Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Atomic-Powered Tanks, Part 2: Tank Harder

Still a terrible idea.

In the last installment of this series, I presented the nuclear-powered tanks of the QuestionMark III conference.   Well, since then I've managed to get hold of partial scans of the QuestionMark IV conference, which also featured some innovative uses of atomic energy, though, unfortunately, fewer pictures.   Let's get right to it: the R32.

QuestionMark IV used a different nomenclature system than its predecessor.   R32 just means "Tracked Vehicle, Design Number 32".   Once again, there's actually very little detail; this time there isn't even a picture of a mockup.

The R32 is proposed as a replacement for the M48 Patton, introduced in 1953.   It would carry a T208 90mm gun, modified to use a combustible cartridge case, with a round 30 inches long.   The tank would be 18' 3" long, 11' wide, and 10' 1" tall, and would weigh in at 50 tons.   It would feature 4.8" armor at the front, which would be able to defeat a 100mm round at a distance of 1,000 yards. [QM4]

Figure 1: R32 Side Cutaway [QM4]
(Fair Use)

Like the TV-1, it looks like they envisioned it using a direct-cycle air-cooled nuclear turbine.   They claim an operational range without refueling of "4000 miles plus".   Evidently something they had learned since the previous year had given them greater confidence in their ability to make miniaturized reactors, since the R32 weighs in at twenty tons lighter than the previous year's TV-1, and they mention in the introductory note that "it now appears feasible to build an atomic powered vehicle for approximately the same weight as present medium tanks".   They are at least giving the reactor more space in their cutaway - I think it's supposed to be that big circular thing in the nose of the tank.

The list of advantages is mostly the same as the previous year, with a few changes.   To quote:
  1. Extremely long range without refueling.
  2. Increased ammunition stowage.
  3. Increased armor protection.
  4. Decreased power package maintenance.
So they've removed "increased secondary armament firepower" and "mobile power plant" from the advantages list, and added "decreased power package maintenance."   (Which, frankly, I'm skeptical of - nuclear engines tend to be more maintenance-intensive than fossil fuel engines, not less.)
The disadvantages:
  1. Crew training required.
  2. Crew may have to be replaced periodically to avoid excessive radiation dosage.
  3. Presents valuable target to enemy. 
This one is a complete change from the previous year, which listed as disadvantages "cost", "high silhouette", and "transportation."   It's a bit more realistic, though cost should still be on there, as well as "too heavy to move".   And they're at least paying a little more attention to the radiation issue.   They probably borrowed the idea of periodically replacing the crew so you can skimp on shielding from the ANP program, which toyed with the idea but ultimately rejected it.   Frankly, even then, I really doubt you could make a reactor both powerful enough and small enough to move this sucker without killing the crew in the process.

Besides the R32, the conference also featured the C6, an update on the atomic road train idea.  The C6 was apparently based on a conventional vehicle under development by the Army Transport Corps, though they don't say which one.   It would be used to haul cargo across open country - I would guess they're thinking of supplying DEW RADARs and other arctic bases. [QM4]

 Figure 2: C6 Diagram [QM4]
(Fair Use)

The C6 would consist of a 25 ton locomotive unit and up to four 10 ton trailers.   The locomotive would be 17' tall, 16' 5" wide, and 35' long, and would use a 1500 horsepower atomic engine driving a pair of generators.   It would be armed with a quad .50-caliber machine gun.   Listed advantages are "superior cross-country mobility", "very great ton/mile/man ratio for cargo hauling", and "essentially unlimited cruising range".   The sole disadvantage listed is "not amphibious." [QM4]

That's it from QuestionMark IV.   I still haven't been able to track down the original source material on the Chrysler TV-8, which is the most famous of the napkinware atomic tanks of the '50s - it's the one with the enormous turret - but I'm working on it!


[QM4]: QuestionMark IV.   Ordnance Tank Automotive Command, Detroit Arsenal, 1955.


  1. Is this helpful? http://www.diseno-art.com/news_content/2015/01/chrysler-tv-8-nuclear-powered-tank/

    1. Not really, but thank you. :)

      The thing is, I don't want to publish articles on Atomic Skies unless they contain an original contribution, something that wasn't previously on the web. To do that, I need to track down the original ASTRON conference proceedings from the 1950s, which is where the TV-8 comes from. Unfortunately, so far I haven't been able to find an entry for it in WorldCat, which is my usual go-to source for this sort of material, which is making things difficult...

  2. ... your standards are too high- we want more posts!

  3. Hi Mark-

    With the current crazy politics going on there has been a lot of talk about the ‘safeguards’ that keep a US President from going bonkers and ordering use of nukes without rhyme or reason.

    I have been fielding a lot of questions on FB and am planning a post under ‘fact and fiction’ at my blog.

    It is not easy to explain to others. There’s some of the ‘always-never’ principle in conflict with the instant response- continuity – no more Pearl Harbors mindset. I realize that my knowledge is also sketchy and needs some organizing.

    First question: “President of the US and the Sec of Defense [or his/her designated replacement]”. Tricky point is of course the ‘designated replacement’. (Everyone else is dead except for the White House janitor – here’s your biscuit, confirm the order(?))

    Second question: codes- SIOP selection etc. to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I realize I have only a vague Hollywood notion of how that would work. Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster and Robert Stack sitting around a big Stanley Kubrick set just waiting for the Pres to give them a ring. Probably would be like that, in some form, if there was already a high state of alert. But what about if one four star if out with his mistress, the other one’s got a bad case of the flu and the Admiral and the Commandant are in the UP hunting ducks?

    more relevant: do the Joint Chiefs have any real function in this worst case scenario besides just ‘following orders’. Do they all have to agree with each other to carry out the orders. Is there a protocol for one of them to say “Donald- you really need to sit down and think about this-you and the Sec. call us back in the morning after you’ve sobered up.

    I remember vague tales during the darkest days of Watergate; Kissinger pulling some people aside and giving them guidance in case they got strange calls from a degenerating Nixon. But once again it’s hard to know fact from fiction.

    I’m just curious if you can shed any further light on the processes, or lack of them, for the NCA. Me and ‘my public’ would rest easier if we knew more.



    PS – are you interested in going together to buy a small cabin in upper Canada (lol)

    PPS – if I am asking questions that I should not want the answers for – then scratch your nose twice and hum the first bars of ‘Doodle-Dandy’


    1. Unfortunately, this is an area I haven't really looked into much, but I'll answer what I can. If you have time, check out Command and Control by Erich Schlosser; it's been on my TBR list since it was published, and if any public domain document has the answers, it will.

      Question One: There is a constitutionally-established line of succession, which in theory should be followed. In addition, besides the official line of succession, in the '50s there were military officers with pre-delegated authority to use nuclear weapons under certain circumstances. I don't know if that is still the case; it may not be public information.

      Second: There are always designated duty officers whose responsibility is to be the person these orders are routed through. I would expect that, when not on alert, the authority of the JCS is probably delegated to one of their staff members. If the Pentagon and its backup are knocked out, the orders can be routed through airborne command posts - back in the Cold War at least one such aircraft was in the air 24/7; today they're kept on ground alert. Their role in the event of war is primarily to act as a communications relay; the POTUS specifies the selection from the SIOP menu, which is turned into a set of specific launch orders which are then transmitted to the nuclear forces. Those launch orders are pre-written, and it's just a matter of choosing which one to send. In theory, those officers could refuse to pass on such an order, but I doubt intensely that that would actually happen.

      And I've heard those stories about Nixon, too, but it wasn't Kissinger - it was James Schlesinger, who was Secretary of Defense at the time. I'm not sure how reliable those stories are, but it's important to note that this was allegedly something arranged ahead of time, not something done in the heat of the moment - and it was never tested, so we don't know who would have been obeyed if Nixon had gone crazy.

      Now, two things to bear in mind, one comforting, the other not. Comforting first: history shows us that the field commanders - the guys with their fingers on the keys - are extremely reluctant to turn those keys. If the president issues an "illegitimate" launch order, and the JCS, or someone else in the chain of command, issues a countermanding order, I suspect 99% will decide to do nothing until the situation is clarified. Nobody wants to start World War III, and the launch officers have no real way of knowing which order is legitimate and which is not.

      The discomforting one: every element in the nuclear chain of command is someone the president appoints. If the president believes that they will not execute a launch order, he can remove and replace them.

      Fundamentally, if the president decides "I am going to start a nuclear war", then he will eventually succeed.

  4. Mark, there are some papers from late 60s by Gerald Lahti on small reactors. IIRC he concludes this fully shielded reactor is possible: 2.1 m in diameter, weighing 20 tonnes and putting out 2.5 MW of heat. Most of that weight is the spherical shielding of course.

    Nice engine to put on an atomic tank!

    1. I'll see if I can dig those up! Thanks!