L.A. Under Attack

This photo-collage was originally done as an in-camera composite (I later scanned the prints separately and combined them on my computer). The bottom part is a night shot of L.A. taken from the hills of Griffith Park. The top is a U.S. Air Force photo of dummy nuclear warheads entering the atmosphere during a 1983 test of the MX missile.

I originally saw the MX photo in Aviation Week & Space Technology, a defense industry trade magazine. I called the Ballistic Missile Office at Norton Air Force Base to see if they could send me a print. Eventually I was directed to a captain there who dealt with information requests from journalists. After I described the photo I was looking for, there was a long pause on the line. "Where did you see that photo?" he sputtered. When I told him it was in Aviation Week he snorted and said angrily "That photo is classified!"

"Not anymore," I replied. The captain said he would investigate, and much to my surprise an eight by ten glossy of this beautiful shot arrived a few weeks later.

The photo is a time exposure of the fourth stage of the MX missile burning up (the bright glob at the top of the picture) and the paths of eight glowing reentry vehicles (two paths overlap) as they descend to earth near the Kwajalein atoll in the South Pacific. When it was finally deployed in 1986, the MX was capable of carrying ten 300-kiloton nuclear warheads over 6,000 miles and placing each one within a few hundred feet of its target.

The extreme accuracy of the MX (dubbed "The Peacekeeper" by that jokester Ronald Reagan) made it a potential "first strike" weapon because it could destroy hardened missile silos, reducing the Soviet's ability to retaliate during a nuclear war. Because of this dangerous capability, along with the military's inability to come up with a survivable basing system, the MX program was revised and scaled back a number of times by Congress. Only fifty MX missiles were ever deployed.

For anyone interested in learning how the military squanders money, the history of the MX program would make a good case study. The entire project cost twenty billion dollars. Even though the MX missiles are now being dismantled (which will cost another half billion), the U.S. still has thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons in its arsenal. When possessed by countries we don't like, these nukes are called weapons of mass destruction, or WMD's. Ours are considered legitimate instruments of foreign policy—peacekeepers if you will.