Engineering colleges the world over teach that good order is
the foundation upon which all good engineering jobs must be built. The US Air
Force ICBM program is the most impressive and best proof of the truth of this
The ballistic missile force operational today is first and
foremost a triumph of engineering. An overwhelming portion of its problems
involved the practical application to a large and complex problem of
scientific and technical knowledge that was already in existence. Very little
new research or scientific investigation was necessary; it was a matter of
putting knowledge to work.
By virtually every standard of comparison for engineering
efforts, the ballistic missile program is the "most" that the nation
has completed to date. It set records in terms of dollars spent, people
employed, and tasks accomplished in a given period of time.
And the program is the best proof of the axiom that good
engineering is orderly engineering. In the very beginning, it was predicted that
orderly engineering would be the key to success in developing the ICBM vehicle
and the operational complex needed to maintain a large force in constant
readiness. The von Neumann Committee, which played a key part in getting the
program started, reported in 1954 that technical problems such as target
accuracy, warhead weight, reentry, guidance, launch time, and base protection
could be handled. It warned, however, that the development objectives must be
clearly fixed, that decision-makers must be continually responsive to the needs
of the program, and that design teams not be hampered by on-again, off-again
The fact that the necessary choices were forthcoming
represents a victory for decision-making on two levels. First, the basic
decision to go ahead had to be made at the highest level. President Eisenhower
was the only one who could authorize this multibillion-dollar program. He had
to make the decision and stick with it in the face of significant opposition
and advice from highly respected scientists and engineers who strongly believed
that, if the job could be done at all, it would take years longer and billions
more than estimated. It took courage, even though he enjoyed considerable
congressional support, to give the program the go-ahead and to provide it with
strong continuous backing. And it must be considered a milestone in Mr.
Eisenhower's presidency that he made the decision in time to prevent an
untenable situation in which the Soviet Union would have been the only power
with an ICBM force.
The second vital decision came from within the military. An
entirely new organization was formed under Gen. Bernard A. Schriever with the
sole mission of developing certain specified ballistic missiles and deploying
them in the field by specified dates. General Schriever had virtually absolute
authority over - and responsibility for - the ballistic missile program during
the first five years until hardware was in widespread production and follow-on
systems were in advanced development.
To allow him to move the program ahead as rapidly as
technically possible, General Schriever operated outside normal
weapon-development channels. He reported directly to the Secretary of the Air
Force. Whenever critical problems developed, he was free to discuss them
immediately with the Secretary, the Chief of Staff, the Secretary of Defense,
and, if necessary, even the President. This policy kept program delays
resulting from top-level discussion down to what seems to have been an
irreducible minimum. Congressional support never flagged, and essentially the
nation's full resources were available as needed.
It was no trick to transfer a sense of urgency and purpose
from the high echelons to the low. The strong support and concern at the top of
the executive and legislative branches of government were amplified into a
state of superb morale and intense dedication at all levels in the military and
industrial groups who were doing the development job. As one industry official
involved in the program puts it, all problems were approached as joint
problems. He says that even after the dismal day when the fifth Atlas in a row
exploded at Cape Canaveral, just six months before the missile's scheduled
operational date, the Secretary of Defense called General Schriever and the
contractors in to a meeting to discuss a solution to "our" problem.
The big trick at the working level was to keep all design
groups working at maximum pace on realistic specifications. The short
development time available forced adoption of the concurrency concept. This
called for the majority of systems and subsystems in each missile to be
designed and tested simultaneously, and to be ready for incorporation into a
flight-test vehicle on a given date—sometimes years in the future. All
ground-support equipment, base facilities, auxiliary apparatus, and personnel
were also part of the con-currency package and had to be ready on given
Changes were inevitable. Many problems were present in
scores of systems at any given time. Any one change could reverberate through
the entire missile program, and no one could predict exactly what the final
vehicle would look like or guarantee its performance. For example, failure to
stay inside original vibration specifications on a turbopump could force major
design changes in rocket engines, structure, and all types of auxiliary systems
up to and including the nuclear warhead.
Probably the foremost accomplishment of the ballistic
missile program is that concurrency worked, and procedures were developed for
handling design changes expeditiously and intelligently. These procedures
which brought order into a most complicated engineering problem have been
refined into the widely used management tool now known as PERT—Program
Evaluation and Review Technique. PERT can keep a daily tag on costs, as well as
technical progress, and can predict critical problems and major decision points
long before they occur. It allows the full consequences of changes to be
foreseen, the "best" change to be selected from a group of
alternatives, and the adverse impact of all changes to be reduced.
The ballistic missile program also marked the birth of true
"systems" engineering. Under this concept, each missile—including all
of its flight and ground systems—was designed as an entity under the control of
one group. Preceding the start of design work, a thorough study was made of the
proposed environments the missile could be expected to operate in, as well as
the effect that the missile would have on these environments.
Concurrent development is a part, but not all, of the
systems-engineering concept. Concurrency was used on all Air Force ballistic
missiles, but the degree of systems engineering employed varied. The Atlas, for
instance, used rocket engines and other systems which had been developed to
their virtually final configurations before the three-engine version of the missile
was begun. This development had been accomplished under prior Air Force
programs, such as Navaho, and was later continued by Convair with its own funds
during a period of government disinterest. The Thor was more of a
systems-design job than the Atlas, and the Titan and Minuteman were truly representative
of systems engineering.
The new concepts did not have an easy birth and were
initially disputed in many ways. In applying ideas of concurrency and systems
management, the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division and Ramo-Wooldridge, the
contractor which assisted BMD with technical guidance, took over many of the
prerogatives that traditionally had belonged to hardware manufacturers in
weapon development. The arguments have not completely subsided, but the
concurrency and systems-engineering ideas have more than proved their worth.
The best proof that the concepts were sound is that the
original estimates on development time and missile performance were
substantially bettered. The von Neumann Committee thought six to eight years
would be necessary to get an operational ICBM after design work had started.
Yet the first Atlas squadron was operational in little more than five years.
Performance achievements have been even more impressive.
Industry has been able to overcome technical problems in much grander fashion
than even the von Neumann Committee imagined. Today's ICBMs can deliver heavier
weapons, with greater accuracy, over longer distances, than anyone predicted in
Reliability of the ICBM in flight test has steadily
improved. All types have a cumulative record of better than sixty percent
successful firings to date, and there is no doubt that they are fundamentally
sound machines. However, estimates on the reliability of an ICBM force and the
probability that it could fulfill its assigned mission under all conceivable
circumstances are another matter completely. The current public debate about
missile reliability undoubtedly will not produce any accurate information or
much public understanding.
Certainly the ballistic missile is an immensely potent
weapon, but can it be proven reliable enough to assume the full and complete
burden of the US strategic mission? This is a matter of judgment, just as the
decision to start the ICBM program was a matter of judgment. No one could ever
have proved conclusively that the ICBM could be developed until it was done,
and no one will ever be able to prove conclusively that the ICBM is
invulnerable and unstoppable as long as it sits in a silo in peacetime.
Today, the ICBM is regarded in most technical quarters as a
relatively simple vehicle, believe it or not. People who have worked on both
aircraft and missile programs say the modern bomber is an order of magnitude
more difficult to develop, primarily because it has wings and the ICBM
doesn't. This opinion seems to find agreement throughout industry. In other
words, the ICBM problem, which looked overwhelmingly complex to many of the
nation's best scientists only ten years ago, now has been reduced to a manageable
and predictable technology.
An insight into how this technology is seen today is given
in the paragraphs below, paraphrased from discussions with Allen B. Donovan, a
vice president of Aerospace Corp., and Dr. Edward Doll, a vice president of
Space Technology Laboratories, Inc., both of whom held responsible positions
with Ramo-Wooldridge during virtually all of the ballistic missile development
• Reentry Vehicle—This
was the most difficult new problem. H. Julian Allen, at the NACA's Ames Laboratory,
showed analytically that a blunt heat-sink body could survive an ICBM reentry.
We needed one bit of research data—flight-test information—to verify the
calculations and satisfy everyone that we were on the right track. This was the
Reynolds Number (flight condition) at which the flow on various nosecone shapes
made the transition from laminar to turbulent conditions. The X-17 vehicle got
this data on large-scale models, and we were in business. The Thor-Able later
was used to prove that the ablation nose cone was practical. In retrospect it
seems clear that much of our original concern over heat transfer was without
foundation, and we forgot how hard it is to transfer heat when we want to.
• Quality Control—Ballistic
missiles are manufactured to essentially the same tolerances as aircraft.
However, quality control has to be much better because the missile safety
factors are lower and they are unmanned, without redundant systems. The main
question concerned the ability to make large numbers of sound welds to join the
Atlas' thin stainless-steel skin (see page 100). The idea of such a thin,
pressurized structure was advanced in the 1930s in papers by von Kármán and
Tsien. Convair did a fine job of translating these ideas into a design that
could be manufactured reliably and they had remarkably little trouble doing
• Specific Impulse of
Liquid Rockets—The Atlas and Thor engines were straight developments of the
Rocketdyne rockets in the Navaho. The only major change was a switch from the
Navaho's lox-alcohol propellants to lox-kerosene so the specific impulse could
be boosted from 212 to 245 seconds. Some people said this would be difficult, but
it wasn't, looking back on it.
• Guidance Accuracy—There
was some concern about the accuracy of the original Atlas radio guidance
because of bending of radio waves in the troposphere. A considerable amount of
research was done in this area, and we were able to handle the problem nicely.
It also proved possible to develop inertial-guidance systems to much higher
accuracies than originally demanded.
new or exotic materials have been required for the success of the ICBM program.
Steel and aluminum are still the principal airframe materials. Some tungsten
nozzle work was instrumental in improving engine performance. The incorporation
of a glass-filament-wound rocket case in an upper-stage solid rocket on the
later model Minuteman also improved performance.
• Flight-Test Record—At
one time the program was heavily criticized because of flight-test failures.
One of the most trying periods occurred when five Atlases in a row were lost.
This was about six months before the system was to become operational. The
over-all flight-test record has been good, though. With aircraft, hundreds of
development flights often are made before a new model becomes operational. Then
several flights often are made in each production aircraft before it is
accepted for service use. The missile test record is proof that our
quality-control procedures were good. And, in the missile business, quality control
is vitally important.
many ways computers made the ICBM development tractable. They make it possible
to keep track of thousands of items of information, make changes, revise
schedules quickly, etc., on large programs. In addition it has been possible to
perform a sizable amount of detailed design of engines, structures, and the
like, on computers. Apparently this significant capability will continue to
grow rapidly and should facilitate the design of any future generation of
The above views on the relative ease of the ICBM development
are not those of Monday-morning quarterbacks, and they were not generated with
the aid of hindsight. A sizable number of engineers and scientists who were
conversant with large rockets had roughly the same ideas from 1950 on. The only
problem was that their arguments were drowned out until 1954 by a chorus of opposing
experts who were proved to be wrong.
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Daily Report: Read the top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
An F-35A Lightning II assigned to Hill AFB, Utah,
conducts a training flight with F-16 Fighting Falcons assigned to Kunsan
AB, Republic of Korea, over the city of Gunsan, on Dec. 1, 2017,
in preparation for Vigilant Ace 18.
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