The success of the Minuteman missile series from 1961 to 1964 convinced President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that the future of ICBM operations centered on the “Ace in the Hole.” More accurate, reliable, and cheaper to produce, the missile allowed the United States to amend its initial nuclear strategy and adopt a “flexible response” policy. As the future of nuclear deterrence became clear, McNamara authorized the Minuteman Force Modernization Program in December 1964, which extended the Minuteman’s service life by replacing the Minuteman IA and IB systems with their successors, the Minuteman IIF and III.
Before the Minuteman Force Modernization Program actualized, the Air Force sought to upgrade the system by incorporating the selective launch and targeting concepts envisioned by Colonel Edward N. Hall, Director of the Minuteman Program. Hall believed that a multi-target capable missile which could be deployed either en masse or in salvo offered the United States the greatest flexibility for nuclear operations. However, technological limitations at the time prevented the implementation of such ideas. Compelled by the demand for an improved solid-propellant ICBM, Boeing incorporated Hall’s ideas in 1962, when the company began developing the Minuteman IIF. While the Minuteman IB offered a dual-targeting option, the upgraded gyro accelerometer in the IIF allowed the Air Force to program eight pre-selected targets that operators could switch between depending on the scenario. In addition to the advanced targeting features, engineers increased the missile’s range to approximately 7,000 miles and increased its payload capacity. This new missile system, which continued to use the Minuteman I’s selective launch option, was the manifestation of Ed Hall’s design. Capitalizing on the drastic advancements in missile technology, McNamara ordered the force wide deployment of the Minuteman IIF in December 1964. Deemed the Minuteman Force Modernization Program, the Air Force phased out the Minuteman IA and IBs in favor of the more capable IIF and, later, III. Maintenance crews at Malmstrom Air Force Base pulled the last Minuteman IA from its silo in February 1969, ending the service life of the nation’s first Minuteman generation.
Although the IIF’s deployment appeared on the horizon, Boeing was already engineering the Minuteman III by July 1965. The third installment of the missile series not only employed the improvements from the previous generations, but also included a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle system, which further enhanced the system’s payload capabilities. In addition, engineers also increased the missile’s range to approximately 8,000 miles. The first Minuteman III completed its test flight at Cape Canaveral on August 16, 1968. Less than two years later, Minot Air Force Base received the initial flight of Minuteman IIIs in April 1970. By 1975, Strategic Air Command announced the complete deployment of the Minuteman III force when the 90th Strategic Missile Wing at F. E. Warren Air Force Base received the final flight of missiles from Boeing on January 26. After nine years, the Air Force concluded the modernization program and solidified the Minuteman’s place in the nation’s nuclear enterprise.
The Minuteman Force Modernization Program reshaped American nuclear policy. While the Eisenhower Administration’s massive retaliation strategy undoubtedly offered a semblance of deterrence, Kennedy’s “flexible response” policy allowed the nation to strategically respond to threats with nuclear assets in a mitigated manner. Overall, the advancements in missile technology instigated by McNamara’s program allowed the Air Force to deploy a flexible, cost-effective nuclear deterrent system that met the demands of the government’s national security directives in an unparalleled fashion.
(This information is a result of research conducted by Dr. David N. Spires, who provided a detailed account of the Minuteman Force Modernization Program 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.