An overview of the Air Force nuclear mission

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Reggie Manning
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles
In early rocketry, China is credited with inventing the first known rocket system to be used in combat during the 13th century. These weapons were primarily used for incendiary purposes and were rudimentary consisting of a bamboo tube filled with black powder. Throughout time, the world has studied the science of rocketry and missile development, eventually leading up to the production of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. What once was an art of shooting sparks out of a pipe to light up the shadows of battles, has evolved into countries holding the capability to end civilization with the push of a button.

After World War ll, the United States faced post war issues within budget cuts. With all military branches seeking research on long-range missiles, the National Defense budget was cut tremendously, hindering any further development. Upon learning that the Soviet Union had, in fact, gained possession and intelligence of an atomic bomb, President Truman ordered that defense spending would need to rise to $40 billion; almost a 300 percent increase.

Although the American public, as well as the government, believed profoundly in the American technology supremacy, the world in its entirety became shocked once the Soviet Union placed the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik l, into orbit. On edge, Congress was curious to know why the Soviet's were so far ahead of American missile development. The moment that Sputnik whirled into orbit, America's ICBM program was brought into national spotlight and furious political debates arose over the defense policy.

In November 1958, Senator John F. Kennedy spoke out against the Eisenhower administration and accused the President of placing fiscal policy ahead of national security.

"The nation faced a peril more deadly than any wartime danger we have ever known," Kennedy said.

In response, President Eisenhower made the decision to build the Thor and the Jupiter ICBM. He also increased the number of Atlas squadrons from four to nine, brought forth the Titan ll ICBM program and authorized the Air Force to develop the solid-fuel Minuteman.

In the late 1950's, the nation's ICBM force expanded considerably. The Air Force hoped to have a fleet of 120 Atlas missiles in place by 1960 and in 1956 President Eisenhower thought that 150 well-targeted missiles might be enough to deter a Soviet first strike.

But with the pressure of the Cold War, the ICBM program grew rapidly.

With the Air Force developing the missiles on a 'concept of concurrency' tactic, meaning that they were designing and testing the weapons at the same time that the launch facilities were being built, made it extremely difficult for the engineers to reach completion. With sporadic modifications being implemented during construction, the total cost of changes was $96 million, a 40 percent increase of the base contract price.

The launch facilities eventually evolved overtime. The Air Force based the missiles in progressively more secure facilities, and beginning with the Titan ll, the ICBM's could be launched within their silos, opposed to being stored above ground vulnerable to attack.

While the United States was strengthening its ICBM force, the Soviet Union wasn't sitting idly by. Though they produced a few failed attempts at accurate ICBMs, to the Soviets, this was a start.

Even though America and the Soviet Union had desperately battled for decades over nuclear superiority, threats became a potential reality for the American public during the Cuban Missile Crisis. With the Soviet missiles having only short range capability, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev devised a strategic plan of deploying intermediate-range missiles along the coast of Cuba. This scheme was well welcomed by Fidel Castro, who was looking for a way to defend his island nation against another U.S. invasion. During the summer of 1962, the Soviet Union worked secretly to build missile installations along the shores of Cuba.

On Oct. 15, 1962, the crisis officially began for the United States when a reconnaissance photograph revealed Soviet missiles under construction in Cuba. President Kennedy imposed a naval quarantine of the island and demanded that the Soviets remove all offensive weapons from the territory. With tension and possible panic rising from the American public, Kennedy ordered low-level reconnaissance missions once every two hours and raised military readiness to DEFCON2. It was during these heart-stopping times that the first 10 Minuteman ICBMs were placed on alert at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

The Soviets sent letters with demands, initially agreeing to remove their missiles if the U.S. vowed to never invade Cuba. On Oct. 27, 1962, a second letter was received demanding that the U.S. remove all of the Jupiter ICBMs from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet missiles in Cuba. It was Attorney General Robert Kennedy who suggested ignoring the second letter and contacted the Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to inform him that the U.S. would agree to the initial set of demands.

On Oct. 28, 1962, Khrushchev announced that he would dismantle the installations and return all of the missiles to the Soviet Union. The crisis was over, but the world barely avoided a catastrophic nuclear war.

With the public still fearing for their security, President Kennedy assured the nation of the Minuteman weapon system and how it was a valuable asset during the crisis; he referred to it as his "Ace in the Hole."

From simple rocketry as basic as a Sparkler firework, the world has advanced into missile systems with the capability of striking anywhere on the planet within a moment's notice. Missiles developed from merely having a target range of a few yards, into being able to carry multiple nuclear warheads and strike intercontinental locations.

To the men and women who devote their lives daily to securing, maintaining and monitoring these weapons, the nation must pray that the day never comes that we must release the ace from its hole.

Nuclear Capable Bombers
When many people reflect on the end of World World ll, they automatically credit the success to the atomic bombs that devastated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But these actions wouldn't have been feasible without the carrying capacity and range of Enola Gay and Bockscar, the B-29's that flew those missions. U.S. bombers played an essential role in WWll, but by the start of the Korean War, the very planes that changed the approach to nuclear warfare were obsolete.

Today, the Air Force currently has two bombers that frequently answer the call of duty; the B-52 Stratofortress and the B-2 Spirit.

April 15, 2012, marks the 60th anniversary of the first time the bird got its feathers wet; the B-52 was America's first long-range, swept-wing heavy bomber. Due to its colossal size, crew members nicknamed it BUFF, short for Big Ugly Fat Fellow.

Weighing in at 185,000 pounds with a wingspan of 185 feet, the B-52 has a capable altitude of 50,000 ft.

The B-52 specializes in strategic attack, close air support, air interdiction, offensive counter-air and maritime operations. The unrefueled range of the B-52 is 8,800 miles and with the support of aerial refueling, the aircraft's range is nearly limitless.

The B-52 was a tremendous asset to the success of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The massive bomber flew night missions and was proficient at providing close air support through the use of precision guided munitions.

The last B-52s made were the H-models. The final aircraft made rolled off of the Boeing Factory assembly line with the tail number 61-0040 on Oct. 26, 1962. The nearly 60-year-old BUFF still flies to this day out of Minot Air Force Base, N.D.; Barksdale AFB, La., is also home to the B-52.

The B-2 Spirit bomber rolled out of its hangar at Air Force Plant 42; Palmdale, Calif., on Nov. 22, 1988, and shocked the public with its futuristic design. The multi-role bomber, capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear munitions, and its stealthy structure made the B-2 stand out among any other bomber before its time.

With the B-2's low profile and other technological advancements, the aircraft is invisible to radar and physically unnoticeable by eye, until it's too late. These features make the bomber a demoralizing weapon, capable of penetrating the most sophisticated defenses and brutally taking down any enemy target.

The B-2 took flight for the first time on July 17, 1989. The first model, named Spirit of Missouri, was delivered Dec. 17, 1993. Unlike the B-52's crew of five, the B-2 is operated by a two-man team.

The current home of the B-2 Spirit is Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.

Weighing at 160,000 pounds with wingspan of 172 feet, the B-2's design seems extraterrestrial like when viewed from the ground. The installment of the B-2 was a vast leap forward in technology and since creation it has proved itself, as well as the U.S. Air Force, to have aerial superiority.

With the advancement of aerial technology and military war tactics, the U.S. Air Force needed a new set of tools to sustain Air Power dominance. The establishment of the B-52 and the B-2 increased the strength of the air arm of the nuclear triad.

Information on ICBMs was taken from the following websites:; and the book To Defend and Deter by John C. Lonnquest and David F. Winkler.

Information on Bombers was taken from the following websites:, and