Series: A Cold War Cast Of Thousands

Blue brochure with missileer badge
1970s Air Force ROTC Missileer recruitment brochure

US Air Force

The Air Force restricted its female members to noncombat positions until the late 1970s. Fighting against the policy, Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire pushed for the integration of women on missile crews, stating that it was unlikely that women would be exposed to enemy fire in a position launching missiles. In 1977 reporter Andy Plattner asked, “Should women be assigned as missile launch officers, who potentially would be firing nuclear missiles in the event of war?” SAC funded several research studies in the 1970s to determine public sentiment on this question and the views of male crew members already serving. The results showed that the public, as well as Air Force personnel, felt that women have the mental and physical attributes required to be a missile combat crewperson. However, male crew members felt the integration of women would call for several modifications to their time spent on alert. Furthermore, many wives of crewmembers preferred that the crews were either all-female or all-male.

Women began serving on missile crews for the first time in 1978 on the Titan II missile system, though with some important distinctions. Citing privacy, moral and spousal concerns, SAC took the recommendations of the research studies and required missile combat crews to be either all- female or all-male. Forty-two women served on Titan II crews in this manner until deactivation of the missile system between 1984 and 1987. Soon thereafter, SAC was directed by the U.S. Air Force Headquarters to begin integrating women as Minuteman missileers, but with the same stipulation, only all-female crews could serve.
Female air force officer at an electronic console
Linda Aldrich at a minuteman console, 1980s.

Courtesy Linda Aldrich

Women were assigned to enlisted “topside” duty at Ellsworth’s fifteen LCFs beginning in the mid-1980s; however, the underground LCCs continued to be staffed entirely by men until all female missile crews were allowed by the Air Force in 1986. Ten women were assigned to Ellsworth and served as five all- female Minuteman missile crews. The use of single-gender crews was not without its problems, however. For example, if a female missileer was unable to pull duty for any reason and there were no female replacements available, a male crew had to replace the female crew, leaving it potentially serving more alert tours. After several studies and surveys, SAC began allowing male/female missile crews on 1 January 1988. This not only reduced scheduling issues, but it also increased the opportunities for women in the Air Force. In August 1989, First Lieutenant Michael A. Harbison and First Lieutenant Lisa A. Atkins served Ellsworth’s first mixed-gender alert tour at LCC India-01. Once women integrated with men on missile crews, SAC required that missile operations were tasked to guarantee equal career progression for women and men. Pointing out that the training and the standards were the same for both men and women, one former female missileer felt that there were no biases based on gender when she served at Ellsworth Air Force Base in 1991 and 1992.
Women in air force uniform
Missileers from the 90th Operations Group and Retired Col. Pat Fornes, the first female officer on a U.S. missile crew and the first female missile squadron commander; and Retired Col. Linda Aldrich, first female Minuteman ICBM crew member. March 22, 2016.

US Air Force

A generation after the end of the Cold War, women continue to serve in the active missile field. In March 2016, the Air Force held it's first all-female alert at the three active missile fields to highlight the contributions and heritage of women in the ICBM force. Ninety female missileers, across the three ICBM wings: Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota; F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming; and Malmstrom AFB, Montana; along with some female B-52 aircrews from Barksdale AFB, Louisiana and Minot made U.S. Air Force history. Female aircrews from the 625th Strategic Operations Squadron's Airborne Launch Control System, Offutt AFB, Nebraska also participated.