Strategic Forces at the Brink of START

Feb. 1, 1988

America’s strategic nuclear de­terrent, though a prime target for Geneva arms negotiators, ap­pears headed toward a strengthen­ing.

Such is the prospect, even should President Reagan succeed in his campaign to achieve epic cuts in su­perpower nuclear arsenals at the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in Geneva.

Already, the new and more potent forms of offensive strategic arms that had been integrated on a large scale into US plans tended to make the debate over the overall size of the force almost academic.

Technically, the US armory may decline in “strength”—as it is de­fined numerically. In fact, if current weapons procurement plans hold up over the long term, US land, sea, and air elements would be recast in ways that will bolster their deterrent power.

The force, even if cut fifty per­cent as Reagan hopes, would have a larger proportion of newer arms be­cause older weapons are being re­placed with more modern ones—ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles, bombers, and cruise missiles.

It’s not just a matter of newer arms. The planned US strategic weaponry of the future would pos­sess properties that would provide major gains in effectiveness relative to predecessor arms.

The strengthening, say experts, would occur in three major ways:

•Survivability. No longer would any of the three legs of the strategic “triad”—land-based missiles, sub­marine-launched missiles, and bombers—be clearly exposed to a devastating Soviet knockout attack. Mobile basing and deception prom­ise to lend far greater protection.

• Capability. Weapons will be equipped with superaccurate war­heads capable of threatening the hardest Soviet targets. Less accu­rate arms that constrain US plan­ning today will decline in number.

• Versatility. Today’s practice of assigning each type of weapon to a single overriding mission will be mod­ified. Forces will be capable of more rapid retargeting and thus be more responsive to change.

As a result, new US strategic forces—even at reduced levels—would provide a measurable im­provement in the nation’s ability to meet the specific requirements of strategic deterrence.

These requirements entail being able to survive a Soviet attack, cred­ibly threaten a retaliatory second strike against assets valued the most by Moscow, and cope with an in­creasingly complex set of Soviet tar­gets over a prolonged period. Why is this the case

Destructiveness Not Enough

The simple answer, according to defense officials: With major changes taking place in Soviet nu­clear strategy, deterrence depends far less on the overwhelming size of the American force than it does on the force’s power to perform specif­ic military missions.

The situation is summed up this way by former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger: “The sheer destructiveness of nuclear forces does not by itself guarantee deter­rence. Our forces must be survivable, capable, flexible, and discrim­inative.”

To be sure, the ongoing Geneva negotiations to achieve a super­power arms agreement that would eliminate large numbers of nuclear warheads and launchers presented certain problems and perils.

For one thing, say experts, the Pentagon’s projected strategic sce­nario could be upset by an inequita­ble agreement that permits Moscow to retain a significant advantage in one or more measures of strategic power—particularly its massive edge in heavy, accurate, multi­warhead missiles based in silos.

The Kremlin had already agreed, under START, to halve its force of “heavy” SS-18 missiles from 308 to­day to 154 and to cut drastically the lifting power of its force. Still in dis­pute, however, was a US demand for tight overall limits on the total Sovi­et ICBM force.

The US had been insisting that the Soviet Union accept a limit of 3,300 on its number of ICBM war­heads. Soviet officials had coun­tered by saying that Moscow would accept this stricture if Washington agreed to a limit of 3,300 on sea-based missile warheads.

Both sides had balked, and there the matter lay after the latest super­power summit in Washington. The thorny problem was passed off to Geneva negotiators for another try.

Among some strategic planners, there was also concern that such a treaty might sap political support for the President’s ongoing strategic arms-modernization programs. They warn that the program might falter if the public perceives that new arms have been made unneces­sary by a treaty that would make drastic reductions.

This danger had been seen as being particularly acute in view of harsh federal budget austerity that lies ahead in Washington.

In fact, it is sharp domestic politi­cal pressures on defense spending, rather than arms control, that is seen as posing the greater threat to strategic revitalization. As 1987 ended, that was made clear when the Senate came close to killing a key US strategic program, the so-called Small ICBM.

While congressional negotiators eventually revived the fledgling mis­sile—at least through 1988—the is­sue was volatile. It, along with other key strategic issues, could be re­opened at any time, either by Con­gress or by Administration actions. Air Force officials had worried that the mobile Peacekeeper missile pro­gram could ultimately become a vic­tim of the same pressures.

Reductions and Modernization Are Compatible

Whatever the momentary ups and downs of such controversial pro­grams, however, they are certain to remain at the forefront of debate in 1988, undergoing fitful starts and stops but with no final conclusions reached until year’s end—if then.

Whatever the indirect effects, however, there is a consensus that today’s strategic weapons programs would be no more than marginally affected by an arms deal of the kind under consideration, in and of itself.

In fact, the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Larry Welch, notes that Washington’s “deep reduction” plan was crafted with modernization programs uppermost in everyone’s mind—particularly those programs aimed at strengthening the land-based missile force.

“All those [programs] fit within the deep reduction numbers,” says he. “There is no basic restructuring . . . required” in the current mod­ernization program.

What is perhaps the most impor­tant facet of that program, say mili­tary analysts, is the contribution it promises to make toward the resto­ration of a relatively less vulnerable strategic arsenal in the 1990s.

No one expects to return America to the comfortable and secure en­vironment of the 1950s and 1960s. Those times are gone forever unless active defenses are built.

But the Pentagon was embarked on a range of weapons initiatives that, taken together, would go far toward addressing what was once referred to as a “window of vulner­ability” that may have left US stra­tegic forces exposed to the Soviet Union’s force of increasingly de­structive and accurate interconti­nental ballistic missiles.

Experts maintain that the subject of vulnerability can be looked at in two different ways. One concerns the broad sense of the vulnerability of the strategic forces as a whole—which is not today, and is not likely to be, a problem.

Even so, the Reagan Administra­tion is moving on that front with strengthening programs embracing all elements of the triad—bombers and submarines as well as the ICBM leg. Limited results are already ap­parent.

There is a strong case to be made that the B-1B bomber, with its great­er dash speed for escape, shapes up as being far less vulnerable to a So­viet attack on US bases than the B-52 that it replaces. The same holds true for the Advanced Tech­nology Bomber, now known offi­cially as B-2.

Current plans call for deploying 231 B-lBs and B-2s over the next decade. In strategic agreements now being discussed, the equivalent of around 1,200 warheads would be reserved for bombers.

The Navy’s strategic-missile-fir­ing submarines, armed with long-range weaponry, already provide the most survivable portion of the nation’s triad of strategic forces. In­troduction of Trident submarines of the Ohio class, far quieter than ear- her subs, will only add to the under­sea deterrent’s security.

Quieter submarines combined with longer-legged missiles mean that the boats are able to hide in a far greater volume of ocean.

Securing the Land-Based Force

The other way to look at vulner­ability, however, is in the more nar­row sense of the exposure of land-based ICBMs to a Soviet attack.

There is widespread belief that the most critical strategic problem facing the US is the vulnerability of the nearly 1,000 missiles based in silos. Theoretically, at least, these silos appear to be vulnerable to an attack with the Soviet Union’s accu­rate, powerful, long-range SS-18 multiwarhead missiles.

It is the attempt to secure this land-based force that holds the greatest problems, and promise, for the United States.

At the core of Washington’s effort today is the proposed deployment of 100 mammoth, ten-warhead Peace­keeper ICBMs, some twenty-seven of which are in the inventory at this writing. Plans call for making half of the total force secure by virtue of mobility.

The current Peacekeeper plan was born of tactical retreat. From the outset, Mr. Reagan rejected a Carter Administration plan to shut­tle 200 of the supermissiles among 4,600 shelters in Nevada and Utah.

Then, he proposed to cut the number of Peacekeepers from the 200 planned by the Air Force to 100 and to deploy them in the Minute­man’s already-vulnerable silos. He then changed his mind, deciding to pursue another basing scheme called “dense pack”—officially, “Closely Spaced Basing.” When that fight was lost in Congress, he went back to a Minuteman silo vari­ation, which received provisional approval on Capitol Hill.

The first fifty Peacekeepers now are being deployed at F. E. Warren AFB, Wyo., with completion due in late 1988.

Congress, however, authorized the deployment of only fifty of the weapons in fixed, land-based silos. It has been withholding approval for deployment of the second fifty pending Administration creation of a more survivable basing system for them.

Now, USAF is convinced that it has found one. Strategic Air Com­mand is pursuing deployment of the second fifty missiles in a scheme to make them mobile by putting them aboard rail cars. The Administra­tion is also seeking political ap­proval for this so-called “rail-gar­rison” system.

Essentially, the scheme is this: Peacekeeper missiles would be de­ployed aboard trains—two per train—at up to seven garrisons spread across the continental US. Each garrison would contain three or four missile trains designed to look similar to civilian versions.

On receipt of strategic warning, say planners, Strategic Air Com­mand would set the trains rolling onto the nation’s railway system, creating a virtually impossible tar­geting task for Soviet planners at­tempting to destroy these high-qual­ity weapons.

The attack problem flows from the arithmetic of a strike: By assum­ing that approximately 200,000 miles of commercial track will be available for dispersing them, says a recent analysis by the staff of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, it would take 10,000 one-megaton Soviet war­heads to destroy the 500 Peacekeep­er warheads in the system—an un­favorable exchange ratio of twenty to one against the Soviet Union.

Concludes one SAC planner: “The combination of all that rail, with only twenty-five cars, makes a Soviet attack not feasible. It would cost him too many weapons to try to attack all of the places where they could be.”

To avoid provoking public op­position to nuclear weapons travel­ing around the nation’s rails, the trains would be garrisoned on USAF bases during peacetime and dispersed onto civilian rails only in a major international crisis.

Currently in design development, the rail-garrison basing system will face a critical test in March, when the Pentagon will take up the deci­sion of whether or not to go into full-scale development. Official ap­proval seems likely. The first major vote in Congress on funding a full-scale program is scheduled for late 1988.

The Small ICBM

It is not only the mobile Peace­keeper that was being contemplated in an effort to enhance the surviv­ability of the ICBM force. Also being worked on was another mo­bile missile that, experts say, would confront the Soviet Union with an­other massive targeting problem—the Small ICBM.

Proposed by the so-called Scow-croft Commission in 1983, SICBM since that time had been officially accepted by the Air Force and the White House. By late last year, it had been taken well along in full-scale engineering development.

First deployment of the 37,000-pound, single-warhead weapon had been set for 1992. All told, the Air Force had originally proposed to build up to 500 of them to comple­ment the Peacekeeper’s awesome attack capabilities.

It is the SICBM’s basing system, however, that would provide the true justification for its future exis­tence.

That system was centered on the Hard Mobile Launcher—a specially hardened off-road mobile vehicle that could carry one SICBM. The deployment concept called for 500 of the missile/HML systems to be housed on military bases either in the southwest US or in Minuteman’ fields, or both.

On tactical warning, the missiles would be moved off base as rapidly as possible—up to fifty-five miles per hour on paved roads and at around fifteen miles per hour on un­improved surfaces. Within thirty minutes, say officials, the HMLs with their SICBM cargoes would be able to be dispersed over 28,000 square miles of desolate western ter­ritory.

Again, the arithmetic that would confront an attack planner is daunt­ing.

How many weapons would it take to barrage such a vast area and de­stroy the force? In the view of the IISS staff’s study, the attacker would be forced to expend 9,500 half-megaton weapons to catch a mere 500 American warheads—an unfavorable nineteen-to-one ratio.

SICBM gains a measure of pro­tection by virtue of its relatively low value. Armed with only a single war­head, the smaller missile will be a less lucrative target than MIRVed forces.

In that circumstance, the Soviets might well choose to strike else­where. But the SICBM force would remain a threat.

Far from endangering this missile system, an arms-reduction agree­ment would probably enhance it by limiting the Soviet offensive threat that could be thrown against it.

The US would not be able to build the thousands of SICBMs that would be needed in the face of un­constrained Soviet building pro­grams. It would be too expensive. Arms reductions would make that problem far more manageable.

Even so, a 500-strong SICBM force would not come cheap. The cost of building, deploying, and op­erating a force of this size is put by Air Force officials at $40 billion over the next fifteen years. This is rough­ly three times the cost of an identical number of mobile Peacekeeper war­heads. Cost is one reason that the Air Force and the Administration, while fully aware of the SICBM’s benefits, have equivocated over the years on this program. While there is some DoD sentiment for scrap­ping the program to save money, such a move could derail the mod­ernization plans for ICBMs.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line of these two im­portant mobile missile systems is this: If fully deployed, the Peace­keeper in the rail-garrison system and the mobile SICBM would pro­vide the US deterrent with large numbers of warheads with much re­duced vulnerability to attack.

This, say most strategic experts, would more than compensate for the possible loss of vulnerable Min­uteman missiles in an arms treaty, if it comes to that. True, there would be fewer aimpoints—only 600 compared to 1,000 today. But 550 of those 600—the mobile SICBMs and Peacekeepers—would be far more difficult to locate and target.

In light of the central importance of these programs, the President’s previous proposal at Geneva to ban mobile ICBMs, first put forth in 1985 and not officially withdrawn, was seen as being moot.

This conclusion was supported by the words of no less an authority than Secretary of State George Shultz, who publicly acknowledged that “mobile missiles have a lot to be said for them from the standpoint of their survivability.” Mr. Shultz add­ed late last year that “we have said to the Soviet Union that we don’t have an objection in principle to mo­bile missiles.”

Equally critical to the strengthen­ing of the American nuclear deter­rent is what shapes up as a far-reaching expansion of the nation’s strategic “warfighting” capabilities in coming years.

In simplest terms: Under plans that existed, the Pentagon would increasingly acquire and deploy nu­clear weapons with sufficient power, accuracy, and numbers to be able to threaten the most heavily fortified, highest value targets with­in the control of the Soviet leader­ship.

Today, because of Soviet ad­vances in “hardening” their critical control centers, central strategic weapons, and warfighting facilities, the current US weapons can no lon­ger rapidly perform this task.

Part of the problem can be put down to the sheer size of the Soviet target base. Pentagon officials say they have identified more than 1,500 buried command bunkers desig­nated for Party and military leaders, and that is only a fraction of pro­tected Soviet targets.

More important, however, is the relative paucity of hard-target killer warheads in the US inventory. In fact, say SAC officers, the US today has less than half the number of high-quality warheads it needs to be able to hold at risk these classes of Soviet targets.

Three Weapon Systems

Rectifying this situation had been assigned the highest priority by Washington. Helping to achieve the Administration’s goals would be three principal weapon systems. They are:

• Peacekeeper. The addition of 1,000 superaccurate warheads would result from full deployment of 100 of these ten-warhead ICBMs by 1993 if the program is not side­tracked along the way.

Special advantages of this ICBM would be high alert rates and rapid strike against the most difficult tar­gets. It shaped up as the premier weapon for threatening certain and accurate retaliation against the So­viet Union.

Officials say that the accuracy of the Peacekeeper warheads would represent a striking improvement over that of earlier ICBM warheads. Precise figures are classified. How­ever, a recent Congressional Budget Office study maintains that the war­head could be expected to land within 300 feet of its target after a flight of some 6,000 miles—nearly twice the accuracy of the Minute­man weapon.

So accurate has the Peacekeeper been during flight tests, says SAC

Commander in Chief Gen. John Chain, that “it would make your eyes water.”

• Small ICBM. The SICBM had been planned to carry the same type warhead as Peacekeeper and a modi­fied version of the guidance system found on the larger missile.

This program would add another 500 weapons with pinpoint accuracy to the US arsenal by the mid-1990s.

•Trident II (D5). A modernized and highly accurate submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) force was in the works to comple­ment the attack capabilities of the land-based weapons. An addition of as many as 3,000 silo-busting war­heads could result. Some officers say D5 accuracies could approach those of the Peacekeeper.

The D5 missile, which underwent its first flight tests throughout 1987, was planned to become operational aboard Ohio-class SSBNs in De­cember 1989. It had been antici­pated that the D5 would carry eight nuclear warheads.

From their inception, SLBM war­heads have been inherently less ac­curate than their land-based coun­terparts because their firing loca­tions at sea could never be deter­mined with precision.

Now, however, the D5 is proving to have far better accuracy and a larger payload than present SLBMs and is billed as being effective against most of the hardened mili­tary targets in the Soviet Union—including missile silos and launch-control centers.

All told, the count of prompt, hard-target-kill warheads in the American force might top 4,000 when, and if, the building program is complete in the 1990s. That com­pares to a total today estimated at no more than 1,000.

If Trident II, Peacekeeper, and SICBM are actually procured in substantial quantities and perform as advertised, the US would attain for the first time, in the early 1990s, the theoretical ability to destroy most Soviet ICBM silos simulta­neously.

Turning the Tables

Some analysts assert that the cur­rent US military buildup, if fully im­plemented, could turn the tables on Russia in the decade ahead. The Peacekeeper, SICBM, and an ex­panding force of D5 submarine-launched missiles, they say, may confront the Soviets with a threat to their fixed ICBM force, which rep­resents roughly sixty-five percent of their strategic striking power com­pared to twenty percent for the US.

Why would the United States de­sire such a capability—even though the first strike is not an option

The answer, analysts maintain, has a political, psychological, and military dimension.

In political terms, the US had concluded that it would have to give overriding priority to building a force that could visibly threaten the Kremlin’s land-based missiles in the same fashion that Moscow now can threaten US ICBMs.

Without that capability, defense officials fear, this country could be perceived by its adversaries and al­lies as being inferior in strategic arms.

In this view, 100 Peacekeepers with a total of 1,000 silo-busting warheads, augmented by SICBM and the D5, would go far to close such a “perception gap.”

In psychological terms, the very presence of such weapons would help deter any Soviet attack, some backers of the program argued. This view holds that the existence of large numbers of superaccurate arms in the US force would drive home to the Soviet Union the dan­gers of any nuclear bullying on Moscow’s part.

Doomsday Conflict

Finally, the military argument held that such a capability is re­quired to support the strategy of de­terrence and to conduct damage limitation should a doomsday con­flict break out.

As defense experts see it, deter­rence is strengthened if the Krem­lin’s leaders are forced to contem­plate, in advance of an attack, the fact that the US has the capability to extract a high price indeed from the aggressor.

In the words of former Defense Secretary Harold Brown, the prin­cipal goal of US nuclear forces should be “to threaten retaliation against assets that the Soviet lead­ers appear to prize—their urban-in­dustrial society, their nuclear and conventional military forces, and the hardened shelters that protect their political and military control

centers as well as their own lives.”

On the second score, Air Force leaders had maintained that the es­sence of deterrence is to be able to endanger those very military assets the Soviets must have in order to succeed in an attack. This, they say, requires warfighting forces.

The thinking was summarized in this fashion by a SAC officer: “We think that the Soviet attack plan would unfold over a period of time. We’re not talking about just a few hours here; we’re talking long range—perhaps a week or two. And they would hold back weapons to use later on, after the initial ex­change.

“The purpose of the Peacekeeper and other weapons that are hard-target killers is to take out that [strategic] reserve force. . . . The Peacekeeper [would be] targeted at what the Soviets hold most dear.”

A More Versatile Force

Apart from major increases in survivability and fighting power, the US strategic program, as it was planned, would be certain to pro­vide a more versatile overall force—one that stands a better chance of coping with Russia’s rapidly shifting military posture than do the one-dimensional arms of today.

Cast in a starring role would be Strategic Air Command’s long-range bomber force-100 B-lBs that will be fully operational by the end of this year and, some years later, the planned force of 132 “stealthy” B-2 bombers that is being developed.

As the Air Force sees it, the manned bomber is an essential fac­tor in the struggle to stay abreast of worrisome new Soviet arms moves.

The concerns stem from the growing numbers of what are termed “relocatable targets” (RTs). These are Soviet warfighting assets that could rapidly disperse and relo­cate, primarily to avoid detection and thus destruction by American long-range missiles.

The intensifying Soviet shift to­ward mobile ICBMs, for example, has heightened concern over how to deter strategic forces composed of weapons that are now exceedingly hard to find.

Already deployed in substantial numbers is the SS-25, a one-warhead, reasonably accurate Soviet ICBM mounted on special missile-carrying vehicles. US officials view this launcher as part of the Soviet reserve force that could be held back to threaten American targets in a Soviet second strike.

Soon to become fully opera­tional, say officials, is another mo­bile Soviet missile, the SS-X-24. This ten-warhead ICBM, believed to be of moderate accuracy, was to be based on railroad cars and shut­tled around the Siberian wastes.

These are certain to be only the beginning. Officials expect hun­dreds of these missiles to be de­ployed eventually.

In slating the strategic bomber force for this mission, the Pentagon is turning to what is already the most versatile and flexible element of the triad.

This force’s ability to launch quickly on warning, combined with its ability to be recalled or re­ directed after launch, is nowhere found in the rest of the strategic tri­ad.

Now assuming central signifi­cance, however, is the bomber’s ability to make on-the-spot damage assessments during an attack and to be reconstituted for other missions.

What’s more, the aircraft carry a large variety of nuclear arms—rang­ing from air-launched cruise mis­siles to short-range attack missiles to gravity bombs—that permit them to pursue even the most widely sep­arated targets.

The Air Force has long had an RT Capability Program that pursues upgrades of sensors and avionics for strategic bombers to help locate and target such RTs.

Air Force officials have high hopes in this regard for the radar-evading B-2 bomber. With its pro­jected capability to dash into the Soviet Union undetected, they say, the B-2 would be able to roam the strongholds of the mobile Soviet missiles and look for targets.

It is just as well that the B-2 has the job. Air Force officers say they would confront severe difficulties in being able to locate and attack re-locatable targets with standard ICBMs or SLBMs. Even so, this is getting a large share of attention within the Air Force.

New Strategic Options

Overall, the American strategic arsenal has expanded beyond the traditional elements of the triad. A kind of fourth leg of the force is emerging in the form of cruise mis­siles deployed on aircraft, surface ships, and submarines. The growing diversity of strategic systems and their increased capability has cre­ated new strategic options that nev­er existed before for the United States. This will remain the case even if the force is limited numer­ically by an arms agreement.

Even the SICBM, though simple in concept, would be a more ver­satile weapon. Compared to the ten-warhead Peacekeeper, the small launcher would provide great flexi­bility to US attack planners because using one weapon at a time is easier than planning to use ten at a time.

Unless and until the details of a START agreement are nailed down, there can be no way to determine with certainty the precise outline of the residual US strategic force.

At their recently concluded Washington summit, the President and Soviet leader Mikhail Gor­bachev made what appeared to be only modest progress on arms-con­trol matters. The summit outcome left in doubt whether the two next year can achieve the “deep reduc­tions” agreement they both want.

One major impediment to the agreement—Soviet demands that the US Strategic Defense Initiative be tethered in advance—appeared on first analysis to have been side­stepped at the summit. The issue was finessed in a way that permitted both sides to claim victory. This ac­tion was the kind of glossing-over operation that both sides needed if they wished to get on with their main objective of a treaty.

Equally important, however, is the question of whether or not the strategic program survives the do­mestic political process.


Number of Reentry Vehicles

Yield per RV (Kilotons)

CEP (Nautical Miles)

Throw- weight (In thousands of pounds)

System Availability (Day-to-day)

Minuteman II






Minuteman III

Mk 12






Mk 12A






MX (Peacekeeper)












Poseidon (C-3)






Trident I (C-4)






Trident II













Source: Congressional Budget Office