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Steven A. Pomeroy


Missiles and Trains


© «Air Power History», 2010.




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About Autor


Lt. Col. Steven A. Pomeroy is the Director of Curriculum Integration for the Department of Military and Strategic Studies at the United States Air Force Academy. An Assistant Professor teaching courses on strategy and technology, military innovation, and space strategy, he served three years as the Deputy Head and advised faculty at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, where he created a military history course. He has operated ground-launched cruise missiles, the Minuteman III ICBM, and served as a mission flight control officer for spacelift operations. He holds a Ph.D. in the History of Technology from Auburn University, an M.A. in the Humanities from the California State University, and a B.A. in History from the Pennsylvania State University. His current research includes American concepts of operations for mobile ICBMs from the early 1950s through the 1980s, theories of space strategy, and the philosophy of a strategist’s education. He has published numerous book reviews and won the 2006-2007 Cold War Essay Contest sponsored by Virginia Military Institute’s John A. Adams Center for Military History and Strategic Analysis.

Highball! Missiles and Trains

Published on «Air Power History», Number 3, 2010.


This photograph illustrates five missile cars with the missiles in a strategic alert condition. Based on Air Force desires, the number of missiles per train varied between three and six. The missiles are inside the vertical support structures. When launched, the vertical structure opened as a clamshell to permit missile flight. (All photos Boeing Company, “Minuteman Mobile D.E.I. (Boeing), December 8, 1960,” unaccessioned, unclassified collections. BMO box M-22, AFHRA.)

When one thinks of the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the common image is of missiles emplaced in underground launch facilities. The launch facility (“silo” in popular parlance) is the reigning paradigm of American ICBM deployment. Significantly less known was the serious American desire for mobile ICBMs. Regarding a mobile Minuteman, historians hardly mention this tale of an American technological road not taken. This is a paradox because many nations currently operate mobile intercontinental or intermediate-range ballistic missile systems, including Russia, China, and India, to say nothing of various Middle East countries. Moreover, the persistent presence of ICBM mobility represents a significant piece of American military and technological history. It consumed large resources: $108 million by 1961 for mobile Minuteman alone ($2.9 billion in year 2008).1 It was a significant factor in the discourse shaping the American nuclear deterrent, originally the triad of manned bomber aircraft, land-based ICBMs operated from fixed sites, and mobile submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The early debate on a mobile Minuteman demonstrates the functioning of the military-academic-industrial triangle, complete with late fifties - early sixties interservice rivalry. Lastly, the foundational work done for mobile Minuteman later resurfaced in the 1970s and 1980s as the administrations of Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, James E. Carter, and Ronald W. Reagan struggled with a burgeoning Soviet nuclear threat.2 For well over thirty years, the U.S. continuously researched mobile ICBMs, spent enormous sums of money on the idea, and ultimately dropped it, begging the question, “why?”

To answer the posed query, this article examines the political, strategic, and technological factors shaping the idea of mobility within Minuteman deployment and operational planning. How a military uses a weapon is just as important as what that weapon does, but historians have published little on how Mobile Minuteman would have operated. Therefore, as a first step, this article emphasizes the studies and tests that developed its concept of operations. Drawing upon research conducted for a broader study, it focuses on the work accomplished to refine mobile Minuteman basing proposals.3 Because of this, it does not examine earlier missile developmental efforts and history, including the detailed origins of the Air Force ballistic missile program, intercontinental cruise missiles, intermediate-range ballistic missiles, various army missiles, or German mobile V-2 units.4 These and other programs informed early Air Force efforts, but because the first significant American mobile ICBM research and development program was Minuteman, the article’s focus is there.

Prescient Questions

On September 13, 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the ICBM program as “a research program of the highest national priority, second to no others,” with any change to the program occurring only at his behest.5 The road to his decision counted many turns, but by 1956, General Bernard Schriever, the Air Force officer responsible for ICBMs, had several missile projects underway, and he realized existing means of research, development, acquisition, and procurement were insufficient to the job. To deliver quickly an operational missile, Schriever and his military, industrial, and academic colleagues developed three important innovations, including the 1) application of systems engineering; 2) parallel development of weapon systems and system components; and 3) the concurrent development of systems.6 Synergy between these immeasurably aided his work.

Importantly, he hired the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation to be the Air Force’s scientific and engineering advisory body. Acting for Schriever, Ramo-Wooldridge created specifications, oversaw development, and coordinated between the service and the numerous subcontractors building the various pieces of the ICBMs, thereby providing the project with an industrial unity that the earlier intercontinental cruise missile program had lacked. Schriever gambled that the vision of the scientists, if properly guided and supported, would deliver a viable missile in the shortest period of time. He retained central control and direction, but let his scientists and engineers solve the thorny problems. This approach was revolutionary, and the bureaucratic fight to install it was a hard one that Schriever described as “a hell of a struggle [with] ... lots of blood on the floor.”7 Schriever’s eventual victory established systems engineering as a new means of program management to deliver high technology weapon systems to operational users.



Schriever gambled that the vision of the scientists … would deliver a viable missile in the shortest period … described as “a hell of a struggle [with] … lots of blood on the floor”


Aware that the first models of a complex and never-before-built missile could not represent mature capabilities, Schriever wanted multiple ICBM systems to guard against program failures. It was a classic instance of “not putting all of one’s eggs in the same basket.” To do this, Schriever employed parallel rather than linear management of research, development, production, installation, and testing. Additionally, the Air Force concurrently produced multiple missile types that backed up each other at the system and subsystem level. This minimized the risk of program-stopping failures, maximized technical convergence between different contractors and industries, but increased expenses.8 Nevertheless, the combination of systems engineering with parallel and concurrent development permitted the Air Force to research, design, experiment, test, and eventually deploy multiple ICBM systems.

By 1956, with the Atlas and Titan I ICBMs under development, Schriever asked his staff to investigate mobile missiles. His reasoning considered the realities of the American - Soviet rivalry as well as interservice politics. Schriever foresaw mobility satisfying desires for a survivable ICBM force by ensuring a sizable force of American missiles would survive a “bolt out of the blue” attack because the enemy would not know their locations, thereby raising the stakes too high for an adversary to contemplate such action. In addition, the perceptive Schriever no doubt understood the implications of the Navy’s recently approved Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile to the Air Force ICBM effort. Polaris, a mobile system, allowed the Navy to argue for the survivability of its missiles in comparison to the large, stationary, and land-based Air Force ICBMs.9 To prepare himself for a potential naval broadside, he directed Col. William Sheppard to examine the possibility of mobilizing the Atlas missile.



By 1956, with the Atlas and Titan I ICBMs under development … Schriever foresaw mobility satisfying desires for a survivable ICBM force


Sheppard had the Research and Development (RAND) Corporation study the issue, along with Air University, the service’s top-level educational institution, and Convair, the Atlas missile’s contractor. ICBM mobility was challenging, and the Atlas’ radio guidance limitations, pressurized body construction, and liquid fuels increased reaction time and support requirements. After digesting the data, Sheppard replied, “we are not very hopeful about a completely mobile ICBM system,” at which point Schriever dropped the idea for about a year and a half.10 Work progressed within the broader ICBM effort, however, and by the summer of 1957, the Air Force had reorganized its Western Development Division as the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division (AFBMD), responsible for the massive systems engineering and concurrent development of ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, the Atlas flight test program had begun, and in July, a high-powered advisory panel met to discuss future developments. This was the Bacher Panel, named after Chairman Robert F. Bacher, a California Institute of Technology physicist. Its luminaries included Cal-Tech physicist Clark Millikan and presidential advisor and chemist George Kistiakowsky. The panel met at Dr. Simon Ramo’s invitation (he of Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation, the ICBM program’s systems engineers). On June 1, 1957, Schriever received his report, in which Bacher articulated the Air Force’s first substantial thoughts on a mobile ICBM since Schriever’s 1956 questions.


Parked near a missile transfer building, the missile cars provide a sense of scale to mobile Minuteman. The truck extending from the transfer building is a Minuteman transporter erector, a vehicle used for road transport of Minuteman missiles. At fixed-site deployments, the transporter erector elevated the missile (inside the truck’s trailer) to a vertical position and then lowered it into the underground launch facility.

Bacher reported:

Serious doubts exist about the philosophy of very hard bases as the ultimate solution for an indestructible ‘massive retaliation’ force. In planning advanced ICBM systems, attention should be concentrated not on the isolated concept of an advanced missile, but on a system comprising the missile and the base. There is urgent need for careful comparative analysis, from the operational point of view, of the hard base concept versus the mobility concept.11

Schriever agreed, having commented earlier in the year, “you have got to have very, very, close tiein between the characteristics of the weapon and the characteristics of the facilities from which the weapon is going to operate. You have to marry the two. You can’t do it any other way.”12 Bacher therefore highlighted a growing concern about ICBM basing with which Schriever was cognizant. Given the rush to deploy an operational ICBM, successful basing was paramount. Moreover, as Schriever asserted, unless engineers understood the basing and operational philosophy of the weapon, designing the rocket and other system elements was nearly impossible because each part of the overall system influenced the others. National political, Department of Defense, and Air Force-internal pressures to deploy weapons meant new technology and operational concepts had to be developed simultaneously as early weapons were to be deployed.13 This caused much uncertainty.

Bacher believed mobility provided three advantages, including: 1) limited basing infrastructure; 2) survivability via deceptive rotation of missiles among a large number of potential launch sites; and 3) overwhelming Soviet ability to locate American missiles. He boldly stated:

A mobile ICBM force does not necessarily require the ability to establish a base and to be ready to fire on an hour’s notice. Realistic schemes involve the existence of prepared sites in numbers greater than the number of firing units and the random disposition of such units among the sites. Rotation of the units among the sites with a frequency which would place an intolerable burden on the enemy’s intelligence system is not obviously unrealistic. A slight hardening of operational procedures on such bases (e.g. against fallout radiation) is a problem worth considering.14

“Serious doubts” over ICBM survivability were important. If missiles could not survive attacks, they were useless to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s national security strategy, meaning the Air Force had no reason to have them. Moreover, as Schriever contemplated this, internal AFBMD elements pushed hard for the Minuteman’s deployment into inexpensive underground shelters.15 As the service, industry, and academe rushed first- and then second-generation weapons into development, production, and operation, alternative basing modes demanded study.

At this point, Air Force officers knew they wanted a better ICBM system to replace their first generation weapons. The Minuteman emerged as the solution. Through the summer of 1958, the Air Force studied its deployment. Conceived as an inexpensive program to deploy large numbers of missiles in hardened underground launch facilities, it was technologically risky and competed for budget dollars with other programs. Consistent with the questions Bacher raised, two basing schemes emerged. One placed Minuteman in underground launch facilities, and the second used trains. Col. Edward N. Hall, Schriever’s visionary propulsion chief, believed mobility would dramatically increase costs, putting the overall program at budgetary risk. Hall and his AFBMD colleagues did not want that. Other officers differed, including Generals Thomas S. Power, commanding the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and Schriever. Power believed deceptive mobility an important military asset. Schriever, in charge of all Air Force ICBMs, balanced the heavier throw-weight of the large and soon-to-deploy liquid-fueled missiles against the unproven Minuteman and the bureaucratic need to present a unified Air Force missile narrative. Power asked Schriever to study mobility, and on September 9, 1958, the latter commissioned a joint AFBMD-SAC study committee.16



Power believed deceptive mobility an important military asset

Two basing schemes emerged. One placed Minuteman in underground launch facilities, and the second used trains.

Hall, … believed mobility would dramatically increase costs, putting the overall program at budgetary risk.



One has to appreciate Schriever’s burden. He was developing Thor, Atlas, Titan I, Titan II, fixed Minuteman, and was now studying mobile Minuteman, all in response to the national crash effort to build ICBMs, this not counting the space satellite projects for which he was responsible. As the first solid-fueled, land-based ICBM, Minuteman program managers and designers oriented it toward the mass production of a simple, efficient, and highly survivable nuclear weapon system of consistently high reliability. It presented problems across technologies, including propulsion, guidance, flight computers, and basing. Creating the system entailed integrating yet-to-be solved hardware, conceptual, and operational problems, for as Schriever had stressed, there was indeed a close relationship between missile and basing.

Trains were the only seriously considered mobile form. Apparently, Schriever had decided that. He already had discussed the problem with railroad executives and secured their support. An astute observer, Schriever perceived how personal automobiles and air transportation caused declining passenger revenues, as trucking lessened freight profits. Linking Minuteman to railroads united the program “with an essential national industry possessing a powerful lobby and a commitment of government support.”17 Schriever, a man equally adroit at directing engineering programs or working politics, further opined, “any use of the railroads by the Air Force would result in very strong support which would be helpful in pushing the Minuteman program.”18 His ultimate reasoning was clear. The Air Force could “enhance its position in the ballistic missile field” by adding mobility to its operations.19 The Air Force would build railcars containing the weapon system and crews while private railroads, grateful for the revenue, would pull them. Industry maintained the nation’s railroad infrastructure, further lessening Air Force costs. A railroad-based system eliminated the need for truck convoys that previously had supported mobile missiles. Best of all, the blue-suiters could buy rail transportation for less money and complexity than owning a submarine fleet. Trains simply and elegantly solved a demanding problem.

Schriever’s study committees produced two reports, one on Minuteman, the other on Atlas and Titan. Each report considered force size, hardness, dispersal, fast reaction, deception through decoys, mobility, and cost. Assumptions were necessary, given the budgetary, technological, and operational challenges. The Atlas and Titan report clearly indicated it was ludicrous to deploy those missiles in a mobile mode; therefore, this discussion focuses on Minuteman.20 Assuming a 1963 force size of 1,200 Minuteman missiles, planners designated 300 missiles as rail mobile. A missile train, called a mobile missile task force, contained three missiles and operated over 600 track miles with support centers located at existing Central and Western U.S. air bases. A 300-missile force required 100 trains. These numbers changed over the ensuing years, with fewer trains providing remaining units with more track miles.21

Consistent with Bacher’s hope for a limited basing infrastructure, the Air Force preferred existing bases for support but concluded it needed dedicated centers. Each mobile support base was similar to a small railroad yard but added a logistics support unit to maintain approximately 100 mobile missiles. Arriving trains had eight hours to provision and refit before returning to the national rail network. Maintenance personnel emplaced missiles into launch cars and made repairs while Air Force crews changed (Interstate Commerce Commission regulations governed civilian train crews). The base duplicated maintenance capabilities imagined for fixed-site Minuteman wings, including changing missile stages, guidance sets, and re-entry vehicles while servicing train-unique items.22

As system configuration research continued, AFBMD and SAC developed concepts of operation. Of the factors shaping these operational concepts, missile alignment and guidance were the most important. Accuracy would increase the chances of target destruction. The Air Force considered gyrocompasses and inertial navigators, but in 1958, they cost too much and were imprecise. Presurveyed launch points, however, provided accurate benchmarks from which to align missile azimuth before launch. In five minutes or less, a crewmember could use a theodolite to sight an illuminated benchmark providing the offset angle needed to align the missile against true north, an essential step in establishing an azimuth trajectory. In addition, ground and missile-borne computers needed the launch site location data to compute missile trajectory and control flight. By measuring presurveyed locations ten miles apart over each train’s 600 track miles, each unit had sixty prepared launch points. Given a speed of thirty miles per hour, a train needed ten minutes or less to reach a launch point. If parked at a presurveyed site when a launch order arrived, there was no delay, but if a train was moving, because five miles was the train commander’s decision point, the train merely went to the nearest launch point to arrive within ten minutes.23


transfer crane raised a Minuteman missile out of the missile car, but the warhead is not on the missile. Towards the rear of the missile car is the round, azimuth alignment table that rotated the missile to its heading. Down the car’s middle is the hydraulic jack used to elevate the missile, and in the background, a man may be seen.

Operational flexibility and technology limitations interrelated. As Schriever realized, missile and base shaped each other while simultaneously influencing concepts of operation. The Air Force developed five such concepts, designated “A” through “E,” each adjusting the degree of train movement, launch reaction time, ease of operation, recognition of technology limitations, and cost. Balancing concealment and minimum launch preparation time was crucial. Complicating matters was the need to contend with routine rail traffic, weather, and occasional accidents including derailments. The Air Force simply could not dominate the nation’s rail system. Adjusting these factors eventually led to selection of an operating scheme maximizing weapon survivability through daily relocation of missiles without reducing rapid reaction times to launch orders or unduly stressing the system’s human and mechanical components.

Concept “A” moved trains 70 percent of the time and could launch while moving. Commercial freight and passenger schedules required the Air Force train remain stationary 30 percent of the time or seven-and-one-quarter hours per day. Advantages included a “fair” but essentially guessed at reaction time of no more than twenty minutes when stationary. Reaction time was the time needed from a missile crew’s receipt of a launch message to the moment of missile launch.

The Air Force sought the shortest possible time, which varied depending upon the readiness level of the weapon system. The press widely reported the underground Minuteman as having a one-minute response time. Most challenging was launching missiles from a moving train. The image of three 65,000-pound, fifty-four foot tall Minuteman missiles standing upright on railroad cars rolling down the tracks illustrates the problems. The launch cars would be susceptible to toppling and required gyroscopic stabilization mechanisms; missile elevation was possible only in areas free of obstruction; and there were problems with guidance accuracy when launching from a moving platform. The missile needed a yet-to-be invented, train-based computer system to compute the trajectory based on a moving launch platform. This required another estimated lengthening of reaction time by twenty minutes. Lastly, the train’s continuous motion (nearly seventeen hours a day) increased wear and tear on missiles, support equipment, and crews, necessitating expensive maintenance. The committee concluded this approach offered no significant advantages.24

The second method of operations, concept “B,” paralleled “A” with the train moving seventeen hours a day, but differed in that upon receipt of a launch order, the train stopped and immediately started the launch sequence. This eliminated the stabilization problems inherent in the launchwhile-moving concept, but it required a computer to calculate missile trajectories from unsurveyed launch points. The committee estimated this introduced a two-to-three-mile error in targeting, an unacceptable outcome. As a result, the disadvantages outweighed the advantages.25

Concept “C” improved system reliability by reducing daily travel time to five hours with the remainder spent on presurveyed spurs and sidings. The Air Force train, minus a locomotive, sat until a scheduled train rolled by, at which time the Air Force hitchhiked. Positive control was problematic because the Air Force depended upon prescheduled freight and passenger trains to move its cars. On the plus side, this scheme lessened labor requirements by eliminating the five-member civilian train crews, cutting the cost of salaries and benefits for the 500 civilian train crew members needed for a 300-missile force in 100 trains. Set against this savings was the realization that under concept “C,” the Air Force lost virtually all of the advantages mobility afforded. In addition, there was no guarantee that passing trains would stop if Air Force personnel received a launch order. It was too risky.26

Concepts “D” and “E” were more attractive. Concept “D,” known as the “very mobile” concept, gave the Air Force train a dedicated locomotive and moved seventeen hours a day, stopping at presurveyed launch points. Launch reaction time was slow because the near-continuous motion of the train demanded extra launch preparations to ensure an accurate strike. Continuous motion made it harder for the Soviets to locate the trains but cost the Americans reliability and reaction time. Making trains effective weapons platforms required better balancing of factors recognizing their technological limitations.27


Gen. Bernard A. Schriever..

Concept “E,” the “mobile concept,” improved cost-benefit ratios by moving trains on the same schedule as in concept “C” (five hours a day) but with its own locomotive and civilian train crews. This provided a “minimum” level of acceptable mobility and the potential for more. Because the train stopped at presurveyed launch points, the Air Force crew could prepare a missile for launch when stopped. This decreased reaction time and increased missile availability time to 80 percent of the day, meaning that given a 300 missile force, 240 sorties were ready at any given time. Because the train was motionless most of the day, there was less stress on the missile components, increasing reliability but making it an easier target for the Soviets to locate and destroy.28

SAC headquarters wanted train movements to appear random, and a blended concept of operation evolved similar to the mobile concept, but that at higher states of readiness retained the capability to exercise the very mobile provisions of concept “D.” Trains could launch missiles individually or in salvo and carried a library of targeting information necessary for all launch positions on their assigned trackage, allowing each missile to maintain the same target, regardless of the launch site. At any given time, a portion of the operating mobile units would be relocating while other trains remained at varying degrees of readiness, balancing well survivability, mobility, and response time.

By nearly every measure, the mobile units cost more per missile than did their silo cousins.A 1958 estimate of system costs over a five-year period averaging the initial investment costs of research, development, and procurement with the annual costs of operating and maintaining the system indicated that a fixed force of 900 stationary Minuteman missiles would cost $1.256 million per missile. The 300-missile mobile force of concept “E” would cost $2.275 million per missile, and the very mobile force of concept “D” would cost $3.613 million per missile. The total estimated costs followed the same pattern. Nine hundred stationary Minuteman missiles would cost $1.13 billion, but 300 mobile concept “C” missiles would cost $682.5 million and the very mobile concept “D” force cost $1.08 billion. These costs were very soft estimates because engineers needed to do more research and development, with costs likely increasing. In a comparison of personnel needed for a 300 fixed versus mobile missile force, the fixed missiles required 1,931 people, but the mobile missile force needed 5,798, demonstrating that when all support functions were included, mobility required approximately three times as many people per missile.29



A 1958 estimate … indicated that a fixed force of 900 stationary Minuteman missiles would cost $1.256 million per missile. The 300-missile mobile force of concept “E” would cost $2.275 million per missile, and the very mobile force of concept “D” would cost $3.613 million per missile.


Bacher believed a shell game moving missiles between launch sites would overwhelm the Soviets’ ability to destroy them. The study group calculated two pounds per square inch of atmospheric overpressure as necessary to destroy or topple a Minuteman train. This meant the Soviets needed thirty reentry vehicles delivered down a rail line (if they knew which ones to hit) to ensure destruction of one train. Based on an assumed accuracy of two nautical miles and a five-megaton warhead’s destructive radius, the Soviets had to expend ten warheads for every one American Minuteman missile.30 Premier Nikita Khrushchev thus needed 3,000 perfectly working missiles to destroy all 300 mobile Minutemen, not counting the 900 silo-based Minutemen and other American nuclear forces. Trains effectively eliminated any numerical advantage with fewer American weapons while costing the Soviets headaches and rubles.31

AFBMD and SAC estimated the number of American missiles that would survive an attack of between one and 1,200 Soviet ICBMs. Analysis of multiple scenarios accounting for the degree of American mobility (concepts “D” and “E”), the ratio of the Soviet attack force to the American force, the relative reliability and available in-commission rate of stationary versus mobile Minutemen, various degrees of hardness for the yet-to-be-built silos, and guesses at Soviet accuracy, resulted in a surprise. The general conclusion: silo deployment was superior. The turning point came when the Soviets deployed enough missiles with warheads possessing sufficient yield to make area bombing practical. Once they had enough missiles to blanket American rail lines with two-to-five pounds per square inch of overpressure, they could destroy all 100 Minuteman trains. At that time, train-based ICBMs lost their expensive utility. Once the Soviets had the accuracy to destroy underground launch facilities, then the only survivable American missile force would be the submarine-based missiles. These estimates sobered the Air Force.32

SAC and AFBMD staff officers concluded that although it was possible to build a mobile system, trains were inferior to silos. A missile in an underground launch facility was already on its launch pad, tested, and ready to fire in far less time than one on a train. Mobile missiles cost more, took longer to prepare for launch, and suffered from reduced accuracy. Further, once the Soviets had enough missiles to conduct area bombing, train mobility lost all its advantages. Labor and funding requirements were two to three times greater for a mobile system, leading the committee to slip softly a last line recommendation into the October 1958, 119-page report: “On the basis of cost and effectiveness a fixed hardened system is preferable.”33

Damn the Conclusions, Full Speed Ahead

Despite this conclusion, the Air Force moved forward. The service simply could not afford, either monetarily or politically, to reject a system it regarded as its future ballistic missile mission and program--and one that had only recently, in February, become a formal acquisition program. Moreover, Minuteman did have an underground based component. Even if a service study rejected a train-based version, nothing indicated the launch facility version would not be successful; moreover, and ominously for the blue suiters, the Navy’s Polaris was progressing. The press soon reported on the program in detail. A June 1959 Missiles and Rockets article astutely asked whether the program was a “countermeasure” to the Navy’s Polaris, and Schriever replied, “no. We are just getting tired of being accused of having our feet set in concrete.”34 By this time, the units had evolved into sets of fifteen-car trains, each with six missiles. For one train, the American Association of Railroads estimated the total expected cost of converting civilian railcars for military purposes, not counting the missiles but including a $250,000 locomotive, at $1.25 million, which compared favorably to the $2.7 million needed to buy a twin-diesel, thirteen-car luxury streamlined passenger train.35 By November 1959, General Thomas White, the Air Force Chief of Staff, proclaimed it “entirely feasible to deploy Minuteman missiles on railroad cars.”36

SAC and AFBMD next tested trains. In late December 1959, Air Force Headquarters named Hill Air Force Base, Utah, as home of the first mobile Minuteman squadron. Headquarters approved a second squadron on July 15, 1960. By December 1960, the Air Force commissioned the 4062d Strategic Wing at Hill to develop a “combat capability, at the earliest possible date, with assigned mobile SM-80 [Minuteman] forces.”37 In early May 1960, SAC activated a task force and test control center with Colonel Virgil M. Cloyd, Jr., the former director of operations for SAC’s 1st Missile Division at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, commanding. His mission: test Minuteman trains and validate operational concepts, including the feasibility of random rail movement over a wide geographic base and the ability of the railroads to support such an operation. Originally, the Air Force planned six test train runs but later said four were sufficient. Known as Operation Big Star, the tests began on June 20 and concluded on August 27, 1960.38

The four Big Star trains travelled different regions. The first left Hill on June 20, 1960, and operated in the Rocky Mountains for seven days. Big Star-2 included six different railroad companies in a 2,320-mile test through Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, and Idaho. These first two trains did not include a launch car, but the last two trains included a pre-prototype and a flatcar carrying a Minuteman third stage to test the effects of vibration on solid rocket motors. The trains consisted of a command car Boeing had modified from a hospital car, plus Army Transportation Corps quarters and dining cars. Also included were 10,000-gallon water and fuel tankers, and a boxcar for maintenance spares and a jeep.39

Covering 3,000 miles over seven different railroads in California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, and Utah, Big Star-3 rolled on July 26, 1960, for fourteen days, the length of an actual deployment. Because the first three tests exercised western railroads, the finale headed east on August 16, 1960, and returned on August twenty-seventh. It travelled to Iowa and Illinois, delivered the preprototype launch car to SAC’s Omaha home, and ran 3,200 miles. General Power declared the four runs “a completely successful test program” providing the information necessary to “make firm plans for future mobile trains.” Given the lack of actual launch cars and other critical assets, Power overstated his claim.40

Nonetheless, SAC did learn many lessons. Communications were poor. When the Air Force transmitted messages to the trains from Hill’s high frequency radios, several went unheard. Had this occurred on an operational train, it meant that “a multi-million dollar weapons system, with fast reaction capability, [was] unable to receive the ‘Go to War’ message.” Crew reporting requirements overwhelmed the communications network dedicated to support functions, as did technical problems including radio overvoltages. Intra-train communications between the train commander, conductor, and engineer were inadequate. The Big Star tests indicated that a reliable communications system for an operational train not only required additional design and development but better procedures.41

An important discovery was that centrally controlling train movement was unwise. Doing so overwhelmed crew and command post personnel with reporting requirements and limited the train commander’s flexibility. Informing both railroads and SAC on train location required extensive communication, and reporting on sixty trains worsened the problem. Greater communication lessened security by increasing the chance Soviet monitoring could determine locations. On Big Star-1, attempts to follow centralized procedures made the train commander’s administrative duties so strenuous test officials redefined personnel requirements, adding an executive officer, first sergeant, and clerk.42


Inspecting a scale model of the rail-mobile Minuteman launcher car are (left to right) Lt. Gen. Bernard A. Schriever, ARDC commander, William M Allen, president of Boeing, and Maj. Gen. O.J. Ritland, Ballistic Missile Division commander.

The most important test measured launch order response times. At best, interpretation was difficult if not impossible because the trains lacked missiles, operational launch cars, and command cars. Even recognizing this, results were disappointing. Big Star-3 response times were between twenty-seven and thirty-six minutes. On Big Star-4, the best time was four minutes and the worst thirty-six minutes, which occurred when a launch order occurred during a crew change. In contrast, the Air Force touted the underground Minuteman as having a one-minute response time. The train’s longer response times resulted partly from necessarily having the conductor contact a dispatcher to set the train commander’s chosen siding for the launch site, as well as configuring the weapon system to an appropriate readiness level.43 The Air Force suggested upgrading the train’s priority in response to certain defense conditions, but everyone recognized refined response time estimates were necessary. Lastly, the four test trains averaged twenty-four miles per hour, six shy of the thirty specified in the 1958 study on Minuteman mobility, but the Air Force accepted this slower speed.44

On the positive side, Air Force and private industry cooperated sufficiently to operate one missile train on the national rail network. The Air Force concurred with the Boeing Airplane Company assessment: “random movement of mobile missile trains over large portions of the United States railway network is feasible.”45 Allowing train commanders to control movements without a preplanned schedule but within a designated operating area, an idea similar to SLBM operations, improved performance by granting commanders freedom of movement and reduced reporting requirements. This surprises because SAC tightly held the operational reigns of its nuclear forces; however, it culturally fit the Air Force’s flying doctrine of centralized control and decentralized execution. An important related conclusion was to make “control by train commander without preplanned schedule” an effective operational concept. Accordingly, all railroad sidings would require presurveying, a conclusion presaged in Schriever’s 1958 study. Although far from General Power’s declaration of complete success, Big Star had developed some rudiments of operating ICBM trains on the civilian rail network.46

The Denouement

The Air Force was working diligently, but on July 20, 1960, the crew of the submarine George Washington launched the first submerged missile, and the Polaris flew flawlessly. The Navy was on the verge of an operational mobile system, but the Air Force had not yet even flight-tested a Minuteman. In October 1960, after a long funding battle, SAC increased the number of missiles per unit to six and lessened its number of trains, a move permitting the Air Force to save funds for the first underground Minuteman deployment, estimated for October 1962. When the first Minuteman finally flew on February 1, 1961, it was tremendously successful. A failure would have devastated the program, but the Air Force had to run that risk. The Navy had sent the George Washington on its first patrol with sixteen Polaris missiles in November 1960. Minuteman was running behind.47

On December 14, 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara cancelled the mobile Minuteman. The New York Times reported the Air Force had spent $108 million ($2.9 billion in 2008 dollars) on the project. To the Air Force’s intense displeasure, McNamara diverted the program’s unspent funding to Polaris. Based on smaller estimates of Soviet strength and the problems of developing an accurate, rapidly reacting mobile system that duplicated the capabilities of Polaris, mobile Minuteman was extraneous. If given a choice between fixed or mobile Minuteman, the Air Force would have chosen the fixed missile because it offered faster reaction, higher reliability, more missiles, and lower cost per missile. It was also easier to develop, operate, and maintain than the existing fleet of Atlas and Titan missiles. Staying in the long-range missile business meant building a viable ICBM force. The Air Force needed fixed Minuteman more than it needed trains.48



On December 14, 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara cancelled the mobile Minuteman. The New York Times reported the Air Force had spent $108 million ($2.9 billion in 2008 dollars) on the project.

The Air Force needed fixed Minuteman more than it needed trains.


Since 1958, the Air Force’s own tests and experts showed mobile Minuteman inferior to its silo-based cousin. Yet, General Schriever believed rail-mobile Minuteman was a viable weapon system he could have deployed in less time than that required for fixed Minuteman. Schriever clearly saw the political utility of the mobile system, meaning its usefulness in deterring a Soviet first strike but also no doubt its utility to preserve the longrange missile mission as an Air Force domain, a battle he had fought long and hard to win. Yet, once the hard and dispersed system secured support, the military and political attractiveness of the railbased option markedly decreased Nonetheless, he believed McNamara’s cancellation arbitrary, and he faulted him for not foreseeing when a large Soviet ICBM force could hold stationary American ICBMs at risk. This is curious. In 1958, the Air Force had concluded that once the Soviet strike force could saturate American rail lines, even trains had no survivability. Overall, since President Eisenhower’s 1954 declaration that Atlas was a national crash program, Schriever and the Air Force had commenced building a large, redundant, and survivable ICBM fleet. Mobile Minuteman was superfluous.49 A few actions remained. Dutifully, the Air Force inactivated the mobile Minuteman’s 4062d Strategic Wing on February 20, 1962 (it was never equipped), and on March 10th, Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Curtis Le May, told Gen. Thomas Power, SAC commander, he supported the cancellation to obtain higher force levels of fixed Minuteman. During this time, the nation’s leaders had come to realize that the missile gap was not one-sided in favor of the Soviets. By the end of 1962, the United States had purchased 142 Atlas, sixty-two Titan, and twenty Minuteman missiles, but as of December 31, only five Atlas and forty-eight Titans were on alert, accompanied by 625 bombers. According to press estimates, the Soviets had 75-100 ICBMs, but the actual number consisted of six R-7 and thirty-two R-16 ICBMs. Despite Khrushchev’s blustery threats to bury the United States, President John F. Kennedy, even without Air Force trains, had the very real ability to dominate the Soviets.50

Had the Soviet Union never bothered to improve or enlarge its missile forces, the idea of an American mobile ICBM would have remained buried under McNamara’s edict. Yet, even as the Air Force deployed its new Minuteman, it foresaw the day when sufficient numbers of accurate Soviet ICBMs would threaten their existence. As a result, the service commissioned a slew of additional studies on survivable ICBMs throughout the 1960s and 1970s that influenced later programs. Simply put, the Air Force never ceased intellectually refining the mobile ICBM, regardless of budget decisions. The service, industry, and its academic partners soon looked beyond train-based Minuteman missiles to redefine the mobile ICBM, including air-, sea-, and land-based options. New forms of land basing promised much, particularly hiding a relatively small force of missiles within a larger number of empty shelters, a ruse that complicated Soviet targeting and force sizing while lowering the cost of the American deployment. Among these were the Multiple Protective Shelter schemes of President Jimmy Carter and eventually the Midgetman of the late 1980s. Although a quick look at the historical landscape may show a flurry of activity in the Mobile Minuteman era and then quiescence until the late 1970s, there exists a clear and continuous line of intellectual activity from the study proposals of 1958 through the end of the Cold War.51 Thus, the enduring legacy of the Mobile Minuteman is not as a footnote in history. Rather, it commenced decades of an unabated intellectual enterprise within the Air Force to develop an ICBM system impervious to a first strike attack, an effort with many ramifications in the late Cold War. ■


1. “Highball” is an old railroader’s term meaning clear tracks ahead. Cost estimate for mobile Minuteman from “Plan for Missile on Rails Killed in Favor of Underground Sites,” New York Times, Dec. 14, 1961. Year 2008 cost calculation for mobile Minuteman accomplished using the relative share of gross domestic product method at Samuel H.Williamson, “Six Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1790 to Present,” Measuring Worth, 2009. URL Accessed on Oct. 6, 2009.

2. For persistence of ICBM mobility and associated deployment concepts, see Steven A. Pomeroy, “Echoes that Never Were: American Mobile Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, 1956-1983” (Ph.D. diss., Auburn University, 2006).

3. Preparing this article required much declassification. For their gracious help, I thank the Air Force Historical Research Agency’s (AFHRA) dedicated staff, including Mr. Archangelo (“Archie”) DiFante, Mr. Dennis Case, Mr. Joseph Caver, and Mrs. Tony Petito. They generously allowed the study of unaccessioned collections, classified and unclassified, notably those of the former Air Force Ballistic Missile Office (BMO), its antecedents, and successors.

4. Pomeroy, Echoes that Never Were, pp. 6-30 discuss the significance of early cruise and ballistic missiles.

5. “Memorandum of Discussions at the 258th Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, September 8, 1955,” in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, vol. 19, 111-122 (hereafter cited as FRUS), provides a wealth of detail on what the council discussed and knew about American ICBM programs. Pages 121-22 explain Eisenhower’s actions of Sep. 13, 1955, but no separate entry exists in FRUS for that date. See also Jacob Neufeld, The Development of Ballistic Missiles in the United States Air Force, 1945-1960 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1990), pp. 134-35.

6. For a discussion of the interaction of these innovations within the early ICBM program, see Thomas P. Hughes, Rescuing Prometheus (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), pp. 107-09.

7. Jacob Neufeld, Reflections on Research and Development in the United States Air Force: An Interview with General Bernard A. Schriever and Generals Samuel C. Phillips, Robert T. Marsh, and James H. Doolittle, and Dr. Ivan A. Getting (Washington, D.C.: Center for Air Force History, 1993), pp. 39, 53-60.

8. Stephen B. Johnson, The United States Air Force and the Culture of Innovation: 1945-1965 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2002), pp. 78-79. James N. Gibson, Nuclear Weapons of the United States: An Illustrated History (Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1996), p. 15.

9. Harvey Sapolsky, The Polaris System Development: Bureaucratic and Programmatic Success in Government (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 40.

10. David A. Byrd, Rail-Based Missiles from Atlas to Peacekeeper (Los Angeles Air Force Station, CA: Ballistic Missile Organization Historian, 1991), x, 4. Monograph courtesy of Air Force Space Command’s Historian’s Office. Byrd’s useful study provides chronology while discussing Mobile Minuteman and to a lesser extent the Peacekeeper. This article examines the relationship between launch base and missile operations and discusses why the Air Force pursued mobility even when its own studies declared hard, dispersed launch sites superior. See also George A. Reed, “U.S. Defense Policy, U.S. Air Force Doctrine and Strategic Nuclear Weapons Systems, 1958 – 1964: The Case of the Minuteman ICBM” (Ph. D. diss., Duke University, 1986), 59.

11. Robert F. Bacher, “Report of a panel which met to study the future developments in ballistic missiles,” (August 8, 1957, photocopied), 4-5, declassified document, unaccessioned collections, Ballistic Missile Organization (BMO) box F-4, Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA). Hereafter referred to as Bacher, “Report.”

12. “The Ballistic Missile Challenge . . . as seen by Major General Bernard A. Schriever, Chief, Western Development Division of ARDC,” Missiles and Rockets 2 (April 1957), 96. April 1957 was a banner year for Schriever in the media. On April 1, he graced the cover of Time.

13. Since World War II, the pressures to develop operational nuclear weapons were immense, and Air Force and Navy attempts to deploy operational ballistic missile systems proved no exception. See n. 2, above.

14. Bacher, “Report,” 4.

15. Neufeld, Ballistic Missiles, 228-30; Roy Neal, Ace in the Hole (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1962), 93.

16. Neal, Ace in the Hole, 92-97; Byrd, Rail-Based Missiles, xi. See also Reed, “U.S. Defense Policy,” 56-71.

17. “U.S. Likely to Make Solid-Fuel Missiles Key Defense by ’65,” New York Times, June 15, 1958.

18. Quote from Frederick J. Shaw and Richard W. Sirmons, “On Steel Wheels: The Railroad Mobile Minuteman,” SAC Monograph No. 216 (Offutt Air Force Base, NE: Office of the Historian, Strategic Air Command, 1986), 5. Declassified historical monograph excerpt, IRIS no. K416.01-216, AFHRA.

19. Ibid.

20. SAC/AFBMD “Atlas/Titan Mobility Concept Report, December 1958,” 69-71, unaccessioned, unclassified collections. BMO box J-2, AFHRA.

21. SAC/AFBMD, “Minuteman Mobility Concept Report, October 1958,” 10-12, unaccessioned, unclassified collections. BMO box M-1, AFHRA.

22. Space Technology Laboratories, Inc. , “Mobile Weapon System Design Criteria, WS 133A-M (Minuteman), May 19, 1960,” 7, unaccessioned, unclassified collections. BMO box M-1, AFHRA.

23. SAC/AFBMD, Minuteman Mobility Report, 32-34, 38, 47.

24. Ibid., 22-23.

25. Ibid., 24-25.

26. Ibid., 27.

27. Ibid., 28-29.

28. Ibid., 30-31.

29. Ibid., 85; Byrd, Rail-Based Missiles, 20.

30. A unit of explosive yield, a megaton equates to the energy released by one million tons of standard TNT. To ensure target destruction, inaccurate missiles require warheads with large yields.

31. SAC/AFBMD, “Minuteman Mobility Concept Report,” 12. Calculations involving target destruction and missile survivability are complex and time consuming. Changes to force sizes and mixtures meant analysts recomputed these values continually. For a brief discussion see Robert D. Bowers, “Fundamental Equations of Force Survival,” in Kenneth F. Gantz, The United States Air Force Report on Ballistic Missiles (New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1958), 249-260. See also James Baar, “Hard-based Minutemen vs. Mobility,” Missiles and Rockets 7 (October 17, 1960), 24.

32. SAC/AFBMD, Minuteman Mobility Report, 104-119.

33. Ibid., 119.

34. William E. Howard, “Minuteman Rail Concept Pushed,” Missiles and Rockets 5 (June 1, 1959), 19.

35. Ibid., 20. See also Byrd, Rail-Based Missiles, 19.

36. General White quoted in Carl Berger, History of the 1st Missile Division (Vandenberg AFB: CA, 1960), 66.

37. Message from SAC dated July 15, 1960, unaccessioned, unclassified collections. BMO box M-1, AFHRA.

38. Boeing Airplane Company, “Final Test Report, Mobile Minuteman Train Test Program, December 1960,” pp. i, 3-4, unaccessioned, declassified document. BMO document 02054115, file 13J-8-5, AFHRA (hereafter cited as Boeing Mobile Minuteman Report). Strategic Air Command Directorate of Operations, “Final Report of SAC Task Force, Project Big Star, Section IV, Communications, Sep. 10, 1960,” pp. 1-2, unaccessioned, declassified document. BMO document 02054407, file 13J-8-5, AFHRA (hereafter referred to as “SAC Mobile Minuteman Report”). See also “Minuteman Ready for Rail Mobility Tests,” Aviation Week and Space Technology 72 (May 9, 1960): 28-29; Office of the Historian, HQ SAC, From Snark to Peacekeeper: A Pictorial History of Strategic Air Command Missiles, Offutt AFB, Nebr. 1990, p. 20-29; J.C. Hopkins and Sheldon A. Goldberg, The Development of Strategic Air Command, 1946-1986 (Offutt AFB, Nebr.: Office of the Historian, HQ SAC, 1986), p. 94. Aviation Week and Space Technology hereafter cited as AWST.

39. See Byrd, Rail-Based Missiles, pp. 29-31 and SAC Mobile Minuteman Report, Section I, Narrative Summary, 2-7, for a description of the four Big Star trains. See also Neal, Ace in the Hole, 140-143. Additional information may be gleaned from “Minuteman Ready for Rail Mobility Tests,” AWST 72 (May 9, 1960), 28-30; “SAC Shapes Missile Force for Survival, Fast Reaction,” AWST 72 (June 20, 1960), 109; and “Mobile Minutemen to Be Randomized,” Missiles and Rockets 7 (Sep. 19, 1960), pp. 29-30.

40. General Power quoted in Byrd, Rail-Based Missiles, 31.

41. Ibid., pp. 4-5, 17-20; SAC Mobile Minuteman Report, Section IV, Communications, pp. 1-12.

42. Boeing Mobile Minuteman Report, pp. 12-16; SAC Mobile Minuteman Report, Section I, Narrative Summary, 7; Section II, Operational Concept, 1-4; Section III, Command Control, 1-10 and Section VI, Mobile Minuteman Crew Complement, pp. 1-12.

43. See Pomeroy, Echoes that Never Were, pp. 92-95 for a discussion of the mobile Minuteman’s launch sequence and timing.

44. Boeing Mobile Minuteman Report, pp. 5, 20.

45. Ibid., p. 4.

46. SAC Mobile Minuteman Report, Section I, Narrative Summary, 1-9 and Section V, Missile Train Configuration, 1.

47. Neal, Ace in the Hole, pp. 158, 164; Robert L. Perry, “Atlas, Titan, Thor, and Minuteman,” in The History of Rocket Technology, ed. Eugene M. Emme (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1964), p. 158.

48. “Plan for Missile on Rails Killed in Favor of Underground Sites,” New York Times, December 14, 1961. See n. 1 for citation regarding cost calculation.

49. Schriever’s recollection from an interview Byrd conducted on May 14, 1990, by which time the General had advised Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger on basing the MX missile. One wonders whether this experience unfairly influenced his comment about McNamara’s lack of foresight. See Byrd, Rail-Based Missiles, pp. 38-40.

50. Information on the 4062d from Hopkins and Goldberg, The Development of Strategic Air Command, p. 103; General Le May’s reaction from Shaw and Sirmons, On Steel Wheels, pp. vii, 46; American ICBM strength for 1962 from SAC Historian, Alert Operations, pp. 87, 97; press estimate of Soviet ICBM strength from Edgar M. Bottome, The Missile Gap: A Study of the Formulation of Military and Political Policy (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971), p. 234 and is originally from The New York Times, December 20, 1962; data on actual Soviet ICBM strength from Pavel Podvig, ed., Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), p. 136. For what the Kennedy Administration believed the Soviet strike force to be, see Department of State, “Special National Intelligence Estimate, SNIE 11-14-61, Washington, November 21, 1961,” in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, vol. 8, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1996), p. 206; Carl Kaysen, “Memorandum From the President’s Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kaysen) to President Kennedy, Washington, November 22, 1961,” in Ibid., pp. 210-211; Seymour Weiss, “Memorandum for Record, Washington, November 29, 1961,” in Ibid, p. 221; Carl Kaysen, “Memorandum From the President’s Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kaysen) to President Kennedy, Washington, December 9, 1961,” in Ibid., pp. 225, 226.

51. Pomeroy, Echoes that Never Were.