At the height of the Cold War, the United States was seriously considering the use of backpack sized nuclear weapons for tactical strikes.
US policy makers, aware of their numerical inferiority compared to the combined military strength of the Warsaw Pact countries, desperately looked for options that would level the playing field while halting a Soviet advance.
D.B. Grady and Adam Rawnsley, writing for Foreign Policy, went through a treasure trove of recently declassified information and revealed the pure insanity of backpack sized nukes.
We have summarized some of the most interesting details from their report:
1. After President Eisenhower, the US embraced the idea of limited nuclear war.
The idea was not to lead to an all out nuclear apocalypse. Instead, “small” weapons, still more powerful than Hiroshima in most cases, were embraced. These weapons would obliterate a battlefield and irradiate much of the surrounding area.
2. Elite soldiers from the Army, Navy, and Marines were trained to use these nukes in a variety of battlefields.
The battlefronts for the use of these weapons stretched from Eastern Europe to Iran and all the way over to Korea. Backpack nukes were meant to be part of the US military’s effort to ensure the containment of communist forces.
3. Many in the defence industry at the time just saw nuclear weapons as larger versions of conventional weapons.
This viewpoint among the Army and defence contractors lead to some particularly strange weapons being deployed in the US arsenal, such as atomic artillery and nuclear-tipped air-defence missiles. No weapon was more ridiculous than the rollout of atomic demolition munitions (ADMs) in 1954. These had the sole goal of nuclear landscaping – creating impassible irradiated landscapes and craters that would bottleneck enemy soldiers.
4. ADMs were eventually reduced to being backpack sized.
The backpack nuke, the B-54 Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM) – entered into the US arsenal in 1964. The weapon was only 18 inches tall and 12 inches in diameter, yet was as powerful as a thousand tons of TNT.
5. Special Forces units called “Green Light teams” would prep in using SADMs for tactical strikes behind enemy lines.
The use of SADMs was green lighted by the US military for use both within and outside NATO countries. In the case of an enemy advance, SADMs would be set off to destroy key infrastructure preventing the Soviets from acquiring it. Greenlight teams were also prepared to use SADMs to destroy installations in Warsaw Pact countries, including enemy bunkers, rail lines, and anti-aircraft grid locations.
6. These Green Light teams were trained to deploy the bomb in all situations.
Teams received training in parachuting, scuba diving, and in some cases even skiing with the SADM. SADMs were specially designed so that they could be submerged in up to 200 feet of water without suffering damage.
7. Teams had to be ready to destroy the bomb in case of detection.
In case a Green Light team was to be captured by enemy forces, they also had to carry with them enough conventional explosives to destroy the nuclear weapon. This explosion would scatter nuclear waste, but would not result in a detonation.
8. Some Green Light team instructors would insist their team had to stay within visual range of the detonation to ensure success.
All SADMs were built with a minimum of electronic components, to ensure they would still function in the event of an electromagnetic pulse. Due to this, all devices relied on mechanical timers for their detonators, which were inherently unreliable. These timers could vary by going off as much as eight minutes early or 13 minutes late.
9. Every team knew that their mission was likely suicidal.
To pull off a successful SADM strike, Green Light teams would have to infiltrate enemy lines, sneak up on an enemy location while carrying an unwieldy nuclear weapon, set it, wait for it to explode, and then escape back to a friendly NATO nation while WW III likely raged all around them.
The idea that the world came this close to the use of nuclear weapons on battlefields across the world is entirely unreal. At least we can all be thankful that cooler heads prevailed, and that this project was ultimately scrapped.
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