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In the early 1980s documentary First Strike, one of the arguments made for the development of the MX missile program was that in the event of a massive Soviet attack on the land-based missile and bomber forces of the United States, the SLBM force would be "too inaccurate" to effectively target the Soviet strategic missile force. This inaccuracy would mean that the SLBM force would be restricted to targeting "soft targets" such as cities, air bases, and ports.

What was the cause of the inaccuracy of the SLBM force compared to the land-based ICBM force, and does this difference still exist today?

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+1 Nice first question. Thx and welcome to the site. –  Drux May 23 '13 at 8:57
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+1 Interesting. The agenda of the video seems to be promoting the necessity of second strike counterforce capability. Apparently this was a debate at the time. Based on the dubious idea that a similar counterforce retaliation against the USSR would end the nuclear exchange rather than escalate it. Related MIT document, it also notes Polaris was inaccurate for use against hardened structures. –  Nathan Cooper May 23 '13 at 16:20
    
Perhaps the real test as to whether you think they are accurate or not would be to ask yourself a simple question. Would you be prepared to discover the truth about their accuracy by being on the receiving end of a test firing? –  Derek Still Aug 8 '13 at 21:40
    
test firings have been made, and their accuracy measured. Obviously no life warheads were used but steel or concrete slugs of similar weight and aerodynamic properties. –  jwenting Aug 9 '13 at 4:06
    
@DerekStill Don't be ridiculous. Being unprepared to die testing one's belief is hardly an indication that the belief is unjustified. –  David Richerby Dec 7 at 0:08

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

Ballistic missile delivery depends very much on knowing exactly where you are launching from. Early SLBM launch platforms had typical positional uncertainties of 100's of metres. As the missile and any MIRV warheads were just unguided projectiles launch positional errors magnified and the resultant destination error could be very wide.

Land based missiles were preferred as the launch position was known accurately but vulnerable to first force strikes.

Modern SLBM platforms know their position to some centimetres allowing better accuracy and reduced yields for smaller targets. Modern missiles can partially correct for early launch drift, first stage drift by star sight observation reducing the error probability at target by orders of magnitude.

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@T.E.D. The US military uses SI almost exclusively (otherwise working with other nations' military forces would have been a nightmare). "Klick" is slang for kilometer, for example. –  Yannis Rizos May 23 '13 at 19:38
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I drink beer in pints. I engineer in metric. –  ExpatEgghead May 25 '13 at 5:50
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GPS was developed to increase the position correctness of SLBM platforms. –  Martin Schröder May 27 '13 at 20:47
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It is now assumed that GPS will not be available during a nuclear exchange. Certainly UK and French SLBMs do not use it. –  ExpatEgghead May 29 '13 at 3:55
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@ExpatEgghead thought real beer drinkers drank in gallons? :) –  jwenting Aug 9 '13 at 4:03

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