The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center is seeking industry guidance on replacing the nation’s current fleet of 450 Minuteman III land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles sprinkled across Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming with…a new fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The center’s recent ruminations about the best way to base the new ICBM fleet bring back the glorious MX missile debates of the 1980s:
— Should we put our new ICBM fleet on trucks known as transporter erector launchers (TELs)? “The TEL must have the capability to leave government land to increase survivability, if required,” the Air Force says. “Survivability is a function of system hardness and mobility; therefore, a key feature will be the speed at which the TEL can depart the operating base when required.”
— Or maybe hide them in tunnels? “The Tunnel concept mode operates similar to a subway system but with only a single transporter/launcher and missile dedicated to a given tunnel,” the service says. “The Tunnel is long enough to improve survivability but leaving enough room to permit adequate `rattle space’ in the event of an enemy attack.”
And you thought the Cold War was history!
Assuming the nation sticks with its decision that a nuclear triad – ICBMs, submarines and bombers – is necessary to keep the country safe, the Air Force is exploring five paths to preserve its aging ICBM leg:
— Continued use of the current Minuteman III baseline until 2075 with no deliberate attempt to close identified gaps;
— Current Fixed that incorporates incremental changes to the current Minuteman III baseline to close the gaps;
— New Fixed;
— New Mobile; and
— New Tunnel.
Shades of the MX fight a generation ago! Back then, everything from rails to a cram-the-missiles-close-together Dense Pack option was considered as the most secure way to protect MX Peacekeeper missiles from Soviet attack (the 102 MX missiles, bought for $16 billion, were scrapped after standing guard in 50 silos from 1986 to 2005).
But those first three options above sound, well, rather retro. Let’s see what the Air Force thinks about the other two.
On the mobile ICBM it says:
The Mobile concept employs a new ICBM on a transporter erector launcher (TEL). The systems would be located on government land and be capable of deploying on- or off-road. The TEL must have the capability to leave government land to increase survivability, if required. Survivability is a function of system hardness and mobility; therefore, a key feature will be the speed at which the TEL can depart the operating base when required. Industry inputs should look at the following elements:
— A missile capable of delivering up to two Mk12A or Mk21 reentry vehicles. Guidance needs to account for the deployed mode to ensure adequate accuracy is achieved while maintaining prompt responsive capabilities.
— TEL architecture. The TEL should be capable of both on and off-road travel. Weight considerations should be considered to meet Department of Transportation requirements.
— The weapon control system may consist of some combination of fixed and mobile control systems. For example, a fixed launch control center may be located at the main operating base (MOB), while survivable back up is provided by a mobile launch control center that is deployed during higher readiness states. In higher readiness states, the primary mode of communication to and from higher authority needs to be considered by industry.
As for the tunnel notion:
The Tunnel concept mode operates similar to a subway system but with only a single transporter/launcher and missile dedicated to a given tunnel. The vehicle moves at random down the length of the Tunnel. The Tunnel is long enough to improve survivability but leaving enough room to permit adequate “rattle space” in the event of an enemy attack. The diameter of the Tunnel should be designed to fit the missile and the mobile launcher. The self-propelled, unmanned cars can move via rail or in a “trackless” configuration. Launch portals should be available at regular intervals, allowing the transporter’s strongback to be raised and the missile launched. During an attack, the launcher vehicle will need protection from ground shock.
Launch communications is addressed in three different modes. Industry should provide a communications architecture for Higher Authority paths between Leadership and mobile Launch Control Centers. Industry should also address Intra-Tunnel communication capability to communicate to the mobile launch control center and launch unit within a given Tunnel.
The Air Force has invited contractors to submit “white papers” detailing their thoughts on the best approach by Feb. 8.