At the heart of that Cold War policy of "mutually assured destruction" were the two countries' arrays of ICBMs, or intercontinental ballistic missiles, like the 1980s-era Peacekeeper seen here. Loaded with one or more nuclear warheads, they stood ready for a call to battle that, fortunately, never came. The first of the U.S. Air Force's operational ICBMs, the Atlas D, went on alert 50 years ago this month, on October 31, 1959--aptly enough, that is, on Halloween.
The business end of an LGM-118A Peacekeeper ICBM, nestled in its silo, points toward the clear blue sky over F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, in June 1987. Originally known as the MX, it was in service from 1986 to 2005, when the last of the 50 Peacekeepers was deactivated in accordance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) II, which did away with all multiwarhead ICBMs.
Even today, though, the world has much to worry about from ballistic missiles, whether the range is intercontinental or something shorter. The recent U.S. decision to scrap an antiballistic missile plan for Eastern Europe has eased recent tensions with Russia, but serious worries remain about nuclear weaponry efforts in countries such as Iran and North Korea.
The Peacekeeper, which stood 71 feet tall and weighed more than 95 tons, had a range greater than 6,000 miles and had a maximum speed of approximately 15,000 miles per hour. (In LGM-118A, the L stands for silo-launched, the G for surface attack, and the M for missile.)
During the early 1980s, the pending deployment of the Peacekeeper stirred a great deal of public and political debate. Where, if anywhere at all, should the silos be located? Should the missiles be placed in mobile railway cars to keep the Soviets guessing about their location?
There was also consideration given to the potential development of the MGM-134A Small ICBM, also known as the "Midgetman," which could be hauled over highways and off-road by a vehicle like the experimental, radiation-hardened truck launcher seen here. The 239,000-pound tractor-launcher combination had a 1,200-horsepower diesel engine that powered all eight tractor wheels. The Air Force took delivery in December 1988 and tested it until 1991 at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. It ended up at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in 1992 after development ended for the MGM-134A Small ICBM.
"The time was right," retired Brig. Gen. Elmer Brooks is quoted as saying in an Air Force public affairs release ahead of this month's 50th ICBM anniversary. "The U.S. was engaged in a tense Cold War and an arms race with the U.S.S.R. Rocket, guidance, and nuclear warhead technologies matured to the extent that combining them in an ICBM was feasible. ICBMs provided the capability to strike targets with a nuclear bomb virtually anywhere in the world within 35 minutes of launch with no known defenses."
This wasn't an ICBM, but it might have been. The Atlas served peaceable missions, too, throughout the 1960s. For instance, pictured here is the February 1962 liftoff of the Friendship 7 spacecraft carrying Mercury astronaut John Glenn into orbit.
As an ICBM, the SM-65 Atlas D was operational from 1959 to 1965. In that configuration, it stood just over 85 feet tall, with a maximum weight at launch of 260,000 pounds, and packed a single nuclear warhead. (As a Mercury rocket, it stretched to more than 100 feet, including the escape rocket boom on top.) It had a range of more than 6,300 miles and could hit speeds around 16,000 mph.
After the Atlas D came the first U.S. ICBM to be based in underground silos, the HGM-25A Titan I, which had a brief career, standing on alert only between 1962 and 1965. Pictured here in a 1975 launch is its younger, larger sibling, the LGM-25C Titan II, which was on operational alert for a quarter century, from 1963 to 1987.
The Titan II stood 108 feet tall, weighed 330,000 pounds when fueled, and carried a single megaton-range nuclear warhead. It had a range of 9,000 miles, with a top speed of 15,000 mph. Sans warhead, the Titan II carried Gemini astronauts into space.
In September 1987, this Titan II missile silo at Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas was just about to be deactivated with extreme prejudice. Its missile removed, the silo was filled with 7,500 pounds of explosives placed in holes drilled in the concrete.
The Titan II marked a step forward from the earlier ICBMs in that it could be launched from inside its silo in approximately 60 seconds, in part because of the use of "hypergolic" liquid fuels that could be stored at room temperature in the missile and that ignited on contact with each other. (By contrast, the Titan I had to be raised to the surface in a launch procedure that took more than 15 minutes; for fuel, it used a combination of super-chilled liquid oxygen oxidizer and RP-1 kerosene fuel.) The Titan II also did not need to be controlled by computers on the ground, since it carried an advanced "all-inertial" guidance system.
A destroyed Titan II missile silo at Little Rock AFB. The debris would serve as evidence to Soviet inspectors that the silo was truly no longer usable.
At its peak of service, there were 54 Titan II missiles located at three bases, in Arizona and Kansas in addition to Arkansas.
Three missiles stand tall at the main gate of Warren AFB in Wyoming in 1988. From left to right, they are the Peacekeeper, the Minuteman III, and the Minuteman II. The U.S. Air Force currently has approximately 450 LGM-30G Minuteman III missiles in service, located at Warren AFB in Wyoming, Malmstrom AFB in Montana, and Minot AFB in North Dakota.
The Minuteman I (not pictured), which dates to the early 1960s, was the first U.S. ICBM to use solid fuel, and by 1967, the Air Force had 1,000 of the missiles in silos. The Minuteman III entered service in 1970.
The nearly 60-foot-tall, 79,000-pound Minuteman III, which uses solid fuel, has a range of more than 6,000 miles and can reach a speed of 15,000 mph, or Mach 23. This photo shows crewmen doing an electrical check on a Minuteman III at Whiteman AFB in January 1980.
Two lieutenants man a launch control center in August 2006, safely underground at Minot AFB's Missile Alert Facility B-1, one of 15 such facilities located in northwest North Dakota. The underground center, housed in concrete and steel, also is suspended among giant shock absorbers for further protection from incoming nuclear attack.
In 2006, Minot launch control centers began to get Internet access in a first for underground ICBM crew members. Needless to say, the Internet-connected PCs are separate from the missile control systems.