Nuclear Friday: The Homeless Missile

The LGM-118 turned me into a serious amateur student of arms control theory and nuclear strategy. The controversies surrounding its development and deployment between 1979 and 1986 prompted the first really serious public discussion of nuclear weapons policy since the early sixties. And there were protests. LGM-118 was met with as much public opposition in the US as Pershing II was in Germany, or Trident in the UK. Some readers are probably wondering what the hell an LGM-118 is and why you don’t remember it. I bet you’ll remember it if we use the name commonly used in the press, the MX missile, later dubbed the Peacekeeper. The MX was the missile that never had a home of its own. The discussion of where to put the MX led to a discussion of what the MX was even for, and exposed the sci-fi otherworldliness of 70s-80s strategic thought.

The MX was the outcome of a way of thinking that started with JFK and McNamara. Flexible Response was a strategic doctrine that planned to use nuclear weapons in limited ways to deter various types of aggression. The centerpieces of flexible response were “counterforce”, striking the strategic assets of the opponent to then have free reign to end a regional war how one sees fit, and “countervalue” striking the population and industry of an opponent to destroy it as an intact political entity. Some people called this “warfighting”, and criticized US nuclear strategy as planning to fight and win a nuclear war. Well? Shouldn’t you try to do as well as you can? And how can nuclear weapons act as a deterrent if you don’t have any other options than mass slaughter that you are unwilling to initiate?

I think Flexible Response type thinking makes good sense, at least in theory. It’s risky, but it improves deterrence by making the enemy think you might actually do it. Tactical nukes plus counterforce became the backbone of NATO strategy should there be a Soviet push into Europe from the 60s onward. This suited the US well because at least for a while, only the US had an effective counterforce capability.

But as expected, the Soviet Union would develop a somewhat effective counterforce capability of their own by the late seventies, and this capability was expected to improve throughout the eighties. So what the US needed was a sort of “double counterforce”, a counterforce capable weapons system that could survive a counterforce strike, and then make a counterforce strike of its own against enemy systems held in reserve as countervalue weapons.

Jimmy Carter was the most serious nuclear strategy theorist to ever serve as president. He recognized that Air Force MX-118 development program started in 1971 was the right missile for double-counterforce, but the missile would need a home. It would have to survive a mighty rain of SS-18 missiles and emerge to nullify much of the remaining Soviet capability.

Here is the original 1979 Carter plan. This is one of the best internal Air Force films I have ever seen. I highly recommend this one. Just ignore the error in the title from the Italian uploader:

I love this movie. Great discussion of why Launch Under Attack is a bad idea, though plenty of assurances that might happen. Gotta make sure any spies or informants that might be watching know that. And I especially liked the thruster test footage. It’s very rare to ever see any warhead bus thrusters. They are a very closely guarded secret. And there’s solar and wind power for it too.

This proposal would become known in the press as Carter’s “racetrack” plan. It was a good plan for exactly the reasons described in this video. A Soviet counterforce strike that attempted to completely destroy all 200 proposed MX missiles would simply use up too much Soviet capability to make them confident that their counterforce could work. And surviving missiles could be used in conjunction with other US assets to make a secondary counterforce strike against the Soviet plan.

Such fun! combined short-term casualties on each side might be held to the tens of millions with the US still holding plenty of nuclear assets to rule this damaged Earth.

You probably also noticed that there was much emphasis on meeting SALT II verification protocols. I liked that pile of dirt and rubble blocking the entrance to the racetrack. It was placed there so there would not be enough time to remove it, sneak in a second missile, and get it back in place before Russian spy satellites took a picture of the missile site.

There’s also the clever point that the number of shelters could be increased if the US felt the need to make the system a better deterrent while still complying with SALT II by not actually adding more missiles.

And if SALT II breaks down, remove the rubble barrier and either sneak in some extra missiles or simply create the impression that you might do so.

There’s also mention of the possibility of adding an ABM system to protect the launcher area should the need arise, even though this would violate the ABM treaty. I was confused by this because the ABM treaty allowed the US to construct an ABM system protecting one missile installation. The US had dismantled the Safeguard installation in North Dakota several years before 1979, so why would there be problem? The answer is in this map of where the MX racetracks were planned:HomelessNevada

If you noticed in the video that the racetracks take up most of a valley, you know that those black squares that might contain 50 or 100 racetracks are not to scale. In fact, they are far larger in area than what the US and Soviet Union agreed counts as a single installation under the ABM treaty and thus attempting to protect them would be in violation of the treaty.

Carter was committed to a political fight over the racetrack plan in the face of opposition from Utah Senator Paul Laxalt and others in Congress. With Carter’s loss in the 1980 election this fight never happened. The Mormon church would issue an official statement opposing the racetrack and the new Reagan administration would cancel this basing plan later in 1981.

The MX itself was funded until 1982, development would continue even if the MX was now homeless. So lets take a look at other basing options:

Titan II Replacement Program:

Titan II was an unstable and ageing launch system that didn’t fit in well with strategic developments. Titan family missiles were very good when first fielded in the early sixties and served well as a space launch platform until 2005. But as with the Soviet R-7 a launch system isn’t always a good missile. The Titans used corrosive hypergolic liquid oxidizer. Storing dangerous chemicals like nitrogen tetroxide right next to a five megaton warhead for more than a decade proved to be a very bad idea in what was the most serious Broken Arrow incident involving a missile.

The Reagan administration proposed a downsized MX force of 60 rather than the planned 200 and planned to decommission Titan II missiles and refit their silos with MX-118 as the MX became available. If this worked well, 40 additional MX missiles would be installed in modified Minuteman silos.

While getting rid of the Titan had political support, both the Air Force and the academic arms control community considered this plan unacceptable. The USAF wanted their promised double counterforce capability, and the arms control wonks pointed out that the Russians already knew where all the Titan silos were, thus MX could not survive a counterforce strike and was useless as a deterrent. There’s no use even buying MX if it can’t make any contribution to stable deterrence.

The Administration promised to announce new basing alternatives in 1982. Some of these were new ideas, and others had been proposed and rejected in the seventies in favor of Carter’s racetrack.

Just a Hobo on the Doomsday Train:

homelessRailartOne of the ideas rejected in the seventies was what I like to call the Doomsday Train. The picture to the left is not what it would really look like, it’s an artist’s conception showing that missiles could be hidden in regular trains if you wanted to. What they planned back in the seventies was a specialized Doomsday Train. It had two locomotives, and two MX-118 launcher cars. It required a crew of 42, including 26 Air Force security troops. the trains would be stationed at SAC bases, and in time of crisis, rolled off the bases to mix with regular rail traffic to show things were serious. The train crews would be kept on alert just like bomber crews used to be, so the trains could be deployed in just a few minutes within warning of attack. But what really made this a Doom Train is that it had enough fuel and supplies to survive independently for eight weeks. It could roam a ravaged America waiting for USAF command to emerge from their bunkers and order it to strike. Now you understand why it needs the security team. It’s a tempting target for Mad Max movie types.

The Doom Train was rejected back in the seventies because of the high cost of keeping crews on alert and concerns that the public would reject nuketrains in their backyard. Having trains ready wasn’t really more expensive than bombers on active alert, but the Air Force really was looking for something with lower maintenance costs even if front-end capital costs were higher.

The mighty Nuketrain was not considered in Reagan’s 1981-82 review. Don’t worry, it will make a comeback before this story is over.



One proposal was to deploy some MX missiles as Air Launched Ballistic Missiles shoved out the back of cargo planes. The idea was that the modified MX ALBM could be carried aloft in times of crisis, or the planes could take off on warning. Pic to the left is a similar launch of an IRBM simulator used in BMD testing. An MX would be bigger and need a bigger plane.

While the USAF had proven that a cargo drop launch system is feasible (cool video here)for an ICBM in 1974, the Reagan administration rejected the plan because of high operating costs.

Active Defense:


One proposal to increase MX survival was to protect it with an active ABM defense, just as the 1979 video mentioned as a possibility. Unlike in the case of the racetrack, deploying the MX in existing silos would mean that at least one such site could be protected without violating the ABM treaty. The problem is, they weren’t going to be using a nuclear armed system like Ma Bell’s Sprint. The review team rejected the active defense proposal judging that it was unlikely that any conventional interceptor would be incapable of damaging an SS-18 warhead. They were correct. Even today’s Aegis Ashore would be able to intercept only a few such warheads before being destroyed.

Reverse-inclination Basing:


Also known as the “south side of the mesa” plan. This one would have been a really good idea and I can’t find any conclusive reason why it was rejected, though I suspect it was high cost and might have had local opposition.

Since the best USSR counterforce weapons would all be coming from over the North Pole and warheads would be approaching at a shallow angle, digging shelters into the south side of a mesa makes sense. The shelter entrances would never face direct blast at close range. The shelters could be destroyed only by entirely new high yield missiles the Soviets were unlikely to waste time developing or else they could try their luck trying to hit them from the south with SLBMs. That would tie up too many submarines. The plan seems brilliant to me. I have no idea why it was so quickly rejected.

I can’t think of mesas without thinking of Roadrunner cartoons. Can you think what Wile E. Coyote would try to do with an MX?

Alas, the Reagan administration rejected the mesa plan and all the above ideas in favor of something truly dense.

Fratricide? Sounds Dense to me: 

In 1982 Reagan and SecDef Weinberger announced what has to be one of the worst concepts for nuclear weapons basing ever seriously proposed, the Dense Pack. A downsized force of 100 missiles was supposed to be placed all together in one large field in Wyoming. If that sounds like putting all your eggs in one basket, you are right. The missiles were planned to be installed in extremely hardened silos in lines of 10-12 missiles aligned perfectly along a north-south axis. The missiles in a line would be 550 meters apart, with about 1km or so separating each line. Because of the curvature of the earth, the southern end of the pack would be a little wider than the northern end, but not much. They chose Wyoming because no weapons other than over the pole ICBMs would be able to attack that location.

Why would anyone think this was a good idea? Doesn’t putting all the missiles in one place so close together make them easier to attack? Well, maybe not, Weinberger argued. And thus the American public was introduced to the concept of Warhead Fratricide. Destroying the dense pack would require several waves of well timed ground burst detonations. This first set of detonations would kick up dust and debris that would rise into the upper atmosphere. That wouldn’t stop a second wave, but eventually the debris cloud would become thick enough that subsequent reentry vehicles would have their protective shielding stripped off and the warheads within destroyed by compression heating. Thus the first attacking warheads would create conditions that would kill subsequent Soviet “brother” warheads. That’s why they called it fratricide. No matter how many weapons were launched against it, part of the Pack would survive.

Almost no one thought the Dense Pack was a good idea. Many suggested obvious adjustments the USSR would probably be able to make that could destroy the Pack. Now that doesn’t mean the pack is strategically useless, attacking the pack would use up a substantial amount of Soviet nuclear forces. But the whole point of MX was survivability and flexibility. The pack could certainly be used for a very effective counterforce first strike and such plans were part of NATO policy, but barring a US first strike, the MX in the Pack was nothing but a target.

I have been unable to find out exactly who first proposed the Dense Pack. Whoever it was seems to have wisely covered his tracks leaving only Weinberger and Reagan to be associated with the Pack. The earliest mention of the Pack is a USAF report released in 80 or 81. This report was mostly a list of somewhat insane alternatives to the MX racetrack published to make the racetrack seem like the only good option. In other words, the Dense Pack might have been intended to not be taken seriously.

There seem to be no good pictures of the Pack online, but I did find this cool article from Wyoming about how people there felt about it.

Congress voted against funding the Dense Pack in 1982. This was after further funding for building the MX missiles themselves had already been approved. The MX seemed it would be homeless on arrival.

Inadequate Housing for the Homeless:

Testing the first operational LGM-118s began in 1983 and continued throughout 1984. Tests were successful, but without basing options other than installing MX in existing silos, Congress cut funding for all but 50 missiles. The remaining fifty proposed missiles would not be approved until an adequate basing system could be developed.

The first few MX missiles were installed in converted Minuteman silos in late 1986. Their new guidance systems were not ready, so they were essentially dud missiles. This first batch on station would get guidance systems installed within a few months, but the full fifty planned missiles would not be completed until 1988. They would remain in their inadequate housing until the last of them was decommissioned in 2006.

But what about the second set of fifty missiles, surely they weren’t funded what with the Cold War ending? But yes, they were. And where would they go. On a Doomsday Train, obviously.


Doom Trains are just too cool to stop. Congress approved funding for 25 trains to be build as part of the Peacekeeper Rail Garrison. Specialized rail cars, including launchers like the one pictured to the left began being delivered to the USAF in late 1990. By this time it was clear the Cold War was ending. The Bush 41 administration was continuing to cut weapons systems in accord with the continuing START negotiations and was not interested in more MX missiles. Congress was similarly unenthusiastic and the 50 additional MX missiles scheduled to be fitted to the trains were never built. The above launcher is maintained at an Air Force museum in Ohio and the rest of the completed rail cars have either been repurposed for civilian use or are rusting out at the Vandenberg test area in California.

The End of the MX: 

The 50 MX missiles stationed in silos were withdrawn from service between 2003 and 2006 as part of the START II agreement. The W-87 warheads were mostly put on a new missile bus for the reconfigured Minuteman III missiles that went into service at that time, with excess warheads stockpiled under supervision of Sandia Labs.

Studying the troubled history of the MX is a good way to understand late Cold War US strategic policy. Studying that history as it happened certainly helped me understand nuclear strategy more than anything else ever has.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s