Friday, October 27, 2006

Not just MAD but positively nutty

Because it was assumed never to be used, nuclear war-fighting capabilities sometimes verged on the loopy. My three favorite examples are the Douglas AD/A-1 Skyraider, a propeller-driven, single-engine, single-seat fighter-bomber that in the 1950s was adapted to the nuclear role; the F-102A Delta Dagger that President Bush flew as a lieutenant in the Texas Air National Guard; and the Davy Crockett nuke mounted on a jeep.

The Skyraider was a way to get the US Navy into the nuclear business. It was supposed to fly at low level into Russia, then pull up into a 'Half Cuban Eight' (a modified Immellmann turn), meanwhile tossing a Mark 7 uranium bomb in a high arc onto the target. The pilot rolled upright and dove to earth again, then flew as fast as he could (275 knots) in the opposite direction. Some pilots had the coordinates of turf fields at which they might land and refuel or else disappear into the local populace. Very few believed they could survive such a mission; see my article at The Spadguys Speak. 'We didn't really worry too much about the mission', one pilot told me. 'Sort of figured it would be the end of the world anyway'.

The F-102A was a bomber-interceptor without guns--none!--but instead was armed with nuclear-tipped missiles. A pilot (not Dubya) wrote of the 'Deuce': 'As for a real continental air defense mission: our conclusion was you weren't coming back. Either the prompt radiation from a TNW [nuke] was going to get you or you were going to have to stop the bomber no matter what [i.e., ram it]'. One wonders what the Canadians thought of this plan to shoot down Russian bombers by exploding nukes over Saskatchewan!

Then there was the Davy Crockett. The US tested its first tactical nuclear artillery shell in 1953, a 280 mm projectile that exploded with a force of 15 kilotons (a bit less than the Hiroshima bomb) 10 kilometers downrange. In 1963, a really practical 155 mm W-48 projectile was introduced with an explosive force of 72 tons of TNT. (Wiki) But the height of this absurdity was the Davy Crockett, fired by a recoilless rifle mounted on a tripod or on the back of a jeep, the missile itself looking rather like a miniature Fat Man bomb. As an operational unit, the Davy Crockett seems to have been fired only once, though 2,100 launchers were built. The test missile exploded 1.7 miles (3km) downrange with a force of 17 tons (Brookings website). One wonders what the blast radius was!

In all, perhaps 2,500 atomic shells were produced and 1,300 deployed in Europe before they were withdrawn from service in 1991 (Wiki). (The Brookings Institution site however says that 2,100 Davy Crockett launchers were built.) Russia followed suit a year later. (Wiki)

To me, it's the very nuttiness of these schemes (which weren't proposals from think-tank boffins, but actual, deployed weapons systems) that made deterrence work. The most cynical Russian general, pondering sending a Bear bomber over the North Pole, there to be met by a future president of the United States with two nukes underwing (not to mention the gallant Spads, chugging along at 50 feet AGL over the Crimea, and jeeps with Davy Crocketts) must have collapsed in laughter. Stalin himself couldn't have launched a first strike in such circumstances. It was just too ludicrous to be contemplated.

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