The introduction of tactical nuclear weapons into NATO armouries during the early 1950s presented army officers with unprecedented levels of battlefield firepower. By providing a ‘bigger bang for the buck’ tactical nuclear weapons could increase the tactical effectiveness of troops in the field and go some way towards counterbalancing Soviet manpower superiority in Europe – in theory at least. The reality was somewhat different. A lack of precedent on which to base operational planning for tactical nuclear warfare meant that nobody knew what type of war would result from their use. The only way in which military planners could extract some kind of empirical data on tactical nuclear weapon use was through the conduct of war-games and military exercises.
Throughout the 1950s, NATO ground forces were involved in a number of military exercises in an attempt to gain greater insights into the impact that tactical nuclear weapons would have on the conduct of land warfare. Many of these exercises were carried out in the Federal Republic of Germany, whose territory would most likely become the future battlefield in a war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. For political and strategic reasons, West German’s favoured a ‘Forward Strategy’, which stressed the need to defend Western Europe as far to the East as possible. Yet, a forward defence meant that if the Allies were ever going to stop Soviet armoured forces from rolling over the intra-German border and into the industrial heartland of the Western Union, tactical nuclear weapons would have to be employed from the outset, in substantial numbers.
The 1954 NATO field exercise, BATTLE ROYAL, tested the concept of a forward defence of Germany and saw allied forces ‘fire’ atomic shells against a Soviet armoured assault. While much of the attacking force was stopped in its tracks, the exchange resulted in the nuclear ‘contamination’ of a thousand square miles of German territory. The collateral damage caused by the nuclear strikes was a source of great concern, not least for the West German’s themselves who did not relish the prospect of their homeland being subjected to the horrors of nuclear warfare. Ultimately, West German hopes were that tactical nuclear weapons would be used in an escalatory role, whose use would trigger a strategic nuclear exchange between the Superpowers, sparing Europe.
A year later, in June 1955, NATO forces participated in another exercise in West Germany which carried the ominous name of CARTE BLANCHE. The exercise simulated the free play of tactical nuclear weapons directed against airfields and troop concentrations. In just two days, a remarkable 300 atomic bombs had been ‘dropped’ by tactical aircraft. Even without taking into consideration radiation casualties and long term health issues, it was calculated that upwards of 1.3 million Germans would have died, with 3.5 million seriously wounded – more than five times the number of German civilian casualties sustained during the Second World War. The results gained from exercises such as BATTLE ROYAL and CARTE BLANCHE indicated that the battlefield use of nuclear weapons would have a noticeable impact on the relationship between operational policy and political goals. It became clear that if nuclear weapons were used by either belligerent, this would have a devastating impact on the civilian population living in and around the conflict area. In sum, the amount of physical damage caused by tactical nuclear weapons in a theatre of operations would be as great as would occur during a strategic exchange, rendering any sort of military operation meaningless.
The results of these exercises highlight the challenges that confront military organisations when they attempt to increase military effectiveness through the employment of a new, untested weapon system. These issues are heightened further by the unparalleled destructive power of nuclear weapons, and the sensitive political nature surrounding their use. Ultimately, attempting to increase military effectiveness at the tactical level of warfare through the utilisation of greater firepower may conflict with the attainment of increased military effectiveness at another level. For instance, a military force may perceive tactical nuclear weapons to be more powerful forms of conventional artillery, facilitating greater combat power on the battlefield. In this context, the use of nuclear weapons would surely constitute an increase in tactical effectiveness on the field of battle. However, the price to pay – as was highlighted during exercise CARTE BLANCHE – would be high casualty rates among non-combatants, which will almost certainly reduce the political effectiveness of the military organisation. Looking back during the 1970s, a senior American defence analyst described the situation as this: ‘tactical nuclear weapons cannot defend Europe; they can only destroy it…nobody knows how to fight a tactical nuclear war. Twenty years of effort by many military experts have failed to produce a doctrine for tactical nuclear warfare.’
In attempting to find a technological solution to a seemingly intractable military problem, NATO made a dangerous leap of faith during the 1950s in planning to fight a tactical nuclear war in Europe. One might argue that tactical nuclear weapons actually worked, and that Soviet leaders in the Kremlin were sufficiently horrified at the prospect of unleashing global war that no attempt was made to probe the defences of the Western Allies – we will never know. What is certain, however, is that tactical nuclear weapons really did provide a bigger, bigger bang for the buck.
Tactical nuclear weapon, battlefield nuclear weapon, small-yield nuclear weapon, theatre nuclear weapon, and sub-strategic nuclear weapon, are just a few examples of the seemingly endless number of names that have been used to describe nuclear weapons that have been designed to be employed against tactical targets in a theatre of operations. Since the development of tactical nuclear weapons (my own preferred form of reference) in the early 1950s, scholars and practitioners alike have struggled to reach a consensus not only on naming conventions but, more importantly, on what distinguishes a ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon from its more powerful older brother, the ‘strategic’ nuclear weapon. The crux of the problem was, and still remains, the ambiguity of the term ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon. Most modern militaries prefer to distinguish tactical from strategic nuclear weapons by their intended use or mission – a logical position, and one that has acquired a certain degree of validity within the academic community. However, some commentators prefer to define nuclear weapons by their observable capabilities; mainly their means of delivery vehicle or yield of warhead.
But why on earth is any of this important? At first glance, the desire to draw distinctions between nuclear weapons appears pedantic at best, and utterly ludicrous at worst – after all, any nuclear weapon, regardless of its classification, is more than capable of turning its target into a radioactive slag-heap. Yet, issues surrounding the categorisation of nuclear weapons played a significant role in the evolution of British nuclear strategy, not least because of the polarising effect it had on some sections within the British defence community during the 1950s. This was most pronounced during the great debates on whether ‘massive retaliation’ – a strategic concept that emphasised the threat of massive nuclear retaliation against even the most minor acts of aggression – was a credible nuclear strategy for the United Kingdom.
The most vocal critic of ‘massive retaliation’ in Britain was the Naval officer Anthony Buzzard who became convinced in the middle 1950s that such a strategy was utterly incapable of combating the different types of threats facing the Western nations in the nuclear era. For Buzzard, a major war would not be caused by ‘premeditated aggression on a world wide, or even a continental, scale’ but from crises associated with Communist subversion. It was local acts of aggression that Buzzard believed to be the greatest menace to world peace; as such events could rapidly escalate out of control and in to global war. Consequently, Buzzard claimed that the policy of ‘massive retaliation’ was too drastic and inflexible to deal with local acts of aggression short of all-out nuclear war since ‘we are getting into a position where, in effect, we shall be forced to threaten, and if necessary initiate, the destruction of civilisation in the event of any measure of aggression too powerful for our small conventional forces to combat’. For Buzzard, ‘massive retaliation’ lacked credibility as it forced NATO into a difficult position – accept a fait accompli or trigger thermonuclear war.
Because of the perceived weaknesses of ‘massive retaliation’, Buzzard suggested that distinctions should be made in peacetime between the strategic and tactical application of nuclear weapons in the hope that this would provide the West with a means to respond to limited acts of aggression without resorting to the immediate use of strategic nuclear weapons. Buzzard believed that in the event of a threat of aggression, which was too strong for conventional forces to deal with but not warranting the use of thermonuclear weapons, ‘graduated deterrence’ – as his theory came to be known – would allow the West to say to a potential aggressor:
‘If you use aggression, we will, if necessary, use atomic and chemical weapons against your armed forces. But we will not, on this particular issue, use hydrogen or bacteriological weapons at all, unless you do, and we will not use mass destruction weapons against centres of population – regardless of the targets they contain – unless you do so deliberately’.
The essence of ‘graduated deterrence’ was that a potential adversary would be faced with a credible deterrent to aggression. Tactical nuclear weapons could be used in an ‘escalatory’ role to indicate to a potential aggressor that the West was prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend its territory without resorting to the immediate use of strategic nuclear weapons which, in the thermonuclear age, was tantamount to national suicide. Besides the moral and ethical advantages to such a policy, Buzzard believed that such limitations in war would serve to benefit the West in both absolute terms, and relative to the Soviet Union. While both sides would gain enormously from a policy which prevented the atomic bombing of cities and communication centres, the Russian’s would be unable to target the many ports on which the development and supply of so much of the Allied war potential depended.
Yet, the official assessment of ‘graduated deterrence’, which was submitted for study to the Joint Planning Staff in 1955, was that in preparing to limit nuclear war, in the belief that this would make the deterrent more credible, it would have the opposite effect of eroding the deterrent to war itself. Buzzard’s thesis, they said, was ‘born of some confusion of thought’. In a similar vein, the then Chief of the Air Staff, and architect of ‘massive retaliation’ in Britain, Sir John Slessor, stated that the formal renunciations of any particular weapon system are not ‘worth the paper they are written on’ since such a policy would make war more likely. Furthermore, Slessor held the view that even if such distinctions could be made in peacetime, during times of war, when the very existence of nations are at stake, any attempts to limit the use of force by either side would surely fail.
Ultimately, ‘graduated deterrence’ was never accepted in Britain as a strategic concept that would supplant ‘massive retaliation’. The sticking point, it seems, was concerned with the feasibility of drawing distinctions between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. Quite simply, nobody knew what type of war would result from the use of tactical nuclear weapons. The only certainty was that the use of any nuclear weapon in a major war between East and West would escalate out of control and into thermonuclear war, a prospect too frightening to contemplate for those decision-makers responsible for pushing the proverbial red button.
Even a cursory glance at the relevant sections of high street bookshops and university library’s would give one the impression that the activities of the post-war British Army focused overwhelmingly on the challenges of conducting counter-insurgency operations during the uncertain years of Britain’s retreat from Empire after 1945. Of course, the Army was engaged in protracted military operations throughout this period to defeat communist guerrilla fighters in Malaya (1948-60), Mau Mau rebels in Kenya (1952-56) and EOKA independence fighters in Cyprus (1954-59). Yet, while the practice of warfare was characterised by these asymmetric infantry engagements in far-flung overseas territories, the theory of warfare remained centred on the challenges of fighting a high-intensity land war against the Red Army in Europe.
The hub for much of this thinking was the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). The Rhine Army began life in 1945 as a short-term army of occupation in Germany following the defeat of the Axis Powers. By the middle 1950s, however, it had evolved into a formidable fighting force that was designed to be able to fight and prevail on the atomic battlefields of the future. As an integral component of NATO’s Northern Army Group, BAOR was now a permanent fixture on the front line of the Cold War in Europe.
Since 1954, BAOR had been committed to a nuclear defence of the Western Union as dictated by the NATO strategy document MC 48. Western military planners had reached the conclusion that atomic firepower provided the only means to counterbalance Soviet manpower superiority in Europe. A myriad tactical nuclear weapons found their way into the arsenals of the NATO land forces, from atomic artillery pieces to ground and air launched guided missiles, and even atomic demolition munitions. All of this required that Army tactical doctrine and techniques of warfare be recast to reflect the changing nature of atomic age land combat. Such considerations occupied the minds of some of the brightest military thinkers throughout the 1950s and resulted in some extremely original, and often downright bizarre, concepts that would allow the British Army to operate effectively on the nuclear battlefields of the Cold War.
Ultimately, the British Army of the Rhine never embarked upon the war for which it had prepared. Yet, as the first permanent military contribution to European defence in over 200 years, BAOR’s deployment on the European Central Front raises some interesting questions about British defence policy and the ‘British way in warfare’ at the onset of the Cold War. Furthermore, the manner in which British Army officers attempted to tackle what was perhaps the greatest military challenge of their day reveals just how innovative, forward thinking, and receptive were the professional soldiers who were forced to confront the grim spectre of tactical nuclear warfare.