Byron York of NRO has a terrific read on a place that reminds us that peace through strength is more than a slogan–as long as we have the resolve to match those words with action.
The place that symbolizes that phrase (and our determination) is the Titan Missile Museum, located in the Arizona desert near Tucson. The museum is a testament to American strength that won the Cold War, and the crews who earned that victory, poised on the edge of nuclear Armageddon. They were the men–and later, women–who crewed the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable bombers and air refueling tankers, the alert force of Strategic Air Command.
As Mr. York writes, the Arizona facility creates a lasting impression of what it took to achieve deterrence in the Cold War and the military personnel who performed that mission. The museum is built around a former Titan II ICBM site, Missile Silo 571-1. Located about 20 miles south of Arizona’s second-largest city, the silo represented the front lines of the Cold War.
For two decades, beginning in the early 1960s, the silo held the most powerful, land-based missile ever fielded by the United States. The Titan II held a single, nine-megaton warhead, the largest ever deployed on an American ICBM. By comparison, the warheads on today’s Minuteman III missiles have a yield of 330 kilotons. The Minuteman IIIs are much more accurate than the Titan IIs, allowing them to carry a much smaller warhead. The same holds true for the Trident D-5, the Navy’s most advanced submarine-launched ballistic missile.
But in 1963, when Silo 571-1 first went operational, the Titan II represented the state-of-the-art in nuclear deterrence. But maintaining that presence required an extraordinary effort. At one point, the Air Force had three Titan II wings, based at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson; McConnell AFB in southeastern Kansas, and Little Rock AFB, Arkansas. Collectively, they were responsible for 54 Titan II missiles and destructive power that was almost unimaginable.
Except for maintenance periods, those missiles were on alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Locked into the Titan II’s guidance system was a designated target, somewhere in the Soviet Union. The unfortunate city, military facility or missile base had been selected by planners at SAC Headquarters, responsible for building the Single Integrated Operational Plan, the nation’s blueprint for nuclear war.
The job of launching a Titan II fell to its four-man crew; two junior officers and two enlisted members. Upon receipt of a valid launch order, they would follow the procedures that would put the missile on its intended target in only 30 minutes. About the same time, the thinking went, a Russian ICBM would land on or near the U.S. silo, vaporizing the crew.
In the event they survived–and the Titan II launch capsule and silo were built to withstand a nuclear near miss–the launch crew had a small stock of provisions and their sidearms, now useful for shooting rabbits.
Like other ICBMs of its era, the Titan II was liquid-fueled with storable propellants. The risk of leaks (and explosions) was always present. Two Air Force members died in 1978 after oxidizer began leaking at a Titan II site near McConnell; two years later, a maintenance technician dropped a socket down a silo near Damascus, Arkansas, puncturing the missile’s fuel tank. The launch capsule was evacuated while the Air Force and contractors tried to resolve the crisis. Hours later, static electricity ignited fuel and vapors inside the silo, creating a massive explosion that tossed the 700-ton blast door into a field, 300 feet away.
But the system’s worst accident occurred early in its career. In August 1965, a flash fire occurred in Silo 373-4 near Searcy, Arkansas, while it was undergoing modifications. The blaze consumed all of the oxygen within the silo, suffocating 53 contractors. After a lengthy investigation, the modification process continued, and the site resumed alert status in 1966. While the Titan II was (thankfully) never fired in anger, its operational service killed scores of U.S. military and civilian personnel.
We mention that because of a quote in Mr. York’ article. It’s from President-elect Barack Obama, who has vowed to “cut investments in unproven missile defense systems…prevent the weaponization of space, and [stop] the development of new nuclear weapons.”
That leads to a rather obvious question. How will Mr. Obama react to the inevitable growing pains that accompany any new weapons system? What will happen if there’s an accident that results in military or civilian casualties? Will he simply pull the plug, or (in the case of missile defense) set the bar so high that performance criteria cannot be met, and providing a pretext for cancelling the project?
Based on his rhetoric, we should be thankful that Barack Obama wasn’t commander-in-chief in the early 1960s. Judging from his rhetoric, we would have never deployed the Titan II, or put a man on the moon. Did we mention that the civilian version of the missile was the booster for all Gemini space missions, and many of the ICBMS were later converted into satellite launch vehicles.
As that Arizona missile display reminds us, the defense of this country often requires a mixture of determination and a risk acceptance. The Titan II was far from perfect, but it did its job, helping to defend liberty during a long and dangerous stretch of the Cold War.