That’s a goofy sounding scheme

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019

Jerry Pournelle closes There Will Be War Volume II with a discussion of the strategic dilemma facing the United States, where any defensive measure reduces the stability of Mutual Assured Destruction:

Civil Defense structures were originally planned as part of the Interstate Highway System. There were to be fallout and partial blast shelters under most of the approach ramps. This would have been easy to do as part of the construction, and a few model shelters were actually built as a demonstration.


The Triad is composed of manned bombers, submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Prior to the ICBM leg we had Snark, an air-breathing pilotless aircraft capable of flying intercontinental distances—an early “cruise missile.”

Each leg, then, depends on a different mechanism for survival. The manned bomber is very soft; it can be killed on the ground by nukes landing a long way off. It depends for early survival on warning: unlike the other two legs of the Triad, the manned bombers can be launched at an early stage of alert and still be recalled.


(I helped work on updates to the B-52 as my first aerospace job.)


One USAF colonel recently described a B-52 as “a mass of parts flying in loose formation.”


Even if the bombers can penetrate, they’re not useful for fighting a nuclear war. You can’t send the bombers to attack Soviet missile bases; there’d be nothing to hit but empty holes by the time a subsonic bomber got to the target.


Cruise missiles can be an excellent supplement to the strategic force, but they are certainly not a potential leg of the Triad. They are vulnerable to everything that kills airplanes (on the ground or in the air) without the recall advantages of manned aircraft.

The second leg of the Triad is the submarine. Its survival depends entirely on concealment. If you can locate a submarine to within a few miles, it can be killed by an ICBM carrying an H-bomb.


Note, by the way, that all the subs in harbor — up to a third of them, sometimes more — are dead the day the war starts.


Unfortunately, the submarine’s concealment isn’t what it used to be. Subs can be located in at least two ways. First, by tracking them from their bases; every submariner can tell you stories about playing tag with the Russkis when they leave Holy Loch.

Worse, though, the oceans aren’t nearly so opaque as we thought. Not long ago we took a look at some radar pictures made from a satellite. “Look at that,” one of the engineers said. “You can see stuff down in the ocean! Deep in the ocean.” And sure enough, using “synthetic aperture” radars, the oceans have become somewhat transparent down to about fifty meters. While the subs can go deeper than that, they can’t launch from deeper than that.


Incidentally, as I write this, a Soviet naval surveillance satellite is about to fall. It carried a 100 kilowatt nuclear power plant. The United States has yet to put a ten kilowatt satellite into orbit.


Submarines have to launch their missiles from unpredictable places (by definition; imagine what the KGB would pay to find out where our subs would launch from), and this drastically limits their accuracy.


Suppose one morning the Soviets knock out our Minutemen installations (not too difficult, as we’ll see in a bit) and many of our subs. They still have quite a few birds left. The Red Army is marching into Germany. The hot line chatters, and the message is pretty simple: “You haven’t really been hurt. Most of your cities are in good shape. Cool it, or we launch the rest of our force.”

At that point it would be useful to have something capable of knocking out the rest of their strategic force.

To have that capability, you need land-based missiles. To be exact, you need MX. MX, and only MX, has both the accuracy and the Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVS, and they’re different from multiple warheads; MIRVS can attack targets much farther apart) that might give some counterforce capability.


If you attack a target with an ICBM, your “single shot probability of kill” (PKSS) depends on three major factors: attacker’s yield, attacker’s accuracy, and hardness of target.


While there are classified refinements, all the numbers you really need have long since been published in the US Government Printing Office’s “The Effects of Nuclear Weapons”. They’ve even been put on a circular slide rule that the RAND Corporation used to sell for about a dollar in the 60’s.


The Minutemen Missile lies in a soil that’s officially hardened to 300 PSI. When we put in Minutemen—the last one was installed in the 60’s—it was no bad guess that the Soviets could throw a megaton with a CEP of about a nautical mile. This gave them a PKSS of about .09, and it would take more than 20 warheads to give better than .9 kill probability. That was obviously a stable situation.[...]Going to ten megatons puts the PKSS to about 35%, and it still takes more than five attackers to get a 90% chance of killing one Minuteman; still not a lot to worry about.

Changes in accuracy, on the other hand, are very significant. Cutting the CEP in half (well, to 2700 feet) gives one megaton the same kill probability as ten had for a mile. Cutting CEP to 1000 feet is more drastic yet: now the single shot kill probability of one megaton is above 90%.

If you can get your accuracy to 600 feet CEP, then a 500 kiloton weapon has above 99% kill probability. Now all you need is multiple warheads, and you’re able to knock out more birds than you launched. Clearly this is getting unstable.

In 1964 we figured the Soviets had 6000 foot CEP, and predicted that by 1975 they’d have 600 feet. By 1975 I’d given up my clearances, and I don’t know what they achieved.


Item: weather satellites; winds over target are predictable, so you can correct for them. Item: lots of polar-orbiting satellites; by studying them, you can map gravitational anomalies. Item: observation satellites; location errors just aren’t significant any more. Item: the Soviets have been buying gyros, precision lathes, etc., as well as computers. They already had the mathematicians.


Two: in the 60’s we studied lots and lots of mobile basing schemes: road mobile, rail mobile, off-road mobile, canal and barge mobile, ship mobile, etc. We even looked at artificial ponds, and things that crawled around on the bottom of Lake Michigan. There were a lot of people in favor of mobile systems — then. Now, though, there are satellites, and you know, it’s just damned hard to hide something seventy feet long and weighing 190,000 pounds. (Actually, by the time you add the launcher, it’s more like 200 feet and 500,000 pounds.)


Worse, you can’t harden a mobile system very much. Even a “small” ICBM rocket is a pretty big object. Twenty PSI would probably be more than we could achieve. The kill radius of a 50 megaton weapon against a 20 PSI target is very large: area bombardment becomes attractive.


And nearly every mobile basing scheme puts nukes out where they have to be protected from terrorists and saboteurs including well-meaning US citizens aroused in protest (and you just know there’ll be plenty of them).

Air-mobile and air-launched were long-term favorites, and I was much for them in the 60’s. The Pentagon’s most recent analysis says we just can’t afford them; it would cost in the order of $150 billion, possibly more.


In fact, every alternative you’ve ever heard of, and a few you haven’t, were analyzed in great detail back in 1964. I know, because I was editor of the final report. I even invented one scheme myself, Citadel, which would put some birds as well as a national command post under a granite mountain. The problem with that one is that the birds will survive, but if they attack the doors, how does it get out after the attack?


First try the obvious: harden your birds. In 1964 we called it “Superhard,” 5000 PSI basing. Now 5000 PSI isn’t easy to come by. There are severe engineering problems, and it isn’t cheap. Worse, “Superhard” didn’t buy all that much: at 500 foot CEP’s a megaton has a 95% chance of killing “superhard” targets. (A megaton weapon makes a crater 250 feet deep and over a thousand feet in diameter even in hard rock.) Thus putting MX in 5000 PSI silos separated by miles didn’t seem worth the cost.


Just about every honest analyst who takes the trouble to work through the numbers comes away muttering “That’s a goofy sounding scheme, but damned if it doesn’t look like it might work…”


Use the space environment and our lead in high technology to construct missile defenses. They won’t be perfect, but they won’t need to be: the enemy can’t know how good our defenses are. Thus he can’t be sure of the outcome of his strike.


Whether space research pays for itself fifteen times over, as space enthusiasts say, or only twice over, as its critics say, nearly everyone is agreed that it does pay for itself — which is more than you can say for most other parts of the budget.

If we fail to provide for the common defense, it does no good to promote the general welfare.


  1. HCM says:

    The amount of bad, poorly contextualized, and flat out incorrect information listed here is astounding.

  2. Adar says:

    1. Snark activated and on-duty for ONE MONTH and then de-activated.

    2. B-52 in the modern mode a stand-off attack system.

    3. Sneak attack “out of the blue” without any warning never was seen as a real world concept. You would have five days or so too disperse your assets as best you can. Curtis Le May said so.

    4. One secret it is reputed that Pollard gave away was the patrol positions of American Ohio class SLBM submarines. Knowing those positions would greatly facilitate an attack by Soviet subs and destroy “one leg” of the triad.

  3. John Dougan says:

    “1. Snark activated and on-duty for ONE MONTH and then de-activated.”

    It was indeed a terrible system, but it was more like 3 years from first acceptance to decommissioning. The 702nd Wing was indeed only fully operational for a month but was at partial strength and capable of launching before then (not that they would have hit anything).

    “2. B-52 in the modern mode a stand-off attack system.”

    Yup. The ALCM and related missiles would be part of a stand-off system but incomplete for air-basing. The other part though would be reviving Chrome Dome and the other continuous aerial patrol plans, and in those it would be expensive to have a significant part of the nuclear deterrent in the air at all times.

    “3. Sneak attack “out of the blue” without any warning never was seen as a real world concept. You would have five days or so too disperse your assets as best you can. Curtis Le May said so.”

    And LeMay was an authority of the inner thoughts of the Soviet leadership? Defence planners generally work on the possible, not just the probable. A sneak attack was seen as possible, especially given our lack of knowledge of the actual state of Soviet nuclear systems then.

    As a more general principle you have to consider extreme scenarios in planning as they often push on your assumptions and reveal weaknesses that can be exploited elsewhere.

    “4. One secret it is reputed that Pollard gave away was the patrol positions of American Ohio class SLBM submarines. Knowing those positions would greatly facilitate an attack by Soviet subs and destroy “one leg” of the triad.”

    To which the answer was to improve the targeting systems so you can accurately hit a target with low CEP with a boomer anywhere in the correct hemisphere. You then give the boomer captains much more room to wander in and quiet attack subs to keep an ear on them. This is less of an issue now, but then the SLBMs were generally targetted on the softer targets like cities where being only close was just as “good” (countervalue). This was justification for the land based missiles which were sufficiently accurate to be used in a counterforce role. And if they weren’t accurate, you made them bigger, whjch was harder to do with SLBM warheads.

  4. John Dougan says:

    One thing the excerpts our host posted above don’t make clear is that the “goofy sounding scheme” is the dense pack basing plan for the MX/Peacekeeper.

  5. Alistair says:


    Pack basing = shielded by enemy fratricide?

  6. Kirk says:

    Alistair, as I remember it, yes…

  7. John Dougan says:

    And rereading the next day, my response to Adar’s item 2 didn’t say what I wanted it to say.

    ALCMs and such are replacements for flying manned bombers all the way to the targets, not for replacing ICBMs. Cruise missiles, like bombers, take a relatively long time to reach the target and are not too hard to shoot down. What they are “best” for is peeling away the outer layers of air defense.

    What Dr. Pournelle was discussing was the possibility of moving the ICBM part of the deterrent into mobile launch platforms so as to make them hard to locate and destroy. Lots of plans have been discussed over the years, either moving them around like a shell game (air-mobile) or actually making it possible to launch in the air (air-launched). This would be different than cruise missiles in that they would fly ballistic paths like ICBMs and SLBMs, making them much harder to intercept and capable of carrying larger warheads.

    THAT is what would have cost 150 Billion USD back in the 60s, when that was real money. For air-mobile you would have to design and build suitable transport aircraft in sufficient numbers to keep a large fraction of the deterrent shuffling around at all times and be able to launch when landed. You’d probably want to give it rough field capability (they couldn’t nuke every flat field in North America), which jacks the cost up more. If you want to air launch, add more zeros to the bill. The transports would have to be able to launch an ICBM/SLBM equivalent in the air, with a reasonable chance of the crew and aircraft surviving. SAC crews were willing to fly suicide missions, but it works better if you have clearly tried to make it survivable. And if you go that way you have just committed yourself to flying lots of aircraft all the time carrying missiles and the various issues that can cause (check the history of SAC airborne alerts accidents and they were flying a small fraction of the missions these schemes would). And then there are the targeting issues.

    Had the Cold War gone in a different direction it might have been worth it. Fortunately we didn’t have to go that far.

  8. Kirk says:

    To a degree, I think that the Cold War was a fever dream, one that could only have happened in that particular moment of human history. I doubt that anyone is going to be stupid enough to get into that mode of binary either-or bullshit again, but I could be wrong.

    No matter how nuts it gets, I don’t think that we’re going to hit that degree of opposition again for quite awhile–And, to some degree, I now rather wonder if it was as “real” as many of us thought it was. What damn sense does it make to “take over the world”, when the next step is “Run it, dumbass…”? Sure, there were totalitarians like Stalin that it appealed to, but the thing was, once he was dead, the mass of the Soviet Communist Party was more concerned with getting a car and a dacha out in the country to drive to than they were with lording it over the peasants of South America. The truth is, you can only extract so much pleasure out of being “The Man”, and then it’s just a huge pain in the ass, and more trouble than it’s worth. I met an East German who’d come to the US after the wall came down, and you should have heard him bitch about trying to keep things running in various African assignments. After a tour with the guys who were opposing the South Africans in Namibia, his attitudes towards Africans and Communists were not too far removed from what you might expect out of your typical KKK member. As he put it, it took them two years, but his illusions about the “brotherhood of man/the working class” were totally shattered. He had nothing good to say about the experience, and if you’d have asked him, he’d have given the whole place over to the Boers and helped them load the helicopters to do what the Argentines did to their “urban guerrillas”.

  9. John Dougan says:

    I now rather wonder if it was as “real” as many of us thought it was. What damn sense does it make to “take over the world”, when the next step is “Run it, dumbass…”?

    Well…yes. That was the plan the Soviets had. Take over the world (which was inevitable in the original Marxist formulation, once the correct conditions had been achieved) and run it “by and for the workers”. Lenin in particular was completely oblivious to the difficulties involved in administration though to be fair Marx/Engels didn’t really cover it either.

    The problem is the Communists were and are a millenarian cult, especially in the original “World Revolution” variant. Once the Communists had a country this scared the crap out of the western capitalist nations and leadership. This was actually *tempered* by Stalin, who’s major theoretical innovation was “Socialism in One Country” which permitted them to not immediately go out and attempt to overthrow other territories (and possibly lose) when the World Revolution approach failed. But they all believed that it had to grow eventually or be killed by the capitalists.

    Many of the Soviets, particularly in the upper echelons, really did believe in the Marxist/Leninist project right up to the end. They understood there were problems but not the essential intellectual bankruptcy of the ideology. At the top they didn’t see the details very well…and for them the system often appeared to be working. They had the dacha and the comfortable clothes, surely the workers could see their stressful and responsible positions made it necessary to have a few luxuries, etc. If that wasn’t enough, the secret police and its network of informers make it more likely that they wouldn’t examine the situation too closely or talk about it.

    It reminds me a bit of the theory of the hydraulic empires, rotting from the inside but still standing until external factors push them over.

  10. John Dougan says:

    Successful air launch ICBM feasibility test in 1974:

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