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Air Force eyes return of mobile nuclear missiles

Mid-80s “Midgetman” mobile missile launcher

Mid-80s “Midgetman” mobile missile launcher // U.S. Air Force

The Air Force has dusted off plans more than two decades old to place fixed nuclear missiles on rail cars or massive road vehicles to protect them from a surprise attack.

The service also wants to explore alternatives to traditional missiles to carry nuclear warheads, which could include hypersonic aircraft capable of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in an hour, said Phillip Coyle of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a former associate director for national security and international affairs in the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

On Monday, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., kicked off a study on modernizing or replacing its current fleet of Minuteman III nuclear missiles housed in underground silos in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. The work includes potential upgrades to the command and control system.

The center said it wants industry and academic help in analyzing the future of its Minuteman III nuclear missiles. The options include no upgrades, incremental fixes, new missiles stored in silos, and new mobile or tunnel-based systems.

In 1984, the Air Force began developing a small intercontinental ballistic missile called the “Midgetman,” which was carried on a massive, blast-resistant 200,000-lb. wheeled vehicle. The project was canceled in 1992 after the Cold War ended.

In the late 1980s, the Air Force also hatched a plan to place 50 missiles formerly stored in silos on rail cars deployed to seven states. This project was canceled in 1991 after the Air Force shifted funding to nuclear bombers.

In September 2011, the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported that China had developed a mobile missile system, the same month Russia indicated it planned to revive its rail car based missile program, which began in 1983 but was  scrapped in 2006.

Coyle said he was concerned that proliferation of mobile missile systems could lead to another arms race. “The Air Force will need to be careful that they don't stir up a hornets nest with proposals for mobile basing or advanced concepts other than the traditional booster and reentry vehicle. The former could cause Russia or China to redouble their efforts on mobile basing of ICBMs, set off a new kind of arms race, and weaken U.S. defenses,” Coyle said.

He added that if the Air Force decides to pursue hypersonic aircraft to deliver nuclear warheads, this could confuse nuclear armed countries such as Russia, which would not be able to determine if supersonic aircraft traveling at 4,000 miles per hour were carrying conventional or nuclear warheads, and potentially react with a nuclear strike.

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