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Nuclear weapons can be distinguished from their delivery vehicles, but it senseless to try to analyze the warhead itself without first understanding the delivery system. Today, nuclear weapons delivery systems are comprised of 6 classes:
Various countries are nuclear armed, but it has been clear that no one is prepared to use these weapons of "mass destruction" without severe provocation. Public knowlege of instances where the threat has been used is limited. However it was recently revealed that the Soviets in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, had been armed with tactical nuclear weapons.
Also, it is pretty widely accepted that, during the Gulf War, if Suddam Hussein had successfully delivered a biological weapon causing mass deaths in Israel, that Israel would have retaliated with nuclear weapons.
Tactical Nuclear WeaponsTactical nuclear weapons are those under a certain limit, let's say 1MT of explosive power. These weapons are intended to be "lobbed" over a mountain into a remote battlefield, thus eliminating a huge number of the enemy with one blow. Fortunately, they have never been used. This is not to say that the world has not come close. It is well known today, from inteviews with Commanders of the former Soviet Union military, that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that if President Kennedy had launched a conventional attack on Cuba, the local Soviet Commanders had been given control of their tactical nuclear weapons. Thus if the Soviets had begun to lose the battle, there would have been little to keep them from using those tactical nuclear weapons, just 300 miles South of Florida.
Tactical nuclear weapons can be delivered in a variety of methods, and in fact are found in the first five classes of delivery systems shown above.
Prior to the retirement from active U.S.Air Force regular units in 1979, the U.S. Air Defense Command operated the F-106 Delta Dart, a delta winged Mach 2 (barely) fighter, which carried, as a air-to-air combat missile, the Genie. The Genie was a nuclear tipped weapon which was intended to take out a whole squadron of attacking bombers, assuming of course the F-106 could get close enough, and that of course the squadron were flying close enough together, say as in a formation. As the Soviets learned of this weapon, their tactics for airborne attack changed, and thus the Genie and the F-106 became obsolete overnight.
Today, cruise missiles are the primary delivery system for tactical nuclear weapons. For example, a derivative of the now famous Tomahawk cruise missile, called TLAM-N (Tactical Land Attack Missile - Nuclear) can be launched from the tube of a submarine, or off the decks of a naval surface ship (such as a pre-Arleigh Burke class cruiser) or from vertical launch tubes built into the deck of the Arleigh Burke class cruiser.
Airborne tactical missiles, such as the U.S. SRAM (Short Range Attack Missile carried for years on the venerable B-52G/H and FB-111A) and ALCM (Air Launched Cruise Missile also carried by the B52G and could also be carried by FB-111 if the need arose) were extremely potent weapons, since a fleet of aiircraft armed with these missiles multiplied their squadron by a factor of 12. Each missile could be a decoy or be fully armed, the opposition would never know. Thus valuable airborne defense elements would be required to intercept each and every cruise missile as well as their mother aircraft which was also armed with strategic nuclear weapons.
Strategic Nuclear Weapons
Strategic nuclear weapons are the really big ones. From 1MT to above 500MT fusion weapons, this class of nuclear weapon is intended to be used on vast areas, strategic targets such as whole cities or fortified launch sites, bunkers or other "hard targets". Added to this class in the last two decades have been various derivatives of the "Neutron bomb" a particularly insidious nuclear device intended to kill biological organisms but leave much of the buildings and equipment intact. Such is the condition of war that the attacker could then make use of vehicles, buildings, etc., within a reasonable amount of time after killing the populace.
Strategic nuclear weapons can be delivered by ballistic missile (ICBMs, etc.) or by free- fall bombs. The warheads are of the size that they cannot be "lobbed" by cannon fire, or by battlefield missile.
Terrorism and the Nuclear WeaponFortunately, the nuclear armed nations have managed to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. While this condition is expected to continue, there are alarming events which prophesize the use of a nuclear weapon by a terrorist group. The first is the probable acquisition of nuclear weapons by Israel. This de-stabilizing fact, increases the rapidity of the Arab world acquiring such weapons as it tries to achieve parity by developing their own nuclear weapon. Naturally, this also means that an Islamic terrorist may find a friendly Arab nation with the means to build a nuclear weapon, and then sell it. When accused of building a nuclear capability, Iran replies that it is against Muslim religious tenants to build weapons of mass destruction. Of course it is obvious that such tenants did not stop Iraq's Suddam Hussein from attempting and almost completing a nuclear weapons program. Click on the Nuclear Armed button above and to the left to see the third world nations suspected of having or nearly having nuclear capability.
Tom Clancy, in his book, The Sum of All Fears, builds a great fictional tale of how a mislaid Israeli weapon is found and sold to a terrorist group, who then manages to smuggle it into the United States. Then, as the Denver Broncos host the Super Bowl, this weapon is detonated in the stadium parking lot, nearly causing a nuclear armageddon as the U.S. and Soviets over-react. The book was written prior to the majority of the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the cold-war, push-button hair trigger complex is the main theme. Never-the-less, the concept of a terrorist smuggling in a nuclear weapon is frightening and unfortunately, more and more realistic.