Air Force Bases

Minuteman at Malmstrom Air Force Base

Founded during World War II as a training and logistics hub, the base's mission changed on February 1, 1954, with the arrival of the 407th Strategic Fighter Wing, and the base command shifted to the Strategic Air Command (SAC). With the rapid development of the three-stage, solid-fuel Minuteman I missile in the late 1950s SAC began searching for sites to deploy this revolutionary weapon. Because Malmstrom's location placed most strategic targets in the Soviet Union within range of Minuteman, the base was a logical choice.

On December 23, 1959, the Air Force Ballistic Missile Committee approved the selection of Malmstrom AFB to host the first Minuteman ICBM base.

Although the newly formed Corps of Engineers Ballistic Missile Construction Office handled the design and supervised construction of the planned 15 control sites and 150 silos, the initial ground work required advance engineering, site feasibility studies, surveys, soil and foundation investigations, determination of utility sources, and finally land acquisition. These tasks fell on the Seattle District of the Corps of Engineers. The land acquisition, involving some 5,200 tracts scattered across an area of 20,000 square miles of north-central Montana, amounted to the largest for any single project undertaken by the Corps. At its peak, the Corps employed up to 80 people at its real estate office to deal with the approximately 1,378 owners of the desired parcels. Modifications in silo design required the District to renegotiate easements with the landowners on 12 different occasions over the 4-year span of the project.

In less than three percent of the cases, the government acquired the land through condemnation. Once construction commenced, tempers were tested as fences were cut, trenches were left open in cattle pastures, crops were destroyed, and water and power supplies were interrupted. Yet despite these problems, most of the local population understood the importance of the project to national security and they cooperated.

A joint venture of the George A. Fuller Company and the Del E. Webb Corporation won the construction contract with a bid of $61.7 million. The Fixed Price Incentive Contract was unique, featuring provisions for a target cost, target profit, and a formula for determining the final price and final profit. With cost overruns projected due to expected design modifications and unanticipated surprises, the Corps of Engineers Ballistic Missile Construction Office imposed a system in which excessive costs would be split, with the contractor picking up 25 percent of the tab. Using this formula, the final project cost would come to $79,284,385.

The March 16, 1961, groundbreaking ceremonies featured an interesting arrangement as key state and local politicians, and military, contractor, and labor leaders gathered on stage at the base theater. At the prescribed moment, eight of these officials threw switches, setting off explosive charges out on the plains. Each official received his switch as a memento.

As predicted, design changes occasionally slowed progress as did unanticipated high water tables, which required additional pumping capacity at the excavation sites. An electrician's strike from November 1 through 12, 1961, and spring storms in 1962 also hindered progress. Still, on December 15, contractors completed work on the 10th silo, turning the silo over to the Air Force for finishing and missile installation. During construction, six workers were killed.

On July 15, 1961, a former B-47 Bomber Group, the 341st, came back to life as a Strategic Missile Wing. A year later, in late July 1962, the first Minuteman I arrived at Malmstrom and was placed at Alpha-9 launch facility.

The timely arrival of additional missiles no doubt played a critical role in the nation's defense, as the Soviets attempted to establish Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) bases on the island of Cuba during the fall of 1962. On October 15, 1962, U-2 photos revealed the presence of these sites. One week later President Kennedy addressed the nation and announced the establishment of a naval quarantine around Cuba. On October 24, SAC accepted control of the first flight of silos and placed them on alert status 2 days later. On October 28, Premier Khrushchev agreed to halt construction activity and return the IRBMs to the Soviet Union. Later, when asked if he had felt that nuclear war may have been imminent, the President responded, "I had confidence in the final outcome of our diplomacy. . . . Of course, Mr. Khrushchev knew we had an ace in the hole in our improved strategic forces." (It should be noted that the strategic imbalance of the two sides would have still been lopsided favoring the United States had the Minuteman flight not come on line.)

The 10th SMS accepted its final flight on February 28, 1963. Two months later, the 12th SMS became 100 percent combat ready. In July, the 490th SMS became fully operational, giving the 341st SMW responsibility for 150 silos.

Home of the oldest Minuteman strategic missile squadron, Malmstrom also became home to the youngest, when in August 1964, the Air Force announced plans to build an additional 50 silos on the Montana prairie to house Minuteman II missiles. On February 23, 1965, Morrison Knudsen Company and Associates won the bid to build the additional silos. Construction started 2 weeks later. Manpower peaked in September 1965, with 1,593 men working on the sites. During construction, there were 7 work stoppages, which cost 8,808 man-days lost. Overall, the project managers could boast of a good safety record as there were 12 lost time incidents and only 1 fatality.

As construction of these new silos proceeded through 1966, the 564th SMS stood up on April 1, 1966. Just over a year later America's 1,OOOth Minuteman missile would be in place and on alert at Malmstrom. This milestone marked the completion of Minuteman deployment by the United States.

While new Minuteman IIs deployed with the 564th, upgrading of the Minuteman I models had been ongoing with the wing starting a transition from "A" to "B" models in August 1964. By June 1969, all Minuteman Is, both "A" and "B" models, were replaced by Minuteman II models. In 1975, the 564th SMS switched from the Minuteman II to the Minuteman III model.

In addition to improving the missiles, many improvements were undertaken over the years to upgrade reliability and survivability. In the early 197Os, flood control dike projects alleviated drainage problems within the silos that were caused by the spring thaw. In November 1975, the wing began an integrated improvement program that included a command data buffer and an improved launch control system. In 1985, the 341st SMW became the lead unit in the Minuteman Integrated Life Extension program (Rivet Mile).

While serving as a deterrent force, the 341st SMW won numerous honors. The unit won its first Blanchard Trophy in SAC's annual Olympic Arena missile competition in 1976 and again captured this most coveted prize in 1986, 1990, and 1991. The unit has won additional accolades over the years.

In 1987, Malmstrom hosted a prototype of a small ICBM mobile launcher. Testing conducted at Malmstrom evaluated this platform's capability to support the Midgetman missile.

On September 28, 1991, President Bush ordered all Minuteman IIs off alert status. This order affected three-quarters of the 200 ICBMs stationed at Malmstrom. From 1992 to 1994, the Air Force removed 150 Minuteman II missiles from their silos to comply with the pending START I Treaty. Fifty of the vacated silos received Minuteman III missiles, joining the 50 Minuteman III missiles already on alert status.

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