Suitcase nuclear device

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Not to be confused with "nuclear briefcase", a term for a device used to authorize the launch of nuclear weapons.
H-912 transport container for Mk-54 SADM.

A suitcase nuclear device (also suitcase bomb, backpack nuke, mini-nuke and pocket nuke) is a hypothetical tactical nuclear weapon which is portable enough that it could use a suitcase as its delivery method.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons small enough to be portable in specially-designed backpacks during 1950s and 1960s.[1][2] The term "suitcase (nuclear/atomic) bomb" was introduced still during the 1950s with the prospect of reducing the size of the smallest tactical nuclear weapons even further, albeit purely as a "figure of speech" for miniaturisation, not necessarily for the delivery in actual suitcases.[3]

While the technical feasibility of such devices in principle is undisputed[4] (the theoretical minimum mass of a plutonium-239 fission warhead being estimated at close to 15 kg),[5] neither the United States nor the Soviet Union have ever made public the existence or development of weapons small enough to fit into a normal-sized suitcase or briefcase.

In the mid-1970s, debate shifted from the possibility of developing such a device for the military to concerns over its possible use in terrorism. [6] The concept became a staple of the spy thriller genre in the later Cold War era.[7]


The value of portable nuclear weapons lies in their ability to be easily smuggled across borders, transported by means widely available, and placed as close to the target as possible. In nuclear weapon design, there is a tradeoff in small weapons designs between weight and compact size. Extremely small (as small as 5 inches (13 cm) diameter and 24.4 inches (62 cm) long) linear implosion type weapons, which might conceivably fit in a large briefcase or typical suitcase, have been tested, but the lightest of those are nearly 100 pounds (45 kg) and had a maximum yield of only 0.19 kiloton (the Swift nuclear device, tested in Operation Redwing's Yuma test on May 27, 1956[8]) The largest yield of a relatively compact linear implosion device was under 2 kilotons for the cancelled (or never deployed but apparently tested) US W82-1 artillery shell design, with yield under 2 kilotons for a 95 pounds (43 kg) artillery shell 6.1 inches (15 cm) in diameter and 34 inches (86 cm) long.

Soviet Union

Stanislav Lunev, the highest-ranking GRU defector, claimed that such Russian-made devices exist and described them in more detail.[9] The devices, "identified as RA-115s (or RA-115-01s for submersible weapons)" weigh from fifty to sixty pounds. They can last for many years if wired to an electric source. In case there is a loss of power, there is a battery backup. If the battery runs low, the weapon has a transmitter that sends a coded message either by satellite or directly to a GRU post at a Russian embassy or consulate. According to Lunev, the number of "missing" nuclear devices (as found by General Lebed) "is almost identical to the number of strategic targets upon which those bombs would be used."[9]

Lunev suggested that suitcase nukes might be already deployed by the GRU operatives on US soil to assassinate US leaders in the event of war.[9] He alleged that arms caches were hidden by the KGB in many countries. They were booby-trapped with "Lightning" explosive devices. One such cache, identified by Vasili Mitrokhin, exploded when Swiss authorities sprayed it with a high pressure water gun in a wooded area near Bern. Several others caches were removed successfully.[10] Lunev said that he had personally looked for hiding places for weapons caches in the Shenandoah Valley area[9] and that "it is surprisingly easy to smuggle nuclear weapons into the US" either across the Mexican border or using a small transport missile that can slip undetected when launched from a Russian airplane.[9] US Congressman Curt Weldon supported claims by Lunev but noted that Lunev had "exaggerated things" according to the FBI.[11] Searches of the areas identified by Lunev have been conducted, "but law-enforcement officials have never found such weapons caches, with or without portable nuclear weapons."[12]

Former Russian National Security Adviser Aleksandr Lebed in an interview with CBS newsmagazine Sixty Minutes on 7 September 1997 claimed that the Russian military had lost track of more than a hundred out of a total of 250 "suitcase-sized nuclear bombs". Lebed stated that these devices were made to look like suitcases, and that he had learned of their existence only a few years earlier. Russia's Federal Agency on Atomic Energy on 10 September rejected Lebed's claims as baseless.[13] American Congressman Curt Weldon revived the question in 1999, displaying a "notional model" of what a Russian "suitcase nuke" might look like in a hearing on 26 October, and "lambasting the Clinton administration for not aggressively questioning the Russian government about the existence and location of hidden KGB weapons caches in the United States."[14]

United States

The lightest nuclear warhead ever acknowledged to have been manufactured by the U.S. is the W54, which was used in both the Davy Crockett 120 mm recoilless rifle-launched warhead and the backpack-carried version called the Mk-54 SADM (Special Atomic Demolition Munition). The bare warhead package was an 11 in by 16 in (28 cm by 41 cm, small enough to fit in a footlocker-sized container) cylinder that weighed 51 lbs (23 kg).

Former Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers has claimed that he, along with other Green Berets special forces troops, practiced infiltrating Warsaw Pact countries with backpack-sized nuclear weapons, with a mission to "detonate a portable nuclear bomb."[15]

In 1994, the United States Congress passed The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1994, preventing the government from developing nuclear weapons with a yield of less than 5 kilotons, thereby making the official development of these weapons in the US unlawful. This law was, however, repealed in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004.[16]


Allegations were made in the 1990s to the effect that suitcase nuclear bombs had been developed by Israel during the 1970s.[17]

See also


  1. ^ Woolf, Amy F (August 10, 2009), Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons (PDF), FAS .
  2. ^ Shrader, K. "Suitcase nukes closer to fiction than reality". ABC News. Retrieved 2009-08-11.  The yield of the W54 ranged between 0.01 and 6 kilotons TNT equivalent. The W54 test in Operation Hardtack II test Socorro on Oct 22, 1958 was the highest yield W54 family test with a yield of 6 kilotons and weighed 58.1 lb. (
  3. ^ "Many times I explained that our group uses the suitcase delivery system as a figure of speech" Hearings, Volume 2, U.S. Government Printing Office (1957), p. 1612.
  4. ^ "General WHEELER. I said Dr. Foster should address what I regard as the technical aspect of the problem. Secretary LAIRD. There is no question that an atomic bomb could be carried in the suitcase. I don't think there is any question about that, Senator Symington." Department of Defense, Defense agencies, public witnesses, U.S. Government Printing Office (1969), p. 536.
  5. ^ "We can now try to estimated the absolute minimum possible mass for a bomb with a significant yield. Since the critical mass for alpha-phase plutonium is 10.5 kg, and an additional 20-30% of mass is needed to make a significant explosion, this implies 13 kg or so. A thin beryllium reflector can reduce this by a couple of kilograms, but the necessary high explosive, packaging, triggering system, etc. will add mass, so the true absolute minimum probably lies in the range of 11-15 kg (and is probably closer to 15 than 11). [...] The test devices for this design [W54] fired in Hardtack Phase II ([... in] 1958) weighed only 16 kg [... t]hese devices were 28 cm by 30 cm. [...] It is reported that designs least as small as 105 mm (4.1 inches) are possible. A hypothetical 105 mm system developed for use in an artillery shell would be about 50 cm (20 inches) long and weigh around 20 kg." Carey Sublette, Are Suitcase Bombs Possible? (2002)
  6. ^ "Preventing Suitcase Warfare: Loren Eiseley, the great University of Pennsylvania author and anthropologist, recently predicted a future of 'suitcase warfare,' in which terrorists would utilize miniaturized atomic weapons." Forbes 115 (1975), p. 115.
  7. ^ used e.g. in The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth (1984). After the end of the Cold War frequently invoked as a trope of the period, e.g. in the Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell video game (2002). North [from] Calcutta (2009) by Duane Evans concerns the planned use of a suitcase bomb in the India-Pakistan conflict, cited as a realistic depiction of this type of threat by H. B. Peake, "The Intelligence Officer's Bookshelf", Studies in Intelligence, Journal of the American Intelligence Professional, Unclassified Extracts from Studies in Intelligence 53.3, Central Intelligence Agency, Government Printing Office (September 2009), p. 44.
  8. ^ Redwing Yuma, Nuclear weapon archive 
  9. ^ a b c d e Stanislav Lunev. Through the Eyes of the Enemy: The Autobiography of Stanislav Lunev. Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1998. ISBN 0-89526-390-4.
  10. ^ Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (1999) The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West. Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-9358-8, page 475-476
  11. ^ Nicholas Horrock, "FBI focusing on portable nuke threat", UPI (20 December 2001).
  12. ^ Steve Goldstein and Chris Mondics, "Some Weldon-backed allegations unconfirmed; Among them: A plot to crash planes into a reactor, and missing suitcase-size Soviet atomic weapons." Philadelphia Inquirer (15 March 2006) A7.
  13. ^ "'We don't know what General Lebed is talking about. No such weapons exist,' a ministry spokesman told AFP. 'Perhaps he meant old Soviet nuclear artillery shells, which are all being safely guarded.' Carey Sublette, Alexander Lebed and Suitcase Nukes (2002).
  14. ^ Congressman Weldon Fears Soviets Hid A-Bombs Across U.S. NTI, 26 October 1999. Peter Richmond, How to Build a Briefcase Nuke, GQ, February 2002.
  15. ^ "A Secret Warrior Leaves the Pentagon as Quietly as He Entered". 
  16. ^ "National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004 Repeal of the 1994 act". 
  17. ^ Hersh, Seymour M (1991), The Samson Option, New York: Random House, p. 220, ISBN 0-394-57006-5 .

External links

  • Suitcase Nukes by National Terror Alert Response Center
  • Suitcase Nukes: Permanently Lost Luggage by SAST REPORT
  • Alexander Lebed and Suitcase Nukes
  • Are Suitcase Bombs Possible?
  • "Suitcase Nukes": A Reassessment, 2002 article by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies
  • W54 SADM photo by Brookings Institution
  • Symposium: Al Qaeda’s Nukes by Jamie Glazov, FrontPage Magazine, October 27, 2006.
  • Article discussing the development of smaller nuclear weapons in the U.S.A.
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