Minuteman Missle
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Section II — Life on the South Dakota Plains: Before, During, and After Minuteman

Chapter 2:
U.S. Air Force, Strategic Air Command, and Ellsworth Air Force Base (1940s—90s)


Air combat became the dominant brand of warfare during World War II, prompting a major restructuring of American military aviation after 1945. Following establishment of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in 1946, the National Security Act of 1947 established the U.S. Air Force as an independent branch of the military. These were the institutions that directed America's strategic deterrent through the Cold War. Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, established in 1942 as an Army airfield, became part of the Air Force and SAC. As the following pages will demonstrate, in the mid-twentieth century SAC activated intercontinental bomb and missile wings at Air Force bases throughout the country that assisted in deterring a major conflict between the world's superpowers. Of course the superpowers battled throughout the Cold War in proxy wars throughout the developing world (in Korea and Vietnam most famously), but the type of awesome destructive power embodied in the Minuteman program was designed for another purpose: for the global thermonuclear conflict no one wanted to fight.

The U.S. Air Force originated as the Aeronautical Division of the Army Signal Corps in 1907. In the words of one official Air Force history, this predecessor oversaw "all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects." [166] In subsequent years, the Army Aeronautical Division became the Air Service, the Air Corps, and finally the Army Air Forces, before emerging as the U.S. Air Force. [167] Aviation strategists argued throughout World War II that an independent airpower branch could best manage the complexities of modern air warfare. American pilots, moreover, chafed at the independent air forces they saw within the British and Soviet militaries. The establishment of the Air Force as an independent agency was the particular vision of General Henry H. Arnold (known to his men as "Hap"), a thirty-nine-year veteran of the United States military. In a report on the conduct of the air war during World War II Arnold suggested "three autonomous services, each of which has an equal and direct share of the total responsibility." [168] He speculated that a separated Air Force, Army, and Navy would form a balanced military that ensured efficiency by reducing duplicate efforts. On 26 July 1947, when the National Security Act became law, Arnold and those like him finally had their wish, and two months later President Truman appointed W. Stuart Symington as Secretary of the Air Force and General Carl A. Spaatz as the first Chief of Staff. [169]

When the Air Force separated from the Army, it gained control over all surface-to-surface aircraft and strategic missiles through SAC. While the new service took command of all area air defense missiles, the Army retained control of missiles used to protect Army field forces from air attack. [170] In the 1950s, when the nation entered the Space Age with the development of nuclear strategic weapons and ballistic missiles, the Department of Defense called upon Air Force bases around the country, such as Ellsworth Air Force Base, to operate and maintain bombers and missiles administered through SAC. Air Force personnel began training for new duties as missileers and missile support staff. Today, the Air Force continues to operate Minuteman III and Peacekeeper Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) administered by U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), SAC's successor. [171]

To better explore the strategic role of South Dakota's Minuteman ICBMs, a brief history of SAC, Ellsworth Air Force Base, and the 44th Strategic Missile Wing (SMW) follows. (A chart outlining the organizational structure of the U.S. Air Force is located at the end of this chapter.)

Strategic Air Command

The U.S. Army Air Forces established SAC on 21 March 1946 as one of three major combat commands of the agency. While the Air Defense Command provided protection for the continental United States and the Tactical Air Command supported the Army and the Navy in the field, SAC, the offensive branch, became the foundation of the nation's defense against the growing threat of atomic war. [172] SAC became a part of the Air Force in 1947, but continued its role as chief administer of all of the military's strategic nuclear weapons and central communication node for deployment of these powerful weapons.

Located first at Bolling Field in the District of Columbia, SAC's headquarters quickly moved to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Initially, SAC was comprised of the 8th Air Force, headquartered at Fort Worth, Texas, and the 15th Air Force, headquartered at Colorado Springs, Colorado, and included eighteen bases and nine bomber groups. The command's first atomic weapon operation was "Operation Crossroads," which tested the effects of air-dropped and submerged atomic detonations on naval targets off the Bikini Islands in the South Pacific.

With expanding responsibilities, however, SAC eventually required larger facilities. In November 1948 the Air Force relocated SAC Headquarters to Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska, well beyond the existing nuclear range of the nation's enemies at that time. Remaining in the Washington, D.C., area would have interrupted SAC's training missions, due to the existing heavy air traffic in the area. Furthermore, although forty bases were candidates for SAC's new headquarters, Offutt provided a good mid-continent location that had existing runways, large hangars, and support facilities. The organization's successor USSTRATCOM remains headquartered at Offutt to this day. [173]

With the outbreak of the Korean conflict in 1950 and subsequent invention of the hydrogen bomb—a device capable of creating a far greater destructive force than the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the arms race between the superpowers significantly accelerated. President Eisenhower called for a reexamination of the national defense upon entering office in 1953, and his demand, made partly to alleviate the country's need for an expensive massive standing army, resulted in an increased reliance on nuclear weapons and air power to deter warfare. His administration consequently invested more of the nation's defense funding in the Air Force than his predecessors had, and much of this new money went to SAC. While retaining key elements of the nation's security policy devised under President Truman, such as the doctrine of containment, the Eisenhower Administration publicly advanced a policy of "massive retaliation" in which the U.S. would not limit its response to future aggression. [174] Soviet military incursions into Europe, for example, would be met by nuclear strikes at Moscow. If such an awful event came to pass, SAC would deliver the blow. By the end of 1953 it administered seventeen atomic wings, eleven of which were equipped with armed bombers and crews, and the number of personnel continued to grow. In the 1950s SAC personnel grew from 85,000 to 262,000, many of whom were civilians employed for SAC support. [175]

Armed with the mission of deterring aggression, SAC employed both air- and surface-launched guided missiles. Air-launched missiles included the Quail and Hound Dog fired from the B-52 bomber and the Short Range Attack Missile, launched from the B-52 and the FB-111. Surface-launched missiles included the Snark, the Thor and Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missiles, and the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman ICBMs. [176] By the 1960s the combination of the Air Force's bombers and ICBMs with the Navy's missile-launching submarines formed SAC's "triad" in deterring nuclear warfare against the nation. [177] With three nuclear options, American strategists reasoned, no foe would be able to silence America's potential nuclear response.

While SAC oversaw these programs and made decisions regarding bombers and missiles, the Air Force bases supported the organization's installations. Although the Air Force operated and maintained the missiles, SAC gave all orders pertaining to strategic weapons in the military; including wing assignments and which military bases would be assigned nuclear weapons. SAC decided on the location of ICBM installments, assigned squadrons, and installed missiles near existing Air Force bases to take advantage of their support facilities. SAC also gave orders on the proximity of ICBMs to other silos and communities.

SAC commanders determined when strategic bombers and ICBMs were activated, when they were placed on alert or heightened alert status, and when they were deactivated. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, SAC required for the first time that all twelve Series F Atlas ICBMs go on alert at four Strategic Missile Squadrons (SMS), including the 550th SMS at Schilling Air Force Base in Kansas, the 551st SMS at Lincoln Air Force Base in Nebraska, the 577th SMS at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, and the 578th SMS at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. [178] A decade later, in October 1973, SAC placed the 44th Strategic Missile Wing (SMW) at Ellsworth Air Force Base on increased alert status as a result of anticipated Soviet interference in the Arab-Israeli War. [179] Of course, the execution of these commands came only at the order of the President and his National Security Council.

Another duty of SAC in overseeing the Minuteman program was determining the effectiveness of the Air Force's combat crews. SAC assigned an Inspector General (IG) to each Air Force base. Each IG would perform Operational Readiness Inspections (ORI) at ICBM Launch Control Facilities (LCFs) at their base. The first ORI took place at the 706th SMW at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming in July and August 1961. While SAC rarely distributed excellent ratings, Ellsworth's 44th SMW received several excellent scores throughout its history. [180]

Throughout its existence, according to Air Force lore, SAC's emblem and motto symbolized the institution's goals. The emblem was a sky-blue, shield-shaped image with an armored arm grasping a green olive branch and three red lightning bolts. Official histories note that the blue background represented Air Force operations, while the armored arm symbolized strength, power, and loyalty. The olive branch symbolized peace and the lightning flashes represented speed and power, all qualities of SAC's mission. The group's original motto, "War is our profession—Peace is our product," proved offensive to some, however, and the slogan was changed to "Maintaining Peace is our Profession." The Air Force changed the motto once more in 1958 (after an artist found there were too many words to paint on a sign that advertised a reenlistment campaign), choosing the pithier "Peace is our Profession." [181]

All discussion of slogans and emblems aside, SAC proved a uniquely dedicated and motivated organization throughout its history. Its crew, staff, and pilots believed their work necessary to maintaining the peace, and to deterring Soviet aggression worldwide. In its early years especially, under the leadership of its hard-charging commander General Curtis LeMay, SAC's personnel developed a reputation for working harder, faster, and longer than the bomber wings that preceded it. Its planes set records for endurance in the air, and maintained a constant presence in the skies in case of surprise Soviet attack. LeMay's reputation as a military hawk, and his belief that nuclear war could be won—at a time when many leaders, Eisenhower in particular, considered nuclear war a sure loser for all—later prompted criticism from historians, peace activists, and even his political superiors. President John Kennedy, for one, never forgot or apparently forgave the General for advocating immediate bombing missions at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, advice the President believed would have led directly to the nuclear war he strove to avoid. Indeed, even movie directors lampooned LeMay, as the bombastic and paranoid General Buck Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) of Stanley Kubrick's 1964 Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was modeled after the SAC Commander. He preferred to cultivate another image, that of the hard-working and dedicated public servant, charged with a mission others neither liked nor would accept, the kind of commander pictured in the Jimmy Stewart classic film, 1955's Strategic Air Command. LeMay and SAC aided in the production of the latter, even assigning a colonel as the movie's technical director. Not surprisingly, Dr. Strangelove never received the Air Force's official endorsement. Nine years (and successive world crises such as Berlin and Cuba) made quite a difference in cinematic portrayals of SAC and its commander. [182]

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, SAC was officially deactivated 1 May 1992 and was replaced by the U.S. Strategic Command, known as USSTRATCOM. On 1 October 2002 USSTRATCOM and U.S. Space Command both disestablished and a new U.S. Strategic Command stood up at Offutt Air Force Base, responsible for both missions.

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Last Updated: 19-Nov-2003