America’s Strategic Ace in the Hole

Jan. 1, 1962

1961 was the year of truth for the Air Force’s Minuteman inter­continental ballistic missile. Minuteman took giant steps toward the combat operational capability it is shortly scheduled to achieve. Re­tracing those steps makes it pos­sible to place this new lean breed of nuclear weaponry in proper perspective in terms of what it will add to our strategic strength. The speed with which Minuteman has been developed—from a study phase of 1955 to a production decision in 1958 and the first successful launch in February 1961—is most reas­suring.

For a firsthand look at just how all this was accomplished, you must travel from the sand and scrub of Florida’s Cape Canaveral to sprawling aerospace complex of Los Angeles, then up to Vandenberg AFB, and on up the West Coast to Sacramento and Seattle across the top of the continent to Montana, down to the salt flats of Utah, and on across the nation to the industrial East. Cover thousands of miles and still you won’t see all the places and activities contributing to Minuteman. But you will get a fast look at the wonders of modern aerospace technology

You’ll see Minuteman’s components being made, the research and development test firings, the building of launch pads and silo holes for the training of com­bat crews, the construction of plant and assembly facilities, and site-activation construction for initial operational deployment.

The starting point is Cape Can­averal where the Air Force Missile Test Center and the Atlantic Mis­sile Range, stretching more than 5,000 miles down into the South Atlantic, have become symbols of our nation’s strength in the rapidly advancing art of missilry.

The morning of last February 1 was bright with Florida sunshine. A pencil-slim Minuteman took the sun’s rays on its launch pad as Col. (now brigadier general) Sam Phil­lips, director of the Minuteman program since its inception, sat before the launch consoles in the nearby blockhouse to monitor a historic test.

Shortly after 9:00 a.m. the count­down hit zero, and the missile rose straight and true with a roar that heralded solid-propelled rocket power. The three-stage missile operated perfectly, the first time in our history that all stages and sys­tems of a major missile had been tested in an initial launch. Minute­man went into free flight, success­fully sending its reentry package to an impact point in the Atlantic, some 4,600 miles downrange.

“Minuteman will be the back­bone of our ICBM force,” Gen. Thomas D. White said on hearing the test results. “The successful fir­ing of all three stages and the flaw­less operation of the guidance system the first time we launched the Minuteman is a long step toward the early attainment of this remarkable weapon,” he added. The recently retired Chief of Staff’s expression is significant since he, along with Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, the present Chief of Staff, and Gen. Bernard A. Schriever, Commander of the Air Force Systems Com­mand, provided full support to the accelerated development of this missile in the face of some power­ful detractors.

As that test was logged on Min­uteman’s permanent record, other pads at Cape Canaveral were being readied for additional tests, and holes were being dug for the below-ground silo testing so important to the missile, which is designed to be positioned underground permanently, launched from beneath the surface of the earth if the alarm ever goes off.

Other above-ground missiles were fired in May and July of 1961. Both were generally successful. By late August the first silo test was made. As the missile emerged from the ground, its second stage fired prematurely, causing the test vehicle to explode.

Then on November 17 Minuteman scored a perfect launch from a steel-and-concrete test hole at the Cape. In a major milestone of the development program, the reentry vehicle raced more than 3,400 downrange. General Phillips called the launch from the ninety-foot deep silo “totally successful.”

Before the August ma1function, Minuteman had been tested eight times at Edwards AFB, Calif., in controlled and partially simulated launches from silos, but the November flight was the first successful below-ground, operational-type shot. The military-industry team responsible for Minuteman was heartened by performance obtained from this silo launch. The missile was progressing handily as the second-generation follow-on to the liquid-fueled Atlas and Titan ICBMs, which are larger, more costly, and more complicated though they have the same 6,300-mile-plus range and general performance as Minuteman.

Moving from Florida to California, you find in the Los Angeles area, at Downey, a production line for the inertial-guidance and flight-control equipment in the Autonetics plant of North American Aviation. This associate prime contractor produces a system that guides and controls the missile during flight, yet remains operable while the ICBM is sealed in a solo for perhaps years. To accomplish this, Autonetics has had to develop transistors, resistors, diodes, capacitors up to one hundred more reliable than any previously available.

About 165 miles north of Los Angeles is Vandenberg AFB where Strategic Air Command combat crews are beginning a training program. After learning to fire the missile in a number of test launches, they will be assigned to the base complexes where Minuteman will be deployed. Vandenberg is a combination training and operational missile base, located on ranch land once used by the US Army but now converted to expensive missile facil­ities for use of the 1st Strategic Aerospace Missile Division. Launch pads jut along the shore line, with the Pacific and its attendant range providing the shooting gallery for the frequent launches. The below-ground launch facilities for Min­uteman are under construction; 1962 should be a full year for the training of SAC crews at this base.

Continuing north to Sacramento, you see being made what it takes to send Minuteman from one part of the world to another. Here the second-stage rocket engine was de­veloped and is being produced at the Aerojet-General Corporation’s plant, a 20,000-acre site in the foot­hills of the Sierra Nevada range.

More than 2,000 persons work on the problems of inert parts, propel­lants, and fabrication in facilities that include some of the largest cast and cure buildings in the free world. Test firing to perfect and improve the engine take place in rock and gravel trenches formed when the rugged land was dredged for gold.

On up the coast line to Seattle, Wash., are the extensive facilities that the Boeing Company devotes to this project in its responsibility for the assembly and test of the complete weapon system. Located in a restricted area of the plant, in the heart of the city, is a simu­lated launcher network consisting of launch-support building, launch-control center, and a full-size silo with a missile in it. These facilities are used as models for similar structures in the field where Min­uteman will be permanently sta­tioned underground.

In this off-limits area a trim Texan, E. H. Boullioun, Boeing’s installations project officer for Min­uteman, takes authorized visitors into a building where a large trac­tor-trailer combination called a transporter-erector is being fitted with a full-scale test missile. De­signed to travel over all types of roads—sometime this year it will face its severest test on the rugged terrain of Montana—the sixty-three-foot-long combination, with a loaded weight of 108,000 pounds, will transport missiles from landing strips to their permanent launch sites. “The missiles will be airlifted by C-133 transports from the assembly point in Utah to the sup­port bases,” Mr. Boullioun says. “Then this baby takes over.”

In another part of the vast Boeing plant are mockups and cut­aways of Minuteman fixed facil­ities. Other company responsibil­ities include development of a major portion of the ground-sup­port equipment in the launch site and launch-control center, the in­strumentation systems, and the in­terstage structures connecting the engines and guidance system. Near­by are full-scale railway cars for the mobile Minuteman program, deferred last March in the interest of getting more fixed sites more rapidly. The mobile program was dropped in mid-December as De­fense Secretary McNamara recom­mended funds for an increased number of Minutemen in silos.

From Seattle you go to Utah where you’ll see some of the mod­ern plants which produce the first-and third-stage engines, as well as the assembly and maintenance facility at Hill AFB, six miles south of Ogden, hub for the entire Min­uteman program. Proudly calling itself the “Missile Center of the West,” Hill is also the home of the Ogden Air Materiel Area and Air Procurement district.

There are three principal Air Force-industry plants in this area. One, Plant 77, located in the West Area of Hill AFB, is a series of many buildings to be operated by Boeing for assembly of Minuteman, as well as for overhaul, repair, and maintenance when the ICBM becomes operational. The plant occupies 790 acres. The Air Force and Boeing are completing the conversion of more than sixty existing buildings once used as an Army ordnance depot. When the plant becomes fully operational sometime this year, the outlay will represent about $11 million.

About sixty miles north past Brigham City, is Plant 78, the Thiokol Chemical Corporation’s facility for test and production of the first-stage engine. Sprawling on an 11,000-acre tract in rugged isolated land are dozens of new buildings and test facilities, colorful pastels to contrast with the bleak surroundings. This complex is for administration, production, and static test of engines, for the mixing of solid fuels, for nozzle mounting, and for curing ovens for the large engine cases. Near this center of modern technology—at Promontory, Utah—earlier history was made when in 1869 the golden spike was driven to join the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads as the nation’s first transcontinental line.

For Minuteman, Thiokol began development of the first-stage engine in August 1958 and perfected the nation’s largest solid-propellant engine within the twenty-seven months allotted under the contract.

About fifty miles south of Hill AFB and Ogden, near Bacchus, is Plant 81 being built for Hercules Powder Company for assembly-line-production of the third-stage engine, which was designed and developed at the company’s nearby Bacchus Works.

All three stages are sent to the Boeing facility at Hill AFB for final assembly.

“This is the business end of the Minuteman,” Col. Harry Goldsworthy will tell you when you reach Malmstrom AFB in Montana, a few miles from the city of Great Falls. As Site Activation Commander here, Colonel Goldsworthy directs construction for the complex of three squadrons of the first missile wing, designated the 341st. He stands before an unusual map on which vari-colored lights burn and flicker. This relief map of the wing’s area covers a plot larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Colonel Goldsworthy and his deputy, Col. Art Lahlum of the Army Corps of Engineers, use this map to check progress as the silos and control centers take form. The map is divided into three sections, one for each squadron comprising the wing. The squadrons are broken ­down into flights of ten missiles each and one control center. A Minuteman wing has 150 missiles and fifteen control centers.

When a light goes out or flickers disturbingly, this means trouble. Within minutes one of the colonels Clair Popejoy, Boeing manager on the spot, will likely board an on-alert helicopter and fly to the trouble spot. This close attention to detail goes far toward keeping the Malmstrom construction ahead of schedule. Late last year the Corps of Engineers had completed its work on the first flight, and Boeing began the assembly and checkout of equipment necessary to make Minuteman operational, witha target date before the end of this year for the first flight.

A visit to each of the 165 Malmstrom sites (silos and control centers) ­would take weeks by car, many days by helicopter. Traveling from one to another, and covering all locations, you would travel about 3,000 miles. The cabling being placed several feet underground to furnish communications between the control centers and the missile silos will total about 2,200 miles when completed. To link the sites it is necessary to tunnel the cable under about thirty river beds and seventy railroad and car roadbeds.

These cables will relay complex coded communications data necessary ­to launch the missiles. This feature of Minuteman construction has caused some writers to suggest that an animal might touch off a nuclear war by gnawing into the cable and causing a missile to fire. The men responsible for setting the cable and for its eventual operation say this simply could not happen. Air Force Secretary Eugene Zuck­ert recently pointed out that an accidental launching would be imposs­ible because of a complicated system of mechanical and manual controls. If an animal should get its teeth into the buried cable, an alarm would go off, causing auto­matic shutdown of the system. The same would occur if a person tam­pered with the cable.

Because it is the first and most advanced of the four Minuteman support bases under construction, Malmstrom lends itself to close examination of what an operational Minuteman facility in the field will look like. The launch-control cen­ters are the nerve centers of the missiles. Each is an underground command post, consisting of a launcher-support building and a concrete capsule, with a tunnel con­necting them. Squadron personnel will man the control centers, which contain electronic monitoring equip­ment such as TV consoles as well as diesel engines, batteries, environ­mental equipment, and facilities to feed and shelter the men at the center.

Each center is at least six miles from the silos under its jurisdiction, and the missiles are dispersed from one another by at least that same distance. The silo hole is an eighty-foot reinforced – concrete launch tube. A metal liner goes into the hole first. Then the missile is low­ered into it. Each missile has its own underground support building, a prefabricated insulated-metal structure that rests on a concrete foundation, with the top flush with the ground. This building will con­tain electric generators and air-con­ditioning equipment for environ­mental control of the missile.

The launch tube will have a hori­zontal concrete-and-steel sliding cover. The area close to the tube will be paved and equipped with rail tracks so the transporter-erector can move the missile up to the opening for lowering into the silo. This operation can be repeated in reverse if it should be necessary to remove the missile from the silo for checkout or repair.

Each missile site will not only be hardened to withstand all but a direct hit but will also occupy a fenced-in three-acre plot of ground not easy to distinguish from the air.

There are three other Minuteman support bases beside Malmstrom.

Construction for the wing near Ellsworth AFB, S. D., is well along. Ground has been broken for the third and fourth wings at Minot AFB, N. D., and Whiteman AFB, Mo., respectively. These four wings will have 600 Minuteman missiles underground by the mid-1960s.

Your Minuteman trip ends in the industrial East. Near Boston, AVCO is manufacturing the reentry vehi­cles, or nose cones, on an assembly line. In the same area the American Machine & Foundry Company pro­duces launch-site mechanisms. In New Jersey both Hercules and Cur­tiss-Wright Corporation are turning out cases for Minuteman engines.

The fifty-four-foot Minuteman has many things in its favor. It rep­resents a breakthrough in economy; it is a missile our country can afford to buy in quantity, giving the USSR that many more targets to worry about.

The test program so far indicates good accuracy and reliability. Maintenance cost is low, as the missile will be on site in its hole unattended for long periods of time, yet can still be sent off in a matter of seconds.

Minuteman holds another distinc­tion unique in the history of weap­ons. Although it can duplicate the speed—more than 16,000 miles per hour—and the intercontinental range of Atlas and Titan, it will cost only about one-third of the estimated $2-million-each price tag of the larger missiles. This is especially encouraging since historically new models of weapons usually cost more than their predecessors.

AFSC’s General Schriever sums up the Minuteman weapon system this way: “It provides added depth to our national deterrent posture and imposes complications on our adversaries. Minuteman rates a de­gree of respect that cannot be matched by other modern weapon systems.”

Which is one way of saying that Minuteman is indeed America’s ace in the hole.



Minuteman (SM-80) (WS-1 33A)


Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)


Over 16,000 mph


Over 6,300 statute miles


Not announced


About 54 feet


About 6 feet


In 60,000-ta-70,000-pound class


Boeing Co.


Solid-propellant rocket engines in each of three stages


Thiokol Chemical Corp.


Aerojet-General Corp.


Hercules Powder Co.


All inertial


Autonetics Div. of North American Aviation




AVCO Corp.


AF Ballistic Systems Division (AFSC)


Space Technology Laboratories, Inc. (STL)

Mr. DuPre, a previous contributor to AIR FORCE Magazine, visited the prin­cipal Minuteman locations described in this story as part of his duties as an information officer for Hq. USAF.