Tags: Missile | Retirement: | Part | Complex | Shell | Game

MX Missile Retirement: Part of a Complex Shell Game

Friday, 15 February 2002 12:00 AM

Decades later, as the venerable Peacekeepers face a slow but inexorable retirement, experts have given the world’s most powerful and complex ICBM (ten, individually targeting W-87 warheads each) high marks, demonstrating that Reagan was right on target.

More than even the original "Star Wars” missile shield, America’s deployment of the MX missile was credited by many with accelerating the collapse of the Soviet Union, which acknowledged that it could not afford to stand toe-to-toe with the Pentagon’s technological superiority.

Even now in its twilight, the MX serves.

The planned retirement of the nation’s inventory of 50 of the giant weapons has become part of the White House’s assuagement of Russia as the U.S. breaches the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty by developing its "Son of Star Wars” missile defense.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin pledged he would dismantle all of Russia's giant SS-18 ICBMs in exchange for the MX retirement.

According to the Washington Post, the Air Force plans to stretch out the dismantlement the missiles until 2007, taking one missile at a time from its silo. All operational MX missiles are housed at F. E. Warren AFB in Wyoming. Two of the 16 missiles slated for deactivation this year were "destroyed” in January.

But even in death the ever-useful Peacekeeper will have life.

The 10 highly accurate and nuclear-hardened warheads from each missile are to be packed off to the Pantex plant in Texas for storage, there to join an ever-growing strategic reserve.

Under U.S. policy, an MX counts as "destroyed” if the top stage is dismantled. The U.S. reserves the right to use the rest of the missile as a launch vehicle for "satellites or other things.” This policy has long been a bone of contention with the Russians that maintain the entire missile must be destroyed.

And therein the "shell game,” officially referred to as the "hedge” policy, which would allow the United States to quickly ramp up its nuclear forces back to Cold-War levels.

Like the MX warheads, most weapons removed from active status under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treat [START I, II] go right to the inactive stockpile to meet the "lead and hedge” requirements contained in the administration’s Nuclear Policy Review.

The inactive stockpile was created in early 1990 to provide extra warheads for reconstitution of part of the force, ostensibly in case arms control expectations failed to materialize.

Consequently, although only about 5 percent of the total stockpile was in the inactive category before START I, under START II the inactive stockpile could increase to 50 percent or more.

And if that is not enough life after death for the MX, according to defense expert William Arkin, a program is under way to extend the service life of the missile’s W87 warhead by 40 years -- possibly for use on the Navy’s Trident II missiles.

As the MX is brought off line, the nation’s ICBM clout will fall to the arsenal of 500 Minuteman IIIs, currently the subject of an expensive rehabilitation program ($4.5-billion) to replace guidance and propulsion systems aboard the 1960s vintage missiles. According to the experts, the refurbishment will keep the missiles in operational order until 2020.

However, said Arkin, the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles being upgraded program are less accurate and have a shorter range than the ones they replace.

These shortcomings explain why the Air Force is contemplating the development and eventual deployment of an all-new Minuteman IV ICBM. Work on the state-of-the art ICBM could begin as early as 2004, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Franklin J. Blaisdell recently.

The shell game has made more than the Russians uneasy.

Although most applaud the Bush administration’s decision to drop the strategic deployed arsenal from 6,000 to about 1,700 to 2,200, critics suggest that the force levels at the end of the decade will be virtually the same as those agreed to by President William Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in 1997.

Furthermore, because of the inactive stockpile, critics also see the U.S. cutbacks as only paper reductions, rapidly reversible with the re-fitting of missiles with the reserve warheads.

Administration officials say they must take into account multiple potential opponents over the next decade. U.S. intelligence projections, however, are that the usual suspects may have amassed fewer than 200 nuclear weapons over the next decade.

When President Bill Clinton wanted to start dismantling some of the 50 ICBMs before the Russian ratification of START II, Congress passed a bill prohibiting reductions in the missile force until ratification was accomplished.

When the Bush administration announced its desire to dismantle the missiles, the House exempted the 50 MX missiles from the prohibition, and the Senate eliminated the restriction altogether.

Subsequently, the Bush administration requested $5.1 million in its fiscal 2002 defense for the MX system. The Senate added $12.2 million to cover phase one of dismantling the missiles.

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Decades later, as the venerable Peacekeepers face a slow but inexorable retirement, experts have given the world's most powerful and complex ICBM (ten, individually targeting W-87 warheads each) high marks, demonstrating that Reagan was right on target. More than even...
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2002-00-15
Friday, 15 February 2002 12:00 AM
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