• U.S.

Nation: Atoms v. Gunpowder

3 minute read
TIME

Army smiles last week were brighter than brass. From Cape Canaveral came a report on the second successful field firing of the Army’s newest nuclear weapon, the 34-ft., 5-ton Pershing. Launched from a mobile carrier, the solid-fueled Pershing swept 200 miles down the Atlantic, splashed just 125 ft. beyond and 165 ft. to the left of its target’s dead center. Now in production, the Pershing, with a top range of 400 miles, will go into the field in Western Europe some time next year. Pershing’s success adds a heavy wallop to the U.S.’s arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. These weapons give the U.S. and its allies, especially in Western Europe, a vital potential for ground war beyond the brush-fire level and less than all-out thermonuclear holocaust. Among the Army’s other tactical nuclear weapons:

» The liquid-fueled Corporal (range: 75 miles), with an erector-launcher truck, backbone of the Army’s nuclear armory since 1956, used by eleven battalions in Western Europe and the U.S. It is now being replaced by the solid-fueled Sergeant (75 miles), which is easier to handle and has a guidance system that gives it immunity to any known electronic countermeasures applied by an enemy. »The truck-mounted Lacrosse (20 miles), designed especially for high-accuracy deployment against such targets as concrete pillboxes, bunkers and caves. It is controlled by a guidance station located near front lines that electronically “catches” the weapon after launching and pitches it directly to the target.

» A ponderous, unnamed 280-mm. gun (17 miles), carried by a two-cab hook-and-ladder-style truck, which lofts a 605-Ib. shell with high accuracy. A stopgap weapon that first appeared in 1953, it is so cumbersome that it is used for little else than military parades.

— The solid-fueled Honest John (16 miles), a free rocket that is aimed and fired in the same manner as conventional artillery, is assigned to both armored and infantry divisions.

»Little John (twelve miles), a smaller version of Honest, with a 360° firing circle and designed for maximum mobility; it can be transported by helicopter or troop-carrying aircraft, or towed by a Jeep, and is fired like an artillery shell from a tripod launcher. »An 8-in. howitzer (ten miles), a rapid-fire job that can pepper 200-lb. projectiles at a rate of 90 per hour. »Davy Crockett (1,200 yds.), the Army’s smallest and top-rated front-line weapon, a light, tube-fired piece designed for use against troop masses, tank clusters, pillboxes and gun emplacements. Army plans call for three Crocketts per battalion, or a total of 120 in Europe.

In the realm of tactical nuclear weaponry, the Army’s European arsenal is unparalleled. But its very existence raises a question in some Pentagon minds. Under what conditions would the nuclear weapons be used?

The Army itself considers tactical nuclear weapons only an extension of conventional weapons, insists that it would have to use them to repel any major aggression in Europe. But Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and some of his civilian aides do not see it quite that way. Gaining credence is a theory that a gunpowder war might be confined to Europe —but that the use of nuclear weapons, no matter what their size, would increase the danger of global thermonuclear war. It is partly on that basis that McNamara is striving to build up the NATO Alliance’s nonnuclear forces in Europe.

The final answer must, of course, come from the President—and the troops in Europe are under orders not to use their tactical nuclear weapons, from Pershing to Davy Crockett, except on specific word from the Commander in Chief.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com