Tag Archives: ICBMs

A brief history of the nuclear defence triad

Link here.

The essay is a fascinating look at the origins in the 1950s of the U.S.’s defense triad of ground-launched ICBMs, submarine-launched ICBMS, and bombers. The section on the history of ICBMs describes nicely the roots of the Atlas 5 rocket as well as many of the federal government’s contracting policies for its big government projects like SLS.

You can’t just call up a new weapons system from nothing by sheer will alone. As [Thomas Hughes, in his history of Project Atlas] explains, there were severe doubts about how one might organize such a work. The first instinct of the military was to just order it up the way they would order up a new plane model. But the amount of revolutionary work was too great, and the scientists and advisors running the effort really feared that if you went to a big airplane company like Convair and said, “make me a rocket,” the odds that they’d actually be able to make it work were low. They also didn’t want to assign it to some new laboratory run by the government, which they felt would be unlikely to be able to handle the large-scale production issues. Instead, they sought a different approach: contract out individual “systems” of the missile (guidance, fuel, etc.), and have an overall contractor manage all of the systems. This took some serious effort to get the DOD and Air Force to accept, but in the end they went with it. [emphasis mine]

Sounds remarkable like the way the SLS rocket program is organized, with different contractors building different engines and stages and one contractor (Boeing) acting as top manager. More interestingly, the way the military used to do things — put out a request and let the private sector build it — is similar to the way NASA is doing things in today’s commercial cargo/manned program. What forced the transition from having the private sector design things to having the government entirely in charge? I have highlighted the key phrase, “the scientists and advisors running the effort.” They might have been sincere and they might even have been right, at the time, but nonetheless their approach was still a power grab, taking control of design and construction from the private sector and shifting it to them and the government entities building the rockets.

When construction actually started, the government ended up with six different rocket programs, Redstone, Atlas, Thor, Titan, Polaris, and Minuteman.

The redundancy was a hedge: the goal was to pick the top two of the programs and cancel the rest. Instead, Sputnik happened. In the resulting political environment, Eisenhower felt he had to put into production and deployment all six of them — even though some were demonstrably not as technically sound as others (Thor and Polaris, in their first incarnations, were fraught with major technical problems). This feeling that he was pushed by the times (and by Congress, and the services, and so on) towards an increasingly foolish level of weapons production is part of what is reflected in Eisenhower’s famous 1961 warning about the powerful force of the “military-industrial complex.”

Once again, this history illustrates the power grab that took place in Washington in the 1950s, something that Eisenhower did not like. Sixty years later, the rocket industry is struggling to transition back to the old way of doing things, because it actually works better. Before the 1950s, our innovative, competitive, and fast moving technological private sector made the United States an unbeatable powerhouse. Afterward, we increasingly lost the ability to innovate and compete, because the system created by these scientists and advisors did not encourage competition. Instead, they instituted a top-down centralized command approach, ironically quite similar to the Soviet model, the very philosophy the United States was opposing during the Cold War.

The failures of that top-down approach — illustrated starkly by SLS’s gigantic budget, interminable delays, and little produced — might finally be coming home to roost, allowing a new power grab by a competitive private sector. The change I think will be generally beneficial, not only to the needs of the federal government but to the needs of the general population, as it will generate a lot more wealth, a lot more innovation, and a lot more excitement, as it once again makes the U.S. a powerhouse, this time out among the planets.

The commerical battle over U.S. surplus ICBM’s

Link here. The article provides a good summary of the conflict between Orbital ATK and Virgin Galactic over the Defense Department’s possible sale of surplus ICBM’s for commercial use.

While Orbital has been lobbying to get Congress to lift the ban on the Pentagon selling its surplus rockets to the private sector, Virgin Galactic has been harnessing the industry lobbying arm to convince Congress to keep the ban. They fear that if the missiles become available, their as yet unflown LauncherOne will not be able to compete.

I find it very revealing that Virgin Galactic wants to use regulation to hinder their competitors. To me, this is another sign that they are not very competitive or competent in actual rocket building. Rather than build and launch their rocket at a competitive price, they want to stifle an opportunity to lower launch costs.

A hearing on this issue is taking place today. Stay tuned.

North Korea can launch nuclear bombs

Peace in our time! South Korean intelligence experts have concluded that North Korea now has both the rocket and miniaturized nuclear warhead capable of hitting Russian, China, Japan, and all of South Korea.

“We believe they have accomplished miniaturization of a nuclear warhead to mount it on a Rodong missile,” said the South Korean official, who has knowledge of South Korea’s assessment of the North’s nuclear program. The official spoke to a small group of reporters on condition of anonymity… The Rodong missile can fire a 1 tonne (1,100 lb) warhead a distance of up to 2,000 km (1,250 miles), the official said. That would put all of South Korea, most of Japan and parts of Russia and China in range.

But don’t worry. President Obama has eased tensions worldwide by his speech-making abilities!

Using ICBMs to lower launch costs

The competition heats up: Orbital ATK is lobbying Congress to lift a ban on the use of decommissioned ICBM missiles for commercial launches.

Orbital ATK is pressing U.S. lawmakers to end a 20-year ban on using decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) for launching commercial satellites and the effort has raised concern among companies that have invested millions of dollars in potential rival rockets. Orbital Vice President Barron Beneski said in an interview on Friday that the company was pushing Washington to get the ban lifted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act that sets defense policy for fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1. The missiles were idled by nuclear disarmament treaties between the United States and Russia in the 1990s.

The company wants to use the solid rocket motors in the surplus missiles to increase the capability of their Minotaur 4 rocket, designed for the small satellite market. Interestingly, Virgin Galactic, who is aiming for this same smallsat market with its LaunchOne rocket, is protesting, and has even garnered the lobbying support of the industry’s trade organization..

“It’s a dangerous precedent when the government tries to inject itself in the commercial marketplace. It can be disruptive, and not for the right reasons,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington DC-based trade organization, said in an interview on Thursday.

Orbital ATK is not asking for exclusive use, so other companies could also obtain surplus missiles for their own use. However, the ATK in Orbital ATK’s name comes from the half of the company that before the merger was an expert in using solid rockets for space. This gives Orbital an advantage here that the other companies do not have, and explains their protests.

Nonetheless, I say tough. The government should surplus these rockets, and let the competitive chips fall where they may. Anything that lowers the cost to put payloads in orbit cannot be a bad thing for the launch industry, as it will serve to increase the number of customers that industry will have and thus help to increase everyone’s sales figures.

North Korea announces planned satellite launch

North Korea today revealed plans to place a satellite in non-geosynchronous orbit sometime in the next two weeks.

News of the planned launch between Feb. 8 and Feb. 25 drew fresh U.S. calls for tougher U.N. sanctions already under discussion in response to North Korea’s nuclear test. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United Nations needed to “send the North Koreans a swift, firm message.”

Pyongyang has said it has a sovereign right to pursue a space programme by launching rockets, although the United States and other governments worry that such launches are missile tests in disguise.

It is horrifyingly hilarious to read the bluster put forth by Obama administration officials about this new North Korean effort to develop ICBMs that, as the article says, “could reach the U.S. West Coast.” Besides wanting to send “a swift, firm message,” they call the North Korean launch announcement a “slap in the face”, “another destabilizing provocation,” and “an egregious violation.” They then say they are working “cooperatively and effectively with the Chinese to counter this threat.”

It is laughable, but terrifying at the same time. North Korea, led by the worst kind of power-mad tyrant, is developing the ability to launch nuclear weapons to any place on Earth, and all our leaders can do is whine how mean they are.