Air Force Bases

US ICBM Advocates

Before 1953, ICBM advocates at ARDC had made little headway against their entrenched opposition. That changed in the spring of 1953 when the ICBM program gained two new advocates: Trevor Gardner and Bernard Schriever. Gardner arrived on the scene first. In February 1953 he was appointed Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force for Research and Development. Gardner, 38 years old at the time, was an engineer and businessman who left his job as president of Hycon Manufacturing in Pasadena, California, to join the government.

Gardner was short and stocky, with closely cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Those who liked him called him blunt, outspoken, and a gifted manager. Herbert York, the Director of the Atomic Energy Commission's Livermore Laboratories, described Gardner as "intelligent, vigorous, somewhat volatile, and impatient to make changes quickly." Gardner's opponents were not charitable in their descriptions-they called him "sharp, abrupt, irascible, cold, and a bastard."

James Killian, President Eisenhower's respected science advisor, described Gardner as "technologically evangelical," and the new special assistant wasted little time in making his mark on the Air Force. Soon after taking office Gardner embarked on an aggressive campaign to identify and develop promising new technologies; this led him to the ICBM. Gardner became a zealous proponent of the ICBM because he believed that if the long-range missiles were developed quickly, they offered the United States a tremendous technological opportunity, He envisioned ICBMs providing the nation with a devastating and virtually unstoppable nuclear deterrent, an advantage that would catapult the United States years ahead of the Soviet Union in the arms race. Moreover, Gardner also promoted ICBMs as a way to diversify the nation's strategic nuclear deterrent, which at the time was carried exclusively by the bombers of the Air Force's Strategic Air Command (SAC).

To push the ICBM program forward, however, Gardner needed an ally in the Air Force's R&D community. In March 1953 he found that ally in Brig. Gen. Bernard Schriever, the Assistant for Development Planning under the Deputy Chief of Staff for Development.

A bomber pilot and maintenance officer during World War II, the tall, soft-spoken Schriever joined the Air Staff in 1946. By 1953 he was one of the most influential members of the Air Force's then-small R&D community. Schriever was an ardent proponent of new technology, and within several months he and Gardner had joined forces to promote a stronger role for R&D within Air Force war planning. Together they formed an effective alliance. Schriever was the inside man, familiar with the Air Force's ongoing programs as well as the politics of the R&D process. Gardner made his contribution at the secretarial level. His intuitive grasp of R&D, coupled with his aggressive approach and the strong support he received from his mentor, Secretary of the Air Force Harold Talbott, made him an unusually effective advocate. Gardner also understood the practical limits of his authority, and he was not afraid to go outside of the Air Force to win support for his programs. The Atlas ICBM was a case in point.

Although both Gardner and Schriever recognized that the ICBM had tremendous potential, they were also pragmatists. They understood that their support alone was insufficient to overcome the Air Force's resistance to the missile program. Faced with widespread opposition, they realized that to accelerate the Atlas program they needed two things: a convincing justification and a cadre of influential scientists and engineers who would support their actions.

The justification Gardner and Schriever seized upon was thermonuclear weapons. In the spring of 1953 the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) estimated that by the end of the decade the United States would develop a 1,500-pound thermonuclear warhead with yield of 1 megaton. It is important to note that thermonuclear weapons were not the single missing ingredient that made ICBMs possible; the warheads were only one of several new technologies to be incorporated in the missile. But on a broader scale thermonuclear weapons served as a badly needed catalyst to accelerate the ICBM program. First, the new warheads furnished Gardner and Schriever with an ideal pretext to lobby for taking a fresh look at the ICBM program. Second, because thermonuclear weapons weighed far less and were tremendously more powerful than fission weapons, they made the job of developing an ICBM much less demanding and much less expensive, which in turn made the project politically feasible.

To exploit the thermonuclear technology breakthrough, Gardner and Schriever's first task was to get official confirmation of the SAB's earlier unofficial estimates. They did this through a subcommittee of the SAB's Nuclear Weapons Panel, chaired by the distinguished mathematician John von Neumann of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. The authorization for Von Neumann's study came from Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General Thomas White, who at Gardner and Schriever's urging asked the SAB to estimate the size, weight, and yield of nuclear weapons that could be developed over the coming 6 to 8 years.

Von Neumann's group completed its study in October 1953. To no one's surprise, the Nuclear Weapons Panel confirmed that in the next 6 to 8 years the United States would be able to build a thermonuclear weapon weighing 1,500 pounds and generating an explosive yield of 1 megaton. The panel also observed that the size, shape, and yield of thermonuclear weaponry made it perfectly suited for the ICBM. Equally important, the von Neumann group noted that the new weapons would have a significant impact on the current Atlas program. One of the most notable examples, the subcommittee found, was in the area of guidance accuracy. In light of the thermonuclear warheads greatly enhanced yield, von Neumann reasoned that the Atlas guidance requirements should be eased considerably. He recommended expanding the CEP to a range of 3.2 to 4.5 miles, almost 16 times larger than the original 1,500-foot specification.

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Early ICBM Development
ICBM Technology
ICBM Advocates
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