BOOK VI    

BUILDING THE UNSTOPPABLE

49.

A COMPETITOR

Trouble, always trouble, came from a new quarter. In the fall of 1955, Eisenhower decided—formalizing his decision in another National Security Council Action Memorandum that December 1—to order the building of an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a reach of 1,725 miles. The creation of an IRBM, the president further ordered, was to have equal priority with that of the ICBM. The Killian Committee had first recommended an IRBM to the president in its February 1955 report, not with the same urgency as the committee’s advocacy of an ICBM, but with a similar strategic argument. The committee had reasoned that if the Soviets acquired an intermediate-range ballistic missile first, Moscow could wield nuclear blackmail over the West European nations within the missiles’ range and undermine the fledgling NATO alliance. The president’s concern grew with evidence, such as that provided by the Turkish Radar, that the Soviets were striving for such a weapon. He seems to have been influenced as well by another State Department study concluding that should the Soviet Union attain an ICBM before the United States did, repercussions among the Western allies could be mitigated if Washington had IRBMs based in England and Europe. Intermediate-range missiles poised there would have all of western Russia, including Moscow, within their range. The British government had already expressed interest in such a basing scheme and there was hope of persuading other West European nations to accept the missiles.

If the IRBM project, like the ICBM, had its genesis in fear of Soviet advances in missilery, the impetus to build the weapon, as in the case of the ICBM, also arose from the profound rancor between the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army. The Army’s chief of staff, General Maxwell Davenport Taylor, who had won his reputation for courage in battle by leaping from a C-47 to lead the 101st Airborne Division into Normandy on D-Day (he was given an assist by a boot in the buttocks from the jumpmaster when he hesitated at the door), was embittered by Eisenhower’s policy of Massive Retaliation. It held down military spending by starving the Army of funds in order to foster SAC and the Air Force in general. (Just a year after his retirement in 1959, Taylor was to publish a widely read book, The Uncertain Trumpet, which denounced Eisenhower’s neglect of conventional forces as dangerously shortsighted.) Although long-range strategic bombardment was supposed to be the province of the Air Force, Taylor refused to accept any limit on the range of guided missiles the Army might build. When, in the summer of 1956, he defiantly told Senator Symington, then chairman of the Subcommittee on the Air Force of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, that “the role of the Army is … the destruction of hostile ground forces and the 1,500-mile [1,725-statute-mile] missile will do just that,” the Army was already well along in the acquisition of just such a missile. Army officers contended that all missiles, no matter what their range, were simply “guided artillery.” Studies for an Army intermediate-range ballistic missile had started at the Redstone Arsenal in 1954 under Wernher von Braun and his German rocket technicians. It was to be called Jupiter and to be a leap forward from the 200-mile-range Redstone missile, which von Braun had already devised using Hall’s 75,000-pound-thrust engine as a power plant.

By May of 1955, the Air Staff was sufficiently nervous over what the Army was doing at Redstone to urge Power to solicit industry proposals for an Air Force IRBM. Power passed along the Air Staff memorandum to Schriever, instructing him to explore but not to commit himself. There was no need for Power’s injunction of caution. Schriever, with Gardner’s backing, had already been engaged for months in attempting to ward off the building of an IRBM. He was convinced it would interfere with the progress of the intercontinental ballistic missile, the one that really mattered, by draining off time and engineering and scientific expertise, along with component parts common to both. For example, he already needed for Atlas all of Hall’s 135,000-pound-thrust engines, being upgraded to 150,000 pounds thrust, that he could obtain from North American’s Rocketdyne. If he was now tasked with an IRBM, he would have to part with engines for it. He argued that it was best to go forward at maximum speed with the ICBM until they had learned enough to spin an IRBM off from the bigger rocket.

As the fall of 1955 approached, he could hold out no longer. In October, with Eisenhower’s mind virtually made up, Secretary Wilson asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to meet and decide which service should build the intermediate missile. The JCS deliberations foundered on the shoals of interservice rivalry. Their report, referred to in military bureaucratese as a “split paper,” recommended that Wilson approve the development of two IRBMs. One, which bore alternative code names, XSM (Experimental Strategic Missile)-75 and WS (Weapon System)-315A, was to be the province of the Air Force, while the other, XSM-68, was to be a joint Army-Navy project. The IRBM was not so vital to the nation’s security that it required such duplication, but surprisingly, Wilson, undoubtedly with Eisenhower’s approval, accepted this squandering of money and effort. The president’s reasoning is unknown. He may have believed he would get an IRBM faster this way or he may have thought he could not slight the Army further without provoking a rebellion by Taylor and other senior Army generals.

On November 8, 1955, Wilson instructed both services to proceed. His memorandum specified that the IRBM was to be given “a priority equal to the ICBM but with no interference to the valid requirements of the ICBM program.” Eisenhower’s subsequent NSC directive of December 1 abandoned this mealymouthed equivocation and assigned a straightforward “joint” highest national priority, although it was just as unclear what this might mean in practice. Gardner was in a rage over the loss of the unique status for the ICBM, won with so many months of painstaking intrigue and labor, and tried several bureaucratic maneuvers to restore it, none of which succeeded. He blamed Engine Charlie rather than the president. Later denouncing the wastefulness of the parallel development of two IRBMs, Gardner mockingly said that Wilson regarded “competition in missiles … as desirable and necessary as it was in the automotive industry.”

By the time Eisenhower signed the NSC memorandum on December 1, Schriever was nearly ready to begin the building of an IRBM. In August, as the pressure rose, he had instructed Ramo to have his people take a serious look at the contractor proposals Power had previously directed Bennie to solicit and to do some studies of their own. He had Hall assign a Navy missile specialist, Commander Robert Truax, to work with Ramo’s people. They had heard of Truax and managed to have him seconded to the WDD staff. Power approved the design at the beginning of November and bids were solicited from contractors. Two days before Christmas, the airframe and missile assembly contract was awarded to the Douglas Aircraft Company of Santa Monica. A second race, a race against the Army, was on. Code designations for new aircraft or weapons last only as long as it takes someone to come up with a satisfactory name, and so it was with the Air Force’s XSM-75 or WS-315A. The missile was soon dubbed Thor, for the Norse god of thunder. Schriever appointed Hall program director for the IRBM, although Hall retained his duties as propulsion officer for the ICBM project. Ramo in turn put his crew under the man he felt best qualified to manage Ramo-Wooldridge’s engineering and technical direction side of the project, Ruben Mettler, his recently recruited star.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!