Nuclear Friday: Atomic Dirigibles?

In last week’s Nuclear Friday I said that the 1982 MX Dense Pack basing plan likely came from a 1980 report that included some very implausible basing options. This report seemed to be making the case that the Racetrack plan favored by President Carter and the Air Force was somehow inevitable. I have since found the full report from the US Defense Technical Information Center and I would highly recommend reading it. However, there’s no mention of the Dense Pack or the “warhead fratricide” hypothesis. It seems the mastermind behind the Pack has carefully erased his name from history, leaving it to forever be associated only with Reagan and Weinberger. But don’t worry, The Board is still fully committed to finding the origins of the Pack.

In the meantime, we’ll just take a look at a few of the stranger plans from the DTIC report.

A Helpful Chart: 

The report has this helpful chart for those of you who want to know exactly how much blast a structure can take:Screenshot (7)

You can be sure this chart is accurate. It’s based on real life above ground nuclear testing, with refinements underground testing and large conventional explosives tests after the Test Ban Treaty. Looks like silos and shelters are pretty tough. But what’s that last item on the chart for? Why does anyone care that a dirigible twelve miles away form a one megaton blast will likely be destroyed? Who was flying military dirigibles back in 1980? No one, of course, but dirigibles were given at least some consideration. We’ll get to that in a bit, after looking at a couple other DTIC plans.

Nukes in Space: 

Pretty cool. When there’s a nuclear alert, just launch a bunch of reentry vehicles into low Earth orbit. No one would ever be able to develop enough ASAT capability to get them all. When you go off alert, just deorbit them and have them safely parachute home. And if you want to use them, they can nuke anywhere in the world in about 15 minutes.

Screenshot (11)

The DTIC report is well aware of the downsides of this plan. Requirement for warning is probably the most serious. Aircraft are good for threatening the enemy during a time of tension as they are well-understood and easily controlled. Nukes in space might be too threatening. Furthermore orbital deploy on warning has all the vulnerabilities of aircraft.

I think the bigger problem is weapon recovery. Does anyone want to recover orbital nukes over their own territory? The report describes this as “potential loss”. That’s putting it mildly.

But I think the big problem here is potential violation of the Outer Space Treaty .

The Orca Plan:

So, let’s anchor huge missiles in waterproof containers to the sea floor. We can float them to the surface and fire them when needed. No one will ever find them, right?

Screenshot (9)

Looks like the problem with Orca is that while it might be possible to scatter missiles under the deep sea where no one could find them, those missiles are going to need to be checked on. It would be nearly impossible to perform any maintenance without revealing missile locations.

And then there’s the issue of the Seabed Treaty .

Dirigibles of Doom:

Airships are slow and expensive, but fairly cheap to operate. There was at least some consideration given to putting an ALBM version of the MX on airships and just having a bunch of them just cruise around near the US. The USSR would be unlikely to get them all, and attacking them might spread Soviet assets thinly.

Screenshot (10)

The report does mention that a nuke could take out a dirigible from as far as twelve miles away, and it’s very hard to hide dirigibles from Soviet intelligence assets like satellites, spy ships, or even aircraft making visual observations from international airspace.

And of course, the report mentions likely public opposition to so many nuclear takeoffs and landings. The public would have ample reason to be concerned.

Was the DTIC Report Sincere?

I think mostly it was. I may have selected some of the worst options from the report to discuss here, but some of the basing options were quite plausible. For instance, the report discusses a couple of Doomsday Train options. As discussed last week, the US actually started building Doom Trains for the second set of MX missiles. Those missiles were never built, but the trains would have worked. The DTIC report also includes the South Side of the Mesa plan, which was quite good.

On the other hand, the fact that the report included so many impractical options, some weirder than the three I have included in this post was probably to make Carter’s preferred Racetrack plan look better, or even perhaps inevitable. This seems more likely when you consider that the Racetrack was the last option in the report.

I am curious what anyone else thinks about the report. Read the pdf and let me know if you think it was a sincere consideration of basing options, or just fluff to make the MX Racetrack look better. I think it was a bit of both.


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