nuclear weapons to seal the South from the North and to prevent the invasion of large formations of North Vietnamese military units (a reality only at war’s end after US forces had withdrawn). This issue was addressed with uncompromising finality in a famous Institute for Defense Analysis report dated 1967.7 The conclusions of the study were recorded in the first several pages and were unequivocal:

The overall result of our study is to confirm the generally held opinion that the use of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] in Southeast Asia would offer the US no decisive military advantage if the use remained unilateral, and it would have strongly adverse military effects if the enemy were able to use TNW in reply. The military advantages of unilateral use are not overwhelming enough to ensure termination of the war, and they are therefore heavily outweighed by the disadvantages of eventual bilateral use.

For the moment we are permitted to bleed our enemies and be bled in return without the ominous shadow of tactical nukes obscuring the battlefield. The risk, however, has been relocated from the war zones to the homeland. We must ask anew whether the threatened use of such weapons against states like Iran or North Korea provides any military or political benefit. It is here we should be considering reductions–or better yet a total ban–if we are to reduce the danger of nuclear proliferation.

While we wait for an answer, time does not favor us.

Irving A. Lerch served as APS Director of International Affairs from 1993 to 2003.

1..Nuclear Posture Review Report Format - PDF

2. David G. Coleman and Joseph M. Siracusa, Real-world nuclear deterrence: the making of international strategy, Praeger (June 30, 2006)

3. Colin S. Gray: What RAND Hath Wrought, Foreign Policy, 4 (1971), pp. 111–129

4. Allyn, Bruce J., James G. Blight and David A. Welch, eds. (1992) Back to the Brink: Proceedings of the Moscow Conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis, January 27-28, 1989, Lanham: University Press of America.

5. NTI Issue Brief: Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW)

6. See the November 2001 Fourth Freedom Forum Report, Uncovered Nukes: Arms Control and the Challenge of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

7. F.J. Dyson, R. Gomer, S. Weinberg and S.C. Wright, Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia Format - PDF, Institute for Defense Analysis, Jason Division, March 1967

©1995 - 2016, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos