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Learning ICBM roots through airpower history

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Kevin Byrd
  • 341st Missile Wing Safety Office

A few years ago while attending a military education course at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, one of my classes was being led by a civilian instructor who was a previous attorney.


He was teaching us about the history of airpower and did so by guiding the class through a case-like explanation of airpower and how it shaped strategic bombing from its early roots into modern day.


The timeline started with the 20th century theorists Gen. Giulio Douhet, Italian general, and Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, United States Army Air Service, and the instructor explained how these leaders’ early ideas influenced today’s airpower capabilities.


Our instructor described how each of the men laid the groundwork for strategies and means that could be utilized to pass over enemy lines and reach deep inside enemy territory to deploy massive and devastating firepower.


With further development and diversification of its bomber force, the U.S. Air Force sought to develop a mix of bomber assets to execute these strategies.


By the end of the lecture, I realized that during most of my missile operations career I had not really connected the origin of intercontinental ballistic missile operations to the history of airpower and more particularly, strategic bombing.


Up to this point in my missile operations career, the majority of ICBM history I knew was about rocket development and its impact on developing space technologies.


Being back in the classroom I had added a layer to my understanding of airpower – as the lecturer emphasized, early strategic bombing strategies used in World War II were the catalyst for battle success: the U.S. Air Force developed deterrence through an airpower force structure based on overwhelming, far-reaching and robust strategic bombing capability.


Using ICBMs is a major part of the force structure. Understanding this led to many hours of nerding-out at the library for more knowledge of ICBM history.


Being at Maxwell AFB at the time, I had generous access to Air Force historical information. I began to research, and the more digging I did, the more I understood how the ICBM as a bombing platform added to the combination of combat-ready Air Force power.


Integration into bomber force structure with ICBMs became the future

Gen. Thomas D. White, a former Air Force chief of staff, was known to have said the “Air Force is dedicated to creating for our country the best airpower it is possible to produce.”


This statement is reflected in the vision that guided military and engineering leaders as they designed the weapon delivering capabilities of the ICBM. White later described how the evolving Air Force airpower assets supported the integration of the ICBM to complete superior Air Force bombing and deterrence strength.


ICBMs were purposefully developed over time as a bombing platform to partner with and support the existing bomber aircraft force.


My study of the leaders who shaped this partnership helped me understand why this close relationship was able to be achieved.


Maj. Gen. Ben Funk said in 1958, “With the guided missile, the man has been pulled out of the plane and his cockpit is on the ground.”


I don't believe the general's intent was to indicate missile and aircraft crews were to accomplish the same tasks, rather, Funk was stating how he applied his knowledge as a bomber aviator with combat experience to shape the ICBM weapon system.


So as the ICBM weapon systems expanded congruently with the bomber aircraft, the manned and unmanned bomb delivery systems were separate, but the future showed they would no longer be mutually exclusive.


Merging the new bomber system

ICBM operations quickly grew from its airpower roots and provided a lethal strategic bombing capability as envisioned by airpower thinkers.


Additionally, ICBM operations development in concordance with manned bomber aircraft operations showed there was a complementary nature to manned bombers and ICBM crews.


Aircrew wings intermixed with an ICBM badge emerged as a Strategic Air Command symbol, which portrayed the connection between the manned and unmanned bomber operations. ICBM crews under SAC also received the designation of combat crew, the same as bomber aircrews.


The ICBM fleet began to expand its capabilities and numbers, ultimately replacing some bomber aircraft platforms.


This rapid growth caused concern at one point among air crews regarding their future and some manned bomber crew members sought to move to the new unmanned bomber system.  


Interestingly enough, in 1964, Gen. Thomas Sarsfield Power, commander in chief of SAC at the time, felt inspired to write an article in SAC’s monthly publication, Combat Crew, reassuring bomber crews that there was job security as a rated officer and missiles were not going to replace the bomber aircraft fleet.


“Despite the increasing emphasis on missiles, the days of the manned aircraft are by no means numbered as some of the ‘prophets of doom’ are wont to claim,” wrote Power, who was reassuring rated combat crewmembers their capabilities would not have a reduced role in strategic bombing and deterrence.


In this article, Power also highlighted the importance of both manned and unmanned bombers. To support his point, Power used a picture in the article of a B-52 flying over a raised Atlas missile to indicate the importance of an Air Force strategic bombing force structure of aircraft and missile platforms.


Power stressed that "SAC must maintain a mixed force of manned and unmanned weapon systems in which one compliments and supplements the other." This vision strengthened the roots for what would become modern ICBM planning as a bomber system.


Applying early bomber leaders' vision

The operational insight into design and deployment of ICBMs by combat-tried bomber leaders was evident as the first ICBMs were fielded. From crew constructs to weapon system infrastructure, the influence of bomber operations could be recognized.


These leaders sought to field a new bomber system that would integrate into existing operations. The messages and approaches of these leaders in history teach that ICBMs were deliberately developed to support and enable U.S. combat bombing capability.


The lethality of deterrence using a combination of air platforms has stood the test of time and remains today as these capabilities support the freedom to conduct operations around the globe.


In terms of lessons learned in bomber weapon systems, the problems encountered fielding new conglomerations of systems by those early bomber leaders allowed them to rely on operational knowledge to foresee and overcome technical and operations related issues with ICBMs.


Maj. Gen. Charles M. McCorkle, a World War II P-51 pilot, developed the ICBM command and control structure and reported that, “In the command and control of function it will demand of our leaders and planners imagination, objectivity, and freedom from preconceived ideas that can only be compared with the demands made upon the military men when they first became the possessors of our old friend the airplane."


McCorkle’s message relating the thinking behind ICBM deployment to early use of aircraft may allude that a similar level of critical thinking can be used to help calibrate innovation in today's missile operations.


Likewise, he may be advocating that this thinking integrates a common operational role or understanding with other air power assets.


Doing so may help keep ICBMs aligned to compliment their intended mission in a combat-ready bomber force.


Whether missile wing personnel are part of a facility maintenance team making routine runs between sites, a camper team guarding an inoperative security system or a missile crew processing alarm after alarm, I believe it’s beneficial to study airpower leaders' messages and the history of ICBM integration into a combat-ready force structure.


Doing so may help to see challenges through a different lens and find solutions that will continue to provide this essential airpower.


As I have grown in my leadership role, I realize the importance of looking back at the history of the ICBM mission and airpower integration. Using lessons learned ensures that we can better grow our platforms and operations and be confident we are always combat-ready.