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Montana Missiles Were JFK’s ‘Ace In The Hole’ In Cuban Crisis

October 25, 1987 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) _ President John F. Kennedy’s hand was strengthened during the Cuban missile crisis by around-the-clock work, and some technical shortcuts, that made the first Minuteman missiles operational ahead of time, say military commanders.

Both sides had intercontinental ballistic missiles in 1962. But the Minuteman, the state of the art in ICBM technology at the time, gave Kennedy what he later referred to as his ″ace in the hole″ in dealing with the Soviets.

When the United States learned the Soviets were placing offensive missiles in Cuba, the first Minuteman installations were still under construction on the Montana prairie near Malmstrom Air Force Base northeast of Helena.

The frantic efforts to make the Minuteman operational were recalled during a weekend Missiles of October observance at Malmstrom, commemorating its role in the Cuban crisis 25 years ago this month.

″The Minuteman system in 1962 represented a capability that the United States had and that the Soviet Union could not match,″ said Col. Richard O. Keen, commander of the base’s 341st Strategic Missile Wing. ″The Soviets did not have anything comparable. That’s what the historical significance is.″

Soviet ICBMs of that era required lengthy preparation for launch, including loading with liquid fuels, were relatively inaccurate and, since they were deployed above ground, presented a ″soft″ target, Keen told The Associated Press.

The Minuteman, by contrast, was solid-fueled, protected in underground silos, more accurate and could be launched at a moment’s notice.

″Certainly the leverage that President Kennedy had would not have been as great″ without the Minuteman, Keen said. ″Certainly the bargaining position would not have been as strong.″

The first Minuteman launch facilities had been under construction at Malmstrom since March 1961.

″We had, from years before, been working to a schedule that would install the first flight of Minuteman missiles in October of 1962,″ said retired Air Force Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, who was chief of the Minuteman missile program from 1959 to 1963.

But the missiles were not scheduled to be brought up to ″strategic alert capability″ until later in the year because only one of the two launch control centers at Malmstrom was completed, Phillips told the Great Falls Tribune.

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The system, he explained, was designed to require launch commands from at least two separate control centers before any missile could fly.

But when the Cuban crisis arose, Col. Burton C. Andrus Jr., missile commander at Malmstrom, got an urgent call from the commander of the Strategic Air Command.

Andrus, now a professor of systems management at the University of Southern California, said he was asked if they could find a way to bypass the two- command requirement.

After an urgent staff meeting, technicians were able to improvise the circuitry so that missiles could be launched from the one control center that was then available, Andrus said.

The first Minuteman missiles became operational the afternoon of Oct. 22, and Phillips said U.S. officials immediately informed the Soviets.

″I’m satisfied that they (Soviets) had been observing our program with their intelligence apparatus sufficiently to know that what we had was formidable,″ he said.

Later that evening, Kennedy went on nationwide television and revealed the Cuban missile crisis.

Kennedy instituted a naval blockade of Cuba. And after a period of confrontation that brought the superpowers to the brink of war, the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade the island.

Phillips said the missiles at Malmstrom did just what they were supposed to do.

″I’ve said many times that if the Minuteman missiles are ever actually used in war, they really would have failed in their purpose,″ he said. ″Their basic purpose is to prevent a war.″