December 1979

note: to convert 1979 dollars to current dollars, multiply by 3


In the summer of 1979, Air Force General David C. Jones (1921-2013), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee to talk about a treaty by which the United States military would limit itself to a total destructive potential about 500,000 times larger than the Manhattan Project provided to break the Axis.  “Some believe,” he said, “that a perceived Soviet military edge would lead [the Russians] to contemplate seriously a ‘bolt from the blue’ nuclear attack on the United States.  In view of the very substantial U.S. retaliatory capability that would survive any Soviet attack, I think this eventuality is highly unlikely.  Rather, I anticipate such a disparity would be reflected in a more confident Soviet leadership, increasingly inclined toward more adventurous behavior in areas where our interests clash and where U.S. ability to respond by conventional means could be circumscribed.  Such a situation would carry the risk of precipitating a confrontation which neither side wanted or intended.”

Thirty years of relative peace have colored the military lexicon.  Our generals, moreover, now tend to be nuclear physicists and electrical engineers, not soldiers.  Most of what passes for strategy in the nuclear age is theoretical, not practical. It is built on highly unlikely eventualities, perceived edges, influential capabilities, inclinations, reflections, assumptions, repercussions, anticipations.  This is not a sexy vocabulary.  Preparing for warfare with missiles at intercontinental range does not put hair on a man’s chest.  It is like spending a lifetime on an algebra homework problem without ever getting graded.  The problem itself becomes secondary to the routine of working on it.  History and technical momentum assume their own imperative outside the requirements of solution.

“This assessment is not the product of new intelligence,” General Jones continued.  “My colleagues and I—as well as our predecessors—have testified for more than a decade on where the unfavorable trends in military efforts would lead in the 1980s.  In light of the superior momentum of Soviet strategic force modernization efforts, we believe that, with or without SALT [Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty], the United States needs to do far more than we have done in recent years to strengthen and modernize our strategic forces lest the trends toward Soviet superiority become irreversible.”

In two paragraphs, General Jones summarized much more than a decade’s worth of intelligence.  Here lies the sum of defense mentality, East and West, in regard to strategic (that is, nuclear) warfare for the past thirty years: There is the Soviet Union, there is America, and Earth does not appear to be big enough for both.  The first step toward understanding the internal common sense of strategic doctrine starts here.  A project like the MX missile—gargantuan, complex, fantastic in every realm from technology to fiscal authority—depends on this acceptance of a fundamentally irreconcilable distrust.  The bad blood is old, dating at least from Frankin D. Roosevelt’s decision in favor of the diplomatic and military coercive advantages of excluding his Soviet ally, which was fighting the German Army head-on for survival and losing tens of millions of lives in process, from any official access to information about the Bomb.

In the methodical craziness that is the essence of strategic doctrine, the MX (for Missile Experimental) weights the tail of every crack-the-whip ever played.  The statistics that describe it point toward technological mobilization on a scale unprecedented in peacetime: $33 billion minimum project investment; 24,000-man minimum construction force; 8,000- to 10,000-square-mile minimum deployment area; 10,000-mile minimum roadway development.  The missile itself is two times larger in most dimensions than anything in the present American arsenal.  A mammoth tractor will constantly drag it across southwestern desert valleys so that the Soviets never know where to pinpoint it.  In short, it is the end-all step in labyrinthine planning that rose from the shrill political warfare of the late 1940s.


The same National Security Act of 1947 that, among other things, led to the formation of the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency also allowed the Joint Chiefs to draft contingencies for nuclear war.  Air Force General Curtis LeMay (1906-1990)—known for commanding massive incendiary attacks on scores of Japanese cities, including the fire-bombing of Tokyo in March 1945—set the tone for an epoch with his warning that the United States had the means to “depopulate vast areas of the earth’s surface, leaving only vestigial remnants of man’s material works.”

These secret plans—with code names like Charioteer, Cogwheel, Dualism, Fleetwood, Dropshot—provided for a concerted attack with atomic bombs against governmental, political, and administrative centers, urban industrial areas, and selected petroleum targets inside the U.S.S.R. from bases in the Western Hemisphere and Great Britain.  Charioteer, for example, called for the Strategic Air Command (headed from 1948 to 1957 by General LeMay) to drop 133 atomic bombs on seventy Soviet cities or industrial centers within thirty days.  Eight bombs would fall on Moscow to destroy forty square miles of that capital.  Concurrently, seven bombs would be dispatched to Leningrad, Russia’s second city and largest port.  In today’s parlance, this is called countervalue targeting.  Because nuclear weapon stockpiles were relatively low at first and consisted only of fission bombs through the early 1950s, countervalue attacks against “soft” easy-to-find cities were the prime characteristic of American strategic policy.

By the mid-1950s, as American and Soviet atomic arsenals grew and as Soviet airpower came to be recognized as the chief threat to NATO, the emphasis of American targeting policy began to shift toward specifically defined military objectives, or counterforce.  (In practice, of course, given the tremendous destruction of life and landscape by even the smallest nuclear weapons, there would be little difference between the two targeting types.)  In 1959, President Eisenhower asked the National Security Council to analyze alternative nuclear-war-fighting strategies.  The resultant study argued for an “optimum mix” of countervalue and counterforce.  At the same time, a series of studies on so-called No Cities strategies was in progress at the Rand Corporation.  Andrew W. Marshall, William Kaufmann, Albert Wohlstetter, and Daniel Ellsberg, among others, put forth advantages of withholding attacks on cities.  Robert McNamara (1916-2009) was introduced to No Cities in a formal briefing by Kaufmann within a week after taking office as Secretary of Defense in 1961.  Much of what happened in the next two years resembles today’s activity among strategic planners in Washington.

The nuclear war fighting plan inherited by the Kennedy Administration contained only one scenario: the U.S. would launch all its strategic delivery vehicles—missiles and bombers, that is—immediately upon initiation of war with the U.S.S.R.  No reserves were to be held, no provision was made for preservation of command-and-control channels.  The target list was predominantly Soviet and satellite-nation cities.  In other words, Armageddon.  Expected Soviet, Chinese, and satellite fatalities were estimated by the Joint Chiefs to be between 360 and 520 million.  Radioactive fallout from so many blasts would have poisoned the entire planet, of course.

To replace this crudity, McNamara ordered the Joint Chiefs to “prepare a doctrine which, if accepted, would permit controlled response and negotiating pauses in the event of thermonuclear war.”  Work on this revised plan, done mainly by Daniel Ellsberg and several other Rand alumni, was officially adopted in 1962.  Above all, it called for a much more refined spectrum of targets.  The implied shift from “massive retaliation” to “controlled flexible response” required major alterations in the American weapons list, including an expanded and redesigned ICBM force with improved accuracy and high warhead yields, a variety of options for submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and the procurement of reconnaissance-strike bombers with cruise missiles.  Twenty years and many billions of dollars later, this is where we stand.

Almost immediately, however, McNamara shied away from his declared position that basic military strategy in a nuclear war should be approached in the same way that conventional operations had been regarded in the past.  “We do not want a comprehensive damage limitation posture,” he soon wrote.  Most of the reasons for his retreat from counterforce are still relevant.  First, there was already much domestic public criticism of the first-strike implications of counterforce strategy, occasioned by President Kennedy’s remark that “Krushchev must not be certain that, where its vital interests are threatened, the United States will never strike first.”  If one plans to shoot at the enemy’s missiles, one is talking about a first strike, because there is no advantage in hitting empty launchers.  Then as now, few people expected that war would stop after each side bagged its limit of missiles.  Second, as the Soviet arsenal grew larger and hardened against nuclear attack, McNamara believed the destruction of any significant number of their missiles would be unlikely.  Third, NATO allies were afraid that a No Cities policy would separate European security from American by enhancing the possibility of nuclear warfare on European territory while the Soviet and American homelands stayed uncratered.  Finally, McNamara faced bureaucratic trouble.  As soon as he started to draw up the defense budget for fiscal 1964, it became obvious that the military services, particularly the Air Force, were going to use his policy language to seek wide-open spending on the most audacious weapons systems they could think of.  From then on, the Secretary found himself using strategic doctrine as a magic wand in the perennial Pentagon budget rituals.

Since McNamara’s time, we have survived “assured destruction,” “parity,” “essential equivalence,” and “sufficiency.”  The last term belonged to Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon.  When Nixon’s Deputy Secretary of Defense, electronics industry magnate David Packard (1912-1996), was once asked what it meant, he answered: “It means it’s a good word to use in a speech.  Beyond that, it doesn’t mean a goddamned thing.”  Though there is surely truth in Packard’s observation, we can nonetheless glean some information from comparing catchwords.  The road from massive retaliation to deterrence is, ostensibly, the course from Cold War to détente.

The jargon of strategic thought says that nuclear war should be deterred at relatively low levels of weaponry (“arms race stability”) and political anxiety (“crisis stability”).  If deterrence fails, the Commander in Chief must have the means to inflict maximum misery on the enemy’s homeland.  Traditionally, a full deterrent strike has been considered the destruction of 25 percent of the opponent’s population and 50 percent of his industry by immediate blast and radiation.  These numbers are rather arbitrary, to say the least.  Destruction on this scale can probably be achieved by between 200 and 400 weapons of one-megaton yield each. The military problem today is therefore not to build up nuclear inventory, since both superpowers already exceed the 200-400 range by such vast margins that even substantial increases or decreases are meaningless.  The task is actually to ensure an ability to deliver sufficient destruction—or at least a credible threat of being able to deliver it.

For twenty years, the United States has maintained a so-called Triad, a triple set of weapon systems for this purpose—long-range bombers, plus land-based and submarine-based missiles.  Development of the three-element arsenal was a historical accident that quickly became Pentagon boilerplate.  In the 1950s, the three military branches competed for the money pouring out of Congress to build new strategic weapons.  By the time McNamara conducted his review of targeting policy and requisite forces, the Triad was a foregone conclusion even though it reflected no venerable logic.  While any one of the three “legs” is fully capable of ending the world as we know it, each is deemed vulnerable to potential threats.  On the ground that the Triad provides needless over-insurance, it is easy to criticize. But for a mission so vital as deterrence, to avoid dependence on one or two sets of technologies does not seem unreasonable to military planners and sympathetic think-tank academics.  As a means of deepening the problems that face their Soviet counterparts, of providing extended target coverage, and as a general safeguard, the Triad looks natural and inevitable.  Or so the insider common sense goes.

The oldest of the American strategic weapons are the B-52 bombers.  Some 700 of the aircraft were produced in the late 1050s and early 1960s.  Much of the original force has been retired or was lost in the Vietnam war, but there are still 348 of these resilient machines in strike-configured service.  Over the years they have been retrofitted with modern equipment, and the Air Force is upgrading 269 with new guidance systems at a cost of $2.4 billion through fiscal 1983.  Of the 269, some 173 will be fitted to carry 20 cruise missiles each (in all, 3,418 cruise missiles will be procured at a cost of $4.5 billion spread out from now through the mid-1980s).  Despite constant improvements, however, the B-52s and the tankers that refuel them will probably have to be discarded in the early 1990s.  The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that if they are replaced with a comparable mix, then an additional $35-$45 billion (in 1979 dollars) will have to be spent to maintain a strategic bomber force.

The best thing about this “air-breathing” leg of the Triad is its flexibility.  In peacetime, about 30 percent of the force is on alert, which means that the crews are in a ready facility with their planes in normal base parking areas.  States of higher alert for up to 80 percent of the planes can be reached in times of crisis, with crews inside the aircraft at the end of the runway, auxiliary power supplies on, and, at the highest posture, the jet engines turning.  Once airborne, they can always be ordered back if diplomacy averts war in time.  Most of the B-52s carry a combination of gravity bombs and short-range attack missiles (SRAMs).  The gravity bombs, usually four to a plane, can be either fixed one-megaton devices or variable-yield models that let you choose how big a blast you want up to more than 200 kilotons.  SRAMs can deliver a 200-kiloton warhead more than 100 miles away at three times the speed of sound.  All B-52s bristle with defensive electronic countermeasures and offensive avionics designed to bamboozle Soviet air defenses.  With the deployment of cruise missiles, the problem of bomber penetration will be alleviated considerably by the new weapon’s 750- to 2,000-mile range.  The B-52 will then function largely as a remote launch platform.  All in all, by the mid-1980s the air-breathing leg will represent a total arsenal of about 5,000 warheads.  At the highest alert status, planners believe that fewer than sixty B-52s could be expected to destroy 80 percent of Soviet industrial targets.  Just forty planes would be needed to send enough cruise missiles to wipe out 50 percent of the military targets.

The submarine fleet that makes up the second leg of the Triad is composed of forty-one nuclear-powered boats delivered to the Navy between 1960 and 1967.  Robert McNamara inherited specific authorization for nineteen Polaris submarines, but the system was so well suited to the emphasis on survivability under attack that he expanded the program to its present size.  As with the B-52, most of the Polaris subs have been modernized over the years, though the Navy proposed this year to retire ten of the older ones between 1980 and 1984.  Of the forty-one, ten carry a total of 160 Polaris missiles, each armed with three 200-kiloton H-bombs.  The other thirty-one have been fitted with 496 Poseidon missiles, each of which carries eight to ten independently targetable 40-kiloton warheads.  Twelve of these boats will, in turn, be retrofitted with 192 of the newest Trident missiles, which have almost twice the range of the Poseidon and carry eight 100-kiloton warheads.  A brand new submarine, also called Trident, will gradually replace those in the aging Polaris fleet.  The first of these was launched this year at a cost of $1.5 billion and is scheduled to start military operations in 1981 with twenty-four Trident I missiles on board.  Congress has appropriated enough money for six more.  If the Navy gets all thirteen of the Tridents it hopes for through the late 1980s, the cost will reach at least $25.5 billion.

At sea, the submarine-launched-ballistic-missile (SLBM) force is essentially invulnerable to pre-emptive strikes.  Barring some totally unforeseen Soviet breakthrough in antisubmarine warfare, it will remain that way into the next century.  The ability to patrol virtually unchallenged in vast ocean areas represents an untargetable threat.  For technical and bureaucratic-political reasons, Polaris has been limited traditionally to missions against countervalue targets.  (The launch point of a missile at sea could not be determined as accurately as that of a fixed land-based ICBM, among other problems.)  In the past few years, however, especially since the addition of Poseidon missiles and improved navigational aids, the system has achieved counterforce capability.  Although restricted (by the difficulties of communicating with an underwater vessel, for example) to particular situations—a first strike or an immediate follow-up where launch information can be completely coordinated in advance, or slow-motion counterforce fighting in which navigation and communication gear are left intact—the Navy exploits the hardened-target potential of its Triad leg to the utmost.  This enables the Navy to compete with the Air Force over a wider range of budgets and assures that its bureaucratic clout will be maintained through future generations of sea-launched missiles, which are only justifiable under the counterforce sun.  By the mid-1980s, the sea-based force will field about 6,500 warheads.  Under normal peacetime alert conditions (about 55 percent of the Poseidon fleet at sea), a mere fifteen subs would be enough to hit 80 percent of Soviet industrial targets even after a Soviet first strike.  Using only Poseidon missiles, about 50 percent of the military targets would be destroyed.  If Poseidon is replaced even partially by Trident, the military percentage increases significantly.  At least on paper.

The remaining leg of the Triad occupies a special place in the popular imagination. When most people think about nuclear war, they probably picture those big prickly missiles blasting out of “silos” under a Dakota wheat field. The sexual symbolism alone is enough to trigger restless sleep.  Though only 30 percent of American strategic force is based this way, the ICBM leg has always played a disproportionately large role in determining military power.  Secretary of Defense Harold Brown (a physicist who had been director of defense research and engineering from 1961 to 1965 under Robert McNamara and then Secretary of the Air Force from 1965 to 1969), in his annual report for fiscal 1980, admitted that “the attributes of the ICBM force are emphasized in Soviet doctrinal writings and in many public discussions of the strategic balance.” It is fair to assume that a decision not to modernize the land-based missiles would be interpreted by military observers around the world as a sign of inferiority, whatever other strengths a nation might have.

Currently deployed in the midwestern states are 54 Titan II missiles, 450 Minuteman IIs, and 550 Minuteman IIIs.  The liquid-fueled Titan is an old giant, operational since 1963 with a single nine-megaton warhead that is by far the most powerful in the U.S. arsenal (blockbuster does not do it justice, so let us call it an earth-splitter—it can dig out a crater 1,000 feet deep and a mile across).  This is the same rocket that was used to launch Gemini astronauts—a tribute to its reliability, perhaps, but very expensive to maintain in the field.  The solid-fueled Minuteman II and III became active in 1965 and 1970, respectively.  The II is more accurate than the Titan, so its single H-bomb needs to be “only” two megatons (by rough calculation, a twofold increase in accuracy is equivalent to an eightfold increase in destructive power).  Minuteman III can carry a heavier payload with twice the accuracy of II, so it has had the most advanced upgrading.  It now holds three independently targetable warheads of 170 kilotons each, which will soon be replaced by 350-kiloton models that are three times more accurate than Minuteman II.  Minuteman’s most attractive virtue may be that it provides more than 65 percent of Triad forces on alert at an annual operating cost about one-third that of SLBMs and one-fourth that of the bomber force.  For quick response, rapid retargeting, accuracy, and survivable command and control, the three ICBMs together offer incomparable advantages over submarines and bombers.  That, at least, is the common assumption.

Needless to say, the numbers, units of measurement, acronyms, and euphemisms used to discuss the Triad tend quickly to impede.  So it is important to find something steady to hold onto.  Remember, first, that the weakest U.S. warhead is about three times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.  Keep in mind also that even after a massive Soviet first strike while U.S. forces are in their normal, day-to-day alert status, Congress has estimated that the following would hold true: 1) each leg of the Triad could, by itself, destroy at least 75 percent of Soviet industrial targets; 2) two of the three legs could destroy at least 65 percent of the industrial targets and the military targets other than Soviet ICBM silos; and 3) all three legs could destroy more than 80 percent of the industrial targets, general-purpose force targets, and governmental centers, while keeping 1,000 weapons in reserve to continue the conflict if necessary.  Strategic postures are designed to deter in the worst possible cases.  In effect, generals are paid to be hyperparanoid.


An ICBM is made of a booster rocket with an H-bomb mounted atop.  When the chemicals in the booster mix at launch they burn ferociously, sending the H-bomb through the earth’s dense lower atmosphere to a height of about 60 miles.  Then the rocket shuts off, whereupon the H-bomb separates from its booster.  Under the influence of gravity, it coasts up through space to about 600 miles before it starts to fall back down.  For a typical distance of 6,000 miles between the launch site and the people or property destroyed, such a flight lasts about half an hour.

Mounting many H-bombs on one rocket is no problem.  The rocket sports an onboard computer that takes information en route from stars or satellites and from its own prodigious memory about the earth below.  When this computer finishes navigating the rocket into space, another tells each H-bomb when to let go.  As they slough off one by one, they start to find their separate ways, perhaps using cybernetic images of the terrain around their targets.  From the Rockies over the Arctic Ocean to the Urals, if everything works as designed (a big if), they will finally detonate within several hundred feet of where the Air Force wants them to.  This scenario has never been fully tested, of course, but if Barry Goldwater were President, he might be able to realize his vision of lobbing a nuke right into the Kremlin men’s room.

The Air Force does not need the MX to put the men’s room out of order.  It does not need the MX to replace the entire Kremlin with a deep hole.  There is only one thing that MX power and accuracy are good for—what the engineers call silo-busting.  That is, the MX can destroy Soviet ICBM launch sites (specifically designed, as are American sites, to withstand great shocks) by hitting them right on the bippy.  Where there had been an underground concrete bunker, there would be a crater and tons of dirt that would remain radioactive for thousands of years.  And as long as we shot first, the enemy missile that stood inside that silo would be part of the dirt.

Right away, the novice will say, Well, if neither side gains the ability to shoot first with great power and accuracy, then there’d be a stable situation.  The layman, knowing next to nothing, would be right.  But for myriad reasons, the contemporary state of strategic affairs renders such a solution inoperative.  Both superpowers find it impossible to resist the temptation of superior weapons.  Because the Soviets, who have invested 70 percent of their total nuclear might in ICBMs, now build missiles accurate enough to threaten our launch silos, we must maintain a way to threaten theirs.  Stepping backward to reestablish the circumstance where neither party had this advantage is not easy.

Less than a year after the last Minuteman was fused and buried, the Air Force began to document requirements for a new ICBM.  Performance characteristics outlined by the Strategic Air Command far exceeded anything then available.  There is no clear reason why a missile able to boost several times the Minuteman III payload with a quantum leap in accuracy was thought necessary in the early 1970s, except perhaps that James R. Schlesinger was then trying to rejuvenate the McNamara strategy of counterforce targeting and war-fighting options.  Certainly there was no objective military reason—not even the forecasted hardening of Soviet silos.  In Air Force Magazine’s first article on the MX, dated March 1973, the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Research and Development said, “Everything that can be reasonably extrapolated from present Soviet capabilities confirms that no matter how we set the scenario, a sufficient number of Minuteman missiles can be expected to survive to carry out the system’s assigned assured-destruction role.”  If Lt. Gen. Otto J. Glasser had simply gone on from there to muse about a new system in terms of the natural exigencies of obsolescence, he would not have exposed his flank.  But during a comment about ameliorating future ICBM vulnerabilities by changing from fixed hardened sites to mobile basing, he said, “If, in the past, mobile systems have not been emphasized, then we must attribute this to the only defect in Air Force thinking that we might be guilty of—our concern about cost and, therefore, the desire to incrementally and inexpensively improve what we already have, rather than to go after brand new, completely innovative system’s such as the Navy’s Trident program.”  This petulant dig at the Navy revealed as much of the impetus behind the MX system as any amount of strategic theorizing.  Now that Minuteman was off the assembly line, the Air Force needed new programs.  If the Navy was going to take the counterforce ball and go for something as grand as Trident, why should not the Air Force play in the same league?

Glasser carefully emphasized that nothing is more mobile than an airplane (not even a submarine), and that no system showed greater operational or cost-effective advantages than an air-mobile ICBM system.  This was mostly an Air Force opinion.  The civilian directorate of Defense Department research and development leaned toward a land-based approach.  By the end of 1974, $53.5 million in development contracts was released in an accelerated effort to establish firmer definitions.  Concurrently, $280 million was being spent on Minuteman modernization.  The Strategic Air Command continued to tout Minuteman as “a highly survivable force which can withstand an all-out attack.”


Two events in 1974 caused the Air Force to change its stance during the next year.  The Soviets, covering the U.S.’s 1970 move, began to fit a so-called multiple- independently-targetable-reentry-vehicle (MIRVs)—a clutch of H-bombs that can each head for different targets upon release–onto their ICBMs.  And the OPEC cartel quadrupled the price of oil.  This suggested that the threat to American silos was perhaps greater than before, and guaranteed that keeping a force of air-mobile missiles on airborne alert would be very expensive even in the big-spender league of nuclear weapons.  Faced with both the prospect of surrendering its strategic role to the Navy because of Minuteman’s projected vulnerability by the mid-1980s and the prohibitive cost of its favorite solution, the Air Force yielded to civilian pressure.  James Schlesinger’s 1976 posture statement branded air-mobile unacceptable because of cost and accuracy constraints.  The Air Force’s new Deputy chief of Staff/R&D, Lt. Gen. Alton Slay, wrote that “fixed silo basing [for the MX] is now the Air Force preferred option, principally for cost, operability, and maintainability reasons.”  Whatever “maintainability” meant to him, the fact is that he wanted his new missile badly, and was willing to shove it down old Minuteman silos if that would make it seem affordable.

This tactic was not lost on Senate Armed Services Committee members when they considered $31.9 billion for weapons procurement and military research in the next fiscal year.  The committee approved Gerald Ford’s request for $317 million to continue production of Minuteman IIIs and to start production of a larger, more accurate warhead for that missile.  But the price they exacted was to slow down development of the MX, pending a review of the future of land-based missiles.  According to aides, the committee thought the Administration was getting itself into a contradictory position by arguing that the MX was needed because of Minuteman vulnerability, while at the same time urging continued production of Minuteman IIIs.  Having already secured the committee’s approval of a billion dollars to start the B-1 strategic bomber, however, the Air Force took this slap on the wrist rather calmly.  “We are flexing our muscles,” said Slay just before the 1976 elections, as he supervised $69 million worth of contracts to demonstrate the advanced guidance and propulsion of the MX.

Because Congress had thus thwarted the Air Force’s ply of proceeding with an experimental missile before knowing how to base it, and because any new basing mode would attract close attention at the SALT II negotiations, the whole MX project was placed in a holding pattern while Jimmy Carter (who had worked during the early 1950’s as a junior officer in the Navy’s nascent nuclear submarine program) entered office in the winter of 1976-77.  At his first news conference as President, he invited the Soviets to join in a mutual ban on mobile missiles.  “If they would agree to a cessation of the use or deployment of the mobile-type missiles which could be moved around in different locations before launch, that would be a very important point for us to join them in a mutual agreement.  It would mean that we would not then perhaps spend the large amounts of money to develop a mobile missile.”  To provide evidence of the President’s sincerity, new Defense Secretary Harold Brown announced a cut of some $160 million from the $294.4 million that the outgoing Ford administration had budgeted for the MX in fiscal 1978.

But there was less to Mr. Carter’s actions than was apparent.  The Ford timetable for MX was much too fast even from a purely technical standpoint, and the policy questions raised by a new generation of ICBMs were much too complex for a new President only forty days in office.  Whether to build an MX system and what to demand from the Soviets in exchange for not building it are decisions in which everybody wants a voice.  When confronted with the press conference remark, one State Department official snapped, “The President was expressing his own opinion.”

Reports of a $30 billion program and the growing trickle of MX contracts from the Pentagon had already cultivated tendentious audiences around Washington.  The thrust of most anti-MX arguments involved the system itself.  The interim Vladivostock SALT accord, for example, provided for verification of compliance by each side through “national technical means,” a treaty euphemism for spy satellites.  The text stated: “Each Party undertakes not to use deliberate concealment measures which impede verification by national technical means of compliance with the provisions of this Interim Agreement.”  Would not an MX hidden in a trench or housed in a shelter amid a hive of empty ones violate the letter or spirit of SALT?

The high yield and accuracy of the missile, and thus its counterforce capability, was another area of contention.  Arms controllers believe counterforce undermines the concept of deterrence.  If you can neutralize all or most of your adversary’s missiles, deterrence simply ceases to exist as a working proposition.  Moreover, the side achieving counterforce becomes an inviting target itself, since the opponent knows that only by striking first can he be certain his own weapons will survive.  Consequently, stability is replaced by a hair trigger.  Pro-MX arguments, on the other hand, insisted that the verification task was not insurmountable, and that the MX posed no threat to deterrence.  No matter how effective the new missiles were against Soviet silos, hostile submarine-launched warheads and at least some bombers would always survive to attack their targets.  Counterforce weapons provide a President with flexibility in a “limited” nuclear exchange.  If attacked, he would not face the choice between destroying the world or doing nothing to prove his humane disposition.  A couple of hundred Soviet and American missiles fly back and forth and–pop!—everybody is back at Geneva.

These debates lost some of their poignancy when Jimmy Carter canceled the $25 billion B-1 bomber.  The price of aerospace stocks dropped in New York and the Air Force command went into a tailspin.  Although they were simultaneously handed another weapons system—cruise missiles launched from standoff aircraft—the manned, supersonic, penetration bomber was as central to Air Force pride as nuclear ships are to the Navy’s.  Faced with a sudden void in bureaucratic power and strategic might, the generals naturally seized on the MX as their do-or-die project.  At about the same time, the arms talks between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (1917-2002, JFK’s Secretary of the Army and LBJ’s Deputy Secretary of Defense) and Anatoly Dobrynin (1919-2010), the Soviet ambassador to the U.S., reached a stalemate.  Pressure was building rapidly on Carter to deploy the MX as a SALT bargaining lever and a palliative for the loss of the B-1.  Washington hawks administered their first real dose of “show your toughness to the Russians” medicine, and Carter’s curiously outspoken enthusiasm for a neutron bomb—a specialized nuclear weapon with a fallacious reputation for being able to kill enemy troops without destroying property–was proof of its fast effect.

From the spring of 1977 through early fall, the Air Force plunged forward, making many of the same claims about cost-effectiveness and survivability for a land-mobile MX that it had been obliged to abandon with air-mobile.  The new favorite option was to build 250 subterranean concrete trenches twenty miles long with a missile in each one that would roll back and forth on wheels.  Theoretically, the Soviets would have to aim bombs along the whole hardened length of the trench to ensure destruction of the missile.  But under SALT restrictions, they could not field enough ICBMs to deliver so many warheads.  Test trenches were dug in Arizona, and a great number of Air Force spokesmen—including General Jones and Thomas Reed, Ford’s Secretary of the Air Force—swore by the system’s virtues before the armed services committees of Congress.


Prince Bismarck, in his Reminiscences (1898), found it self-evident that treaties are valid only as long as they are useful to the nations that sign them.  Three days after the 1972 SALT I agreement officially expired, on October 3, 1977, a report leaked to the press that Harold Brown had tentatively approved full-scale MX development funds totaling $245 million.

That $245 million looked like a solid promissory note.  Debate moved promptly out of the back rooms and into the streets.  Thomas McIntyre (1915-1992, Democrat from New Hampshire), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s research subcommittee, revealed that his colleagues had concluded in 1976 that “Pentagon bureaucrats were moving the MX along and thereby committing this country to the idea of limited nuclear war outside the formal presidential guidance which is supposed to define America’s strategic objectives.”  In a two-page statement, McIntyre said he was deeply angered that Harold Brown had accelerated MX development without completing the study of the weapon that Congress ordered the previous year.  The MX was “a runaway program” that “will give the Soviets a motive for striking first and will make the outbreak of nuclear war more likely.”

Brown went on the offensive, too, albeit from the comfortable distance of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga seventy miles off the coast of Naples, Italy.  In his first detailed public discussion of the MX (he had testified in secret before Congressional committees), he listed the principal advantages of the system.  “It would be able to fight out a protracted thermonuclear exchange, if that turned out to be feasible.”  As for the disadvantages or “uncertainties” of the new program, the Secretary said, “Technical features are still in the process of being proven out.  How hard can you make something in the tunnel underground or in a hard garage?”  There were also concerns about public welcome.  “An uncertainty is how acceptable it will be to a local population that has armed nuclear missiles running around back and forth underground.”  And in regard to SALT verifiability: “It’s going to be hard to verify the number of missiles in a tunnel or in a series of hard garages.  I think there are ways out of that.  Quite aside from the usual exposure given in the budgetary process or by the newspapers in the United States, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that we can take people down in the tunnel.”  If the Secretary had been back at the Pentagon press auditorium instead of in the captain’s dining quarters on the Saratoga, perhaps some brash reporter might have asked him whether the Soviets would be willing to take American observers down into their tunnels.

Nothing ensures the airing of secret testimony faster than the release of federal contract money.  As the Air Force began to solicit design submissions from the aerospace industry, House hearings in which Brown had done much more than just cover a few uncertainties were made public.  He had voiced basic misgivings.  Both the United States and the Soviet Union would be better off, apparently, if the U.S. deployed the new cruise missile instead of the silo-busting MX.  Although “there may well be a need to deploy” some advanced land-based missile like the MX in the mid-1980s, “none of the land-based ballistic missile options” looked better than the bomber/cruise missile combination “as a way of retaining our retaliatory capability at parity with the Soviets through the 1980s.”  Brown added that the MX would complicate arms-control efforts, since Soviet satellites could not tell how many missiles were inside one long tunnel.

From the earliest days, the Air Force had complained that support for MX production was muddled by conflicting ideas.  Obviously, though, the highest levels of the Pentagon were as muddled as any place else.  To the Defense Secretary’s ambivalent remarks one must add the concomitant declaration by Chief of Staff Jones: “I think it will be a long time before [the Soviets] could disarm the Minuteman force with any great assurance.  I question whether they will ever be able to do that.”  And Chief of Research and Development Slay: “We already have on the books [in storage] some 123 Minuteman III missiles that we could deploy if the occasion should arise.”  And Air Force General George Brown (1918-1978), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: “We have made tremendous technical progress since SALT I in our missile force; . . . we have stressed critical systems technology, such as guidance and control, propulsion and reentry systems that will result in even more improvements in our present systems.”  The Air Force repeatedly contended that there was a shortage of modern weapons able to hit such super-hard Soviet targets as missile silos.  But the question arose: Does the United States need that capability in a retaliatory strike, or is the Air Force thinking of a first strike against Soviet ICBMs?

Most intelligence analysts agreed that the U.S. held a clear advantage over the U.S.S.R., which had only recently deployed missiles with onboard navigational computers.  The Soviets surprised everyone in 1977 when they acquired counter-silo accuracy by modifying missiles already in the field, instead of waiting to replace them with a new generation, as had been their procedure in the past.  Still, all their ICBMs were probably less reliable than Minuteman and required longer periods of launch preparation.  If mobility was the prime factor, as the Air Force claimed, then why was an investment of more than $30 billion necessary when the Navy already floated 656 SLBMs in forty-one boats, with cruse missiles and Trident on the horizon?  Few people believed in the efficacy of a strategic posture that allowed an American President to take “limited coercive action” via the MX, reasonably confident that a devastating counterforce option was not available to the Soviet Union.  Though staff members at the Hudson Institute (an influential far-right-wing think tank led by Herman Kahn [1922-1983], who believed in the feasibility of nuclear war), for example, proffered such scenarios, Defense Department officials explained that while the MX could be used under certain conditions for the flexible response option against widely separated targets requiring high accuracy, it was not designed for that purpose.  There is nothing “limited” about a missile that carries ten H-bombs.

Private and not-so-private debate widened through the months immediately following Harold Brown’s decision.  Its net effect on the Carter Administration was growing uncertainty about how new missiles should be deployed and the potential impact their development and production could have on relations with the Soviets—particularly on SALT II.  If, indeed, the White House was responsible for the October press leak, then perhaps the subsequent weeks were used to sound out the Kremlin’s reaction.  By Christmas, enough words had apparently traveled back and forth to activate the President.  He quietly turned down the Pentagon’s request for full-scale funding.  Although the decision provided for continuation of some systems work, it stirred questions about the overall effort and severely embarrassed the Secretary of Defense.  Administration sources indicated that the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget had both argued against Brown.  There were misgivings about arms-control implications and the technical soundness of the trench-basing mode.  Other options, such as multiple aboveground shelters, would have to be weighed before Carter committed himself.

Once again, a $30-billion project was told to wait and see.

Left holding the line, of course, were Air Force officers and Defense Department civilians whose salaried life is the realm of perceived edges.  Perhaps an allegory will help to clarify their ongoing predicament.  Let us say that a father sets out to protect his son’s bike from being stolen.  He begins by simply placing it in the back yard, but the thieves easily take it.  So he chains a new one, probably a better one, to a fencepost.  But the chain is soon cut.  For the next, even nicer, bike, he builds a shed with a padlocked door.  In a surprisingly short time, the thieves learn how to break into the shed.  Exasperated, angry, yet somehow challenged, the loyal father finally rents a van to keep his son’s newest, best bike constantly moving around town so that the robbers never know exactly where to strike.  At night, though, after his boy goes happily off to bed, his wife comes to him and whispers, “This is quite mad, you know.  How did we come to this?”

Those who occupy seats of power at the Pentagon are nowhere close—even in conscience—to the dog-toothed, smelly-fingered caricatures in a David Levine cartoon.  Rather, a detailed chronology of a project the size of the MX shows them to be typical managers whose executive ambitions and worldly concerns have led them not into permanent academic or corporate roles but into the military—which was once, after all, a noble station.  When they look around themselves at the nuclear-strategic shape of things, it is likely that they find it quite mad, too, and wonder how we got here.  Instead of calling the darksome escalation off, however, they keep pushing for that perfect, thief-proof system that will make the world safe for  . . . bicycles?

William Perry (b. 1927, later Secretary of Defense during the Clinton Administration), Under-Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, receives his guests in an office decorated with Japanese silk prints.  He is fine-mannered and not given to converse in military-scientific jargon—a trait that has won him admiration and trust on Capitol Hill.  He offers the visitor tea.  On the low table between sofas far from his desk is a cut-glass vase holding a single, perfect pink rosebud.  “We have deployed in our strategic forces today,” he says quietly over the rose, “more than 9,000 nuclear warheads.  And so you could fairly ask: Why in the world would anybody need any more?  There are already enough to devastate the Soviet Union or any other country, with some to spare.”  His answer is that the size of an arsenal is less important than its survivability.  The reason there are so many warheads to begin with is to provide a hedge against losing most of them in a surprise attack.  “We spent a long, agonizing year considering whether we wanted to make the investment in the MX program.  That was not a knee-jerk reaction in this building—not by Harold Brown, not by myself, not by the President certainly.  We were looking very hard at the question of Do we need a Triad?  We seriously considered going down to a Dyad; saying that the ICBMs are a liability, we will focus our effort on the submarine force.  What is so magic about three?  Why a trinity?  Is it a theological conviction we have?  Are we hung up on a tradition that originally grew out of service rivalries?  We reexamined it on first principles.”

And decided not only to keep it, but to expand it with the counterforce MX.  “For a long time we thought we could maintain stability by not having counterforce.  The Soviet Union has now achieved counterforce, which is an unfortunate development, one they should not have undertaken.  In our last attempt to deter them from this, at the March, 1977, SALT negotiation, it was summarily rejected.  So now the question is: What do we do about it?  The appropriate response is to look to the survivability of our forces.  The great beauty of MX is that its survivability can be totally decoupled from its striking power.  Survivability is measured by how many shelters we build, and striking power is measured by how many missiles we build.  The two can be negotiated independently.”

But at what level of either factor will the Soviets feel sufficiently deterred?  “We do not know what the hell deters the leaders of the Soviet Union today, much less the leaders five years from now.  At one level we can deter just by having five submarines at sea which are quite capable of devastating the industrial, populated areas of the Soviet Union.  If they think the same way I think about nuclear war, then that is enough.  But if somehow their war planners become convinced that it is credible to attack our strategic forces, then we are in a vulnerable position.  The Secretary uses the interesting term ‘countervailing strategy.’  The philosophy of that is whatever form of attack they choose to make on the United States, they could gain no military advantage.  Whatever they do, they end up worse off.  If we can deploy our forces so that that statement is always true, then we have the highest level of stability.  The question is: What actions can we take and how much are we willing to pay?  That is what it is all about.  If you are perceived to be militarily strong, then you have the maximum chance of surviving political challenges without having to use military power.  It is like being thought to be the toughest kid on the block—you do not get challenged very often.”


Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford (b. 1930), the Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development, and Acquisition (retired in November 1979, advised Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign), has faced a lot of challenges in outer space.  The Guinness Book of World Records cites him for the highest reentry speed on any manned space flight (24,791 mph, during Apollo 10).  Of all the people in the Pentagon, perhaps he alone knows what it would be like to ride an H-bomb down from the heavens.  There is art in his office, but the paintings are of that kitschy military-industrial sort wherein obsolete tactical weapons rest serenely in an autumn wood.   He speaks with an unmuffled rural Oklahoma accent and slaps the table to accentuate what he believes.

“Right now they’ve got us three and a half to one in throw-weight, two and a half to one in reentry vehicles.  I’m talking land-based ICBMs.  And six and a half to one in megatons.  Soon they’ll have us three and a half to one in reentry vehicles, megatons about the same, and throw-weight goes up to four.  Their accuracy is as good as ours.  They could eventually reach four and a half to five times as many reentry vehicles, megatons could get as high as six and a half to one.  They’re replacing their Yankee submarines with their Deltas, okay?  The Deltas with the SSN-18 has both three and seven RV [reentry vehicle] configurations.  The only time we ever had all these warheads was these little 40-kiloton Poseidons.  But mainly what you know about them is that they’re headed east somewhere.  They’ll blow down some apartment buildings.”


Dr. Hans Mark (b. 1929), Secretary of the Air Force, came to America from Germany in 1940.  His credentials as a science and technology administrator are formidable: Laboratory for Nuclear Studies (head of Neutron Physics Group), MIT; Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (head of Experimental Physics Division), University of California at Berkeley; Ames Research Center (Director); Defense Science Board (since 1975).  He has the fresh-air-and-good-company bearing that the affluent science departments of Cambridge and the Bay Area impart to their professors.  His German childhood and all those years on university campuses have cultivated a historical bent, of a kind.

“The deterrence system that was worked out at the Congress of Vienna [1818] was a very interesting one.  The problem was that there were four or five power centers rather than two.  So the arrangement had to be somewhat more complicated.  But the essence was that a balance be struck so that the British could—by proper manipulation of their fleet—prevent a major conflagration on the Continent.  And it really worked.  Disraeli was once asked who his allies were.  He said, ‘Britain has no allies, only interests.’  The thing went unstable eventually when the other people decided he was a paper tiger . . .  .

“You can go back earlier, too.  Marcus Aurelius had an army in Vienna with the sole purpose of deterring movements south.  This did not stave off indefinitely the major changes that annihilated Rome.  It deterred the inevitable downfall.  Unfortunately, we cannot talk to a Carthaginian, but the complete destruction of an enemy is nothing new.  I cannot make a case that the existence of nuclear weapons is that different from other things that have been done in the past.  The scale of civilization has grown to the point where completely destroying Carthage was a ‘smaller’ act than a counterforce strike today.  But even if the other guy shoots, too, we are not going to kill everybody.  Wars, in terms of casualties, have become less destructive in recent years primarily because of the ability to keep people alive and the fact that disease can be controlled.  I will argue that the reason a nuclear exchange gives people pause is that it would take us back to where we were before.  People, in the large, on both sides were not deterred by the prospects of what war meant in 1939.  In spite of all the destruction, if there is a general feeling that yes, we will survive it, then whatever you have does not deter the war.  Nuclear weapons create doubt.  The theory of deterrence in 1818 depended on the general acceptance that blockades were effective, that they could cause suffering in large populations.  Hiroshima created a similar perception.”

If one is tough, one does not get pushed around.  The other side insists on getting tougher.  The cost of confrontation to society today would differ little from the cost in ancient times.  Out of this managerial, syllogistic nest falls the MX.


The year 1978 was a bad one for the fledgling project.  Tests on a subscale buried trench at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, showed that a nuclear blast could send shock waves down the tunnel like a child flicking a jump rope.  Command and control systems could also be easily disrupted.  A memo prepared by the Office of Management and Budget, intended to guide Defense in putting together budgets for fiscal 1980, proposed that an Air Force request for $580 million for the MX project be cut in half and that plans to build a prototype missile be shelved.  Harold Brown was said to have serious doubts over the need to proceed.  Officials suggested that the Navy’s Trident II missile might be deployed in land-based modes as well as submarines.  The Brookings Institution published a report that analyzed the Administration’s future defense plans and concluded that unless budgets were increased by $20 billion in the early 1980s, one or more new strategic programs would have to be abandoned.  The report did not advocate moving ahead with the MX project, but predicted that American ICBMs would become increasingly vulnerable.  If a new mobile missile were not deployed, land-based missiles “might eventually have to be scrapped.”

Moreover, U.S.-Soviet relations reached a low point with President Carter’s hawkish June commencement address at the Naval Academy.  A commentary in the authoritative international-review section of Pravda said: “The Americans and public opinion in Europe are concerned by the fact that the basically aggressive ‘hard line’ of Zbigniew Brzezinski [b. 1928 in Poland, Carter’s National Security Advisor], who is widely known for his anti-Communism, is getting the upper hand in the White House.”  Pravda reported extensively on a letter sent to Carter by sixty Americans, including John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) and George F. Kennan (1904-2005), that was critical of statements that could cause deterioration in East-West relations.  Too, the Kremlin was quite fed up with Jimmy Carter’s “human rights” rhetoric in foreign policy.

These factors together put even more of a brake on the MX project.  In closed-session testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. Slay, now head of the Air Force Systems Command, admitted that the Department of Defense did not possess sufficient technical data to make a decision about the best basing method for the new missile.  William Perry said flatly that the trench scheme was “no longer viable.”  He added that there was considerable uncertainty about the type of missile, as well.  “To my knowledge, no one in the Administration has decided which missile will be most appropriate for that base.  Different systems imply different missiles, and so you end up with a different missile design.”  The Senate panel unanimously recommended $158.2 million for ongoing program development, but eventual production looked doubtful.

Any Washington wag could see at this point that it was time for the Air Force to reshuffle the deck.  Since an acceptable basing mode continued to be the stickiest problem, designers reached back into their stock of alternatives.  These included off-road countryside crawlers, railroad or interstate highway roamers, canal and deep-pond submersibles, lake-bottom creepers, garage dashers, air-mobile lifters, and dispersed shelters.  Each had been under study for many years, but only the latter three withstood technical and public-relations scrutiny.  The cheapest of these was the dispersed-shelter mode, a “shell game” in which 200 canisters containing MX missiles or dummies would be moved randomly among 4,000 empty silos.  Priced at about $20 billion, the plan was believed suitable to appeal to at least three constituencies: the Soviets, who strongly favored a verifiable limit on nuclear weapon delivery vehicles; Senate hawks, who wanted a new and survivable land-based missile for the 1980s; and the White House, which wanted a SALT treaty that the Soviets would sign and the Senate ratify.  Christened MAP, for “Multiple Aim Point,” the system was promptly wheeled out as the Air Force’s new favorite.

To trumpet a fresh consensus before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Harold Brown reported that the new basing mode would cost less than a new generation of submarines.  To counter fear that MAP might not be compatible with an arms treaty that limited launching sites rather than missiles, Brown pressed at Cabinet meetings a view shared by the State Department—that any new accord should allow the system.  But Arms Control and Disarmament Agency officials suspected right away that Moscow would never agree to MAP.  Satellites cannot peer down from space into silos and tell whether they are empty, filled with dummy missiles, or stacked ten-deep with real ones.  On-the-ground inspection would necessitate the same reciprocal arrangement with the Russians, and they would not likely agree to that.  Nonetheless, there were plenty of other officials who contended that Mr. Carter must seek MAP to assure domestic critics—before the completion of new arms pacts—that the Administration would never take risks with a weakened Triad.


Within a month after the Pentagon launched MAP, the president’s senior advisers agreed to recommend that Cyrus Vance pass the word to Andrei Gromyko (1909-1989, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1957 to 1985).  Paul Warnke (1920-2001), chief SALT negotiator, would also inform Vladimir Semyonov (1911-1992), his Soviet counterpart, that the United States regarded the multi-hole system as a proper option for the period after the expiration of a three-year protocol expected to accompany the new SALT pact.  Fearful as always of a negative Soviet reaction, Secretary Brown reportedly argued that there was no need to tell the Soviets of American plans, since the U.S. did not intend to do anything that would violate the terms of agreements being negotiated.  One may imagine the “Sure, Harold” response from Kremlin defense ministers.

As the Carter Administration looked for ways to assure skeptical elements in the Senate and the public that signing a new SALT treaty was an acceptable risk, the Air Force tried to maneuver MAP into a complimentary light.  The best way to combat thousands of Soviet warheads, said new Chief of Staff Lew Allen (1925-2010, a nuclear physicist and former director of the National Security Agency), was to deploy “a great sponge to absorb” them.  MAP would draw off some 6,000 reentry vehicles if the Russians tried to cover the whole network.  Joint Chiefs Chairman Jones, whose patience was evidently wearing thin, said, “I consider the mobiles are authorized and therefore MAP is authorized.  To me this is not a matter for discussion or negotiation.”  Although the Air Force’s environmental impact statement on the MX system revealed that an area about the size of Connecticut would be needed to deploy a MAP system, it also predicted 44,000 new aerospace jobs and 153,000 jobs in indirect or induced industries.

Now, the thought of using a Connecticut-sized chunk of American heartland to absorb Soviet H-bombs like a giant sponge did not really excite anyone outside the Pentagon, 200,000 jobs or no.  Even the name “Multiple Aim Point” sounded a bit fatalistic.  And when Paul Warnke told Semyonov that America’s next ICBM would be hidden among clusters of vacant silos, the Russian was plainly doubtful about counting canisters instead of holes.  Warnke himself had to agree that any system that included the use of decoys and dummies was not permissible under SALT.  The rule was that “if it looks like a launcher, it counts as a launcher,” he said.

A combination of arms-control and environmental objections to MAP thus began to flood from all directions.  Fifty-one Congressmen wrote to the President asking him to appoint a commission to assess the dangers of the system.  “Our concerns,” read their letter, “span the entire spectrum, including the advisability of deploying a great sponge of targets in the U.S. designed to absorb Soviet warheads, MAP’s potential negative impact on the negotiation of a SALT agreement, and the enormous cost and questionable strategic utility of the program.”  Herbert Scoville Jr. (1915-1985), former deputy director of the CIA and assistant director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, said that the Pentagon’s first-strike scenario in justifying MAP was a fantasy, because the Soviets could never be sure the U.S. would not launch its ICBMs before theirs arrived.  He added that a Soviet first strike could not knock out the Polaris fleet, in any event.  And the Republican Governor of Kansas, Robert F. Bennett (1927-2000), expressed his “growing outrage” at the “unbelievable and inconceivable” proposition that “8 percent of the entire state of Kansas be removed from civilization” by the MAP matrix.

Several strictly military developments during this period colored debate that had by now drifted far from its original military roots, sparse though they ever were.  The Soviet Union resumed the encryption of telemetry data from their ICBM tests, in order to hide flight accuracy and the number of reentry vehicles.  Similar practice had been halted previously under the interim SALT I agreement.  Pentagon officials revealed that the Soviets had also begun testing their air-defense systems against low-flying drones simulating U.S. cruise missiles.  There were reports, too, that the Soviets had developed a device to detect the radioactive nuclides deposited in the ocean by the heat exchange from nuclear submarine reactors.  During tests, six subs were located at substantial depths and ranges as great as 100 miles.  Each of these rather minor occurrences served to multiply concern for maintaining the U.S. Triad.  In Washington, meanwhile, President Carter had vetoed the Defense Department’s fiscal 1979 authorization bill because it contained unwanted money for a new nuclear aircraft carrier.  This meant that when the Pentagon submitted a supplemental request for $2.2 billion to make up the difference, the carrier money could be applied to items that had earlier been cut back—like the MX.  Apprehension and loose cash thus met at the White House to provide $190 million for full-scale development.

But everybody knew that any move by the Carter Administration to proceed toward a missile without consensus on the basing mode ran counter to the wishes expressed by Congress.  Congressmen on both sides of the issue began to suspect that the President was procrastinating in order to mold a SALT agreement—at the expense of ICBMs.  Yet neither the President nor his Secretary of Defense saw any other choice.  The Air Force had again rushed forth a basing mode that was unacceptable.  As the man in the middle, Harold Brown was under the most pressure.  Each time he appeared to reconcile competing views at the Pentagon, his recommendation was chewed up by the White House.  His military and technical advisers were almost unanimous in pressing for the MAP shell game, but the Commander in Chief was quoted by one aide as terming the proposal “the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of.”

When 1978 ended with no MX in sight, William Perry ordered the Air Force to come up with a detailed alternative plan by springtime.  The engineers must have done a lot of head-shaking that day, because their crash-programmed “alternative” was to be air-mobile.


The tangle of MX affairs drew on one mostly nontechnical thread, even though engineering problems—such as the shock-wave susceptibility of buried tunnels—continued to inject their own.  The clear lesson of 1978 was that the MX project could be as strongly affected by the political vagaries of SALT as by any technological requirement.  In fact, the MX was on its way to becoming the first weapons system specifically tailored to fit into an arms-control context.

Even the slightest hint that the Soviets are able—through SALT—to dictate American weapons design is untenable for the Air Force.  SALT agreements have very little impact on planned weapons spending, the in-house thinking goes, and this should also hold true for design.  While the pacts deal directly with the hardware of nuclear war, the underlying issues are political judgments about Soviet global goals, American interests, and Washington’s will to confront Moscow when crisis occurs.  U.S. and Soviet strategic doctrines are not symmetrical.  Neither side seems willing to settle for an easily defined, nonthreatening form of parity.

Perceptions of strategic thinking in both the East and West divide into three camps: 1) whatever they say, it does not make any difference to us; 2) no matter what they say, they think the same way we do; and 3) they believe exactly what they say, so therefore they are out to get us.  These three biases grow out of two difficulties.  First analysts have a hard time accepting the possibility that two different political systems can deal very differently with a common problem.  Second, Americans do not have direct access to Soviet doctrine through official literature or authoritative commentary, while the Soviets are faced with the avalanche of governmental, academic, and popular statements endemic to a democratic society.  Thus, American insight into Soviet policy often draws upon inference from behavior, and Soviet insight into American posture is confused by the sheer abundance of sources.  A testy situation at best.

Despite these serious shortcomings, however, officials of both the United States and the Soviet Union have agreed for a generation that all-out nuclear war would be an immeasurable disaster.  Given the horrendous Soviet experience of total war in modern times and strategic inferiority after 1945, the human scale of this nightmare might well be more concrete to them than to most Americans.  Still, the Soviet state cannot appear to renege in any way on its responsibility to defend the people and survive.  However terrible, nuclear war must not be separated from the rational interests of the state.  Meaningful victory must be considered attainable.  If not, then the dialectic of history, upon which Marxist ideology rests, could be broken by the whimsy of an ideologically doomed opponent.

The prevailing American concept of nuclear war, on the other hand, precludes belief in meaningful victory.  The awesome destructiveness of atomic bombs deprives actual combat with them of much value.  As a result, Americans no longer demonstrate much interest in civil defense and until recently have shunned weapons that offer protracted war-fighting capability (though a large arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons is still maintained in Europe).  Stability is achievable on the basis of a contract between mutually vulnerable societies.

Translated across the SALT table, these differences result in American hawks who believe that the competitiveness of Soviet policy is underestimated, and doves who feel that the value of what diplomacy has achieved is overestimated.  When a monumental error is made, such as the failure of SALT I to ban MIRVs, both schools conclude that arms control is merely a diplomatic ornament.

When James Schlesinger (b. 1929) was Secretary of Defense (1973-75), he wrote that “deterrence . . . is not something free-floating that exists independently of a credible implementable threat.  It requires the most careful structuring of forces that is fully consistent with an agreed-upon strategic concept.”  Despite the Air Force’s hard chaff under the pressure of SALT II, the MX system was not being pared down. Rather, as the events of 1979 would prove, it was being honed into an implementable threat that could not be sidetracked by any arms agreement.


The theatrics of a still-distant Presidential election were in the air when the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee met in February to consider Jimmy Carter’s defense budget for fiscal 1980.  Members clashed with Pentagon witnesses over the proposal to increase spending by 3 percent in real terms and add $2.2 billion to the amount already appropriated for 1979.  Subcommittee Chairman Joseph Addabbo (1925-1986, Democrat from New York) and Budget Committee Chairman Robert Giaimo (1919-2006, Democrat from Connecticut), who both represent northeastern urban districts where social programs faced freezes or cuts, were in powerful positions to stifle the requests.  Giaimo reminded Harold Brown and General Jones that House rules allowed supplemental appropriations only for emergencies.  “What’s the great emergency that can’t wait?” he asked.  Jones’s answer pointed directly to SALT:  “If the supplemental is not approved, we will be signaling to the world a perpetuation of the slips, cuts, and reductions” that typified recent defense budgets.

The Pentagon was the only federal agency that could look forward to any real increase, other than in welfare programs that would spend more simply because more people would become eligible.  The Carter Administration gave Defense about the same slice of the federal budget (23.1 percent) and the gross national product (4.9 percent) as it had for fiscal 1979.  In real purchasing power, this was comparable to 1964, the last budget before the Vietnam war escalation.  The largest increase beyond inflation—about 18.7 percent—went to strategic weapons, including $675 million for an MX flying prototype.

The House Armed Services Committee completed its review of the supplemental by mid-March, after being delayed by the need to pay for export weapons canceled by the new government in Iran.  When Senate Armed Services then met in closed session to mark up the bill, there was instant disagreement over the issue of land-mobile versus air-mobile basing.  Defense hard-liners, who emphasized that air-mobile had been rejected by the Air Force once before, saw the Administration’s attempt to rejuvenate it as a last-ditch effort to kill the whole program.  Although Brown and Jones pointed out that major restudy of air-mobile was in progress and that the new version would differ significantly from the one scrapped in 1974, the Air Force itself still leaned toward the MAP shell game.  It went so far as to change the acronym to MPS (for “Multiple Protective Structure”) and released a report that said an airborne system would cost $29 billion to deploy and $900 million a year to maintain—nearly 50 percent more than MAP/MPS.

Through the springtime committee hearings, a 1980 defense budget close to the $138 billion favored by the President seemed assured.  Liberals in both houses were outraged that Defense was the only agency permitted real growth, but their efforts to force the Pentagon into line with others failed by substantial margins.  Deep cuts were turned back by Republicans, southerners, and members of the Democratic leadership.  Yet the prospect for winning approval of the 1979 supplemental appeared less promising, chiefly because of skepticism that there was any real emergency.  Despite the fact that much of the debate centered on Iranian destroyers, everyone know the most crucial item in the bill was the MX.

“It’s a conservative Congress,” Rep. Addabbo said at one point.  “A conservative Congress has always been pro-defense.”  Faced with a June 15 SALT II signing date, the Carter Administration tried everything it could think of to mollify those Congressmen who would not support the treaty without the very thing it was supposed to alleviate: new spending on new weapons.  Since the shell game, whether called MAP or MPS, would definitely not be permitted under SALT II restrictions on launchers, and since air-mobile was still too expensive, the Administration began to tout yet another alternative, called the “hybrid trench.”  In this new “new” concept, each missile would be carried by rail among thirty or more hardened launch sites along an underground tunnel.  By lifting the tunnel roof from time to time, operators could enable Soviet satellites to verify the number of huge missile trains inside.  The Senate Armed Services Committee granted the full supplemental request, but House Armed Services members—still strongly attached to MAP/MPS—added an amendment requiring the Pentagon to begin work on MPS unless the Secretary of Defense himself certified that another system was superior.  The hybrid trench was created to satisfy this amendment.  And it did.

Of course, by shuffling back toward an underground tunnel fifteen to twenty miles long, the Administration left itself open to the same environmental objections that had been raised a year before.  Multiplied 200 times, spread across the open spaces of four western states, the hybrid trench meant colossal disruption.  Industry experts predicted that the volume of construction concrete alone would cause shortages throughout the western half of the country.  In addition, the Pentagon’s environmental impact statement noted that “deployment of the MX system will require large quantities of water for concrete” and “dust suppression.”  In a water-starved region, where would enough be found to mix 10 million or more tons of concrete?

Whether the Air Force ever really took the hybrid trench seriously is debatable.  Within weeks after Congress finally approved the supplemental funding bill, the plan disappeared.  In its place materialized the newest new scheme of all, the “racetrack.”  Each of 200 missiles will be loaded aboard a 300-ton transporter truck, which drives around oval-shaped roadways (open to the public on peaceful days).  Situated on the edges of each oval are concrete shelters from which the missile can be launched.  If the Soviets attack, the transporters “dash” at thirty miles per hour into the nearest shelter.  The racetrack will be built in desert valleys of the Great Basin region of Nevada and Utah, where the Air Force says the locals are eager to play host.

On Friday, September 7, 1979, Jimmy Carter announced to the world that the $33 billion racetrack MX was indeed the final solution.  Ten years after Minuteman—three Presidents, two SALT treaties, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of R&D, and seven favorite basing modes later—the United States Air Force was back in the big time.


At the rarefied level of strategic doctrine, technology and bureaucracy are both subservient to political perceptions that shift across the planet like hot sand.  Competition between East and West is a cynical brand of chivalry, where nuclear weapons hang above great baronial hearthstones like impressive—but infeasible—blunderbusses.  The common sense of the MX system differs from everyday common sense because it is circumstantial.  As soon as one returns from the realm of deterrence, counterforce, Triad, and SALT, the system’s “giggle factor,” as one Air Force general calls it, stands out.  If billions of dollars were not on the line, if crossbows or catapults were involved instead of H-bombs, then perhaps we could all enjoy a good dark laugh at the notion of sending lethal rockets around a racetrack faster than our opponent can place his last bet.

But the Pentagon is not known for conscious irony.  When the Air Force promises the White House Council on Environmental Quality that it will keep MX work quiet from January through April when bighorn sheep “are lambing and are most likely to be sensitive to disturbances,” presumably it believes what it says.  When Maj. Gen. Jasper Welch (b. 1931, retired 1983), who directed the studies that led to the cruise missile, says that “Middle America understands deterrence a lot better than academics,” he is probably speaking from his heart.

There are still many obstacles ahead for the MX.  In October, Nevada county commissioners and mayors, who are supposed to love the project, left a Carson City session of Rep. James Santini’s (b. 1937, a Democrat who turned Republican in 1986) Subcommittee on Public Lands “scratching their heads,” according to one aide.  After being treated to a plane ride over prospective valley locations—and a full day of Air Force speeches about water, social services for 24,000 workers, land-use planning, et cetera—they were a bit haunted by all the unanswered questions.  Thomas Stafford fears the court suits of “obscure environmental groups” for good reason.  And Congress, as always, has final budgetary control over the extent of deployment.

But the road of strategic doctrine since World War II does not provide much evidence for the reversal of weapons momentum.  By calling their new missile’s home a racetrack, the Air Force will perhaps give fresh currency to what Henry Adams wrote more than a century ago: “Man has mounted science, and is now run away with.”


Postscript: Starting in 1986, 50 MX missiles–dubbed the “Peacekeeper” by President Reagan after the legendary six-shooter of the American frontier–were deployed in pre-existing Minuteman silos at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. They were all retired by 2005, leaving an ICBM force comprised of 500 Minuteman III missiles.