Nuke 'em till they glow, shoot 'em in the dark
February 3, 2014 11:19 AM   Subscribe

The Littlest Boy - Twenty years after Hiroshima, elite American troops trained to stop a Soviet invasion -- with nuclear weapons strapped to their backs.

The little "backpack bomb", or "suitcase nuke" was the Special Atomic Demolition Munition, or SADM (not Saddam). While delivery and exfiltration was practiced:
a newspaper article from 1994 - about five years after the SADM was withdrawn from the inventory - depicted a less Hollywood ending. "If that meant staying inside the hydroelectric plant, standing 20 feet away from the warhead, that's where you stayed," a former trained SADM mission member told a Houston Chronicle reporter. "It was suicide, and we all knew it
The SADM was designed to be delivered by parachutist, and placed behind enemy lines in event of Soviet attack. This was to destroy infrastructure or create impassable areas, in addition to use against formations of enemy troops. Some of the 10th Special Forces Group's insignia have SADM-inspired elements.

The glowing heart of the SADM was the miniaturized W54 warhead, which also featured in the Davy Crockett recoilless rifle. You can watch the Ivy Flats test film, but skip to 08:54 for the good stuff.
posted by the man of twists and turns (39 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
With all those weapons strolling around, across all those years, it's a miracle nothing went terribly wrong.
posted by notyou at 11:21 AM on February 3 [5 favorites]


The area of the nuclear stockpile witll the least control and oversight, according to Command and Control.
posted by Artw at 11:25 AM on February 3 [1 favorite]


Lots of things in Command and Control blew my mind, but none of them more than the claim that the Davy Crockett's launch range was smaller than its warhead's blast radius.
posted by COBRA! at 11:38 AM on February 3 [6 favorites]


Ah... this would be the weapon supplied to Quiller at the end of The Tango Briefing.
posted by Rash at 11:40 AM on February 3 [1 favorite]


Holy shit it's the Fat Man.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:41 AM on February 3 [1 favorite]


Dr. Strangelove was a documentary.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:42 AM on February 3 [3 favorites]


launch range was smaller than its warhead's blast radius.

IIRC it wasn't unique in that and some nuclear torpedos had the same issue.
posted by Artw at 11:44 AM on February 3


Oh wow: The need to maintain direct control over the warhead meant that a wire connection had to be maintained between the torpedo and submarine until detonation.
posted by Artw at 11:47 AM on February 3 [2 favorites]


Somehow Tom Clancy never got around to glorifying this shit.
posted by COBRA! at 11:49 AM on February 3 [6 favorites]


I don't think Tom Clancy had a high opinion of nuclear weapons, given their absence from Red Storm Rising and the risk of using even a single warhead as exemplified at the end of The Sum of All Fears.
posted by mkb at 12:05 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]


Someone I know trained to assemble and use the W33 nuclear artillery shell, which was a generation older than the W54 used in the Davy Crockett and SADM (it was a gun-type device and thus much larger). But it was intended for much the same purpose: holding back the Soviets from coming through the Fulda Gap while NATO mobilized for World War III.

For safety reasons, it was stored unassembled. An officer had to pull duty shifts near the weapons, so that if an alert came in they could hand-assemble them: placing the correct plutonium pits into the casings and getting them ready to go. Supposedly, the pits were big enough to feel warm from decay all the time.

It had a longer range than its blast radius ... but if the wind happened to be blowing the wrong way, you'd probably have had a very bad time. Particularly since, given the design of the device, it probably would have produced a lot of fallout.

Then again, if your mission was basically to play Horatius against the Red Army, you probably weren't figuring on going home if the balloon went up anyway.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:12 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]


SADM: Insane.
posted by DangerIsMyMiddleName at 12:41 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]


I came here to post what COBRA! noted above, re: the kill radius vs. range of the Crockett device.

ISTR that I read somewhere that that the Crockett warhead was about as small a nuclear blast as is possible.

Nukes are many things, and most of those things are horrible, but there's an awful lot of just plain WEIRD that goes into them, too.
posted by uberchet at 1:14 PM on February 3


IIRC it wasn't unique in that and some nuclear torpedos had the same issue.

Suicidal weapons (nuclear and otherwise) last came up in the USS Indianapolis thread. The Mark 45 ASTOR and toss-bombing with the A-1 Skyraider both make an appearance.
posted by zamboni at 1:14 PM on February 3 [2 favorites]


Gosh. From the man of twists and turns' link:
[Davy Crockett nuclear howitzers] remained in service until 1971 (although there are unconfirmed reports that President Kennedy ordered its removal in 1963). In all 2,100 were produced at a cost of $540 million (excluding the cost of the warheads).
I imagine the warheads were rather more expensive than the missiles, but whatever: that's half a billion dollars in 1961 money, for a program that was scrapped between two and ten years after its introduction. According to this site it would be $4.2 billion in current money. I suppose that's negligible in comparison to the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles, but still - $140 for every US citizen.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:16 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]


With all those weapons strolling around, across all those years, it's a miracle nothing went terribly wrong.

Give it some time. This century is rather young it's only a matter of time before someone who hates us duplicates the technology.
posted by Renoroc at 1:22 PM on February 3


I'm not even sure duplication is a necessity. Sometimes I wonder if the reasons the various US security agencies are apparently very interested in unlimited surveillance powers includes the knowledge that some of the US arsenal is unaccounted for.
posted by weston at 1:28 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]


There was talk of using "tactical nukes" in Vietnam. Somehow they decided it would result in bad press and the plan was never executed.
posted by tommasz at 1:53 PM on February 3


The lifespans of many Cold War weapons systems — especially in the 50s and 60s — were very short. Nuclear weapons design was evolving very quickly, but nobody wanted to wait for designs to stabilize before fielding something. So as soon as they got something that worked and could be produced more-or-less safely and reliably, it got fielded. A few years later, when something better came out, they'd get replaced.

E.g., the Mark 4 bomb, of which 550 were produced, was introduced in 1949, withdrawn 1953. The Mark 6 had 1100 produced by 1955, all were withdrawn before 1962. The Mark 8, the earliest "bunker buster" bomb, was introduced in '52 but replaced as obsolete in '57. But its replacement, the Mark 11, only lasted until 1960. This lasted through the 60s with the rapid development, introduction, and withdrawal of various hydrogen bombs.

The amount of resources dedicated to the task was staggering, and most of them just ended up either being recycled into later bombs, used as reactor fuel, or disposed of as nuclear waste.

One bright side, I suppose, is that the current generation of nuclear weapons is so close to being theoretically optimal that there's very little incentive to keep redesigning and replacing them. They still need to be remanufactured (at significant cost and expense) periodically, but the W88s used on Trident II SLBMs were produced prior to 1989 and will probably be in service until 2042.

Which is good, because unlike other Cold War defense expenditures, which arguably pushed technology forward on a number of fronts, nuclear weapons design doesn't do much. It's one very small step away from putting money in a hole and burning it (actually, it's arguably worse, because at least the hole isn't filled with radioactive waste when you're done burning money in it). The public doesn't ever get to see the results of nuclear weapons research, and in fact the dissemination of that R&D work would probably be a Bad Thing if it did happen.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:59 PM on February 3 [10 favorites]


I don't think Tom Clancy had a high opinion of nuclear weapons, given their absence from Red Storm Rising

In particular in Red Storm Rising, the coup that overthrows the current Politburo is directly triggered by the Politburo explicitly discussing using nuclear weapons to try to break the deadlock in West Germany. That's when then Energy Minister, the head of the KGB, and a couple of others basically drag the Politburo outside, shoot them in the head, set up a Troika and contact the western allies for a cease-fire.

So, not only did the Soviets not use them, even speculating on their use led to a coup and the end of the war. So, I think "not a high opinion" is fair. Plus, it would make for a pretty depressing book if they did, because then the US would go strategic, the USSR likewise, and everyone dies.

They still need to be remanufactured (at significant cost and expense) periodically, but the W88s used on Trident II SLBMs were produced prior to 1989 and will probably be in service until 2042.

The big thing there is tritium, which has a half life of 12 years, and the decay product (He3) is a neutron absorber at the energies in play, so you have to flush out the helium and replace with fresh tritium every few years.

And, to bring this loop to a close, this was actually a plot point in The Sum Of All Fears -- the nuclear weapon that destroyed the Denver Stadium was poisoned by helium-3, and missed several energy doublings. Thus, instead of destroying a large hunk of Denver, it basically just smacked the stadium hard. Still killed thousands, because it was the Super Bowl, but it would probably have killed hundreds of thousands if it had a full-order detonation.
posted by eriko at 2:18 PM on February 3 [3 favorites]


Someone I know trained to assemble and use the W33 nuclear artillery shell, which was a generation older than the W54 used in the Davy Crockett and SADM (it was a gun-type device and thus much larger).

My Grandpa helped develop those!
posted by codswallop at 2:57 PM on February 3


I invite everyone to visit the Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia. It's not a glorification of war, just a straightforward presentation of the people who fought wars in which the US participated, chiefly featuring the infantry. The displays are truly wondrous. One of the displays is an SADM unit, with an interesting set up to show how it was supposed to have been deployed.

(I happen to know a couple of the men featured in some of the displays of the Vietnam era. Col Millett, who received the MOH, was once my unit commander, and several of the LRRPs were in my outfit in Vietnam.)

Also, I invite folks to contemplate our response to Stalin's tanks (after WWII), the MRBMs that we had scattered around Europe, which we planned to exchange with the Soviet Bloc MRBMs once WWIII was underway. It's easy to understand that the common impact area (roughly, the area between Italy and, say Finland, and all countries in the western Soviet Bloc) was viewed somewhat less than enthusiastically by the inhabitants. The MRBMs were supposed to take flight when or NORAD guys got ICBM blips on their screens. I suppose survivors, worldwide, would be comparatively few, but the chances of getting out of Europe or the Balkans alive were less than zero. McNamara's estimate of 22 million US deaths was far below the estimate I was familiar with (in the 68-71 time frame). As one example, the state of Missouri was targeted by the Soviets with 300 hydrogen bombs. We expected to intercept about 90 percent of them. The other 30 would strike home. Sorry about that, Kansas City, and everyone downstream.

Anyhow, in context, the vaporization of a Special Forces team was pretty much a small consideration, except of course, to the men who carried the weapon in.

One of the men in my LRRP platoon was a member of a Special Forces LRP team stationed in Europe. He never mentioned the SADM project, but he did tell tales of being chased by Soviet Ski Patrols through the mountains in Czechoslovakia. He said he loved the mountains there because they are gorgeous, but all in all he liked his chances in the Vietnam jungle better.

And, while I'm at it, Fuck Tom Clancy.

Also, "Nuke 'em 'til they glow, and shoot 'em in the dark." . Military humor. Heh. I won't waste anybody's time trying to describe the difference between a wild-eyed suicide bomber and a courageous person who's willing to give his life for his country. I have not yet come to grips with the idea that, although civilians ought to know how this shit works, I don't wish them to actually have to smell the blood.

One of my last jobs in the Army was watching for ICBMs to come sailing over the arctic toward North America. Sitting in my little room in Japan, I had plenty of time to think about what it might mean to have a signal come up that turned out to be a Soviet missile carrying a multiple warhead--sub-orbital bombs, we called them. I can tell you for certain that I thought more highly of the PAVN soldiers I fought against in Vietnam than I did with the unspeakably weird civilians that developed MAD system. The PAVNs were just trying to kill me and my team, these other guys were okay with the notion of killing everybody.
posted by mule98J at 3:30 PM on February 3 [22 favorites]


I don't think Tom Clancy had a high opinion of nuclear weapons, given their absence from Red Storm Rising

I think Clancy had a very pragmatic view of nuclear weapons, which was that any use at all would quickly escalate to a full exchange that destroys everything. Various authors have done good work demonstrating that much of what the military and RAND and other think tanks discussed as "winnable" nuclear war was largely about bureaucratic politics and keeping the money tap open on weapons development. Clancy simply didn't entertain the illusions that kept analysts employed.
posted by fatbird at 3:32 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]


We expected to intercept about 90 percent of them.

Jesus, seriously? How? With what? I thought the use of Patriot systems in the Gulf Wars pretty much put the lie to the idea of an effective missile defense.
posted by fatbird at 3:35 PM on February 3


We expected to intercept about 90 percent of them.

Jesus, seriously? How? With what?


Smaller nukes.
posted by topynate at 3:46 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]


The Patriot system was effective politically, but, yeah, it just makes parts of the missile, including the warhead, come down somewhere else. Since Scud missiles are basically hopped up V-2 rockets, and aren't a lot more accurate than "land on Tel Aviv", this may or may not have helped, depending on where the Patriot hit it
posted by thelonius at 3:54 PM on February 3


it just makes parts of the missile, including the warhead, come down somewhere else

Unlike chemical weapons, nuclear weapons are kinda fragile. A damaged nuclear bomb would fizzle and scatter a little plutonium, but compared to the fallout from a groundburst nuclear detonation it would be trivial.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:01 PM on February 3


thank goodness we don't have to worry about global thermonuclear war anymore
posted by KokuRyu at 4:52 PM on February 3 [3 favorites]


We expected to intercept about 90 percent of them..... Jesus, seriously? How? With what?

That wasn't my field, but I was aware of Spartans and Sprints, all ABMs. Like stopping an incoming bullet by quick-drawing your pistol and shooting it out of the air. Our job was to identify the ICBMs within about 30 seconds after their launch. This would give the NORAD system about twenty minutes to get everything cranked up and targeted. The MRBMs in Europe had only a few minutes...less than ten...of flight time to target, so not so much in the way of defending against them was possible. I heard tales of interceptor pilots trained to shoot them down, but I never knew if this was possible.

We sometimes talked about whether the US would be around for us to go back to if we ever did what we were trained to do, and whether Japan would be allowed to exist when the balloon went up. In any case, the EMP effect was a big deal. Once those goddam things started detonating, communications might be impossible. That's why the emphasis was on first strike. Second strike was the response to incoming missiles, and third strike was to release all remaining, undamaged, missiles after the first wave had impacted. We had a tit on site with a morse-code unit, who was always linked to NSA during launches. It was hoped that his outfit could punch through any countermeasures they might put up, so that the president and his boys and girls might have time to get down into the shelters. Fuck the rest of us, was the motto.

Anyhow, many of us remember duck and cover drills. If that doesn't indicate the level of insanity under which we were being protected, I don't know how else to try. By the way, I never bought the 90% figure, but if you do the math, you can easily see that it wouldn't have mattered if we got that many before they impacted.

Things got very different after I was out of the field (1971). Especially in the 80s and 90s. I can't really imagine how the guys who took over my watch dealt with it. The part that stayed the same was the prospective body count.
posted by mule98J at 6:20 PM on February 3 [10 favorites]


Thanks for commenting mule, fascinating point of view.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:52 PM on February 3


My uncle was in the Army and stationed in Germany during the 80s, and the way he described training mission after training mission preparing for the defense of the Fulda Gap made it sound like this weird dreamlike deployment where it was all drudgery and dull normal day-to-day work and then every once in a while with zero warning you're told to pile into troop transports NOW with no explanation, you go out to one of the bases or some random spot in the Fulda Gap proper, and most likely you just patrol or man some equipment for a few days and then pile back into the transports and go home, but also, y'know, slim chance each time that you get a front row seat to the end of the world, because every time it was just: no questions, no warning at all, just get in the vehicles and GO. I think he only did 4 years, and he spent pretty much all of it there in Germany, and he's one of the few retired servicemen I know whose opinion of his time in uniform is just "Meh. Kinda weird. Bought a cool stereo, though."
posted by jason_steakums at 7:08 PM on February 3


Didn't Curtis LeMay try to provoke nuclear conflict with USSR but the planes turned back due to bad weather?

Yeah what notyou said, a miracle.
posted by saber_taylor at 8:06 PM on February 3


We expected to intercept about 90 percent of them.

Jesus, seriously? How? With what?


Part of the doctrine was that in the event of a limited soviet launch, shorter range nuclear missiles (SRBMs and MRBMs) would fire on the ICBM launch sites from europe so that many would be destroyed in their silos; giving the US time to prep and launch their own counterstrike via ICBM. Western europe itself could of course be devastated with very little warning from the soviet's own scud and sandal missiles.

Nuclear launches from submarine were more of a dead man's switch; even if you targeted each other's silos and C&C in a massive first strike, you couldn't do much about nuclear armed subs, so they could retaliate almost at leisure.

Despite numerous plans for a 'survivable' or 'winnable' nuclear exchange, they pretty much all revolved on getting the drop on the other side first with a massive first strike; or both sides containing the initial exchanges to a limited tactical strike in say, europe or SE asia, and neither attempting to decapitate the other. Given the doctrines and weapons of both sides though, it's pretty much a given that it would have escalated to massive launches by both sides - even if one side politically decided it was better to accept their fate and not counter launch, so much of the missile infrastructure was devolved to local control that it seems inevitable that many would have been launched anyway. Thank god a certain amount of sanity prevailed.

That all said - it's not like nuclear weapons bore no fruit at all. The research and dev that went into the rocket technology also ended up in our space programs and there was a lot of crossover, going all the way back to the inspiration for it all, the V-2. Take the fairly well know Ariane 5 heavy satellite launch platform for example; the solid rocket boosters are basically French submarine nuclear missile bodies, or the soviet Shtil, which is literally a repurposed submarine ICBM.

Would have been nice if we could have done that work for that reason alone though.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:51 PM on February 3


Unlike chemical weapons, nuclear weapons are kinda fragile. A damaged nuclear bomb would fizzle and scatter a little plutonium, but compared to the fallout from a groundburst nuclear detonation it would be trivial.

Speaking of ground-bursts, a (not so) fun fact about nuclear strategy is that counter-force strikes (against military targets) are actually in some ways worse than strategically targeting civilian population centres and might have ended up killing more people.

This is because to achieve the maximum destruction of unhardened civilian targets, you want as much ground area as possible to be hit with enough over-pressure to destroy them. It turns out that this isn't very much pressure, so you detonate the weapon at high altitude and the fireball doesn't touch the ground. The result is very little fallout.

Targeting reinforced structures requires detonation very close to the ground, which produces much more fallout.
posted by atrazine at 8:59 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


On Thermonuclear Monarchy: An Interview With Elaine Scarry
While speaking with Scarry on speakerphone, she reminded me that, because it would be difficult for her to hear me, “If you want me to stop talking, you’ve got to say so in a long sentence, and assertively,” a suggestion I found particularly endearing. In February, W. W. Norton will publish Thermonuclear Monarchy, its second book by Scarry. It is a groundbreaking work on nuclear war that argues that the possibility for one man to obliterate millions of lives with a nuclear weapon contradicts not only the philosophical foundations underlying international law, but also the laws of consent on which our country was founded.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:13 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


See Nevada's Hellish Nuclear Moonscape From Above
posted by homunculus at 5:43 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


I was aware of Spartans and Sprints, all ABMs

Thank God we have no idea how well they'd have worked in real life, but you have to give some respect to the Sprint. In the time it might take you to stand up and start walking to the couch, it could go from zero to Mach 10.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:56 PM on February 6


Could these creepy chest packs be North Korea's way of threatening radiological war?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:39 AM on February 18


A Literary Scholar's Voice in the Wilderness: Elaine Scarry fights American complacency 
about nuclear arms
posted by homunculus at 9:11 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


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