The name of a manoeuvre for the safe delivery of a tactical nuclear weapon by air.

Back in the day, before the radiological effects of nuclear weapons were completely understood, nukes were just viewed as another way of blowing stuff up.

Conventional high explosives make a big hole in the ground/whatever but beyond that there's not much in the way of after-effects to the environment or people. Nuclear weapons were viewed much the same way. Except that they could blow up more stuff.

So, 'small' nuclear weapons were designed for the destruction of 'small' targets. Although nuclear projectiles had been tested that could be fired from a cannon (its calibre measured in inches, not millimetres) it was generally easier, and probably safer for ground personnel, to deliver these weapons by air.

Think airdropped nukes and you might think of a B-52 or another large bomber, but these are not ideal. Tactical nukes were meant for use against, say, a mass of infantry or armour (there were even some bazooka-type weapons for this), not entire cities like the strategic, intercontinental variety.

A city doesn't move. It doesn't matter how slow or ungainly a strategic bomber is, notwithstanding air defences it should have no problem nuking one. However the intended target of a tactical nuke could have, well, run away by the time you've lofted a B-52 and got it into position to attack. Fighter bombers like the Super Sabre, Thunderstreak or Thunderchief were far more suited to the task. They could carry the necessary ordinance and were much faster, with more flexibility to changing battlefield conditions.

Back to the problem. Even a 'mere' tactical nuclear weapon has a yield ranging from a few hundred tons of TNT to tens of kilotons (the bomb dropped on Hiroshima would today be classed as a tactical nuke). That's pretty nasty for anything nearby, including the plane that drops it.

Then, as now, bombing sorties for such aircraft (roughly equivalent to the US F-18 Hornet or British Tornado today) would often be low-level - at most a couple of hundred feet off the ground. The implications of dropping a nuclear bomb from that altitude in the normal manner aren't difficult to surmise. A major nuclear conflict would see pilots disappearing at an alarming rate. And not just because their bases would have the crap bombed out of them.

The "over the shoulder" manoeuvre allows a fighter bomber to deliver a nuclear bomb to a target and get away before the bomb explodes, so it doesn't get blown up with it. It's very simple and cool, except for the bit where lots of people die. What happens is the bomber makes a low, high speed run towards its target...


----------------->


                          _____
                         |  X  |
_________________________|_____|_____________

Then, after passing over the target the bomber enters a loop. Just after it is pointing vertically upwards it releases the bomb...


                                 --  <- Bomb release 
                                  -
                                  -
                                 --
                                --
                              ---
                          ----
                     -----
---------------------


           _____
          |  X  |
__________|_____|______________________

...concludes its loop, and exits on its original course, probably punching it as it does so. The direction and speed of the bomber at release lobs the bomb up into the sky, back towards - over the shoulder at - the target. Eventually it reaches the apex of its climb...

x = bomb trajectory

                        xx
                          xx      
                            x 
                             x  
                              x
                              x 
                               x
                               x
                                x
                                x
                                 x
                                 x
                                 x
                       -------    x
                    ---       --- x
                   --           --x
                  --             --
                  -               -
                  -               
                  --             
                    --           
                      --------
                              -----------------
                                               ------------------> bomber exits

           _____
          |  X  |         
__________|_____|______________________

...and falls back to earth, landing on or near the target (accuracy isn't a critical factor in nuke delivery). The time the bomb spends in the air gives the bomber time to escape to safe distance before the bomb detonates:

x = bomb trajectory

                        xx
                      xx
                     x
                    x
                   x
                   x
                  x
                  x
                 x
                 x
                x
                x
                x
               x
               x
               x
              x
              x
              x
              x
              x
             x
             x
             x
             x
   \  \  \   x   /  /  /
       \ \ \ x / / / 
__________\_\x/_/______________________

Wheeee.

There is a variation of this manouevre called an Immelmann delivery, whereby the bomber will execute a manoeuvre like this but instead of doing a full loop, will do a half loop and escape back the way it came.


Sources:
  • US Air Force Museum; "Over-the-Shoulder" Tactical Nuclear Weapons Delivery";
    <http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/history/postwwii/ots.htm>
  • Rasimus, Ed; "FLYING THE THUNDERCHIEF";
    <http://members.aol.com/afskie>

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