Missile Crisis spurs untested ICBM usage

  • Published
  • By Troy A. Hallsell, PhD
  • 341st Missile Wing History Office
The Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 14, 1962, after an American U–2 surveillance plane photographed Soviet military personnel emplacing medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles throughout Cuba. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s planned deployment of 36 medium range ballistic missiles had a 1,292-mile range with 1-2 megaton warheads that could hold the eastern half of the United States hostage. He sought to spread communism through Latin America, ensure Cuban President Fidel Castro’s communist revolution endured, and project Soviet military strength in the United States’ backyard.

President John F. Kennedy met with his advisors to weigh the United States’ response. On October 22, 1962, Kennedy considered an air strike followed by an invasion of Cuba, but ultimately ordered a naval “quarantine” around the island to avoid a formal declaration of war. That same day, Kennedy issued the Soviet Union a grave warning. In a TV address to the American people, he stated, “It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” The stakes were grave.

As the crisis escalated, the 341st Strategic Missile Wing worked frantically to bring the new Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile on alert. The United States Army Corps of Engineers began construction of the new weapon system’s 15 launch control centers and 150 launch facilities on March 16, 1961. By the time the crisis began, USACE already finished construction on the LCCs and LFs in Alpha flight and completed installing the Minuteman’s technical components. Unfortunately, the wing accepted the Air Force’s first flight of Minuteman ICBMs before Boeing technicians finished their tests; no one was entirely sure this new weapon system would work.

General Thomas Power, the Strategic Air Command commander-in-chief, ordered Col Burton C. Andrus, 341st SMW commander, to find a way to launch the first flight of Minutemen. Andrus did. His Airmen had to “kluge the system.” On October 27, 1962 at 3:07 p.m., the 341st SMW brought the first Minuteman at LF A-06 near Neihart, Montana, on alert. The following day Khrushchev ordered the missiles removed from Cuba.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the first real-world test of the Minuteman ICBM. Reflecting on his experience during the crisis, Andrus had “been in SAC long enough to become convinced that the weapon system had not yet been invented that professional Airmen could not outsmart.” In fact, the Minuteman’s success, along with technical improvements to the emerging Minuteman II ICBM, prompted Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to authorize a 1,000 Minuteman ICBM force. Sixty years later, the 341st Missile Wing continues to “defend America with combat-ready Airmen and ICBM forces.”