Nuclear Friday: Hoist by an Atomic Petard

Most readers are probably familiar with the phrase “Hoist with his own petard” from Hamlet. Petards were explosive devices used to breach gates and were also buried under the foundations of walls to cause them to collapse. As readers of The Board might guess, back in the creative heyday of the 50’s and 60’s, someone thought it would be a good idea to make nuclear demolition charges.

Green Lights and UDT’s:

Early attempts at combat engineering use of nuclear weapons during Operation Teapot series (I have written about the most important Teapot issue here) proved unsuccessful. The main issue was that the bombs were simply too heavy and too powerful to have the desired effects. Only a few types of nuclear mines were developed and none were widely deployed. This changed when the W-54, a fifty pound nuke that would fit in a five gallon bucket became available at the end of the 50’s. This weapon would become the atomic equivalent of WWII satchel charge and was about the size and weight of a Renaissance-era petard. Readers of The Board will already be familiar will be familiar with the W-54 from the  Davy Crockett.

The W-54 was configured into the Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM). It had the same small plutonium core design as the Davy Crockett round, but a different fission booster and I think also a slightly different configuration of trigger charges. Some of the sources I can find say the SADM had a 10 ton to 1 kiloton, suggesting that the only difference between the SADM and the Davy Crockett was the fission booster. Other sources say 250T to 1kT, which makes me think the triggers were slightly different.

The US Army offered members of the Airborne Rangers and Green Berets a chance to be reassigned to  Green Light teams attached to engineering battalions in West Germany. Many took the chance to get stationed in Germany. Others didn’t like the odds of the mission and said “Nah, I’d rather go back to ‘Nam.”  I can see how that would seem like a wise decision. This is what it looks like when you get deployed behind enemy lines with a SADM inline1

That’s the SADM hanging off the soldier’s waist in the padded container featured in the header image.

Green Light teams of two were supposed to drop behind enemy lines and destroy bridges, fuel depots, and even command and communications centers if they could get to them. This article has some first hand accounts from Green Light team members. I found it interesting that team members shared their halves of the combinations. The SADM had a combination lock and each member was supposed to know only half the combination. This is consistent with the usual two person rule to prevent unauthorized use of nuclear weapons.

One thing I found implausible about that article were complaints about the reliability of if the mechanical timer on the SADM. First off, they say that a mechanical timer was chosen as a countermeasure to EMP. I think this is a case of knowledge in the present affecting recollection of the past. EMP was understood in the sixties, but not widely publicized. Also, EMP is strong, but diffuse. EMP can knock out a power grid more easily than a little bomb in a metal case not connected to anything. And they said the timers didn’t keep good time. How would they know? They never set one off, did they? I restored a 1930’s alarm clock that was covered in manure dust when I was a kid. It kept good time for twenty years. I think these veterans are projecting their anxieties about having been tasked with handling nuclear weapons onto the timer. I understand their anxiety, they were pretty much nuclear suicide troops.

The Army SADM teams began withdrawal in 1984 and the SADM was retired in 1989.

The US Navy had their own version of the SADM. Here’s a 1965 training video:

I’m loving that cheery music. [EDIT: I left out that that this is a Navy Underwater Demolition Team training video. The UDT’s were the precursors to the Navy SEAL teams. I sometimes forget that some readers might not be familiar with technical terms.]

Other Atomic Demolition Devices:

The MADM was retired in 1986. It was small, but too heavy for forward operations. It was to be left behind as part of a “scorched earth” policy if NATO went into full retreat. Yeah, you love that captured air base? Too bad it has a couple of nukes hidden it. I have read rumors that Autobahn interchanges had a special chamber to hide a MADM. This is probably a third hand account of how an engineer once said the Autobahns had storm drains that were good for hiding MADMs.

The extremely overpowered British Blue Peacock system was never deployed, and tests from Operation Teapot in the US had shown it likely wouldn’t work that well if it had been deployed. And BP had a problem with the cold winters in Germany. So they came up with the kind of wacky solution that won them WWII. The Peacock would have a little chicken habitat in it and when the weather was too cold, a chicken and chicken feed would be placed into the device. The body heat of the chicken would keep the electronics warm.

The Soviet Union explored atomic demolition, and even nuclear excavation for civilian  purposes. They were as unimpressed as the Americans were in Operation Teapot, but never went further than this. There are a few nuclear excavated lakes in Siberia. They would be safer to live next to than the Peace Dome in Hiroshima which hundreds of thousands of Japanese live near, and millions visit. Still, I wouldn’t eat more than six fish a year from those lakes just to be safe.

One would think that once the Soviets had micro-nuke capability, they’d give them to Spetsnaz, to make their own version of the Green Light teams. But they didn’t. The USSR became very concerned about maintaining tight controls over nuclear weapons after the near disaster of the Cuban Missile Crisis.


While researching this post I ran afoul of a group of Truthers who think the World Trade Center was brought down by  W-54 SADMs. Just NO! Why are you so obsessed about the temperature of melting steel? Yes, a SADM gets, much hotter than melting steel, but IT CANNOT MELT STEEL. The intense heat of the second flash is many times hotter than the Sun, but it is brief. It expands and cools to create an intense blast wave that blows steel the fuck apart at very short ranges, but does not melt steel. And keep in mind that the kinetic impact of a 757 at 400mph, all its fuel burning, and all the other stuff burning is actually MORE ENERGY than a SADM. It’s just released SLOWER, and a collision that knocks insulation off steel and then provides a slow release of energy for 30min-2hrs is PERFECT for making structural steel expand and sag even if it is far from its melting point.





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