An Untaken Road

An Untaken Road

Strategy, Technology, and the Hidden History of America’s Mobile ICBMs

Steven A. Pomeroy

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2016, 304 pages

Book Review published on: July 7, 2017

Steven A. Pomeroy, the author of An Untaken Road: Strategy, Technology, and the Hidden History of America’s Mobile ICBMs, begins his book by admitting that his boyhood Lionel train set with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch train car made it to an “operational status,” even if mobile ICBMs never did. Pomeroy narrates the history of the various methods the U.S. Air Force consider in the development of a mobile ICBM. The book is an excellent read for those interested in the history of the early days of ICBM development. There are chapters devoted to the development of technology and to the pioneers who made U.S. ICBMs a reality. But even though the early developmental history is well written, it is not the main thrust of the book.

The centerpiece of the book is the development of the uses for familiar transportation methods that the Air Force considered to apply mobility, almost as an afterthought, to its developing ICBM force. Some methods feel reasonable, some much less so. Pomeroy devotes an entire chapter to the development of a rail-based mobile Minuteman missile launcher. Though technically feasible, it was never fully developed. Other interesting ideas discussed include the use of U.S. roadways to allow truck-borne missiles to be driven around the country (not many bridges could support the weight nor could the missiles pass easily under some bridges). There were also plans made for trenches (a type of subway) to carry missiles underground, making them invisible until launch. As an extension of these ideas, the MX Peacekeeper missile was proposed to become mobile by building a multiple protective shelter where the missiles would be circulated between 4,600 shelters covering 15,000 square miles (just a bit larger than the total surface area of Maryland).

Along with the familiar transportation methods, there were also some more eccentric proposals for mobility. The Air Force gave serious consideration to dropping ICBMs out the back of airplanes, and actually made and dropped some concrete missiles to see how it would go. The idea for an air-launched ballistic missile would reappear and be dismissed multiple times. Another odd proposal was to put an ICBM on the back of an air-cushioned transporter and drive them around off roads and an in constant motion until launch was required. The air-cushioned vehicle was envisioned to travel at 90 knots (104 mph) carrying a 70,000-pound missile with a nuclear warhead. Maybe the oddest idea was to build a floating containerized missile that would be dragged like a barge on a man-made canal with 350 prebuilt launching pools for the missile to sink down into for launch.

In the end, the mobile ICBM concept was never completed. Pomeroy sums it up with three major reasons for the eventual failure to produce a mobile ICBM. First, the Navy was able to beat the Air Force to mobility with the early success of the Polaris submarine-launched missile program. The Nation already had a mobile, survivable, second strike capable system. Second, the clear success of the relatively cheap, fixed location Minuteman ICBM was adequate until Soviet missiles improved significantly. Finally, there was limited public and political support due to a complex mixture of costs, environmental impacts, land use, lack of clear specificity on what was really needed, and uncertainty on the actual level of vulnerability of fixed ICBMs.

Book Review written by: Harold A. Laurence, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas