The Cold War exhibited some the greatest inventions that mankind had to offer and provided the springboard that propelled technology and innovation ultimately to where we find ourselves today. The Atomic Age, confined within the Cold War era, not only embodied the advancement of nuclear technology, but it also included some of the greatest contributions to the Cold War technological boom. However, due to the very nature of atomic research, a much darker purpose stirred within the boundaries of the Atomic Age. The knowledge of the atomic and subsequent thermonuclear research is well documented today. However, what is less known to most people is the role that such technology served in the Cold War.

Naturally, ones thought process is to tread towards associating nuclear weapons and deterrents with the arms race and the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD). This thought and idea is certainly not incorrect. A large wing of military doctrine during the Cold War was the expansion of military arsenals to include atomic and extraordinary conventional weapons to be used in the event of another major war. The tests at Bikini Atoll (Operation Castle) and Sukhoy Nos (Tsar Bomba) are clear evidence of this, testing more advanced and powerful weapons one after the other in a race to impress upon the enemy. Atomic weapons were still very new, and while knowledge of their effects was increasing, their use within military doctrine was not well understood by the public.

Uses & Authority

In the United States, the power given to the president was that of being able to have multiple and all options on the table when dealing with external threats. This was called the Flexible Response, and it established the president’s role in the machine that was U.S. military doctrine. It was this Flexible Response that allowed the war in Vietnam to go through so many different phases and had so many different approaches applied to it. This coupled with Resolution NSC-68 enabled the United States to act as a quasi-broker of peace for NATO nations in a Cold War world against the Soviet menace. However, the Flexible Response also included that of unconventional warfare. This was especially true in the case of atomic weapons.

While atomic and thermonuclear weapons are unconventional in of themselves, for the purpose of this article, we will call the following uses of these weapons “exceptional functions:”

  1. For use as a retreating mechanism.
  2. For use as a barricade or near-term, close-range deterrent.
  3. For use as a saturation barrage, or artillery barrage in an otherwise ongoing conflict.

You may note, that none of the aforementioned applications relate to MAD nor do they relate to the action of quick (first)-strike deployment (Q/FSD). No, these are much more intimate than that. Far more so than the use of the atomic bombs in 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These deployment methods outline the use of close-range detonations that serve a means to an end of some variety. We can infer this information either by the context of how they’re described in doctrine or by examining their respective weapon deployment systems. We’ll at least glaze over both of those here.

“Nothing in the Universe is static or unchanging. Every system of ideas and every technique undergoes continual renewal, a process in which new ideas and methods develop while others become obsolete. The role of the soldier is a difficult one. His task is to prepare for war. But what kind of war?”

– F.O. Miksche, 1955.

“The tragic thread of warfare in mankind’s history contain epoch-making instances marked by the introduction of decisive new weapons. From David’s slingshot to Carthaginian elephants, to the invention of gunpowder and, quite recently, to the airplane, we came, in July 1945, to the world-shaking employment of atomic bombs. Yet that was indeed only the beginning of the atomic age.”

– COL G. C. Reinhardt, 1953.


Modern nomenclature for this function would be called a “delaying tactic”, or one that is used in the instance of withdrawal or retreat. For this function, a weapon system may pre-staged, or fired while in a status of retreat. At least two artillery pieces were known to have been tested to fire artillery shells out-of-battery, and both of those artillery pieces went on to have atomic tipped shells produced for them by the mid-to-late 1960s. Other mounted recoilless systems may have also been used to deter or slow down an advancing enemy breach in a defensive line. All means and modes of these tactics included a rally point in which forces were re-massed to stage a counterattack against an invading force. For this reason, the deployment phase of the atomic weapon system in this scenario is usually one or two and does not always include the reclaiming of the weapon system.


Deployed in both the Fulda Gap region and the Korean DMZ in the 1950s, the Davy Crockett rifle was designed to provide boots-on-the-ground an atomic-ready deployment system in case of imminent Soviet or Korean invasion. U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) and Eighth Army (USFK) were the exclusive operators of the weapon system for this reason. V Corps (3rd Armored Division) was tasked with effectively booby trapping the Fulda Gap region in Europe with atomic hazards. This included mobile units deployed with atomic armed Davy Crockett rifles, and atomic demolition mines that would combine to make the region virtually scorched. Elsewhere, in Korea, Davy Crockett deployment was use in regions of the DMZ where invasion was most likely to occur. The use of the weapons was staged in such a way that in the event of invasion, radiation would pool in a sort-of no-mans-land that would be precarious to navigate for even allied armored or infantry divisions.

The Davy Crockett recoilless rifle was a unique weapon system that could arguably be called an “atomic bazooka” (I have and do call it this), and fired both atomic, and later conventional, rounds. There were two different sizes of launcher, one was a 120 mm design, and the other was a 150 mm design. The W54 warhead had an adjustable yield from ten to twenty tons and was affixed to the M388 projectile. The projectile could travel up to 2.5 miles before detonation depending on the launcher. The launcher was designed to be set up on a tripod and could either be stationary on the ground or jeep mounted. The Davy Crockett atomic rounds were all converted to conventional rounds sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s.


Anti-personnel or area deniability best defines this application in modern terminology. There are two differing concepts wrapped up within this strategy. The first deploys an atomic weapons system for the purpose of establishing a weaponized barrier or blockade across a geographic surface. We often think of the “iron curtain” as the Berlin Wall – the physical manifestation of the line that divided the Soviet Bloc from the West. It is best to think of this strategy as the deployment of atomic weapons to create a wall of radiation as the physical manifest of a quasi-demilitarized zone (DMZ). However, this operates on the presumption that the invading force does not have radiation resistant armor or infantry. By the 1960s, we know that the Soviets did have this technology, regardless of how primitive. Because of this, we see the revised version of this application come to light.

The second revision employs an atomic arc that acts staunchly as a deterrent over a geographic area but is ready to deploy live artillery with little or no notice. In this application, it is best to think of Western Europe as a castle or city that is surrounded by a mote. Just before the city walls are spikes that are designed to impale an enemy should they approach (you could also imagine archers). In this picture, the atomic delivery systems act as the spikes and no-mans-land acts as the mote separating the wilderness with the city. For this reason, the weapon systems are present both as a show of force and as a means of force projection and deterrent.


Much like the Davy Crockett, the Atomic Cannon – sometimes referred to as Atomic Annie – was deployed in the Fulda Gap as a means of deterrent against Soviet Forces. It is disputed if one of these weapons ever made it to Eighth Army, but M65s were deployed Okinawa. The Okinawa M65s were most likely in place either for intermediate storage and prepositioned for movement into hot zones (such as Korea or French Indochina) or functioned as a form of coastal defense. The M65 was not completed in time for action in the Korean War, and therefore the notion of whether USFK ever received one of these monsters is up for open debate still. The first cannon was received in 1953. Most activity with the Atomic Cannons took place in Germany where large numbers of drills with conventional weaponry took place.

Based on the Third Reich’s Krupp K5, only twenty M65 cannons were produced, but only one ever fired the W9 warhead. Capable of an adjustable yield between fifteen and twenty kilotons, the shell that carried the W9 warhead weighed about 600 pounds and traveled up to twenty miles, though in testing it only flew for seven. Shot “Grable”, part of the Upshot-Knothole test, occurred on 25 May 1953 at 0830. The shot was fired at the Nevada Proving Grounds and was the only time an atomic shell was fired from one of the M65 cannons. All subsequent shots in theater or in testing used conventional shells. The serial number of the gun that fired the “Grable” shot was number 9 and survived mothballing – now on display at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The Atomic Cannon was phased out in favor of more durable rocket systems in the early 1960s.



Certainly, a sign of the times and the understanding of atomic weapons is the active use of atomic weapons in a hot battle zone where both red and blue elements are in play. This application employs atomic weapons in front-line situations where both allied and enemy forces are nearby. In this scenario, you would be deploying atomic shells in the same fashion that you’d deploy a standard artillery barrage, though perhaps with more planning and tactical delivery. However, all the same is that this requires allied forces on the field to endure atomic blasts, flashes, and burns to continue operations and push through the enemy defensive perimeter. Certain descriptions of using atomic weapons in this configuration outline the implications of atomic warfare in rural areas or near small towns and villages. That is to say, these are all dismissed and placed upon the artillery division to effectively deliver the payload to decide if the town is incinerated, irradiated, or otherwise destroyed or not.

COL G. C. Reinhardt and LTC W. R. Kintner of the U.S. Army Ordnance Department outline the contemporary thinking of atomic deployment in 1953. For their models, a standard yield of twenty kilotons is used, and the disbursement is via an air blast. The radiation range is described as ending at about 4,000 feet, with the shockwave reaching up to 6,500 feet, and the heat danger extending out to 8,800 feet from the center of the blast. This was all based upon the initial observations following the atomic blasts in Japan. It is also described that the blast itself is not the killer, rather the projectiles and heat hurling through the air coupled with radiation. What Reinhardt and Kintner do not address, however, is how complete void of oxygen and core temperature within the blast radius. While weather is pointed out as a concern, it is also largely ignored with observations of wind primarily at six meters and the natural 850 millibar (MB) altitude (where the barometric pressure meets 850 MB). Lastly, the dangers of flash burns and immediate radiation exposure are explained away as being deflected by simple cover and the use of loose clothing to avoid the transfer of heat to the skin of an individual. Almost all of these facts of which are now devoid of basis in fact.


The deployment of the Honest John Rocket System is wide and varied across the entirety of the Cold War. These rockets were deployed in far more regions than the artillery systems they eventually replaced. Honest John and its predecessors-in-program saw deployment in Germany, Korea, and Turkey. The system was also exported for use by other nations such as France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. USAREUR, USFK, and U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) (U.S. Army, and U.S. Marine Corps operated) were the exclusive American operators.

Honest John had a very unique mission set that allowed it to stay within the U.S. arsenal until 1983 when it was finally retired. Just like with artillery systems, Honest John enabled the deployment of rocket delivered conventional, atomic, and biological agents to enemy lines. The rocket was lighter than artillery systems and was more durable and able to be deployed across a much larger variety of terrains. This made it an appealing replacement for weapon systems such as the Atomic Cannon, especially when smaller and lighter artillery systems could fill in the gaps. The MGR-1’s payload included a W31 warhead with a yield up to thirty kilotons. It could also deploy nerve agents such as Sarin gas, or cluster incendiary bomblets. The rocket propulsion system carried the rocket as far as fifteen miles at a speed of over Mach two. The weapon system paved the way for future rocket developments such as the Nike program later in the 1960s.


Atomic weapons deployment as front-line measures continue well into the 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell. Weapon systems as recent as the M198 155 mm howitzer were able to fire atomic shells. By and large, front line atomic defensive measures were carried out between the M115 203 mm howitzer, the later XM198, short range rocket systems, and medium range rocket systems. These were all designed to fulfill the need for front-line deterrence and the potential artillery barrage requirement. Larger ballistic missile systems were eventually adopted into the U.S. nuclear triad, but these were for operational level engagements rather than at the tactical or strategic level. Despite a growing understanding of how radiation worked, and interactions with atomic weapon systems increased, the last atomic shell was struck from the inventory in 1992. The status of the struck shells, whether they were demilled or put away and forgotten, however, is unknown.

Likewise, the future of atomic warfare in gun systems, rail systems, and missile technology remains uncertain, ever changing, and for the most part, largely unknown. The unpredictability and occasional reverse in direction that is sometimes observed within military sects does make one question as to whether or not these tactics have seen their last light or not. Time will tell. However, the direction of warfare on a grand scale suggests that these horrific practices (as we know them now) of the Cold War are truly hauntings of the past and likely do not have a present nor a future.

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