An Untaken Road: Strategy, Technology, and the Hidden History of America's Mobile ICBMs

  • Published
An Untaken Road: Strategy, Technology, and the Hidden History of America’s Mobile ICBMs by Steven A. Pomeroy. Naval Institute Press, 2016, 304 pp.

The emerging field of Cold War history receives a new addition with An Untaken Road, an account of mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) in America. Steve Pomeroy, a history professor and former missileer himself, delves into one of least known areas of America’s nuclear weapons history as he explores the Air Force’s efforts to mobilize its ICBMs.

Pomeroy uses established historical theory of technological development to enlighten the reader as to how mobile ICBMs came about—and ultimately failed—in the context of the Cold War. Employing a modified version of historian Thomas Hughes’s five-phase model of technological innovation, he shows how each succeeding mobile missile program ultimately did not garner the momentum required to become operational. Putting his subject in the context of the evolving politics of the time, Pomeroy makes a convincing case for why there are no trains with ICBMs currently traveling the railroads of the West.

An Untaken Road follows the early development and limitations of ICBMs—limitations that made static basing difficult (never mind the idea of moving them around). From here the divergence is well documented regarding how static ICBMs became the weapon of choice, and various mobile options showed great promise but never achieved stability as programs. The author effectively uses his formal training as a historian to explain the shortcomings of rail-mobile, large-plane, superhard-shelter, and pool basing (even an underground tube-tunnel basing concept); he also documents why these approaches found sufficient favor to justify research but never enough to be deployed. Each proposal reached one of the stages of development but failed to proceed to the all-important final stage of stability—a status that would grant it funding and operational implementation.

The book facilitates a strong understanding of how military procurement works and thus influences today’s multi-billion-dollar projects. The paradigm that Pomeroy generates is one of coalescing crucial factors at the right time to breathe life into a program. Many of the systems he describes were prototyped and tested but always lacked a key element to make them viable. So often political support was present, but the technology was not—or the technology was mature, but the driving Air Force leadership necessary to deploy a system failed to emerge. The text makes a strong argument that if a system of systems is to work, an entirely separate military-industrial-political system must be functioning efficiently.

Although written as a history, this study offers a lesson to current procurement teams. Its underlying theme is stability, and thus it rightly shines a bright light on Gen Bernard Schriever, the man responsible for the ICBM force. His systems approach to problems and dual focus on disruptive and sustaining innovations set the standard—one that slowly relaxed after his retirement. By contrasting the successful development and deployment of three ground-based ICBM systems with the repeated failures of mobile systems, An Untaken Road puts a stark spotlight on the degrading quality of systems engineering in military procurements. Without question, this is a book for any member of a program office.

By learning from our history, so well documented by Professor Pomeroy, we as a nation and military-industrial complex can make better decisions. The procurements he describes were often larger than those for the fighter jets, satellites, and ships we purchase today, and they suffered from the same shifting political tides and needs of the Department of Defense—so the lessons remain pertinent. We would do well to apply the book’s paradigm of technological development and determine whether the big-ticket items we are buying today are still worth the cost. Too many times, historians admonish leaders for not learning the lessons of history and for repeating failures, but in this case the accusations are true. We can act on these lessons and apply them to things we do every day.

To make these arguments, the book uses open-source documentation on the political and public debates, as well as a wealth of newly declassified data, clearly showing why each proposal failed to gain the needed momentum. Pomeroy provides copious notes although most of the technical details of these wondrous projects are from primary sources available only in archives.

Regrettably, the text contains only a fraction of the presentation slides and available pictures of the considered options for mobile basing. One of the areas for future research could involve more indulgence in the technological aspects and a more detailed description of the massive ICBM carriers that never materialized. Some of the planes and tunnel-based ideas that Pomeroy describes deserve their own treatments, just to illustrate how bold and complex were the concepts that the Air Force seriously considered.

An Untaken Road establishes a solid foundation for the study of the service’s truncated ICBM efforts, a subject that deserves more recognition than it receives because of its failings. The proposals and programs described all came to nothing because of inherent issues with their ability to advance through the developmental phases needed to sustain a program. Today’s procurements are no different in terms of their cost and national security implications, making the book’s lessons learned critical to the decision making of any officer tasked with procuring a new system.

Daniel Schwabe
Whittier, California

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."