Highball! Missiles and trains.

Author:Pomeroy, Steven A.


When one thinks of the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the common image is of missiles emplaced in underground launch facilities The launch facility ("silo" in popular parlance) is the reigning paradigm of American ICBM deployment. Significantly less known was the serious American desire for mobile ICBMs. Regarding a mobile Minuteman, historians hardly mention this tale of an American technological road not taken. This is a paradox because many nations currently operate mobile intercontinental or intermediate-range ballistic missile systems, including Russia, China, and India, to say nothing of various Middle East countries. Moreover, the persistent presence of ICBM mobility represents a significant piece of American military and technological history. It consumed large resources: $108 million by 1961 for mobile Minuteman alone ($2.9 billion in year 2008). (1) It was a significant factor in the discourse shaping the American nuclear deterrent, originally the triad of manned bomber aircraft, land-based ICBMs operated from fixed sites, and mobile submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The early debate on a mobile Minuteman demonstrates the functioning of the military-academic-industrial triangle, complete with late fifties--early sixties interservice rivalry. Lastly, the foundational work done for mobile Minuteman later resurfaced in the 1970s and 1980s as the administrations of Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, James E. Carter, and Ronald W. Reagan struggled with a burgeoning Soviet nuclear threat. (2) For well over thirty years, the U.S. continuously researched mobile ICBMs, spent enormous sums of money on the idea, and ultimately dropped it, begging the question, "why?"

To answer the posed query, this article examines the political, strategic, and technological factors shaping the idea of mobility within Minuteman deployment and operational planning. How a military uses a weapon is just as important as what that weapon does, but historians have published little on how Mobile Minuteman would have operated. Therefore, as a first step, this article emphasizes the studies and tests that developed its concept of operations Drawing upon research conducted for a broader study, it focuses on the work accomplished to refine mobile Minuteman basing proposals. (3) Because of this, it does not examine earlier missile developmental efforts and history, including the detailed origins of the Air Force ballistic missile program, intercontinental cruise missiles, intermediate-range ballistic missiles, various army missiles, or German mobile V-2 units. (4) These and other programs informed early Air Force efforts, but because the first significant American mobile ICBM research and development program was Minuteman, the article's focus is there.

Prescient Questions

On September 13, 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the ICBM program as "a research program of the highest national priority, second to no others," with any change to the program occurring only at his behest. (5) The road to his decision counted many turns, but by 1956, General Bernard Schriever, the Air Force officer responsible for ICBMs, had several missile projects underway, and he realized existing means of research, development, acquisition, and procurement were insufficient to the job. To deliver quickly an operational missile, Schriever and his military, industrial, and academic colleagues developed three important innovations, including the 1) application of systems engineering; 2) parallel development of weapon systems and system components; and 3) the concurrent development of systems. (6) Synergy between these immeasurably aided his work.

Importantly, he hired the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation to be the Air Force's scientific and engineering advisory body. Acting for Schriever, Ramo-Wooldridge created specifications, oversaw development, and coordinated between the service and the numerous subcontractors building the various pieces of the ICBMs, thereby providing the project with an industrial unity that the earlier intercontinental cruise missile program had lacked. Schriever gambled that the vision of the scientists, if properly guided and supported, would deliver a viable missile in the shortest period of time. He retained central control and direction, but let his scientists and engineers solve the thorny problems. This approach was revolutionary, and the bureaucratic fight to install it was a hard one that Schriever described as "a hell of a struggle [with] ... lots of blood on the floor." (7) Schriever's eventual victory established systems engineering as a new means of program management to deliver high technology weapon systems to operational users.


Aware that the first models of a complex and never-before-built missile could not represent mature capabilities, Schriever wanted multiple ICBM systems to guard against program failures. It was a classic instance of "not putting all of one's eggs in the same basket." To do this, Schriever employed parallel rather than linear management of research, development, production, installation, and testing. Additionally, the Air Force concurrently produced multiple missile types that backed up each other at the system and subsystem level. This minimized the risk of program-stopping failures, maximized technical convergence between different contractors and industries, but increased expenses. (8) Nevertheless, the combination of systems engineering with parallel and concurrent development permitted the Air Force to research, design, experiment, test, and eventually deploy multiple ICBM systems.

By 1956, with the Atlas and Titan I ICBMs under development, Schriever asked his staff to investigate mobile missiles. His reasoning considered the realities of the American--Soviet rivalry as well as interservice politics. Schriever foresaw mobility satisfying desires for a survivable ICBM force by ensuring a sizable force of American missiles would survive a "bolt out of the blue" attack because the enemy would not know their locations, thereby raising the stakes too high for an adversary to contemplate such action. In addition, the perceptive Schriever no doubt understood the implications of the Navy's recently approved Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile to the Air Force ICBM effort. Polaris, a mobile system, allowed the Navy to argue for the survivability of its missiles in comparison to the large, stationary, and land-based Air Force ICBMs. (9) To prepare himself for a potential naval broadside, he directed Col. William Sheppard to examine the possibility of mobilizing the Atlas missile.

Sheppard had the Research and Development (RAND) Corporation study the issue, along with Air University, the service's top-level educational institution, and Convair, the Atlas missile's contractor. ICBM mobility was challenging, and the Atlas' radio guidance limitations, pressurized body construction, and liquid fuels increased reaction time and support requirements. After digesting the data, Sheppard replied, "we are not very hopeful about a completely mobile ICBM system," at which point Schriever dropped the idea for about a year and a half. (10) Work progressed within the broader ICBM effort, however, and by the summer of 1957, the Air Force had reorganized its Western Development Division as the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division (AFBMD), responsible for the massive systems engineering and concurrent development of ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, the Atlas flight test program had begun, and in July, a high-powered advisory panel met to discuss future developments. This was the Bacher Panel, named after Chairman Robert F. Bacher, a California Institute of Technology physicist. Its luminaries included Cal-Tech physicist Clark Millikan and presidential advisor and chemist George Kistiakowsky. The panel met at Dr. Simon Ramo's invitation (he of Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation, the ICBM program's systems engineers). On June 1, 1957, Schriever received his report, in which Bacher articulated the Air Force's first substantial thoughts on a mobile ICBM since Schriever's 1956 questions.

Bacher reported:

Serious doubts exist about the philosophy of very hard bases as the ultimate solution for an indestructible 'massive retaliation' force. In planning advanced ICBM systems, attention should be concentrated not on the isolated concept of an advanced missile, but on a system comprising the missile and the base. There is urgent need for careful comparative analysis, from the operational point of view, of the hard base concept versus the mobility concept. (11)

Schriever agreed, having commented earlier in the year, "you have got to have very, very, close tiein between the characteristics of the weapon and the characteristics of the facilities from which the weapon is going to operate. You have to marry the two. You can't do it any other way." (12) Bacher therefore highlighted a growing concern about ICBM basing with which Schriever was cognizant. Given the rush to deploy an operational ICBM, successful basing was paramount. Moreover, as Schriever asserted, unless engineers understood the basing and operational philosophy of the weapon, designing the rocket and other system elements was nearly impossible because each part of the overall system influenced the others. National political, Department of Defense, and Air Force-internal pressures to deploy weapons meant new technology and operational concepts had to be developed simultaneously as early weapons were to be deployed. (13) This caused much uncertainty.

Bacher believed mobility provided three advantages, including: 1) limited basing infrastructure; 2) survivability via deceptive rotation of missiles among a large number of potential launch sites; and 3) overwhelming Soviet ability to locate American missiles. He boldly stated:

A mobile ICBM force does not necessarily...

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