A Bigger, Bigger Bang for the Buck

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.