Minuteman Missile
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Section I — The Cold War and National Armament

Chapter 2:
U.S. Strategic Missile and Armament Systems (1950s—60s)

Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program Beginnings

The Minuteman program was a Cold War story, but development of the missile system offers its own history. This section explores the evolution of America's ballistic missile program, of which the Minuteman would play a vital role. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 the United States had succeeded in developing nuclear missiles with intercontinental range. However, America's early forays into strategic missiles suffered from a lack of funding, bureaucratic infighting, and interagency tensions that slowed early research into missile armament systems. [31] Although the progression from piloted weapons systems to missiles seems obvious in retrospect, that conclusion remained uncertain at the onset of the Cold War.

Many high-level politicians and military officers began to think more seriously about Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development in response to these tensions, leading the Air Force to initiate a crash program in ICBM development through the newly formed Air Research and Development Command (ARDC). [32] The ARDC and the new crash program built on previous missile research conducted by the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation (Convair) for Air Force contract MX‑774. Convair's contract had been canceled in 1947 as part of the Air Force's post-Word War II cuts in military spending. [33]

The news in 1949 that the Soviets had tested an atomic bomb sparked revived interest in air defense systems, though of course, in an age of aerial warfare, the potential for long-range Soviet strikes upon American soil had never been far from the minds of Washington strategists. [34] "Attacks can now come across the arctic regions, as well as across oceans, and strike deep...into the heart of the country," General Carl Spaatz, commander of American strategic bombing in World War II told a Senate Committee in 1945. "No section will be immune," he warned, "the Pearl Harbor of a future war might well be Chicago, or Detroit, or Pittsburgh, or even Washington." [35] North Korea's 1950 invasion of South Korea—an attack perceived by many Western strategists as part of a concerted global strategy by the Soviets—made Western fears of attack seem all the more prescient.

Air Research and Development Command

The Air Force established the ARDC in 1950 specifically for development of the Air Force missile program. [36] Many issues remained to be solved before the ICBM could get off the ground. Development of the ICBM program was hampered by resistance on the part of one branch of the Air Force, the Air Force Air Staff (Air Staff), and inefficient cooperation between different branches of the military. [37] The Air Staff was the planning body within U.S. Air Force Headquarters.  As a Major Command, the ARDC (later known as the Air Force Systems Command) was below the Air Staff in the hierarchy of the U.S. Air Force. [38]   Initially the Air Force opposed further research and development on the grounds that available technology was not advanced enough for the successful development of missiles with intercontinental range. Members of the Air Staff questioned the reliability and effectiveness of ICBMs. [39] Additionally, the culture within the Air Force at the time favored development of bombers and the integration of missiles with aircraft development. Achievement of high rank in the service required pilot training and command of squadrons or wings, and only officers could be pilots. These flyers were thus naturally hesitant to endorse a new and potentially significant weapons system that carried the potential of diminishing the value of their skills (as pilots) to the Pentagon. Indeed, the Air Force went so far as to designate its missiles "pilotless aircraft," implicitly signifying that any real aircraft carried a human commander. The lack of an integrated development plan further hampered missile research and development and budgetary issues resulting from President Truman's economy drive compounded the problems of developing the ICBM program. Only after the Air Force began to integrate its missile program with its aircraft program did it become apparent that missile development needed a separate, focused effort. [40]

The Air Force had competition in missile development from both the Army and the Navy. Missile development programs underway at the beginning of the 1950s included the Army's Redstone project, headed by Wernher von Braun and the Jupiter Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, as a joint venture between the Army and Navy. [41] The Air Force found itself in a position of losing its defensive capabilities and therefore stature in the armed forces if it did not keep up with missile technology.

Rather than allowing themselves to fall behind technologically, the Air Force overcame its reticence and approved a contract with Convair in January 1951 for development of a ballistic missile carrying a heavy nuclear payload with a five thousand-mile range and a circular error probable (acceptable radius of target error) of 1,500 feet. [42] This new missile project, known as the MX-1593 or Atlas, was largely based on Convair's earlier Air Force project, the MX-774. Convair now built on earlier engineering efforts to create the Atlas ICBM. [43]

In 1952 Trevor Gardner, Special Assistant for Research and Development to Air Force Secretary Harold E. Talbot, asked the Air Force for performance specifications and a justification of the deployment schedule for the Atlas. The response from the ARDC asserted that "the ballistic rocket appears, at present, to be the ultimate means of delivering atomic bombs in the most effective fashion." [44] Funding for the Atlas remained limited, however, and important logistical problems had to be overcome in its development before it could meet the Air Force's requirements.

Bomb weight, maximum range, and nose cone design to withstand reentry were three formidable early problems faced by missile developers. However, scientific advances created thermonuclear devices that were lighter than earlier generations of nuclear weapons while possessing more destructive capability—in 1952 the validity of thermonuclear detonation was proven. During this same period, more powerful liquid-fuel engines became available and it became clear that ICBMs with a range of over five thousand miles could be built. The combination of more powerful engines and lighter bombs solved the problem of limited missile range. The development of a blunt, copper heat-sink in 1952 to absorb the fierce heat of the reentry vehicle solved the third problem. [45] Now the ARDC and Convair needed to transfer these new technologies to its Atlas missile system

The Air Staff did not agree with the ARDC on Atlas development and funding and refused to commit the necessary funds for full-scale development. The ARDC refused to give up, citing the urgent need for an ICBM in the interest of national security. The ARDC favored full-scale development on an accelerated schedule, whereas the Air Staff preferred additional research before committing more funding to the program. After two years of political maneuvering, the Air Staff and ARDC reached a compromise in 1953. This agreement produced a development plan that called for the research and development phase for the Atlas to be completed by "sometime after 1964" and for an operational missile by 1965. [46]

Teapot Committee and RAND Report

While American leaders worked to develop their own strategic missile force, they also strove to evaluate United States military defense capabilities in relationship to their closest rival. Two committees were formed during this period to study the Soviet Union's potential threat. The Strategic Missiles Evaluation Committee, code name Teapot Committee, was formed in 1953 by Trevor Gardner and was chaired by famed mathematician Dr. John von Neumann of the Institute for Advanced Studies. The Teapot Committee was developed to evaluate current programs and the level of technology of potential enemies (mainly the Soviet Union), and to recommend solutions for identified problems. A concurrent study focusing on similar questions was conducted by the RAND Corporation, a security studies think-tank with long ties to the Air Force. [47]

Both studies produced alarming findings. They each independently determined that Soviet missile technology had advanced significantly in the short period since World War II, and that only a major push in missile development in the United States could overcome this technology gap. Policymakers of this period fervently believed that falling technologically behind the Soviets in the defense arena would be inviting the disaster of a Soviet attack. [48] The reports also concluded that development of an operational ICBM system within six years was an attainable goal if the Air Force would commit the appropriate talent, funds, and management strategies to the project. [49] According to Teapot, the Atlas program in particular—as the most advanced American missile program then under development—had to be accelerated for the sake of national security. President Eisenhower took these findings most seriously, and ordered work on the ICBM program accelerated by assigning it "the highest national priority." [50] The Western Development Division (WDD), an extension of the ARDC, was created and assigned to spearhead the development of ICBMs.

Western Development Division

Trevor Gardner, Air Force Chief of Staff General Nathan F. Twining, and Lieutenant General Donald Putt received approval for a management agency within the Air Force, the WDD, whose primary purpose would be to develop an ICBM. [51] The WDD was created "solely for the prosecution of research, development, test, and production leading to a successful intercontinental ballistic missile." [52]

The WDD facilitated the rapid development of the Atlas system, and its employees worked long hours to get the job done. For example, Lieutenant General Otto Glasser reported that a normal work-week consisted of ten-hour days, six days a week, with extra time often being put in on Sundays. [53] The main function of this working group was not to actually build an ICBM, but to work together with private contractors to design the new weapon as quickly and cheaply as possible. [54] The project became a race against time, with the goal of an operational ICBM by the end of the 1950s—the estimated date for an operational Soviet ICBM. [55] To many of the workers, the very safety and security of the United States seemed to hinge on the success of their program.

To help meet its goals, the WDD contracted with the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation of Los Angeles, California to provide technical direction. This joining of forces speaks to the increased size and importance of the ICBM program in the Air Force's eyes. The number of Ramo-Wooldridge staff members assigned to assist the WDD on the ICBM project started with 170 staff members at the beginning of 1954 and grew to 5,182 by the end of 1960. [56]

The WDD opened its office in a former elementary school in Inglewood, California, in 1954 with General Bernard A. Schriever, a forty-three year-old well respected brigadier general, appointed as its head. In an attempt to maintain a low profile for this top-secret project, military staff stationed at the WDD wore civilian clothes. [57] ICBM chronicler and journalist Roy Neal described the WDD headquarters in these words, "No sign identified the white schoolhouse as the Western Development Division... The windows were frosted and heavily barred. All outside doors, except one, were locked. The only entrance was across a chain-link fenced parking lot. A security guard manned the door... Some of the old-timers recall... the comment of the school boy who was sauntering by the school buildings. Eying the frosted glass and steel-barred windows, he said to a chum, 'Boy am I glad I don't go to school here.' " [58]

The WDD staff began their work designing and coordinating the construction of the Atlas ICBM. In 1955, the WDD requested and received Air Force approval to develop a second ICBM, the Titan, concurrently with the Atlas. The WDD initiated the research and development on the Titan in the hope that if Atlas was delayed, Titan with slightly different engineering could be made operational by the end of the 1950s and keep the United States from falling behind in the missile race. [59]

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Last Updated: 19-Nov-2003