Here's How You Use a Backpack Nuke

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Special Atomic Demolition Munition, AKA the SADM, AKA “a backpack nuke,” is what it sounds like. It’s a nuke that can fit in a backpack. Here’s how you use one. You know, just in case you were wondering.

The SADM, with an explosive yield equivalent to anywhere from 10 to 1,000 tons of TNT, was designed to be used by a two-person team, and conveniently enough it fit into what looks like a large backpack. The first person was there to actually carry and detonate the thing, and the second person just to help out with stuff, as this helpful and unusually chipper video from the U.S. military in the 1960s explains:

The idea behind the SADM, generally, wasn’t to just stroll into a city and cause havoc. One idea was to have the two-person nuke team swim into an enemy harbor undetected, set the nuke on a timer, swim like hell to get out of there, and then have the harbor get completely demolished by nothing but the pure brute force of nuclear fission. The warhead itself weighed a little under 60 pounds, which isn’t nothing, but isn’t a huge amount for most military applications.


That explosion looked like the one in the .GIF up top, which was from an explosive test of the W54 nuclear warhead, much the same as the one in the backpack nuke and the Davy Crockett short-range nuclear rocket. 

And the SADM wasn’t just limited to seaside locales, as Adam Rawnsley deftly explained in Foreign Policy a few years back:

Special Forces Green Light teams were also prepared to use SADMs on territory of the Warsaw Pact itself in order to thwart an invasion. The teams prepared to destroy enemy airfields, tank depots, nodes in the anti- aircraft grid, and any potentially useful transportation infrastructure in order to mitigate the flood of enemy armor and to allow allied air power to punch through. According to an internal report, the Army also considered burying SADMs next to enemy bunkers “to destroy critical field command and communications installations.”


But why limit yourself to merely going for a swim with a nuke? You can plan all sorts of fun activities with it. Rawnsley goes on:

One Special Forces team even trained to ski with the weapon in the Bavarian Alps, though not without some difficulty. “It skied down the mountain; you did not,” said Bill Flavin, who commanded a Special Forces SADM team. “If it shifted just a little bit, that was it. You were out of control on the slopes with that thing.”


And that’s without even talking about the problem of having a two-person team carrying a 60-pound sack carrying the most deadly power known to humankind, such as the nuclear doctrine of no one person beyond the President being given nuclear control, which mandated that each person of the two-person team only had half the code to use the nuke, which is fine(?), unless one of those people gets killed. So now you’ve got one person, and a useless 60-pound bag full of devastation, in enemy territory. Rawnsley went into the whole thing, and you should read it.

Of course, there may be some slight problems with the entire idea of a backpack nuke as a matter of warfare, too, as explains:

Eventually, Army leaders grew skeptical about the practicality of employing ADMs. In 1987, after considering how quickly U.S. forces would need to use ADMs near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in Korea to prevent them from falling into enemy hands in the event of a North Korean invasion, General Louis Menetrey, the U.S. commander there, said that keeping ADMs near the DMZ was “pretty dumb.” A similar recognition occurred in Europe, where Army planners came to realize that, in the event of an attack by the Warsaw Pact, ADMs would need to be employed in Allied territory at the beginning of a conflict if they were to be used at all. Major General William F. Burns (Ret.) noted, “As this realization sank in, such weapons were quietly retired.” These types of weapons are no longer in the stockpile.


Plus, there’s the whole nuclear-proliferation-problem of nukes being just small enough to walk around with. It’s much easier to spot them if they’re attached to a giant missile in a silo, for instance. The SADM was officially pulled from service in 1989, just in time for the end of the first Cold War.

But if you just happen to get one, the U.S. government made a handy video on how to use it. Please don’t, however.


h/t to BravoDelta!