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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Development of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and Deployment of the Minuteman

To understand why the Minuteman Missile was such an astounding innovation it is vital to first learn about the missile systems which preceded it. At first the Soviets were able to outperform the United States due to the massive amount of time, energy, and money they put into their program. By 1957 Soviet efforts had resulted in the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7 Semyorka. The R-7 missile relied on liquid fuel and four strap-on booster rockets to propel the vehicle after its initial launch. Though the R-7 was considered a great innovation it was burdened by outrageous costs and other inefficiencies. For instance, large launch sites had to be constructed in extremely remote areas. These sites cost up to five percent of the Soviet defense budget. The R-7 also took 20 hours of preparation on the launch pad before it could be launched. American bombers in Alaska, Asia, or Europe would have more than enough time to destroy the rocket while it sat on the launch pad. Nonetheless, it seemed to Americans that the Soviets had once again taken the technological lead.

Unknown by many Americans, a behind-the-scenes effort was underway to develop an even better missile system for the U.S. Air Force leadership enacted a special branch known as the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) to oversee the new missile program. They contracted with a corporation known as Convair to develop a ballistic missile. This weapon--later known as the Atlas--was to carry a nuclear warhead within 300 yards of a target 5,000 miles away. President Eisenhower accelerated the program after he had taken office in 1953. Experts believed that the program would take around six years to produce a workable missile.

The main problem with liquid fuel systems was the danger caused by the highly flammable fuel. Because this fuel was not inserted until just before a launch, it had to be stored safely until that very moment. The slightest spark could cause an explosion which might endanger the lives of on-site crews and destroy the entire launch facility. Another issue was the heavy weight of the fuel, which caused problems in getting the rocket off the ground. The first Atlas was gigantic, weighing 267,000 pounds. This weight was mainly due to the heavy fuel and massive engines which gave the rocket enough thrust to propel it into flight. By 1958, an Atlas had been successfully tested and by the next year several were placed in the first active missile fields. Yet the Air Force was not totally satisfied with the Atlas system. The liquid fuel caused several accidents. In addition, the time taken to pump the fuel into the rocket caused at least a 15 minute delay before lift off. The Soviets were developing submarine launched ballistic missiles which when fired from just off the Atlantic or Pacific coasts could destroy Atlas missiles before they were ready for launch. Fortunately the Air Force had been working on a new top secret missile program, which would solve many of these problems. It involved a concept known as solid fuel and an innovative weapon which came to be known as the Minuteman.

During the mid-1950s scientists were already developing solid-fuel missiles to replace the dangerous liquid-fueled Atlas, and its follow-up missile system, the Titan. Solid fuel had a number of advantages, including safety, cost effectiveness, and reliability. In 1958 the Air Force approved a design for a solid-fueled missile. This missile was the brainchild of Lt. Col. Edward Hall, who compiled the knowledge from existing studies and technologies to develop a new and improved design. With solid-fuel technology a missile would be able to lie dormant for long periods of time with limited maintenance and upkeep. The cost of production would be about one-fifth the cost of an Atlas. Most importantly, it had the ability to be remotely controlled. Within minutes of receiving a launch command it could be airborne to strike targets in the central Soviet Union. Hall named it the "Minuteman" because of this quick strike ability. As an added bonus the Soviets were far behind in developing solid-fuel rockets.

Both American politicians and military planners wanted the Minuteman operational and in the field as soon as possible because of a perceived "missile gap" with the Soviets. Less than three weeks after the launch of Sputnik in late 1957, a panel had told the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that the Soviets would be mass producing missiles by decade's end. Conversely, the United States would be hard pressed to deploy a workable system with a few missiles. In the presidential election of 1960, Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy won the election against Richard Nixon in part because of the perceived "missile gap" and its devastating consequences. Though the "missile gap" would eventually be proven false, public perception and political pressure resulted in accelerating the schedule for the Minuteman project. The Minuteman had been set for operational use by 1963, but a monumental effort by the Air Force and its contracting partners resulted in the first missile field activated on October 24th, 1962, at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.

The first Minuteman missiles went on high alert--awaiting a possible warfare situation--at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a crisis brought about by the Soviet attempt to deploy missiles in Cuba. Cuba had been an ally of the United States for decades, but in the late 1950s a revolution led to a communist government taking control of the country. Americans could feel communism literally knocking at the nation's back door. Cuba was less then 100 miles from the southern mainland of the United States. This could have resulted in strikes against the southern United States with only perhaps a minute of warning. President Kennedy issued orders for a naval quarantine of Cuba, whereby Soviet ships would not be allowed to pass through with vital military supplies. The quarantine was really a blockade that could have been interpreted by the Soviets as a declaration of war. Fortunately for both sides, cooler heads prevailed. The Soviets decided not to challenge such a show of force and a negotiated settlement was reached. The Soviets agreed to remove all of their missile installations in Cuba. For their part, the United States also agreed to dismantle missiles they had installed on the Soviet border in Turkey. The world had barely avoided a nuclear war.

The United States continued to fear for its security, but realized that the Minuteman weapons system had been a valuable asset during the crisis. President Kennedy referred to it as his "Ace in the Hole." Over the next two years, hundreds of Minuteman Missile silos and support structures would be constructed across the Great Plains landscape, including the state of South Dakota. This missile defense system was not necessarily meant for first-strike capability, but rather to uphold the basic Cold War strategy of "mutually assured destruction." In other words, a nuclear war could not be won. If a war was started (for example, a missile was launched to strike the U.S.) by the Soviet Union, we had the capability to strike back quickly causing both sides total destruction.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What were some of the drawbacks of liquid fuel missile systems? What were the benefits of solid fuel systems? Compare and contrast the two.

2. Do think Atlas missiles could have been deployed in large numbers? Why or why not?

3. What was the "missile gap?" Why did it play such a large role in the accelerated development and deployment of the Minuteman?

4. What impact do you think the Cuban Missile Crisis had upon the Minuteman program?

5. Why were Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles so important to national defense?

6. How did the missile defense system uphold the Cold War strategy of "mutually assured destruction?" Does this seem like an effective defense system? Why or why not?

Reading 2 was compiled from Kort, Michael, The Columbia Guide to the Cold War. The Columbia Guides to American History and Cultures Series (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Special Resource Study for Minuteman Missile Sites: Management Alternatives and Environmental Assessment, Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force Legacy Resource Management Program (Denver: National Park Service, 1995); The Missile Plains: Frontline of America's Cold War, Historic Resource Study, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, South Dakota (Omaha: Mead & Hunt Inc., 2003).

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