The End of the 90th Strategic Missile Wing

August 31, 1991


On July 1, 1963, the 90th Strategic Missile Wing (Minuteman) was activated at F. E. Warren AFB. While the 389th Strategic Missile Wing (Atlas) already called Cheyenne home, the impending deactivation of the Atlas missile force led to the employment of the Minuteman inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) at F. E. Warren. The 90th Strategic Missile Wing (SMW) became the fifth Minuteman missile wing under the U. S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC), which already directed missile operations at: Ellsworth AFB (South Dakota), Malmstrom AFB (Montana), Whiteman AFB (Missouri), and Minot AFB (North Dakota). The establishment of the 90th SMW not only continued the legacy of the “Mighty Ninety,” but also the history of military operations in Cheyenne, as it led to F. E. Warren AFB becoming the longest, continuously-active military installation in the country. 

The 90th SMW’s lineage traces back to April 15, 1942, with the activation of the 90th Bombardment Group (Heavy). Organized at Key Field, Mississippi, the 90th Bombardment Group (BG) consisted of four Consolidated B-24 bombardment squadrons, the 319th, 320th, 321st, and 400th. Activated to support the War in the Pacific during World War II, the 90th BG conducted bombing missions throughout New Guinea and the Southwest Pacific from November 1942 to September 1945. Led by Colonel Author H. Rogers, the 90th sunk and destroyed over 400,000 tons of Japanese vessels and aircraft during the war, resulting in the unit claiming the motto: “the best damn heavy bomb group in the world.” From 1947 to 1960, the 90th was inactivated, re-activated, and re-designated on multiple occasions, becoming the 90th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy), the 90th Bombardment Group (Medium), and the 90th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing. However, the 90th’s flying career ended with the deactivation of the 90th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing on June 20, 1960. Instead, the unit was postured for a different mission, a new mission–nuclear deterrence.

While the 90th no longer conducted air operations, the new missile wing carried on the prestigious legacy established by Col. Rogers and the 90th BG. With the activation of the 90th SMW in 1963, concurrent activations of the 319th, 320th, 321st, and 400th Missile Squadrons occurred over the next year, continuing the organizational heritage first established by the bombardiers two decades prior. By June 15, 1965, each squadron operated fifty LGM-30B “Minuteman IB” ICBMs, making F. E. Warren AFB one of two military installations to maintain and control two-hundred Minuteman missiles. Beginning in November 1972, the Department of Defense implemented the ICBM Force Modernization Program, which sought to upgrade the Minuteman I missile series. The 90th SMW was selected to upgrade their Minuteman IB missile force to the more advanced LGM-30G “Minuteman III,” which could carry either three Mark 12 or Mark 12A multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). Each Mark 12 MIRV housed a W-62 warhead with a nuclear yield of 170-kilotons, while the Mark 12A contained the 375-kiloton W-78 warhead. The 90th completed the modernization program on January, 26 1975.

A little less than a decade later, the 90th SMW was afforded the honor of becoming the only missile wing to maintain and operate the LGM-118A “Peacekeeper” ICBM. While initial plans sought to deploy 100 Peacekeeper missiles to F. E. Warren, the number was later lowered to fifty. On June 14, 1983, Headquarters Air Force ordered the 90th to convert fifty Minuteman III silos and facilities to accommodate the Peacekeeper missile system. The new Peacekeeper missile could travel over 6,000 miles while transporting ten Mark 21 MIRVs, each carrying the 300 kiloton W-87 nuclear warhead. The wing completed its partial transition to the Peacekeeper system on December 30, 1988. 

The 90th SMW maintained Minuteman and Peacekeeper operations until its deactivation on August 31, 1991. During this period, the unit earned four Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards, an award reserved for units which “have distinguished themselves by exceptionally meritorious service or outstanding achievement that clearly sets the unit above and apart from similar units.” The 90th also won the Blanchard Trophy for winning SAC’s Missile Competition in 1973 and 1984, the Chadwell Trophy for Best Maintenance Unit in SAC in 1974, 1977, 1978, 1984, 1988, and 1992, and the Omaha Trophy for the Best Unit in SAC in 1984. Nevertheless, internal military reorganizations and re-designations led to the end of the 90th Strategic Missile Wing, and the birth of the 90th Missile Wing on September 1, 1991. While the wing’s designation has changed throughout history, the mission has remained the same since 1963, “Defend America with the world’s premier combat-ready ICBM force.” 

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.