HomeNewsCommentariesDisplay

The ICBM turns 60

The Titan missile. (Courtesy Photo)

The Titan missile. (Courtesy Photo)

The Titan missile. (Courtesy Photo)

The Titan missile. (Courtesy Photo)

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.
USAF Comments Policy
If you wish to comment, use the text box below. AF reserves the right to modify this policy at any time.

This is a moderated forum. That means all comments will be reviewed before posting. In addition, we expect that participants will treat each other, as well as our agency and our employees, with respect. We will not post comments that contain abusive or vulgar language, spam, hate speech, personal attacks, violate EEO policy, are offensive to other or similar content. We will not post comments that are spam, are clearly "off topic", promote services or products, infringe copyright protected material, or contain any links that don't contribute to the discussion. Comments that make unsupported accusations will also not be posted. The AF and the AF alone will make a determination as to which comments will be posted. Any references to commercial entities, products, services, or other non-governmental organizations or individuals that remain on the site are provided solely for the information of individuals using this page. These references are not intended to reflect the opinion of the AF, DoD, the United States, or its officers or employees concerning the significance, priority, or importance to be given the referenced entity, product, service, or organization. Such references are not an official or personal endorsement of any product, person, or service, and may not be quoted or reproduced for the purpose of stating or implying AF endorsement or approval of any product, person, or service.

Any comments that report criminal activity including: suicidal behaviour or sexual assault will be reported to appropriate authorities including OSI. This forum is not:

  • This forum is not to be used to report criminal activity. If you have information for law enforcement, please contact OSI or your local police agency.
  • Do not submit unsolicited proposals, or other business ideas or inquiries to this forum. This site is not to be used for contracting or commercial business.
  • This forum may not be used for the submission of any claim, demand, informal or formal complaint, or any other form of legal and/or administrative notice or process, or for the exhaustion of any legal and/or administrative remedy.

AF does not guarantee or warrant that any information posted by individuals on this forum is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. AF may not be able to verify, does not warrant or guarantee, and assumes no liability for anything posted on this website by any other person. AF does not endorse, support or otherwise promote any private or commercial entity or the information, products or services contained on those websites that may be reached through links on our website.

Members of the media are asked to send questions to the public affairs through their normal channels and to refrain from submitting questions here as comments. Reporter questions will not be posted. We recognize that the Web is a 24/7 medium, and your comments are welcome at any time. However, given the need to manage federal resources, moderating and posting of comments will occur during regular business hours Monday through Friday. Comments submitted after hours or on weekends will be read and posted as early as possible; in most cases, this means the next business day.

For the benefit of robust discussion, we ask that comments remain "on-topic." This means that comments will be posted only as it relates to the topic that is being discussed within the blog post. The views expressed on the site by non-federal commentators do not necessarily reflect the official views of the AF or the Federal Government.

To protect your own privacy and the privacy of others, please do not include personally identifiable information, such as name, Social Security number, DoD ID number, OSI Case number, phone numbers or email addresses in the body of your comment. If you do voluntarily include personally identifiable information in your comment, such as your name, that comment may or may not be posted on the page. If your comment is posted, your name will not be redacted or removed. In no circumstances will comments be posted that contain Social Security numbers, DoD ID numbers, OSI case numbers, addresses, email address or phone numbers. The default for the posting of comments is "anonymous", but if you opt not to, any information, including your login name, may be displayed on our site.

Thank you for taking the time to read this comment policy. We encourage your participation in our discussion and look forward to an active exchange of ideas.