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Assured Destruction: Building the Ballistic Missile Culture of the Air Force

Assured Destruction: Building the Ballistic Missile Culture of the Air Force by David W. Bath. Naval Institute Press, 2020, 238 pp.

This history of the Air Force’s ballistic missiles and their operators spans from the creation of the first nuclear weapons to the period after the Cuban missile crisis. Author David W. Bath has a PhD from Texas A&M University and currently teaches at Rogers State University. In addition to his academic credentials, he also has experience himself as an Air Force missileer, previously editing Air Force Missileers and the Cuban Missile Crisis for the Association of Air Force Missileers.

The book can be divided into two sections. The first half provides extensive background on the development of nuclear weapons before transitioning into ICBMs, perhaps too much so. The second half—providing the most important historiographical contribution—elucidates organizational and operational aspects of the ICBM community, particularly before and after the Cuban missile crisis. Bath argues that most works have focused on making the missiles rather than what happened to them or their operators after their making, especially between 1957 and 1967 (p. 8). It is unfortunate that this intriguing aspect of the work does not receive even fuller treatment, although primary sources admittedly remain a problem in some regards, such as classification issues.

Bath shows how the Air Force initially envisioned missileers being particularly distinguished, seeking those akin to “geniuses” with engineering degrees and combat experience (p. 1). Many early missileers, then, were bomber pilots who had trouble adjusting to a “monotonous environment” (p. 82) and never really felt themselves to be missileers (p. 83). Furthermore, the Air Force sometimes placed pilots with no missileer experience in command, which aggrieved missileers who had not come from the pilot community (p. 134). One could argue that this trend continues in today’s Air Force regarding fighter pilots being placed in command of nonrated communities.

The role of missileers in the Air Force changed dramatically after the Cuban missile crisis forced President John F. Kennedy and his advisors to wrestle with whether they really would ever employ nuclear weapons (pp. 117–22). Deciding they wanted to stress the development of nonnuclear options, the Air Force seized the opportunity to begin neglecting the ICBM community. Indeed, the ICBM had never really been accepted or welcomed by Air Force leadership. According to Bath, the Air Force fought for the weapon system to keep the other services from obtaining it while far preferring the manned bomber platform. This portion of the book’s themes should not be terribly foreign to anyone familiar with the ICBM community. As a former missileer, Bath unsurprisingly has great sympathy for the community’s long-standing grievances. A less sympathetic author might have accentuated the challenges any institution faces in balancing roles and missions while meeting operational responsibilities.

Most interesting about the book is the section on the lesser-known ramifications of rushing this new technology into production and seeking to operationalize it. While it is the need to maintain exacting standards that is probably the best-known aspect of the ICBM community, it is ironic how wide-ranging and haphazard these standards were in the period Bath highlights. Thus, for example, Warren Air Force Base had two completely dissimilar squadrons initially operating, built to entirely different standards and even containing different numbers of missiles (p. 91).

Likewise, during the Cuban missile crisis, the new Minuteman missiles had not been fully operationalized. Thus, missileers rushed to create “workarounds” to get nuclear weapons ready for combat (p. 111). They even desperately tried to obtain enough liquid oxygen to launch missiles if called upon (p. 112). This fascinating section highlights the challenges of incorporating new technology into an institution. But Bath shows his allegiance to the missileer community by accepting at face value the command historians’ evaluation of its response as “eminently successful” (p. 113), before venting that the “event that was arguably the crowning success for the missileers caused them to become political pariahs and began their descent into perceived insignificance within the Air Force” (p. 113).

The final body chapter of the book, fittingly entitled “Freefall,” then shows the gutting of the ICBM community, particularly in regard to quality of personnel as the Air Force worried about pilot retention and the need to fill billets in Vietnam (p. 127). Simultaneously, what little room ICBMs left for imagination decreased because the Minutemen had received additional automation (p. 128). Missileers had believed in the early 1960s that their community was the “future of the Air Force” (p. 132), but they increasingly realized that they were not. One missileer, for example, recalls how he could not enter an officers’ club in his missile uniform although pilots could wear their flight suits (p. 136).

Bath concludes with the claim that the Air Force’s experience with ICBMs taught it to “first gain control of any politically supported mission that threatened the dominance of manned flight and then to devalue it once political attention was directed elsewhere,” a point he applies to a discussion of the remotely piloted aircraft community (pp. 145–47). The claim makes an interesting point of discussion, albeit a difficult one to substantiate.

Finally, a work whose title claims to highlight “ballistic missile culture” does not go far enough in terms of engaging in actual cultural history, although perhaps this was a regrettable decision made by the publisher. For example, the missileers themselves appear to have no agency, tending to be passive in the face of Air Force neglect. There is still work to be done by a historian who creatively brings new methodologies and insight to this story. Ultimately, though, this work provides a solid introduction to ICBMs and differentiates itself from similar works by focusing on the fascinating challenges of operationalizing a new technology both in peacetime and in a time of crisis while highlighting the Air Force’s changing relationship to the community’s personnel.

Dr. Heather Venable
Associate Professor, Air Command and Staff College

 

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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