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.
What Is It?
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 are inside. This is supposed to prevent additional missiles from being moved secretly onto the track in violation of a SALT ceiling—should we ever again agree to such a ceiling. Final assembly and maintenance of the missile will be conducted within this barrier.
The TEL with the missile aboard will be covered with a 210-foot shield weighing 140,000 pounds to conceal the missile from external observation as it moves along the road loop from one shelter to another. Thus the total weight of the TEL, missile, and shield, which must be transported around the “race track,” will be more than one million pounds. The missile and TEL will be dropped off in one of the shelters, but the shield will slowly lumber on to all twenty-three shelters so that the Soviets cannot know which shelter houses the actual missile. To make the deception more effective, it may at a later time be necessary to substitute a concrete dummy under the shield to simulate the weight of the missile and TEL. But each shelter will have four portholes in the roof which can be opened from time to time to permit a Soviet observation satellite to see that only a single shelter in a “race track” contains a missile and that all others are empty.
The transporter and the missile without the shield will be designed to move unmanned and by remote control along the road at a speed of thirty miles an hour, so that even after warning that the Soviets have launched an attack, a missile could, in theory, be moved to any one of the twenty-three shelters in the twenty minutes before the Soviet warhead arrives. It will be possible to fire a missile from the TEL while on the open “race track” as well as directly from the shelters.
Each “race track” will be approximately fifteen miles long and cover an area greater than thirty square miles. Thus 200 MX “race tracks” will cover an area of at least 6,000 square miles; considerable additional land will be needed for other facilities, exterior roads, and rail lines. Construction camp areas will also be required. According to the Environmental Impact Statement more than 20,000 square miles may be involved for this system. Security fencing will only be provided for an area of about 2 1/2 acres around each shelter so the Defense Department claims that only about twenty-five square miles of the entire complex will be denied to public use. However, this would appear somewhat disingenuous since the remainder of the area will be covered with roads capable of handling or moving a TEL vehicle weighing a million pounds—hardly ideal campgrounds. Even if it is not fenced, the entire area will need some type of security to prevent sabotage.
The construction necessary for this system will be stupendous and will dwarf any other in the sparsely inhabited states of Utah and Nevada. Some 10,000 miles of heavy duty roadway will be required, and perhaps 5,000 additional miles of road. This is more than one third the length of the total Federal Interstate Highway System which has been built since the 1950s. The MX will thus require the biggest construction project in the nation’s history, bigger than the Panama Canal and much bigger than the Alaskan pipeline. Recent studies show that some 172 billion gallons of water will be required for construction and twenty years of operation of the system in a region where water is precious. (Indeed the four senators from Nevada and Utah have recently urged President Carter to seek alternatives to the MX “race track” basing scheme.)
The cost of the entire system with two hundred MX missiles is now officially estimated to be $33 billion, but we can be sure this estimate is low. Only very preliminary work has been done on the detailed design of these systems. The history of other military programs suggests the costs will be at least twice as large. Senator Helms, an eager supporter of most military appropriations, has estimated them at over $100 billion.
The MX program shows how erratic the Carter administration has been in its nuclear security policies. In 1977 and 1978 Carter’s officials expressed skepticism about the MX, but as SALT began to run into political trouble, the MX program was increasingly viewed as a “bargaining chip” to appease senators who opposed the treaty. Then on June 8, 1979, and only eleven days before Carter signed the SALT II Treaty in Vienna, his administration announced the decision to develop the MX missile. Although the White House vigorously denied it, there seems no doubt that their decision was made to reduce opposition in the Senate to the SALT II Treaty. But even if the treaty had been promptly ratified, the decision to build the MX would have done much to make SALT unworkable.
How was the MX justified? The administration argued that without the MX our current Minuteman ICBMs would become vulnerable to a Soviet attack in the 1980s. Yet Carter’s decision of June 1979 did not deal with the method of basing the MX—which is what determines vulnerability—only with the characteristics of the MX missile itself. The administration, moreover, chose a 190,000-pound missile, the largest of all the proposed new MX designs, and the one that makes invulnerability more difficult to achieve, since the larger the missile the more difficult and expensive it would be to make it mobile and to build a number of hardened launch points from which it could be fired.
The only rationale for so huge a missile would be to carry more warheads with greater explosive power. Along with the higher accuracy of the new missiles, this will give the United States for the first time the power to threaten all of the Soviet Union’s landbased ICBMs. Since ICBMs comprise more than 70 percent of the entire Soviet strategic force, the US will be viewed by the Soviet Union as seeking the power to make a first strike on the Soviet deterrent. Administration spokesmen deny that this is our intention. They claim that there are other blast-resistant targets in the USSR besides ICBM silos—such as command posts or nuclear weapon storage sites—that would require MX warheads. However the small number of such targets would not require us to build 2,000 MX warheads. They could be adequately dealt with by our existing Minuteman III missiles with their new guidance system and their new warheads of higher explosive power. The conclusion is inescapable that the military wants the MX in order to threaten Soviet ICBMs.
Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski argues that the improved strategic power of the MX will “reduce Soviet incentives to initiate an attack against our forces by giving us the ability to respond in kind.” This argument makes no sense at all. First, the knowledge that US missiles could destroy their silos would increase, not decrease, Soviet incentives to make a preemptive attack in the first stage of any conflict. Next, a silo-busting force is of value only for a “first strike” since an attack in response would only hit empty silos. The Soviets would have launched some of their missiles from their silos in their first strike, and they would fire any remaining missiles when their radars detected that the US was launching its retaliatory strike. Why should they leave their ICBMs in their silos to be destroyed after a large-scale nuclear war has broken out?
Defending the MX decision, Brzezinski claimed that “proceeding with this new system should improve Soviet incentives in SALT III by demonstrating our determination to maintain essential equivalence.” One might have hoped that after the sad experience of Nixon and Kissinger in buying weapons as negotiating bargaining chips, the Carter administration would not fall into the same trap. In the early 1970s the US refused in the SALT 1 negotiations to limit MIRVed missiles—missiles that can launch multiple warheads at separate targets. Instead it deployed MIRVed missiles for several years before the Soviets had even tested their first model. This deployment, it was argued, would pressure the Soviets into favorable negotiations in SALT II.