Operational Readiness, Brief Deployment Then Stand-Down

The lessons learned from the prototype flight test program were incorporated into the SM-65D, the first operational ICBM. Activation of thirteen SAC Strategic Missile Squadrons (SMS) occurred over a four-year period from April 1958 to July 1962. However, the first operational squadron, the 576th SMS, went on line at Vandenberg AFB, and on 9 September 1959 launched its first missile, Atlas 12D. In so doing, the program’s original 1954 Initial Operational Capability (IOC) target date of “1960-62” was dramatically beaten.

Vandenberg AFB, 9 September 1959. The first flight of a SAC operational squadron missile, Atlas 12D, was a complete success, splashing down within one mile of its target near Wake Island, 5,152 statute miles away. The 576th SMS, the first operational Atlas squadron, was also the last to be deactivated in April 1966. (Piction ID: 42699814; Catalog: 14_002569.tif)

However, due to the extreme technical and logistical complexities of the Atlas weapon system, the transition from civilian to USAF operational control was so problematic that it jeopardized the entire program. The SAC missile crews were trained by Convair Astronautics personnel at Vandenberg and were presumed ready to take operational responsibility in September 1960. Unfortunately, the first five SAC-directed launches were dismal failures, and repercussions led to an investigation that concluded that Atlas was nowhere near ready for unsupervised operational control by the Air Force.

In response to this sudden crisis, an extremely intense training program called “Golden Ram” was instituted to provide every operational SAC missile unit with streamlined hardware documentation and other procedures that would result in 100% successful launches. Golden Ram lasted nine months, from November 1960 through August 1961, and was deemed successful only after General Schriever’s requirement was met of five successful launches in a row, the final two by SAC crews alone with no Convair assistance.

With Air Force operators now firmly in the driver’s seat, all 13 Atlas SMS units were fully operational by Christmas 1962. For logistical reasons, 14 operational sites were chosen near existing Air Force instal-lations, mostly in the northern half of the country because, as J.R. Dempsey dryly observed, “they were closer to Russia and the missiles wouldn’t have to go as far.”

As the chart shows, Atlas ICBM deployments consisted of D-, E- and F-series missiles, with peak numbers in 1961 and 1962. The launch facilities of the early D-series were basically no different from the prototype test range set-up and were therefore considered “soft” targets for potential Soviet retaliation. The E-series offered “semi-hardened” storage in the form of horizontal coffin-type concrete structures, and the F-series, the most “hardened” of all, were stored vertically in underground silos. To save weight and thus maximize range, none of the Atlas ICBMs were painted. Instead, they used a unique water-displacing film coating that inhibited rust and came to be known commercially as “WD-40.”

By the early 1960s, Atlas had come of age as an ICBM and was producing spectacular results. In September 1960, for example, Atlas 79D flew 9,030 statute miles, impacting on target off Cape Good Hope, Africa. In July 1961, Atlas 22E, with its fully weighted General Electric Mark 3 nose cone, splashed down on target in the Indian Ocean, 9,054 miles from Cape Canaveral.


Atlas 79D on its way to the open ocean off Cape Good Hope, Africa, with a simulated nuclear warhead nose cone. Typical flights only lasted 30 minutes or so, with maximum velocities approaching 10 times faster than a rifle bullet. (Piction ID: 54504757; Filename: Atlas 79D,jpg)

Despite stellar performance, one limitation shared by all three Atlas ICBM variants was the longer-than-expected response time to erect the missile, fuel it (called “tanking”) and launch it. Storage and special handling of maintenance-intensive cryogenic propel-lants like liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid hydrogen (LH2) required additional safety precautions and added complexity and cost to operations.

Because of rapidly evolving ICBM technology, higher-maintenance liquid-fueled ICBMs like Atlas and Titan I would experience only a brief period of front-line service before being replaced by the rapidly launched solid-fuel Minuteman. Beginning in May 1964, the Atlas missile squadrons were taken off alert, one or two a time, and by mid-March 1965 the stand-down process was almost complete – except for one last unit. Vandenberg’s 576th Strategic Missile Squadron, the first operational Atlas unit, was also the last to be deactivated on 2 April 1966.

Thankfully never launched in anger, the SM-65 Atlas executed its mission flawlessly, as evidenced by the nuclear war that its operational readiness helped to avert during its almost six years as the free world’s primary ICBM deterrent. In 1965, the year it was decommissioned and replaced by Minuteman, the old war horse was initially relegated to the scrap heap along with the SM-68 Titan I, also shelved that year.

Somewhere in the bureaucracy, a “penny wise, pound foolish” cost reduction scheme resulted in the destruction of some 41 E- and F-series birds before someone wisely came up with the idea of “recycling” them for various orbital missions. All the D-series missiles and 95 E- and F-series were thus salvaged and reused at a tremendous cost-savings to NASA and other agencies that benefitted from a suddenly available inventory of reliable, launch-ready, first-stage booster platforms. Although no longer needed for its deterrent role, Atlas’ most valuable service was yet to come!

San Diego Air & Space Museum

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