Air Force Bases

Summary of the US Missile Program

The Cold War produced sweeping changes in the United States' military establishment and society at large. For more than 40 years the nation prepared to fight a war that never came. In the process, the United States reversed its longstanding tradition against maintaining a large peacetime military establishment, and at the same time harnessed the nation's industrial might and scientific genius to fashion the worlds most sophisticated weapons of war. High technology became the ultimate arbiter of military power, and nowhere was the impact of new technology more evident than on the nation's guided missile program. Armed with nuclear warheads, guided missiles quickly became the defining weapons technology of the Cold War.

The Cold War missile program was born of technologies invented during World War II and nurtured by the arms race. Immediately after World War II the United States rapidly demobilized, and the military curtailed its missile research and development (R&D) programs. But by 1950 the world had changed: the Soviet Union had developed atomic weapons and the United States became embroiled in the Korean conflict, which many thought to be a direct provocation by the Soviet Union and China. Confronted with those challenges, in 1950 America began to re-arm.

The 1950s were a tumultuous decade for the U.S. missile program. One persistent problem was interservice rivalry: the Army and the Air Force squabbled over which service would develop surface-to-air missiles, and all three services fought for the right to develop long-range ballistic missiles. There were also internal disputes within the services. The Air Force was notably reluctant to develop long-range ballistic missiles, and it took a considerable amount of external pressure to convince Air Force leadership to develop the ICBM.

Despite fierce interservice rivalries, the missile program grew rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s. The Army won primary responsibility for developing surface-to-air missiles, and by 1958 it had deployed 200 Nike missile batteries across the country. The Air Force's long-range BOMARC air defense missile program was slower taking shape, but by the early 1960s seven squadrons were based along the nation's eastern and northern borders. In addition, the Army also sought to establish a nationwide antiballistic missile defense system, but after 15 years of controversy, the program was canceled in 1972 as a result of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed with the Soviet Union.

After a bitter struggle in the mid-1950s the Air Force won control of the IRBM program, and in 1959 began deploying the missiles overseas. After a slow start with the larger ICBM, the Air Force accelerated the Atlas program in 1954, and in 1955 it began work on a second ICBM-the Titan. Three years later it began work on a third ICBM, the revolutionary solid-fuel Minuteman.

Surviving the explosive controversy that erupted around Sputnik and the so-called missile gap, the Air Force placed its first squadron of Atlas missiles on operational alert in 1960. This deployment was followed by the first Titan squadron in April 1962 and the first flight of 10 Minuteman missiles the following October. With the help of the Army Corps of Engineers Ballistic Missile Construction Office, which was responsible for building the launch complexes and related support facilities, the Air Force deployed 1,054 ICBMs by the end of the decade. Throughout the Cold War the Air Force continually modernized its ICBMs. In 1963 it unveiled the Titan II, followed by the Minuteman II in 1966, the Minuteman III in 1971, and the Peacekeeper in 1986. Over time U.S. ICBMs became progressively more powerful, more accurate, and better hardened to withstand the effects of a nuclear attack.

Looking back over 40 years, several impacts of the Cold War missile program are starkly evident. Within the military establishment, the Cold War missile program altered the services' traditional roles and missions and created the nuclear triad. Furthermore, the missile program recast the relationship between the military, the scientific commu- nity, and industry into what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex.

The missile technology and expertise developed through the Cold War missile program was the foundation for the U.S. civilian space program. Today the descendants of the Atlas, Thor, and Titan missiles are still boosting payloads into space. Moreover, many technologies developed for the missile program, such as computers, miniaturized electronics, inertial guidance systems, and high-performance fuels, have found widespread civilian applications.

The missile program also brought the Cold War home to many Americans. To farmers in the Great Plains, the Cold War suddenly came to life when the Air Force built Minuteman silos among their wheat fields. The Army's Nike missile sites provided an even more striking reminder: many of these batteries were located near the most densely populated areas in the nation, and they provided graphic testimony to the severity of the conflict between the United States and Soviet Union.

There were important economic implications as well. The missile program brought sudden prosperity to sleepy towns like White Sands, New Mexico, and Huntsville, Alabama. Across the nation, tens of thousands of Americans found work building the complex missiles and huge launch facilities that would house the new weapons.

Most of these missile launch sites, built with frantic urgency and at great expense, now stand vacant. The Atlas and Titan I launch facilities were declared surplus in the mid- 1960s. In most cases the Air Force hired contractors to remove all of the salvageable materials, and afterward the sites were turned over to the General Services Administration for disposal. Most of the silos were not readily adaptable for other uses, so there was little commercial interest in the properties.

The Nike facilities, however, were more adaptable. Located near major cities, the Nike bases offered a collection of sturdy concrete buildings and a support infrastructure that could be put to a variety of uses. For example, the Nike battery outside Davidsonville, Maryland, is now a police training academy, and the battery near Gardner, Kansas, has been converted into the Nike Middle School.

In summary, the Cold War missile program left behind a large and diverse collection of artifacts and structures. Today, hundreds of Nike batteries and ICBM launch facilities still dot the countryside. These launch sites, however, reflect only a fraction of the massive U.S. investment in the Cold War missile program. Behind the launch facilities stood hundreds of research laboratories, test sites, production facilities, training centers, and logistics and maintenance facilities. Many of these sites are still in use, but many others have been closed down, put to other use, or simply abandoned. Before these structures and artifacts are either altered or destroyed, it is important that they be examined and cataloged to enable future generations to gain a better understanding of the historical and cultural legacy of the Cold War missile program.