Are America's Long-Range Ballistic Missiles Doomed?

"As debate swirls around upgrading the nuclear triad, ICBMs struggle to keep their place in America's arsenal."

For all their speed and destructive power, the first intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) of the late 1950s and early 1960s were more terror weapons than precision munitions. The limited accuracy of the first ICBMs meant that neither U.S. nor Soviet missile forces could kill the other's missile forces or command centers.

That left American war planners in a bad bind. By 1964, ICBMs made up the bulk of the U.S. strategic force. The USSR had only a few big missiles, but they packed enough megatons to cripple the U.S. ICBM fleet. The United States could launch its missiles early to prevent their loss, but at the risk of killing half the Soviet population before American warfighters identified the Soviet missiles' targets.

If a ballistic missile's value lay in its "countervalue" targeting of civilians, then the U.S. Navy's invulnerable missile subs could assume the strategic role the USAF saw as its own. But if the Air Force had a missile big and accurate enough to threaten Soviet missile forces themselves—a "counterforce" weapon—the flying branch could cement its dominance of the strategic mission.

However, a first-strike weapon able to wipe out Soviet missile silos and command bunkers would receive the full brunt of a Soviet nuclear strike.

To be credible, a first-strike weapon had to be invulnerable, otherwise the “use-it-or-lose-it” dilemma resurfaced. So began a decades-long quest for an invulnerable basing mode that ended with the fall of the enemy it was designed to defend against.

Bizarre Basing

Between 1964 and 1979, study groups and defense contractors looked at over thirty different ICBM basing concepts, ranging from the doubtfully probable to the nearly incredible. One could be forgiven for invoking Dr. Seuss: "Could they put it in a boat? Could they even make it float? Or maybe put it on a train, underground, away from rain."

The United States might launch ICBMs into orbit during a crisis, their warheads on standby as they circled the globe overhead. If things went south, they would drop towards their targets; if conditions cooled off, they could be splashed into the ocean for possible recovery. Apart from violating the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons in space, such a plan would look like an attack whether or not the warheads came down.

ICBMs could be mounted in capsules attached to small diesel submarines that patrolled American coastal waters. When called upon, these capsules would bob to the surface and launch their cargoes. However, the U.S. Navy already had missile subs and the new subs wouldn't be cheap. Small subs in shallow waters were also vulnerable to nuclear explosions.

Two ideas dispensed with the subs and stuck the missiles right in the water by themselves. The “Hydra” plan envisioned floating waterproof missiles bobbing in the brine just below the surface, deployed by ships and subs either in peacetime or upon warning. An unattained missile buoy is vulnerable to everything from naval units to fishermen to sea life. And as the report states, "The Hydra concept also presents safety problems of an unprecedented kind. The idea of missiles with nuclear warheads floating unattended in ocean waters introduces an unacceptable hazard to navigation for the world's shipping."

The “Orca” concept actually proved itself during quarter-scale tests conducted by General Dynamics. A direct predecessor of DARPA's Upward Falling Payloads program, Orca envisioned encapsulated ICBMs resting dormant on the ocean floor until commanded to blow their ballast, surface and launch their contents. As with orbital basing, treaties prevent deployment of nukes on the ocean floor, and inspection would be detectable.

If floating missiles entered Navy turf, perhaps missiles could fly instead. Several basing ideas envisioned large carrier aircraft disgorging their ICBMs in flight. Launching an ICBM in mid-air sounds crazy, but it worked in tests; in fact, in the early 1960s, the USAF and Britain's Ministry of Defense collaborated on such a missile, called Skybolt. (Its cancellation left the United Kingdom without an ICBM force.)

Even giant seaplanes and zeppelins were considered for the carrier role. Seaplanes face corrosion and rough seas, and the thought of a nuclear-armed dirigible crashing in a cornfield gives one pause. Air-basing options all depended upon sufficient warning to get the aircraft airborne before combat, and it all looked very costly.

For the nuclear triad to have three independent legs, land basing was essential. ICBMs, big or small, might be buried deep or driven around to keep them safe. Missile silos in themselves would only become more vulnerable as Soviet missiles increased in accuracy. The "Sandy Silo" concept put the encapsulated missile in a 2000-foot-deep hole filled with sand. Upon launch, water fluidized the sand and the buoyant missile would shoot to the surface and fly away. That is, if the sand hadn't been turned to glass first and the water didn't boil away.