The End of the Atlas-D at F. E. Warren AFB

Atlas-D launch. Courtesy Photo

August 1, 1964

CHEYENNE – In May 1957, F. E. Warren Air Force Base (AFB) was selected to be the first operational Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) base in the United States. The Air Force Ballistic Missiles Committee and the Office of the Secretary of Defense concluded that the 60,000 acres of land near Cheyenne, Wyoming met the strategic requirements of the U.S. ICBM mission and allowed for optimum coverage of Soviet targets. Upon hearing the news, the Mayor of Cheyenne, Worth Story, stated “Cheyenne is proud to have the first missile base in the country and proud to be the nation’s No. 1 target for enemy missiles.” Blessed by the United States government and welcomed by the citizens of Cheyenne, F. E. Warren AFB would soon become home to the first operational Atlas-D ICBM unit, the 564th Strategic Missile Squadron (SMS). 

The Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile System (SM-65) was first developed in March 1956. The system’s first three variants, A, B and C, were prototypes for research and development. After extensive testing, the Air Research and Development Command presented the Atlas-D, a liquid-propellant missile system with a range between 6,300 to 9,000 miles. It was 82.5 feet in length, 10 feet in diameter, and weighed 267,136 pounds when fueled. Carrying the W49 thermonuclear warhead, the Atlas-D produced a yield of 1.44 megatons, or approximately 1.44 million tons of TNT. Under the guidance and leadership of General Bernard A. Schriever (Commander of the Western Development Division of the Air Research and Development Command), the Atlas-D became the first operational ICBM in the United States military on September 1, 1959.

Only a month later, the Atlas missile system arrived at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in November 1959. Although the first Atlas-D missile was placed on alert by April 30, 1960, the base’s alert status was postponed by the Chief of Staff, General Thomas D. White, at the request of General Schriever, who found multiple managerial and manning issues during an on-site inspection. The staff at F. E. Warren AFB corrected the operational and organizational issues highlighted by General Schriever and, on August 9, 1960, Strategic Air Command (SAC) declared the first Atlas complex operational at F. E. Warren AFB. Following close behind, the 564th SMS became the first operational ICBM unit in the Air Force on September 2, 1960. By next year, SAC declared the 565th SMS operational on March 7, 1961 and F. E. Warren AFB became home to the nation’s only two operational ICBM squadrons. The activation of ten other Atlas squadrons in Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, and Washington occurred over the next year. However, despite the political pressure to hastily develop an effective Atlas ICBM enterprise, the missile’s unreliability forced the United States government to decommission the Atlas by 1965. 

Consistent issues with the Atlas contributed to the weapon system’s early retirement. Missile reliability issues, ranging from multiple launch failures to dangerous explosions, demonstrated the missile system’s inefficiency and inability to meet the demands of the government’s nuclear mission. In-depth system testing from 1960 to 1961 revealed hundreds of problems with the system’s missile, ground equipment, and site facilities. Moreover, The maintenance and operations requirements of the missile and its 40,000 parts, in combination with the safety issues engendered by the missile’s volatile liquid-fuel and propellant loading system, further convinced the Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, to phase-out the Atlas missile system in favor of the more reliable and cost-effective Minuteman missile.

By 1962, Secretary McNamara ordered the deactivation of the Atlas ICBM force. Citing the missiles’ unreliability, safety issues, and cost requirements, McNamara directed the Air Force to deactivate the Atlas-D by the summer of 1964 and to begin decommissioning the Atlas-E and F variants, which were to be deactivated by the end of the fiscal year in 1965. The Atlas missile system’s service life was brief, only lasting five years. F. E. Warren AFB removed its last Atlas-D missile on August 1, 1965 and the last Atlas-E missile on February 8, 1965. 

Nevertheless, the Atlas made both a local and global impact during its operational lifespan. It not only provided the nation with land-based strategic deterrence, it also generated more than a 100 million dollars of economic input for the City of Cheyenne. Despite its innate flaws, the Atlas undoubtedly completed its mission.