The Case for Non-Nuclear Weapons

Feb. 1, 1957
In this age of nuclear weapons and the ever-expanding application of these weapons to warfare, any discussion of non-nuclear weapons is looked upon with a jaundiced eye. The more extreme supporters of the new weapons compare any effort to improve conventional warfare with “further development of the bow and arrow.” The fact that such thinking exists makes the need for more extensive weapons analysis stronger than ever.

Study of the great wars of the past shows that as new weapons are developed and placed in the military arsenal, the older weapons are not scrapped. History indicates that the old and the new tend to complement each other. The types of old weapons to be used may be narrowed down, but there will always be areas where they can stand on their own and perform a military function more economically, more effectively, or uniquely. For example, the Marines landing at Inchon during the Korean war carried trench knives and used them effectively.

This type of debate concerning the part nuclear weapons will play in future warfare has been heard in the past whenever a new weapon or concept of war was introduced. The use of the crossbow, the introduction of explosives, the advent of tank warfare, the gas attacks in World War I, and the threat of biological warfare have all raised moral issues and aroused intense feelings of self-preservation. However, despite the moral considerations involved, it is impossible to overlook the fact that an aggressor will use impossible to overlook the fact that an aggressor will use any weapon which is available to him in quantity and which he is fairly certain will give him an advantage.

Moral considerations or treaties have never deterred the use of new weapons because aggressive war, itself, is immoral. The use of such weapons has been restricted only by the inability to foresee a clear advantage resulting. With this thought in mind, I will offer the premise that any debate concerning the use of nuclear weapons in future wars is merely academic. We must be prepared to fight with the most powerful weapons available to us and must have an adequate force in being to do so.

On the other hand, we must not allow our armed forces to become obsolete in the employment of non-nuclear weapons. There is a growing danger in our efforts to maximize the nuclear capability to reduce our work in other weapons to a token effort. While the need to prepare our forces primarily for nuclear warfare is paramount, the considerations which demand that other weapons not be overlooked must be examined carefully. The extent and complexity of the analysis which must be conducted can be gained by a look at certain areas in which non-nuclear weapons show promise or may be dictated by circumstances.

The action of the shaped charge in penetrating a block of steel is well known. The mechanics of the penetration are not completely understood. However, it is quite obvious that by itself, the extremely high temperature in the jet cannot be expected to obtain this deep penetration. The kinetic energy in the jet caused by extremely high velocities of impact is considered to be the principal effect which causes the jet to perforate thick steel plates.

This indication has led to a search for hyper-velocity projectors that could propel fragments at velocities of 25,000 feet per second in order to study the nature of the damage caused by the high-velocity impact of the fragments. The actual employment of a weapon which could project a fragment at this velocity is not at hand since the size and weight of such a weapon would make it impossible to use. With the advent of the ICBM we have a natural target to obtain high velocity of impact. Since the ICBM itself will be traveling at an extremely high velocity, the velocity of the fragment can be low and still obtain the high-impact velocity for which we have been searching. It is possible that we may find that a fragmenting weapon will be a very effective anti-ICBM warhead. There is also a possibility that warheads containing a cluster of fragmenting or shaped-charged sub-projectiles may provide highly lethal terminal effects against the ballistic-type missile.

Bomber defense is another area which may provide a continuing requirement for conventional weapons. Close-in defense of bomber aircraft, i.e., within 1,500 yards, will not be practical with a nuclear weapon because of aircraft effects and the effects on the crew. There may also be questions as to the suitability of some types of guided missiles at close range. If it is determined that an active close-in defense for bomber aircraft will be necessary, then we should look at the relative effectiveness of aircraft guns or unguided rockets, or some combination of these types of weapons, as well as guided missiles.

The type of action in which fighters engage in combat to attain air superiority follows the same reasoning in weapons selection as the close-in bomber defense problem. For example, fighters on armed air reconnaissance would not want to employ nuclear rockets or guided missiles if it were necessary to challenge the unidentified aircraft. This type of action is a common occurrence in areas such as Korea of the Middle East. In the future, fighters will probably employ nuclear weapons and guided missiles; however, they will also require a secondary capability that will enable them to close with an enemy aircraft and fight at close range when required.

The air defense problem of defending against low-flying bombers over friendly territories will require non-nuclear weapons in many cases. It would be only as a last resort that we would use nuclear weapons against bombers flying as low as 500 feet over, say, some of our Long Island cities. At the higher altitudes, guided missiles will require nuclear warheads to compensate for guidance inaccuracies in the initial crop of air defense missiles. However, as the guidance systems are refined and the terminal phase of guidance becomes capable of placing a high percentage of missiles within a few feet of the target aircraft, the use of non-nuclear warheads should be more desirable. This area of combat will require a high degree of analysis effort and a constant program to collect weapons effects data to keep abreast of the rapidly changing offensive and defensive capabilities.

Still another mission area which will probably require the use of non-nuclear weapons is that of attacking enemy troops who are occupying friendly cities. It may be possible to employ small nuclear weapons against rail heads or roads; however, it is doubtful whether or not we would employ such weapons against troops occupying residential areas unless all other means were exhausted and the situation were critical.

This problem of attacking friendly cities is magnified when we consider a perimeter type of war. Many objections would arise against the use of nuclear weapons to the Middle East and Indo-China or any of the other small areas which may flame up on short notice. These objections may involve considerations such as the economics of using our nuclear stockpile, the international political situation, or solely the ultimate national objective that was to be achieved. It is highly desirable that we keep a strong non-nuclear capability in order to make at least a substantial effort to control such a situation without committing ourselves to the use of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, this non-nuclear capability should be the best that modern science and technology can provide—not just obsolete World War I and II weapons.

An obligation we cannot forget is the supply of modern weapons to the NATO countries and to our allies in other theaters. The availability of nuclear weapons to most of these countries will undoubtedly be extremely limited or completely lacking for many years. If we allow our conventional weapon capability to deteriorate, we will be forced to supply these countries with obsolete weapons, thus reducing their capability to defend themselves and leaving them open to an easy defeat by an aggressor.

There are undoubtedly other areas in which the desirability of using other than nuclear weapons could be pointed out. The above serve to illustrate the point that the use of nuclear weapons does not provide the cure-all for modern combat. The need to maintain a predominantly nuclear combat capability must be kept foremost in our thoughts but must not be allowed to completely close our minds to a studied balance among all types of weapons. This again points out the need for extensive weapons analysis on all levels.

We can expect such organizations as RAND, the Army’s Operations Research Office, and the Navy’s Operations Evaluation Group to increase the intensity of their work. The Department of Defense has already started to explain its Weapon System Evaluation Group by the formation of a new group to provide added emphasis to interservice weapon systems evaluation. As the types of nuclear weapons increase and our nuclear combat potential expands, we must employ this analysis capability to keep a proper balance between the old and the new.

About the Author: Now Deputy Chief of the Air Weapons Division at ARDC’s Directorate of Development, Colonel Wynne is a 1940 graduate of West Point, where he taught for three years before joining ARDC in 1952. In WWII he was in the Signal Corps but transferred to the AF in 1947, and in 1948 earned a master’s degree from the University of Michigan.