ICBMs: A strategic umbrella for 50 years

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Everett H. Thomas
  • Commander, Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center
This year marks a major milestone in Air Force history as we recognize the dawn of a new era in the use of technology that has contributed so greatly to national security for the past 50 years.

Since October 1959, when the nuclear-armed Atlas D went on alert for the first time in the United States, intercontinental ballistic missiles have protected the nation, its allies, and friends as the only land-based strategic deterrent of would-be aggressors.

Through many long years of the Cold War and beyond, we've lived under the strategic umbrella of the ICBM force, secure in the knowledge that no potential adversary would risk touching off a nuclear exchange that would result in its own destruction.

This anniversary is another highlight in a continuing theme going back to the Air Force's establishment as a separate service. You may not know that Strategic Air Command was formed after the end of World War II and before the creation of the Air Force. SAC grew out of all the lessons learned from years of intense wartime bombing missions. Those missions proved the unprecedented combination of speed, range, lethality and precision brought by airpower alone.

When SAC was formed in 1946, Gen. Tooey Spatz gave it three missions: long-range offensive operations, maximum-range reconnaissance and intense/sustained combat operations employing the latest and most advanced weapons. In those three missions, you can see the precursors to the Air Force's core missions of global reach, vigilance and power.

In short, there might never have been a separate Air Force if not for the creation of SAC. The deterrence mission, and by extension, the nuclear mission, is in the Air Force's DNA. It's part of the very founding of the service.

Today, no one else provides reach, vigilance and power 24/7/365 outside the nuclear force. There are no defensive flying caps covering America's airspace, no mass of troops at the nation's border, no fleet of ships along the shores. It's the strategic force that led to Air Force independence, and it's the nuclear force that stands guard around the clock today. Therefore, this golden anniversary of the missile force is highly significant.

Fifty years of ICBM service is a long time. To put that in personal context, it's just a little less than my entire lifetime. In that span, two full generations of Americans were born under the ICBM safety net. We haven't known a world without ICBMs.

Some of us, including me, even went into the ICBM business. I can tell you from experience that it is an awesome responsibility for a young person to hold, quite literally, the key to so much power in his hands. That duty is one we respect greatly and work hard to perform with precision.

My background as a missileer and maintainer serves me well in my position as the commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center. That field perspective helps form my daily decisions that affect reinvigorating the Air Force's nuclear enterprise.

Because ICBMs are national assets and reflect national will, supporting them is a massive undertaking, accomplished by teams of professionals in many disciplines who must reach the highest levels of performance. Perfection is the only acceptable standard, and that's not an easy mark to achieve. It demands your best at all times.

Preserving and building on the lessons of 50 years of ICBM operations are vital to achieving excellence across the Air Force culture. Those lessons also carry over into other mission areas and even into your lives away from work. Attending to the details, focusing on the mission, being accountable and performing at your best are hallmarks of the United States Air Force and some of the many reasons I have been proud to serve for 29 years.

Of course, it is the people in an institution who make it what it is, and I have the highest regard for the people, past and present, who have served and continue to serve this cause that is greater than any of us individually. Together, we have achieved monumental feats in the ICBM arena and together, we will sustain excellence and exceed even those achievements for many years to come.