• U.S.

Defense: A Decade of Deadly Birds

6 minute read

The people who have been writing these things that annoy me have been talking about a 3,000-mile, high-angle rocket, shot from one continent to another, carrying an atomic bomb, and so directed as to be a precise weapon, which would land exactly on a certain target, such as a city. I say, technically I don’t think anybody in the world knows how to do such a thing, and 1 feel confident it will not be done for a very long period of time to come. I wish the American public would leave that out of their thinking.

—Dr. Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development December 1945

Even then, a few brilliant U.S. scientists and military leaders were thinking about little else but the feasibility of a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile. Yet because of the arguments—like Bush’s—against it, it was not until May 1954, just ten years ago next week, that the Air Force launched a crash program to develop the Atlas ICBM.

Flock of Birds. In the span of the ensuing decade of strategic missilery, the U.S. has accomplished one of the greatest scientific, engineering and construction feats in history. It has produced and deployed a versatile flock of big birds: the pioneering Atlas, the more powerful two-stage Titan, the stopgap IRBMs Thor and Jupiter, and those truly pushbutton solid-fueled mainstays of the nuclear arsenal, the mass-produced Minuteman and the elusive, submarine-borne Polaris.

The Navy had such heroes as Vice Admirals William Raborn Jr. and Hyman Rickover in development of the Polaris system. The Army’s German-born Wernher von Braun pushed Jupiter before turning to space research. All of the other projects were Air Force—and no one in blue has the slightest doubt about who whiplashed those massive projects. He is the deceptively quiet and young-looking General Bernard Schriever, 53 (TIME Cover, April 1, 1957), boss of the Air Force Systems Command. What Schriever does is develop the missiles until they are declared operational, train the missile crews, then turn everything over to the Strategic Air Command. His assignment came about because such Air Force officials as Brigadier General John W. Sessums and Research and Development Specialist Trevor Gardner had insisted that an ICBM should be built, and Princeton Atomic Scientist Dr. John von Neumann had argued that nuclear explosives could be made compact enough for missile delivery.

Evasive Action. Despite the size of Schriever’s task, there was nothing grand about his facilities when he was named commander of the obscurely titled Western Development Division and sent to Inglewood, Calif., in 1954. He set up shop in three buildings of a Roman Catholic parochial school that had been abandoned because they were not modern. The staff always wore civvies, shuttled in and out of a side door, lunched at a sidewalk hot-dog stand dubbed “the officers’ club.” Inglewood neighbors stared and wondered. “I never had to take so much evasive action,” recalls Schriever.

For Schriever, the first few years seemed to hold nothing but pressure and frustration. Unknown to the public, U.S. radar snooping from Turkey and U-2 aircraft flying over Russia confirmed the fact that the U.S.S.R. was developing both IRBMs and ICBMs. Says Schriever: “They were well ahead of us with the IRBM, at least a year ahead in their ICBM program. A missile gap did exist.” After the Sputnik launching in 1957, the thrust superiority of Soviet rocketry was obvious.

Lowest Apogee. U.S. missiles, meanwhile, mainly blew up or fizzled like soggy Roman candles. The first Thor simply fell off its pad. In its second test, it rose ten inches, collapsed. “It must have had the lowest apogee of any missile ever fired,” recalls Schriever ruefully. The first Atlas flight in 1957 failed. At one point in 1959, five consecutive Atlas firings were flops.

Schriever spent many hours rolled up in a blanket in a DC-7 shuttling to Washington to answer the complaints of congressional critics. But he kept insisting that Atlas would work, proved it by turning the first operational Atlas over to a Strategic Air Command crew late in 1959. Despite the anguish, those were exciting days. “Every damn firing was just like having a baby,” Schriever says. “There was just as much emotional excitement for a success and just as much depression for a failure. Now shots are just good or bad. Missiles are old hat.”

Even as the U.S. began to deploy Atlas, it pushed on to develop Titan, which could carry a heavier warhead. Yet U.S. intelligence painted a frightening picture of Soviet missile capability. Defense Department experts predicted that the U.S.S.R. could have some 400 long-range missiles by mid-1963, while the U.S. would have only about half that number. This was the so-called “missile gap,” which became a 1960 presidential campaign issue. To help plug the anticipated gap, the U.S. deployed 1,500-mile Thor and Jupiter missiles in Europe, then gambled heavily on Polaris and Minuteman. Since their solid fuel could be stored almost indefinitely inside the missiles, they could be fired more quickly and maintained more easily than the liquid-fueled, long-countdown Atlas and early Titan. They could also be built more cheaply.

The Yo-Yo Effect. Schriever was so confident of Minuteman’s feasibility that he saved a full year by ordering all three stages and all systems of a Minuteman fired as a unit on the first test—an unheard-of procedure in the normal piece-by-piece sequence of missile development. Reports an official Air Force history: “The results were sensational. All stages worked perfectly, the guidance system performed accurately, and the instrumented re-entry vehicle made a very near miss on a target some 4,000 miles downrange.” Minuteman, in Schriever’s view, has tipped the missile scales heavily in favor of the U.S.

Looking back, Schriever contends that the projected 1963 “missile gap” failed to develop only because the U.S.S.R. did not meet the production schedule of which it was capable. And looking ahead, Schriever worries less about what the Russians might do in missile and space weaponry than about the danger that the U.S. might fail to live up to its full capability. Declares Ben Schriever at the end of a fantastic decade: “What I am concerned over is this Yo-Yo effect in this country. At a time like this, when we are ahead, the people and Congress might draw back and not appropriate money. This is a serious danger. We have to to keep up with our technology.”

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