Early Development of the Strategic Missile Force
To bolster the nation's strategic nuclear deterrent, the Army Air Forces (the predecessor of the Air Force) had been working since 1946 to develop two types of strategic missiles: the winged, air-breathing missile and the futuristic ballistic missile.
The air-breathing missiles looked and performed like aircraft. They had wings to generate aerodynamic lift, used jet engines that required an external oxygen supply, and were powered and guided throughout their flight. In contrast, the ICBM was bullet-shaped, carried an internal oxygen supply, and the majority of its parabolic trajectory was outside the earth's atmosphere. It was called a ballistic missile because once the warhead reached the apogee of its flight path, it followed a ballistic trajectory to its target.
The Air Force's two air-breathing missile programs, the Snark and the Navaho, began in 1945 and 1946, respectively The 70-foot long Snark had a top speed of nearly 600 miles per hour and could carry a 7,000-pound warhead 5,000 miles. The Navaho was a more ambitious project. It was equivalent in size and range to the Snark, but was propelled by two powerful ramjet engines that gave it a top speed of 2,150 miles per hour.
Until 1954 the Air Force favored the air-breathing missiles over ICBMs because it believed the former would be easier to build and was a convenient technological midpoint in a the development of an ICBM. Both were assumptions. The Snark and Navaho programs were beset with severe guidance d control problems that were never adequately resolved. After spending hundreds of million of dollars, the Air Force canceled the Navaho program in 1958. It briefly deployed one squadron of Snark missiles in the early 1960s.
While the Air Force was spending huge amounts of money on its air-breathing missiles, the Atlas ICBM program, which began in 1946, languished in obscurity. Many Air Force officers dismissed the ICBM as "Buck Rogers" stuff. The critics charged that the ICBM was not technologically feasible; they also begrudged it the money it was diverting from the service's aircraft development programs.
Given the technology of the day, the ICBM was a radically new weapon. The Atlas stood 82 feet tall, was 10 feet in diameter, and powered by three large liquid-fuel rocket boosters. Depending on the propulsion system and payload, Atlas had a range of 5,500 to 6,750 nautical miles and a guidance system accurate enough to land the warhead within 2 nautical miles of its target. Flying at nearly 16,000 miles per hour, a flight of 6,750 miles would take just 43 minutes. Moreover, once in flight, the ICBM was virtually impossible to intercept.
After considerable foot-dragging, the Air Force accelerated the Atlas program in the spring of 1954; then progress became rapid. But Atlas was not the only ICBM program underway in the late 1950s. In 1955 the Air Force began work on a second ICBM, the large liquid-fuel Titan, as a hedge in case the Atlas failed. Three years later it started work on a third ICBM, the solid-fuel Minuteman.
In the late summer of 1957 the Soviet Union boasted it had an operational ICBM, and the following October shocked the West when it launched Sputnik. As the tiny satellite whirled around the earth, Congress demanded to know the status of the American missile program and the phrase "missile gap" entered the political lexicon. Beginning in June 1959 the Air Force, in conjunction with its European allies, deployed seven squadrons of Thor and Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in Europe. The IRBMs had a range of 1,500 miles and were based in Great Britain, Italy, and Turkey. Within the United States the first Atlas ICBMs went on operational alert in September 1959, followed by the first Titan squadron in April 1962, and the first ten Minuteman missiles in October 1962. The Air Force continued to deploy ICBMs throughout the decade, and by 1969 1,054 missiles stood poised in their underground silos.