United States Retires MX Missile

Wade Boese

On Sept. 19, the United States retired the most powerful and, arguably, the most controversial ICBM in the U.S. arsenal, the MX, after nearly two decades of service. But the missile’s various components could see a return to duty as the Pentagon contemplates its future missile options and missions.

Commemorating the system’s retirement, the last piece of the final 10-warhead MX was trucked away from the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. Since the United States began fielding the MX in 1986, a 32,600-square-kilometer missile complex there has served as home for all 50 deployed MX missiles, also known as Peacekeepers.

Administration and military officials at a retirement ceremony touted the MX as playing a crucial role in helping end the Cold War. Moreover, Undersecretary of the Air Force Ronald Sega said, “Along with the rest of the nuclear triad, the Peacekeeper was a great stabilizing force in an increasingly unstable world.”

But Ambassador Jack Matlock, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s envoy to Moscow, offered a different view of the MX’s legacy in a Sept. 21 interview with Arms Control Today. He assessed the MX as playing “a very small part” in ending the Cold War and said there were a great many factors that contributed to the conflict’s conclusion. Most notable, he said, was the emergence of a new generation of Soviet leaders, led by President Mikhail Gorbachev, who shared Reagan’s desire to end the nuclear arms race. For Reagan, the MX was a “negotiating chip,” Matlock said.

The dismantled rocket fuel and guidance stages of the 21-meter-tall MX missiles will be stored at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah. Missile components “will be reallocated as needed to support other space and missile missions,” Staff Sergeant Kurt Arkenberg, a spokesperson for Air Force Space Command’s 90th Space Wing, told Arms Control Today Sept. 20. The 90th Space Wing operated and maintained the MX, in addition to 150 of the 500 currently deployed Minuteman III missiles.

Arkenberg said the silos and launch control centers for the MX will be maintained in a “caretaker” status to permit them to be used again. The missileers who manned the launch control centers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year will be transferred to watching over earlier-generation Minuteman III missiles or reassigned to other Air Force space and missile missions.

The Department of Energy will assume control of the MX missile’s W87 warheads, which have a 300-kiloton yield. This yield is 20 times stronger than that of the bomb used to destroy Hiroshima.

Bryan Wilkes, a spokesperson for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, told Arms Control Today Sept. 21 that “the plan is to now have the W87 warhead take the place of the W62 and be carried on the Minuteman III missile.” The Minuteman III is the sole remaining ICBM in the U.S. arsenal, and it will begin reaching the end of its service life in 2018.

Air Force Space Command completed a study this summer on possible successors to the Minuteman III. Captain Joe Macri, a spokesperson for the space command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, told Arms Control Today Sept. 20 that the results of the study are classified and will be reviewed in October by the Air Force Requirement for Operational Capabilities Council. If approved, the study’s findings will then be passed along for evaluation by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, which is an advisory body to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that assesses arms acquisition programs.

Macri also said Air Force Space Command will embark in October on a one-year study exploring a “prompt global strike” capability. This concept includes potentially arming ICBMs with conventional warheads. A task force of the Defense Science Board, an independent advisory body to the secretary of defense, recommended in February 2004 that MX missiles could serve this function.

The MX, which stands for missile experimental, outlasted by nearly 15 years the superpower foe it was designed to hold at risk. Air Force officials conceived of the MX in the 1970s to offset the Soviet Union’s growing arsenal of multiple-warhead missiles. They argued that the Kremlin might employ these missiles in a first strike that could wipe out U.S. silo-based missiles.

To avoid this possibility, early MX plans called for deploying the missile on some type of mobile transporter to make a more difficult target for Moscow to hit. President Jimmy Carter approved the development and deployment of a mobile MX in 1979.

The mobile-basing plan, however, ignited a public outcry in the western United States, which opposed the environmental impact and high cost of the proposal, as well as the prospect of becoming a more attractive target for Soviet nuclear planners. After a series of bruising political fights, the Reagan administration stationed the MX in preexisting Minuteman silos. Initial plans called for 200 MX missiles, but Congress capped the total at 50 silo-based systems.

President George H. W. Bush retained the notion of deploying additional MX missiles in a mobile mode but cancelled the program in September 1991 as the Cold War wound down. He later committed to eliminating the Peacekeeper force by 2003 as part of the January 1993 START II agreement signed with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

The accord got caught up in domestic and U.S.-Russian quarrels over U.S. missile defense plans, and it never entered into force. Moscow declared START II dead following the United States’ June 2002 withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty banning nationwide defenses. (See ACT, July/August 2002.) Nonetheless, U.S. military and political leaders continued to support scrapping the missile because they no longer saw a need for it.

By that time, Moscow and Washington also had completed a nuclear reduction agreement that essentially superseded START II. The May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) obligates the United States and Russia to reduce their operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to less than 2,200 apiece by Dec. 31, 2012. (See ACT, June 2002.)

SORT, however, lacks START II’s prohibition of multiple-warhead missiles, so Russia is retaining some of these older systems instead of replacing them with new single-warhead missiles. Still, Russian press reports said in August that Moscow had completed its plan to shelve its 10-warhead, rail-based SS-24 ICBM. U.S. government officials were unable to confirm these reports.

The Bush administration detailed in a May report what it envisions the U.S. strategic nuclear force will look like in 2012 without the MX. In addition to retaining all 500 Minuteman III missiles, the United States will field 14 Trident submarines, 21 B-2 bombers, and 76 B-52H bombers for delivering nuclear warheads.