Cuban Missile Crisis Airmen set the example

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Matthew Dillow
  • 321st Missile Squadron commander
Fifty years ago, our nation was on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In an effort to gain advantage over the United States, the Soviets mounted a covert effort to place nuclear-armed ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba, holding our homeland at risk of nuclear attack with little or no warning. Posturing between the United States and the U.S.S.R. reached a fever pitch, and the possibility of a nuclear exchange reached an all-time high. The continued existence of the world as we knew it was in doubt.

The situation emerged and intensified very quickly; there was little time for generating and posturing conventional forces. The options available to President John F. Kennedy were imperfect, and the consequences of miscalculation were unthinkable. President Kennedy chose to institute a naval blockade of Cuba and prepared to invade if necessary. The ball was in the court of the Soviet Union. Would they escalate the conflict?

In the end, the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for a promise from the United States not to invade Cuba and a secret deal to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey. After the crisis, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk euphemistically summarized it: "We went eyeball to eyeball with the Russians, and the other guy blinked." At F. E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., the 389th Strategic Missile Wing was placed in an increased state of readiness on Oct. 21, 1962, and its assigned Atlas missiles were placed in launch ready (green) status for the first and only time. The Airmen assigned to F. E. Warren suddenly found themselves on the nuclear front lines, and the lethality of their weapon system and their ability to promptly react to the orders of the president were instrumental to the successful resolution of the conflict.

It is difficult to know for sure, but the fact that Nikita Khrushchev, former First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, backed down is a good indication that the Soviets believed we had the will and capability to launch our operational ICBMs. At the very least, the nuclear alert force, and ICBMs in particular, limited the escalation of the conflict. It was not just war the Soviets feared; it was the possibility of nuclear war. In the end, the only casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis was Maj. Rudolf Anderson, a U-2 pilot shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. While tragic, the loss of Anderson pales in comparison to the number of casualties that would have resulted from all-out conventional or nuclear war. Because the Airmen tasked with the ICBM mission were prepared in 1962, the Russians considered the threat of nuclear attack to be credible.

So what does this mean to us today? It is important for each of us to remember how quickly our country came to rely on our ICBM forbearers in a time of great national crisis. We carry the torch of nuclear deterrence today in the same way they did in 1962. The 389th Strategic Missile Wing of 1962 and the 90th Missile Wing of 2012 have much in common: test launches at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., unending weapon system modifications, missile emplacements, and malfunctions in the field requiring intense maintenance. Security forces spent endless hours patrolling the launch complexes just as they do today, maintainers spent long hours outside in the unforgiving weather repairing missiles and missile combat crews maintained alert through the tedious night. The weapon systems are different, but the routines are the same.

When crisis erupted, there was no time to brush up on procedures or to ramp up training. The combat capability of the largest Atlas missile wing in the Air Force could not be suddenly improved upon, and the perception by our adversaries of the operational effectiveness of the units, their Airmen and their weapon system could not be suddenly changed. To their great credit, these Airmen were ready, trained, focused and prepared to execute at a moment's notice. The Soviets knew that, and they dared not test the resolve of President Kennedy as a result. The fielded ICBM deterrent continues to hold potential adversaries at bay in the same way today.

The daily grind of deterrent duty and its associated seemingly mundane tasks tend to desensitize each of us to the immense destructive power we safeguard, maintain and operate and we cannot predict the timing or nature of the next international crisis that threatens the existence of the United States and our way of life. We do not know for sure how the Minuteman III and the significant capabilities of the 90th Missile Wing will be relied upon in such a crisis. But the unacceptable cost of being called upon by our nation and not being ready is terrible to contemplate. Our wing is tasked to maintain a constant state of combat readiness, an alert rate above 99 percent, and 150 safe, secure and effective Minuteman IIIs. We all play a vital role in the accomplishment of that mission and our incredible combat capability serves as a deterrent to those who would do us harm every day. The Airmen of F. E. Warren met the challenge in October of 1962; let their example guide you as you accomplish the mission every day. Be focused. Remain dedicated. Stay ready.