Center for Air Force History
The title for my talk comes from the enduring debate of which came first: technology push, or requirements pull? In other words, was change brought about through some technological breakthrough, or as the result of some operational requirement. From my title, I believe you can tell which interpretation I favor with respect to the development of United States Air Force ballistic missiles. In my research I have found little evidence to support the thesis that U.S. nuclear strategy influenced the development of the Air Force's Atlas, Titan, and Thor missiles. Instead, I contend that a "fortuitous confluence of events and men overcame past obstacles" to the development of these missiles.
Even before the end of World War II, the military services engaged in an intense roles and missions contest to win exclusive control of guided missiles-both the ballistic as well as the cruise. Each service believed that the first to develop a particular type of missile would win the right to deploy and operate it. The lack of centralized planning or direction at the top seemed to confirm this assumption. Thus, none of the services was particularly enthusiastic about spending its scarce resources on missiles, but at the same time each was determined not to lose the mission to a sister service.1
For years, in the area of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), several technical deficiencies had barred the way. For one thing, existing nuclear weapons were too large and too heavy to be launched by a missile, unless the launch vehicle was made extraordinarily large and powerful. Second, missiles and warheads would have to travel several thousand miles to reach their targets and then survive reentry from space. Third, even if all of those problems were solved, the ICBM would need fantastic accuracy to compensate for the relatively low yield that nuclear bombs possessed at that time.
As the Cold War heated up with the Soviet test of an atomic bomb in August 1949 and the start of the Korean War in June 1950, the necessity to develop an ICBM gained adherents, especially in the Air Force. Nonetheless, they recognized that a successful missile developmental program required a strong national commitment, including significant funding support.
The inauguration of economy-minded Dwight D. Eisenhower on January 20, 1953, the first Republican president in twenty years, did not bode well for missile development. Indeed, it led inevitably to a thorough review of government organization, very much like the current exercise for "reinventing government." As a result, in June, the Office of the Secretary of Defense was strengthened with the abolition of the Munitions Board and the Research and Development Board, and their replacement with separate assistant secretaries of defense for R&D, applications and engineering, and supply and logistics.2 Subsequently, the new Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson, directed Air Force Secretary Harold Talbott to form a committee and conduct a comparative analysis of all military guided missiles. The study aimed to uncover and root out unwarranted duplication, ostensibly the result of wasteful, inefficient practices during the Truman years. Talbott3 delegated the task to his special assistant for research and development, Trevor Gardner.4
Only 37 years old at the time, Gardner nevertheless had broad experience in engineering and industrial management. During World War II, he was head of development engineering in the Office of Scientific Research and Development's (OSRD) rocket and atomic bomb projects at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Following the war, Gardner joined General Tire and Rubber Company of California5 as general manager and executive vice president. In 1948 he formed and became president of Hycon Manufacturing, an electronics firm based in Pasadena, California.6
Described by colleagues as a "sparkplug," Gardner lost no time tackling his new assignment. He quickly assembled a joint services committee to evaluate all military guided missile projects. However, in a sharp departure from past practices, the Gardner Committee chose to set aside the difficult roles and missions issues and addressed only missile performance considerations. The committee met throughout the summer and fall of 1953 before drafting its report. Again, seemingly to avoid controversy, the committee's recommendations were couched in broad terms: no promising missile project should be abandoned; unwarranted duplication should be eliminated; and, where practical, missiles should be standardized for production and use by all of the military services.7
Acting on the committee's advice, Secretary of Defense Wilson, in November, superseded all of the existing missile procurement procedures that had required approval by the so-called "Missiles Czar," the OSD Director of Guided Missiles. (That office had in fact become defunct in September with the departure of President Truman's appointee, K. T. Keller.) Instead, Wilson authorized the service secretaries to approve their own missile programs after coordination with the newly-established assistant secretaries of defense. Donald A. Quarles, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Development, was so impressed with the work of the Gardner Committee that he incorporated the group under his office as the Coordinating Committee on Guided Missiles.8
While Gardner fully supported Secretary Wilson's economy objectives, he and his committee unexpectedly concluded that a growing Communist threat overshadowed the need for fiscal restraint. That threat stemmed from several sources, including the Korean War; intelligence reports from recently liberated German scientists and engineers who had been spirited behind the Iron Curtain after the Second World War to work on rockets-they suggested a Soviet lead in long-range ballistic missile development; and the announcement in August 1953 that the Russians had tested a hydrogen bomb device.9
Earlier, on November 1, 1952, the United States had achieved a momentous breakthrough10 when it detonated the first experimental hydrogen fusion device at Eniwetok in the Pacific Ocean.11 Designated as shot "Mike" of the Ivy nuclear weapon test series, the device was far too large for practical military application, but it overcame a major limitation to the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Before this achievement, a lighter warhead had implied an unacceptably low yield. This limitation, in turn, imposed almost unattainable accuracy requirements on missile guidance. But now the promise of lighter-but more powerful-warheads meant that less accurate missiles could be designed.
The thermonuclear breakthrough generated considerable excitement among a very small group of Air Force personnel who shared the secret knowledge of the event. Retired Lieutenant General James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, serving as a special assistant to Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, recommended the creation of a Nuclear Weapons Panel on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. This panel was established, in March 1953, with Dr. John von Neumann, a renowned mathematician and head of the Institute for Advance Study in Princeton, New Jersey, as chairman.12
Meeting in June at Los Alamos, New Mexico, the panel discussed the development of nuclear weapons for ICBMs. The new bombs were expected to weigh approximately 3,000 pounds, measure 45 inches in diameter, and yield 0.5 megatons.13 Even more remarkable was the news, in September, that the Air Force Special Weapons Center had confirmed the feasibility of producing nuclear warheads weighing as little as 1,500 pounds with no appreciable loss in explosive yield. Since the gross weight of the missile was nearly in direct proportion to the warhead weight, missile design depended primarily on the warhead selected. In practical terms, these projections indicated that the weight of the existing Atlas ICBM design might be cut almost in half-from 440,000 pounds to 240,000 pounds-and that the missile would require considerably less thrust than was previously anticipated.14
The new findings clearly pointed to yet another review of the Air Force's ICBM development program. Consequently, in October 1953 Trevor Gardner established a second committee and directed that it study only strategic missiles, including the Snark, Navaho, and Atlas-all belonging to the Air Force. Gardner recruited eleven of the nation's leading scientists and engineers to participate in the Strategic Missiles Evaluation Group, known also as the Teapot Committee. Dr. John von Neumann served as chairman, and the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation (forerunner of TRW) was hired to administer the committee's work. The founders and chief officers of Ramo-Wooldridge, Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge, were also full members of the Teapot Committee.
A graduate of Caltech, Simon Ramo had known Trevor Gardner since before World War II, when both had worked for General Electric at Schenectady, New York. After the war, Ramo joined Hughes Aircraft as head of electronics research and eventually rose to the position of Director of Guided Missile Research and Development; both Ramo and Dean Wooldridge had gained acclaim for their work on the Air Force's Falcon missile. Ramo had become Director of Operations and Executive Vice President when he and Wooldridge, in September 1953, left Hughes to form their own company.
Other members of the Teapot Committee were Clark B. Millikan, Charles C. Lauritsen, and Louis G. Dunn (all of Caltech); Hendrick W. Bode (Bell Telephone Labs); Allen E. Puckett (Hughes Aircraft); George B. Kistiakowski (Harvard); Jerome B. Wiesner (MIT); and Lawrence A. Hyland (Bendix Aviation). The committee's military liaison was a young colonel named Bernard A. Schriever, the Air Staff's Assistant for Development Planning and a brigadier general selectee.15
Meeting first in November and twice more afterward, the Teapot Committee rendered its report on February 10, 1954. Originally, the Teapot Committee had favored eliminating the Snark, but in its report recommended only that the Snark's guidance system be simplified and that development continue. Members contended that Snark's primary usefulness was as a decoy for the manned bomber force. Similarly, the Teapot Committee was not enthusiastic about the Navaho as a strategic weapon because of the inadequacies of ramjets. Nonetheless, the committee supported continued research in certain technological areas, especially in the propulsion systems, in which the Navaho project provided direct benefit for ICBM development.16
The Teapot Committee centered its attention on the feasibility of developing the major subsystems for the Atlas-that is, propulsion, guidance, airframe, and warhead. Given the reported Soviet lead in ICBMs and the countervailing advantage offered by the American nuclear breakthrough, the committee concluded that it was imperative to accelerate Atlas development. However, the speed up and early delivery of the Atlas ICBM could be accomplished only by embarking on a "crash program" that would include changing drastically the missile's specifications and creating an entirely new management organization. In its summary, the Teapot Committee called for a "radical reorganization of the . . . project considerably transcending the [existing] Convair framework."17
Foremost among the committee's recommendations to accelerate the ICBM program, was the call to revise the Atlas's requirements in conformity with the new realities created as a result of the thermonuclear breakthrough. The promise of lighter, higher-yield weapons was later confirmed during the nuclear test series Castle, that began in March 1954. As a result, the stringent 1,500-foot accuracy requirement for Atlas was reduced to between 2 and 3 nautical miles. This revision would also permit slashing the missile's weight and diameter. As a further benefit, the lower accuracy requirement eased the Atlas's guidance problem and prompted an investigation of an advanced, on-board, all-inertial guidance system.18
In the management area, the Teapot Committee of missile experts also had questioned the contractor's ability to complete the Atlas work, based on Convair's current development approach and the competence of its scientific and engineering staff. Further, Teapot members recommended that the Air Force undertake a thorough review of up to a year, if necessary, to determine how best to achieve the earliest possible operational capability. Pending such a review, the Air Force should curtail all production of full-scale flight test vehicles and detailed design of the guidance system. On the other hand, the committee members encouraged continuing basic research in guidance systems, North American's rocket propulsion work, and the preparation of instrument flight test facilities.19
At last, the Teapot Committee Report concluded that the Atlas program could be accelerated only if it was entrusted to "an unusually competent group of scientists and engineers capable of making systems analyses, supervising the research phases and completely controlling the experimental and hardware phases of the program." Unfortunately, no single company currently employed persons of that caliber; they would have to be recruited from among several industry, university, and government organizations. Looking ahead, the committee also noted that this proposed new development-management group would have to be free "of excessive detailed regulation by government agencies."20 Finally, the Teapot Committee believed that, if it was assigned such a crash basis priority, the Air Force could obtain an operational Atlas ICBM in 6 to 8 years-that is, sometime between 1960 and 1962.
The Teapot Committee recommendations nearly duplicated those of a Rand Corporation study issued two days earlier, on February 8, 1954. The Rand study, headed by Dr. Bruno W. Augustein, was begun in September 1953 for the purpose of finding ways to accelerate ICBM development. Not surprisingly, then, the Teapot Committee used and based much of its findings on Rand data. In connection with these studies, Trevor Gardner advised Assistant Secretary Quarles that an emergency operational capability could be attained as early as 1958, if enough money and priority were provided. Gardner meant that, in an emergency, contractor engineers in lieu of Air Force personnel could launch the Atlas. Gardner's claim was facetiously dubbed a "PhD" type capability.21
The Air Force and then the Department of Defense embraced the Atlas program on a crash basis. Dr. von Neumann continued as chairman of the ICBM Scientific Advisory Committee, a body that dispensed impartial advice to both the Defense Department and the Air Force, while the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation was hired to assist the Air Force with systems engineering and technical development.22
In May 1954, the Air Force chose Brigadier General Bernard Schriever to head the Atlas program. Schriever lost no time setting up the Western Development Division at Inglewood, California. Indeed, the Air Force provided Schriever with extraordinary administrative authority to organize and staff the program as he saw fit. Schriever acted decisively and rejected the Air Force's conventional aircraft development approach and replaced it with systems management. In addition, he streamlined reporting and review channels and cut through unnecessary red tape to expedite the missile program. A single, comprehensive plan was developed annually for approval. Two ballistic missiles committees-one under the Secretary of the Air Force and the other under the Secretary of Defense-provided timely and authoritative decisions. Finally, Schriever adopted concurrent management in building ballistic missiles, thereby compressing the lead time from development to operational status.
Meanwhile, Trevor Gardner persisted until September 1955 when he won from President Eisenhower top national priority for the ICBM program. Schriever's Western Development Division emerged as a full-fledged missiles complex, whose projects included the Atlas and the Titan ICBMs and the Thor intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM). However, just as the Air Force's missiles program seemed on the verge of success, it ran into Army and Navy competition for scientists, facilities, and funding. Meanwhile, the other services had joined forces to develop the Jupiter IRBM for deployment on land and at sea. The legendary expatriate German rocket scientist, Dr. Wernher von Braun, headed the competing missile program at the Huntsville, Alabama arsenal. The Navy later concluded that liquid-fueled missiles and seawater were not a particularly good combination; thereupon the Navy pursued solid-fueled missiles, leading to the Polaris program.
The ICBM's top national priority was diluted in 1956 when it had to "share" top priority with the IRBM. Moreover, the Eisenhower administration embarked on an austerity drive, known in the Air Force as the "Poor Man's Approach." It reduced the number of ICBMs to be deployed by one-third (from 120 to 80 missiles), cut the IRBM complement in half (from 120 to 60 missiles), and planned to stretch out the missiles' deployment. (Earlier, in February 1956, Trevor Gardner had resigned ostensibly to protest the administration's large reductions in research and development. But that is another story.) However, by March 1957 the Eisenhower administration had significantly lowered the missile program's priority, now calling for operational readiness at the earliest practical-instead of the earliest possible-date. Additional reductions continued until October 4, 1957, when the Soviets electrified the world by launching into orbit Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite.
In the wake of Sputnik there emerged the so-called "missile gap," a highly-publicized notion that the Soviet Union was poised to surpass the United States in numbers of strategic missiles. While Democrats exploited the issue for political ends, the Eisenhower administration (based on highly classified intelligence sources) denied any cause for alarm. Nonetheless, Sputnik served to defer the planned spending cuts and instead accelerated the American missiles program. It also prompted the rapid introduction of space projects which-ironically-interrupted orderly missiles development.
Meanwhile, a new class of solid-fueled missile programs had appeared, including the Navy's Polaris IRBM and the Air Force's Minuteman ICBM. Both programs showed tremendous military potential and won eager acceptance at nearly all operational command levels. Between 1958 and 1960 the Air Force started deploying Thor and Jupiter missiles in Europe.
As the Kennedy administration took office, the more advanced Atlas and Titan ICBMs were installed. In all, 12 Atlas squadrons (126 missiles), 6 Titan I squadrons (54 missiles), 4 Thor squadrons (60 missiles), and 3 Jupiter23 squadrons (45 missiles) were deployed. The much publicized "missile gap" soon narrowed, then disappeared altogether.
Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara readily endorsed the solid-fueled Minuteman missiles because they offered greater simplicity and ease of operation than their liquid-fueled counterparts. In October 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, ten Minuteman missiles stood on operational alert. Over the next two years, the first generation Air Force missiles-Atlas, Titan I, and Thor-were inactivated.
In retrospect, these missiles had served merely as interim weapons. Considering the context of the times, no responsible official could have foreseen their rather limited roles. Critics are fond of pointing out the missiles' huge developmental costs and their spectacular initial failures, without considering the enormous technical and organizational challenges involved. At first, the Air Force was tasked to provide merely flyable missiles, but later decisions added new responsibilities to make the missiles operational. For example, pre-launch survival originally meant the ability to launch within a specified warning time. Later, the missiles had to be hardened to withstand nuclear explosions and be sufficiently mobile to escape being targeted by enemy nuclear forces. Under such circumstances, it is remarkable that the first generation missiles were built and deployed within their scheduled time limits and prescribed performance requirements.
Obviously, the massive missiles program had a profound impact on the Air Force-not just monetarily-but also in terms of its role in the defense of the United States. The program's success forced the Air Force to rethink its position regarding aircraft and missiles. While nearly everyone acknowledged the importance of the missile, it took years to determine how these missiles would be integrated into the force structure. Moreover, if the Air Force failed to lay claim to control of strategic missiles, someone else-the Army or Navy-surely would.
By 1958, the Air Force was projecting itself as an "aerospace power," utilizing both manned and unmanned air-breathing vehicles, ballistic missiles, spacecraft, and satellites. For the Air Force, the mechanics and strategy of aerial warfare took a quantum leap as planning began to include fighting not just in the atmosphere, but in outer space. And aerospace power became a cornerstone of the service's continuing search for a basic doctrine. But, although the ICBM had ushered in a new age of warfare, the Air Force did not convert entirely to missiles, persisting in the belief that a manned aircraft was the "proper" vehicle for the service.
1 Edmund Beard, ICBM (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), pp 1-13.
2 DOD Reorganization Plan 6.
3 Ltr, Ralph O. Moore, Secy Armed Forces Policy Council, to SecAF, et al, subj: Guided Missiles, Jun 16, 1953, in RG 340,341.6, 557-50, vol 5, NA.
4 Memo, Talbott, SecAF, to SecArmy and SecNavy, no subj, Jun 19, 1953, in RG 340, 471.6, 557-50, vol 5, NA.
5. General Tire had bought out Aerojet General, the company that Dr. Theodore von Karman and Frank Malina founded to build rocket engines.
6 Hearings before the Cmte on Amd Svcs, Senate, Nomination of Trevor Gardner, 84th Cong, 1st Sess (Washington, 1955), passim; intvw, Gen James H. Doolittle, Chmn of the Bd, TRW, with Eugene M. Emme and William D. Putnam, Apr 1969, p 46.
7 Memo, Trevor Gardner, Special Assistant for R&D, to Donald A. Quarles, Assistant Secretary of Defense, subj: Summary Report of the Special Study Group on Guided Missiles, Oct 1, 1953, in RG 340, 471.6, 557-50, vol 5, NA.
8 Memo, Wilson to Secs AF, Army, and Navy, subj: Administration of Guided Missiles Program, Nov 12, 1953, in OSAF Files, AFODC (GM), Mar 25, 1952-Jan 1954, Suitland NFRC; memo, Talbott to Wilson, no subj, Oct 24, 1953, in RG 340, 471.6, 557-50, vol 5, NA; DOD Dir 5128.15, subj: Coordination of Research and Development on Guided Missiles, Jan 6, 1954, in AFCHO.
9 Eugene M. Emme, Aeronautics and Astronautics: An American Chronology of Science and Technology in the Exploration of Space, 1915-1960 (NASA, 1961), p 70.
10 In 1950 President Truman had ordered the development of large-yield thermonuclear weapons. The first positive sign came in May 1951 when the Atomic Energy Commission conducted a small-scale test (Greenhouse series, shot "George"). This test indicated the possibility of fusion, or the joining of hydrogen atoms.
12 Ltr, Doolittle to Vandenberg, subj: S.A.B. Nuclear Weapons Panel, Feb 10, 1953, in RG 341, Special Asst to the C of S, Box 18, NA; Sturm, SAB, p 48.
13 Ltr, Gen T.D. White, AF Vice Chief of Staff, to Dr. Theodore von Karman, no subj, Jun 8, 1953.
14 Technical Note SWC 53-12, "A Preliminary Study of Nuclear Warheads for High Performance Missiles," AFSWC, Sep 15, 1953 in BAS Papers.
15 Ltr, Gardener to von Neumann et al, Oct 31, 1953, in RG 340, 471.6, 557-50, vol 6, NA.
16 Ltr, Simon Ramo to Trevor Gardner, no subj, Feb 10, 1954, w/atch:Recommendation of the SMEC, Feb 10, 1954, in AFSC/HO, Alfred Rockefeller Documents, 1951-1954.
21 Memo, Gardner to Quarles, Feb 16, 1954.
22 Jacob Neufeld, The Development of Ballistic Missiles in the United States Air Force, 1945-1960, (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1990), pp 3-5.
23 In November 1957 the Air Force won operational control over Jupiter.