America’s Greatest Construction: Can It Work?

Although the SALT II Treaty is now in limbo and may never be resurrected in its present form, a furious debate is still continuing over the MX missile, the latest brainchild of the Pentagon planners and scientists. This will be the most expensive weapon ever produced—some estimates run as high as $100 billion to deploy 200 missiles. Building its “race track” bases will involve the largest construction project in US history. Because the MX threatens a first strike at the heart of the Soviet strategic forces—its land-based ICBMs—it could increase risks of a nuclear Armageddon. Because it could lead the Soviet Union to build strategic missile systems that we cannot verify, it could also undercut all future attempts to control strategic weapons, and could result in the US and the Soviet Union running blindfolded in an endless nuclear arms race.

The MX missile that President Carter approved for full-scale development is the largest of all designs that were being considered for a new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). (Figure 1 compares it with the Minuteman III ICBM.) The MX will weigh 190,000 pounds and will initially be capable of launching to the Soviet Union ten of the new models of the Minuteman III nuclear warhead, each with an explosive force, or “yield,” of about 350 kilotons. An even higher yield will be substituted in the 1980s. The missile will have a range of 6,000 nautical miles and a new guidance system which will give it an accuracy significantly better than that of the advanced Minuteman III. As currently proposed the full MX deployment will comprise 200 missiles with 2,000 warheads, powerful and accurate enough to threaten the entire Soviet ICBM force of 1,400 missiles.

Carter has also approved the so-called “race track” scheme to provide bases for these missiles. Each of the 200 missiles will be assigned to its own road loop with twenty-three blast-resistant shelters. These twenty-three shelters will be separated by a minimum of 7,000 feet in order to ensure that a single Soviet warhead cannot destroy more than one shelter. (See Figure 2.) Thus, unless the Soviets have a way of knowing which shelter in a “race track” holds the single missile, they would have to destroy all twenty-three hardened shelters in order to be sure of disabling the missile. Success depends on fooling the Russians in a multi-billion-dollar shell game. Depending on local terrain the “race tracks” will be deployed in Nevada and Utah in clusters of about four with a single external assembly area. (See Figure 3 for a typical deployment area.)

After having been assembled outside the “race track” the missile will be placed horizontally on a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) 180 feet long and weighing 670,000 pounds, and then moved into its “race track” by a special railroad. In order to show the Russians that only one missile is in each “race track,” a barrier will be placed across the railroad after the missile and TEL …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.