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The US Nuclear Arsenal: A History of Weapons Delivery Systems since 1945

The US Nuclear Arsenal: A History of Weapons Delivery Systems Since 1945 by Norman Polmar. Naval Institute Press, 2009, 296 pp.

This book provides a useful analysis of nuclear weapons deployed by the United States on land, sea, and in the air from the end of the Second World War until 2009. Norman Polmar and Robert S. Norris are both recognized experts on the subject, the former having written on nuclear weapons development for the US Navy, the Department of Energy, the Defense Advanced Research Agency, and the Defense Nuclear Agency, while the latter is a senior research associate at the National Resources Defense Council.

The first chapter offers a comprehensive historical overview, while the next seven chapters focus on nuclear warheads, strategic aircraft, tactical aircraft, strategic missiles, tactical missiles and rockets, artillery, and antisubmarine weapons. The text is well illustrated with numerous black and white photographs. There is also a useful glossary of abbreviations and acronyms, appendices on the US nuclear stockpile, the effects of nuclear weapons, and a chart divided into intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM),  submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), and bomber columns listing the numbers of launchers and warheads by year from 1945 to 2008. Primary sources are referenced throughout this volume, which includes a useful “Recommended Reading” section.

While well illustrated, this is not a picture book. The initial chapter is a good analysis of the evolution of US nuclear weapon systems and doctrine, explaining their development and deployment by the Army, the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Navy. While the perspective is strategic, tactical applications of nuclear power are also considered, as in the case of the Davy Crockett, designed to give battalion commanders a nuclear battlefield punch. As the authors explain, there were actually two Davy Crocketts (both recoilless rifles): the 120 mm M28 and the 155 mm M29, each firing the M388 projectile with a W54 warhead.

The chapters on aircraft make it clear that most Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps aircraft were nuclear capable and that even the venerable World War II era Essex-class carriers had a nuclear capability in both their attack and antisubmarine warfare roles. Polmar and Norris explain  that all services incorporated nuclear weapons into their war-fighting doctrine at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels throughout the Cold War.

Air Force readers might take exception to some views expressed by the authors, who claim the nuclear “Triad” was a “term coined by the U.S. Air Force to rationalize the ‘need’ for three U.S. strategic offensive forces” first publicly used by Air Force Chief of Staff general John D. Ryan in 1970 as a way to “help explain the continuing need for a manned strategic bomber” (p. 20). They later state that “three factors argued against manned bombers,” including the vulnerability of Strategic Air Command bases to Soviet SLBM  attack, the “fallacy of a principal Air Force argument from manned bombers: that they could be recalled,” and the effectiveness of Soviet surface to air missiles in Vietnam and the Middle East, which “led many government officials and bomber opponents to argue that the large and modern Soviet air defense network made strategic bombers obsolete” (p. 30). Polmar and Norris clearly question the value of the Air Force’s ICBM fleet as well:

A factor in U.S. Minuteman-Titan ICBM effectiveness was the question of reliability. Of the three components of the Triad, the land-based ICBMs were the only force that was not extensively tested. Bombers regularly took off, flew missions, and dropped bombs; prior to test-ban agreements, bombers dropped nuclear weapons (and dummy bombs) in full-system tests. Similarly, submarines regularly fired unarmed ballistic missiles—sans warheads—on test ranges; and on 6 May 1962, the USS Ethan Allen (SSBN 608) fired a Polaris A-1 missile almost 1,200 nautical miles in the Pacific with a nuclear detonation. This was the only full-system test of a U.S. nuclear-armed ICBM/IRBM/SLBM missile from an “operational silo (p. 16).


The authors continue:

No nuclear-armed ICBM has been launched from an operational silo. Periodically, the silo crews fired various ICBMs from test facilities at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and from Cape Kennedy in Florida under highly controlled conditions. But even periodic efforts to launch an ICBM with reduced fuel and no warhead from an operational silo have failed, and Congress has refused approval of full-range test firings from an operational silo that would take even an unarmed missile over urban areas (p. 16).


These passages left this reviewer with nagging questions. As this book notes: “The first Minuteman IA was placed on alert at Malmstrom AFB, Montana, on 27 October 1962, in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis” (p. 171). While the current Minuteman III is continuously upgraded, it sits in remote silos in regions subject to highly adverse weather conditions, and those launch facilities were built close to half a century ago. They might be constantly monitored by disciplined crews, serviced by dedicated maintenance personnel, and guarded by diligent security forces, but how many of these weapons systems are actually capable of fulfilling their mission in intricate Strategic Integrated Operations Plans as expected?

Given the current effort to restore the focus on the nuclear mission degraded since the end of the Cold War and the Obama administration’s stated commitment to disarmament, publication of The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal is timely indeed. While some readers might find parts of the book discomfiting, Norman Polmar and Robert S. Norris provide an informed perspective worth serious consideration.

Frank Kalesnik, PhD

Malmstrom AFB

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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