The Usage of Miniaturized Nuclear Weapons in Conventional Warfare

Arturo Rojas
June 9, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: The M28 Davy Crockett nuclear weapon. [5] (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On January 27th, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the Nuclear Posture Review directing the Defense Department to launch a review of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and strategy. Amongst the various options examined, the panel created by President Trump is considering the addition of tactical, low-yield nuclear bombs that can cause less damage than conventional thermonuclear bombs and expand the military's options. [1] Although the approval of this addition to the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be a reversal from the Obama administration's attempts to prohibit new nuclear capabilities, the idea of introducing small-scale nuclear weapons to provide a more limited purpose other than complete and utter destruction is not new. [1]

The Davy Crockett

During the Cold War, the United States began developing and deploying the use of small-scale tactical nuclear weapons with yields ranging from a fraction of a kiloton to a few megatons. Amongst these weapons, the smallest was the M28/M29 Davy Crockett, a recoilless rifle system operated by a three-men crew. [2] The gun had a range of up to 2.5 miles and fired the M388 nuclear projectile carrying the W54 nuclear warhead, which had an explosive yield of 10-20 tons of TNT equivalent. [2] Furthermore, the Davy Crockett gun (see Fig. 1) lacked accuracy due to its use of a smoothbore launch tube to eliminate recoil. However, the radiation and blast from the bomb were extremely lethal to the enemy, making up for the gun's lack of accuracy. The radiation from the blast served as a potential hazard to the soldiers manning the gun; thus, the Army recommended that the gun was fired from relatively sheltered locations. [2]

Fortunately, the Davy Crockett was never utilized in combat. Although dozens of fire tests were conducted during training exercises, only two M388 projectiles were detonated. The first projectile was detonated on July 7th, 1962 at the Nevada Test Site and the second projectile was detonated 10 days later on July 17th, 1962. [2]

Risk of Small-Scale Nuclear Weapons

The 2018 February Nuclear Posture Review states that the current review and re-modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression. [3] However, the primary argument against small-scale nuclear weapons is that its utilization would weaken U.S. national security by lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear force. Former Defense Secretary William Perry argues that there is no scenario that would require the U.S. to initiate a nuclear strike. [4] However, the implementation of small nuclear options has the potential to enable the use of nuclear weapons for means other than deterrence. The use of nuclear weapons in any capacity could trigger retaliation from other nations and lead to nuclear escalation. [4]

© Artro Rojas. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] B. Bender, "Trump Review Leans Toward Proposing Mini-Nuke," Politico, 9 Sep 17.

[2] T. Kutta, "The M29 Davy Crockett & the Era of Battlefield Atomic Weapons," Army Historical Foundation, 20 Sep 16.

[3] "Nuclear Posture Review," U.S. Department of Defense, February 2018.

[4] P. Coyle and J. McKeon, "The Huge Risk of Small Nukes," Politico, 10 Mar 17.

[5] C. Hansen, The Swords of Armageddon: U.S. Nuclear Weapons Development Since 1945 (Chukelea Publications, 1995).