Military-Grade Awesome, Spaceheads

Keeping the Peace

Years ago, when I was just a wannabe engineer, I got to work at Boeing Missiles and Space. My assignment? Work in Peacekeeper Missile systems engineering.

It was a great job for two summers. Basically, we had a conference call with the Air Force every morning to find out what problems they had, and then we fixed anything they weren’t able to fix in the field. What that really means is I had lots of time to build kickass spreadsheets for my fantasy hockey team.

I did learn a little bit about the Peacekeeper Missile. Officially the LGM-118, the Peacekeeper was originally designed to replace the Minuteman III. With up to 10 Mk 21 re-entry vehicles tipped with the W87 nuclear warhead yielding 300 kilotons, the MX Missile was authorized by President Reagan in 1983 even though it had been under development since 1972.

Mk 21 reentry vehicles being loaded for use on a Peacekeeper missile.

The Peacekeeper, in response to ever-increasing accuracy from Soviet ICBMs, has a theoretical accuracy of 120 meters and a range of about 9,500 km. In true government form, the actual accuracy and range were probably better than that. They lived in hardened silos, many of which were converted Titan II and Minuteman silos. Unlike the Minuteman, the Peacekeeper was “cold launched”. It’s main engine didn’t ignite until it was out of the silo. It was pushed out of the silo by high pressure steam and then accelerometers in the engine controls would light the first stage when its vertical acceleration began to fall off. This meant the silo could easily be reused, unlike Minuteman silos that would be toast after a launch.

Time exposure of 8 reentry vehicles striking the Kwajalein Atoll during a Peacekeeper test launch.

The military had big plans for the Peacekeeper. Some were supposed to go on rail cars where they could be launched from a train using the US rail system. Budget cuts scrapped that program. Originally, 100 missiles were to be deployed, but only 50 silos were ever activated.

Then the START II treaty was ratified. That treaty limited the capabilities of ICBMs for the US and Russia, and made the Peacekeeper obsolete. In a strange twist of fate, the Peacekeeper missile was outlived by the missile it was intended to replace. The Minuteman III lives on with a new guidance system as the prime nuclear deterrent system for the US.

The Peacekeeper signed its organ donor card, though, and will contribute to Orbital Science’s Minotaur IV satellite launching rocket, and other parts are supposed to go into the Ares rockets as part of the Constellation program. The warheads are being redeployed on the upgraded Minuteman III rockets.

For some, supporting a nuclear weapons program is an ethical no-no. However, the Peacekeeper and Minuteman missiles are part of a balance of power that, hopefully, prevents nuclear attack. They are a weapon system that is always on guard, but hopefully never used.

[Image Credit: Public Domain]