Photos: A half-century of ICBMs

In October 1959, an Atlas missile with a nuclear warhead went on alert, formally launching the ICBM era for the United States.

Jon Skillings
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Jon Skillings
1 of 22 U.S. Air Force photo

Peacekeeper ICBM at launch

Through much of the second half of the 20th century, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were mortal enemies engaged in a tense and dangerous stand-off. They hurled rhetoric in government chambers and over the airwaves, sent spies and spy planes into each other's territory, fought proxy wars, and most ominously, built sprawling nuclear arsenals with the capacity to destroy the other many times over.

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.

2 of 22 SSGT Ronald Rush/U.S. Air Force

Peacekeeper in silo

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.)

3 of 22 TSgt. Rose Reynolds/U.S. Air Force

Peacekeeper site

It looks tranquil enough, but this Peacekeeper site at Warren AFB packed a tremendous amount of firepower under the surface. The Air Force says that the Peacekeeper was the first U.S. ICBM to use "cold launch" technology: high-pressure steam would pop it out of the silo, at which point the first-stage, solid-rocket motor would take over.
4 of 22 PH2(AW) Gloria J. Barry/U.S. Department of Defense

Launch control

Where nuclear weapons are concerned, there is no margin for accidents. To fire an ICBM, two operators would have to turn keys in unison in two separate launch control mechanisms spaced more than 10 feet apart.
5 of 22 U.S. Air Force photo


This illustration from the 1980s shows that, like many large rockets, the Peacekeeper is constructed of numerous segments. After the first stage lifts the massive projectile away from the ground, the second and third stages (which also use solid fuel) carry it into space. The liquid-fueled fourth stage, equipped with the guidance system, then would get the re-entry system aligned to send the warheads back to Earth.
6 of 22 U.S. Air Force photo

MK-21 re-entry vehicles

The Peacekeeper could carry up to 10 warheads, known in the acronym-heavy lexicon of nuclear weaponry as MIRVs, or multiple independently retargetable re-entry vehicles. These Avco MK-21 re-entry vehicles are on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
7 of 22 U.S. Air Force photo

MIRV re-entry

The timed exposure of this undated photo shows 10 MK-21 vehicles in a test flight heading toward the Pacific Ocean near the Kwajalein Atoll.
8 of 22 A1C Victor Owens/U.S. Air Force

Monitoring a Peacekeeper test

At Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 1983, technicians check the readouts of electrical circuit tests for the Peacemaker. The first flight test of the ICBM took place at Vandenberg that year.
9 of 22 U.S. Air Force photo

Small ICBM Hard Mobile Launcher

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.

10 of 22 U.S. Department of Defense

Soviet SS-X-15 missile

The Soviet Union moved its ICBMs around--at least during May Day parades. For Kremlinologists and Pentagon analysts, those parades offered rare glimpses into the Red Army arsenal, including missiles such as the SS-X-15 Mobile Shorter-Range ICBM seen here in 1984.
11 of 22 U.S. Air Force photo, via Lockheed Martin


The first ICBM to go on operational alert for the U.S., starting in 1959, was the Atlas D rocket. (Pictured here is a 1958 Atlas test launch.)

"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."

12 of 22 NASA


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.

13 of 22 U.S. Department of Defense

LGM-25C Titan II

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.

14 of 22 TSgt. Mark Clagg/U.S. Department of Defense

Titan II missile silo

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.

15 of 22 TSgt. Mark Clagg/U.S. Department of Defense

Titan II missile silo, destroyed

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.

16 of 22 SSGT Mike Doncell/U.S. Department of Defense

Peacekeeper and Minuteman missiles

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.

17 of 22 TSGT Bob Wickley/U.S. Department of Defense

Minuteman III in silo

Production of the Minuteman III ceased in 1978, but the U.S. Air Force fact sheet on the missile offers this reassurance about warding off the depredations of age: "An extensive life extension program is under way to keep the remaining missiles safe, secure, and reliable well into the 21st century." Those enhancements include repairs to launch facilities, remanufacture of the rocket motors, and updates to communications equipment.

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.

18 of 22 U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung

Minot launch control center

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.

19 of 22 U.S. Air Force photo

Looking Glass

The U.S. can also launch its Minuteman III missiles from an airborne command post if need be, in a program known as "Looking Glass." Here, in a photo from 1991, a crew in a "Looking Glass" aircraft runs through a test launch.
20 of 22 U.S. Air Force photo

Minuteman facility under construction

This undated photo shows a Minuteman launch facility under construction at Malmstrom AFB in Montana. Between 1961 and 1966, at a time of great Cold War urgency, the Army Corps of Engineers oversaw the construction of 1,000 silos, often with work proceeding around the clock, seven days a week.
21 of 22 U.S. Air Force photo

Minuteman facility, completed

A completed Minuteman facility, all tidied up in this undated photo.
22 of 22 U.S. Air Force photo/Joe Davila

Minuteman III launch

A Minuteman III missile lifts off from Vandenberg AFB. Carrying an unarmed re-entry vehicle, it flew more than 4,000 miles to a target near the Kwajalein Atoll.

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