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Recovering the Army’s Nuclear Battlefield Proficiency

Thursday, February 12, 2015

In the early 1980s, our South Korea-based 8-inch howitzer battalion, the general support artillery battalion of the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, received a long-awaited consignment of new and improved ammunition, including so-called supercharges, propellant charges 8 and 9.

At the time, the M110A2 howitzer was the Army’s most accurate and lethal cannon artillery weapon as well as one of its two nuclear-capable ones. It had one limitation, though: Compared with some of the artillery fielded by our putative North Korean adversaries, it lacked range. The new ammunition would help close that gap.

To use it effectively, however, we needed to know how it would perform with our weapons. Like all artillery firing tables, those accompanying the new propellant charges used nominal performance data. To shoot accurately, we needed to correct that data for our own weapons, a live-firing exercise called calibration.

Because of adverse weather, we were able on the first day of shooting to calibrate only four of our 12 howitzers, and those only at charge 8. Accordingly, having duly reported our activities to higher headquarters, we suspended further calibration firing until the following day.

Within hours, however, we received a peremptory order from division headquarters to freeze in place, not expend a single additional round and expect a visit from Eighth Army headquarters. Sure enough, the following morning, a helicopter arrived to disgorge a team of hard-faced officers from Eighth Army.

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A fireball rises with the firing of the first atomic artillery shell at Nevada Proving Grounds in May 1953. (Credit: U.S. Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration)

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A Davy Crockett, shown at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., in 1961, used the smallest nuclear warhead the U.S. ever created. (Credit: DoD)

What, we were asked, did we think that we were doing? Mystified by a question that no field artilleryman would need to ask, we explained that we were calibrating our new ammunition and described the process and why it was necessary.

Our explanation made no impression whatsoever. Instead, we were instructed curtly to pack up immediately, return all unopened charge 8 and 9 propellant canisters to storage and never touch another one without explicit permission from higher headquarters.

It was weeks before we learned the reason for this bizarre overreaction to a routine gunnery procedure. The only purpose for which we had been issued the new propellants, it turned out, was to fire nuclear spotting rounds: conventional projectiles fired in advance of a nuclear delivery to ensure that the latter would land more or less where intended.

Since, for nuclear weapons as for horseshoes and hand grenades, close can be good enough, calibration wasn’t deemed essential for that purpose. Instead, we discovered, our well-intended expenditure of four Zone 8 charges had prompted a Serious Incident Report that escalated all the way up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No wonder the visitors from Eighth Army were less than cordial.

Only Game In Town
The episode just described was scarcely the first case in which responsibility for ground-based nuclear delivery warred with effective preparation for conventional combat. The Army originally became involved in so-called tactical nuclear warfare in the early days of the Cold War, when, with the U.S. on the short end of a severe ground force imbalance with the USSR and China, conflict with either nation threatened to involve nuclear weapons from the outset.

With nuclear warfare the only game in town, so to speak, the Army quickly sought its own entries in the race to field nuclear capabilities. Starting in 1953 with the 280 mm Atomic Cannon, a host of theater nuclear delivery systems followed during the next four decades, ranging from the Davy Crockett, a recoilless weapon firing a sub-kiloton nuclear warhead roughly 2 miles—with, on a good day, about the same target error—to Pershing II, a GPS-guided ballistic missile able to strike targets more than 1,000 miles away with pinpoint precision.

Those weapons and others in between were designed uniquely for nuclear delivery. Apart from procurement, their principal cost to the Army’s conventional capability was the associated commitment of generations of soldiers and leaders to their care and feeding. Not so for the so-called dual-purpose weapons of the Army’s cannon artillery—the 155 mm and 8-inch howitzers furnishing the principal fire support of ground combat operations. For those units, among them our battalion in South Korea, maintenance of nuclear proficiency competed in a host of ways with preparedness to perform the conventional fire support mission.

Moreover, given the sensitivities associated with nuclear weapons—sensitivities that only mounted as the years went by, when sustainment of nuclear and conventional proficiency collided—the former invariably prevailed. Substandard performance in a conventional inspection or training exercise might embarrass the deficient unit’s leadership; the slightest failure in nuclear operations threatened fatal career damage. Artillery unit commanders adjusted their priorities accordingly.

Going Nuclear
What made all this especially ironic was the Army’s—indeed, anyone’s—persistent inability to devise a convincing doctrine for employing tactical nuclear weapons, especially in the most likely context of a war between the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact and NATO. Repeated efforts to create one invariably fell afoul of both operational and strategic problems.

Operationally, every war game and simulation revealed that introduction of nuclear weapons on the battlefield would increase, not diminish, the advantage accruing to the numerically superior combatant. Strategically, no one could convincingly explain how nuclear employment could be confined to the battlefield without quickly escalating to a full-scale strategic nuclear exchange. Meanwhile, some of our NATO allies, notably West Germany, understandably were less than enthusiastic about restricting nuclear warfare to their soil while leaving the two major nuclear powers unscathed, rightly doubting that such a prospect would enhance deterrence.

Both defects applied to all forms of theater nuclear employment, but dual-purpose weapons like ours suffered from an additional problem. While deployment of nuclear-only systems would be unmistakable, that of dual-purpose weapons perforce would be ambiguous. Even their preparation to perform conventional fire support tasks might easily be misread as the precursor to nuclear pre-emption, especially if the associated nuclear warheads were dispersed in a crisis from their well-known, hence easily targeted, special storage locations.

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Soldiers work with an 8-inch atomic projectile at Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M. (Credit: U.S. Army)

The Army never satisfactorily solved those problems. In the early 1980s, a draft operational concept that attempted to revive the idea of nuclear weapons as tactical fire support prompted a political explosion in Bonn, Germany, and a bitter protest from NATO’s supreme allied commander. The concept was quickly shelved, to be replaced not long afterward by AirLand Battle. But NATO’s political neuralgia with respect to any tactical use of nuclear weapons lingered to complicate the formulation of Army warfighting doctrine as late as the 1986 revision of Field Manual 100-5 Operations.

In 1989, the implosion of the USSR and the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact rendered the issue moot, at least insofar as Europe was concerned. Two years later, President George H.W. Bush directed that the entire worldwide inventory of ground-launched theater nuclear weapons be returned to the U.S. and destroyed. By December 1991, South Korea had been denuded of artillery-delivered nuclear weapons. Europe’s weapons followed, and in July 1992, the president announced that all ground-launched theater nuclear weapons had been returned to the U.S. During the next two years, the Army surrendered the remainder of its nuclear inventory. Few artillerymen shed any tears.

Circumstances Change
And so, until now, matters have remained. But Russia’s revanchism in Eastern Europe and China’s assertiveness in the Western Pacific, continued North Korean efforts to field a nuclear capability, and the possibility that failed nuclear negotiations with Iran might incentivize nuclear proliferation elsewhere in the Middle East have led some to wonder whether the U.S. might have been too hasty in abandoning what some have come to call—inaccurately—nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

As one former director of America’s premier nuclear weapons research center argued not long ago, the U.S. should at least prototype small-yield nuclear weapons suitable for precision delivery, including electromagnetic pulse weapons to attack hostile communications systems and a penetrating warhead to destroy deeply buried targets.

More recently, Russia’s imminent fielding of a new nuclear-capable cruise missile in what the U.S. considers to be a violation of 1987’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin might position nuclear weapons in the newly re-annexed Crimea despite the 1994 Budapest Accord denuclearizing Ukraine, has led some to argue for reciprocal U.S. theater nuclear deployments to Europe.

The weapons in question of course wouldn’t have to be ground-based, let alone Army-owned. Cruise missiles can be launched from sea and air, and both they and old-fashioned nuclear bombs are the province of the Navy and Air Force. The only remaining Army nuclear-capable missiles are in museum displays, their warheads long since destroyed or repurposed, while the Department of Energy dismantled the Army’s last nuclear artillery projectile in December 2003.

Meanwhile, the operational and strategic drawbacks to using such weapons have in no way diminished since the U.S. abandoned them; neither has the likely political resistance in Europe to their reintroduction on European soil. Meanwhile, even maintaining the strategic deterrent has proved a mounting challenge for the Army’s sister services. Many of today’s deployed nuclear warheads are antiquated, and both the Navy and the Air Force have been plagued by troublesome security, training and morale problems among personnel committed to a capability whose employment remains as unlikely as sustaining it remains onerous.

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Pershing II missiles are prepared for test launch at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., in 1987. (Credit: DoD/National Archives)

With no such residual capability, the Army has been spared those problems, but it wasn’t just nuclear warheads that the Army surrendered more than a decade ago. With them disappeared most of the Army’s nuclear warfare-related doctrinal attention and virtually all of its education and training in areas ranging from nuclear targeting to conducting conventional operations under nuclear threat. FM 100-30, the Army’s basic field manual on nuclear operations, was published for the last time in 1996, while its principal remaining repositories of radiological defense expertise are limited to the Army’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) School and a Department of the Army field agency with fewer than 40 people, recently more consumed by Ebola than nuclear warfare.

It’s above all that loss of doctrinal attention and institutional learning that has some observers concerned. No one—certainly no soldier—is calling for a modern version of the Davy Crockett, but as long as other nations retain—and nonstate actors pursue—the ability to employ nuclear weapons on a future battlefield, the Army can’t afford to ignore the possibility that one of them might decide to do so, however strategically unwise such a decision might prove.

We don’t need to revisit the days of technical proficiency inspections, emergency action messages and painted truck tires, nor should the Army contemplate diverting already overstretched dollars and manpower to a nuclear delivery capability that never contributed convincingly to either deterrence or warfighting. But neither budget nor force structure limitations prevent us from thinking about, writing about and war-gaming the battlefield nuclear problem.

It wouldn’t hurt to bring FM 100-30 up to date and to reinfuse examination of nuclear operations and operations in conditions of nuclear threat into Army professional military education courses. While ground commanders may no longer be responsible for executing battlefield nuclear strikes, they should study how best to exploit the effects of such weapons if delivered and, in addition to CBRN training aimed at individual soldier survival, how best to preserve tactical coherence and freedom of action in the event of similar strikes by a nuclear-armed adversary.

Study and learning are one form of military effort that costs relatively little. The Army once devoted a considerable mental effort to nuclear warfare. We can all pray that the nuclear genie remains bottled, but against the possibility—however remote—that it might escape, reinvesting even a modicum of that effort might one day produce a hugely disproportionate, if regrettably necessary, return.