Sixty years later, America's 'Ace in the Hole" still stands guard

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Shelby Thurman
  • Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs

On Oct. 27, 1962, the world stood by with bated breath watching and waiting to see how the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis would unfold. Now, 60 years later, a legacy of peace has persisted, ensured by Airmen and Guardians perpetually on alert since that day.

The events all started when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, on Oct. 4, 1957. The Space Race was officially on.

“Sputnik scared everybody,” recalled Jim Widlar, a former Atlas-D missile mechanic who was stationed at F. E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, during the time period.

The U.S. responded by officially entering the Space Race when they launched Explorer I on Jan. 31, 1958, going on to found the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) later the same year.

Prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the groundwork was already being laid for the U.S. to have a nuclear weapon system, which President John F. Kennedy nicknamed America’s “Ace in the Hole.” The plan was to develop and provide combat-ready forces for nuclear deterrence and global strike operations in order to safeguard America and its allies. Over the next several years, that plan quickly became reality.

In 1959, the first U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile, a nuclear-equipped Atlas-D, went on alert at Vandenberg AFB, California—today, a newly re-designated Space Force Base. The first full complex of Atlas-D ICBMs went operational at F.E. Warren AFB in 1960, and the first Minuteman I went on alert a year later at Malmstrom AFB, Montana. Lowry AFB, Colorado, had the first Titan I ICBM go on alert in early 1962.

According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, “At the height of the Cold War, the Air Force maintained an ICBM fleet of more than 1,200 missiles on alert as a counter force to the approximately 1,400 Soviet ICBMs poised against the United States.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis officially began on Oct. 16, 1962. America’s Ace in the Hole was collectively put on heightened alert.

“There was an occasion during the Crisis where ships were coming to form a blockade line [around Cuba],” said Doug Turner, a fellow Atlas-D missile mechanic. “Things were beginning to look pretty serious. There was an officer from outside our area that came in to our launch facility. His message was, ‘Guys, this is real. Do not misconstrue the seriousness. We don’t know how many of us will be around tomorrow. And for now, we have a job that we need to do as best we can.’”

Turner and Widlar both claimed that they felt they were a bit too young to quite grasp the seriousness, saying that they never felt anxiety or tension during the entire Crisis even while on alert within the launch facility.

“There was some anxiety on the base,” said Turner. “But I feel like that anxiety was from support organizations because they were not as familiar with the systems as we were. We had familiarity and confidence in the systems because we were the ones maintaining them.”

Even as tensions kept growing, Airmen kept working.

“General Power came over the system to say we were going to DEFCON 2,” said Widlar, recalling an announcement by the Strategic Air Command commander in chief. “Those messages were supposed to be coded, but he came over the speaker and said it plainly because he wanted the Russians to know that we were going to DEFCON 2.”

The Crisis was eventually adverted when the two nations came to an agreement on Oct. 28, 1962.

According to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, “Radio Moscow announce[d] that the Soviet Union ha[d] accepted the proposed solution and release[d] text of a Khrushchev letter affirming that the missiles will be removed in exchange for a non-invasion pledge from the United States.”

“The Cuban Missile Crisis was the first real world test of the Minuteman ICBM,” said Troy A. Hallsell, 341st Missile Wing historian.

Since then, the United States’ ICBM fleet has remained on alert and at the ready.

During the early 1970s, the Minuteman I began to be replaced with Minuteman III missiles, which remain on alert to this day, now overseen by Air Force Global Strike Command.

While Airmen and Guardians continue this legacy of safe, secure, reliable, and effective deterrence, continuous modernization is critical to staying ahead of emerging, future threats. This need to continue to be the tip of the spear in modernization is why President Kennedy’s address to Congress on May 25, 1961, about “National Urgent Needs,” is still relevant to this day.

“Now it is time to take longer strides,” said Kennedy. “Time for a great new American enterprise. Time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the keys to our future on Earth.”

And that future is named Sentinel.

The U.S.’s ICBM fleet will be updated to the LGM-35A Sentinel as the Minuteman III fleet is retired.

“I am excited about the future and seeing where Sentinel takes us,” said Tech. Sgt. Jose Ramirez, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the periodic maintenance team with the 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron at Malmstrom AFB. “I am also excited for the brand-new Airmen that will join us and all the bright new talent that will come with it. At the rate that technology changes, there will be lots of new Airmen coming in that will help us advance and stay relevant.”

America’s ground-based leg of the nuclear triad holds a legacy defined by the ingenuity, sacrifice, and dedication of those past and present. And the Airmen and Guardians who inherited that legacy are now adapting to stand against new global challenges and threats.

“Our mission is more relevant than ever before—as you watch the news today and see the threats in the world, both to us and our allies,” said Capt. Todd Caldwell, chief of weapons and tactics for the 10th Missile Squadron at Malmstrom AFB. “We are a capable, combat ready force that is able to compete and win in the 21st century.”

Caldwell continued this sentiment by saying that the 60th anniversary of the various ICBMs being put on alert marks an important milestone that reflects a legacy of deterrence and peace.

However, none of these feats could be accomplished if it were not for the Airmen and Guardians who faithfully perform this mission around the clock in austere environments.

“On October 27th, we will have had Minuteman on alert for 21,889 days without taking a knee.” said Col. Barry E. Little, commander of the 341st MW at Malmstrom AFB. “What we do has never been more important to the defense of freedom and the stability of the international world order. Every day our proud, quiet sentinels ensure our adversaries never believe that today is the day they can prevail in a conflict with the U.S.”