US ICBM Development 1954-1966

The ICBM program that Trevor Gardner and Bernard Schriever set in motion in 1954 grew at an astounding rate over the next 12 years. After accelerating the Atlas program in May 1954, the Air Force launched two other ICBM programs before the end of the decade. In April 1955 the Western Development Division (WDD) began work on the Titan, a large two-stage liquid-fuel ICBM, and in February 1958 it began developing the revolutionary Minuteman-the nation's first solid-fuel ICBM. These new weapons systems not only demonstrated the growing sophistication of American missile technology, they also reflected the deadly seriousness of the arms race between the United States and Soviet Union.

As the United States' ICBM program grew, the military kept a wary eye on events in the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1950s American intelligence had little success collecting reliable information on the Soviet missile program, and its capabilities remained a troubling mystery. In 1952, German scientists repatriated from the Soviet Union told American intelligence personnel that the Soviets were working hard to develop a long-range ballistic missile. Soon after that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began monitoring Soviet ballistic missile tests from a radar station in Turkey. Using the information provided by the Germans, coupled with the CIA's observation of Soviet missile tests, the United States estimated that the Soviets would be able to field a ballistic missile with a range of 2,300 miles between 1955 and 1957.

The Missile Gap

The Air Force and CIA were well aware that the Soviets were rushing to develop a long-range ballistic missile. However, Congress and the American public, secure in their perception of American technological supremacy, were shocked when the Soviet Union placed the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit in October 1957. As Sputnik whirled overhead, Congress demanded to know why the Soviet Union, a nation widely regarded as technologically backward, could have surged ahead of the United States in missile development. Suddenly the ICBM program was thrust into the national spotlight and became the focus of a furious political debate over the effectiveness of the Eisenhower administration's defense policy. The administration's critics charged that the President's efforts to trim defense spending and balance the budget had compromised national security and created the so-called "missile gap."

Those claiming that a missile gap existed argued that Sputnik, coupled with the Soviet Union's August 1957 pronouncement that it had successfully tested an ICBM, convincingly demonstrated that the Soviet missile program was years ahead of the U.S. program. These critics speculated that the Soviets would have operational IRBMs and ICBMs years before the United States, thus creating a missile gap that would tilt the strategic balance of power heavily in the Soviets' favor. That situation, the critics charged, would be catastrophic. In one missile gap scenario, appropriately called "nuclear blackmail," analysts speculated that a surprise attack by Soviet ICBMs could destroy all of SAC's bombers on the ground. Shorn of its nuclear retaliatory capability, the United States would be vulnerable to Soviet extortion.

The missile gap was front-page news across the country. The Air Force, the aircraft industry, and Congress all attempted to exploit it toward their own ends. The Air Force used the missile gap as justification for expanding its strategic arsenal; the missile manufacturers used it to bolster sales; and the Democrats seized upon it as a powerful issue for the upcoming 1960 presidential elections. In November 1958 Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) charged that the missile gap was caused by the Eisenhower administration placing fiscal policy ahead of national security. As a result, he said, the nation faced "a peril more deadly than any wartime danger we have ever known."

President Eisenhower refused to succumb to the clamor for a radical overhaul of the ICBM program. Based on photographs taken during U-2 reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union, which began in June 1956, the President was certain that there was no missile gap. Because the U-2 photographs were top secret, however, Eisenhower could not use them to justify his seemingly conservative missile development policy. Rather than restructure the missile-development program that had made such great strides over the preceding 3 years, the administration made several prudent mid-course corrections. In addition to his decision to build both the Thor and Jupiter IRBMs, the President also increased the number of Atlas squadrons from four to nine, blocked the cancellation of the forthcoming Titan II ICBM program, accelerated the Navy's Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program, and authorized the Air Force to develop the solid-fuel Minuteman.

The severity of the missile gap remained a subject of widespread rumor and speculation until the 1960 presidential election, and it was no coincidence that the issue disappeared soon after the Democrats took control of the White House. In reality the missile gap never existed: in August 1960 the first U.S. reconnaissance satellite revealed that the vaunted Soviet ICBM program consisted of four missiles then undergoing testing. In February 1961 Secretary of Defense McNamara created a political firestorm when, at a press briefing, he admitted that there was no missile gap. Although the administration vainly tried to put a positive slant on McNamara's remarks, the New York Times observed that "'the missile gap' like the 'bomber gap' before it is now being consigned to the limbo of synthetic issues, where it always belonged."

It is important to note, however, that long before Sputnik and the missile gap became a national obsession, the Air Force had been pushing its ICBM program forward at a breakneck pace. Based on the recommendations of the Teapot Committee, in May 1954 the Air Force accelerated the Atlas program and modified the design to incorporate the latest technology. The Air Force, Convair, and Ramo-Wooldridge over-hauled the system specifications and in January 1955 formulated a new design and modified development schedule. From there, both figuratively and literally, the program took off.