This is the Hard Mobile Launcher (HML) designed for the never-deployed Small ICBM, better known (somewhat offensively) as the “Midgetman.”

Apparently, the US Air Force is considering bringing back mobile basing in its Analysis of Alternatives for a Minuteman Follow-on.

This is nuts.  They should just quit while they are behind.

One of the curious features of the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review was the commitment to “Exploring new modes of ICBM basing that enhance survivability and further reduce any incentives for prompt launch.”

I thought, “They can’t be talking about land-mobile ICBMs, can they?”

1.

I figured this was a throwaway line.  The Administration was looking for an alternative to so-called “dealerting” and settled, reasonably enough, on my preferred alternative of “maximizing decision time.”  Spending more money on command-and-control is the most practical implication of such a conceptual approach, but lists are always at least three items long.  So the Administration also reaffirmed “open ocean targeting” and made that weird comment about basing.  I didn’t think they were serious about it.

Indeed, there were questions about whether the Obama Administration would fund the study at all.  When the FY2012 budget came out, two Defense Department officials claimed there was no money in the budget to consider a follow-on ICBM.  After a momentary panic, in which Lindsey Graham suffered a case of the vapors, Air Force Global Strike Command explained that they had already started the study in January using about a million dollars of reprogrammed money.  Additional funds were available in the ICBM DEM/VAL account, under the vague heading of “Long Range Planning.”

At this point, STRATCOM Commander General Bob Kehler caught my attention — he told some reporters that “I’m intrigued by mobility. I’m intrigued by other basing modes.”

By May 2011, Air Force Global Strike Command completed the capabilities-based assessment for what is now called “Ground-Based Strategic Deterrence” (GBSD).  (The Air Force actually put out a release in June 2011 indicating the CBA would be completed by July, which is as good an illustration as any of how the military has come to enrich our language with idioms such as SNAFU.)  Then, in December 2011, Air Force released a request for information (AFNWC/XR-12122011, amended January 2012) based on the CBA and the Initial Capabilities Document, which was in process.

Guess what?  The land-mobility idea stuck around, according to the RFI: “Concepts may also propose innovative deployment and basing strategies, including, but not limited to mobile basing …”

In February 2012, the GBSD team held a “Threats, Capability Gaps and Shortfalls Briefing” (aka Industry Day) at Kirtland Air Force Base at the “SECRET/NO FORN” level. And, in May 2012: The Air Force Requirements Oversight Council signed off on an “initial capabilities document” for the future ICBM that (presumably the result of the AFSGC study from the previous summer.)

When asked whether mobility was still part of the mix by Elaine Grossman, Maj. Gen. William A. Chambers, Assistant Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, responded “In an unclassified environment, of course, we are looking at basing modes.”

USAF is now spending $21 million in FY2013-2014 to complete the Ground Based Strategic Deterrence Analysis of Alternatives, aiming for a Milestone A decision by the second quarter of 2015.  Presumably, to include mobile ballistic missiles.

What the hell?

2.

We’ve been here before — and it was a nightmare.  The debate over Peacekeeper and the Small ICBM was a total nightmare. International Security published a nice issue in 1987, with several really excellent articles on the ICBM Land-Basing Controversy.  Why anyone would want to have this argument again is beyond me.

Land-mobile nuclear weapons are not a political possibility in the United States of America  Antonia Chayes, in her 1987 contribution, entitled, “Managing the Politics of Mobility”, observed that the MX missile was the first major nuclear weapons system to require an environmental impact statement — something we think of as commonplace today. Let’s just say the local hearings in Nevada and Utah did not go well.  The idea of the Federal government seizing significant amounts of land — an area the size of Connecticut — for a massive construction project did not go down well with local ranchers and farmers.

I suspect that is why the Air Force is so reticent to discuss basing modes today.  As soon as there are “locals” — actual communities eyed to cough up space for land-mobile shelters and so forth — they will freak out like the did in the 1980s.  In a universe where the Obama Administration claims nuclear terrorism is the most pressing threat, does it really make sense to increase the survivability of land-based ballistic missiles by placing them on trucks and driving them around? (See, for example, “Jack-knifed truck carrying nuclear missile has been secured.”)  I don’t blame the Air Force for trying to hang on to this option as long as possible, but it is doomed from the start.

Second, mobile ballistic missiles are very, very expensive compared to silo based missiles. As I noted, the United States developed a mobile launch vehicle — the Hard Mobile Launcher — at great expense during the 1980s.  Hard is the important concept here — hard against nuclear weapons effects like radiation and blast.

The HML was a radiation-hardened vehicle weighing not more than 200,000 pounds (!) and capable of withstanding pressures up to 30 pounds per square inch.

The Air Force awarded contracts to both Boeing and Martin Marietta, who each built prototypes.   (As far as I can tell, there are two of the Boeing versions on display at museums — one at Hill Air Force Base and another at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Ohio. I have not been able to find out what happened to the prototype that  Martin Marietta made with Caterpillar Tractor.)

The SICBM and HML put on weight, however, exceeding the limit of 200,000 pounds, above which, as GAO noted, “road widths and bridge load carrying capacity can impair mobility.”

HML was also fantastically expensive. Jan Lodal, in his 1987 article SICBM Yes, HML No, estimated the cost of the Hardened Mobile Launcher as $30 billion for a force of 500 deployed missiles:

Deploying the SICBM on mobile launchers undoubtedly improves the missile’s survivability against a large-scale surprise attack. Mobile launchers would also enhance U.S. ability to respond to a large-scale Soviet nonnuclear attack with land-based ICBMs, should such a capability become necessary in the future. But as explained above, making the SICBM mobile requires buying a hardened mobile launcher (the HML), which will cost about $30 billion. Added to roughly $12 billion for 500 SICBMs, this brings the total cost of the HML/SICBM combination to a total of $42 billion for 500 deployed warheads.

In FY2103 dollars, that’s $52 billion for a fleet of mobile launchers — again not counting the cost of the missiles themselves.   I had to double-check that jaw dropping number.  I went back and looked at contemporary CBO and GAO estimates. Apparently, building a 200,000 pound truck with rad-hard electronics and capable of withstanding nuclear blast effects is expensive.  There are other estimates floating around, but no one seems to dispute that HML would have cost tens of billions of dollars.  (I also sent Jan a note asking about that $30 billion estimate.)

Perhaps we won’t replace each of the “up to” 420 ICBMs slated to be retained under New START, but a few hundred HMLs would still break the bank.

3.

I can’t get over it.  Thirty billion dollars (in 1987) to make our ICBMs land-mobile.  What the hell were they thinking?   So, what does one get for that sort of wood — aside from a gigantic political pain in the ass?

During the 1980s, much of the interest in land-mobility was driven by claims of Soviet missile accuracy — claims that we know today were false.  Moreover, American fears of Soviet accuracy were embedded in an scenario — the window of vulnerability — that seems distinctly archaic today.  It was hard to imagine Brezhnev launching a portion of the Soviet nuclear arsenal against US missile fields, hoping to create a favorable exchange ratio that would allow Moscow to impose an unfavorable geopolitical settlement in Europe.  Such a scenario seems positively loony today.

Today, silo-based ICBM advocates today tend to emphasize their role as warhead sinks — to hopelessly complicate the calculations of an adversary planning an attack — as well as their relative cost-effectiveness in providing prompt, flexible target coverage.  Land-mobile ICBMs sacrifice lots of these advantages to basically do the same things as submarine-launched ballistic missiles, only not as effectively nor as cheaply (per warhead at the margin.)

By the way, despite the fact that the Secretary of Defense (at the time), STRATCOM Commander and Air Staff have all made approving noises about land-mobility, the Obama Administration’s 1251 report doesn’t count a penny.  The 1251 report contains no estimate for how much a follow-on ICBM will cost.  According to the 1251 report, DOD is “unable to provide costs for its potential development and procurement at this time.”  Yet we know they are considering land-mobile basing option, and we know that program that could easily add several tens of billions of dollars to the modernization program.

You have to wonder why smart people are continuing down this path.  It isn’t like the SICBM debate was that long ago.  Dick Cheney canceled it as Secretary of Defense, for goodness sake.  This is a debate that occurred within the professional life of most of the people involved in the decision making process.

The Hard Mobile Launcher was judged too expensive during the largest peacetime defense buildup in history with the Soviet Union as an adversary.  What makes the Air Force think a neo-HML will survive our budget-constrained, post-Cold War environment?