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Early Developments

American military interest in long-range, rocket-powered ballistic missiles was first generated during the latter part of the Second World War and the immediate post-war period. German success with the rocket-powered V-2 ballistic missile, coupled with the advent of the atomic bomb, provided the potential for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering an atomic warhead. Such a weapon would, at the very least, completely revolutionize strategic warfare. Against this background, the Army Air Forces, on 19 April 1946, awarded a research and study contract to the Consolidated Vultee (Convair) Aircraft Corporation for a 1,500 to 5,000 nautical mile surface-to-surface guided missile in subsonic and supersonic versions.

But, the Army Air Forces was forced to cancel its contract with Convair in June 1947 because of substantial reductions in missile development funds. The Army Air Forces, however, did allow Convair to use the remaining unexpended contract funds to complete and flight test three rocket research test vehicles then under construction and to continue studies on guidance and nose cone reentry.

In 1949 and 1950, studies completed by the RAND Corporation and several aeronautical firms emphasized the fact that recent technological advances greatly enhanced the feasibility of developing a long-range, rocket-powered guided missile capable of carrying heavy atomic warheads. On the basis of such information, the Air Force directed the Air Materiel Command on 16 January 1951 to institute a two-phase, $500,000 study project with Convair for a rocket-powered guided missile in both a ballistic and glide mode, with a minimum range of 5,500 nautical miles, a speed of at least Mach 6 over the target, a circular error probable (CEP). of not more than 1,500 feet, and the capability to carry an atomic weapon.

The intercontinental ballistic missile got off to a slow start. It was clearly secondary to USAF's two cruise missiles as made clear by missile funding. During fiscal years 1951 through 1954, the Atlas program received $26.2 million, while the Snark and Navaho got a total of $450 million. Prior to 1952 or 1953, the Air Force favored the winged cruise missile over the wingless ballistic missile despite quantitative studies indicating that the former would be less accurate and dependable, as well as more costly than the latter. The primary reasons for this situation seemed to be emotional and cultural resistance.

Initially, the cruise missile seemed to offer two advantages over the manned bomber. First, it appeared to be cheaper. "Appeared," because a lower percentage of cruise missiles launched would have penetrated to the target than bombers, and those that did would have impacted further from the aiming point than would bomber weapons. Second, man was not put at risk, a very important consideration in the American style of warfare that emphasized reliance on machines to minimize risk to men.

But the list of disadvantages overwhelm these two advantages.

Nothing can obscure the fact that Snark and Navaho failed to produce anywhere near the expected results. A number of reasons account for their demise. First and foremost, the technology of the day could not meet the ambitious requirements of accurately and reliably flying 5,000 miles over many hours without the intervention of pilot or navigator. Therefore, many of the missiles crashed or performed unreliably.

Second, the manufacturers failed to master the situation. Overly optimistic estimates and loose management led to cost overruns and schedule slippages. All- in-all, the record of American industry in these two programs is not a glorious one, for the private sector failed to produce a viable weapon despite promise, priority, and considerable money. One student of the US missile program sums up the dismal story: "At the end the Snark was a technological delinquent made up of indifferently compatible subsystems." The same, of course, applies to the Navaho. The inability to recognize these technological defects early enough and appropriately respond, Robert Perry asserts, helps explain the fate of both. Significantly, he found no evidence that financial factors hurt either program. Crashes may be an unfortunate part of the process of gaining aeronautical knowledge and perfecting a new technology, but the chronic failures and crashes of the Snarks and Navahos revealed severe deficiencies of missile technology, design, and production.

These problems delayed the development of the cruise missile, thereby upsetting the sequence which planned for the cruise missile to precede, not coincide with the ballistic missiles. This coincidence in timing led to competition between the two types of missiles, the third factor in the demise of the Snark and Navaho. For the ballistic missile proved it could do the same job as the cruise missile, and do it better. In the final analysis, the cruise missile just could not successfully compete with either the old and proven technology (bomber) or the new and unproven one (ICBM).

The technology of the 1950s produced a cruise missile that looked like an aircraft, but which performed less well. Cruise missiles could fly as high and as fast as bombers, and far enough, but they lagged in a number of other areas. First, compared with the bomber, they were inflexible. A bomber can be recalled, rerouted in flight, used as a show of force, or used in a nonnuclear conflict. It can hit numerous targets, targets of opportunity, and report back its observations. The bomber is reusable. Second, cruise missiles were vulnerable. They could not defend themselves with either maneuver or active defenses, as they essentially fly straight and level at a constant speed. Third, cruise missile accuracy was much less than that of a bomber. Fourth, taking man out of the loop with this level of technology left serious reliability problems. In contrast, bombs and bombers were proven, reliable weapons. As General LeMay put it, missiles could not replace bombers because missiles could not think.

Moreover, the airmen's prejudice against the unmanned weapon cannot be overlooked. As one Air Force officer wrote in 1954: "Unfortunately, the actual reaction within the Air Force [to the guided missile] appears to be the exact opposite of that which might logically be expected. The attitude of Air Force personnel, individually throughout the Air Force and collectively in the major commands, seems to best be described as a combination of skepticism, indecision, and indifference." This is a sweeping statement, but it appears to be well supported by the facts.

General Thomas D. White, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, agreed. In a commander's conference in 1957, he noted that some believed the airmen to be as wedded to the airplane as the cavalrymen was to the horse. "The senior Air Force officer's dedication to the airplane is deeply ingrained, and rightly so," White told the generals, "but we must never permit this to result in a battleship attitude. We cannot afford to ignore the basic precept that all truths change with time." He admitted that USAF belatedly realized the potential of missiles and insisted that his top commanders remain flexible and ready to adopt superior technologies, once proved. White put forth a guide (namely, the USAF position) for top level thinking and activities regarding missiles. First, USAF must admit that the missile was here to stay since it should be a highly effective weapon. Second, USAF wants to get into the missile business as quickly as possible despite the constraints of money and technology. Third, once missiles proved themselves they would be quickly integrated into the Air Force. Finally, White commented that cruise missiles were inferior to ballistic missiles; many missilemen saw the air breathers as nothing more than a stopgap weapon.

Following a September 1951 decision to pursue ballistic rather than glide technology, the Air Force directed Convair to examine existing rocket- and missile-related technologies, fill whatever gaps existed in current knowledge, and prepare a firm technological base from which an orderly development and production program could proceed. From 1951 to 1954, the Convair study project, designated "Project Atlas," remained a poorly-financed, low-priority venture continually hampered by significant technological difficulties in the areas of propulsion, guidance, and nose cone reentry. All of the technical problems could be traced to restrictive performance requirements necessitated by the low yield and heavy weight of atomic weapons.

Then, in late 1953, the Atomic Energy Commission succeeded in developing a high-yield, lightweight atomic weapon. In October 1953, the Air Force learned that a megaton-class warhead weighing 1,500 to 3,000 pounds would become available shortly, making the ICBM much more feasible and encouraging its development.

This "thermonuclear breakthrough," coupled with intelligence reports that the Soviet Union was actively engaged in the development of both atomic weapons and long- range ballistic missiles, prompted the Air Force to reexamine the ICBM program. On 31 October 1953, Mr. Trevor Gardner, Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force for Research and Development, invited eleven nationally prominent scientists to form the Strategic Missile Evaluation Committee. Subsequently known as the von Neumann Committee for its chairman, Dr. John van Neumann, the group conducted a searching analysis and evaluation of the Air Force's ICBM program. In its final report, issued on 10 February 1954, the van Neumann Committee pointed out that the recent "thermonuclear breakthrough" reinforced belief in the probable resolution of other technological difficulties associated with the development of an ICBM, and recommended a special Air Force development-management organization be established to accelerate the ICBM program.

On 8 February 1954, two days before the release of the van Neumann Report, RAND Corporation published a study entitled A Revised Program for Ballistic Missiles of Intercontinental Range. The RAND study predicted that an initial operational capability for the Atlas ICBM could be achieved by the early 1960s if performance criteria were relaxed and the program was accorded increased funding and a higher national priority.

Together, the van Neumann Report and the RAND study had a profound impact upon Project Atlas. In May 1954, General Thomas D. White, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, assigned Project Atlas the highest Air Force priority. A month later, Lieutenant General Donald L. Putt, Deputy Chief of Staff for Development, directed the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) to reorient and accelerate Project Atlas. In turn, ARDC activated the Western Development Division (WDD) at Inglewood, California, and assigned it specific responsibility for, and total authority over, the Atlas ICBM development program. In May 1955, WDD's responsibilities were expanded to include the development of the Titan as an alternative or backup to the Atlas ICBM system.

While the Air Force was expanding and accelerating its ICBM program, pressure was brought to bear on President Dwight D. Eisenhower to assign the highest national priority to the program. In the fall of 1954, President Eisenhower established the Technological Capabilities Panel of the Science Advisory Committee, Office of Defense Management, to conduct an in-depth study of the nation's then-current defense measures. The committee, chaired by James R. Killian, forwarded its report to the President on 14 February 1955. The Killian report urged the President and the National Security Council to assign Project Atlas the highest national priority. At the same time, the panel recommended that a 1,500-mile intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) be developed concurrently with the Atlas ICBM.

While President Eisenhower was studying the recommendations of the Killian Report, he received a letter, dated 30 June 1955, from Senators Clinton P. Anderson (D-New Mexico) and Henry M. Jackson (D-Washington), respective chairmen of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy and its Subcommittee on Military Applications. Both men urged the Chief Executive, in the strongest possible terms, to approve the speedy development and deployment of an operational ICBM force.

The combination of the Killian Report and Congressional pressure proved effective, on 8 September 1955 President Eisenhower assigned the highest national priority to the Air Force ICBM development program. Exactly two months later, Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson approved the ICBM Administrative Procedures Evaluation Group's proposals to include:

(1) the establishment of two committees, the Office of the Secretary of Defense/Ballistic Missile Committee and the Air Force Ballistic Missile Committee as the centralized, decision-making agencies for the ICBM development program; and

(2) the concept of an initial operational capability (IOC) for ICBMs, with all aspects of the project, including planning, programming, development, training, and operations, under the command jurisdiction of the ARDC's Western Development Division.

On 18 November 1955, Headquarters USAF assigned the responsibility for establishing ICBM IOCs to the ARDC's Western Development Division, in cooperation with the Strategic Air Command. Command jurisdiction, retained by WDD until completion of IOC, would then transfer to SAC. While SAC accepted the emphasis and priority accorded the ICBM program, it objected to the belief held by some Air Force officials that the ICBM constituted the "ultimate weapon" and would eventually replace the long- range manned bomber. SAC officials argued that the ICBM could only accomplish part of the strategic mission and would supplement, not replace, the manned bomber. Nonetheless, SAC supported the enhanced strategic deterrent value of a mixed force of bombers and ICBMs.

Plans concerning the actual number of first-generation Atlas and Titan I ICBMs to be assigned to the Strategic Air Command went through a series of changes. In December 1955, the Air Force first proposed that the ICBM initial operational capability consist of one wing with three bases (2 Atlas and 1 Titan), each deploying 40 missiles and 20 launchers. Ten missiles would be operational on 1 April 1959 and the entire force of 120 ICBMs by 1 January 1960. On 29 March 1957, however, President Eisenhower approved a new ICBM plan that called for only 80 missiles (40 Atlas and 40 Titan). One launch complex of three launchers and six missiles would achieve operational status by March 1959, while the entire force of 80 ICBMs would be operationally deployed by March 1961. This plan was revised following the Soviet Union's success in placing Sputnik I in orbit on 4 October 1957. A new "emergency" ICBM plan, approved by President Eisenhower and the National Security Council on 30 January 1958, called for the deployment of nine Atlas squadrons (83 missiles) and four Titan squadrons (40 missiles). The first Atlas complex of three launchers would become operational in June 1959 and the entire force of 123 ICBMe would achieve alert status by March 1963. Within the next few years, changes were made to the "emergency" ICBM plan. Eventually, between the period 1 April 1958 and 1 October 1961, the Strategic Air Command activated 13 Atlas and 6 Titan I ICBM squadrons.

The ballistic missile had passed the cruise missile. There were significant performance differences as well. At first glance, the two appeared to have relatively comparable capabilities; that is, they both could deliver nuclear warheads over intercontinental distances. But closer examination of these weapons systems reveals something else. In the l950s, the ICBMs had an edge in accuracy due primarily to their much shorter flight time. (Inertial guidance accuracy depends on flight time, the longer the flight the less accuracy.) Second, the Snark and Navaho test record indicates that their reliability was also substantially less than that of the ICBM's. Probably the only major advantage the cruise missile had over the ICBM was cost.

Three additional factors probably explain the triumph of the ICBM over the cruise missile. First, the ICBM got to the target much faster than did the cruise missile, in minutes as compared to hours. (A rough estimate for the time required to fly the 5,000 to 6,000-mile mission would be on the order of one-half hour for the ICBM, compared to the Snark's 10 to 11 hours.) Second, once launched the ICBM was invulnerable to countermeasures, while the cruise missile could be downed by fighters and, increasingly after 1960, by surface-to-air missiles. A third factor was political-psychological. While the ICBM was a new weapon, the cruise missile physically resembled the bomber. Perhaps the greatest impetus was psychological. The fact that the Soviets had made so much of the Sputnik forced the United States to counter with some sort of equally modern and impressive weapon. So, for domestic and foreign political/psychological reasons, the United States needed ballistic missiles.

In the end, American industry failed to produce a cost-effective cruise missile relative to either the bomber or ballistic missile. In contrast, industry successfully, if not brilliantly, managed the ballistic missile programwhich accounts for much of the ICBM's success. As a consequence, the land- and sea-based ballistic missiles took over the field of strategic missile delivery, which they continue to dominate.

However, two important points require emphasis. First, America's experience with cruise missiles in the l950s and 1960s was largely unsuccessful. Not only did the devices prove costly and unreliable, but they offered few advantages over competing systems. Based upon this record, the US military establishment's skepticism of cruise missiles is both understandable and well founded. Second, those cruise missiles and their records were based on the out- dated technology of the 1940s and l950s. Dramatic technical changes in the 1960s produced a more technologically advanced weapon.

Sources and Resources

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