How the US Army prepared for the use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War?and is it ready now?

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During the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, the US Army had some conceptual work on how to operate on the battlefield in the event that the Soviet Union began using tactical nuclear weapons.

However, especially after the collapse of the USSR and the end of the “Cold War,” the American military did not, in principle, prepare for hostilities that the use of nuclear weapons could accompany. It was believed that it is more important to prepare either for conducting short-term combat operations with only “conventional” weapons or for anti-terrorist and counter-guerrilla battles in general. But now the US Army needs to fill this gap in capabilities, says the publication of the War on the Rocks portal.

         Russian Su-30SM with an IAB-500 atomic bomb simulator (under the fuselage, closer to the tail), illustrative photo from open sources
Russian Su-30SM with an IAB-500 atomic bomb simulator (under the fuselage, closer to the tail), illustrative photo from open sources

How to prepare for the “Cold War”

In the 1950s and 1960s, after the first experimental exercises on the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield, the US Army moved to the formation of so-called “pentonymic divisions,” the structure of which was designed to improve survivability under Soviet atomic bombs.

Instead of the traditional 3-regimental structure, “petonymic divisions” switched to a structure of five battalion combat groups of 1,400 people each. All the infantry divisions of the US Army were transferred to this structure, and the armored divisions, as “inflexible formations”, were left on the old structure. But it is interesting that the “pentonymous divisions” received their own means of delivery of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield – M28 and M29 Davy Crocket recoilless guns sharpened under “special ammunition.”

But the first problem that accompanied the “pentonymic divisions” was that such formations usually received half the equipment set that was appropriate for the state. The second problem is that the rear support units were over-inflated. And the third, already rather subjective in nature – the American conservative generals complained that “pentonymic divisions” are, they say, “ignoring the traditions of old regiments.”

Therefore, in the end, in the late 1960s, the Pentagon decided to abandon “pentonymic divisions” as a way of organizing ground forces, because, they say, war will not necessarily be accompanied by an exchange of nuclear strikes.

How you will have to prepare now

The authors of this publication on War on the Rocks prescribe that the probable use, for example, of the same Russian tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield can cause several negative consequences at once, which will “undercut” the combat capability of American troops.

First of all, it is a shock wave, radioactive pollution and electromagnetic radiation, which can take out not only manpower and armored vehicles but also reconnaissance equipment and means of communication on the battlefield. In addition, the use of nuclear weapons can also “break” logistical support, not to mention the fact that the very fact of using such weapons can lead to an unprecedented level of psychological shock among military personnel.

Accordingly, the following advice was given to the US Army:

  • review the requirements for the level of security of your armored vehicles;
  • conduct appropriate psychological training of fighters;
  • And teach mechanized units to operate in conditions when, for example, the Abrams will have to be filled with literally the fuel that can be obtained on the spot, or when the fighters will have to transfer from the Abrams to the Bradley to replace their comrades who were disabled due to the use nuclear weapons.