WikEd fancyquotesQuotesBug-silkHeadscratchersIcons-mini-icon extensionPlaying WithUseful NotesMagnifierAnalysisPhoto linkImage LinksHaiku-wide-iconHaikuLaconic

"Tactical" Nuke Delivery Systems

We should note here that what distinguishes a tactical nuclear device from a strategic nuclear device is the intended use. Tactical nuclear weapons are intended for use on the battlefield, perhaps against massed enemy mechanized formations or air bases. A strategic nuclear weapon, on the other hand, is intended to be used against the enemy homeland more directly, perhaps against military bases (such as ICBM launch sites), in what is known as the counterforce strategy, or perhaps against the enemy's cities, in what the theorists call countervalue strategy and what the rest of the world calls a major dick-move.

Tactical nuclear weapons therefore, as you might expect, tend to be (but are not always) quite a bit smaller than the big city-busters and silo-busters in the pile marked "strategic."

This category includes fighter-bombers, artillery and missiles with a range below 186 miles/300 km, the limit set by the Missile Technology Control Regime on missile proliferation.

Mobile Artillery

Atomic Annie/W9

The first nuclear artillery system anywhere. Combined a 280mm-howitzer with the W9 warhead inside a special artillery shell. This was a gun-type device. Tested in 1953 (the shot was Upshot-Knothole Grable) at the Nevada Test Site; the footage is quite famous. By no means the last word in nuclear gun artillery; the US quickly miniaturized the warheads. They became small enough to fit in special 155mm artillery shells and be fired from standard 155mm howitzers.

M388 "Davy Crockett"

Three-man crew-served recoilless rifle. Developed in the late 50's to use against Soviet forces if they invaded West Germany. The 23 kg projectile had a selectable yield between 10 and 500 tons, but its inaccuracy (and the fact its blast radius was larger than its effective range) made it just as dangerous to the operators as the target. The Little Feller test shots were the last atmospheric detonations at the Nevada Test Site.

  • Not only dangerous to the operators, but to friendly forces in the vicinity; thank God it was never deployed.
    • It's the FALLOUT that was larger than the range. And when they tested it, they tried to brush the radiation off the soldiers. With BROOMS.
  • The theft of a Davy Crockett and some warheads drive the plot of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. It also served as the inspiration for the Fat Man tactical nuclear catapult that appears in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas.
  • There was a small, man-portable version of the thing, using a version of the same W-54 warhead, which was designed as an atomic demolition munition. It was known as the SADM, for "Special Atomic Demolition Munition;" it was designed to be deployed by special forces in the event of war. It's the closest thing widely known to the fictional notion of a suitcase nuke.
  • Referred to in the BattleTech rules, where a 'Davy Crockett' is a tactical nuclear weapon small enough to be delivered by 'Mech-portable artillery. A more literal equivalent, also specifically referred to by name, features and is in fact used in the novel Ideal War. It's fired into a more traditional battle between 'Mech forces for control of the planet by local guerillas notionally allied with one side...causing both sides to promptly concentrate their fire on them.

MGR-1 Honest John

The first US nuclear-armed surface-to-surface rocket, with a range of 3 to 15 miles. Gradually replaced by the Lance after 1973 and withdrawn in 1982.

MGM-5 Corporal

The first US guided nuclear missile, with a maximum range of 139 kilometres. First deployed in Europe in 1955, they were withdrawn in 1964. The missile was also sold to the UK.

  • A stolen warhead from a Corporal is acquired by Auric Goldfinger in the original Goldfinger novel to be used to blow open the doors of Fort Knox. OK...

MGM-29 Sergeant

The Corporal's "promotion", entering service in 1962 and retired in 1977. Also operated by West Germany and served as the second stage of the Scout satellite launcher.

MGM-52 Lance

First deployed in 1972, it was fitted with the W70 (1-100KT) warhead and had a range of 75 miles, replacing the Honest John and Sergeant missiles. Road-mobile and capable of operating in all weathers, it was exported to other NATO countries and Israel in non-nuclear form. It had its nuclear life extended to 1995 in 1985 (it had been due to retire in the mid-1980s), but the end of the Cold War meant it was no longer necessary and Bush Sr. announced its unilateral scrapping in 1991. By 1992, it was gone, with demilitarised missiles used for target practice.

Aircraft (and some missiles too)

Most tactical aircraft in the USAF/USN inventory were capable of deploying B61 and B83 multi-kiloton variable-yield bombs, right down to the diminutive (by jet aircraft standards) A-4 Skyhawk, so in order to be complete this list really should include just about nearly every single combat aircraft ever deployed by the United States aside from those mentioned elsewhere. The following list, however, includes aircraft which were regularly tasked with the carriage of nuclear weapons for a possible tactical nuclear strike, as opposed to merely being able to be equipped with them (the aforementioned A-4, for example, was unlikely to carry nuclear weapons as it was primarily a close support aircraft and therefore nuclear weapons would only serve to endanger friendly forces).

  • Though it's also true that when Douglas Aircraft developed the "Scooter" in the mid to late 1950s, one of the Navy's requirements was that it be capable of hauling at least a single nuclear weapon, up to and including the Navy's big Mark 27 two-megaton hydrogen bomb, which weighed almost two tons.

F-84F Thunderstreak

A Republic fighter-bomber, derived from the Thunderjet. Had the Korean War not started, the thing probably would have been cancelled due to unhappiness with the early prototype. Entered service in 1954, missing Korea. Its role in a nuclear exchange would have been to destroy Warsaw Pact air defences, including with the use of a Mk.7 nuclear bomb, making life easier for the SAC bombers. Both the Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command had nuclear-capable versions, but SAC gave up its fighters in 1957 and TAC replaced them with "Century Series" (F-100 to F-106) fighters. Replaced in National Guard service until November 1971 (it was deployed to France during the Berlin Crisis of 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built), when structural corrosion was found and the rest were grounded. Exported to a number of countries, including France and Turkey. The former used it in Suez, the latter had the type gain its only air-to-air kill, against an Iraqi Il-28 "Beagle" that had entered Turkish airspace. Would be dubbed "The Thud's Mother" by F-105 pilots.

F-89 Scorpion

You may be wondering what an aerial interceptor is doing here. There is a reason. The J-version could carry...

AIR-2 Genie

A nuclear air-to-air rocket with a 1.5 KT yield. Unguided, once it was launched, the launching aircraft had to turn sharply to get away. Air-tested once, with a group of USAF officers apparently volunteering to stand underneath the explosion to test whether it could be used over populated areas. Designed to destroy bombers. It was important to completely and thoroughly destroy Soviet bombers, because the bombs had fail-deadly functionality (a dead man's switch, essentially); if they were shot down, the bombs would still detonate. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, North America had a very sophisticated and effective air defense network (and still does), which would have probably performed well against Soviet bombers. The heavy use of nuclear weapons in a defensive role might have worked against it, however, on account of EMP. There was much less understanding of the phenomenon back then. On the other hand, they were using primarily vacuum-tube electronics and they were generally less sophisticated and fussy than today, and in addition to this the bursts were fairly low-yield and at a low altitude. There might have been some equipment-damaging and radar blackout effects, though.

AIM-26 Falcon

A radar-guided nuclear AAM, with a longer range. Warhead yield given in most sources as 250T, but a first-hand source suggests 1.5 KT more likely.

  • Both the Genie and the AIM-26 Falcon had variable-yield warheads, meaning that the nuclear warhead could be set for one of two power levels before loading and arming while still on the ground. Furthermore, each was an enhanced burst type weapon, meaning that it primarily killed the target by overwhelming it's electronics with EMP, enabling it to kill entire squadrons of bombers. While the blast was a powerful killer, further aircraft would escape the blast but have all of their onboard electronics (including the fuses on their nuclear bombs) disabled.

F-102 Delta Dagger

An AIM-26 carrier. Part of the "Century Series" of fighters.

F-106 Delta Dart

An improved version of the F-102 Delta Dagger. Pretty much the same as described above, except almost twice as fast. Trivia: former President George W. Bush was an F-106 pilot in the Texas Air National Guard.

F-104 Starfighter

Developed by Lockheed's "Kelly" Johnson in response to pilot feedback from Korea, the Starfighter was a fighter aircraft that was Genie-capable and could also drop free-fall bombs. It appears to have only been given a nuclear strike capability (it was never used in that role) for political reasons, although did ground attack in Vietnam. The Starfighter was the world's first Mach 2 fighter, with short wings and also a completely-new-at-this-point supercruise capability. The "lawn dart" (to give one of its nicknames; pilots called it the "zipper", the press "the missile with a man in it") had a pretty high accident rate, with the downward-firing ejector seats not helping things at all. That said, the pilots appear to have loved it. The Vietnam experience was short and not particularly successful in the ground-attack role, the type getting no air-to-air stuff as the North Vietnamese didn't really want to go up against it. USAF front-line service was rather short, the examples being sent to the National Guard by 1969, where they stayed until the mid-1970s. The aircraft was also exported to other countries. West Germany (who used it for anti-ship strikes) hated it and jokes about accident rates soon followed. Italy kept it in the fighter interceptor role until 2004, due to delays with the Eurofighter. The Japanese used it too for both air defense and anti-Kaiju work, although it wasn't terribly effective at the latter, if the Gamera films are anything to go by.

If the Starfighter is judged against other US aircraft for its ability to sustain battle damage, to deliver heavy bomb loads or to conduct operations in bad weather, then the F-104 rates as an "also-ran". If, however, the F-104C is judged for its ability to deter MiGs, the ensure the safety of aircraft entrusted to its escort or to out-perform any aircraft in existence at the time, the "Zip-4" is unrivalled!
—USAF Report on the F-104 in Vietnam

F-105 Thunderchief

Dubiously holds the honor of being the only American aircraft with attrition rates high enough to deem it unfit to, well, fly. Anywhere. The career featured a long list of maintenance, performance, and electronics problems, usually arising as soon as another was fixed, and among other concerns, possibly earning the aircraft an unflattering nickname.

Republic's successor to the F-84F, this Mach 2 capable (it could exceed Mach 1 at sea level too) single-seat fighter-bomber could carry nukes and was originally designed for long-range interdiction with said weapons. It became affectionately known as the "Thud", among other names. Converted for a conventional role, the aircraft was used extensively in the Vietnam War, including two-seater versions dedicated to the "Wild Weasel" defense suppression role (not a nice role for a pilot, since you're "first in, last out" of a hostile area). There the USAF managed to lose just under half of the entire production run, most of that in combat due to low-level attack runs, dive-bombing and the presence of North Vietnamese ground fire during both. The Thud got handed all the dangerous missions--it was the most capable aircraft in the Air Force arsenal for lugging several tons of bombs "up north", planting them a target, and then dashing back out again. With a lot of the rest having exhausted their service lives, the type was retired in 1984, with dedicated SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) duties going to the F-4.

  • It was in the SEAD role that one was lost at the beginning of the Tom Clancy Ryanverse Prequel novel Without Remorse, setting up for the last mission (if not intended as such, at the time) of "John Kelly", before becoming the CIA operative "John Clark".

F-4 Phantom II

Nuclear capable, this fighter-bomber is still in service in a few countries, including in the USA, where unmanned versions are used essentially for target practice. Primarily used in The Vietnam War and by Israeli against Arab states, but was also in RAF service. It has acquired a lot of nicknames over the years, including "Double Ugly", "Flying Anvil", "Iron Rhino" and the wonderful "the world's leading distributor of MiG parts", reference to having shot down about 280 Mikoyan aircraft, more than any other aircraft. It has a famous emblem: "The Spook", which appears on nearly all F-4 items and has local costume variances (a bowler derby in the UK, for example). As noted above, like with F-105s, this design also served in the SEAD role, making the 1991 war against Iraq less painful for Coalition airmen. Replaced in SEAD by a variant of the F-16.

F-16 Fighting Falcon

Crafted from the experience of the Vietnam War, this was arguably the first "dogfighter" in USAF inventory since the Korean War and the first to employ many cutting-edge electronic "gee-whizardry" later used in other aircraft. Small, lightweight, and with a single powerful engine, the F-16 achieve a thrust:weight ratio over 1:1 (allowing it to accelerate straight up, at least until the atmosphere thins out so much that the engine begins to starve for oxygen) and was famed for its high performance, manoeuvrability and value for the dollar. Initial models were very simple, including only a basic radar; later models are best described as single-engine F-15s with pretty much the same capabilities as far as missile-slinging goes. Widely exported; in fact it's been the most exported American combat aircraft of the last quarter of the 20th century and into the 21st century, remaining in production. Though not the first thing on everyone's mind when they think of an airborne nuke-carrier, the fact that it's the most numerous combat aircraft in USAF inventory and being mostly used as a bomb truck nowadays means a high probability that it will be seen flinging B-61s if a nuke war were to ever happen in the near future, taking over the role of all previously mentioned types above (nearly all of which have been long-retired).

  • Pilots prefer to call it the "Viper" after the fighter from Battlestar Galactica)
  • Has featured in a fair few computer games, including the Falcon series.

F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet

The original (or "legacy") Hornet was the F-17 Cobra, born from a 1970s competitor for production contracts to the F-16; when it lost, the Navy took interest for its twin-engine design, desirable if one engine goes out during long ocean patrols. Possesses pretty much the same qualities as the F-16, except it had a capable radar from the get-go. Modestly exported, with principal foreign users being Canada, Australia, and Switzerland, who bought it for the same reasons the U.S. Navy did, and Kuwait, who were impressed after seeing them in action kicking Saddam out from their front yard. Once again, being the primary tactical aircraft of the USN means there's a high probability that it will be slinging B-61s in a hot nuke war. The Super Hornet is an enlarged version with more emphasis on bombing capability, including being able to carry even more B-61s/B-83s if needed.

Panavia Tornado

The primary non-US NATO contribution to airborne nuclear firepower, being used by the U.K., Germany and Italy, having been developed by all three countries as one of the first "multi-national" aerospace programs, as a successor to the Vulcan for the British and the Starfighter for the latter two. Equipped with an advanced terrain-hugging radar, two powerful engines and a swing-wing not unlike its closest U.S. equivalent, the F-111, it was capable of taking on the F-111's strategic strike role in addition to the tactical nuclear role of the U.S. types listed above. Also developed into an air defense missile truck version which was also exported to Saudi Arabia; Saudi, Italian and British Tornadoes saw extensive action in the later two Gulf Wars and Italian and British Tornadoes went to war again over Kosovo joined by their German counterparts. In the event of a nuclear war against the Soviet Union, at least some, if not all, Tornadoes from all three countries would be under the command of USAF Tactical Air Command when deployed in the nuclear strike role.

Nuclear Bombs


Based off a now aging design, this still remains the most numerous and up-to-date nuclear bomb in U.S. inventory thanks to a long list of upgrades. Specifically designed to be carried by anything capable of carrying a 2,000 lb conventional bomb, almost every combat aircraft in the USAF and USN can deploy these. Has a variable yield from the sub-kiloton range (300 tons) all the way to nearly 400 kilotons. Continuous rumors abound concerning a "bunker-busting" variant. Can be used in the strategic role by loading up a whole bunch of 'em in, say, a B-52.


Slightly newer than the B61, it can be thought of as being the "strategic" counterpart to the B61 with a yield up to 1 megaton, but like its less-powerful cousin is also capable of being carried by anything that can carry a B61 and thus can be used in a tactical role in a pinch. Can also be loaded up in bunches inside large bombers.

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.