Mushroom Clouds: The making of ICBM’s

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE – The military has been working on nuclear weapons for generations, with the continuous goal of improvement and from these efforts today’s Air Force operates a nuclear arsenal. The development of nuclear weapons began in World War II and eventually developed into the ICBM’s we use today.

Due to a fear that German scientist had been working on nuclear technology since the 1930’s, the Manhattan Project was developed and under direction of Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Under code name Trinity, the first nuclear weapon was tested in New Mexico July 16, 1945, during the Manhattan Project.

Charles Maier, professor of history at Harvard University said the U.S. military was unwilling to say they could win World War II, without the nuclear bombs.

On August 6 & 9, 1945, two nuclear weapons were dropped on Japan to end the war.

Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were costly, but shaped the future development of nuclear weapons.

In response to the first Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949, on January 31, 1950, President Truman announced a crash program to develop a hydrogen bomb. This could allow the military to plan on smaller weapons with greater yield, and accuracy becoming less of an issue with megaton class warheads.

America had a series of nuclear tests and in 1952, Operation Ivy was the first successful full-scale test of a hydrogen bomb. This prototype at 10.4 megatons, 500 times greater than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, left an underwater crater where Elugelab Island once was.

Throughout all the testing on nuclear weapons in the 50’s, the worst incident was Castle Bravo on March 1, 1954. Sitting at 15 megatons, 2.5 times the predicted amount, the explosion in the Marshall Islands led to unexpected radioactive contamination with the fallout spreading around the world.

Originating on missile-based nuclear arms, the space race was underway for American and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The shocking launch of Sputnik I in 1957 posed a missile gap for the U.S.

President Eisenhower declared a nuclear research program was the highest national priority, second to none.

“The confluence of nuclear breakthroughs, national concern of a missile gap, national prioritization of the ICBM program and clear management of missile development programs, resulted in rapid development of ICBMs,” said Lt. Col. George Chapman, 320th Missile Squadron commander.

From 1957-1965 the Atlas ICBM was operational. The “quick firing” Atlas F took 15 minutes to pump 249,000 pounds of liquid fuel into the tank before firing.

On October 31, 1959, a nuclear warhead was mated to an Atlas D ICBM which enabled the commander of Strategic Air Command to declare the missile on alert. Since then, 17 ICBM alert operations have continued nonstop.

The Titan I ICBM was online from 1959-1965, followed by the Titan II. This ICBM was online from 1961-1987 and was the first to be launched inside the silo. The Titan II also carried a payload two times as heavy and used storable propellants, reducing the launch time.

In 1961 the Minuteman I came online and was the first to use solid fuels. Model A had a flaw in the rocket fuel booster, limiting the range by 2,000 miles. Due to this, model B was created with a redesigned front stage motor and second stage motor with a titanium casting. It was deactivated in 1973.

With the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis causing tension, it brought the U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear exchange.

At this point, it was evident that there needed to be an open dialog geared towards stability.

In 1963 a limited test ban treaty was signed, pledging to refrain from testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, under water or outer space. Underground testing was permitted.

Minuteman II was the next missile from 1966-1996 and Minuteman III from 1972-present.

The Peacekeeper went on alert in 1987 as the most powerful ICBM in Air Force history, armed with up to 10 warheads. They were deactivated in 2005.

In 1992 the United States completed their last underground nuclear test. Followed by a comprehensive nuclear-test-ban treaty.

Finally, in 2012 the U.S. signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.

“The New START reflects an agreement between the Russians and the U.S. regarding how many nuclear weapons are required to maintain our defenses while managing the cost and manpower associated with operations, security and maintenance of a weapon,” said Rex Ellis, chief of the F.E. Warren AFB treaty compliance office.

To reduce the possibility of an enemy destroying all nuclear assets in one strike, the U.S. military holds a nuclear triad, intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.


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