Deep Underground Launch Center

I’ve previously written about survival strategies for nations and mankind “after the doomsday shroud”, the worst conceivable nuclear war. Which got me thinking about a fascinating piece of Cold War history: the “Deep Underground Command Center”, or “DUCC”. If civilian command and control of the military is to be maintained, which was a cornerstone of the Kennedy administration’s “flexible response” nuclear-war strategy — the Eisenhower administration’s “massive retaliation” strategy, not to mention the post-Kennedy “mutual assured destruction” “strategy”, had no real need for maintaining civilian authority over the military — then it’s essential that the President survive the initial nuclear strike, so he can coordinate the military response to and negotiate with the enemy (who would likely be the Soviet Union).

The changing Reality of Nuclear War

The plan in the 1940s was to assure Presidential survival through early warning of any Soviet bombers coming over the ocean, providing at least two hours, enough time to make decisions and, if deemed necessary, to evacuate Washington to a hardened shelter; the President would be well out of range of any atomic bomb that targeted the city by the time Soviet forces arrived. Two developments in the 1950s changed all that.

The first was the advent of the hydrogen bomb, which greatly increased the destructive power of nuclear warheads, necessitating either much more hardened shelters or greater distance from ground zero, the latter of which added to the travel time needed. The second was the advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which shortened warning times from over two hours to just 15-20 minutes, and even less than that for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The military met these challenges starting in 1961 by constructing a suite of both mobile command centers that could evade missile strikes and hardened command centers that could withstand missile strikes. The system was robust, and indeed remains robust to this day.

The one wrinkle was that it would take 15 minutes for the President to get to the nearest airfield and an additional 10 minutes for the airplane to escape the blast radius of a warhead targeting the White House. The President would thus likely not survive a nuclear attack unless he evacuated Washington before tactical warning systems detected incoming warheads; the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated that even during a period of high tension the President was unlikely to pre-emptively evacuate Washington.

No Escape for the President…

Thus was born the idea for the Deep Underground Command Center (DUCC): if the President can’t evacuate in time, then logically the option that remained was a hardened shelter. The DUCC planners envisioned an elevator going down from the White House to a tunnel that connected to a hardened bunker 3500 feet under the Pentagon, capable of withstanding multiple direct hits by 300-megaton warheads. The most powerful warhead ever tested was the Tsar Bomba at just 50 megatons, but back in the early 1960s the trend was for ever-bigger warheads, and planners wanted to get ahead of the curve.

The reason it was never built (as far as we know…) was that it would have been very expensive, and an integral part of the whole concept was that hardened communications links would enable the President to contact the outside world; the integrity of these links in event of a nuclear war was doubtful, and without the ability to communicate there was little point to keeping the President alive. In addition, flexible response was falling out of favor with the rise of mutual assured destruction as a “strategy”, so there was less perceived need in event of a nuclear war to keep the President alive in the first place. It was also not entirely obvious if the plan would even work at all; calculations helpfully done by Mark for his Atomic Skies blog, and presumably the military planners involved, indicate it probably would have been an effective shelter, but the conditions involved are well beyond what’s ever been tested, so there are risks and unknowns.

I’d also reiterate what Mark said at his blog: that if the President had just 30 minutes’ advanced warning of an attack he could evacuate Washington by aircraft and be airborne, which in any case would be far more survivable than even the DUCC, let alone a more ordinary bunker. It seems like an awful lot of work to go to just in case there’s less than 30 minutes’ warning of an attack, considering there’s an excellent chance a nuclear strike would come after a period of rising tension, presumably giving a much longer time to evacuate, rather than as a bolt out of the blue.

…or is there?

Still, the thought that mobility is much more survivable than hardness intrigues me. What if there was a way for the President to evacuate Washington and survive within the time advanced warning of a surprise SLBM attack gives him? A high-speed aircraft is ideal for this purpose, and the President needs to be able to board it as quickly as possible when given warning of an attack. And that got me thinking: what if you launched a high-speed aircraft from right under the White House?

Sure, it sounds like something a James Bond villain would have in his back pocket, but consider: the travel time to the nearest airfield is the real showstopper for Presidential survival; eliminating that solves the whole problem. Logistically you probably could dig out a bunker big enough for an aircraft and all the supporting systems and personnel under the White House, with a tunnel for the aircraft to traverse to the surface, the outlet properly concealed and camouflaged during normal times.

An ordinary airplane would likely not be fit for this purpose, as a facility for them takes up a lot of space, especially horizontally, with those long runways they need to take off; their wide wingspans also necessitate a rather large escape tunnel. In addition, an ordinary airplane accelerates relatively slowly and tops out at around 600 mph. With typical passenger-aircraft levels of acceleration the President would be 40 miles away in five minutes, well outside the blast radius of even a 100-megaton warhead.

Instead, why not something a bit more like a missile silo? A rocket-powered plane, even if it had a booster stage, could be stored more compactly and efficiently, be smaller and narrower, perhaps even small enough to hold just one man, namely the President, and more importantly can accelerate much faster and reach much higher speeds than any conventional aircraft.

The Saturn V launched with a maximum g-force of four gees, the Space Shuttle, perhaps the closest comparison, at three gees. If the Presidential rocket launched at a constant acceleration of 3g, it could be 40 miles away in one minute as opposed to five minutes. At 40 miles downrange, though, it would need to attain a speed of 4300 mph. Trivial for a rocket booster, but well beyond the ken of any conventional aircraft. Now we’re talking.

A Presidential Spaceplane?

For such a flight path to work most effectively — we haven’t mastered the art of hypersonic flight deep within the atmosphere, to say the least — the rocket plane would likely have to be near where the Space Shuttle was at a similar point in its flight, 55 miles in altitude. Which is almost in space; the Kármán line, where outer space begins, is 62 miles. So realistically we’re talking about a spaceplane here.

After the President has earned his astronaut wings, he could go to a variety of destinations for rendezvous with the airborne command center. He could glide down to any number of airstrips, airfields, and runways. Splashing down into the sea and being picked up by a seaplane, a ship, or a submarine is another possibility. It’s even possible a mid-air rendezvous could be effected (they do it now with mid-air refueling, after all).

For this to work, ample “cross-range” capability would be required, which interestingly was built in to the Space Shuttle; a mission profile considered was for the Space Shuttle to fly in a single-orbit flight and do things like spy on enemy territory or even grab enemy satellites right from their orbit (that big cargo bay doesn’t just have civilian applications…). Since that would entail the likelihood of being shot at, the ability to use the atmosphere to change your course as opposed to having to stick to a ballistic trajectory was considered very useful. It would be even more useful for a Presidential spaceplane, which will need to change course on the fly in response to the evolving situation of ICBM and SLBM attacks destroying military assets as well as the possibility of being shot at directly by the enemy.

The upshot is that, whether you go single-stage-to-orbit or (and this would be my preference) employ a rocket booster stage that’s jettisoned, this spacecraft is going to need big wings. Possibly the craft would have the more conical shape that apparently works better in the hypersonic realm, but I really have no idea what shape of wing would be best for this type of mission.

In typical fashion, I wonder if such a craft should just be reserved for the President; I’m sure there are any number of settings other than the White House that would benefit from their commanders or some other chosen person having a one-man rapid-escape spacecraft available. It’s possible, of course, to expand the craft to accommodate multiple people; in particular, the President’s family as well as his core senior staff. But this would add complexity and cost to the project. It may well be one of those “go big or go home” kind of deals where it’s more efficient to accommodate more people, but if it turns out a one-man craft would be much more viable one man is all who need go on it.


Like the nuclear-submarine doomsday arks of my imaginings in my last post on the topic, I think it’s a little odd that we don’t have such a system; it would be far more effective than the Deep Underground Command Center — aside from getting the President much further away from nuclear blasts, if it launched from the White House basement and was kept at a state of constant readiness the rocket and its passenger could be on its way within seconds of an attack being detected, less time than it would take the President to reach just the DUCC’s access tunnel! — while likely costing much less than the DUCC — ordinary missile silos aren’t too different in design to the requirements of a DULC (Deep Underground Launch Center). If we ever move past mutual assured destruction and wish to ensure the survival of the President against a nuclear sneak attack, I honestly think what I outline here would be the best option.

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