MX’s job: survive attack then hit back—hard

Val Ross December 6 1982

MX’s job: survive attack then hit back—hard

Val Ross December 6 1982

MX’s job: survive attack then hit back—hard

Val Ross

The the Soviet Arctic skies, missiles ultimately speed across bound for the big United States intercontinental ballistic missile base in southeastern Wyoming. Long-range U.S. radar picks up the first blips indicating the penetration of the continent’s northernmost defences. Defence authorities activate swarmjets as space-based infrared homing devices and directed-energy weapons target the line of the invading nuclear armada. Some Soviet missiles are hit in small

nuclear explosions. Others, their delicate homing and detonating mechanisms thrown askew by the attacks, swerve off course and fall harmlessly to earth.

Still others survive, driving their lethal 10megaton warheads over Canada toward their Wyoming target.

Horrendous: On command, long-range Spartan nuclear-armed antiballistic missiles (ABMs) flare up from the airfields of the northern United States to smash more Soviet missiles into a useless shower of metal powder. Yet a few of the incoming missiles escape atomization and are still aloft. They swoop down on the U.S. base with exquisite accuracy, detonating their horrendous payloads. Southeastern Wyoming is engulfed by a fireball beneath a mushroom cloud 100 km in diameter. Over the days, months and years ahead, radioactive poisoning will cause more

For now, only two of the 100 U.S. missiles buried deep in a thin line of superhardened silos are immobilized by the Soviet attack. The first incoming bombs have thrown up so much debris and created such electromagnetic disturbance that later-arriving missiles are either destroyed or thrown off target. Hours after the Soviet strike, the

than 10 million Americans and a million Canadians to die nauseated, agonized deaths. first effects of the blast have subsided. The remaining 98 U.S. missiles begin to emerge from their berths beneath the nuclear crater like upthrust bones through settling ash. Each missile is 21.5 m long, 2.3 m in diameter, its black tip resistant to the heat and radioactive dirt that chokes the sky. The nose cone carries 10 nuclear warheads, each with almost 18 times the might of the Hiroshima bomb. As the 98 MX missiles begin their ascent toward the Soviet Union, to wreak still more irreparable damage to the planet, their flight brings a strange satisfaction to U.S. de-

fence planners in their underground bunkers. The past few hours have confirmed the strategic and technical assumptions on which the Americans developed the missile’s “dense pack” base design in the early 1980s.

Horrifying as that scenario is, it is the theoretical basis for the Missile Experimental (MX) nuclear system that President Ronald Reagan unveiled last week. The proposal would put 100 MXs into one long, narrow configuration of superhardened silos near Cheyenne, Wyo. Some $4.5 billion has been invested so far in MX research and design. Supposedly, the missile is accurate enough to travel around the globe and hit a specific city block nine times out of 10. When it is ready, after operational tests which begin next month—and if Congress grants approval—the missile should be able to carry as many as 12 nuclear warheads (although under current arms limitation agreements there can be no more than 10). With 350 kilotons, the individual warheads have been called “city busters.” The deadly trip envisioned between Wyoming and Soviet airspace would take 30 minutes. At that point, the missile’s nose cone would aim each warhead at a separate target. But, in order to be available for that trip, they have to be safe from Soviet missile attack, and that is what Reagan’s 2 V2 -by-22-km dense pack base plan is supposed to accomplish.

Futuristic: Short of a terrible war, there is no way to confirm the claims made for the MX’s capabilities or for the virtues of its dense pack deployment. In the U.S. Congress this week perhaps the most contentious issue of all was whether the United States even needs the MX. The price alone is formidable. The MX dense pack arrangement will not only cost between $26 billion and $50 billion but there will be additional heavy investment for the development of accompanying defence systems—the Spartan interceptors and other hardware such as the futuristic directedenergy weapons (lasers).

There are other contentious assumptions built into the design. U.S. planners believe that by packing MX missiles together into a long, narrow target strip, aligned on a north-south axis, they will force the Soviets to concentrate their attacks on one narrow “threat tube.” Besides, as one defense department official put it, dense pack will “drive them [the Soviets] toward significant [and costly] changes in weapons systems in order to counter MX in this mode.” The Pentagon believes that it will take the Soviets about 15 years to develop such a system—a period of security that satisfies the missile’s proponents. There are no guarantees, of course, that the Soviets will not respond instead by upgrading their submarine or bomber fleets to attack the fixed-position MXs from the dense pack’s 22-km-long sides instead of from the north. After all, as Senator Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) notes, it is cheaper to defeat a weapon’s defences than to defend that weapon. “And with the Soviets’ traditional willingness to meet their defence needs,” he adds, “there is little reason to believe they will not meet the MX challenge.” A key part of the challenge is the socalled “fratricide” theory on which the dense pack plan depends. According to the U.S. theory, the first Soviet explosions would render the subsequent enemy bombs incapable of destroying the remaining silos. According to U.S. planners, the debris that would erode or deflect the fast-approaching Soviet missiles would not jeopardize the delayed

launch of the retaliatory MX fleet. But, even though fratricide is purely speculative—if it failed to occur, the entire fleet of MXs would roast in its underground bed—the Soviets, in order to launch an attack, would have to gamble that fratricide would not work. Or the Soviets could develop earth-penetrating warheads with 25-megaton payloads which, by exploding underground simultaneously at the MX site, would overcome the fratricide factor. Whatever response the Soviets develop, the dense pack’s Pentagon champions have made a major, implicit assumption: that the bait (or “nuclear sponge,” in military jargon) of a southern Wyoming base will draw the first Soviet missile fire, conveniently sparing the continent’s other airfields and its major population and industrial centres. University of Toronto physics and chemistry professor John Polanyi, of the pacifist Pugwash Conference group, terms that basic assumption “unbelievably myopic.”

Persuasive: Such billion-dollar doubts have dogged the MX since its birth in 1974, when then Defense Secretary James Schlesinger called for development of a successor to the Minuteman and Titan generation of missiles. At one point, serious study was given to basing the new missiles on a fleet of minisubmarines cruising coastal waters and the Great Lakes. But studies showed that the subs could be immobilized by Soviet bombs creating huge tidal waves. And the Great Lakes could simply be set aboil with bombs, which would incidentally kill an estimated 94 per cent of the Canadian population living east of Winnipeg. At first the Reagan administration preferred an airborne MX base, dubbed “Big Bird.” Current Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was less enthusiastic about dense pack, which he persisted in calling “six pack.” But persuasive lobbying, particularly by the air force, won the White House to the cause. More lobbying and successful tests may yet sway a dubious Congress. In January MX contractors will expose their brainchild for the first time to the simulated aftereffects of a nuclear hit. Shortly afterward, the United States Air Force will begin evaluating various silo designs for depth, hardness, alignment and general strength.

So the restless MX may finally find acceptance and a home. The home-base state of the MX is largely pleased. Former Cheyenne, Wyo., mayor Bill Nation, contemplating the influx of hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy and the creation of an estimated 8,000 new jobs, enthused: “I think the MX is going to be great.” For Canadians, who would not, after all, escape any holocaust, there is also the lure of technological spin-offs. In Winnipeg, Boeing of Canada is already developing 20 graphite-reinforced plastic parts for the MX’s nose cones. Admits Larry d’Argis, president of the United Auto Workers Local 2169: “We’re not happy that it’s nuclear arms, but we’re happy to get the work. When two-thirds of your men are laid off, you’ve got to take what comes your way.”


William Lowther

in Washington,

Ian Mather

in London,

Eric Mills

in Winnipeg.