Minuteman Missile
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Section I — The Cold War and National Armament

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

Minuteman I


The Minuteman grew from this massive effort, and a further illumination of the role played by its principal designers in the early years of development offers valuable insights into the Minuteman's initial design. While WADC oversaw its solid-fuel studies, Lieutenant Colonel Edward (Ed) Hall of the Ballistic Missile Division (BMD) had been transferred from the faltering Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile program to his own office within the BMD. General Shriever gave Hall the freedom to design a solid-fuel missile, designated at that time Weapons System Q. Hall distilled the growing mass of information produced by the variety of contracted studies on solid fuel and other missile technologies. Hall generally worked alone, at first without even an administrative assistant. The one person Hall collaborated with regularly was Barney Adelman of Ramo-Wooldridge. Hall and Adelman worked to produce a design for a solid-fuel missile. [84]

Hall ultimately incorporated technologies developed by a series of recent Air Force studies, including new swivel nozzles to control missile direction and an accurate method of shutting off the engines. In addition, he used previous studies to calculate warhead size and weight and research on solid fuel to determine the distance the missile could travel. Hall's final feasibility study, produced in 1957, outlined a series of missiles powered by the new fuel technology he named the "Minuteman" as a symbolic reminder of the country's military past and to reflect the quick response time of the missile system. Minuteman was designed to be an efficient, reliable weapon that could be mass-produced, stand unattended for long periods, be operated and maintained by small crews, stored and launched from underground silos, and automatically monitored for condition and combat readiness. It offered, in short, the solution to the troubling missile gap. [85]

The Air Force accepted Hall's design—retaining the name Minuteman—in March of 1958, and began planning for funding and developing a Minuteman force. [86] The Pentagon initially planned to deploy one hundred Minuteman missiles by 1964 and another four hundred by 1965. [87] Delays and budget troubles plagued the early development of the Minuteman, however. Though the Air Force positioned itself solidly behind the development of the Minuteman, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) did not share their enthusiasm for the Minuteman program, preferring other strategic defense options, such as the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, Thor and Jupiter. Rumors of stalling tactics on the part of the JCS began to circulate. The Air Force Ballistic Missile Committee and the Office of the Secretary of Defense backed the Minuteman development, but a request for $150 million for fiscal year 1959 was initially reduced to $50 million. [88] Without those extra funds, the Minuteman's supporters warned, the missile would not be ready for operational deployment by the early 1960s.

Funds were not forthcoming until the BMD and the Air Force persuaded General Sam Anderson, commander of Air Research and Development Command (ARDC), Chief of Staff General Thomas D. White, Vice Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay, and Secretary of the Air Force James Douglas of the viability of the Minuteman. [89] General Schriever asserted to these men that there were no problems with either the concept or design of the new missiles and he asked for flexibility in carrying out the first part of a development program. He stated that he could prove his point within six months, if given the funding. [90]

After the general finished convincing his immediate superiors of the viability and utility of the program, he turned his attention to the three men who would make the final decision on Air Force program funding— Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy, Assistant Secretary of Defense William Holaday, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles. General Schriever arranged a deal whereby the BMD received $50 million for the first six months of 1959. If in that time the BMD could prove the efficacy of the Minuteman, the remaining $100 million would be released for Minuteman development. [91]

By 7 January 1959, the Air Force established an operational schedule for the Minuteman. The first flight test was to take place in December 1960 with an operational weapon system in place by 1963. This ambitious schedule generated a great deal of skepticism on the part of outside scientists and government officials, but Schriever and his team were certain that the program could succeed. To close the "missile gap," and more importantly to prove that they were the best service to do so, the Air Force needed the Minuteman, and in a hurry. [92]


The BMD successfully launched a "tethered" Minuteman I prototype on 15 September 1959. This test showed that the Minuteman could be fired directly from an underground silo, prompting the Air Force to fast-track the program in the hopes of having the first Minuteman I on duty by 1962. [93] The production of the first operational Minuteman I force was approved in March 1960 and consisted of 150 missiles assigned to a single missile wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The wing had three squadrons with fifty missiles each. Construction on the operational facility to house the missile wing at Malmstrom began in March 1961. [94] The previous month at Cape Canaveral, the first full test of a Minuteman I proved successful—the missile deposited its warhead 4,600 miles from the launch site. [95] During these tests the missiles did not employ armed atomic warheads. TIME magazine reported that an awed observer murmured "Brother, there goes the missile gap" and described the successful test flight as follows, "Even for sophisticated missile watchers, the men who have marked the flight of so many of Cape Canaveral's great fire-breathing birds, last week's show was a dazzling spectacle. The blast-off was swift and sure; there was none of that heart stopping hover of other tests when liquid-fueled monsters seemed to balance in uncertain equilibrium before they picked up the momentum of flight." [96]

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a longtime advocate of a strong strategic defense and the elimination of the missile gap, became a leading advocate, within the new Kennedy Administration, of the Minuteman program following a March 1961 visit to the BMD. During this visit scientists demonstrated their advances in solid-fuel technology. McNamara walked away from this meeting more convinced than ever of the need, and of the value, of the new Minuteman missile system. [97] The production of the Minuteman I proved successful, and by 1964 McNamara determined the Minuteman missile force would consist of one thousand missiles. As with any program of this size (and expense), his determination of this number was reached only after lengthy consultations with the JCS, the National Security Council, the White House, think tanks such as RAND, and congressional leaders. By June 1965 the Air Force was on the way to meeting this target, with an operational force of eight hundred Minuteman I missiles located at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. [98]


Minuteman I was designed to be a "highly reliable, three-stage, solid-propellant weapon" that could endure long periods in storage and travel over five thousand miles to reach its target. [99] This was further than any of the earlier generations of ICBMs. Yet the Air Force required more than simply a new missile to make the Minuteman system work. Launch Facilities (LFs) and other support structures had to be designed in order for the Minuteman to prove an effective deterrent to Soviet aggression.

The initial Minuteman I force was divided into five missile wings of either three or four missile squadrons per wing. Fifty missiles made up a squadron, and each squadron was further divided into five flights of ten missiles. A flight had its own Launch Control Center (LCC) that monitored ten LFs. To reduce its vulnerability to enemy attack, each flight was dispersed across several miles, with the LCC located a minimum of three miles from any missile and the missiles similarly distanced from each other. [100]

In Minuteman I wings I and II electrical and environmental support equipment were initially located aboveground in the Launch Control Facility (LCF) support building. The missile system was constructed during a time when the doctrine of "massive retaliation" directed strategic planning—the military expected to launch the entire Minuteman I force in retaliation for a Soviet attack, and though a grim prospect, post-attack survivability of more than several hours for the crew was consequently not considered an essential feature of the design. [101] This strategy changed with the construction of Minuteman I wings III to V, and LCC support equipment moved underground as part of the new "controlled response" strategy, which called not only for the possibility of a limited or controlled American nuclear response, but also consequently for post-attack missile survivability. No one thing prompted this change in American strategic thinking. Rather, "controlled response" developed organically by the close of the 1950s as a potential answer to the limitations of "massive retaliation," most specifically the way an all-or-nothing nuclear response to potential superpower conflicts threatened to too severely limit the options available to policymakers engaged in a crisis. By developing the ability to strike with limited components of their nuclear arsenal, American policymakers hoped to achieve not only greater flexibility in the international arena, but also greater success as well, as "controlled response" led to the Kennedy Administration's famed "flexible response" policies, which called for non-nuclear and even irregular (such as the Special Forces) applications of military might. Not every crisis warranted a full-scale nuclear response, after all, and by the 1960s, American leaders demanded the tools necessary to meet the changing needs of a Cold War fought increasingly in the global periphery. [102]


Boeing received the original contract for the design, assembly, and testing of Minuteman I in October 1958 and later contracted to develop hardware and electronics and check operational facilities. [103] Other associate contractors for the Minuteman system included AVCO and General Electric for reentry vehicles designed to deliver nuclear warheads to their targets, Autonetics Division of North American Rockwell for guidance systems, and Bell Aerosystems for post-boost control and a navigation system for the reentry vehicle. The post-boost controls served the critical function of controlling the reentry vehicle after it had separated from the missile and began to descend to its target. Sylvania won the contract for the ground electronics system and TRW Systems headed up systems engineering and technical direction. [104]

Three contractors were chosen to develop the three solid-propellant stages for Minuteman I. Each of these three stages performed specific functions. The first stage launched the missile, the second stage provided additional thrust as the missile traveled towards the target, and the third stage propelled the reentry vehicle with its nuclear payload back into the atmosphere and to its designated target. [105]

The Thiokol Chemical Company built the first stage—the M55 motor. The M55 produced two hundred thousand pounds of thrust using a combination of Thiokol synthetic rubber, powdered aluminum, and ammonium perchlorate (AP). Its steel casing utilized four small, swiveling nozzles for propulsion and navigation. Aerojet-General constructed the sixty thousand-pound thrust second-stage engine, which was fueled by polyurethane and AP, while also employing swiveling nozzles and a steel casing. Aerojet-General replaced the steel casing initially employed in its engine with lighter and stronger titanium in 1962. The third stage was constructed by Hercules and consisted of a thirty-five thousand pound thrust motor with a composite AP propellant and a technologically advanced glass-fiber filament-wound casing. [106] By employing so many contractors for the Minuteman I project, the Pentagon managed to spread earnings from the lucrative missile program throughout the American aerospace industry, providing jobs for thousands of workers and profits for even more investors, and pleasing politicians with companies in their home districts. The variety of contractors also ensured the wide-spread dissemination of advanced technologies and procedures throughout the industry, in what was effectively a Pentagon-sponsored investment in the education and research of its most vital defense firms.

Minuteman Production Board

Boeing and a group of other associate contractors managed the design and building of the Minuteman I missiles. Because of the large number of contractors involved in the project, contract management for Minuteman production became quite cumbersome and in 1962 Major General Thomas Gerrity, head of the Ballistic Systems Division of the BMD, brought the associate contractors together to seek a more efficient production program in order to ensure a timely completion. [107] Representatives from Boeing, Thiokol, Hercules, Aerojet-General, AVCO, Space Technology Laboratories, and Autonetics were invited to the meeting, which ultimately established the Minuteman Production Board. This group of associate contractors had unprecedented direct participation in assembling the Minuteman system. Each associate contractor had a member on the board. Board members also had the authority to commit to corrective measures to address any production problems that arose. [108] By putting their reputations on the line, and by simultaneously providing each contractor with the flexibility and opportunity to solve any unforeseen problems in their own product, Gerrity's production board managed the Minuteman program with impressive efficiency.


The missile the Air Force and contractors produced was a marvel for its time. Minuteman I stood 55.9 feet long and, when fueled and armed, weighed sixty-five thousand pounds with a maximum speed exceeding fifteen thousand miles per hour. The first Minuteman I, model IA, could travel approximately 4,300 miles, which fell short of the expected range of five thousand miles due to a problem with the swivel nozzles that controlled the missile's propulsion. The Air Force subsequently produced the Minuteman IB, which had an improved second-stage motor housing made of titanium. The new housing improved on the steel housing used for the Minuteman IA, lightening the missile and increasing its range over the Minuteman IA. [109] The Minuteman IB traveled approximately six thousand miles to its target. Both missiles featured an inertial guidance system designed to deliver a single warhead to a preprogrammed target halfway around the world in less than half an hour after launch. [110]

National Site Selection

The Air Force went through a rigorous process of selecting sites to house its Minuteman missiles. During the early stages of Minuteman I deployment, the site location was restricted by the maximum flight distance of the Minuteman IA. This range led the Air Force to search for sites in the northern United States, bringing the missiles within closer range of the Soviet Union. [111]

Other factors restricted site selection for the new Minuteman. For example, sites had to be within the continental United States lest foreign states argue that the housing of missiles on their territory gave them a say in their use. In the early days of the Cold War, for instance, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations encountered the British government's insistence that nuclear weapons aboard American bombers based in the United Kingdom could only be used with London's approval. [112] Additionally, the Air Force required that Minuteman I ICBMs be spaced far enough apart to be considered separate targets, so that one Soviet strike would not debilitate a significant number of American missiles. The missiles also had to be far enough inland to be outside the range of sea-launched Soviet missiles, yet still within effective range of identified enemy targets. To reduce the expense of deploying Minuteman I, the Air Force located the command and support facilities for the new Minuteman weapon system at existing Strategic Air Command (SAC) bases. [113] (For a discussion of SAC, see Section II, Chapter 2: U.S. Air Force, Strategic Air Command, and Ellsworth Air Force Base). By using existing bases, the Air Force took advantage of existing infrastructure, and avoided the need to develop a site from the ground up.

Army Corps of Engineers

The Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) held the responsibility for construction administration and construction of the Minuteman LFs and LCFs. Once the support bases were identified by the Air Force, the Army Corps, the BMD, and SAC Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska sited the individual silo sites. The team worked together, conducting soil analyses and topographical and geographical surveys to help locate the specific locations for the missile silos. [114] By 1960 decisions on site locations had been made and the construction of the Minuteman I LFs and LCFs was well under way. [115]

Given the location of most Minuteman sites on the upper plains, the Omaha District of the Army Corps of Engineers (Omaha District) oversaw the construction of the Minuteman LFs and LCFs. The construction of the LFs was, in the words of historian Ernest Schwiebert, "the largest financial outlay of the ballistic missile program." [116] However, the construction of the facilities for Minuteman I at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota in the early 1960s were estimated by the Army Corps to cost $400,000 per silo, which was significantly cheaper than the cost of the earlier Atlas and Titan systems in the late 1950s and early 1960s at $2 million per silo. The special fueling facilities required for the liquid-fuel ICBMs and smaller size of the Minuteman I resulted in this difference in price, further proof of the Air Force's claim that the Minuteman would save money while providing a more powerful nuclear deterrent. [117]

Typically, the Omaha District supervised the Minuteman installations and planned for their specific location, and then hired private contractors to build the facilities. Omaha's Peter Kiewit Company won the right to serve as prime contractor for construction at many of the missile sites. The Omaha District provided design services and contract management for construction of Minuteman's ground facilities at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, for example, as well as Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, and Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. [118] The construction at Minot Air Force Base displays the scope of the effort required to construct the LFs and LCFs for the Minuteman missile. The Minot site demanded construction of 150 silos and fifteen LCFs in a twelve thousand-square-mile area. During peak construction, Kiewit and its subcontractors employed six thousand workers, 1,100 vehicles, and 115 cranes to keep construction on pace to meet the aggressive project schedule. [119]

By December 1962 Minuteman IA had been deployed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The Air Force also deployed the upgraded Minuteman IB with a titanium second-stage engine case at Ellsworth Air Force Base, Minot Air Force Base, F.E. Warren Air Force Base, and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. The Minuteman I missiles at these bases were clustered around former Atlas complexes. By June 1965, eight hundred silos across the country housed the new Minuteman I ICBMs. [120] The complete installation of the Minuteman I LFs eventually took ten years and faced a range of challenges dependent on the specific conditions at each site. Adverse conditions varied from particularly trying winters to soil conditions that required special engineering techniques to construct structurally sound missile silos and underground LFs. [121]

Once activated, the Minuteman missile was always in a state of readiness requiring less maintenance than earlier missiles and this impact was described by Lt. Col. George V. Leffler, commander of the 100th Strategic Missile Squadron, "The Minuteman is like getting a new car and not getting the keys. You can't drive it. You have no sense of ownership. With a liquid missile, you can run it up out of the silo on the elevator, fuel it, go into the countdown. We can't touch a thing." [122]

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Last Updated: 19-Nov-2003