Jeffrey LewisReturn of the Hard Mobile Launcher

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?”


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?


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.


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?


  1. Cthippo (History)

    I think someone is conflating “nice to have” and “technically feasible” with “realistic”. Road mobile ICBMs are of course both technically feasible and probably have survivability advantages, but aren’t realistic for all the reasons you outlined. There is something to be said for considering all options, even the really really bad ones.

    Maybe instead of HMLs they can just buy some Chinese WS51200 chassis and call it good enough.

    • John Schilling (History)

      I don’t even see these as nice to have. We’ve already got submarines. Whatever benefits you get from mobility, submarines give you to the maximum. Entire oceans to hide in. The stealthiest vehicles the human race has ever built. Nuclear power to let you play that shell game at thirty miles per hour for six months without pause. Oh, yeah – hardened to 350 psi, and heavily shielded against EMP and radiation.

      If there is still value to the Triad, it comes from each element deriving its survivability in a fundamentally different manner. Land-based ICBMs that can move over a smaller area at lower average speeds than SSBNs, while being more visible and less hard, are not worth having. ICBMs in 1000+ psi silos, under heavily security, with multiply redundant communications including buried landlines, and within the footprint of the national missile defense system, that might actually be a useful backup for Trident. And if need be, we can add terminal missile defenses, again a different-in-kind survivability enhancement.

      Leave the road-mobile ICBMs for the people who can’t manage SSBN deterrence patrols. Might actually make sense for them.

    • JP (History)

      “Land-based ICBMs that can move over a smaller area at lower average speeds than SSBNs, while being more visible and less hard, are not worth having.”

      China and Russia don’t seem to think so.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Or, perhaps they do … which is why they keep spending to develop a second-rate SSBN/SLBM option. That, or their respective Navies just feel left out.

  2. krepon (History)

    You are on fire.

  3. Johnboy (History)

    The USAF already has a mobile launch platform for nukes.

    It’s called “the strategic bomber”.

    • JFC Fuller (History)

      And they are well known for being cost-effective, easy to develop and having a high survivability rate against peer rival air defences.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)
    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yes, I linked to that in the post. But what became of the prototype?

  5. George William Herbert (History)

    Just as a point – 200,000 lb is not that much. There are far bigger earthmovers out there, the usual main battle tank in the west now is 60 metric tons plus (135,000 lb or so), there were multi-hundred-ton tanks in German experimental service at the end of WW II.

    We can build very large, mobile machines. Bridges are fundamentally affordable if you need a moderate number of them. But the whole problem of mobile small ICBM is a lot bigger than the practicality of the truck chassis…

    • Lalaland (History)

      Germany planned several tanks in the >100 ton range but built no complete models. The Russians cobbled together one from a V2 turret and V1 hull, the mobility costs of heavy tanks were never worth it. Post-War all armies ditched the Medium/Heavy mix concept and instead went for the MBT concept instead. The M1 Abrams gets severe criticism for the mobility cost of it’s 70+ ton weight and despite that weight it has suffered quite a few combat losses in Iraq. It seems that the sweet spot for tank design is the 60 ton range and very few nations have gone for heavier (the US is an outlier in this respect).

      Given that a good proportion of US highway bridges are already badly under maintained can you imagine the ancillary costs? If you only upgrade a proportion of road bridges you’ve told the enemy where you’ll be. A bridge capable of supporting 90 metric tons is a very different thing from a typical road bridge which is designed for vehicles not exceeding ~37 metric tons (80,0000lbs). Of course the federal vehicle weight limits are so the bridge can have more than one vehicle on it without buckling but if you have to restrict bridge traffic to allow a HML to pass then again you’ve told the enemy where you are.

      A 200,000lb vehicle ow on earth did this get past the drawing board? Of course the answer is the cash tsunami that was unleashed by DoD that also brought such disasters as the Sergeant York

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The Germans completed at least two and nearly three Maus (188 tons), were close enough on the E.100 (140 tons) to have the completed chassis taken to England for field trials after it was captured. They were contemplating far larger vehicles.

      Road bridges can often handle moving a well-distributed single point load across by itself. Rail bridges are designed for 263,000 lb cars, 286,000 lb cars, and in some cases 315,000 lb cars. Loads bigger than that can be handled by putting a multi-car intermediate chassis in and spreading the load out more that way, up to 2x that limit without too much effort and more than that with great effort.

      The whole “bridges” problem is somewhat exaggerated; the question isn’t “what portion of US transport infrastructure can carry this loaded truck” but “how big an operational dispersion area can we build with this truck?”. Very different propositions. Large desert areas have no washes you need to bridge; if you include washes and rivers you’d need to bridge or ford, you can extend much further with limited numbers of bridges or fords. Bridges are target points in that scenario, but fords are cheap, and most of the year in the desert are entirely safe to use. That a few days a year, each vehicle independently is limited to the ford-less operating area it’s currently stuck in when the rains come is not particularly enough of a vulnerability window to affect system utility.

      It’s still probably a mistake, because it’s still a lot harder to make it work compared to superhard silos, point defended silos, shell-game silos, etc. Mobile missiles make for a huge security problem, and a whole lot of ICBMs being bounced around in road transit over time, which eventually gets to any machinery (much less solid rocket motors, nuclear components, etc). You need a security force, a silos worth of hardware in the truck, everything much more robust, etc.

  6. P Tilley (History)

    Personally I think we should just skip these sad little bantam weights and get on with designing the heavy weights,sort of along the lines of this but with 20 or 30 icbms,hell you could even make it nuclear powered

    • Steve (History)

      Wow, that is almost as heavily armed as the people who ride Amtrak today.

  7. JFC Fuller (History)

    I always liked the SICBM/HML combination, sure it was expensive but generally speaking superpower peer rival arms races are and lets not forget that the 80s defence programme absorbed a far smaller amount of national wealth than did the one that created Minuteman.

    The combination of rail mobile Peacemakers, silo based Peacemakers and SICBM/HMLs in conjunction with 24 hoped for Trident equipped Ohio class SSBNs would have made for the most invulnerable deterrence force yet conceived. There is no doubt that the HMLs would have been next to impossible to target effectively. Combined with BMD it would have been checkmate.

  8. Jeffrey (History)

    A colleague and I were having a discussion, in which he asked why oppose simply “considering” the option for land-mobile missiles, making a sort of due diligence argument.

    That’s a reasonable enough question, but I have a specific concern. Air Force officials seem to be rather quickly embracing the idea of land-mobility without considering the costs.

    My concern is that the USAF might well go down a path in which funds are spent to develop a land-mobile ICBM, effectively defunding both Minuteman and the ALCM follow-on, only to have the land-mobile program collapse under budgetary pressure as well, leaving us with a strategic monad based on the SSBN.

    I absolutely believe that “blue sky thinking” — which the RFI explicitly encourages — leads to the sort of budgetary mismanagement that results in less overall capability.

    (An aside: One of my least favorite aspects of the American approach to creative work is the emphasis on everyone’s voice being heard and allowing people to express ideas free of criticism. Oh, bullshit. I’ve always seen constraint as the well-spring of creativity, not the other way around. Maybe that’s why I appreciated the Dogme 95 effort, as well as later The Five Obstructions. Jonah Lehrer, by the way, had an interesting little piece on brainstorming in the New Yorker, although like much of the writing in the New Yorker it is vulnerable to the “Igon Value” objection.)

    So, I do see a cost to “considering” ideas that ought to be dismissed. Without constraints, parochial interests and wishful thinking can lead organizations to make suboptimal decisions that are ultimately not in their own interest. I look at the collapse in our space acquisition process, where we can’t even rebuild existing capabilities and fear that is where the deterrent is headed.

    We can’t afford to rebuild our current nuclear force. If we try, we’re likely to end up with even smaller force that has little or no strategic rationale. I am open to considering — that word again — an SSBN-only force, but it is a big enough change that I am uncomfortable seeking it through poor policy-making or what one colleague called “nuclear limbo.” I still want to know what benefits the US would gain from eliminating the land-based ICBMs or nuclear-capable bombers.

    • Andy (History)

      The Air Force is going to face significant budgetary pressures and those pressures along with a decade of procurement failures (F-22, F-35, CSAR-X, KC-X, etc.) will force some difficult procurement choices over the next decade. F-35 costs, in particular, are exploding and allies are considering alternatives which will further drive up costs for the US. Given the choice between new fighters to replace aging airframes or a new mobile ICBM system, I think it’s highly unlikely the Air Force would opt for the missiles. And then there is Congress….

  9. Davey (History)

    Good points!

    You’re right about the impracticality of highway transportation. That’s why the MX was going to ride the little amusement-park train around F.E. Warren… Until they got put in silos.

    I live in Wyoming and had the experience of overtaking a convoy on I-25, north of Cheyenne. Fully crewed Humvees and air support were some of the obvious signs that a truck was transporting something unusual. It’s not exactly a cloak & dagger operation.

    It would be even less politically palatable to have a mobile basing go under cover. Every 4-lane highway in Wyoming is already used by NNSA to transport cargo. There would be push-back against additional weapons on the road.

    I *am* assuming that mobile basing would be again centered around Cheyenne. Every other state has a bigger population than Wyoming and will be more successful in opposing it.

  10. jimbob (History)

    Hopefully they come up with a much better design than the HML,it looks like a cross between a wheeled apc and an 18 wheeler truck trailer,by comparison the latest dprk tel looks a masterpiece of compact design.I always thought the russians had it spot on when they went for a road mobile lightweight topol,and a rail mobile heavyweight scalpel.Subs are probably the best in terms of concealment but at one-two billion a pop and the fact that you need a minimum of 4 in order to have year round coverage makes this option hugely expensive even for those with the money and technology,now for the us with its existing massive nuclear triad mobile launchers seem totally unnecessary but for nations like the uk or france who are relying on a handful of missile subs backed up by limited air power projection deploying short range weapons or perhaps like china or india who are still developing/modernising their nuclear capabilities then mobile launchers make a lot of economic and military sense

  11. Gridlock (History)

    I hope they haven’t ruled out moon silos… Why stop at land-mobile?

  12. NancyL (History)

    Decoy trucks could be somewhat cheaper, but there first have to be real ones.

  13. anon (History)

    Ah, such memories. When we were contemplating a road-mobile ICBM, we were running computer models to see how many warheads the Soviets would have to use to barrage the area where the HMLs might be located, to create the overpressure, within the entire area, needed to crush the launchers. If you think silo based ICBMs are a warhead sink, at 2 warheads per silo, you should have seen these sponges! But that was the point, the warhead cost to attack the whole area would have been so high that the SU would have been deterred from launching an attack! We weren’t going mobile to enhance survivability, the SSBNs had that covered. We were going mobile to raise the cost of an attack on land-based systems (as the low cost of such an attack had been identified and called “the window of vulnerability.)

    This was what I worked on during my first job in the D.C. area. Seems like a lifetime ago….

  14. David Clark (History)

    The “warhead sponge” has always made me a bit uneasy. It certainly works as a deterrence-enhancing conceptual move, but there’s a real drawback. We’re essentially saying that our defensive strategy is that we will force the enemy to use a great many warheads, in a groundburst mode, upwind of our capital, our industry and our main population centers.

    It’s another example, I guess, of the unavoidable pathologies and paradoxes of planning for such a war.

  15. cory (History)


  16. JohnLopresti (History)

    Perhaps there are perceivable still nascent breakthrough seasonde/satellite technologies which now are impelling the usaf into returning to a contemplation of evasion by scrabbling over terrain.

    Also, there are new experimental terrestrial robotic guidance technologies for autos, ?why not control the TEL from the NOC same as aerial drones…

    Beyond costwise: Maybe the sort of rupestrian routes about which Karcher has written could become part of a US web of slot car tracks for US TELs, tunnels that are paved, have rail, or even offering magnetic hovercraft technology for lessening TER payload wear from vibration.

    Likely as unrealistic: given the appearance in recent years of new modes of petrochemical mining in arid lands in the west, there may be potentially dual purpose, sharable routes which were developed during mining.

  17. jeannick (History)

    Nothing much wrong with the mobile missile concept
    until Pentagon issued specs come along ,
    contractors can write their checks for re-inventing the dodo
    usual stuff , the U.S.develop a space gravity free capable ball pen , the Russians use a pencil

    the mobile perimeter maybe could be sold to the Greenies as some natural reserve :-))

  18. Don (History)

    When I was in high school in the early 80’s, I did a term paper on ways to make our nuclear detterent more survivable to a Soviet First Strike. Yes it was a little weird for a high school term paper.

    But I remember the conclusion.

    The cheapest, most effective alternative, of all the ones being discussed at the time was a fleet of small diesel electric submarines to duplicate the things the nuclear fleet was doing, just closer to home and more of them.

    With GPS, submarine launched warheads went from a 1/2 mile accuracy to 90 feet target dead center accuracy. Prior to the Trident missile, submarines were a retaliatory weapon rather than a first strike weapon.

    The Land Based Mobile Concept was the Air Force’s alternative so that they could stay relevant. They controlled 2 legs of our nuclear triad basing system. They didn’t want to lose all the missiles to the Navy.

  19. mdc (History)

    I feel like you’re being very harsh on the concept here. Survivability is more important than warhead number, let alone warhead number per $ spent. Even with 1940s technology one can have a huge number of potentially deliverable warheads, and far cheaper than using modern methods. The problem is they all will be shot down. Missile accuracy has indeed improved to the point where siloes no longer provide reliable protection. In the long term they’re going to end up in the same box as prop plane bombers for anything except first strike, which the US isn’t exactly keen on morally or politically.

    The land mobile ‘miniature’ ICBM is the only way for land-based launch to stay in the game. Your final point about the superiority of SSBN is the only truly persuasive one, but that’s a political issue. The airforce or whoever won’t surrender complete control of nuclear delivery to the navy. Moreover, it is true that a reliable land-based capability complicates adversaries’ planning and dramatically increases the area they have to search and target to enact a first strike.

    I see it as pretty much inevitable that land mobility will happen. Possibly not now when there is no clear nuclear rival, but certainly in the medium term when China and India develop USSR-level capability.

  20. Anonamous Coward (History)

    Russia still seem to be rocking these things. I agree the US could probably do them cheaper if they were more practical and less high tech.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The problem is that cheaper versions would not offer anything distinct from even less expensive options to silo-base ICBMs or put them to sea.