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Video of Upshot-Knothole Grable test
Nuclear artillery is a subset of limited-yield tactical nuclear weapons, in particular those weapons that are launched from the ground at battlefield targets. Nuclear artillery may be delivered using guns, rockets or missiles.

The development of nuclear artillery was part of a broad push by countries such as the USAmarker, USSRmarker, and the United Kingdommarker to develop nuclear weapons which could be used tactically against enemy military units in the field (as opposed to strategic uses against cities, bases, and industry). The weapons included nuclear landmines, depth charges, torpedoes, demolition munition, anti-aircraft weapons and artillery.

Nuclear artillery was both developed and deployed by a small group of nations, including the USA, USSR, Francemarker and Indiamarker. The United Kingdom planned and partially developed such weapon systems (the Blue water missile and the Yellow Anvil artillery shell) but did not proceed to production systems. A second group of nations has derivative association with nuclear artillery. They had nuclear artillery units but used nuclear weapons provided by the developing nations. These nuclear weapons were held by the developing nation's custodial units stationed with the secondary nations' nuclear artillery units. The custodial units held the nuclear weapons until they were released for use.

This secondary group includes such NATO countries as Belgium, Canada, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

United States nuclear artillery

The US development resulted in a number of test weapons. Delivery systems used by the US Field Artillery include, in approximate order of development:

The first artillery test was on May 25, 1953 at the Nevada Test Sitemarker. Fired as part of Operation Upshot-Knothole and codenamed Shot GRABLE, a 280 mm (11 inch) shell with a gun-type fission warhead was fired 10,000 m (6.2 miles) and detonated 160 m (525 ft) above the ground with an estimated yield of 15 kilotons. This was the only nuclear artillery shell ever actually fired in the US test program. The shell was 1384 mm (4.5 ft) long and weighed 365 kg (805 lb); it was fired from a special artillery piece, nicknamed "Atomic Annie", built by the Artillery Test Unit of Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Around 3,200 personnel were present. The warhead was designated the W9 and 80 were produced from 1952-53 for the T-124 shell. It was retired in 1957.

Development work continued and resulted in the W19. A 280 mm shell, it was a longer version of the W9. Only 80 warheads were produced and the system was retired in 1963 with the development of the W48 warhead.

The W48 was 846 mm long and weighed 58 kg; it could be fitted in a 155 mm M-45 AFAP (artillery fired atomic projectile) and used in a more standard 155 mm howitzer. The fission warhead was a linear implosion type, consisting of a long cylinder of subcritical mass which is compressed and shaped by explosive into a supercritical sphere. The W48 yielded just 72 tons TNT equivalent.

The W48 went into production from 1963; and 135 examples of the Mod 0 variant were built up to 1968 when it was retired. It was replaced by the Mod 1 which was manufactured from 1965 up until 1969; 925 of this type were made.

Only one type of artillery round other than the W48 was produced in large numbers, the W33 for use in a 203 mm shell. Around 2,000 warheads of this type were manufactured from 1957-65. Each XM422 projectile was 940 mm long and had an as-fired weight of 243 pounds. (the standard HE shell weighed some 90 kg). XM422 were fitted with a triple deck mechanical time base fuze. They were fired from a standard 8-inch (203 mm) howitzer, either the towed M115 or self-propelled M110. In some NATO armies these were in specialist units.

The W33's four yields were greater than the W48's. M422 projectiles were assembled in the field to provide the required yield, three yielding 5 to 10 kilotons and one 40 kilotons. There was also a ballistically matched spotting round (HES M424) and a special white bag charge system, M80, comprising charges 1 - 3. The M423 ordinance training round and the associated "bird cages" can be seen at the National Atomic Museum at Albquerque, NM.

Efforts were made to update the warheads: the 203 mm (8-inch) W74 was developed from around 1970, intended to have a yield of 100 tons or higher; it was canceled in 1973. A further development program began in the 1980s: the W82, for the XM-785 (a 155 mm shell), was intended to yield up to 2 kilotons with an enhanced radiation capability. Development was halted in 1983. A W82-1 fission only type was designed but finally cancelled in 1990.

Other developments also continued. In 1958 a fusion warhead was developed and tested, the UCRL Swift. It was 622 mm long, 127 mm diameter, and weighed 43.5 kg. At its test it yielded only 190 tons; it failed to achieve fusion and only the initial fission explosion worked correctly. There are unconfirmed reports that work on similar concepts continued into the 1970s and resulted in a one-kiloton warhead design for 5-inch (127 mm) naval gun rounds; these, however, were never deployed as operational weapons.

As well as linear implosion devices, the US developed a spherical implosion device that was very close to the theoretical lower limit of nuclear weapon yield and size. The Mk-54 Davy Crockett was designed to be fired from the M-388 recoilless rifle. Weighing only 23 kg, the warhead in its casing was 400 mm by 273 mm. It was first tested in October 1958 as part of Operation Hardtack and yielded 10 tons, but later developments increased that to 1 kiloton. 400 Mk-54 warheads were produced from 1961-65 and the last was withdrawn in 1971. The warhead was also adapted for the Mk-54 SADM (Special Atomic Demolition Munition), a cylinder 40 cm by 60 cm and weighing 68 kg. It was emplaced by hand and initiated by a mechanical timer, it had a variable yield from 10 tons up to 1 kiloton. 300 SADMs were made and they remained in the US arsenal until 1989.

In 1991 the US unilaterally withdrew its nuclear artillery shells from service, and Russia responded in kind in 1992. The US removed around 1,300 nuclear shells from Europe and reportedly dismantled its last shells by 2003. Focus has since moved to development of nuclear bunker buster munitions.

USSR nuclear artillery

Soviet nuclear artillery was operated by the Rocket Troops and Artillery branch of the Soviet Ground Forces. Delivery units existed from Tank and Motor Rifle Divisions up to Front level. The control and custody of nuclear weapons is the responsibility of the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defence and its special units.

Initially the USSR concentrated on developing and deploying battlefield nuclear weapons delivered by rockets and missiles. The original systems, T5 and T7 developed through several versions. The delivery systems were:
  • T5 Luna (NATO FROG 7) free flight rocket
  • T7 (NATO SS-1 Scud) missile
  • 9M76 Temp (NATO SS-12 Scaleboard) missile
  • Tochka (NATO SS-21 Scarab) missile
  • (NATO SS-22) missile
  • 9M714 Oka (NATO SS-23 Spider) missile

The first Soviet nuclear projectile "Capacitor" for the 406 mm gun SM-54 (2А3) was released in 1956. A mortar projectile was produced in 1957 for 420 mm breech-loading smoothbore self-propelled mortar 2B2 Oka - "Transformer". Testing revealed critical operational defects in both systems and they were not put into production.

The first nuclear weapon, ZBV3, for use in 152 mm artillery shells was accepted in 1965. Other shell designs followed using existing and new technology.

The Soviet approach to nuclear artillery was that munitions should be fired by guns and howitzers, without any special modifications, in normal artillery units.

Soviet experimental nuclear projectiles

  • 406 mm projectile "Capacitor" for gun SM-54 (2А3)
  • 420 mm projectile "Transformer" for mortar 2B2 Oka

Standard operational nuclear projectiles

  • 152 mm projectile ZBV3 for self-propelled guns 2S19 Msta-S, 2S3 Acacia, 2S5 Giatsint-S, towed gun D-20, 2A36 Giatsint-B, and 2A65 Msta-B. The yield was 1 kiloton, maximum range 17.4 km. The nuclear weapon was designated RFYAC-VNIITF and designed by academician E. I. Zababahina in Snezhinsk.
  • 180 mm projectile ZBV1 for S-23, MK-3-180 (originally a coast artillery piece), maximum range 45 km.
  • 203 mm projectile ZBV2 for self-propelled gun 2S7 Pion, and towed howitzer B-4M, range from 18 km to 30 km.
  • 240 mm projectile ZBV4 for mortar M-240 and self-propelled 2S4 Tulip. Normal maximum range 9.5 km, and 18 km with rocket assistance.

French nuclear artillery

French nuclear artillery was provided by Artillery Regiments equipped with the Pluton missile system from 1975 to 1993 and by its successor the longer-ranged Hadès missile from 1991 to 1996.

NATO nuclear artillery units

Belgium, Canada, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, and the United Kingdom provided artillery units trained in the correct handling and operation of nuclear weapons and in some cases specialist logistic and security units. Their allocated nuclear weapons were in the custody of US Army Artillery Groups (USAAG) with subordinate US Army Field Artillery Detachments (USAFAD) assigned to the national artillery units. The Groups were part of the 59th Ordnance Brigade.

At various times these artillery units operated:


Nuclear artillery was provided by Artillery Groups equipped with the MGR-1 Honest John free flight rockets, MGM-52 Lance missiles and 8-inch (203 mm) howitzers.

The Italian units were:

In fiction

  • In the real-time strategy Command & Conquer: Generals, the Chinese faction is known for its advanced nuclear technology, including nuclear-powered tanks, and a self-propelled artillery that fires tactical nuclear warheads over long distances. In the expansion pack, the cannon can also be loaded with "Neutron Shells" that create a burst of intense neutron radiation on impact, instantly killing infantry and vehicle crews but leaving vehicles intact with no damage from the radiation. Interestingly, the icon of the unit in the user interface is a slightly enhanced version of the Upshot-Knothole test, as seen on the top of this page.

  • In the Hasbro's G.I.JOE toyline in 1989 there is a version of "Atomic Annie" called Thunderclap:

  • In Fallout 3 The "Fat Man" tactical man-portable nuclear catapult and the prototype MIRV variant are capable of delivering extremely low yield "mini-nukes" with moderate range and accuracy to a target.

  • The Metal Gear Solid series concerns nuclear missile launching robots called Metal Gears.

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