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On Alert: An Operational History of the United States Air Force Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program, 1945-2011.

On Alert: An Operational History of the United States Air Force Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program, 1945-2011. By David M. Spires. Colorado Springs: Air Force Space Command, 2012. Index. Photographs. Appendices. Bibliography. Pp. 348. Available as a free download at http://afinissileers.com/ onalert.pdf

This book is an outstanding history of the land based intercontinental ballistic missiles that make up a vital part of the Triad (USAF ICBMs, USAF bombers, and USN Polaris/Poseidon/Trident ballistic missiles) that provided a nuclear deterrent to aggression by the USSR during the Cold War, and still are on guard against a nuclear attack on the United States.

Spires begins at the end of World War II with the Army Air Forces' look into the future under Gen. Hap Arnold's direction. Initially the Army Air Forces, like the Navy, concentrated on cruise missiles with the reverse-engineered German V-l "Buzz Bomb" as their model. However, RAND, the Army Air Forces think-tank established in 1946, came up with a report comparing air-breathing and ballistic missiles that favored the latter. That led to another look at Convair's proposal for a long-range rocket. Convair had named their long range rocket "Atlas," and it went on into development and production as the first American ICBM.

Each of the Air Force ICBMs is described in detail, including the development process, and the politics--both national and intra-service--in bringing each missile into operational acceptance. He deals with Atlas and Titan I and II, both liquid-fueled missiles, and describes in detail the hazards of handling the volatile fuels and oxidizers. Those missiles were phased out in favor of solid-rocket propelled missiles, Minuteman and Peace keeper, which promised higher reliability and fewer hazards.

Spires goes into great detail about the design and construction of missile sites and the command-and-control arrangements. He also covers the personnel problems that developed with alert crews dealing with shift work, the requirement to master and comply with detailed checklists, and the boredom that inevitably resulted.

As a naval officer, I made three deterrent patrols in a guided missile submarine during 1960-1961 after being a warhead officer and missile guidance officer in the Regulus cruise missile program. I found Spires' book fascinating and well worth the time to read, although the shift work problems involved didn't quite seem to measure up to the hardships of sixty-nine to seventy-day patrols at sea.

Capt. John F. O'Connell, USN (Ret.), Docent, National Air and Space Museum.

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Author:O'Connell, John
Publication:Air Power History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
Words:403
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