Air Force Bases

Early US ICBM Development

While the Army consolidated its missile development program at Huntsville, the Air Force allowed its ICBM program to languish. With a skepticism bred from extensive operational experience, few in the Air Staff (the planning body within the Headquarters, U.S. Air Force) believed that the ICBM could reliably and effectively attack targets at intercontinental range. Instead, the Air Force chose to invest in new bombers and, to a lesser extent, long-range air-breathing missiles.

Despite widespread hostility, a small group of ICBM advocates composed of Air Force officers and their allies in industry lobbied for the Air Force to resume its support of the ICBM program. Recent events strengthened their hand: the Soviets had developed an atomic bomb, NSC-68 recommended that the United States diversify its nuclear deterrent, and defense spending was on the rise. Even more promising, in late 1950 a study by the Rand Corporation indicated that recent advances in engines and guidance systems made the ICBM technologically feasible.

This combination of events at home and abroad prompted the Air Staff to look at the ICBM program in a new light, and in January 1951 it resurrected the ICBM. Although the new study contract was essentially a continuation of the MX-774, the project was given a new name: MX-1593. Under the terms of the contract, the Air Force directed Convair to study the feasibility of developing a ballistic missile capable of carrying an 8,000-pound warhead 5,000 miles and striking within a circular error probable (CEP) of 1,500 feet.

Convair completed the missile study in July 1951. The airframe manufacturer concluded that its long-range ballistic missile, which it now called Atlas, was technologically feasible, and it urged the Air Force to begin development without delay. Convair then submitted the study to the newly independent Air Research and Development Command (ARDC). ARDC shared Convair's sentiments. In September 1951 Brig. Gen. John Sessums, the ARDC Deputy for Development, strongly urged the Air Staff to begin development of a long-range ballistic missile immediately, and requested additional funding to support the effort.

The Air Staff did not share ARDC's enthusiasm for the ICBM. It refused to fund a full-scale development effort and ordered ARDC to limit its activities to a preliminary test program. ARDC protested the Air Staff's decision, noting that the Atlas guidance system, engines, flight-control apparatus, and fuselage had already been tested successfully. It "urgently recommended" that the Air Staff establish a formal requirement for a long-range ballistic missile. With the "proper application of funds and priorities," ARDC believed Atlas could be operational by 1960. Furthermore, ARDC warned that the Soviet Union might also be developing an ICBM, and cautioned that if Atlas were delayed, "we may be running a grave risk of being subjected to an intense bombardment to which we may not be able to retaliate.

The sparring between ARDC and the Air Staff continued for the next 2 years; ARDC wanting to plunge into an ambitious development plan with an eye toward production while the Air Staff favored a slower approach to begin with additional research. In 1953 the two sides finally reached a compromise that yielded a development plan. No definitive date was set for completing the R&D phase; instead planners estimated it would be "sometime" after 1964. The development plan provided for an operational capability in 1965, but noted that this date could be moved ahead by 2 or 3 years with additional support.

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The Beginning of Rearmament
Early ICBM Development
ICBM Technology
ICBM Advocates
The Teapot Committee