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Sentinels of Freedom: Air Force Strategic Missiles


Since 1959, U.S. Air Force strategic nuclear-armed missiles and the Airmen who operate and maintain them have been on constant alert. The Missile & Space Gallery features USAF missiles that helped maintain peace among Cold War superpowers. They have shaped the world's strategic balance for more than half a century.

The vehicles in the Missile Gallery represent American Airmen's proud heritage of nuclear deterrence and USAF leadership in access to space. The missiles include Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) and longer-range Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Some of these missiles have been adapted as space launch boosters to orbit satellites and manned spacecraft. 

Throughout the space age, Air Force Airmen have played critical roles in missile and space booster success. Air Force leaders created and managed vast organizations to field new technologies through several decades of development. Highly-trained USAF personnel continue to maintain and secure the missile and space launch force, manage its daily operations, and serve on launch crews. Their responsibilities match the awesome power of the systems they control.

In the 1950s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union began deploying nuclear-tipped missiles. They developed these early weapons after the German V-2 rocket of World War II showed that nuclear missiles would be important in the postwar balance of power. Jupiter and Thor are examples of these IRBMs. Always seeking longer range and better accuracy, the U.S. and USSR continued the race for a true ICBM that could hit a target half a world away. On Oct. 31, 1959, the first American ICBM, an Atlas D, went on alert at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. The USSR deployed its first ICBM less than a year later. 

Over the years, a race to increase ICBM forces and their power, range and accuracy fueled the Cold War search for security in an increasingly competitive world. Land-based ICBMs became one leg of the United States' strategic "triad" that also includes submarine-launched missiles and nuclear-armed bomber aircraft. Several modified ICBM boosters also have seen service as space launch vehicles carrying satellites and humans into orbit. 

The Titan series ICBMs were the largest American nuclear-armed missiles. They were complex liquid-fueled vehicles, and simpler but more powerful solid-fuel rockets eventually replaced them. The Minuteman I, II and III missiles were smaller, more accurate and carried increasingly potent warheads. Beginning with Minuteman III, the USAF deployed multiple nuclear warheads called MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles) on a single missile. The Peacekeeper, another MIRV capable missile, increased power and accuracy yet again, but it was eliminated by arms control agreements after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, the modernized Minuteman III remains the U.S.'s only land-based ICBM.

Click here to return to the Missile Gallery.

 

Find Out More
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Related Fact Sheets
Chrysler SM-78/PGM-19A Jupiter
Boeing LGM-118A Peacekeeper
Douglas SM-75/PGM-17A Thor
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Lectures
Dr. Doug Lantry: "Strategic Missiles" (00:57:31)
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Other Resources
The Development of Ballistic Missiles in the United States Air Force, 1945-1960 (Provided by AFHSO)
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