The Great Missile Hoax

June 1, 1957

In its desperate bid for pre-eminence in the long-range ballistic missile field, the Army has laid down a rolling publicity barrage to advance one of the greatest hoaxes in recent military history.

The hoax is buried in Army claims of leadership in the mission, experience, and capability for developing a 1,500-mile ballistic missile with thermonuclear warhead.

The public and Congress have been asked to believe, through a well-staged publicity campaign, that the Army’s battlefield really extends at least 1,500 miles in depth; that the long-range ballistic missile is, after all, nothing more than a projection of the artillery shell; that such a long-range vehicle is a direct extension of the short-range missiles under development at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal; that Redstone, with its wealth of German scientific talent, has proved itself superior to private industry in the development of the long-range ballistic missile.

Even in the early phase of its publicity campaign, the Army obviously was pressing. For one thing, the only mission the Army ever had received for an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile was for the development of a ship-based IRBM for the Navy, under a joint project with that service. Yet, in public relations terms, the basic job of “company identification” with the product had been accomplished. Presumably, the Army’s Redstone Arsenal and the long-range ballistic missile had become inseparable in the public eye.

That this was more public relations than fact was proved when the Navy pulled out its joint missile development program with the Army to develop an IRBM of its own. This left the Army without an IRBM mission, but who would think so from what they read in the papers

The public relations campaign reached a peak, however, when the Defense Department assigned operational control of the land-based IRBM to the Air Force, and provided for the Army to phase out of its development work in this area. Certain elements of the Army were not caught hands-down by the action, even though Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Army Chief of Staff, has, like a good soldier, announced his intentions of abiding by Mr. Wilson’s decision. But by this time the Army had been established in the role of underdog, a favorable position from which to maneuver, and there were those in the Army eager to exploit this position.

Martyrdom, as a successful public relations device, demands individual participation. Out of the Redstone Arsenal came a self-appointed martyr, Col. John C. Nickerson, Jr., a former artilleryman engaged in Army guided missile work. Now the publicity campaign could be stepped up.

As a result, the court-martial of Colonel Nickerson for alleged security violations and perjury, normally a staid, matter-of-fact affairs, is in danger of being twisted into a medicine show for hawking wild claims of Army prowess in missile development.

Colonel Nickerson’s public statements have added to the confusion surrounding this trumped-up success story. Now each routine launching of an Army test missile, including jerry-built test weapons and duds, is being reported as a home run in an electronic World Series—all in apparent keeping with the determination of some echelons of the Army to play the hoax to the bitter end. It now is high time to lay that hoax to rest.

The hoax centers in the claim, basic to the Army’s position, that in the development of two land-based IRBMs—the Thor of the Air Force and the Jupiter of the Army—two highly competitive approaches to the same weapon are involved.

This claim is basic to the Army position because of its relationship to the prevailing national policy which encourages technical competition in “high risk development” weapon systems (the risk referring to the chances of development success in a desired time period). Under this policy, developments are considered technically competitive when each is capable, individually, of significant and timely contributions to high performance, or advancing the state of the development art. In such cases, both approaches should be pursued. This reasoning makes sense, for in the critical arms race it would be foolhardy and dangerous not to proceed with true competition in fundamental areas. When, for example, such competition developed in the pursuit of a successful Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the Air Force itself established a second, and technically competitive, program

On the other side of the “high risk” policy, if two approaches to development are not competitive (in terms of schedule, performance potential, and state of the art) one or the other of the approaches should be abandoned. This also makes sense, for it helps eliminate duplication and waste in our multi-billion-dollar defense effort, and helps conserve the already scarce supply of scientific and technical talent available to this effort.

The original Defense Department decision of late 1955 to pursue both the Air Force Thor and the Army Jupiter programs for the development of an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile presumably was based on the belief, perhaps logical at the time, that these two programs would, in fact, be technically competitive. Likewise, the recent Defense Department decision to abandon, in effect, the Army’s Jupiter project was consistent with the high risk development policy. By late 1956, there was ample evidence that the Thor and Jupiter programs were no longer, if they ever had been, technically competitive. And, unfortunately for the Army, the Thor development appeared to be the most promising.

At any rate, the Defense Department decision was carefully weighed. The knowledge on which it was based represented the composite findings of the best scientists in the nation, men of objectivity who had no axe to grind for either Army or Air Force. In fact, the long-range ballistic missile program of the nation has been under the closest, most persistent, and most expert scrutiny of any military project in our history.

At the same time, it must be reported that when the Jupiter project of the Army was established, equal scrutiny of its potential had not been applied. Established under pressure of alarming intelligence estimates of Russia’s IRBM developments, it involved too much of a “crash” program for comprehensive analysis.

It is now apparent that the Defense Department, at the time it gave Jupiter the green light, vastly overrated the continued importance of the ten-year-old accumulation of know-how about German V-2 systems, by now well overtaken by technical progress made in the United States since the war. The superb individual qualifications of the German scientists who occupy key technical positions at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal are beyond question; but the history of modern weapons development shows clearly that technological advances flourish in the competitive industrial climate, while they are stifled in the bureaucratic atmosphere and technical isolation prevailing in military arsenals. Thus, the over-all capability of Redstone Arsenal has been grossly overrated.

For example, when the Jupiter project was given the go-ahead in late 1955, it apparently was not understood that the Army would have to depend, as it has, on an Air Force-industry-developed rocket engine for the Jupiter, as it had previously depended on Air Force-industry-developed engines for its Redstone missile. Certainly it could not have been understood, at the time, that a large liquid-fuel rocket engine has never been developed or produced within the Redstone Arsenal.

Nor could it have been proved, at the time the Jupiter missile project was established, that the German-conceived airframes for short-range missiles—still basically of World War II design—would prove to be inferior for the IRBM to the advanced structures developed by our aviation industry.

So great were the unknowns and the development risks in the increasingly sophisticated field of long-range ballistic missiles, that it is not surprising the Jupiter program was originally established. However, it would have been equally surprising, once the facts became apparent, if the Jupiter program had been continued.

The facts have been known for some time now. These are facts the Army has attempted to becloud with its publicity campaign. Public relations is no substitute for performance. Respect cannot be legislated—it must be earned. On the other hand, desperation often overcomes logic. So the great guided missile hoax has come into being.

The hoax is exploded—again remembering the “high risk” policy—when it is understood that, if the program were continued, the Jupiter missile of the Army quite likely would develop into something quite like the Thor missile of the Air Force, but at a much later date if one is to judge by present rates of development.

Now, what service develops what in guided missiles is, in itself, relatively unimportant. The important consideration is that the taxpayer get the best product for his money, and as fast as possible. But it is not healthy for the taxpayer to be hoodwinked into believing he is getting something that just isn’t there. That sort of hoax, which exists in the missile program today, deserves exposure.

For example, while it may be an interesting academic exercise to trace the long-range ballistic missile back to the bullet, practically it would make as little sense to go back to the rocks cast by primitive man. Even the spent match flipped into the wastebasket travels a ballistic path. All are in a sense “projectiles” which involve the same ballistic principles. However, the serious development of relatively long-range ballistic missiles and air-foil controlled missiles has a fairly recent history. It embraces not only ballistic principles but also the sciences of aerodynamics and thermodynamics. It inevitably leads to a multiple-characteristic vehicle embracing aspects of several sciences.

In long-range ballistic missiles, as one scientist has put it: “We find vehicles incorporating the subtle structural talents of the airframe industry, the highly sophisticated guidance and control mechanisms developed for imparting stability, for navigating, and for controlling the bomb release of modern airplanes, married to the high-performance rocket propulsion system, to produce an entirely new species of vehicle.”

Except for the propulsion system, all the major elements of this new creature stem directly from the aircraft development art. Therefore, to link the bullet to the long-range ballistic missile is as far-fetched as comparing John Nickerson with Billy Mitchell. But aside from these syllogistic attempts to tie past history to the present, let us measure the Army’s missile claims against the facts, while keeping in mind the yardstick of “technical competition.”

The story begins with the conclusion of World War II, when more than eighty German V-2 rockets were shipped to this country, as war booty, and were fired at White Sands by the Army. Some of the German scientists followed the missiles to the United States and eventually settled down at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, near Hunstville, Ala.

Simultaneously, during 1945, the late General of the Air Force “Hap” Arnold had working for him a group of eminent scientists, under the leadership of Dr. Theodore von Karman. General Arnold’s Scientific Advisory Group told him, in late 1945, that transoceanic ballistic missiles were technically feasible. Of course, prior to the advent of the “small” H-bomb such rockets would have had limited military usefulness.

At any rate, in 1946, the Air Force contracted with the Convair Company to explore subsonic and supersonic missiles, control systems, light-weight structures, and other long-range missile problems. This was known as the MX-774 program. In 1948, under this Convair project, three vehicles were fired at White Sands. These tests demonstrated for the first time the feasibility of swiveling rocket engines and the potential of light airframe structures. Both represented significant improvements over the V-2 techniques originally developed by the Germans.

The Air Force had also established in 1946, at North American Aviation, Inc., a project known as MX-770, to develop long-range rocket-propelled vehicles. Work on this project rapidly demonstrated that the V-2 propulsion system was basically inadequate. The MX-70 project also stimulated interest in up-rated engines of higher performance and lighter weight. The Air Force kept the North American propulsion project alive despite the desperate 1947-49 economy drive, which forced wholesale cutbacks in many worthwhile Air Force research and development projects. Out of this effort came the up-rated LR-43 rocket engine which, while a definite advancement, still used V-2 fuels.

In 1950, as a result of further Air Force-sponsored propulsion research, and LR-43 tests, the Air Force began the development of a higher performance engine for its MX-770 project, an engine employing different fuels than the V-2 and more advanced techniques than the LR-43. This project represented the final major break with German V-2 experience.

The Army, by 1950, had its short-range Redstone missile under development. In desperate straits for an adequate Redstone propulsion unit, the Army went to the Air Force and requested that it be permitted to use the LR-43 engine. The Air Force agreed. Although obsolete (since 1950) for the Air Force requirements, the LR-43 has remained the power plant for the Redstone missile, with few, if any, improvements having been made over the years.

In 1951 the Air Force entered into its original Atlas ICBM contract with Convair, to explore long-range supersonic missile development, including fabrication and testing. For such a missile, relatively large and low-yield atomic warheads were still in order, forcing a rigid guidance accuracy requirement.

By 1953, as a result of hydrogen bomb testing, it became apparent that a thermonuclear warhead of vast yield could be made available in a relatively small unit. This was a major breakthrough. Now the rigid guidance requirements could be relaxed. That year Trevor Gardner, then Air Force Assistant Secretary, formed a scientist-industrialist committee (code name: Teapot Committee) with the late Dr. John von Neumann as Chairman. After evaluating the pertinent developments, this committee determined that the achievement of a military useful ICBM was feasible within a reasonable length of time.

But the Teapot Committee made it clear that propulsion was the “pacing factor” in the ICBM program, and endorsed the Air Force’s research program for a new type ICBM rocket engine. The committee also urged the establishment of a unique military-science-industry management team with authority and control over all aspects of the ICBM program.

The Air Force immediately established, within its Air Research and Development Command, a Western Development Division in Los Angeles, with a contractor (Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation) to provide a closely integrated scientific-management staff for systems engineering and technical direction.

The immediate task of the new division, with Maj. Gen. B.A. Schriever in command, was a complete systems study of the Atlas missile program, looking toward a reoriented approach to that project. These studies led the Air Force to conclude that a second and technically competitive approach to Intercontinental Ballistic Missile development was advisable. This led to the establishment of the Titan program for an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, with the Martin Company of Baltimore as the weapons system contractor.

By the spring of 1955, progressive Soviet missile development stimulated Department of Defense interest in an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile. The Western Development Division of the Air Force asked for the IRBM proposals from several industrial firms, and from the Army’s Redstone Arsenal as well. Of more than a half dozen proposals submitted, all—including Redstone—provided for the use of the Air Force-developed ICBM engine of North American Aviation.

The Army then obtained agreement from the Navy for a united effort in the IRBM area, and for good reason. The Navy could show a legitimate requirement for an IRBM (ship-based0. The Defense Department gave the Army and Navy a joint mission to develop a ship-based missile for the Navy—Army to develop the airborne vehicle, Navy to develop the extensive shipborne elements of the weapon system.

By the summer of 1955, the highest national priority had been placed on the ICBM. In the early fall of 1955, an equal national priority was placed on the IRBM. Thus, the Thor and Jupiter projects officially came into being in the final days of 1955. The Air Force, based on its ICBM experience and organization, was able to introduce the IRBM program into its structure with relative ease. For example, in setting up the Thor project, the Air Force has had to add only one contractor—the Douglas Company. The rest of the program stems from its ICBM effort.

Early in 1956, the Army pressed a request for the ICBM engines developed and financed (more than ninety percent) by the Air Force for the ICBM program. Although the engines had to be taken from in-plant development at North American, the Air Force recognized the equal priority accorded the Jupiter program. The Air Force agreed to supply the Army with one-half of the North American engines it had scheduled for IRBM use—one-for-one off the development line. So the Army began its IRBM development work at Redstone Arsenal with the new Air Force rocket engine. The Army has continued to use this engine for its Jupiter missile, just as it has used an Air Force engine for its Redstone missile.

Now let us consider other elements in the Jupiter versus Thor issue. For example, both missile are in the same range category, since the range requirement has been specified by the Department of Defense, and they carry the same propulsion units. They also carry the same payload, since the warhead is delivered to both services by the Atomic Energy Commission.

For guidance and control systems, both Jupiter and Thor must depend on systems which stem directly from developments for manned aircraft and air-breathing missiles. There simply is no other place to go. (Certainly the control system devices of the Jupiter have no antecedents in the artillery shell). There are known to be competitive approaches to inertial guidance systems, but everyone involved is pushing the state of the art. The Air Force certainly can’t afford to rely on any one approach; and it is known to have the best qualified men in the country exploring all approaches. We can assume the Army is equally well advanced, but in the long run both will have the best systems available through the information-interchange policy which permits few secrets between services in this business. Meanwhile, the Navy is believed to have chosen the Air Force approach to guidance, over the Army systems, when it began its independent development of an IRBM, called Polaris.

The nose cone, key to the critical problem of re-entry of the missile into the atmosphere, could well involve competitive approaches to the same problem. Indeed, the Air Force now has at least two technically competitive approaches under way. In this area of hypersonic flow, the Air Force is known to have accumulated valuable data from its shock tube experiments and its highly successful launchings of the Lockheed X-17 re-entry test vehicle. Further, it is less likely that significant new data will be obtained by the Army because of its research and development management philosophy. While the Army still basically follows the archaic arsenal or “gun factory” approach, cloistering a relatively small group of specialists in the intellectual desert, the Air Force has dozens of universities and industrial laboratories at work competitively on a broad front.

A final consideration is the basic structure of the missile. The Army, of course, is known to have followed German experience in basic design; in fact, it regularly boasts of this fact. But, while the headlines lead one to believe in the relative success of Jupiter test launchings, there is a good bit of the hoax missed up in this end of it. For example, reports emanating from Washington imply that test Jupiters have been destroyed in flight by Range Safety Officers in accordance with planned test programs, when there is an equal chance that these Jupiters blew up of their own accord due to inherent weaknesses.

Certainly the Redstone Arsenal-conceived airframes of the present Jupiters, based as they are on extension of the V-2 design philosophy, could hardly employ the advanced structures available from the much advanced aviation industry experience in this country. In fact, if its program continued, the Army could well be expected to adopt the Thor-type airframe, which obviously stems from this industry experience. Advances in this field are too important for the Army to pass up. In fact, the Army is known to have contacted the aircraft industry, searching for a better airframe, just as it came to the Air Force for rocket engines years ago.

So it is that the Jupiter and Thor programs inevitably are coming together in terms of their basic elements—airframes, engines, and guidance systems. That they are basically competitive vehicles is a hoax—and nothing more.

President Eisenhower on the Army Ballistic Missile

Pertinent to this discussion of the Army’s claims in the Intermediate Range ballistic Missile field is the following excerpt from the transcript of President Eisenhower’s press conference of May 8:

Martin L. Arrowsmith of The Associated Press—Mr. President, I have been requested to ask you a two-part question dealing with the Army’s curtailed role in the guided missile field. The newspaper which submitted it, puts it this way: Why should not the Army extend its ballistic program to ranges of 1,500 miles, to meet the requirements for tactical missile support; and, secondly, since this is such an important defense issue, do you think Col. John Nickerson [of Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Ala.] acted properly in making public the Air Force-Army controversy over the IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile)?

President Eisenhower—Well, of course, Mr. Arrowsmith, you are asking me questions that properly belong to the Defense Secretary, who is a little bit more familiar with the details. Now, we have in the Defense Department one man who is put in charge of all guided missile development. The reason for that is because of terrific expense in this activity. We want to prevent duplication, as far as possible.

These machines, the research, even to get the first principles of them fixed and determined, are extremely costly, so we don’t want each of the three services going its own way. We get a man who is knowledgeable, particularly in this form of science, and he is made sort of the representative of the President and Secretary of Defense, to avoid that duplication.

Now, just why or when or for what reasons they assign any particular missile, any particular type to one service, is not always readily apparent, but I would say this, just from a knowledge of the Army: Why would the Army want a 1,500-mile missile itself, because the first requisite of using that kind of weapon is that you have very good observation to find out whether it is doing the job you thought it was? The only way you can find out would be with an Air Force that could penetrate at least 1,500 miles into the enemy territory, and that puts you right square into the big Air Force business.

So I should think that that kind of consideration would have something to do with your point, with your question.

Now, as far as Colonel Nickerson is concerned, I have, of course, not looked up the details of all the complaints, but the complaint made to me was that he exposed to public view very secret papers of the Defense Department, and not that he argued publicly with the Air Force.