The Variety of Early Nuclear Weapons an Example of Human Ingenuity Run Amok

A nuclear air-to-air missile, to be launched by jet fighters. (Photo: Wikipedia)

A nuclear air-to-air missile, to be launched by jet fighters. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In the early years of nuclear weapons, it was still thought that smaller nuclear weapons (called tactical) could fall under the aegis of conventional weapons. Before military planners disabused themselves of that notion and conceded that, with regards to tactical nukes, if it looks like a nuke … , various species of nuclear weapons were developed. Though it wasn’t publicized at the time, you may have heard of the suitcase bomb — a miniaturized nuclear weapon that fit inside a sort of backpack. The smallest, the Mk-54 SADM (Special Atomic Demolition Munition), weighed only around 50 pounds.

The Soviet Union also developed suitcase nukes. In fact, some believe its agents buried them in strategic spots across the United States to detonate if needed. If at all true, without upkeep, they can’t be detonated.

You may also have heard of nuclear artillery, especially the Davey Crockett weapon. It was actually a recoil-less rifle akin to a bazooka or rocket launcher with a “small” nuclear charge, albeit one that might result in fallout from the blast drifting back on the troops launching the bomb. You can actually see soldiers lighting one off in a test in this video — it’s one of the most phallic-looking weapons ever.

But there was another variety of nuclear weapons that were at least as indious and which, to my surprise, I had never heard of before reading L. Douglas Keeney’s 2011 book 15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation (St. Martin’s Press). It’s a history of the early years of nuclear weapons revolving around the quest to continually shorten the time it took to get nuclear bombers in the air, as well as the fleets of bombers flying across the United States and other countries carrying nuclear weapons.

I’m speaking of nuclear air-to-air missiles, launched by jet fighters, and nuclear surface-to-air missiles. The Genie air-to-air missile was designed for use against Russian Tupolev Tu-4 bombers (similar to the B-29) flying in formation. It finally entered service in 1957. This frightening quote appears on the Genie’s Wikipedia page: “To ensure simplicity and reliability, the weapon would be unguided since the large blast radius made precise accuracy unnecessary.”

Keeney said it had a ‘”kill box” of three football fields. Even worse, writes Keeney, a surface to air missile, the Nike Hercules, “would deliver a warhead twice as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima with a kill box many times that of Genie. In both cases, close enough was close enough. The blast effects of these warheads could take down as many jets as were close enough to the burst points.”

Very few of us are aware that some nuclear weapons were designed for use against other planes. Imagine using them in the skies above our own country, though?