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Nuclear weapons delivery is the technology and systems used to place a nuclear weapon at the position of detonation, on or near its target. Several methods have been developed to carry out this task.

Strategic nuclear weapons are used primarily as part of a doctrine of deterrence by threatening large targets, such as cities. Weapons meant for use in limited military maneuvers, such as destroying specific military, communications, or infrastructure targets, are known as tactical nuclear weapons. In terms of explosive yields, nowadays the former have much larger yield than the latter, even though it's not a rule. The bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 (with TNT equivalents between 15 and 22 kilotons) were weaker than many of today's tactical weapons, yet they achieved the desired effect when used strategically.

Main delivery mechanisms

Gravity bomb

The second nuclear weapons, such as the "Little Boy" and the "Fat Man" devices, were large and cumbersome gravity bombs

Historically, the first method of delivery, and the method used in the only two nuclear weapons actually used in warfare, was in a gravity bomb dropped by a bomber. In the years leading up to the development and deployment of nuclear-armed missiles, nuclear bombs represented the most practical means of nuclear weapons delivery; even today, and especially with the decommissioning of nuclear missiles, aerial bombing remains the primary means of offensive nuclear weapons delivery, and the majority of U.S. nuclear warheads are represented in bombs, although some are in the form of missiles.

No nuclear weapon qualifies as a "wooden bomb"—US military slang for a bomb that is trouble-free, maintenance-free, and danger-free under all conditions. Gravity bombs are designed to be dropped from planes, which requires that the weapon can withstand vibrations and changes in air temperature and pressure during the course of a flight. Early weapons often had a removable core for safety, installed by the air crew during flight. They had to meet safety conditions, to prevent accidental detonation or dropping. A variety of types also had to have a fuse to initiate detonation. US nuclear weapons that met these criteria are designated by the letter "B" followed, without a hyphen, by the sequential number of the "physics package" it contains. The "B61", for example, was the primary bomb in the US arsenal for decades.

Various air-dropping techniques exist, including toss bombing, parachute-retarded delivery, and laydown modes, intended to give the dropping aircraft time to escape the ensuing blast.

The early gravity nuclear bombs could only be carried by the B-29 Superfortress. The next generation of weapons were still so big and heavy that they could only be carried by bombers such as the B-52 Stratofortress and V bombers, but by the mid-1950s smaller weapons had been developed that could be carried and deployed by fighter-bombers.

Ballistic missile

Trident II SLBM launched by Royal Navy Vanguard class submarine.

Missiles using a ballistic trajectory usually deliver a warhead over the horizon, at distances of thousands of kilometers, as in the case of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Most ballistic missiles exit the Earth's atmosphere and re-enter it in their sub-orbital spaceflight.

Placement of nuclear missiles on the low Earth orbit has been banned by the Outer Space Treaty as early as 1967. Also, the eventual Soviet Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) that served a similar purpose—it was just deliberately designed to deorbit before completing a full circle—was phased out in January 1983 in compliance with the SALT II treaty.

An ICBM is more than 20 times as fast as a bomber and more than 10 times as fast as a fighter plane, and also flying at a much higher altitude, and therefore more difficult to defend against. ICBMs can also be fired quickly in the event of a surprise attack.

Early ballistic missiles carried a single warhead, often of megaton-range yield. Because of the limited accuracy of the missiles, this kind of high yield was considered necessary in order to ensure a particular target's destruction. Since the 1970s modern ballistic weapons have seen the development of far more accurate targeting technologies, particularly due to improvements in inertial guidance systems. This set the stage for smaller warheads in the hundreds-of-kilotons-range yield, and consequently for ICBMs having multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV). Advances in technology have enabled a single missile to launch a payload containing several warheads. The number of independent warheads capable of deployment from ballistic missiles depends on the weapons platform the missile is launched from. For example, one D5 trident carried by an Ohio-class submarine is capable of launching eight independent warheads,[1] while a Typhoon has missiles capable of deploying 10 warheads at a time.[2][3] MIRV has a number of advantages over a missile with a single warhead. With small additional costs, it allows a single missile to strike multiple targets, or to inflict maximum damage on a single target by attacking it with multiple warheads. It makes anti-ballistic missile defense even more difficult, and even less economically viable, than before.

Missile warheads in the American arsenal are indicated by the letter "W"; for example, the W61 missile warhead would have the same physics package as the B61 gravity bomb described above, but it would have different environmental requirements, and different safety requirements since it would not be crew-tended after launch and remain atop a missile for a great length of time.

Cruise missile

Cruise missiles have a shorter range than ICBMs. BGM-109 Tomahawk pictured.

A cruise missile is a jet engine or rocket-propelled missile that flies at low altitude using an automated guidance system (usually inertial navigation, sometimes supplemented by either GPS or mid-course updates from friendly forces) to make them harder to detect or intercept. Cruise missiles can carry a nuclear warhead. They have a shorter range and smaller payloads than ballistic missiles, so their warheads are smaller and less powerful.

The AGM-129 ACM (Advanced Cruise Missile) is the US Air Force's current nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile. The START II treaty forbids the USA from using stealth weapons on stealth aircraft, therefore the ACM is only carried on the B-52 Stratofortress. This plane can carry 20 missiles. Thus the cruise missiles themselves can be compared with MIRV warheads. The BGM/UGM-109 Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile is capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but does not in present configurations.

Cruise missiles may also be launched from mobile launchers on the ground, and from naval ships.

There is no letter change in the US arsenal to distinguish the warheads of cruise missiles from those for ballistic missiles.

Cruise missiles, even with their lower payload, have a number of advantages over ballistic missiles for the purposes of delivering nuclear strikes:

  • Launch of a cruise missile is difficult to detect early from satellites and other long-range means, contributing to a surprise factor of attack.
  • That, coupled with the ability to actively maneuver in flight, allows for penetration of strategic anti-missile systems aimed at intercepting ballistic missiles on calculated trajectory of flight.

Partially for those reasons, nuclear-armed cruise missiles are amongst the least deployed of all nuclear weapons, as their deployment is restricted by treaties such as SALT II.

Other delivery systems

The Davy Crockett artillery shell is the smallest known nuclear weapon developed by the USA.

The Mk-17 was an early U.S. thermonuclear weapon and weighed around 21 short tons (19,000 kg).

Other potential delivery methods include artillery shells, mines such as the Medium Atomic Demolition Munition and the (very odd) Blue Peacock, and nuclear depth charges, and nuclear torpedoes. An atomic mortar was also tested. Even an 'Atomic Bazooka' was designed to be used against large formations of tanks.

In the 1950s the U.S. developed small nuclear warheads for air defense use, such as the Nike Hercules. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the United States and Canada fielded a low-yield nuclear-tipped air-to-air rocket, the AIR-2 Genie. Further developments of this concept, some with much larger warheads, led to the early anti-ballistic missiles. United States' have taken nuclear air-defense weapons out of service. Russia continues to maintain the Soviet anti-ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.[citation needed]

Small, two-man portable tactical weapons (erroneously referred to as suitcase bombs), such as the Special Atomic Demolition Munition, have been developed, although the difficulty to combine sufficient yield with portability limits their military utility.

Costs and technology spin-offs

According to an audit by the Brookings Institution, between 1940 and 1996, the U.S. spent $8.75 trillion in present day terms[4] on nuclear weapons programs. 57 percent of which was spent on building delivery mechanisms for nuclear weapons. 6.3 percent of the total, $549 billion in present day terms, was spent on weapon nuclear waste management, for example, cleaning up the Hanford site with environmental remediation, and 7 percent of the total, $615 billion was spent on the manufacturing of nuclear weapons themselves.[5]

Edward White during the first US "Spacewalk" (EVA)Extravehicular activity, Project Gemini 4, June 1965

Strictly speaking however not all this 57 percent was spent solely on "weapons programs" delivery systems. For example, two such delivery mechanisms, the Atlas ICBM and Titan II, were re-purposed as human launch vehicles for manned spaceflight, both were used in the civilian Project Mercury and Project Gemini programs respectively, which are regarded as stepping stones in the evolution of US manned spaceflight.[6][7][8] The Atlas vehicle sent John Glenn, the first American into orbit. Similarly in the Soviet Union it was the R-7 ICBM/launch vehicle that placed the first artificial satellite in space, Sputnik, on 4 October 1957, and the first human spaceflight in history was accomplished on a derivative of the R-7, the Vostok, on 12 April 1961, by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. A modernized version of the R-7 is still in use as the launch vehicle for the Russian Federation, in the form of the Soyuz spacecraft. The first true weather satellite, the TIROS-1 was launched on the Thor-Able launch vehicle April 1, 1960.[9] The PGM-17 Thor was the first operational IRBM(intermediate ballistic missile) deployed by the U.S. Air Force (USAF). The Soviet Union's first fully operational weather satellite, the Meteor 1 was launched 26 March 1969 on the Vostok rocket,[10] a derivative of the R-7 ICBM.

WD-40 was first used by Convair to protect the outer skin, and more importantly, the paper thin "balloon tanks" of the Atlas missile from rust and corrosion.[11][12] These stainless steel fuel tanks were so thin that, when empty, they had to be kept inflated with nitrogen gas to prevent their collapse.

During the development of the submarine-launched Polaris missile, a requirement to accurately know the submarine's location was needed to ensure a high circular error probable warhead target accuracy. This led the US to develop the Transit system.[13] In 1959, ARPA (renamed DARPA in 1972) also played a role in Transit.[14][15][16]

A visual example of a 24 satellite GPS constellation in motion with the Earth rotating. Notice how the number of satellites in view from a given point on the Earth's surface, in this example at 45°N, changes with time. GPS was initially developed to increase Ballistic Missile Circular Error Probable accuracy.

The first satellite navigation system, Transit, used by the United States Navy, was first successfully tested in 1960. It used a constellation of five satellites and could provide a navigational fix approximately once per hour. In 1967, the U.S. Navy developed the Timation satellite that proved the ability to place accurate clocks in space, a technology required by the latter Global Positioning System. In the 1970s, the ground-based Omega Navigation System, based on phase comparison of signal transmission from pairs of stations,[17] became the first worldwide radio navigation system. Limitations of these systems drove the need for a more universal navigation solution with greater accuracy.

While there were wide needs for accurate navigation in military and civilian sectors, almost none of those was seen as justification for the billions of dollars it would cost in research, development, deployment, and operation for a constellation of navigation satellites. During the Cold War arms race, the nuclear threat to the existence of the United States was the one need that did justify this cost in the view of the United States Congress. This deterrent effect is why GPS was funded. The nuclear triad consisted of the United States Navy's submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) along with United States Air Force (USAF) strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Considered vital to the nuclear-deterrence posture, accurate determination of the SLBM launch position was a force multiplier.

Precise navigation would enable United States submarines to get an accurate fix of their positions before they launched their SLBMs.[18] The USAF, with two thirds of the nuclear triad, also had requirements for a more accurate and reliable navigation system. The Navy and Air Force were developing their own technologies in parallel to solve what was essentially the same problem. To increase the survivability of ICBMs, there was a proposal to use mobile launch platforms (such as Russian SS-24 and SS-25) and so the need to fix the launch position had similarity to the SLBM situation.

In 1960, the Air Force proposed a radio-navigation system called MOSAIC (MObile System for Accurate ICBM Control) that was essentially a 3-D LORAN. A follow-on study, Project 57, was worked in 1963 and it was "in this study that the GPS concept was born". That same year, the concept was pursued as Project 621B, which had "many of the attributes that you now see in GPS"[19] and promised increased accuracy for Air Force bombers as well as ICBMs. Updates from the Navy Transit system were too slow for the high speeds of Air Force operation.The Navy Research Laboratory continued advancements with their Timation (Time Navigation) satellites, first launched in 1967, and with the third one in 1974 carrying the first atomic clock into orbit.[20]

Another important predecessor to GPS came from a different branch of the United States military. In 1964, the United States Army orbited its first Sequential Collation of Range (SECOR) satellite used for geodetic surveying. The SECOR system included three ground-based transmitters from known locations that would send signals to the satellite transponder in orbit. A fourth ground-based station, at an undetermined position, could then use those signals to fix its location precisely. The last SECOR satellite was launched in 1969.[21] Decades later, during the early years of GPS, civilian surveying became one of the first fields to make use of the new technology, because surveyors could reap benefits of signals from the less-than-complete GPS constellation years before it was declared operational. GPS can be thought of as an evolution of the SECOR system where the ground-based transmitters have been migrated into orbit.

See also


  4. Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–2014. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved February 27, 2014.
  5. Brookings Institution, "Estimated Minimum Incurred Costs of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Programs, 1940-1996", at
  6. The Titan II ICBM was converted into the Titan/Gemini space launch vehicle (SLV) by man-rating critical systems. It served as a significant stepping stone in the evolution of the US manned spaceflight program using expendable launch vehicles, culminating in the Apollo program. Twelve successful Gemini launches occurred between April 1964 and November 1966.
  10. Soviet Weather Satellite Falls in Antarctica, RIA Novosti, 27 March 2012, accessed 28 March 2012
  11. "Our History". WD-40. 
  12. Martin, Douglas. "John S. Barry, Main Force Behind WD-40, Dies at 84". The New York Times, July 22, 2009.
  13. Steven Johnson (2010). "Where good ideas come from, the natural history of innovation". Riverhead Books. 
  14. Helen E. Worth and Mame Warren (2009). Transit to Tomorrow. Fifty Years of Space Research at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. 
  15. Catherine Alexandrow (Apr-2008). "The Story of GPS". 
  16. DARPA: 50 Years of Bridging the Gap. Apr-2008. 
  17. Jerry Proc. "Omega". Retrieved December 8, 2009. 
  18. "Why Did the Department of Defense Develop GPS?". Trimble Navigation Ltd. Archived from the original on October 18, 2007. Retrieved January 13, 2010. 
  19. "Charting a Course Toward Global Navigation". The Aerospace Corporation. Retrieved January 14, 2010. 
  20. "A Guide to the Global Positioning System (GPS) — GPS Timeline". Radio Shack. Retrieved January 14, 2010. 
  21. "SECOR Chronology". Mark Wade's Encyclopedia Astronautica. Retrieved January 19, 2010. 


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