WASHINGTON -- For many years, American commandos were assigned to volunteer teams with the suicidal mission of detonating small nuclear weapons at very close range, according to authoritative military sources.
The so-called "Green Light" Army demolition squads were supposed to deliver, arm and then "watch the device until it went off" to assure that enemy forces did not interfere with the explosion, said a former Special Forces member trained in the mission.
"If that meant staying inside the hydroelectric plant, standing 20 feet away from the warhead, that's where you stayed," he said. "It was suicide and we all knew it."
Retired Army Maj. Gen. David Einsel, deputy assistant secretary of defense for atomic energy from 1980 to 1985, confirmed the "Green Light" teams' assignment. Man-portable nuclear warheads "were not the weapon of choice, and it had to be a very worthwhile mission or you weren't going to set it off in the first place," General Einsel added.
George Grimes, spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command, said he could not discuss the capabilities of forces assigned to the command. The Special Forces member trained in nuclear detonation asked not to be identified because, he said, he had signed confidentiality agreements while in the Army program.
A classified Army manual on nuclear demolition supports his account and General Einsel's, and civilian experts in nuclear weapons say it is consistent with their understanding of nuclear war tactics.
No devices ever were actually fired by the Army's tactical nuclear demolition teams. The last of 300 so-called "backpack nukes" built for such missions were withdrawn from NATO arsenals in 1988 and destroyed.
President Eisenhower conceived of the highly classified U.S. tactical weapons program in the 1950s, hoping that ways could be found to use very small nuclear devices in combat.
As it turned out, "tactics that made sense in the 50s when the weapons were conceived, and were plausible in the 60s when they were deployed, were absolutely comical by the 80s," said William Arkin, an expert on nuclear warfare and columnist and contributing editor for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
The smallest weapon, armed with a 58-pound warhead and producing a blast equal to only a few tons of TNT, was deployed in Europe in 1964. It was designed to destroy Eastern Bloc bridges, tunnels, dams, canals and other targets invulnerable to bombardment from the air.
The warhead was drum-shaped, about 20 inches in diameter and 24 inches tall. Two-man teams carried the devices in customized backpacks. One bore the warhead, which was nicknamed "the monkey," according to the former Army Special Forces commando; the other carried the firing mechanism. Assembled, the device weighed about 160 pounds, according to the Nuclear Weapons Databook, the definitive unclassified manual on the subject.
"They practiced delivering it by land, sea and air; by static line, free fall, HALO (high-altitude, low-opening parachute) jump and submarine; by car, truck, train and just plain hiking it in," said the former commando.
"It looked like nothing. They'd disguise it as a trash can, a water cooler, a keg of beer. If somebody beside it pulled out a sextant, you'd think it was surveying gear," said the former commando.
According to Mr. Arkin, a cable only 100 meters long ran from the blast site to the detonation team in early versions of the device. "Believe it or not, for safety and security reasons, it was operated without remote detonation. Somebody actually had to push the button."
Later, use of a radio activated "timer option" was permitted. But protecting the device still required that demolition team and their squad of 10 heavily armed and cross-trained protectors stay fatally close to the warhead, the Special Forces veteran said.
If the weapon were deeply buried in rock and the detonation triggered by a radio transmission, "Green Light" teams might have survived the explosion, General Einsel said.
They probably would not have survived the radioactive fallout, according to tables published in a classified 1971 Army field manual titled "Employment of Atomic Demolition Weapons." It predicted heavy casualties from fallout even at the lowest yields and even when the warhead was buried 12 meters deep.
Engineering tools commonly available to "Green Light" teams permitted them to dig the warhead in nine feet at most.
Although demolition units were likely to perish, "delay in the onset of effects ... may permit some personnel to remain effective long enough to influence a specific operation," the training manual states.
Even on training missions, security was extremely tight because practice weapons were identical to real ones, minus the nuclear material.
"If Abdul got hold of it, he'd know how to build the nuke," said Mr. Arkin.
One nearly got away in 1977, according to a former "Green Light" team member.
In that incident the navigator of an Air Force MC-130 that was supposed to drop a "Green Light" team a half mile inland from the Gulf of Mexico at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida, got lost, he said.
The aircraft dropped the team and their weapon more than|| TC mile offshore into choppy seas. Eleven of the 12 squad members let their gear drop to the bottom and took turns holding up the warhead two at a time. The twelfth member swam ashore and found help. The warhead was saved, he said.