Air Force Bases

Titan I & Minuteman Missiles at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota

Originally named the Rapid City Army Air Base, this World War II-era installation served as a bomber base then and throughout the Cold War. As a Strategic Air Command installation, Ellsworth hosted two generations of ICBMs and provides an outstanding case study for understanding the difficulties and costs associated with constructing a first-generation missile complex and how the experience was applied to constructing a second-generation complex.

The contractors for the Titan I project, Leavell-Scott & Associates, represented a consortium of eight partners. On December 8, 1959, this consortium was awarded the contract to build the three missile complexes of three missiles each at New Underwood, Hermosa, and Sturgis. Army Corps of Engineers oversight initially came from the Omaha Engineer District. Ten months into the project, this responsibility was transferred to the Corps of Engineers Ballistic Missile Construction Office based out of Los Angeles.

The initial estimate of the contract was $47.2 million. By March 1962, this number had grown to $64 million, an increase of 31 percent as a result of 265 modifications to the original contract. Frequently, changes required demolishing previous work.

Finding skilled labor proved to be a challenge. Eventually, many workers had to be brought to the area and the project suffered high worker turn-over rates. Labor-management relations were amicable. At the peak of construction, some 2,500 workers worked at the three launch complexes. There were 15 short work stoppages, most lasting less than a day. A strike at General Electric in October 1960, delayed receipt of terminals that also set back the completion date.

As at other first-generation missile sites, the installation of the propellant loading system proved to be an expensive undertaking. Excessive groundwater at complex 1C required $500,000 in additional costs to control seepage.

Difficulties between the site engineer and the Site Activation Task Force (SATAF) arose upon site completion. Because the SATAF refused to assume responsibility for the site until practically every item was in full working order, contractors often spent months maintaining equipment long after it had been installed.

With construction under way, the Air Force activated the 850th Strategic Missile Squadron on December 1, 1960. About the same time, work began on installations for the second-generation missile. On August 21, 1961, construction began on the Minuteman IB facilities-The contract to build the 150 silos and associated launch control facilities was executed by Peter Kiewit Sons' Company of Omaha, Nebraska, using designs developed by Parsons-Stavens, Architect Engineer, in Los Angeles.

Activation of the 44th Strategic Missile Wing on January 1, 1962, marked the initiation of SAC's first Minuteman "IB" wing. Seven months later, the activation of the 66th Strategic Missile Squadron marked the beginning of SAC's first Minuteman IB squadron.

As men trained for their new duties, progress continued on the silos being constructed on the South Dakota prairie. The work force peaked in September 1962 as the Peter Kiewit work force reached 2,915 workers. While these men worked out on the prairie, construction proceeded at Ellsworth AFB on converting a hanger for a missile support facility. In April 1963, the first missile was emplaced into a prepared silo. Two months later, SAC accepted the first flight of 10 Minuteman IB ICBMs and in July, some of these missiles were placed on alert status.

The final cost of Minuteman construction around Ellsworth came to just over $75.7 million. This figure for 150 silos is remarkable when contrasted to the $64 million cost of nine Titan I silos. Fewer modifications, simpler design, and improved management all contributed to lower construction costs. During construction there were 62 lost time injuries, including two fatalities. Overall, labor-management relations on this project were good: a total of 244 man-days were lost due to work stoppages. Weather conditions ranging from severe cold to heavy rains also hindered construction.

On May 16,1964, Secretary of Defense McNamara directed an accelerated phaseout of Titan I and Atlas ICBMs. Consequently, the Titan Is of the 850th Strategic Missile Squadron were removed from alert status on January 4, 1965. The Air Force subsequently deactivated the squadron on March 25th.

Meanwhile, Ellsworth was slated to host a unique series of operational tests. Approved by the Secretary of Defense in November 1964, "Project Long Life" called for the short-range operational base launch of three modified Minuteman IB ICBMs to provide a realistic test for this system. Each missile would contain enough propellant for a 7-second flight and have inert upper stages and reentry vehicles. The first launch occurred on March 1, 1965, and successfully demonstrated the ability of a SAC missile crew to launch an ICBM.

Conversion from Minuteman IB to Minuteman II was completed at Ellsworth in 1973. With these new missiles in place, Ellsworth was selected to host "Giant Pace Test 74-1," the first Simulated Electronic Launch-Minuteman (SELM) exercise. During this test, 11 SELM-configured Minuteman II ICBMs underwent successful simulated launch on command from both underground launch-control centers and the Airborne Launch Control System.

Throughout its history, the 44th Strategic Missile Wing has competed strongly in Olympic Arena competition, frequently claiming top honors at the Vandenberg-hosted competition.

President Bush's order of September 28, 1991 to remove Minuteman II missiles from alert status profoundly affected Ellsworth. To comply with the pending START I treaty, the Air Force immediately began removing missiles from their silos. Missile removal continued through 1994 when the Air Force began imploding and grading the vacated silos.

Look here for more general information about Ellsworth Air Force Base.