The Birth of the Peacekeeper

November 22, 1982

Compelled by the threat of advancing Soviet missile technologies, the United States government sought to secure the survivability of its missile force in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Consequently, the U. S. Air Force needed to ensure its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were able to withstand a nuclear attack. While hardening the system’s silos would partially meet the survivability requirements outlined by the Nixon administration, the Air Force proposed the development of a new, more technologically capable, ICBM system in 1972. On November 22, 1982, this modernized system, originally named Project MX for Missile Experimental, was deemed the “Peacekeeper.” For nineteen years, the Peacekeeper undeniably represented the pinnacle of missile technology until its deactivation in 2005.

Though the Peacekeeper’s initial deployment was in 1986, the Air Force spent more than two decades conceptualizing, researching, and testing the missile system. Beginning in the 1960s, shortly after the deployment of the Minuteman I ICBM, the Air Force began theorizing a missile concept with increased survivability, range, accuracy, and weaponry capabilities. However, the Air Force waited until 1972 to request funding for the new system, which eventually evolved into the Peacekeeper missile. By 1976, the Air Force’s next missile program began to actualize when the department started testing and developing an improved ICBM which not only met the Air Force’s nuclear requirements but could also be launched from the already-developed Minuteman silos, thus reducing overall developmental and operational costs. President Reagan and Congress approved the Peacekeeper program for deployment in 1983.

After considering a variety of basing modes and models for the new system, F. E. Warren Air Force Base was selected to be the home of the Peacekeeper. Geological assessments, in combination with the base’s current missile population, convinced the Air Force that F. E. Warren AFB met the strategic, financial and environmental requirements needed to deploy the Peacekeeper. Considering the community’s historical support of the base and its mission, Cheyenne was happy to oblige another missile system, which would create another 1,500 jobs for the local populace. Construction began in 1984 and by December 1986, the 400th Strategic Missile Squadron reached its initial operational capability of ten Peacekeeper missiles. Two years later, on December 30, 1988, Strategic Air Command announced that all fifty Peacekeeper missiles were operational and on-alert.

From 1986 to 2005, the Peacekeeper missile served as the nation’s most capable ICBM system. Using a “cold launch” protocol, which used steam to initially launch the missile from the silo, the four-stage system carried ten MK-21 re-entry vehicles over 6,000 miles at a speed of approximately 15,000 miles per hour. The Peacekeeper ultimately represented pivotal modernization developments within the missile field, as it employed technologies previously unfathomable. Upgraded guidance, targeting, and launch capabilities highlighted a new generation of ICBM that could meet the United States’ modern nuclear strategic demands. However, despite the Air Force’s ability to develop a missile system capable of surviving modern nuclear attacks, the reshaping of global thought and international politics in the 1990s prompted the end of the Peacekeeper force.

In an attempt to decrease the number of global nuclear weapons, leaders from the United States and Russia signed multiple treaties that engendered a massive downsizing of each nation’s nuclear capabilities. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, in combination with the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty, led to the end of the Peacekeeper missile system. Presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all sought to reduce the number of global nuclear weapons, and the Peacekeeper was at the forefront of the nation’s nuclear force cutback. Air Force Chief of Staff General John P. Jumper ordered the Air Force Space Command to deactivate the Peacekeeper missile force October 1, 2002. The final missile was declared “off-alert” September 19, 2005. Despite the death of the Peacekeeper, a majority of the system’s components were reused throughout the Air Force Space Command in support of both missile and space operations. Although brief, the Peacekeeper represents a special era of missile history where the intersection of modern nuclear strategic requirements and missile technology met to create the nation’s most-capable nuclear deterrent.  

(This information is a result of research conducted by Mr. David N. Spires, who provided a detailed account of the Peacekeeper’s history in his book On Alert: An Operational History of the United States Air Force Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program, 1945-2011.)

Kyle Brislan is the Historian for the 90th Missile Wing at F. E. Warren Air Force Base. He is a prior history instructor, published author, and Air Force veteran. His historical expertise includes: military history, early-twentieth century Russian history, and labor history.