87. Memorandum From the President’s Military Representative (Taylor) to President Kennedy0


  • Study of Requirements for Tactical Atomic Weapons

As a continuation of his General Purpose Forces Study1 which is nearing completion, Secretary McNamara has directed a comprehensive study of requirements for tactical nuclear weapons to begin no later than July 1.2 The first phase which concentrates on the use of tactical nuclear weapons in ground and supporting air-to-ground combat in Europe will be completed by October 1. This is a much needed effort to clarify doctrine and objectives in an area where much cloudiness has existed up to now.

In connection with this matter, I recently took a fresh look at what we know about Soviet tactical atomic weapons. Thanks to the intelligence source with which you are familiar, we have quite a bit of comparatively new data. We are reasonably sure, for example, that the Soviets have developed tactical weapons for large caliber mortars, artillery pieces, certain free rockets and short-range guided missiles, all of which are now in the hands of the ground forces. Ranges vary from 11 to 300 nautical miles and yields from 5 KT to several megatons.

Current Soviet military literature indicates a clear intention to use these atomic weapons from the outset of any major operation in general war. We have recently acquired the account of a Soviet army group exercise in the Carpathians held in July 1961. The exercise consisted of an army group attack against NATO forces on a 250-mile front, using some 25 divisions. The plan of attack corroborated known Soviet military doctrine which calls for the allocation to an army group of 250 to 300 nuclear weapons with a total yield of from 120 to 150 megatons. In the exercise, 60 to 75 of these weapons were used in a surprise first strike against the opposing nuclear-equipped forces and against troop concentration targets down to company size. About 70 warheads were physically moved about in the area of the exercise. The foregoing figures were exclusive of airplane-delivered weapons.

The conduct of the maneuver suggested the U.S. thinking on tactical weapons which was current about 1955. The Soviets show a similar lack [Page 300] of appreciation of weapons effects which would result in this maneuver from the high megaton dosage of the battlefield. They appear to ignore the obstacles (craters, contamination, forest fires, and blown-down trees) which their own weapons would create. They are also at a loss to know how to find appropriate targets for the overwhelming fire power in the hands of their troops.

The Soviets are showing parallel concern to ours over the command and control of atomic weapons. Soviet control procedures governing the tactical employment of nuclear weapons appear to be highly centralized and designed to prevent use except at the direction of the High Command. Evidence indicates certain basic procedural steps, including (1) a specific decision by Khrushchev and the Party leaders authorizing the use of nuclear weapons; (2) a determination by the High Command Minister of Defense that a military requirement for nuclear weapons exists on a given army group front and the specific notification to the major field commanders that nuclear weapons may be released for use, as well as a simultaneous notification to stockpile commanders that weapons have been released; and (3) specific authorization by commanders of the rank of an army commander or above for nuclear weapons to be released for designated tactical use.

In connection with the review of our own policy on tactical atomic weapons, it will be important to take a hard look at what the Soviets are doing or may do.3 I detect an emotional resistance in some quarters to the expansion of the tactical nuclear weapon systems in spite of the obvious need to have them if the enemy does.4 In my judgment, the issue is not whether to have tactical atomic weapons but rather how to improve them down to the fractional kiloton yields which offer the possibility of a separate stage in escalation short of the use of weapons of mass destruction.5

Maxwell D. Taylor
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda Series, Maxwell D. Taylor 5/62. Top Secret.
  2. see Document 115.
  3. see Document 86.
  4. In a May 24 memorandum to McNamara, Taylor requested that the “Study Group should include in its research a review of USSR posture, doctrine and tactics in the field of tactical nuclear weapons.” (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda Series, Maxwell D. Taylor 5/62)
  5. In a May 3 memorandum to Taylor, Legere wrote: “Flushed with anticipation over Norstad’s and JCS’s military requirement for modernization [of NATO forces]through MRBMs, the technipols roll up their light artillery for the opening phase of the next battle in the campaign to denuclearize Europe: down with tactical nuclear weapons. We (Ewell-Smith-Legere) called this one cold, if I may say so.” (National Defense University, Taylor Papers, Tactical Nuclear Weapons Study) General Lauris C. Norstad was Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. In an April 16 memorandum to Taylor, Ewell described Kaysen, Wiesner, Owen, Rowen, and Alain Enthoven as “what one might term the anti-nuclear wrecking crew.” (Ibid., T-129-69)
  6. The President’s handwritten marginal note next to this sentence reads: “Can this be done?”