Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Nuclear Weapons, Tactical

Small, low-yield nuclear warheads designed to be used against targets within a theater of war and in support of military operations by field forces, in contrast to strategic nuclear weapons designed for planned use against targets in the adversary's homeland. Tactical nuclear weapons provided additional options for military commanders in accomplishing their assigned missions. The size, destructiveness, and limited numbers of early atomic weapons led to their assignment primarily to strategic targets, initially enemy economic centers (generally city targets), as well as key military facilities, such as command and control centers; strategic offensive capabilities, such as bomber bases; and major logistical facilities. However, the power of nuclear weapons caused military planners to prize their potential impact on the battlefield. Even in the last stages of World War II, U.S. military planners considered the option of employing atomic bombs in the tactical role of supporting an invasion of the Japanese mainland rather than against the urban targets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the early 1950s, as America's nuclear weapons inventory increased and technology improvements created smaller weapons, military planners began to incorporate nuclear weapons into theater of war plans and the development of doctrine, tactics, and force structures. The technological advances were especially important in creating weapons that could be delivered by smaller tactical aircraft—fighters and light bombers—as well as artillery pieces and short- and medium-range missile systems. The smaller warheads were also refined for specialized functions such as surface-to-air missiles, antiship missiles, antisubmarine depth charges, and air-to-air missiles and rockets. Small nuclear weapons even led to the development of backpack weapons that could be emplaced as atomic demolition munitions for blocking lines of advance, channeling enemy movements, or destroying high-value targets. The Soviet Union and eventually other nuclear-capable states also developed smaller nuclear weapons that were optimized for tactical employment.

The U.S. military's development of tactical nuclear weapons was stimulated by the practical challenge of countering the large Soviet military that was retained after World War II. Concern over fighting against numerically superior forces was amplified by the experience of engaging Chinese "volunteer" forces during the Korean War (1950–1953). The technological advance of firepower provided by nuclear weapons offered a solution to the threat that would also be more cost-effective than building large conventional forces. President Dwight Eisenhower's administration quickly formalized a commitment to nuclear weapons as the foundation of national security planning in the New Look defense posture, which emphasized both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. The strategic and theater components of the U.S. Air Force were optimized for nuclear delivery, and even the U.S. Army developed a new organizational structure (known as the Pentomic Division) designed for the more fluid environment of theater nuclear operations. The U.S. Navy also developed extensive nuclear capabilities for battles at sea and for strikes against shore targets. In 1957, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) adopted the U.S. style of doctrine and force structure, making nuclear firepower the key element of its ability to deter and potentially defeat aggression by the numerically superior Soviet Army. The Soviet military responded to the NATO move by expanding its own theater nuclear forces.

In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy's administration moved away from Eisenhower's New Look by developing a stronger conventional capability and a broader range of options for military scenarios in a security policy known as flexible response. American and NATO military forces developed conventional operational concepts and supporting force structures and doctrines. NATO's conventional capability provided flexibility and was also a response to concerns over the extensive damage that nuclear operations would inflict on European territory and the challenges that this would present to postwar recovery. This expanded range of options also continued to include tactical nuclear forces, which played an important role in NATO plans and force structure throughout the rest of the Cold War, enhancing deterrence and providing an option for escalation if conventional defensive efforts failed.

Some options were developed to minimize the impact of nuclear conflict on friendly territory, such as revised delivery procedures, smaller-yield warheads, and proposals for specialized warheads that would minimize radioactive fallout and maximize immediate radiation that would kill soldiers and damage equipment with limited harm to civilian infrastructure and restricted residual radiation—the so-called neutron bomb. The United States maintained an extensive inventory of aircraft, artillery, and missile-delivered nuclear weapons in Europe throughout the Cold War. Additionally, allied forces were trained and prepared to deliver nuclear weapons that were controlled and released by U.S. military personnel. The British and French military also developed nuclear weapons that they controlled for tactical roles.

The Soviet military also developed an extensive tactical nuclear capability, with an apparent emphasis on preempting NATO nuclear forces in any initial use, with follow-on use as necessary to gain success in rapid, offensive armored operations. Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces also developed conventional options in the 1970s and 1980s that could be used at the start of any theater conflict in an effort to gain a rapid, decisive advantage before nuclear weapons were used.

By the end of the Cold War, both Soviet and Western forces were developing concepts for using advanced, highly accurate conventional weapons—combined with enhanced reconnaissance and communications capabilities—in combat roles that had once been only possible with nuclear warheads. But even with improved conventional systems, sizable tactical nuclear forces remained available to both sides of the Cold War deterrence structure as tensions drew down.

Jerome V. Martin


Further Reading
Arkin, William M., et al. Soviet Nuclear Weapons, Vol. 4, Nuclear Weapons Databook. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1983.; Burrows, Andrew S., et al. British, French, and Chinese Nuclear Weapons, Vol. 5, Nuclear Weapons Databook. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1994.; Collins, John M. U.S.-Soviet Military Balance: Concepts and Capabilities, 1960–1980. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980.; Hansen, Chuck. US Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History. New York: Orion, 1988.; Lee, William T., and Richard F. Staar. Soviet Military Policy since World War II. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1986.; Van Cleave, William R., and S. T. Cohen. Tactical Nuclear Weapons: An Examination of the Issues. New York: Crane, Russak, 1978.
 

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