Invisible Nukes

Irving A. Lerch [1]

Even at an altitude of 1000 to 1200 feet, the ground beneath the aircraft moves slowly, the miniature rectangles of houses and tilled fields seem to amble, giving the illusion of remoteness. When he hurtles into the prop-blast, the world of the army paratrooper becomes a violent tumult followed by an unnatural silence until noise from below alerts him to brace for impact with the ground. The whole enterprise passes in a flash, as it must, when exposed like a dangling pendant.

The paratrooper is consumed by petty details: rigging, weapons, ammunition, what waits on the ground, where to assemble, objectives and contingencies. The primitive reflexes—fear, excitement—dominate all thought and action. Forty to fifty years ago, as one moved higher into the military chain, the accoutrements of cruelty spiraled with increasing levels of lethality. The company commander relied on rifles, machine guns, mortars and anti-tank weapons; the battalion employed heavier artillery, and then came the 105 mm howitzers and 4.2 inch mortars of the Battle Group, the 155 mm howitzers of the Division, and the 208 mm cannon of the Corps - ever escalating firepower to include short-range missiles, gunships, close-support fighter aircraft and bombers.

Through the early post-war years, this was the spectrum of weaponry from companies to battalions to battle groups, then divisions and corps. But in the late 50s and early 60s military theorists conceived of a class of tactical nuclear weapons to be placed at the disposal of ground commanders at the corps, army and theater levels (troop levels ranging from 40,000 to well over 100,000). As US strategists began to conceive ground forces for rapid deployment to distant trouble spots; they were consumed by the need to equalize the disparity in manpower and armaments when a lightly armed mobile force was confronted by greater numbers and heavier armaments.

In Europe, NATO units confronted superior numbers of heavily armored Warsaw Pact formations, and a small armamentarium of US (and later French) tactical nuclear weapons was designed and deployed to equal the odds. The complex multi-national command structure overlaying NATO forces assured that these weapons would not be placed at the discretion of any single commander.

By 1960, however, the US had organized a rapid deployment force (called the Strategic Army Corps) consisting of the XVIII Airborne Corps (made up of two parachute divisions, the 101st and 82nd) and an assortment of light mechanized units, air-carrier squadrons and naval elements. It was a given that deployment of this force would be in the face of superior enemy armies in a theater of operations not readily within reach of a WWII type logistical chain, and a whole class of low-yield nuclear weapons was developed for use by commanders. Division artillery batteries with 155 mm Howitzers could be equipped with 10 kiloton warheads as could the larger corps artillery. But most notable was the advent of a small 10-ton yield weapon called the "Davy Crockett" assigned to Airborne Division heavy mortar batteries. The Davy Crockett round weighed less than 50 pounds and was fired by a modified version of the same weapon used for anti-tank service in the infantry companies of the division.

During extensive maneuvers in the Carolinas in the summers of 1961 and 1962 (called "Swift Strike"), the Corps commander (a three-star general in command of between 40,000 and 80,000 troops) routinely incorporated atomic weapons in their mock attacks. At that time, 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 force of somewhat larger size, although we had the advantage of large 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. For the referees superintending the exercise, this appeared to pose no serious consequence. The general concurred, the attack went forward, and the exercise umpires unanimously agreed that the corps had won the day.

Almost three months later, a different, more serious scenario would set the entire theoretical construct on its head.

Just after midnight sometime during the third week of October, 1962, at the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a combined planning staff convened at McCoy Airbase, just outside Orlando, Florida. U2s flew in and out on routine reconnaissance missions over Cuba. An emergency military operation was being staged at the order of the President. Successive waves of paratroopers were to assault the missile storage and deployment sites on the island roughly a day in advance of the main seaborne assault. The troop air transport squadrons had been mobilized from reserve units. But this time none of the commanders mentioned tactical nuclear weapons. President Kennedy did not want to provoke nuclear war—or so he thought.

Unknown was the fact that a heavily equipped Russian division occupied the area the XVIII Corps was to assault. But even more dangerous was the fact, subsequently acknowledged by the Russian commander on the ground in Cuba (in a conference in 1990) that he had tactical nuclear weapons and was prepared to use them. 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.

President Kennedy would have been forced into a nuclear exchange had the invasion gone forward. The strategic game would have played out on the ground with tragic consequences. Unlike the war games in the Carolinas, friendly forces would not rely on nuclear weapons. It was not known that the opposing forces were prepared to use them.

In April, the Pentagon released the Nuclear Posture Review Report, slightly modifying US nuclear strategy as part of the ongoing process of periodic reviews of US arsenals and deployments [2]. In May, the Administration published an inventory of its strategic weaponry. And, of course, this brought condemnation from the political right for compromising US defense, with the left equally livid at the rattling of the nuclear saber.

Unfortunately the Nuclear Posture Review does not address tactical nuclear weapons despite a large and growing international inventory. Russia has an estimated arsenal of 3,000-4,000; the US 1,700-3,300; China about 400; with another 300-400 in the hands of Israel, France, India and Pakistan [3]. The future is unbounded with Iran and North Korea joining the club.

Yet if the use of even small nuclear weapons inevitably brings on incalculable escalation and the danger that loosely secured arsenals are vulnerable to terrorists, how can we afford not to confront the issue? At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis there were dozens or perhaps hundreds of these weapons, today there are thousands spread over several continents and their whereabouts are often unknown.

For the moment the ominous shadows of nuclear weapons do not obscure the battlefield (although some planners advocated the use of tactical weapons in Vietnam—proposals universally condemned [4]). The risk, however, has been relocated from the war zones to the homeland.

But why do we hold to the fiction that tactical nuclear weapons give our military forces a secure foundation? We learned a vital lesson 46 years ago, clear even to a 23 year-old lieutenant. The existence of tactical nuclear weapons did not afford our forces any security since our enemy was willing and capable of using them, even at the risk of triggering a nuclear holocaust.

The answer is clear and urgent: an international covenant banning the development and deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. This is a better place to begin the draw-down of nuclear arsenals than the excruciating incremental reduction of useless strategic warheads.

Fifty years ago the parachute gave way to the helicopter as combat units prepared for yet another deployment, thus demonstrating that each new innovation in war carries unforeseen costs.

[1] Graduated West Point, 1960; Professor, NYU, retired; Former Director of International Affairs, the American Physical Society.



[4] F.J. Dyson, R. Gomer, S. Weinberg and S.C. Wright, "Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia," Institute for Defense Analysis, Jason Division, March 1967 (available at


Photograph of a U.S.-developed M-388 Davy Crockett nuclear weapon mounted to a recoilless rifle on a tripod, shown here at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in March 1961. It used the smallest nuclear warhead ever developed by the United States, yield 10-20 tons of TNT.

Irving A. Lerch
1733 Riggs Place, NW
Washington, DC 20009
(202) 462-2511

These contributions haven not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.