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"Atomic Annie" - Development

Since the work on small nuclear warheads had not been conducted by 1949, the Army chose not to wait until the perfection of nuclear weapons would allow it to fit into a 240-mm caliber shell, and instead change the delivery vehicles. The barrel strength of the gun allowed it to be drilled to 280 mm caliber, thus increasing the maximum range of fire.

Colonel Angelo Del Campo, Jr. completed a Master of Science in Nuclear Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1948 and then undertook development of the atomic artillery round, a concept he had proposed in the interests of limiting nuclear devastation in future wars to military targets. He spearheaded the integration of the 280mm shell in the Army arsenal by 1953 with the assistance of Robert Schwartz, an able young engineer.

Steps were also taken to develop Army weapons capable of delivering atomic weapons on the battlefield. The first weapon to appear was the mammoth 280mm gun, whose development had been initiated in November 1944 by the Ordnance Corps as a conventional, but very large, artillery piece. In compliance with instructions from the Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, design changes in a weapon already in the development stages, so that it could accommodate an Atomic charge, were ordered by the Chief of Ordnance in November 1949.

Picatinny Arsenal received the mission to develop an artillery shell able to carry nuclear payload in 1949. Basically, this meant scaling a 240mm shell, the Army largest field artillery shell in World War II, up to 280mm. The project's entire design team was Robert Schwartz, who completed his preliminary sketches during a period of 15 days spent alone in a locked room at the Pentagon. He sharpened the details in another locked room at Picatinny. The Chief of Staff of the Army at the time, General J. Lawton Collins, thought enough of Schwartz's effort to cite him in his memoirs over a quarter of a century later.

The next problem was to sell the product to the Pentagon. This would not have happened if Samuel Feltman, chief of the Ballistics Section of the Ordnance Department's Research and Development Division, had not pushed the project to approval. This goes along way to explain why Picatinny has a research building named after Feltman. Then, Schwartz had to rush to procure equipment and assemble a staff to carry out the three-year development effort.

In 1948-49, the Army concentrated on development of atomic capable artillery. In June 1950, less than two weeks before the Korean War began, the Army chief of staff, General J. Lawton Collins, publicly acknowledged the Army's efforts in atomic artillery.

As the 1952 Vista conference report and other studies had made clear, tactical nuclear weapons could help offset the manpower advantages possessed by Soviet and Chinese armies. The 280-mm atomic cannon was the Armys first system of this kind, successfully firing an atomic shell in May 1953.

Faced with what many officers interpreted as a threat to the existence of their service, the Army undertook comprehensive, total and in retrospect often poorly executed effort to create an atomic-era military force. Both the need for institutional survival and Eisenhowers New Look policy drove the army towards creating the Atomic Field Army [ATFA] which would allow the army to stake its claim on the nuclear battlefield.

In May 1952, Secretary of the Army Frank C. Pace described work underway to develop an artillery piece capable of firing an atomic projectile. Weighing about eighty-five tons, the prototype 280-mm. cannon had a range of about twenty miles and had to be moved while suspended between two heavy truck transporters. Although the gun had not yet fired a nuclear warhead, the Army had tested it with conventional ammunition. Pace claimed that the weapon could hit its target under any weather conditions and would be especially effective in defending against enemy forces massing for an attack. This was a particular point of interest to EUCOM and the Seventh Army, which had to rely on the Air Force to deliver any atomic munitions they might need on the battlefield.

There are arguments over the value of the atomic cannon, especially in regard to range, but General Collins believed the threat of its deployment had a role in bringing about the Korean armistice and did not doubt the presence in Europe "of our nuclear guns has contributed greatly as a deterrent to any offensive by the Soviets."

Since the 280mm gun had been designed, the major developmental problem was evidently the design of a stable, rugged and relatively small atomic round that could be fired by the artillery. With reductions in size and an increase in the variety of yields, production of such a round soon became possible. In May 1952, the secretary of the Army, Frank Pace, officially announced the Army's development of an atomic howitzer. To publicize its work in atomics, the Army included the 280mm gun in the January 1953 inauguration parade of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 17-05-2019 17:22:43 ZULU