The cruise missile that ended the Cold War?


At the moment I am building models from the Cold War for a collaboration with my friends at BrickFair Virginia. I already presented my Soviet SS-20 “Saber” about a week ago. That missile platform was seen as a direct threat to Western Europe. Whilst I was buying parts for that, I was already planning to build one of the weapons systems that NATO fielded in Europe: the BGM-109G Gryphon ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). Or, more precisely, the vehicle used to transport and launch them.

It consisted of a large German-built MAN truck that pulled a semi-trailer with the launcher. This housed up to four cruise missiles in a box that was elevated to an angle of 45 degrees before launch. I built the vehicle to a scale of 1/43, making it roughly 53 studs long. Building its four-tone camouflage scheme (with dark green, dark tan, tan and black) was a challenge, especially on such a small vehicle.

The GLCM was very different from the SS-20. The SS-20 was a ballistic missile that launched its nuclear payload on a high arched (ballistic) trajectory through space. Such a weapon is hard to intercept because of its high speed and the short duration of its flight. A cruise missile, however, isn’t particularly fast. It essentially is an unmanned aircraft that flies through the air, powered by a small jet engine. Its relatively slow speed means that flying out to its maximum 2500 km range would take the Gryphon several hours. Nonetheless, it was difficult to intercept. Detecting it was hard, because it was small and flew at an altitude of a couple of hundred feet at most. The missile could fly a pre-programmed trajectory, which it regularly checked based on radar maps of the terrain. This allowed it to deliver its nuclear payload to its target from an unexpected direction. Since the thrust of jet engine wasn’t enough to accelerate the missile to a velocity at which it could sustain flight, the Gryphon relied on a rocket booster for launch. After its burnout, wings, control fins and an air intake would extend and the jet engine would take over. It was an engineering marvel.

The deployment of these missiles to Europe, to counter the SS-20, caused great concern to the Soviet leadership. They too were inside its range. Ultimately, this paved the way for the ground-breaking INF treaty, which the US and the Soviet Union signed in 1987. It banned both the GLCM and intermediate range ballistic missiles, such as the SS-20. The Complete History of U.S. Cruise Missiles , by Bill Yenne, which I am currently reading, presents the GLCM  as “a knife that could cut the Soviet Union’s throat” (quoting a Russian historian). It’s the missile that won the Cold War. I think the truth is more complex. Cruise missiles may have helped drag the Soviets to the negotiating table, but the INF treaty was part of a larger movement towards détente. This was fuelled by the realisation, on both sides, that they had much to gain by ending the confrontation.

Stationing these missiles in Europe caused problems. In the UK, protesters set up a semi-permanent Women’s Peace Camp outside RAF Greenham Common, to protest against missiles stationed there. In the Netherlands, the prospect of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles in “our backyard” lead to large protests in Amsterdam and The Hague. I was a child at the time, but I remember seeing distinctly-styled anti-cruise missile posters displayed behind our neighbours’ windows. My cruise missile book dismisses members of the “peace movement” as unemployed militants motivated by Communist agitators and Soviet propaganda. The 1983 protest in The Hague, with about half a million participants, however, is still the largest in my country’s history. In 1985, 3.7 million people signed a petition against the cruise missiles. This was a full quarter of the population. That’s a lot of unemployed militants and Communist agitators! And this was in pre-internet times, when signing a petition involved using a pen on a piece of paper. While the Soviets undoubtedly supported the protests, many of the protesters’ concerns strike me as genuine.
In any case, the protests caught the Dutch government between a rock and a hard place. Saying no to the missiles would cause a crisis in/with NATO; saying yes would potentially lose them the next election. Their solution was to formally agree to allow the missiles on Dutch soil, but to subsequently stall. It worked. They stalled long enough for the whole issue to become moot, thanks to the INF treaty. Bunkers to house the transporters were completed, but the missiles never arrived, much to the relief of everyone involved.
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