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Battleships Firing ‘Nuclear Bomb’ Artillery Shells: The Navy’s Wild Idea

Iowa-class Battleships
Image: Creative Commons.

The idea comes up every now and again on these very digital pages: unretire the old Iowa-class battleships and modernize them. While the debate on this topic is all over the place with many different pros and cons, some ideas during the Cold War on how to do this got pretty interesting: With the Korean War in full swing in the early 1950s, the U.S. Navy had its own wants and needs, plus rivalries with other service branches. The Army, Air Force, and submarines with the Navy were armed with nuclear weapons, but no surface ships could fire atomic devices. One plan was to outfit three of the Iowa-class battleships so they could launch a nuclear shell from the vessels’ main 16-inch guns.

“Katie Bar the Door”

Operation Katie was the name of the program. The moniker came from the abbreviation for kilotons (kt). The idea was to take Army tactical nuclear shells and retrofit them for battleship use. These were called Mark 23 “Katie” nuclear projectiles and fifty were produced beginning in 1952 and the first arrived in 1956.

The Iowa-class Battleship Would Deliver the Nuclear Round

The navy outfitted the USS IowaUSS New Jersey, and USS Wisconsin with altered magazines on the warships to carry the shells. Each ship would have ten Katie projectiles and nine practice shells. This would give the navy the biggest and most powerful nuclear artillery in the world – a total of 135–180 kilotons of yield.

Each Katie Nuclear Shell Would Have Ample Power

The Mark 23 was derived from the Army’s Mark 9 – the first nuclear artillery shell. The Navy’s Mark 23 had a 15-20 kiloton nuclear warhead – about the size of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War Two. So, the Katie would be able to take out a city day or night and in all weather. In a naval battle, it could destroy an entire Soviet battle group. The navy’s nuclear shell was thought to be accurate.

It Took Some Clever Engineering

These shells required careful engineering. “Naval Gazing,” a blog dedicated to the USS Iowa and other battleships, had this to say about nuclear devices fired from artillery.

“An artillery shell is an incredibly difficult environment to put a complicated device like a nuclear warhead. It must withstand normal handling, thousands of Gs of acceleration as it’s fired, and the centrifuge of a shell spinning at 10,000 rpm or more.”

Navy Kept It Classified

It was no surprise that the navy wanted to keep this under wraps, and they never confirmed or denied the presence of nuclear shells on the vessels.

Could the Katie Have Been Used to “Win” a Nuclear War?

But it is plausible that the shells were employed on the battleships. In those days nuclear planners believed the United States could “win” a nuclear war with the Soviets. The Katie shells showed just how far the military was willing to go with nuclear weapons. The nuclear option that would escalate from a conventional war was a real prospect.

The Military Was In the Nuclear Age

Fred Kaplan, writing in his book The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War summarized the military’s thinking during the era.

“All of these options envision the bomb as a weapon of war, writ large. This vision has been enshrined in the American military’s doctrines, drills, and exercises from the onset of the nuclear era through all its phases.”

Thus, the Katie was part of a larger military strategy. By 1962, the Katie shells were removed and thankfully never used, although the USS Wisconsin may have fired a practice round in 1957. The body of a Mark 23 shell is on display today at a nuclear museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, Ph.D., is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Scott

    July 4, 2022 at 1:42 pm

    Wow great story.

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