David Porter on military history’s doomed inventions
In the 1950s, the Cold War was at its height. To many, it seemed to be a question of when, rather than if, Soviet forces would exploit their overwhelming numerical superiority with a ‘steamroller’ offensive against Western Europe.
Initially, the only effective counter to this threat was the equally overwhelming US superiority in strategic atomic weapons, but their use would almost certainly have triggered a devastating nuclear exchange, which soon became known as MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction.
Tactical nuclear weapons seemed to offer a less risky way of halting a Russian attack, and US planners gave high priority to developing small atomic warheads suitable for battlefield use. (At this period, the US Army calculated that it would need 106,000 such warheads for tactical battlefield use, which might well be fired at a rate of up to 423 per day!)
By 1958, the Mark 54 was ready for production. It was a very small sub-kiloton fission device, weighing about 23kg (51lb), The Davy Crockett Tactical ‘Nuke’ with a yield equivalent to between 10 and 20 tons of TNT, which was close to the minimum practical size for a fission warhead. This, in turn, allowed the total projectile weight to be no more than 34.5kg (76lb).
It was an amazing achievement to a generation used to thinking of nuclear weapons as massive devices, only capable of delivery by heavy bombers or the early (and notoriously unreliable) ballistic missiles. It formed the basis of the M-388 atomic round of the Davy Crockett Weapon System, which entered service in 1961.
However, the novelty and ingenuity of the design blinded the US Army to its inherent faults. The warhead could not withstand the shock and high acceleration of being fired from conventional artillery, and this limited it to being launched by rocket or a recoilless gun.
The decision was made to use specially designed recoilless guns, which limited the maximum range to 4km (2.5 miles). The poor aerodynamic shape of the bomb, often described as resembling a finned watermelon, contributed to its terrible inaccuracy – which meant that in practical terms it was restricted to creating heavily irradiated ‘no-go areas’ that might have slowed a Soviet offensive.
The weapon’s short range posed a real threat to its three-man crews. If the wind veered and they found themselves downwind of the target area, they were at risk of receiving a lethal dose of radiation.
Only one ‘live’ Davy Crockett round was fired, as part of the ‘Little Feller’ nuclear tests in Nevada in July 1962, but data from testfiring inert rounds was shocking, and led to the weapon being condemned as ‘too inaccurate to deliver even low-yield nuclear fires’.
Despite all these flaws, a total of 2,100 were produced. But growing realisation of the impracticality of the weapon led to it being phased out of service with US forces in Europe from 1967. The last examples were ‘retired’ in 1971.
This article was published in the February 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.
The Little Feller atomic shell test shot was deemed a success (and witnessed by Attorney General RF Kennedy) so it may be that the conventional shells were not good simulations. Also the wind being a factor was known, as the wind is a major factor in all atomic detentions. I’d like to think the weapon served as a deterrent to the Soviets not attacking western Europe, so it successfully served it’s purpose. Many officials felt atomic artillery were “defensive atomic weapons”. My father, Irving Mayer, working under Robert Schwartz, proposed the delivery system and it was chosen by the Pentagon as the best of more than a dozen under consideration. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see the Little Feller test shot nor to receive the personal thanks of JFK that Schwartz’s team received in May 1961. While the Army considered the weapon a success, I’d like to think he could have improved the accuracy if furnished with the test firing data.
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