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Ken LaRock, Missile Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, 2019, National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Issue Brief

U.S. Nuclear Missile Systems

The nuclear weapon capabilities of the U.S. became infamously known when the Truman administration decided to drop the first nuclear bombs on Japan in 1945, ending the second World War. Bomber aircrafts carried the bombs, due to the monetary and cultural expenses of producing and using long-range missiles with nuclear bombs. The Atomic Energy Commission had limited nuclear power to civilian use, and Truman did not allow militaristic control of nuclear energy until the Korean War in 1951. Truman’s cuts to the Defense budget in 1947 created financial restraints, thus forcing the military to construct and employ mid-range missiles designed to defend aircraft against hostile missiles, plus air-launched missiles designed to extend the reach of bomber aircraft.

As Cold War tensions grew in the 1950s, the Department of Defense (DOD) began to invest in long-range missiles, known as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) designed to carry a nuclear warhead. A decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Air Force successfully launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Atlas, in 1957. Upgraded models were deployed across the country with 132 Atlas sites operational from December 1962 through May 1964 during the program’s peak. They were phased out, however, in 1965, in favor of the Titan and Minuteman ICBMs. Titan missiles superceded the Atlas with an increased payload—its two-stage rocket technology enabled it to carry two nuclear warheads—faster launch time (the Titan II could launch in 1 minute), increased maximum covered distance, and ability to launch from underground silos. 54 Titan missiles were deployed in groups of 18 around three Air Force bases in the U.S. Also first launched in the 1950s, the Minuteman missile program developed advanced solid propellant fueling technology (Atlas and Titan missiles relied on liquid fueling). This geopolitically important upgrade cut down on time spent refueling after a launch command was given. The Air Force continually modernized the Minuteman until arriving at a third generation—the Minuteman III—capable of targeting 3 separate locations with a range of 7,000 miles and time-to-delivery of less than 30 minutes.

Through the Cold War to the present, the U.S. has justified the overwhelming destructive power of missiles capable of reaching targets on the far side of the globe as a missile defense project. With the stated goal of deterrence, the DOD accrued an arsenal of nuclear arms including strategic bombers, ICBMs, and ballistic-missile-launching submarines, constituting what is known as the “nuclear triad.” Despite reducing its nuclear weapons stockpile by 75% since its 1965 peak, the United States has enjoyed nearly unrivaled nuclear primacy—in terms of destructive power—since the end of the Cold War. U.S. policy has steadfastly opposed nuclear weapons development by countries it deems a threat to its interests, especially North Korea and Iran. In 2016 Congress responded to the perceived increasingly complex ballistic missile threat posed by North Korea, by revising the 1999 National Defense Authorization Act to remove restrictions on ballistic missile production and use. The stated goal was National Missile Defense Act, 106th Congress, Pub. L. No. 106-38, 113 Stat. 205, 1999,
“to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack.”


Gainor, Christopher. "The Atlas and the Air Force: Reassessing the Beginnings of America’s First Intercontinental Ballistic Missile." Technology and Culture 54, no. 2 (2013): 346-70. DOI:10.1353/tech.2013.0069.

Karako, Thomas. “Homeland Missile Defense: How the United States Got Here.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 73, no. 3 (2017): 159-166. DOI: 10.1080/00963402.2017.1315035.

"National Defense Authorization Act: Conference Report to Accompany S.2943.” Sec. 1694, 114th Congress (2016). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2017.

"National Missile Defense Act of 1999." S. Rept. 106-4 to accompany S.257, 106th Congress (1999). Congress.gov. Accessed August 3, 2020.

Reif, Kingston. "Congress Rewrites Missile Defense Policy." Arms Control Today. January-February, 2017. Accessed August 3, 2020.

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