Nuclear Missile/ICBM Convoy/Transport

So there is a news story going around on the interwebs…

My question is simple and directed towards those who have worked for the military or DOE in the past (and don't mind risking it share their insight!):
  1. How do we know that a nuclear missile is in the truck?

  2. What is the primary method of transporting nuclear weapons domestically?

  3. Are nuclear missiles and warheads transported separately?

I’m assuming also that when transported they are not fueled?

Those articles are sloppy. There’s a difference between a “nuclear missile” and a “nuclear warhead”.

Plus, they act like a fender bender is going to set off a nuke. Aside from the fact that the things are designed to be launched from rockets, and aren’t sensitive like a truck full of nitroglycerine going over a mountain pass, when they haul them I’m sure they are totally safed. It probably doesn’t even have the physics package installed.

In answer to your queries:

  1. No one knows. The official policy is “we neither confirm nor deny” the presence of nuclear weapons.
  2. Speaking opinion, I think trucks. I think I saw one being shipped one day a while back. The USAF got a bit of notoriety recently for flying functional nukes on a combat plane across country.
    3)Yes. Solid fueled rockets are probably shipped ready to go (like shuttle boosters). Older liquid fueled missiles are fueled on site.

Remember, the risk isn’t the bomb going off so much as them getting stolen.

For linky=time fun here’s who in charge of this sort of thing. As for the convoy having something interesting on board, well a drill will look just like a genuine transport.

And you have to love the Internet: the cameraman claims they were telling him he couldn’t film the convoy’s passage. Well, since the officer’s vehicle didn’t stop or have its windows rolled down he may have been signalling the cameraman to not pull into traffic right then. Who knows?

US, not British practice: Note I’ve answered your Qs out of order to make things flow better.

  1. You don’t. Decoys and training missions look just like the real thing. And have the same flail in the event of an incident.

  2. Missiles could be ICBMs which are 80 feet long, weigh ~80K lbs, and travel on special trucks. These are fueled from the factory. Or they be could cruise missiles 15-ish feet long. Which are also fueled at the factory, but can be de- and re-fueled if needed. Warheads travel separately from ICBMs. That might or might not be true for cruise missiles.

  3. Warheads travel by aircraft from factory to base and from base to base. Cruise missiles live at bases and (since the end of GLCM) never have a reason to be off a base. ICBM warheads need to be transported from the base to the silo and there be installed on the missile. This is usually done via ground convoy. An ICBM warhead is about the size of a large human. The warhead in a cruise missile or gravity bomb is about the size of a cafeteria-style coffee urn.
    As noted above, accidental detonation is about worry #47 on the list. Theft of the warhead is the main worry, with damage to a very expensive and fairly rare national asset second. Bad PR in the event of an incident is also in there someplace close to the top.

  1. How do we know that a nuclear missile is in the truck?

You don’t, as LSLGuy already mentioned.

  1. What is the primary method of transporting nuclear weapons domestically?

Warheads can be flown to air bases near the installations that require them. From there, warheads are convoyed to their final Launch Facility.

  1. Are nuclear missiles and warheads transported separately?

Yes. Already covered.

The current inventory of ICBMs and SLBMs use solid fuel in the motors. I know, because I’ve disposed of them out in the desert flats west of the Salt Lake.

We haven’t used liquid fuels since. . . the Atlas, I believe. They’re safer, and more reliable in two ways: 1) less mechanical parts to go wrong on launch, and 2) they cannot be recalled, controlled, or “hacked” after launch.

The chances of either a warhead accidentally detonating or a motor igniting are so astronomical it’s not even funny. Our inventory is reliable, and safe to transport. Over the years, we’ve had plenty of incidents to take steps to ensure their safety and reliability. One simple idiot mistake should not take out a national-level asset, or level a town.

I used to be stationed at Minot and Malmstrom AFBs. Saw a bunch of convoys go, and a bunch of 'em come back.

Been there, done that.

I was going to say that I wasn’t convinced it was nuclear because the trailer had two orange hazmat placards on it, which denotes explosives, but no placard to denote radioactivity. I was looking for info on the trailer, because it seemed very specifically built and found that it is called a Payload Transporter III and searching that lead me to this more level headed and informative story

So, it seems like it was more likely to be carrying a rocket booster or something than a warhead, if the government is to be believed. I’m kind of hoping we find out it was filled with aliens from Area 51 though.

I think you’re right, the cameraman became indignant about his right to film before the truck even got close, then it just drove by slowly and by the time the guy filmed down the road 15 seconds later, that truck is really far away. I think the guy heard the siren and thought he was in trouble for filming, or maybe the truck driver or passenger put his hand up in the “stop” signal to keep the guy from driving in front of the convoy and the guy interpreted that to mean “stop filming.” They sure didn’t seem very interested in actually stopping him from filming.

Tripler, Titans followed the Atlas and were liquid fueled also.

None of that describes me, but I may have some useful insight.

We don’t, there probably isn’t, and none of the news articles claim there is.
The Daily Mail says that the guy who shot the video says there was a missile in the truck.
Everybody else says “warhead” or “weapon”.

Probably. The Christopher Reeve Superman showed one of the dangers of transporting the complete weapon system.
As I understand it, most ICBMs aren’t even kept fueled in their silos, much less in storage or transport.
But I could be wrong.

It could be a cruise missile inside that truck, but if there was one I doubt there would be a nuclear warhead. There’s just no good reason I can think of to transport a cruise missile with a warhead inside it unless you are very close to the place you intend to launch it from, which rules out the continental US IMO.

I don’t think our cameraman is a particularly reliable source, as it seems to me he got several things wrong.
Like he reports that the pickup that pulled over towards him and tooted the siren was trying to get him to stop filming. I can’t see anyone in the vehicle due to the lighting, and I can’t hear anything they might have shouted at him, but it is quite obvious that he was sitting in a vehicle parked by the side of the road, and it looks like it was angled towards the road slightly. I think the person in the truck was concerned he might pull out in front of, or amidst, the convoy, and was moving to block him.
I would at least have gotten out of my vehicle to show clearly that it was staying put, and I would have parked further from the road.
OTOH, the start of the video makes it seem like he didn’t have a lot of warning this was going to happen. Like he pulled over when he saw the convoy coming from behind and had just enough time to stop and roll down his window.

In fact, it looks to me like the cameraman actually caused the accident.
He was parked very close to the road, so the pickup pulled over to block him.
Then the armored vehicle that was behind the pickup moved left a bit, because the pickup wasn’t completely out of the road.
Then the truck braked slightly, because the armored car was crowding it.
Then the armored car behind the truck bumped it, because he hadn’t anticipated it braking.

Meanwhile, Pakistan moves it’s Nuclear weapons around in ordinary unmarked vans with no escorts, just stuck in traffic with everyone else. Apparently this is as much to hide their whereabouts from the US as much as anything else.

I have only a small correction and a few additional points to add to the otherwise excellent summary above. The last liquid propellant ICBM in the USAF operational fleet was the LGM-25C ‘Titan II’ which used storable propellants (Aerozine 50 and nitrogen tetraoxide) which could be loaded and left in the vehicle for years without service. However, they’re also hypergolic (combust upon contact with one another) and are both carcinogens, especially Aerozine 50 which is a mix of hydrazine and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH). The Titan II was in operation until 1987, at which time the remaining wing was taken out of service and some vehicles modified for space launch applications. The Titan II has also had a previous career as a space launch vehicle and the Gemini Launch Vehicle (which were purpose build airframes, not refurbished ICBMs), and went on to serve as the basis for the long lived Titan III and Titan IV/34 family of vehicles. Other liquid propellant ICBMs and IRBMs were the HGM-25A ‘Titan I’, SM-65 ‘Atlas’, PGM-17 ‘Thor’, and PGM-19 ‘Jupiter’, none of which were deployed for more than five years. These all used cryogenic oxidizer (LOX) and in the case of Atlas, liquid hydrogen (LH[SUB]2[/SUB]), which had to be loaded immediately before launch and unloaded after a launch cancellation. Jupiter went on to be used as the basis of the Juno II launcher for NASA and the tank formed the core of the Saturn I stage 1. Thor served as the basis for the long-lived Thor-Delta/Thrust Augmented Thor/Delta/Delta II series of launch vehicles for the USAF. (The current Delta IV is part of the family in name only, sharing none of the same components.) Atlas was used for the orbital Mercury program flights, launching the Mariner space probes, and with the addition of the Agena and Centaur upper stages, a launcher for telecommunications, weather, and electronic surveillance satellites. It lived on as the Atlas II launcher through the 'Nineties. (The Atlas III and current Atlas V are in name only, sharing no components with the original Atlas.)

The only current operating ICBM system is the LGM-30G ‘Minuteman III’, which is a three stage all solid propellant booster with a storable liquid post-boost stage. It was originally designed to carry three Mk 12A reentry vehicles (RVs) but in the post-Cold War environment was modified to carry only one or two Mk 21 RVs which were originally designed for the LGM-118A ‘Peacekeeper’. The stages Peacekeeper and previous generation LGM-30F ‘Minuteman II’ live on as the propulsive basis for large sounding rockets, targets, and space launch vehicles, e.g. the Orbital-ATK Minotaur family of launchers, which have proven to be highly reliable. Solid propellant motors were selected not only for their mechanical simplicity but also their robustness against attack and virtually immediate launch availability from a hardened silo.

When transporting ICBMs, the booster stack (the three motors that make up the primary boost propulsion) are integrated at a depot and transported to the silo by an erector or employer. The post-boost vehicle (PBV) and warhead bus is transported separately and installed after the booster is emplaced in the silo. This is both for safety and logistical reasons, i.e. to keep the axle loading on a transporter within allowable limits. The motors are quite well protected and unlikely to unintentionally ignite or detonate; they are electrically grounded, protected from casual damage by an insulated case, and the igniter is protected by a mechanical SAFE & ARM or ARM/FIRE device which has to be rotated into position and receive the correct signal before firing. A safing pin in the S&A/AFD prevents rotation until the motor is emplaced in the silo. Even intentional or significant damage, like being shot with a .30 caliber rifle, dropped during silo emplacement, or a transporter rolling over has not caused unintentional ignition or detonation, and in fact the only case I know of where a motor has combusted or detonated without being deliberately ignited was one of the 1.1C motors intentionally dropped out of a C-17 at 20 kft.

Nuclear weapons are typically flown to the location where they will be installed or emplaced and then transported by a truck like the one shown in the o.p.'s links. Modern weapons like the Mk 21 RV are considered to be one point safe (OPS) devices using insensitive high explosives (IHE); that is, the explosives cannot be set off by fire or mechanical shock, and even a deliberate detonation of a single charge (of the many charges in the hemisphere of explosives that compress the Primary core) will not result in any significant nuclear yield. The largest hazard is actually a rupturing of the propellant lines or tanks in the post-boost vehicle propulsion system because of the hypergolic propellants, and so these are treated with utmost care by the technicians handling them.

The disposal (“demil”) of surplus motors (done to eliminate the hazard of aging or slumping propellant, or just to make storage space for newer motors) can be quite impressive. There is a video on YouTube showing the demil of two Navy C-4 stage 1 motors using explosives which creates a visible shockwave even from several miles away. Most demil is a little more tame, consisting of linear shape charge cutting open the case and burning out most of the propellant or just removing the nozzle and restraining the motor while it burns normally. Fun stuff.

The most frightening thing about nuclear proliferation isn’t so much that someone will use them intentionally, but that a less sophisticated nation (like Pakistan) may inadvertently detonate a device or fail to maintain control in the case of military coup or deliberate sabotage In fact, according to many nuclear security analysts, it is practically inevitable that this will occur at some point. Scary stuff.


I am not sure if the Navy does any flying of warheads, that might just be an Air Force thing. Someone may be along to clarify that.

From wikipedia: “Since its establishment in 1975, OST has accumulated over 100 million miles of over-the-road experience transporting DOE-owned cargo with no accidents causing a fatality or release of radioactive material. There have been accidents, however. In November 1996, after 13 years of accident-free travel, a convoy in western Nebraska encountered an unexpected ice storm. A tractor-trailer in the convoy skidded off the road and rolled onto its side, jostling its cargo of two nuclear bombs.”
A few links that talk about the trucks that move the weapons.

That article was pretty comprehensively debunked by actual experts in the field (

You’re right. I couldn’t think of it while I was falling asleep. I remembered a discussion about the Atlas with a friend of mine, and that was the first missile that came to mind.

Your additional points are better. I always default to my ‘OPSEC’-cky side when remember I’m on a public message board.

Hell yes, it is. I got paid my $150/month Demo Pay to do some shots. My biggest shot was 87,000 lbs TNT NEW. But we did the solid stages out on the TTU (“Thermal Treatment Unit”) because the liquid-fueled stages were sent elsewhere for processing. I never did get to do the FLSC-burnouts on the Minutemen though. :frowning:


  • Explosive Ordnance Disposal, and destroyer of ICBM boosters.

So there I was…

Driving across Wyoming on I-80, somewhere in the middle of the state, on a lovely spring day, and needed gas. So I stop, get gas and coffee, and head back toward the interstate.

At the intersection at the on ramp, I see a convoy looking very much like the one in the video approaching from the opposite direction. A HUMVEE with a .30 or .50 cal mounted on the top, and a guy in full battle rattle holding on to it (but pointed well above the horizon) blocks my lane, and the remainder of the convoy (2 or 3 black SUVs with flashy lights, a couple more HUMVEEs, complete with .30 or .50 cals, and one of those big mothers that bend in the middle and go ‘HISSSsssst’) take the ramp. The HUMVEE that was blocking me follows, and I pull in behind all of them, and go on up the ramp.

The guy in the rear HUMVEE motions to me to go on ahead and pass, as they were well below the speed limit, doing maybe 55 in a 75. Being an agreeable sort of fellow, that’s what I do. I pass the convoy, and go on about my drive.

A short time later, maybe 10 or 15 minuets, one of the black SUVs with the flashy lights comes past me doing well above my 75. Scared the daylights out of me, because I didn’t see him coming up on my rear. He was soon out of sight, but not for long. I caught up with him, and he was pulled over behind another of those big mothers that was stopped on the shoulder, and a couple of lads with pistols on their hips who were riding in the rear were walking up to offer assistance to the broken down driver.

I didn’t see any helicopters, but somehow they knew that semi was broken down on the shoulder.

And that’s all I know about that.

Probably they had an unmarked car travelling a few miles ahead of the convoy looking for anything suspicious and radioing back.

What agency are the first pickup trucks from? They just say “federal law enforcement police.” I’m not doubting they’re real, but that’s the kind of thing you’d see in a low-budget movie.

How is that the cameraman causing the accident? It’s either the pickup driver failing to get out of the way of the convoy or the convoy failing to adjust its speed for the conditions. They might have decided that keeping unsafe distances between vehicles is a good trade off, but that makes it their fault.

Found it. It’s the “Air Force Office of Special Investigations.”

I retired a couple of years ago, but the small haulage firm I worked for would know very quickly if I had broken down. They tracked us all and could send a breakdown crew directly to me.

Now this is a small, British, non-military, haulier. I suspect that both our military and yours are a good deal more sophisticated. Helicopters are not needed when we have arr that hardware in geostationary orbit above us.

Oh - and over here all such convoys are restricted to 50mph.

If everything else were the same, but the cameraman hadn’t been parked by the side of the road, the accident wouldn’t have happened.

Granted, a number of other factors were equally to blame. The spacing of the vehicles in the convoy certainly set the stage, making the accident possible, But a vehicle with someone in the driver’s seal parked near the road was the first domino, and if he hadn’t been there the rest wouldn’t have happened.

I don’t see it. The cameraman is well off the road. The pickup slows down and passes him but look at the last couple seconds of video, that pickup stays well ahead of the convoy. The accident also happened in the other lane.