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January 13, 2011

Growing Up with 150 Nuclear Warhead Minuteman Missiles Around The Area - It Was Normal to Us

351st Missile Wing 

150 Minuteman II Missiles around West Central Missouri - Whiteman Air Force Base 
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.
First Salvo Tests from Vandenburg AFB. (my grandfather and grandmother were guests courtesy of Gen. "Bus Humfeld", base commander, formerly at Whiteman AFB.
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).

Originally a World War II glider base, SAC converted the facility for strategic bomber use in the 1950s. With the phase-out of B-47s in the early 1960s the future of Whiteman AFB was threatened with the loss of its bomber wing. However, in April 1961 test borings made in the area around Whiteman indicated that the terrain was geologically compatible to support Minuteman missile silos. 

On June 14, 1961, the U.S. Government announced that Whiteman would serve as a support base for the fourth Minuteman strategic missile wing. After the announcement, there were second thoughts about the choice as original plans called for launchers to be spread into the Lake of the Ozarks region. Due to the terrain inaccessibility and the high water table, these plans were scrapped. Consequently, when the final approval came on January 17, 1962, the launchers were placed in the vicinity of Whiteman, making this the smallest Minuteman base with regard to area. 
In February 1962, the Los Angeles-based Corps of Engineers Ballistic Missile Construction Office established a resident office at Whiteman. Meanwhile, the Real Estate Division of the Corps of Engineers Kansas City District set up an office in Sedalia to acquire the needed land. 
The Morrison-Hardernan-Perini-Leave11 consortium submitted a low bid of $60.6 million and was awarded the contract on March 20, 1962. 
Although construction commenced on April 2, official groundbreaking ceremonies occurred on April 14, 1962, with several congressmen and Governor John Dalton joining military officials at the event. The enormity of the ensuing construction effort encompassed not only installing 150 silos and 15 launch control complexes but also constructing/reconstructing numerous roads and bridges throughout rural western Missouri. The "Hardened Intersite Cable System," measuring some 1,777 miles, connected the launch control centers and required land rights-of-entry from more than 6,000 landowners. 
During construction, management-labor relations were described as "excellent." With the exception of ironworkers, the local region supplied the project's manpower needs. There were five work stoppages, of which three involved union jurisdiction disputes. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service resolved one dispute while the others were handled at lower levels. In addition, there were only 11 "time-lost" injuries; no fatalities. 
Activated on February 1, 1963, the 351st SMW traced its lineage to the 351st Bombardment Group, a unit that had seen extensive action throughout World War II. As the wing organized, construction accelerated. On June 10, 1963, the Army Corps of Engineers and civilian construction contractors turned the first flight of silos over to the Air Force Site Activation Task Force (SATAF). Over the next 5 months SATAF received responsibility for making final installations on the rest of the silos in preparation for final turnover to SAC. The keys to the final flight of silos were turned over to SATAF and the integration contractor (Boeing) on November 26, 1963. 

Everyone Knew a Farmer with a Missile Silo Out Back 
 The first Minuteman I missile arrived from the Boeing plant at Hill AFB, Utah, on January 14, 1964. Soon the holes dotting the Missouri landscape were filled with ICBMs. By June 29, 1964, the last flight of missiles went on alert status, making the 351st a fully operational strategic missile wing. 
Beginning on May 7, 1966, and throughout the rest of 1966 and into 1967, the Air Force replaced the Minuteman I "B's" with Minuteman IIs. The completed transition in October 1967 gave the 351st SMW the distinction of being the first wing to complete the Force Modernization Program. One of the retired Minuteman Is eventually found its way to a Bicentennial Peace Park located on base. 
During April 1967, SAC sponsored the first missile combat competition at Vandenberg AFB in California. The 351st Strategic Missile Wing came home with the Blanchard Perpetual Trophy for recognition as the best missile wing within SAC. The Whiteman-based unit went on to receive many more such honors at these annual competitions that became known as Olympic Arena. 
In October 1967, the 510th Strategic Missile Squadron received responsibilities for the Emergency Rocket Communications System (ERCS), which was mounted on Minuteman F missiles. Successful testing of this replacement for the Blue Scout Jr. rockets stationed in Nebraska had been completed at Vandenberg during the previous year. The ERCS mission involved the transmission of emergency action messages to United States nuclear forces in the event of an attack. The squadron maintained this mission until 1991. 
During the 1970s Whiteman's missiles were involved in the integrated improvement program, which included hardening silos and installing command data buffers to facilitate quick missile retargeting. The completion of this program at Whiteman in January 1980, marked the end of the Air Force's last major Minuteman modification program. However, throughout the 1980s improvements to enhance missile accuracy, security, and survivability were made at the numerous launch complexes. 
On November 12, 1984, four antinuclear demonstrators trespassed onto Launch Facility N-05 and caused $25,000 worth of damage. Arrested by SAC security police and brought before a U.S. District Court in Kansas City, the four demonstrators were tried, convicted, and ordered to serve sentences ranging from 8 to 18 years. 
A SAC first occurred on March 25, 1986, when the first all-female crew manned one of the launch control centers. In 1988, for the first time, an all-female crew from Whiteman, along with a mixed-gender crew from Malmstrom AFB, Wyoming, competed in the Olympic Arena competition. 
The September 28, 1991 order from President Bush to take Minuteman II missiles off alert status ended Whiteman's role as an active ICBM base. Subsequently, the Air Force removed Whiteman's 150 Minuteman II missiles from service. The vacated silos are scheduled to be imploded and graded over. 

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, South Dakota
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in western South Dakota is one of the Nation's newest national park areas. Established by Congress in 1999, the park consists of a nuclear missile silo and launch control facility. From this seemingly isolated patch of Midwestern prairie U.S. Air Force officers could have launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at targets in the Soviet Union. With the simple turn of keys, nuclear missiles would have been exchanged with the Soviet Union, making real one of the greatest fears of the 20th century, nuclear war.
The park is not yet open to the public, but when it is, visitors will be guided through the launch control capsule and topside support structures of a Minuteman II launch control facility known as Delta-01. Visitors will be allowed access to an area that, although not secret, was seldom seen by civilians from the time it was completed in 1963. Modified only slightly through its 30 years of continuous service, the site is an excellent example of a Cold War missile system. Operated by crews from nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base, Delta-01 was part of the 44th Missile Wing. Known as missileers, these young men and women had the ability to launch 150 Minuteman II missiles, a small fraction of the 1,000 ICBMs that were once deployed in the upper Great Plains. Contractors built the sites, finishing three weeks ahead of schedule despite the enormity of the task, labor disputes and South Dakota's challenging weather.

Security was a serious concern in and around each of the silos and launch control facilities. Each "flight" of missiles was controlled and protected by a launch control facility from which security police closely monitored and controlled access to 10 missile silos (Delta 1 and Delta 9 are now protected as part of the park) and the launch control center. This security system included checking visitors' credentials, monitoring radio transmissions and observing microwave detection and seismic sensor systems, as well as armed response teams. The armed response teams patrolling the "flight" were dispatched by launch control facility personnel to any breach of security at the silos. Armored vehicles were used to respond to any security breaches. Known as Peacekeepers, these were usually Dodge pickup trucks with an armored body and a turret mounted M60 machine gun. The Peacekeepers were a common sight on roads surrounding each of the missile sites and Minuteman Missile NHS recently acquired two of these vehicles for display.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), placing a limit on the number of ICBMs and outlining a process for the demolition of some existing systems, including the Minuteman II. Long since replaced by the Minuteman III at several other installations, the escalating repair and maintenance costs of the Minuteman II made it a likely choice for deactivation. As the demolition of the 450 sites proceeded, Air Force and National Park Service employees began to work together on preservation of two of the sites.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is located on the I-90 travel corridor in western South Dakota. This park is not yet open to the public, but will be administered with Badlands National Park to conserve dollars and share human resources. For more information on the upcoming Minuteman Missile National Historic Site visit that park's website on the National Park Service's Parknet or call 605-433-5552.