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What are Tactical Nuclear Weapons?

Tactical nuclear weapons are designed for use on the battlefield, with a limited blast radius to target enemy forces without widespread destruction. Unlike strategic nukes aimed at cities or infrastructure, these weapons aim to shift the tide in localized conflicts. But their role in defense strategy raises critical ethical and safety concerns. What implications do these weapons hold for global security?
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Tactical nuclear weapons are relatively low-yield nuclear weapons intended to be used on the battlefield in war. This is in contrast to strategic nuclear weapons, which are designed to target large cities and military facilities. Tactical nuclear weapons were especially built to prepare for a possible all-out war between the Soviet Union, the United States, and their respective allies.

One example of a tactical nuclear weapon is the M-388 Davy Crockett, a nuclear recoilless rifle equipped with a 76 lb (34.5 kg) payload, just 31 in. (78.7 cm) long with a diameter of 11 in. (28 cm) at its widest point. The Davy Crockett was meant to be fired by ground troops at the opposing side in the midst of a battle. It used a "dial-a-yield" configuration, a variable yield that could be set to between 10 and 20 tons, very low for a nuclear weapon, but quite significant by the standards of conventional weaponry. Its yield was similar to the so-called "Mother of All Bombs" developed by the United States military in 2003.

"Boomer" submarines like the Soviet/Russian Typhoon class can carry tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.
"Boomer" submarines like the Soviet/Russian Typhoon class can carry tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.

Another tactical nuclear weapon, a variant on the W54 warhead used for the Davy Crockett, was the SADM (Special Atomic Demolition Munition) variant. The SADM warhead was a backpack nuke. It was meant to be used by a two-man Navy Seal or Marines team, which would parachute into a target zone, such as the harbor of an enemy country, set the bomb and a timer, then swim out to sea where they would be recovered by a submarine or high-speed surface craft. After the team was out of harm's way, the tactical nuclear weapon would detonate, and the target harbor would be annihilated. The SADM package also had a variable yield, but it went up to a kiloton, about a tenth the yield of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Fighter aircraft like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor can release tactical nuclear weapons while flying at supersonic speeds.
Fighter aircraft like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor can release tactical nuclear weapons while flying at supersonic speeds.

Other tactical nuclear weapons, such as the American B57 nuclear bomb and the British Red Beard, were mounted on a chassis similar to a rocket or conventional bomb. These would be dropped by tactical aircraft, and had a higher yield than the smaller W54 warhead devices.

Another tactical nuclear weapon, envisioned by the British, was the Blue Peacock nuclear mine. The idea was to install numerous nuclear mines in the heartland of Germany, leaving them armed and ready to detonate in the case of another war involving Germany. Eventually, it was decided that the political and ethical challenged posed by such an endeavor were too large, and the project was scrapped.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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    • "Boomer" submarines like the Soviet/Russian Typhoon class can carry tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.
      By: iruhsa
      "Boomer" submarines like the Soviet/Russian Typhoon class can carry tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.
    • Fighter aircraft like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor can release tactical nuclear weapons while flying at supersonic speeds.
      By: dreamnikon
      Fighter aircraft like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor can release tactical nuclear weapons while flying at supersonic speeds.
    • Tactical nuclear weapons may be launched from surface warships, including guided missile destroyers and cruisers.
      By: Pavlo Vakhrushev
      Tactical nuclear weapons may be launched from surface warships, including guided missile destroyers and cruisers.