Military Monday: The Davy Crockett Battlefield Nuclear Weapon System

by Crocker on April 19, 2010, 7:39 am

in History,Military

In the bad old days of the Cold War, we lived in a bilateral world composed of the Communist nations led by the Soviet Union and the free world organized around the US and NATO nations. The military fulcrum of that world was the Fulda Gap in the Harz Mountains, which formed the border between East and West Germany. The combined forces of the Warsaw Pact and the NATO allies peered at one another across the gap.

Most strategists were resigned to an eventual Soviet invasion and massive tank battle on the North German Plain and around the Fulda Gap. This thinking gripped the popular imagination, so it’s no surprise that there was a cottage industry of books describing the inevitable clash in fictional terms, such as The Third World War: August 1985 by General Sir John Hackett, Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy, Team Yankee by Harold Coyle and Red Army by Ralph Peters. Every such scenario assumed that NATO forces would be massively outnumbered and that NATO would counter with (a) quality of training and equipment and (b) the Great Equalizer – tactical nuclear weapons.

Enter the Davy Crockett.

Davy Crockett was a lightweight battlefield system using a recoiless rifle to fire a M388 nuclear projectile. The actual projectile weighed about 75 pounds and contained the W54 fission warhead, the smallest ever employed by the US with a reported “dial-a-yield” of between 10 and 20 tons of TNT. The projectile could be fired from a man-portable tripod (pictured) or from a vehicle-mounted launcher. The reported range varied from 1.5 to 3 miles.

The US manufactured 2,100 of the units with an unknown number being deployed to West Germany during the 1960s. The system was designed to be operated by three-man teams from forward positions in the axis of advance of any Soviet attack. While the yield of the weapon was low, it emitted copious amounts of gamma and neutron radiation, which would reportedly kill personnel out to 1,000 feet from the detonation point. The idea was to disrupt the enemy advance while poisoning the battlefield long enough to allow outnumbered NATO forces to marshall and deploy.

The weapons were withdrawn from Europe in 1967. As my late father once commented (himself trained in battlefield nuclear weapons employment), the military had second thoughts about putting nukes – even small ones – in the hands of second lieutenants.

As an interesting footnote, the Davy Crockett system was field tested at the Nevada Test Site during the Little Feller I shot on July 17, 1962. The test was witnessed by Robert Kennedy and was the last above-ground test ever conducted at the site.

For more on the Davy Crockett system, go here, here and here. Here’s a short video from the History Channel. I won’t say “enjoy” because it’s all rather terrifying in retrospect even though we were largely inured to it at the time.

Here’s an official army documentary about the test. Note the tone of dispassionate necessity – as if the unthinkable is just another exercise.

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