Zbigniew Brzezinski
Zbigniew Brzezinski; drawing by David Levine

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 Decisions

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.

But of course the opposite happened. Inevitably, the Soviets followed in our footsteps with a MIRV program of their own. In 1973, a year after SALT I was signed and five years behind the United States, the Soviets tested their first MIRVs and in 1975 began deploying them on their ICBMs. Because their missiles were larger than our Minutemen, they could put more warheads on them, with higher yields, and thus would have a potential advantage over the US. For example their heavy SS-18 missile has been tested with ten warheads, and intelligence experts say it could carry thirty. The lighter SS-19 has been tested with six but could carry twelve. With their currently tested numbers of warheads, the SS-18 and SS-19 would in theory be able to knock out our Minuteman force. With the increased numbers of warheads that they can be designed to carry, the MX “race tracks” themselves would be threatened.

Although Secretary Kissinger opposed including MIRV limits in SALT I, he later admitted that he wished he had understood the MIRV problem better. Now he and the Carter administration profess to be alarmed and Carter is prepared to spend well over $30 billion to make our ICBMs invulnerable—mainly because we did not halt the MIRV race before it got out of hand.

The Carter administration did not choose the “race track” basing system—the key element in reducing vulnerability—until September 7, 1979. A year earlier the Defense Department favored a quite different scheme: each missile would be moved in a vertical position in its launch canister from one empty blast-resistant silo to another on a random basis. Thus if the deception were good enough, the Soviets would never know which silo held the missile—the old shell game. More careful analyses however demonstrated that this approach was literally full of holes. It was probably not verifiable by the USSR and probably contravened the SALT Treaty limiting the number of launchers. In the past years a number of other schemes have been circulated and found wanting. Although the “race track” scheme is now said to have been firmly decided on, the more this plan is scrutinized, the more likely it is that it too may be superseded by some other scheme.

The Consequences

The White House has been caught in contradictions over the MX decision. On the one hand the administration has, until the recent Afghanistan crisis, wanted to present the ratified SALT II Treaty as its major accomplishment in foreign policy. Yet Carter also wanted to appease the “hardline” critics of SALT II and to counter potential Republican presidential candidates by showing how tough he was toward the Soviet Union. Concerned about arguments emphasizing the power of the huge Soviet ICBMs and their alleged threat to our smaller Minuteman ICBMs, the administration sought to match this Soviet capacity even as it claimed that large ICBMs are of no military significance. The attempts to buy off opposition to SALT by premature commitments to the MX had little success. Neither the June nor the September decisions to develop the MX quieted SALT’s critics.

The “hardliners” are never satisfied. Next Carter agreed to a rise of 3 percent in the defense budget as part of the price for the SALT treaty. Now his new defense budget is 5.4 percent higher this year even after allowing for inflation. The Afghanistan crisis will drive it even higher.

In September SALT opponents used such excuses as the presence of 3,000 Soviet combat troops in Cuba to delay a vote on the treaty. Next the crisis in Iran put off the Senate floor debate into 1980, and recently, on January 3, President Carter has asked Senator Byrd to delay Senate consideration in light of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Although Carter once protested that SALT should not be linked to other Soviet actions, that is precisely what he has done.

SALT II will almost certainly be deferred until after the election and in its current form the treaty is probably dead. The opportunity for limiting strategic weapons has been frittered away even though President Carter still professes to believe that SALT II is in the national security interest.

The Threat

The primary military argument for the MX is that it will, in the 1980s, eliminate the potential vulnerability of our fixed land-based ICBMs to a Soviet attack tack using ICBMs of unprecedented power and accuracy. However this threat is more theoretical than real. It is one thing for the Soviet Union to have a missile warhead able to knock out a single blast-resistant silo. It is quite another to be confident of destroying 1,000 US silos with 1,000-2,000 warheads in a near simultaneous attack at a time specified well in advance. The opportunities for failure are enormous, particularly since additional warheads cannot be fired at the same target to compensate for warheads that don’t reach their target. The explosion from the first salvo, even if inaccurate, would destroy the others. Furthermore, even were such an attack completely successful, the US would still be in a position to destroy most Soviet military targets, its industry, and its society with its thousands of submarine- and aircraft-launched missile warheads.

In his Annual Report for Fiscal 1979 of February 2, 1978, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown cogently explained why the vulnerability of the Minutemen “…would not be synonymous with the vulnerability of the United States, or even of the strategic deterrent.” He wrote:

In recognizing that the MINUTEMAN vulnerability problem is a serious concern for us, we also realize that the Soviets would face great uncertainties in assessing whether they would have the capability we fear—and still greater uncertainties as to its military or political utility.

On all the technical judgments—how accurate the missiles are, how reliable, how well the system would work in actual practice, whether they could explode two reentry vehicles on each silo without excessive fratricide, or only one—we, quite properly, are conservative, from our point of view.

Similarly, the Soviets must make cautious assumptions from their perspective. In particular, they must recognize the formidable task of actually executing (as planned) a highly complex massive attack in a single cosmic throw of the dice.

Even if such an attack worked exactly as predicted, the Soviets would face great risks and uncertainties.

First, they would necessarily have to consider whether the US missiles would still be in their silos when the attack arrived, or whether, given our capability to have unambiguous confirmation of a massive attack, we would launch from under the attack.

Second, and more important, an attack intended to destroy US silos could kill at least several million Americans and would leave untouched at least the alert bombers and at-sea SSBNs with thousands of warheads. The Soviets might—and should—fear that, in response, we would retaliate with a massive attack on Soviet cities and industry. The alleged “irrationality” of such a response from a detached perspective would be no consolation in retrospect and would not necessarily be in advance an absolute guarantee that we would not so respond.

In any event, any Soviet planner considering US options would know that, besides massive retaliation, the surviving US forces would also be capable of a broad variety of controlled responses aimed at military and civilian targets and proportioned to the scale and significance of the provocation.

Thus the administration’s principal spokesman argued that the Soviet threat to our current ICBMs was open to grave doubt. Although the Soviet forces will be greater in the 1980s than when he made that statement, its logic will be equally applicable then.

US strategy still depends on a “triad” of submarine missiles, intercontinental bombers, and land-based missiles. Carter, by emphasizing the invulnerability and mobility of the Trident submarines, could have made a powerful argument that the US would remain secure even if one leg became potentially vulnerable. However, now that our land-based missiles—and only our land-based missiles—are becoming theoretically vulnerable because we failed to limit MIRVs in SALT I, Carter has allowed his administration to be stampeded into building a premature, expensive Rube Goldberg system that in the long run will not work.

The Basing System

If the MX system were to be installed by the early 1980s, one might argue that—in view of the Soviet forces estimated for those years—it could protect the land-based missiles on its “race track” loops. But the entire MX system will not be in operation until the end of the 1980s and it would have to remain effective in the 1990s if its deployment is to be justified.

In fact, the MX will, before very long, be outmoded. Its effectiveness depends on having more launch points than the Soviets have ICBM warheads to attack it. The SALT II Treaty would have put a finite limit of approximately 6,000 on such Soviet warheads. This was probably not enough to give the Russians confidence they could destroy the 4,600 shelters on the proposed MX “race track” loops. But even if ratified, SALT II would have expired in 1985, some five years before the MX system will be fully in operation. Pity the poor US SALT negotiator in the 1980s having to persuade his Soviet counterpart that the USSR must sign or extend a treaty in order to make our MX program, costing between 30 and 100 billion dollars, an effective weapons system. If SALT II is not ratified, no multiple launch point scheme has a chance of assuring invulnerability. It will be out of date before the first MX can be deployed in 1986. By that time, according to official US estimates of Soviet MIRV capacity, the Russians could easily have 10,000 warheads, more than enough to hit every shelter that is planned for every MX “race track.”

Furthermore, since the MX missile threatens the Soviet ICBM force, more than 70 percent of its deterrent, the Soviet Union will almost certainly make some response to it, even if this means renouncing the SALT II Treaty. Efforts to limit strategic weapons would collapse.

During the next ten years, moreover, Soviet technological advances could easily render pointless some of the key features of the “race track” scheme. An important element raising the cost of the system will be the requirement for the TEL, carrying its one missile, to move unmanned at thirty miles an hour around the “race track” from shelter to shelter as soon as word comes that the Soviets have launched a strike. In such a situation the missile will not be covered by a shield and its location will be exposed to satellite observation. Today’s technology already would permit a missile to attack such a moving target. The US has for several years had under development a maneuverable missile reentry vehicle (MARV), which could change its course as it approaches the target area and so could attack any point within the “race track.” Such Soviet MARVs could be directed by a satellite in a very high geosynchronous orbit, 22,000 miles above the earth. The satellite could maintain continuous observation of US ICBM fields and guide the reentry vehicle to the spot where the MX missile is located.

This is not Star Wars technology: the US knows how to use such a satellite today and the Soviet Union could certainly do so by the 1990s. In that event the vast machinery designed to keep the MX invulnerable would be useless.


Many features of the “race track” basing scheme are designed to avoid Soviet claims that the system will violate the SALT Treaty provisions forbidding both sides to conceal weapons from the technical devices used by the other side for verification. The open road loops, the external missile assembly facilities, the barriers on the rail track entering the road loop, and the portholes in the shelters—all are there to counter Soviet claims that missiles are concealed from verification. And perhaps the Soviet strategists will be satisfied that only one missile is in each “race track,” confident that any significant US cheating would be leaked, either through Aviation Week or other sources.

However the problem for the US is not Soviet verification of US missiles but US verification of Soviet missiles. The USSR will be under strong pressure to make its own ICBMs less vulnerable since the MX missile is designed specifically to threaten the ICBM part of the Soviet deterrent. The Soviet leaders may also turn to a “multiple launch point” system although it may be impossible for their scheme to meet US standards for verification.

All currently deployed Soviet ICBMs, with the exception of a few almost obsolete SS-13s, still use liquid fuel, unlike the US missiles which use solid fuel. These large liquid-fueled ICBMs cannot be transported in a horizontal position with their fuel aboard. Fueling takes many hours. The Soviets might feel forced to adopt a different type of multiple launch point system in which the missile was transported from one silo to another in a vertical position and then fueled in place. This was an idea earlier considered by the US and discarded because it could not be made verifiable and because it might contravene the SALT ceilings on the number of launchers. The Soviets, if they decide they have to take some action to reduce the vulnerability of the ICBM to the new MX missile, may risk building a system in which numbers are unverifiable. The SALT II Treaty, even if ratified, would have expired before the Russians could begin to deploy such a system.

Unfortunately for the US, its MX will be vulnerable to a Russian attack unless some type of arms limitation can be counted on to continue to place an upper limit on the number of Soviet warheads. Without an agreed upper limit the US “race track” scheme—or any other involving multiple launch points—will sow the seeds of MX selfdestruction—and most important would destroy the entire SALT process for many years. Since there will be no reliable way of determining how many missiles either nation has, we may expect an unending arms race with both participants blindfolded.

If the SALT II Treaty is not in effect and the Soviets considerably increase the number of their warheads aimed at our silos, as they easily could do by 1985—just by putting more warheads on each missile—then the US would have to increase the size of the MX basing scheme in order to match the increase in Soviet warheads. A race would take place in which the US would build more hardened launch points and the Russians more warheads. Secretary Harold Brown admitted in his White House briefing on the MX on September 7, 1979, that it might cost more for the US to build more shelters than for the Soviets to put more warheads on their missiles.

Instead of increasing the size of our “race track” basing scheme, we might try to supply an ABM defense for it. Lt. General Thomas Stafford, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Research and Development, testified that this was a useful solution for maintaining the in-vulnerability of the “race track” system, since the system could be designed to defend only the occupied shelters, ignoring the unoccupied ones. However, additional ballistic missile defenses are banned by the ABM Treaty of 1972. Renegotiating that agreement would open a Pandora’s box. If the Soviets were free to deploy ABMs, this could undermine confidence in the submarine missile component of our deterrent triad as well as the ICBM one. Thus President Carter’s decision to proceed with the MX “race track” may in the long run not only prevent meaningful limitations on offensive strategic weapons but also destroy the ABM Treaty as well.

A promising alternative to the landbased MX and its many dangers has recently been proposed:* this would consist of cheap mini-submarines carrying two missiles and deployed from one to three hundred miles from the American coast. Since the location of the submarines would be unknown to the Soviets, the missiles on them could not be attacked. There would thus be no incentive for a race in which the US would build more and more launchers and the Soviets would add more and more warheads. The submarines would be deployed outside US territory, thus reducing destruction in the event of war. The Soviets could verify the numbers of both submarine and missiles by the same satellite observations and other means now used for deep ocean submarines such as the Polaris.

The system, moreover, could be so designed that it would not threaten the Soviet Union’s own deterrent missiles and would not therefore upset the strategic balance. Such submarines, unlike ocean-going submarines, could be in direct communication with command authorities. They could carry two MX missiles, but the smaller Trident I missile would be available earlier, and would be less expensive and less threatening. As each new submarine came into operation, it would add to the ability of the US deterrent forces to survive attack. With any multiple launch point land-based system, no gain will result until the number of launch points approaches the number of Soviet warheads. And relying on mini-submarines for deterrence would obviously avoid all the threats to American land and environmental resources that are posed by the vast construction required for the MX multiple launch point basing system.

That MX system can only lead to vast, uncontrolled arms competition that will undermine the security of the US and increase the dangers of nuclear conflict. Perhaps the greatest test facing Carter now is whether he has the political courage to confront the facts and implications of this monstrous project and bring it to a halt.

This Issue

March 20, 1980