Dr Strangelove Would be Proud: How to Hide a Nuclear Missile

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union was introducing all kinds of intimidating weapon systems. After its Cuban Missile Crisis experience, Kremlin leaders wanted to ensure the USSR would never again be outgunned, a sort-of ‘Cuban Missile Syndrome.’1

As a result, during the 1970s the USSR added new nuclear missile systems. The SS-18 ‘Satan’:


SS-18 “Satan” Missile System. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dnepr_rocket_lift-off_1.jpg

The SS-20 ‘Pioneer’:

SS-20 'Pioneer' Missile System, Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Miss_launch_veh.jpg

SS-20 ‘Pioneer’ Missile System, Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Miss_launch_veh.jpg

They also expanded conventional forces. The Kiev was the Soviet Navy’s first aircraft carrier:

Soviet Aircraft Carrier 'Kiev'. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aircraft_carrier_%22Kiev%22_in_1986_(2).jpeg

Soviet Aircraft Carrier ‘Kiev’. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aircraft_carrier_%22Kiev%22_in_1986_(2).jpeg

The Tu-22M ’Backfire’ strategic bomber could deliver nuclear weapons over long distances:

Tu-22M3 'Backfire' Bomber. Source: http://blog.kievukraine.info/uploaded_images/3183-719590.jpg

Tu-22M3 ‘Backfire’ Bomber. Source: http://blog.kievukraine.info/uploaded_images/3183-719590.jpg

Some American defense analysts wondered ‘What is the Soviet Union Up To?’ 2 Was this perhaps an effort to achieve a military victory in the cold war?

We now know that the Soviet Union were building massive missiles for a simple reason: they were good at it. It was their area of comparative advantage.

American missiles were smaller because their guidance systems were more sophisticated, ensuring greater accuracy and requiring a smaller warhead to hit the designated target area. Soviet missiles needed to be bigger so they were guaranteed to hit their target, and building big rockets with big warheads was something Soviet weapons designers could do well.

At the time, however, this was unclear to American defense analysts. To some of them it seemed that the Soviets were developing ‘silo busting’ missiles.

A number of those concerned about Soviet deployments joined the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), a group dedicated to voicing concern about the survivability of the US nuclear force [and the subject of my PhD research]. These new Soviet missiles could potentially destroy US missiles in their silos in a devastating first strike, and thus win the cold war.

How so?

In this scenario, CPD analysts reasoned, the submarine leg of the nuclear triad was useless, because seaborne nuclear warheads were not big or accurate enough for any mission other than ‘city busting’. But ‘city busting’ was a terrible option: would a president order a retaliatory strike on Soviet cities knowing that to do so would invite the destruction of American cities? (The ‘Second Strike’ problem).

This conundrum encouraged new, imaginative thinking on how to ensure that American nuclear missile would survive a surprise Soviet attack.

In 1981, a number of Committee on the Present Danger members participated on an ‘MX Missile Basing Advisory Panel’ and wrote a detailed report 3 on how to better ensure the survival of American nuclear missiles.

In the report, the basing option that received the most attention was the ‘Multiple Protective Shelter (MPS)’ option. A new generation of American missiles, the MX missile, would move on road tracks between a number of silos. This would increase the number of targets for Soviet warheads, as Kremlin military planners would not know which silo a missile was in at any given moment. They would be forced to target them all, which would reduce the Soviet advantage in missile numbers.

MPS basing configuration. Source: 'MX Missile Basing'

MPS basing configuration. Source: ‘MX Missile Basing’

There were also more extravagant suggestions, including a ’Small Submarine’ option. Four missiles would be housed in numerous diesel powered mini-subs, operating within 1000 miles of the continental United States. A new submarine fleet, the report conceded, was ‘a major undertaking’ and wouldn’t enter service until at least 1992-94: too far away. The programme never got started.


Mini-Sub Basing ‘Sequence of Events.’ Source ‘MX Missile Basing’

(Incidentally, the report might have mentioned ‘Project Sunrise’; a prototype system from the 1960s that envisaged missiles based on the seafloor. Now there’s a morbid name for a missile programme.)

Another particularly fantastic solution was the ‘Deep Underground’ option. The idea was to bury a missile deep inside a mountain, entirely sealed off from the outside world. Affixed to the top of the missile would be a ‘tunnel boring machine’ that would drill through the mountainside to reach a launch position. Sheltered by the mountain, the missile could survive a surprise attack and be ready for a retaliatory strike.

'Deep Underground Basing' Missile Launch. Source: 'MX Missile Basing'

‘Deep Underground Basing’ Missile Launch. Source: ‘MX Missile Basing’

Unsurprisingly the costs of developing this ‘mole missile’ were enormous – or, more accurately, cost estimates were reported as being ’highly tentative’ – and the design never left the drawing board.

Aside from cost, a problem with all these solutions was verification.

Arms control agreements rested on the ability of each side to check whether the other was cheating. Hiding missiles in mountains or in undersea platforms would have made verification impossible.

The ‘race track’ option lived on for several years because it did permit verification: at an agreed time, all the silos could be opened for Soviet satellites to check there weren’t more than the permitted number of missiles. (This was surely the best time for a surprise attack.)

Ultimately an even grander solution was devised: Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars programme (the Strategic Defense Initiative). Rather than hiding or protecting American missiles to ensure a force capable of answering a surprise Soviet attack, a space-based platform would shoot down incoming missiles.

Of course, typical cold war paranoia ensured that some American analysts assumed the Soviets were well ahead in their own version of the Star Wars programme:

But before the strange logic of nuclear warfare moved off the ocean floor and into space – and partially because the very effort placed too much strain on its economy – the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the immediacy of the ‘Second Strike’ problem.

If you are interested in this topic, here are some books to look at:

  1.  Zubok, Vladislav M. A Failed Empire : The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007., 243
  2.  CPD Executive Committee: What Is the Soviet Union Up To?, In Alerting America: The Papers of the Committee on the Present Danger, edited by Charles Tyroler II New York, NY: Pergamon Press, 1984
  3. ‘MX Missile Basing,’ Office of Technology Assessment, September 1981, http://ota.fas.org/reports/8116.pdf 
6 replies
  1. Don says:

    This was an awesome article. I have an interest in history and live in the US. I had never heard of Sunrise or Orca, so thank you for this interesting read.

    • Nick Blackbourn says:

      Thanks Don. The topic doesn’t quite fit into my PhD dissertation, but I still wanted to write about it. I’m very glad you found it interesting.

  2. Don says:

    I’m guessing you have read “The Dead Hand” by Hoffman about the ultimate in FU technology? Very good.

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