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:: Nuclear Weapons History Pre Cold War Hiroshima and Nagasaki Strategy

Strategic Implications of the First Atomic Bombs

The strategic implications of the first atomic bombs were radical in the extreme. Effective strategic bombing became the dominant form of war.

A strategic-bombing program could be carried through entirely with air forces existing at the outset of a war and at any speed.

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Strategic bombing could be carried out successfully over any distance that might separate the powers involved.

Note: These changes served, among other things, to end completeley American invulnerability.

The more conservative opinions maintained that the A-Bomb was fated to remain scarce, extremely costly, bulky and therefore difficult to deliver, and limited to about the same power (20,000 tons of TNT equivalent or 20 kilotons) and spatial effectiveness as the Nagasaki bomb.

At an early date in the Nuclear Age, the Atomic Energy Commission, AEC (see January 24, 1946) adopted the 20 kiloton yield as a standard, referring to it in the literature of the time as the "nominal" atomic bomb. The book prepared under the direction of the Los Alamos Laboratory entitled The Effects of Atomic Weapons (GOP, 1950) based all its quantitative data on the "nominal" bomb.

A later version of this book, under the title The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, was prepared by the same editor, Dr. Samuel Glasstone, and published by the AEC in 1957. This second book contains effects calculated up to 20 megatons, or 1,000 times greater than the earlier volume.

The fusion or thermo-nuclear or hydrogen bomb introduces more than just a greater economy of destruction. To assure decisive and certain results, strategic-bombing campaigns withfission bombs required the following:

a substantial number of fission bombs;

a modified target selection that distinguished between attacks on population and attacks on the economy.

Air defense, both active and passive, appeared meaningful and thus required to think in terms of a struggle for command of the air; and the functions of ground and naval forces still appeared vital.

Since fusion bombs are much more powerful than fission bombs the following strategic implications apply: The selection among industrial targets becomes irrelevant.

Attacking the industrial economy is practically indistinguishable from hitting cities.

"Overkill" is cheap and will be achieved.

Advances in missile technology will ensure that enemy strategic airfields and missile launching sites can be hit within minutes of each other.

After disarming the enemy, the number of bombs that have to be dropped on other targets in order to put any nation out of business as producing or even functioning organism is, when measured against the standards of World War II, absurdly small.

Strategic implications of the thermonuclear bomb (continued):

Delivery capability rather than size of the nuclear stockpile determine the decisiveness of strategic bombardment.

The functions of ground and naval forces are no longer vital.

About Casualties

Casuality rates with nuclear weapons are likely to be far greater in relation to property destroyed than was true of nonatomic bombing:

warning time is less, or nonexistent;

the duration of an attack will be literally a single instant, in contrast to several hours' duration of a World War II attack;

shelters capable of furnishing good protection against high-explosive bombs might be of no use at all within the fireball radius of a large ground-burst nuclear weapon, or within the oxygen-consuming fire-storm that such a detonation would cause; and

nuclear weapons have the distinctive effect of producing radioactivity, which can be lingering as well as instantaneous, and which causes casualties but not property injury.


Not many people, even in the fighting services themselves, have really grasped the full tactical implications of an age in which nuclear power is the dominant strategic factor in war. There is a tendency almost subconsciously to shy away from those implications, which should not be ascribed merely to the influence of vested interests.
- Sir John Slessor, The Great Deterrent and its Limitations." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist 12 (May 1956): 140-146.