Minuteman Missile
Historic Resource Study
NPS Logo
Section I — The Cold War and National Armament

Chapter 3:
Minuteman and the Next Generation (1960s—present)

The Missile Gap and Minuteman

Although the liquid-fueled Atlas and Titan systems were operational by the early 1960s, the Air Force actively sought to develop another Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)—one powered by solid fuel that would be more cost-effective, smaller, and better suited to mass production. This push for improved technology was largely driven by the desire to surpass Soviet missile technology and overcome what seemed a growing "missile gap." The Soviet Union's successful launch of "Sputnik," the world's first man-made orbiting satellite, in 1957, had rattled American policymakers and military strategists to their core. [77] Sputnik seemingly demonstrated that the Communist World was clearly in the lead in missile technology, and on 23 October 1957, a board of civilian consultants told Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Allen Dulles that the United States trailed the Soviets in this vital field by "two to three years." Production of a Soviet ICBM capable of striking the United States was "nearly" a reality, they warned, and they predicted Soviet deployment of a dozen such missiles by the end of 1958. In their words, the United States was entering "a period of grave national emergency." Within two years, Congressional hearings concerning the "missile gap" provided the public with a view into the superpower race for rockets, whole they simultaneously offered the Air Force opportunity to promote expensive new missile systems. Estimates of Soviet capabilities varied widely through these years. The Kremlin did not publicize its military plans and what claims it did make were rarely trusted in the West, nor did it need to endure the public process of Congressional funding as the Pentagon. Senator Stuart Symington, formerly the first Secretary of the Air Force, used CIA estimates to inform Eisenhower during the Summer of 1958 that the Soviets might have as many as 500 ICBMs by 1961. Flights by high-altitude spy planes such as the U-2 in 1959 and 1960 later fostered lower estimates of Soviet capabilities, though no one in the West could know for certain the true measure of Soviet missile strength. [78]

Though Democrats would make the "missile gap" an important political issue in the 1960 election, later records disproved its existence. The United States actually possessed greater nuclear strike capabilities at this time. Not only did Western forces field larger bomber forces, but though exact numbers of Soviet capabilities remain impossible to state with accuracy, a problem compounded by their varied range and destructive capabilities, so too was the West ahead in missiles. Before departing office, for example, the Eisenhower Administration increased the scope of its second-generation missiles to 384 Polaris and 540 Minuteman, as opposed to less than one hundred fully capable Soviet ICBMs. Everyone expected both sides to only increase their nuclear strike capabilities in the years to come—just as American policymakers planned to deploy systems such as the Minuteman for decades at least, though in the final analysis, domestic politics and budgetary restraints (or opportunities) affected American missile deployments as much as estimates of Soviet capabilities. As historian Peter Roman has concluded, "ironically, the administration had finally initiated the buildup that the missile gap critics had clamored for—and did it just as intelligence estimates of Soviet missiles were being revised downward." Indeed, the Air Force took advantage of the political atmosphere fostered by the Congressional inquiries and public concern over the missile gap to present an initial plan to Congress for accelerating the Minuteman program beginning in 1960, calling for 445 Minuteman missiles to be operational by January 1965 and eight hundred missiles by June 1965, leaving an exasperated Eisenhower to exclaim "perhaps we should go crazy and produce ten thousand Minutemen." In an era of Cold War fear, the only proper number of nuclear arms seemed the number capable of installing confidence in one's own public, and confidence of an assured retaliation in one's enemy. [79] The new Minuteman missile, designed to be hidden and protected in a hole in the ground, was referred to by President John F. Kennedy following the Cuban Missile Crisis as his "ace in the hole." [80] This was also the title of Roy Neal's 1962 history that chronicled the development of the Minuteman missile.

Development of Solid-Fuel Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles

The development of solid fuel for ICBMs occurred simultaneously with the deployment of the Atlas and Titan ICBMs. The liquid fuel that powered these rockets added weight to the missile reducing its range, while the extreme volatility of liquid fuels made them dangerous to work with. Solid fuels promised to allow for smaller and cheaper missiles with greater effective range, while simultaneously eliminating the need for a problematic liquid-fuel system. [81]

By 1955 missiles propelled with solid fuel proved practical for shorter flights and two years later solid-fuel technology had progressed sufficiently for scientists to recommend large-scale development of a solid-fuel ICBM. Buoyed by these results, the Air Force authorized a series of studies that same year to develop a solid-fuel ICBM that was smaller than either the Atlas or Titan. Contracts to study solid-fuel missiles were finalized in 1956, and, rather than being completed in-house by the WDD, the work was awarded to the Wright Air Development Center (WADC), a private corporation contracted by the Air Force for missile development. The WADC directed the work of companies such as Aerojet-General, Thiokol, and Phillips Companies as they proceeded with solid-fuel feasibility studies. [82] General Bernard Shriever, who headed the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division (the WDD prior to renaming in 1957) during the first years of the Minuteman program, felt that the transition from liquid to solid fuel, with its more powerful engines, greater range, and increased safety, was the most significant advancement in ICBM development, allowing the United States to jump ahead of the Soviets in missile technology. [83]

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 19-Nov-2003