M28/M29 Davy Crockett
These man-portable recoilless rifles were designed to launch the 51-pound W54 atomic warhead, the smallest ever fielded by the United States, against targets at ranges up to two and half miles. The explosive power of the warhead was equivalent to just 10 tons of TNT, a mere fraction of that of the 160-kiloton atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. First deployed in 1962, the Crockett was a tactical weapon of last resort and was designed for use in the event of a European land war against the mighty Red Army. Oops factor: The 380-yard lethal radiation radius of the warhead, when paired with the launcher’s short range of 437 yards, could have doomed its firing crew.
The Supersonic Low Altitude Missile (SLAM) was a 1950s nuclear-engined, ramjet-propelled weapon designed to attack the Soviet Union in the event of World War III. In theory, this ultrafast Mach 3 cruise missile could stay aloft continuously and fly beneath Soviet air defenses to deliver its payload of up to 24 nuclear warheads. But the prototype for the locomotive-size Pluto leaked deadly radiation from its unshielded nuclear power plant and spewed radioactive debris in its exhaust. Pluto was considered too dangerous for the United States ever to deploy, and the project was canceled in 1964.
Orbital X-Ray Laser
An orbiting antimissile system powered by the detonation of a nuclear device was the brainchild of renowned physicist Edward Teller. President Ronald Reagan’s 1980s-era Strategic Defense Initiative, colloquially dubbed Star Wars, sought to turn Teller’s idea into a workable reality. The goal was to convert the X-ray energy from a single nuclear explosion into multiple laser beams aimed at destroying many Soviet nuclear missiles at once. The proposed operational plan for the X-ray laser foresaw many such systems circling the Earth to guard against nuclear strikes. Eventually, Star Wars was judged infeasible, given the state of technology at the time, and the program was halted in 1992.
The American MX, or LGM-118A Peacekeeper, intercontinental ballistic missile was a technological marvel, able to carry 10 independently targetable 300-kiloton nuclear warheads to ranges of up to 6,800 miles. But Soviet ICBMs had become increasingly accurate by then, casting doubt on the survivability of American missiles, even when emplaced in hardened silos. Controversy quickly arose about how to base the new fleet of MX missiles. Many options were considered in the early 1980s, including constantly moving the missiles around on underground rails between hardened bunkers or above ground in rail cars and, according to an uncertain theory of “nuclear fratricide,” packing them so tightly in superhardened silos that detonating Soviet warheads would destroy other Soviet warheads striking at nearby silos. All the basing plans were rejected, and Congress later cut the MX program to just 50 missiles. In 1987 these were deployed in silos built for older Minuteman missiles. The last operational Peacekeepers were retired in 2005.
The Soviet Hotel-class K-19 ballistic missile submarine was shoddily built at breakneck speed in order to deploy quickly a nuclear sub fleet equal to that of the United States. By the time the sub was completed, 10 workers and one crewman had perished as a result of construction accidents. Once in service, the K-19 proved to be a dangerous—and perhaps unlucky—vessel: On its first cruise in 1961 its onboard reactor suffered a total coolant failure. Eight brave crewmen went into the reactor compartment and erected a substitute coolant system to prevent a catastrophic nuclear meltdown. They saved the submarine but absorbed fatal doses of radiation and died within weeks of the K-19’s return to Russia. Another 14 crewmen died of radiation poisoning within two years of the incident, and all others who had been onboard incurred some kind of radiation-related illness.
The Skybolt was an American-made, aircraft-launched nuclear ballistic missile developed in the late 1950s. As the plan for it was envisioned, bombers carrying Skybolts would fly toward the Soviet Union and release their weapons well out of range of enemy air defenses. Tests of the missile, however, went very poorly, and President John F. Kennedy canceled the program in December 1962. Because Great Britain had wanted the Skybolt as the centerpiece of its own nuclear-deterrent force, the missile’s cancellation caused a diplomatic firestorm known as the Skybolt Crisis. Relations got back on track only when Kennedy agreed to supply submarine-launched Polaris missiles to Britain.
Early nuclear bombs were dropped by aircraft, and because targeting was inaccurate, the bombs had to be very powerful to ensure the destruction of the intended objective. On October 30, 1961, above the Novaya Zemlya archipelago north of the Arctic Circle, the Soviets tested the most powerful nuclear weapon ever made. The massive, 27 metric-ton AN602 hydrogen bomb, or Tsar Bomba (Emperor Bomb), produced the explosive equivalent of 50 to 58 megatons of TNT, the largest man-made explosion in history and an estimated 10 times greater than the sum of all of the explosives used in World War II. Once ICBMs became more accurate, the need for bombs with gigantic explosive yields, such as the utterly impractical and one-off Tsar Bomba, disappeared.
The Dead Hand
In the 1970s, worried about a surprise nuclear attack that could leave their entire leadership dead with barely 13 minutes warning, the Soviets developed the Perimetr automated nuclear weapon control system. The computer-controlled Perimetr could detect via sensors whether the Soviet Union was under attack and if it was, launch an arsenal of nuclear missiles—even if all contact with the Kremlin had been lost. The only requirement for Perimetr to carry out a cataclysmic atomic assault was the OK of a lone duty officer in an underground bunker, obeying a system that was susceptible to malfunction. This still mysterious doomsday system is said to have been operational by January 1985, but the rest of the world did not learn of its existence for another eight years. Unconfirmed reports claim that Perimetr may still be operational.