Key Point: ICBMs are typically launched from underground silos, submarines, or mobile launchers. This proposal would shoot ICBMs through a plane’s fuselage.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
ICBMs—intercontinental ballistic missiles as they are known—typically launch from hardened silos deep underground so they are protected from nuclear blasts. ICBMs were initially propelled using liquid fuel that required extensive support infrastructure and long preparation times. Missile therefore had to be constantly kept on high alert in order to rapidly respond to a launch order.
In the 1960s, ICBM fuel shifted from liquid to solid fuel. Solid fuel required considerably less preparation than liquid fuel, and thus benefited from shorter launch countdowns and thus quicker response times. Some countries, including France, have moved away from ground-based silos in favor of other delivery systems, primarily air and submarine-based.
Mobile ICBM launchers are another option that has enjoyed much more success outside the United States. Mobile launchers are by definition, mobile. This addresses the primary weakness of silo-based ICBMs, the fact that they are immobile and could be targeted during a conflict.
Countries like China and Russia especially display their road-mobile ICBMs during military parades. These multi-wheel movers typically have one very large diameter missile mated to the roof that can be launched at a moment’s notice. They benefit from having good on- and off-road capabilities.
During the 1980s, the U.S. Air Force developed a rail-mobile ICBM system. The Peacekeeper Rail Garrison would have put 50 ICBMs into rail launchers that could be ferried around the country in case of a conflict. The system was intended to keep America’s ICBMs dispersed and safe from a nuclear attack.
Perhaps the best-protected ICBM delivery system is the submarine. Submarines deep underwater can sail nearly silently—purpose-built ICBM submarines are nuclear-powered to allow subs to stay submerged for their entire patrol if necessary. Their mission is simple, leave port undetected, and wait out at sea, ready to launch nuclear missiles at a moment’s notice.
Air-based Vertical Launch System
One of the stranger delivery system ideas was a so-called air-based vertical launch system that would have launched ICBMs upwards through a plane’s fuselage. According to a number of interesting patents, an air-based launch system had a few interesting benefits. Since this system would be airborne, it would not be as exposed to an enemy attack during wartime like land-based missile silos would be.
Explanatory diagrams in the patent show missiles in the center of the fuselage in much the same way that missiles are stored in submarines. 12 missiles are stored in the center, just aft of the wings and are as tall as the plane’s body, in this case a Boeing 747. Missiles are shown launching from the plane and onto land-based targets.
In addition to launching ICBMs, the patent also explains that the air-based vertical launch system could be used in a ground-attack role or for laying mines. Moreover, the patent explains that during peacetime, the system could be used to launch satellites into space.
Will we see an air-based vertical launch system anytime soon? We’ll see, stay tuned.
Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture. This article first appeared earlier this year and is reprinted due to reader interest.
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