For American soldiers and veterans who have seen the film Starship TroopersA key takeaway – aside from the possibility that male and female recruits could shower together one day – is that infantry squads in the future will be equipped with man-portable tactical nukes.
It turns out that the military actually deployed such a tactical nuclear weapon system during the Cold War. The “Davy Crockett” was a recoilless rifle that fired a nuclear warhead with a yield of between 0.01 and 0.02 kilotons – or about 10 to 20 tons of TNT.
Beginning in 1961, the Army began deploying Davy Crockett weapon systems to infantry units in West Germany, Guam, Hawaii, Okinawa and South Korea, according to the Historical Foundation. of the Army. The Davy Crockett was operated by three soldiers and mounted on a jeep. The M28 120mm “light” recoilless rifle had a range of 1.25 miles, and the M29 155mm “heavy” rifle could launch the nuke up to 2.5 miles away.
“Although the military never officially stated that the Davy Crockett would likely deliver a lethal dose of radiation to the crew, it was known that there was a significant chance of this happening unless the crew was well. protected,” said Matthew Seelinger, chief historian for the Army Historical Foundation.
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But even if the crew managed to protect themselves from the radioactive fallout, the Army’s concept of fighting on a nuclear battlefield was inherently flawed because if the United States or an adversary had ever used tactical nuclear weapons like the Davy Crockett in combat, the conflict likely would have escalated into a full nuclear war, Seelinger told Task & Purpose.
“Every army officer I worked with who served during this period, especially those in the field artillery, said that once the first nuclear shot was fired, the conflict would immediately escalate beyond out of control,” Seelinger said.
Nevertheless, from 1957 to 1963, the infantry and airborne divisions of the army were reorganized into “pentomic” divisions intended to fight on the nuclear battlefields.
The Davy Crockett was designed for use against advancing Soviet formations, Warsaw Pact and North Korean troops, allowing a small number of US servicemen to take out around a dozen enemy tanks, the captain said. retired Kaszeta, who served as a White House adviser on chemical, biological, and radiological weapons from 1996 to 2002.
While the warhead created a small nuclear explosion, the direct radiation emitted from the detonation had a higher kill radius than the explosion itself. If the warhead were detonated at an altitude of between 75 and 85 meters, anyone within 400 meters of the blast would likely receive a lethal dose of radiation, said Kaszeta, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a British security body. tank in London.
“But the lethal dose will kill you within days or a week, not right away,” Kaszeta told Task & Purpose.
Even if the Davy Crockett only had a range of up to 2.5 miles, firing the weapon would not have been a suicidal task for its crew, Kaszeta said. The explosion itself would have been very small; and placing the nuclear warhead for airborne detonation would have minimized the level of radioactive fallout, he said.
“Also, spinoffs take time to develop,” Kaszeta said. “It comes from the cooling of the mushroom cloud and the majority of the fallout comes from the upper third of the stem and the wide cap of the mushroom cloud. The doctrine of employment for the Davy Crockett was to literally shoot, to hide behind a hard cover to avoid staring at the flash and then quickly retreating.
“In a weird way, statistically, a Claymore mine is more dangerous for its operators,” he added.
Davy Crockett’s tenure ended up being as brief as the sequence of a searing commentary in the atmosphere. The military began to withdraw weapons from service in the late 1960s because they were not accurate enough, according to Foreign Policy. The last Davy Crockett retired in 1971.
To understand why the Army thought the Davy Crockett was a good idea in the first place, you need to understand the era in which it was designed, said retired Col. David E. Johnson, an expert in history, strategy and military doctrine. with the RAND company.
When President Dwight D. Eisenhower was in office from 1953 to 1961, he looked for ways to cut spending on conventional military forces as part of his efforts to manage the U.S. economy, Johnson told Task & Purpose. For Eisenhower, expanding America’s nuclear arsenal was a much more cost-effective way to deter the Soviet Union.
“So the military is in this position: you have to be relevant to survive,” Johnson said. “And the relevance is this: how do you operate on a nuclear battlefield? This is where pentomic division comes from. These weapons have started to be deployed because they seem to have a purpose.
At the time, nuclear weapons were considered “almost magical” because they had just been introduced less than a decade earlier, said Johnson, who served as a field artillery officer in the 1970s and 1980s. , during which he commanded a battery of 8-inch guns. guns, capable of firing nuclear shells, then served as executive officer for a battalion of 155 mm howitzers, which could fire both conventional and nuclear shells.
Johnson said he does not believe the military and military officials who adopted the Davy Crockett and other tactical nuclear weapons were acting maliciously. He noted that retired Army Major Robert Danford, who argued after the start of World War II that the Army should continue to use horses to pull artillery instead of vehicles, honestly believed that ‘he was right.
“We look back and say, how could they have thought those things,” Johnson said. “Well, if you weren’t there at the time, you have no empathy for the kind of decisions these guys were making under stress.”
But the idea of a limited nuclear war has not completely disappeared. In June, Congress voted to approve funding for a sea-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile that would carry a low-yield warhead. Again, US military leaders are arguing that it is possible that nuclear exchanges could be contained to kilotons before escalating to megatons.
But the Davy Crockett reminds that even the smallest nuclear weapon can start a much bigger and probably apocalyptic war.
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