A History of Speculation

There has long been speculation as to whether “suitcase” nuclear weapons have been built. Speculation that when the Soviet Union dissolved, these devices may have found their way into the hands of terrorists. If one looks online, one can find pictures of mockups of such devices. I have never seen conclusive evidence that “suitcase” nuclear bombs exist in anything like the size of a business briefcase. If anyone has such evidence, please share in the comments.

However, that is not to say that miniaturized “backpack” nuclear weapons do not exist. Indeed, the United States built them in the 1960s and devised tactics for their use. The weapons were retired in 1989 and the last was dismantled in 1993. Those weapons will be the topic of this brief note.

Special Atomic Munitions

Special Atomic Demolition Munitions (SADMs) were nuclear bombs that could be carries and used by one man. Together with a carrying ruck, the whole package weighed about sixty pounds. It could be deployed with an operator parachuting onto land or water. It could be set to explode either submerged or on land. The B-54 SADM was available in both 1-kiloton and 2 kiloton configurations. That is, the device could deliver a nuclear yield equivalent to either 1,000 or 2,000 tons of TNT.

Fig. 1 SADM Delivery Container (With bomb, total weight 60 lbs)


These devices were flexible and could be used for various tactical applications. Procedures applicable to the use of strategic nuclear devices had to be modified. For example, strategic nuclear devices require the use of launch codes to release them for use, authentication procedures to confirm the validity of a command, and even require two physically separated individuals to act in unison to prevent a single individual from releasing the weapon.

SADM Carrying Case
Fig. 2 SADM Carrying Case. Not a briefcase, but portable.



Such procedures are not necessary for the use of a SADM. By design, the SADM is meant to be used by one man. The only security on the device itself is a combination lock on the lid of the arming panel. When one examines the arming panel, one is immediately struck by the simplicity of its construction. It literally looks like the device could have been assembled in someone’s garage.