What if the United States Deployed a Nuclear Drone?

In the early 60s, the United States came close to nuclear-weaponizing a drone. Before we explore that, did you ever notice how boring the quest for nuclear disarmament has become since the 1980s and the Nuclear Freeze?

Dr. Randall Forsberg, the one-time administrative assistant to an arms control organization, was no rock star, but she launched the movement that culminated in a massive demonstration in New York’s Central Park and arguably affected national nuclear policy. Today, instead of broad calls to disarm, arms control organizations focus on the nuts and bolts of nuclear weapons and treaties. But are they more effective than the Freeze, which simply called for a mutual freeze on the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons and the missiles on which they’d be mounted? Unless, that is, you believe it’s disarmament when the Obama administration requests $16 billion in new warhead spending over the next decade to induce Republican senators to sign the new START disarmament.

We found a succinct explanation of how nuclear disarmament became unsexy (except, maybe, when Hollywood stars show up for the premier of Countdown to Zero). Cutting-edge disarmament voice Darwin BondGraham writes at the Monthly Review’s MRZine:

Throughout the 1990s, but especially during the George W. Bush years, Ploughshares and its circle of foundations called the Peace and Security Funders Group increasingly narrowed the range of acceptable anti-nuclear activism, while simultaneously ghettoizing the field so that the work of various NGOs became less and less applicable to social justice and economic development issues, and increasingly focused on abstract global problems and hypotheticals, such as the possible use of nuclear weapons. In the process, discussions of the injustices of the global political economy and how nuclear weapons fit into it were silenced. Anti-nuclear activism became increasingly specialized, boring, and disconnected from issues that affect people’s everyday lives. Arms control eclipsed abolition as the rallying cry. Those NGOs that obeyed the consolidation period survived with funding and access to media, so long as they kissed the ring.

You Mean Drones Can Be Even More Lethal?

In an Air Force Magazine article titled The Weird Nukes of Yesteryear, excerpted from a book, Norman Polmar and Robert S. Norris write about three nuclear weapons of our recent past that Americans are likely to know even less about than they do our current arsenal. The first two, though, are somewhat less unknown than the third. Developed by the Los Alamos laboratory, the enormous Mk 17 hydrogen, or thermonuclear, bomb . . .

. . . had a yield of 13.5 megatons [MT] — almost one thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima explosion. [Meanwhile the] Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory [proposed] 22,000-pound bombs that would have yields of 45 MT or 60 MT. Neither was developed, as critics claimed they had no realistic military value and could cause widespread nuclear contamination. However, the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s proposed Mk 17 hydrogen bomb with a 15-MT yield was considered a practical weapon.

Practical? Maybe in the sense that launching one of those mothers off could set off a sequence of events that would end practically all life on earth. Where’s the “practical” here — or with any nuke? Meanwhile, “At the other end of the nuclear weapons spectrum was the Davy Crockett. . . . a recoilless rifle. . . . Its warhead produced a yield in the 10- to 20-ton range (.01 to .02 KT).”

You may have seen this one on YouTube. Set on a tripod, it’s more of an artillery piece than a rifle. Lighting off these babies in tests must have been orgas-, er, a peak experience for anyone who loves explosions. Unlike the bomb, it was something that could be set off with some regularity in combat and would kill hundreds instead of millions. It spared the prospective trigger man that messy nuclear hangover that inevitably accompanies detonating a full-grown nuclear bomb — no matter how you slice it, the knowledge that you’ve killed millions is a buzzkill. Meanwhile, talk about weird, all nuclear weapons are weird, but a nuclear cannon?

Now the drone, a helicopter in this case, officially the Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH). Polmar and Morris write:

This was the only unmanned vehicle intended to carry a nuclear weapon — in this situation, a [nuclear bomb to be used as a maritime depth charge] with a yield of about five KT.. . . . . For a DASH mission, the drone was “piloted” during takeoff and landing by an officer at a console adjacent to the ship’s flight deck. During the mission, the drone was controlled by [another] officer . . . who would “fly” the helicopter to the target area and release the weapon.

Ultimately, DASH was only equipped with anti-submarine torpedoes, not nuclear depth charges as planned. Thank goodness for small favors. But, hey, it’s never too late to arm them with tactical-nuke warheads of the size used with the Davy Crockett!