The ICBM turns 60
By Troy A. Hallsell, 341st Missile Wing Historian
/ Published October 31, 2019
MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- On Oct. 31, 1959, the United States Air Force’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, the SM-65D Atlas, went on alert at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
Assigned to the 576th Strategic Missile Squadron, the U.S. Air Force deployed Atlas ICBMs above ground in a three-by-one launch configuration. The missile was 82.5 feet in length, 10 feet in diameter and weighed 276,136 pounds when fueled.
It had a range as far as 9,000 miles and was equipped with a W49 1.44-megaton warhead. Given the missile’s size, its launch site resembled a small village.
The launch operations building, which housed the launch crew, was a reinforced concrete two-story structure measuring 73 feet by 78 feet.
The guidance operations building that sent course corrections to the missile in flight was a 75 foot by 212 foot one-story building with a reinforced concrete basement.
Finally, the power plant housed three large, diesel generators and water pumps in a 63 foot by 65 foot single-story concrete block building.
Despite the weapon system’s short lifespan, it paved the way for the Minuteman ICBM.
President Dwight Eisenhower believed the Atlas could plug the perceived missile gap between the United States and the United Soviet Socialist Republic.
Following the USSR’s launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, the Sputnik-I, on Oct. 4, 1957, the U.S. accelerated its ICBM program aboard an R-7 Semyorka ICBM.
“These scientific accomplishments of theirs have provided us all with renewed evidence of Soviet competence in science and techniques important to modern warfare,” said President Eisenhower. “We must, and do, regard this as a time for another critical re-examination of our entire defense position.”
From 1955 to 1957, Congress and the U.S. Air Force increased the ICBM research and devolvement budget from $161 million to $1.3 billion, with a $1.3 billion supplement in 1959 to ramp up ICBM production.
The U.S. Air Force rushed to deploy its 13 Atlas missile squadrons to bases across the U.S., finding homes as far west as Fairchild AFB, Washington, to Plattsburgh AFB, New York.
Once home, some missiles sat exposed on the launch pad until launch, others slumbered horizontally until needed, with the E-series based in hardened silos.
But almost as soon as the U.S. Air Force fielded the Atlas, it was decided it was of limited use. The ICBM’s largest shortcoming was the liquid fuel system.
Not only was the liquid fuel volatile—explosions destroyed four Atlas silos during fueling operations—but the complicated, propellant-loading system required engineers to design a larger missile.
The Atlas required a large launch site with supporting buildings, operation crews and maintenance crews.
It was simply too expensive and the U.S. Air Force replaced the Atlas with the Minuteman I in 1958, ending the Atlas program in 1965.
As a solid-fuel missile, engineers could develop a smaller 53.8-foot, lighter 65,000-pound weapon that needed fewer materials to construct its launch control centers and launch facilities.
The U.S. Air Force would use less land, less maintenance and a smaller operations crew to man it, making it a much cheaper alternative to the Atlas.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began excavating and constructing the first flight of Minuteman I LCCs and LFs at Malmstrom AFB, Montana, in March 1961.
The 341st Strategic Missile Wing placed the first-ever MM I on alert at LF A-06 near Monarch, MT, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It has since been the United States’ ‘Silent Sentinel’.
Despite its short lifespan, the Atlas was vital to the development of the Minuteman I.
The Atlas’s technical flaws encouraged engineers to switch to a solid fuel system that allowed them to shrink the Minuteman’s overall size and physical requirements.
Reflecting on the weapon system’s role in national security and international affairs, the ICBM was an integral pillar to the U.S.’ nuclear deterrent mission.
With the next generation ICBM in research and development, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, the U.S. Air Force hopes it can pick up where the Atlas and Minuteman left off and serve as the next nuclear deterrent for another generation.