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Davy Crockett (nuclear device) (wikipedia.org)
58 points by chatmasta on Sept 15, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 59 comments

Theoretically it would have been pretty useful in helping suppress any Soviet ground invasion of Western Europe, giving an entirely new scale to the "scorched earth" strategy.

I've long had a fascination with the Cold War, but I'm glad I was only around for about three years of it.

According to the Soviet defectors, this is what have ultimately saved West Germany from a full-scale invasion similarly to what have happened to Czechoslovakia at 1968.

Occupation of West Germany would be a much bigger deal from international relationships standpoint than Czechoslovakia occupation was. I'm saying that as a Czech citizen. Taking West Germany would be revisionist. Reaffirming the fact that Czechoslovakia "belonged" to Russia? No one expected West would be concerned, not after political decission was made during WW2 that Soviets are going to "liberate" the land.

As a Russian, I am saying that taking West Germany had been the Soviet wet dream since the beginning of the Cold War. :) Soviets were (and probably are) just fine with revisionism, as the Ukrainian affair teaches us. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Days_to_the_River_Rhine.

Not sure about that, I read more than one article analysing Soviet Cold War plans and coming to the conclusion that, as mich as NATO, the majority focused on defense against any offensive operations. They seemes, for the most part, pretty content to hold on to the Warsaw Pact countries. Not to say that thay most likely would have jumped at the chance of swaling West Germany, pretty much like NATO whith any opportunity to get a Warsaw Pact countrey without nuclear war.

Mutually Assured Destruction saved us all, multiple times.

According to which soviet defectors?

US and our allies outnumbered the soviet union nearly 10 to 1. The US and allied GDP had even a greater advantage in terms of wealth/GDP.

The soviet union was much poorer and weaker than the US alone. Throw in western europe and the soviets were ridiculously outmatched.

Nevermind that the soviet union had nearly lost an entire generation a few years prior (ww2), in what conceivable way would the soviet union be able to invade west germany?

Can you cite sources for your numbers? It's well known that Warsaw Pact forces considerably outnumbered NATO at the German border. (See https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/declassified_138256.htm for typical estimates.)

I was assigned to a unit in HQ US Air Forces Europe from 1981 to 1984. It was a fairly common view that the Russians + Warsaw Pact allies would be at the Rhine in 3 days at which point the conflict would go nuclear. The latter development was the subject of exercises like Able Archer.

> Can you cite sources for your numbers?

It was a general ballpark number.

Population of british commonwealth, population of western europe + turkey, US, SK, Japan, etc would come out to be near 10X the population of the soviet union. And that's not including china, who switched sides in 60s.

If you want to see the GDP figures, you could also do it for these countries/regions.

> It was a fairly common view that the Russians + Warsaw Pact allies

I specifically said the soviet union. Not Russia ( which was the largest part of the soviet union ) and certainly not warsaw pact "allies". Would you really call warsaw pact nations "allies" considering that the soviet union had to invade and crush the czechs, hungarians, poles, etc? In any conflict with NATO, I have a sneaking suspicion that the warsaw pact nations would join NATO's side. But even if you include warsaw pact, it would still be close to 10X.

It was a common view that the soviet union wouldn't collapse also. And it was in our interest to build up the enemy as stronger than they were. It's called propaganda. The "stronger" the enemy, the bigger the military budgets.

If the soviets launched a sneak attack, they would gain an initial advantage, but they were never going to hold onto west germany. In any conventional war, the soviets would have lost. The soviets knew this and that's why they switch from a massive conventional military to a massive nuclear military ( which bankrupted them and had a hand in their collapse ).

If you were a grunt in the military, I'm sure you just simply brainwashed with whatever nonsense you were told. But if you look at the objective data ( demographics, GDP, etc ), the soviets had no chance against the US, let alone US and vast array of our allies.

Daniel Ellsberg says that the threat wasn't tactical nukes, so much as all-out nuclear war.

"In mid-1961, the only plan the Pentagon actually had for a large conflict with Soviet forces, left over from Eisenhower, was an all-out nuclear attack on the Soviet Union... NATO planning simply wasn't designed- by the nature of the alliance, and by the realities of the situation- for offensive operations into the Warsaw Pact territory... There was, after all, just one way to hold on to West Berlin [in the event of a blockade]... to threaten to carry out our actual Berlin planning... best described by a skeptical Pentagon colleague: 'We send in a series of increasingly larger probes. If they're all stopped, we fire a [nuclear] warning shot. If that doesn't work, we blow up the world.' "


And furthermore:

"any conflict pitting US forces against more than several battalions of Soviet troops anywhere in the world- Iran, Korea, the Middle East, Indochina- would lead to instant US strategic attacks on every city and command center in the Soviet Union and China... no alternative plans existed for a war involving Soviet forces on a level beyond a division or two except for the general war plan. And that lack was by the directive of President Eisenhower, who had decreed that there should be no plans for "limited war" with the Soviet Union, whether nuclear or conventional, under any circumstances, anywhere in the world. This reflected Eisenhower's military judgement that no war between any significant forces of the United States and the Soviet Union could remain limited more than momentarily. Therefore if such a conflict were pending, the United STates should immediately go to an all-out nuclear first strike rather than allow the Soviets to do so... he was convinced that preparation to fight even a limited number of Soviet divisions on the ground, with or without the use of tactical nuclear weapons, would compel an increase in defense spending that would... [cause a ] 'national bankruptcy'.


both American and NATO intelligence had produced enormously inflated estimates of Soviet ground strength. For example, they ignored that a Russian division was less than half the size of an American division. Moreover, the supposed number of Soviet divisions was grotesquely overstated. Most of the oft-quoted figure of "175 Soviet divisions" referred to units that existed only on paper, subject to wartime mobilization, or to units that were grossly undermanned and under-equipped, and many that consisted of nothing more than a headquarters staff. Still, matching even the twenty crack Soviet armored divisions deployed in East Germany would legitimize large budgetary Army requests. These, if granted, would come at the direct cost of Air Force and Navy budgets."


And indeed it might actually have worked, but would have been a bit of a Pyrric victory, as it would also have destroyed Europe:

"In 1960-61 it was in reality quite possible... that not a single nuclear warhead would land on US territory after such an American first strike... But our Western European allies in NATO would be quickly annihilated twice over: first from the mobile Soviet medium-range missiles and tactical bombers targeted on them... and second from the close-in fallout from our own nuclear strikes on Soviet bloc territory."


I first heard of this as part of the backstory to Metal Gear Solid 3, and was sure Hideo Kojima had made it up. The idea of soldiers carrying nuclear weapons into battle seemed too ridiculous to be real.

The flying platforms from MGS3 are real too, believe it or not, although they never saw combat:


I am excited to learn the real-life basis for those incubator "things" in Death Stranding.

Whoa! A flying Segway, 30 years before the Segway!

No way! I was so sure those were a Kojima-ism

I thought the same thing about the Fulton recovery system. Really feels like the cold war era was this era of advanced technology infancy, where we were going wild about all the possibilities. So much half baked mad Science and engineering that made it really far into development.

I remember reading a post from someone who was trying to track down one of the backpacks that had been designed to carry the Davy Crockett bomb.

The backpacks for the Special Atomic Demolition Munitions (SADM) would be better, I think. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Atomic_Demolition_Muni...

I wonder what the standing orders were on these for forward NATO units?

Nukes at a platoon level could escalate a war very quickly.

read Daniel Ellserg's "The Doomsday Machine"

summary: Remote commanders had autonomy due to concerns that centralized control could be subverted. Also, no reliable "call off the dogs" mechanism. Centralization of control of nuclear weapons came much later than the public believes.

Believable escalation path concerns might be what prevents a war in the first place though.

In "About Face", Hackworth had something to say about that. Units did not have the warheads, but they could be brought forward very quickly.

How smaller than this can you get ? How close if this to the minimal "critical mass" ?

The Wikipedia article says

> The Mk-54 weighed about 51 lb (23 kg), with a yield equivalent to somewhere between 10 and 20 tons of TNT—close to the minimum practical size for a fission warhead [footnote:] the theoretical minimum critical mass for 233U is close to 16 kg.

Actually, the critical mass depends on how much you compress it (so surrounding the fissile core with more chemical explosives lets you use less plutonium), and how effective neutron reflectors you surround it with. A modern hydrogen bomb might use 3kg of plutonium in the fission primary core, but the weight of the whole assembly (including chemical explosives and so on) would be several hundred kgs.

This is a U233 warhead, using another fission material (like Pu237, which has a half-life of two months or so) would allow an order of magnitude lower critical mass.

Depends on what you use.


Apparently a sphere of Californium-252 that's 6.9cm in diameter will do the trick.

"Popular speculation about californium as a weapon material has usually centered on Cf-252 due to its neutron-emitting celebrity. Its comparatively short half-life (for weapons purposes), intense and penetrating neutron radioactivity, and high thermal output make it quite unsuitable for this however."


Also, 6.9cm isn't that far from the 10cm needed with Plutonium...

A friend once scolded me for using the term "suitcase nuke", saying that such were impossible and that any nuclear weapon would necessarily be far larger than a man could carry. But the Wikipedia entry on "critical mass" indicates that about 10 kilograms of plutonium would be sufficient to make a true nuclear fission device. FWIW I've always heard lower values for the critical mass weight than Wikipedia gives, but nonetheless it seems that a "suitcase nuke" is a real possibility.

You need a lot of other stuff around the plutonium to make it go bang, but something that would fit in a rolling suitcase or large backpack is totally doable. See also: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Atomic_Demolition_Mu...

The Davy Crockett could certainly fit in a suitcase - just take a peek at the photos. Briefcase nukes may be a bit less likely.

Devices like this (residual radiation aside) would probably be extremely handy when building infrastructure on planetary surfaces.

And some people still wonder why Germans have an aversion towards anything called "nuclear".

Why? These devices (and SADMs) literally saved West Germany from being overran by the Soviet Union. No other option would have prevented it.

German officials _insisted_ that tactical nuclear devices would have been deployed, even against American reservations at this time. They were right, in hindsight.

SADMs and Davy Crockett couldn't repulse a massed Soviet armoured thrust. They simply didn't have the yield and blast radius needed and were deployed in tiny numbers. This can be deduced by the neutron-protective lining applied to Soviet first-line tanks, they were expected to roll on through.

Massed 155mm conventional artillery was NATO's mainstay response, with ATGMs to pick-off high-value targets like command tanks.

Later MLRS and Assault Breaker were developed, again conventional solutions.

Yes, Soviet strategy have adapted. However, “neutron-protective lining” didn’t properly work; however, tank armies formations were spead out to reduce the possible radiation damage. You are right, however; tactical nuclear weapons were deployed as a deterrent, not as a valid defense option.

Soviet war plans have never been declassified, and the plans that have been - let's say - interpolated are just plain insane. They envisage massed Soviet tanks and infantry trying to blitzkrieg through the radioactive remains of Northern Europe on a suicide mission.

A few low-yield tac nukes make no difference in this scenario, because the radioactive remains of NATO would still have been raining megatons on any attempted Soviet advance.

Relying on nuclear contamination as deterrence to avoid the nuclear contamination of your country is inherently scary. Especially if the real decision makers live thousands of miles away.

There has always been a resistance against American nuclear weapons in Germany. It just didn't play a big role up until fairly recently.


My parents and grandparents lived under Soviet occupation (in the GDR) for decades and they had a pretty good time, all things considered. So did millions others.

I lived under Soviet occupation (in the GDR) for 14 years, thank you very much. It was a relatively good time, compared to, let's say, the stone age.

The GDR wasn't turned into a nuclear wasteland before occupation. It was also "only" devastated once by a world war, not twice, as would have been the case for Western Germany if it were to be occupied by Soviet forces again.

Except for those who got shot when they tried to leave the country.

Sure, not disputing that. But our current telling of history emphasizes the misery of those in the GDR that disagreed with the doctrine, at the expense of millions of people who got by just fine. I'm seeing a lot of resentment in East Germans against elites as a result of that.

The two million people (out of 17 million) who worked for Miniluv (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, known as Stasi, an oppressive secret service comparable to the earlier Gestapo) got by just fine.

I appreciate that you've stepped back a long way from your initial assertion that nuclear war is literally better than living in the GDR.

Come on, these are two separate discussions.

Nuclear power can be used without making weapons.

Historically, no. Nuclear power has always been tied to nuclear weapons in terms of infrastructure and technology. Only lately have there been attempts at nuclear power without the capacity for weapons development. Except for dirty bombs, of course, which are possible with virtually any radioactive material.

And fear of "nuclear" technology isn't totally about rational arguments. It's not baseless either, because so many "impossible" accidents happened and its so hard to dispose of nuclear waste safely.

The deployment of small nuclear grenades, intended to detonate near or in our cities for such "minor" targets as tanks hasn't exactly helped that fear.

> Nuclear power has always been tied to nuclear weapons in terms of infrastructure and technology.

This is a reason to be wary of nuclear power in e.g. Iran. If you're worried that nuclear power in the United States or Europe will allow western countries to develop nuclear weapons, you're too late.

It should also be noted that (edit: some of) the first nuclear weapons were developed using uranium, which is naturally occurring and can be enriched using centrifuges or other technology without any nuclear reactor at all.

> And fear of "nuclear" technology isn't totally about rational arguments. It's not baseless either, because so many "impossible" accidents happened and its so hard to dispose of nuclear waste safely.

This is FUD. Nothing is ever "impossible" but we deal with things more dangerous than nuclear waste on a regular basis, with less care taken and more actual accidents. Meanwhile you have a nuclear plant with multiple safety measures, then something happens which overcomes half of them but not the other half and the story is how unsafe this is rather than how the multiple overlapping safety layers worked as intended.

The only majors disasters have been outside the United States in plants with lower safety requirements. The Chernobyl plant was designed unsafely and operated unsafely and even then the death toll was on the same order of magnitude as the collapse of a skyscraper or the sinking of a large ship, but nobody calls for an end to skyscrapers or ships, much less dams (which are much more dangerous), and that's before we even mention automobiles.

The waste problem is also entirely political. The major long half life component is plutonium, which can be reprocessed and used as reactor fuel in newer reactors, which actually permanently destroys it -- the only way to make sure it's never used for weapons. The shorter half life components have to be stored to cool off, but we're talking dozens of years rather than thousands there. Many of them also have commercial value in medical imaging and things like that.

A bit of a nitpick: the first and third bombs ever detonated were plutonium weapons. Uranium bombs were developed in parallel, mostly as a backup plan in case the much more complicated but otherwise superior plutonium bomb ended up not being workable.

In reality it doesn't matter what else is dangerous in this world, when you have the possibility of a nuclear reactor blowing up or making portions of the country uninhabitable. For virtually no benefit. Just don't do it.

Of course, all the experts keep saying nothing bad is going to happen with "our" technology in "our" country with "our" government regulating it. But in reality stuff did happen again and again, and with the potential damage even very low probabilities become scary.

I don't get why being a "political problem" negates the nuclear waste argument. For one thing, suitable sites are a lot less common than previously thought, and safety of sites used earlier has been overestimated rather badly. For another, the "political" problem of getting people to accept a nuclear waste dump in their vicinity is extremely real and not going to go away. Not from any attempt of rational persuasion anyway.

Again, it's not so much about rationality as about fear. But it's also about the fact that engineers tend to underestimate the risk in relying on Human operators, designers, regulators and the stability of a government. Nuclear power plants have a lifetime measured in decades. The weather will change, the demand will change, the technology will change. All good reasons not to commit to decades long problems (centuries, in the case of Tschernobyl and maybe even Fukushima, and decommissioning old power plants looks to be a lot more expensive than everyone thought).

If the area around Fukushima is uninhabitable, then so is Denver. This irrational fear of trivial amounts of ionizing radiation is what prevents us from having abundant energy without emissions of greenhouse gasses. (But I guess that's virtually no benefit.)

> the nuclear waste argument

Can you see what you're doing here? You don't actually argue, you just pretend there is an argument and it's conclusive. If I tried to argue against that, I'd uselessly spend energy making points you don't care about, and you would claim victory.

Oh, that's not what you're doing? The what is the nuclkear waste argument?

> it's not so much about rationality as about fear

You need it to be about fear, because you don't have a rational argument.

Skepticism about expert classification of accidents as "impossible" is a completely rational argument given the history.

Again, I'm not trying to have either debate. I'm just arguing against conflating them, at least within each single country. Once we're policing other countries about keeping off bombs, then, sure, forbidding their power plants might make sense.

Rationally it makes sense to separate the idea of nuclear contamination from casual use of small nuclear weapons from nuclear contamination from nuclear power accidents or waste disposal problems.

Emotionally it doesn't make sense at all.

> Nuclear power has always been tied to nuclear weapons in terms of infrastructure and technology

You mean like the CANDU reactors?

Nuclear power plants were literally the factories for weapons.

Nuclear reactors were. Nuclear power plants didn’t show up until a decade later.

Not sure why that's relevant. It takes O(years) to plan and build one.


It’s relevant because producing bomb material and producing power are somewhat orthogonal, as evidenced by the fact that bombs were being made for about a decade before any power was produced.

Citation needed. (Spoiler alert: they weren't.)

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