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Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia

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Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia
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Summary of Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia
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The purpose of this study is to evaluate the military consequences of a U.S. decision to use tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) in Southeast Asia, under the assumption that the war remains theater-limited and that no strategic exchange occurs. The study divides into two main parts. (1) possible targets for U.S. TNW, and effects of nuclear bombardment on the ground war if the use of TNW remains unilateral; and (2) possibility and effectiveness of enemy retaliation with nuclear weapons supplied by the USSR or China. Among both military experts and the general public, there is wide agreement that the use of nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia would offer the U.S. no military advantage commensurate with its political cost. This opinion is usually based on an intuitive judgment, however, rather than on detailed analysis. There is some disagreement as to whether the use of nuclear weapons would still remain unprofitable if China openly intervened with large ground forces in the Vietnam War. It therefore seemed worthwhile to make a study of the consequences that would follow from a U.S. decision to use nuclear weapons in tactical operations in Southeast Asia.

We have arbitrarily excluded strategic nuclear operations from the study. This means that we assume the annihilation of the civilian economy of North Vietnam (NVN) or China to be outside our terms of reference. Nuclear weapons are to be used tactically in the strict sense, that is to say, only on military targets, only within the theater of ground combat, and while avoiding civilian casualties so far as practicable. The reason for limiting the study to tactical use is that we wish to stay as much as possible in the realm of technical military analysis and to avoid involvement with political and moral judgments.

The study has involved four men working a total of three man-months. Such a small effort cannot deal adequately with so large a subject. Almost all our conclusions are tentative, and they should be investigated further by professional experts. We regard our study as only a beginning.

This report is divided into seven sections; Sections III and IV contain the major part of the work. Section III discusses military consequences of the U.S. use of tactical nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia, under the assumption that this use remains unilateral and that the enemy response is purely defensive. The questions that arise are: What kinds of targets exist, how many weapons of what yields could be profitably expended, and how great would be the effects on enemy ground operations? Section IV discusses the feasibility and effectiveness of enemy use of nuclear weapons against U.S. forces. Here, the emphasis is on the logistic difficulties of supplying nuclear weapons and the means of delivery from the USSR or China to guerillas in Vietnam as well as on the vulnerability of U.S. military bases. Section V briefly discusses the long-term effects that may arise if guerillas in other parts of the world acquire nuclear weapons. Section VI deals with the political consequences of U.S. use of nuclear weapons, but without any attempt at a complete political analysis.

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Quotes from Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia

If about 100 weapons of 10-KT yield each could be delivered from base parameters onto all 70 [US] target areas in a coordinated strike, the U.S. fighting capability in Vietnam would be essentially annihilated. In the more likely contingency that only a few weapons could be delivered intermittently, U.S. casualties would still be extremely high and the degradation of U.S. capabilities would be considerable." (p. 6)

"The use of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] in Southeast Asia would be highly damaging to the U.S. whether or not the use remains unilateral." (7)

"The overall result of our study is to confirm the generally held opinion that the use of TNW in Southeast Asia would offer the U.S. no decisive military advantage if the use remained unilateral, and it would have strongly adverse effects if the enemy were able to use TNW in reply." (7)

"Insurgent groups everywhere in the world would take note and would try by all available means to acquire TNWs for themselves." (46)

"Any fallout barrier that is effective in stopping men walking across it at 3 miles per hour would constitute a lethal threat to a population living permanently within a distance of 200 miles on either side of it. If the people were "friendly," they would have to be evacuated; if they were "enemy" the barrier would be primarily an anti-population, rather than a tactical, operation." (18)

"During the 1980s there will be vast quantities of fissionable material produced in many countries, and leakage into unauthorized channels will be difficult to prevent. It is therefore of tremendous long-range importance to avoid setting a precedent for use of TNW by guerilla forces." (46)

"the effect of first use on world opinion in general and on our Allies in particular would be extremely unfavorable. With the exception of Thailand and Laos, the action would almost certainly be condemned even in Asia and might result in the abrogation of treaty obligations by Japan." (50)

"The effect on public opinion in the U.S. goes beyond the scope of this paper. It is probably safe to assume that the use of TNW would be extremely divisive, no matter how much preparation preceded." (51)

"In sum, the political effects of U.S. first use of TNW in Vietnam would be uniformly bad and could be catastrophic." (51)

Source: F.J. Dyson, R. Gomer, S. Weinberg, S.C. Wright, Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia, Study S-266, Jason Division, Institute of Defense Analyses, contract DAHC15 67 C 0011, published March 1967; released to Nautilus Institute on December 4, 2003.

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