The “Backpack Nuke “


This is one of those times when are are all really going to miss Hognose more than usual. I ran across this picture the other day and I recalled Kevin talked about it a few times. This is the back pack carrying system for the “suitcase nuke” that US Special Forces Green Berets like Kevin would have used during the cold war. You can see it is strapped and buckled to an ALICE pack frame.

Though massive retaliation was economical, it allowed the United States almost no flexibility in how it responded to enemy aggression. In the event that communist forces launched a limited, non-nuclear attack, the president would have to choose between defeat at the hands of a superior conventional force or a staggeringly disproportionate (and potentially suicidal) strategic nuclear exchange that would kill hundreds of millions of people.

To fill in the gap in military options between a full nuclear assault and engaging in a lopsided war, says Foreign Policy, U.S. special forces started packing miniature nuclear bombs, devices known as the B-54 Special Atomic Demoliniton Munition (SADM), which they could carry in a backpack. The plan was to build something a little smaller than the devastating bombs that had been designed after the end of the Second World War.

“Soldiers from elite Army engineer and Special Forces units, as well as Navy SEALs and select Marines, trained to use the bombs, known as “backpack nukes,” on battlefronts from Eastern Europe to Korea to Iran,” they write. The troops were trained to parachute or SCUBA dive behind enemy lines with their little nukes, to using them to take out strategic installations or render vast tracts of land uninhabitable. According to Rawnsley and Brown, “These “small” weapons, many of them more powerful than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, would have obliterated any battlefield and irradiated much of the surrounding area.”

Above is a detonation of the munition from a 1958 test.

According to a former soldier whose job it was to place one of these babies-

“We all knew it was a one-way mission, a suicide mission.”

“You set your timer, and it would click when it went off, or it went ding or I forget what, but you knew you were toast,” he said. “Ding! Your toast is ready, and it’s you.”

“In theory, you could set the timer to give you enough time to flee properly, but somebody would have to stay behind and secure the site, Bentley said.”

“The Army is not going to set a bomb like that and run away and leave it, because they don’t know if someone else would get ahold of it,” he said. “They have to leave troops there to make sure it’s not stolen or compromised, and that would just be collateral damage. You didn’t go out with the thought that it was anything other than a one-way mission. If you’re Bruce Willis, you get away, but I ain’t Bruce Willis.”


  1. I remember reading about a training exercise with one the first of these things. The SF guys were definitely taught that they could set a timer and run. However they also had the suspicion that in a real war, when they hit the “timer”, it might just go phoom.

    Book was Special Forces Berlin, by James Stejskal. Recommended by Hognose, of course…

  2. The line Atomic Demolition Munition guys were the 12E MOS. I initially enlisted for that, but with the treaties coming in, they needed to downsize the career field and they shifted me and a bunch of other guys over to 12B, without bothering to mention that we’d lose our enlistment bonuses. Didn’t find that little detail out until we were all getting our checks at the end of AIT…

    In any event, I wasn’t sad–I’d only taken 12E because that was where they wanted to put me because I had a decent GT score, and I found out later that the BS the guidance councilor at MEPS had told me about 12E being the only thing available was 99% BS–He just got a lot more points for a 12E than he did a 12B. They also forgot to show me the mandatory “Here’s what you’re getting into…” films that you were supposed to see before signing on the dotted line, something that they found was missing in my packet, sooo… Yeah. Other than getting screwed out of the bonus, I was not entirely unhappy to get out of that job–One of our Drill Sergeants was a 12E, and he laid out the real deal about the MOS, which was mostly a nightmare of security drills, invasive monitoring, and constant hassle from higher because of nuclear surety issues. The USAEUR inspections were nightmarish, like SAC in the Army.

    The fact that they called those units “Disposable Fire Teams” was not lost on me, either–Eyes-on observation of the weapon, until it was detonated? Having to stay close enough to be able to protect it…? LOL… Yeah, not me. Momma didn’t raise her boy to be a part of anything defined in the MTOE as “Disposable”.

    I still look back at that whole deal as a bullet dodged. I never really wanted to do the job in the first place, I just wanted to be a Combat Engineer, and that was what the guidance asshole told me would get me the training.

    • I got to ask though. If you had to go set up and set off one of those mini nukes, wouldn’t things be so bad you were 99 percent going to die anyway from retaliation strikes? I would figure if you are setting off one of those in the fulda gap because the world situation had got to that point, you may have only lived 12 more hours tops if you were something as mundane as a janitor in NORAD

      • Nuclear war was never going to be as devastating as they painted it, for innumerable reasons. Don’t believe me? Look at the post-Soviet track record the Russians have racked up. Do you really think they would have magically gotten their shit together any better for a strategic nuclear strike…?

        Same-same for us, sadly. You might be shocked at the essential unreliability of our strategic nuclear forces. My bet is that about the only thing worth a tinker’s damn would have been the bombers, and those would probably not have had as easy a time getting through as you might think…

        Nuclear war? It is to laugh, and laugh hard–That whole thing was a chimera painted by propaganda. A lot of people would have died, but the whole “Nuclear Winter” end-of-times BS? Not something that would have happened, I’m sorry. It would have been about like Chernobyl–Lots of Sturm und Drang, but at the end of it all, the only thing we have to really show for it is a slightly higher rate of mutations around Pripyat.

        As for the whole ADM thing, you’re kinda missing what the conventional-task ones were for, which was essentially rapid demolition of things like you saw in WWII, with the “Bridge at Remagen”.

        Really major infrastructure takes time to prep for demolition, and a lot of conventional explosives. You’re not wiring something like the Golden Gate Bridge for demo in anything less than a week, maybe even a month, and you’re going to need a train load of explosives to really disable the damn thing with any of the conventional attacks. In a fluid battlefield like we faced in Europe, doing the demo missions on things like the bridges crossing the Rhine, the highways coming down out of the Wasserkuppe, or much of anything else major, you’re not going to have time to do even a conventional prechamber mission on them.

        Soooo… ADM. When you absolutely, positively have to take that bridge down tonight, and can’t afford to let the enemy have it. Like as not, the conventional ADM guys would have been doing their thing well behind the front lines, but the concerns were that the Soviet Spetsnatz types were going to be trying to stop the effort. Not to mention the German civil government–They were such killjoys about us doing the necessary to their infrastructure.

        So, there you’d be, with your SADM or MADM comfortably emplaced within a few blocks of a major bridge or whatever, maybe even in downtown Frankfurt, and you’d be waiting and watching for the word to do your thing before the Soviets could capture the structure. And, even if they did, they’d still have to find the damn bomb and your Disposable Fire Team, which could be anywhere within a nice, big circular area around the target. Odds were a lot less in their favor for that, than for us taking a few weeks to wire the bridges for conventional, not to mention, where the hell is all that demo coming from…? The logistics alone justified the nukes, especially when you considered the opportunity cost: Would you rather be shipping several thousand tons of TNT forward, or tank ammo…?

        All y’all would be shocked, shocked I tell you, at just how durable a lot of these major infrastructure items really are. You’re not blowing them up with a few hours of work and a five-ton truck load of explosives.

        Although, there was that one time where I exercised “creative requisitioning” on a training target folder, and turned in a plan to leverage my limited amount of conventional demo by using it in a handily placed industrial park. Based on what was there, had I gotten the full effect of what I was doing with their chemical refinery, I might have managed to kick off the nuclear phase to WWIII earlier than we planned, ‘cos that blast would have been fucking epic. We’re talking well up into the low megaton range, had I gotten everything timed right and the blast phased properly.

        Industrial safety manuals make such interesting reading. If you know how to prevent an accident, let’s just say that you’re well on your way towards doing the diametric opposite. And, let it never be said that Combat Engineers dislike big booms…

        • “You might be shocked at the essential unreliability of our strategic nuclear forces.”

          If memory serves, the Titan II missile museum is pretty up-front about that whole thing. They basically planned for a certain number of ICBMs to not light when they were told to, a certain percentage to not make it to their targets, a certain number of warheads not to detonate on schedule, etc.

          That certainly put the lie to the whole “enough nuclear missiles to blow up the world 500 times!!!1!!11” line that the Bolshevik-Americans were giving us in the 1980s. The whole thing was basically a numbers game, and MAD required the “assured” part to work. If somebody on either side got a little nutty and thought, “well, those mussels don’t look so scary, let’s go for it!” Well, there were also the bombers and the subs and hey, why not some little green men wandering around with backpacks in your rear area.

  3. Hmmm……seems like it would make the perfect Christmas gift,feel though thumbnail nukes a bit more useful for local disputes with neighbors ect.,easy to keep a few on the deck railing in case neighbors dog again assumes your property his out house!

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