Find a Security Clearance Job!

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)




GAM-87 Skybolt

The Douglas GAM-87 Skybolt was an air-launched ballistic missile that would have been carried on the B-52H. Armed with a W59 nuclear warhead in a Mk.7 re-entry vehicle, development was initiated in the late 1950s. The decision to proceed with the Skybolt was made in February 1960, with initial deployment projected for 1964. In June of 1960, the British government ordered 100 Skybolts to be carried by the Avro Vulcan. However, in December of 1962, President Kennedy cancelled the Skybolt missile for political and economical reasons.

Initial planning was done in the 1950s. The Skybolt grew out of a study program aimed at developing a long-range, air-launched ballistic missile system. Built by Douglas Aircraft, and intended for use on the B-52 bomber aircraft, the Skybolt missile was initially designed to be a complement and then a replacement for the Hound Dog.

Sky Bolt was the first air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) to be developed in the West. The concept of an ALBM originated with the US Air Force early in 1957. In that year the decision was taken to invite technically capable companies to conduct feasibility studies, and this materialized as an investigation of Weapon System 199. Using money from Fiscal Year 1958, contracts were placed with Lockheed/Con vair, Martin and McDonnell. All the work was of a low-cost nature, and it was aimed at finding the answers to such basic problems as establishing the basic design of an ALBM, sorting out the problems of navigation and guidance of the parent aircraft and the missile, and determining the likely accuracy, timing and cost.

All three contractors fired many full-scale test vehicles and their reports indicated that the system was feasible, the optimum configuration being that of a slender twostage vehicle with a solid-propellant charge in both stages. Accordingly the USAF wrote the requirements for Weapon System 138A; 15 companies submitted proposals, and in May 1959 Douglas Aircraft was awarded the prime contract, following the usual intensive evaluation by the Air Force Source Selection Board (made up of members of AMC, ARDC and SAC) and a review of the technical, management, production and other capabilities of the firms concerned.

The name "Skybolt" was not coined until January 1960 when Air Force Chief of Staff General Thomas D. White used it in a public speech and Congressional testimony. For a few months thereafter it was written as two words until the Air Force realized that its policy stipulated single-word nicknames. The weapon was earlier referred to as an advanced air-to-surface missile (AASM) and also as weapon system 138A. From February through June 1960, the overall program was known as system 638A. The missile alone was designated GAM-87A.

Skybolt was a weapon in dispute before it was born. The Air Force wanted it badly and to help sell it made rather grand claims for its prospective accuracy and reliability and very modest estimates of its cost. Outside technical reviews uniformly questioned the Air Force claims. But, partly as a hedge against difficulties with Minuteman and Polaris (neither yet in service) and partly simply because the Air Force's strong feelings could not be completely ignored, the Eisenhower administration let it get going.

Never before had the guidance problem been quite so acute; the launch point must be fixed precisely in space in all three dimensions, and the time of launch and the need to establish cut-off at exactly the right point would also require further research. In the case of Hound Dog (the USAF equivalent of Blue Steel) a stellar/inertial system is employed, star-trackers in both the missile and its pylon being employed to monitor the inertial system and improve the navigation of both the Hound Dog and its parent aircraft. Blue Steel had an all-inertial system (by Elliott Bros) which is linked with the navigation of the parent aircraft.

The greatest skepticism about Skybolt existed in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), particularly in the newly created Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E). The sharpest critic was DDR&E's Assistant Director for Strategic Weapons, John Rubel, who was responsible for monitoring the project. Not only did Rubel have reservations about various technical features, but he was also annoyed at the Air Force's haste in selecting the contractor. Rubel spoke of the project's "absurdity," the Air Force's unwillingness "to explain what it was doing," and the "totally unrealistic so-called operational requirements".

Misgivings also existed among British experts. One considered the Skybolt concept impractical; another thought it might theoretically be possible, but found the claims made for the weapon overstated and predicted that the United States would eventually abandon the program.

The Fletcher Committee was established by DDR&E especially to examine Skybolt. The Committee's interim recommendation in October 1959 was to terminate the project, but it later recommended, though equivocally, that the weapon be approved for development. In February 1960, OSD decided to proceed with development, allocating $80 million in fiscal year (FY) 1961 funds on condition that DDR&E continue to monitor the program closely. As of February 1960 initial deployment was projected for 1964.

In June of 1960, the British government ordered 100 Skybolts that were to be carried by the Avro Vulcan. Avro were made an associate contractor to manage the Skybolt programme for the United Kingdom and four different schemes were submitted to find a platform for the missile. A number of different aircraft platforms were considered including a variant of the Vickers VC10 airliner and two of the current V bombers, the Avro Vulcan and Handley Page Victor. It was decided to use the Vulcan to initially carry two missiles each on hardpoints outboard of the main landing gear.

The British were looking for a way to keep a plausible, or at least not implausible, independent deterrent. British missile development of the Blue Streak IRBM was proving very expensive. And the Royal Air Force shared a preference for flying over silo-sitting. At an Eisenhower-Macmillan meeting at Camp David in 1960, the US agreed to let the British buy Skybolt, contingent on its successful development, and to consult with them about what to do in the contrary event. The Macmillan government committed itself very heavily to the weapon, insisting on its great value in the face of strong attacks.

Skybolt enabled the Macmillan government to abandon its own costly and much-criticized Blue Streak missile program in the hope that Skybolt would make possible continuance of its independent nuclear deterrent through the end of the decade of the 1960s. By doing so, the Macmillan government acquired a greater stake in Skybolt' s success than the American government. Its strained efforts to ensure production of the weapon probably contributed more than any other factor to the subsequent controversy over cancellation.

As originally envisioned, the Skybolt missile had a range of 1,150 miles, was 33 feet long, 3 feet in diameter and weighed 11,000 lbs. The contractor missed some development milestones during the life of the program. However, the several reorientations and dollar constraints created a difficult environment. At the time the program was terminated the contractor's performance was considered satisfactory.

The contractor had a $44.3M or 9.82% overrun on the development contract. Since the production contract was terminated in a L/C stage there is no assessment of cost performance. At the time of termination the contractor's efforts to control cost were considered satisfactory.

The initial technical approach proposed by Douglas was substantially altered. There were subsequent but more limited reorientation throughout the life of the program. As the program progressed, however, the contractor was, for the most part, meeting his technical milestones and was achieving the expected performance. This is reflected by the results of a detailed status report on the Skybolt program progress with particular emphasis on results of the first guided flight conducted 28 November 1962. Representatives of OSD were present at this meeting and agreed with Air Force personnel present that the program appeared technically sound. Further, the second flight launched 22 December was reported as completely successful.

After overcoming initial difficulties and establishing a strong project management organization, the contractor's cooperation and responsiveness was very good. After the initial adjustments which affected the entire program, the contractor's performance was satisfactory.

Based on the evaluation of those knowledgeable on the Air Staff of the Skybolt Program, in the initial stages of the program, Douglas did a below average job. They had a weak project organization that was too low in the division structure to achieve effective overall program management or elicit required top management assistance. After these deficiencies were corrected early in the program, the contractor's performance steadily improved. By the time the program was terminated, Douglas was doing a very satisfactory job. The contractor's performance must be viewed in the context of the total environment. His performance was certainly affected by the dollar constraints and the reorientation of the program.

As the design and development of the system proceeded, it became more and more evident that the disadvantages outweighed the advantages. While Skybolt was under development, other more advanced missile systems were successfully developed and deployed and this raised questions about the utility of the Skybolt missile.

Technical difficulties with Skybolt’s guidance system, along with McNamara’s decision in April 1961 to curtail the U.S. bomber program, starting with cancellation of the B–70, raised serious questions about the missile’s future. Although the Air Force continued to explore ways of adapting Skybolt to its B–52s, thereby keeping the missile alive, cost-performance comparisons done in Enthoven’s Systems Analysis organization gradually whittled away at its prospects.

Two separate reports were done by the Controller of the Pentagon, Charles Hitch, and the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, Harold Brown, per request of McNamara. Hitch and Brown both came to the same conclusion: Skybolt as a part of a B-52 force was inferior to the missile programs already in place at the time. Hound Dog missiles could easily be attached to the fleet of B-52's for a smaller amount of money and act as defence suppression or primary attack missiles in conjunction with the Minuteman missiles. With Hound Dog completed and Minuteman nearing completion at the end of 1962, Skybolt did not make fiscal sense.

Another problem with Skybolt noted in the Brown and Hitch reports was the low reliability. They noted, "Skybolt will take another two years...the difference in schedule is likely to be reflected, as well, in a lower reliability for Skybolt....that risk that Skybolt will fail to work at all is very low; the risk that it will not be a highly reliable...system until the late 1960's is quite large".

The first air firing of a "hot" XGAM-87 Skybolt took place successfully on 19 April 1962. The test missile, bearing the USAF serial number 20025, differed externally from previous ballistic airdropped models in having external fairings to lead instrumentation and systems past the two solid-propellant rocket motors. It was carried on the No 4 (starboard outer) pylon position beneath a B-52G operating from Eglin AFB, Florida, where Douglas maintain their field location A55 for this work.

For this particular firing, the missile was equipped with a relatively simple pre-programmed guidance and control system for a flight of approximately the design range of 1,000 n.m. down the Atlantic Missile Range. With the B-52 flying at some 350kt at 40,000ft, the complete launch sequence took place successfully, the missile separating within the desired "box" of sky. After falling for some 400ft, the first stage ignited and burnt correctly, the arching trail from the Skybolt being clearly seen by observers at Cape Canaveral. But the second stage malfunctioned, a USAF spokesman saying "If it ignited, it was only briefly." Nevertheless, Douglas and their subcontractors—to say nothing of RAF Bomber Command, whose whole future depends on this weapon—may feel encouraged that so many design objectives were accomplished.

President Kennedy's secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, took the lead in opposing Skybolt. In one of the most memorable speeches of his tenure, McNamara would argue at Ann Arbor, Michigan, on 16 June 1962 that "limited nuclear capabilities, operating independently, are dangerous, expensive, prone to obsolescence and lacking in credibility as a deterrent." In particular, McNamara ridiculed the whole notion of an independent nuclear deterrent composed of "relatively weak national nuclear forces with enemy cities as their targets [as] not likely to per form even the function of deterrence". This outraged Macmillan, who did not misinterpret the true target of MacNamara's message--Britain's independent nuclear deterrent.

At the end of 1960, Defense Secretary Gates was tempted to kill it, but he passed on the problem to -he new administration: the last Eisenhower budget provided no funds for Skybolt but also no explicit cancellation. McNamara at first provided funds tc continue the program. But by August 1962, with Polaris and Minuteman confidently in service and with Skybolt continuing to escalate in cost and slip in performance, McNamara had decided to kill it. This information was very closely held. For tactical reasons the blow was to come at the budget review in December. In December of 1962, President Kennedy canceled the Skybolt missile for political and economic reasons. Commander of Air Force Systems Command, General Schriever vehemently opposed cancellation of Skybolt by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and personally authorized the successful test of the missile after its cancellation, thus embarrassing the Department of Defense.

Some of the actual text of the "Statement on Nuclear Defence Systems" issued by the two leaders in December 1962 upon the conclusion of their talks is worth reproducing, if only to show how difficult it is to interpret:

" 1 . The President and the Prime Minister reviewed the development programme for the Skybolt missile. The President explained that it was no longer expected that this very complex weapons system would be completed within the cost estimate or the time scale which were projected when the programme was begun.

"2. The President informed the Prime Minister that for this reason, and because of the availability to the US of alternative weapons systems, he had decided to cancel plans for the production of Skybolt for use by the US. Nevertheless, recognizing the importance of the Skybolt programme for the United Kingdom, and recalling that the purpose of the offer of Skybolt in 1960 had been to assist in improving and extending the effective life of the British V-bombers, the President expressed his readiness to continue the development of the missile as a joint enterprise between the US and the United Kingdom, with each country bearing equal shares of the future cost of completing development after which the United Kingdom would be able to place a production order to meet its requirements.

"3. While recognizing the value of this offer, the Prime Minister decided, after full consideration, not to avail himself of it because of doubts that had been expressed . . .

"4. As a possible alternative the President suggested that the Royal Air Force use the Hound Dog missile. The Prime Minister responded that in the light of the technical difficulties he was unable to accept this suggestion.

"5. The Prime Minister then turned to the possibility of provision of the Polaris missile to the United Kingdom by the US. After careful review, the President and the Prime Minister agreed that a decision on Polaris must be considered in the widest context both of the future defence of the Atlantic Alliance . . .

"6. The Prime Minister suggested, and the President agreed, that for the immediate future a start could be made by subscribing to NATO some part of the force already in existence. This could include allocations from the US strategic forces, from United Kingdom Bomber Command, and from tactical nuclear forces now held in Europe. Such forces would be assigned as part of a NATO nuclear force and targeted in accordance with NATO plans."

When the Skybolt program was cancelled, the Macmillan government claimed betrayal - that the United States had broken its part of the bargain. So far as the Eisenhower administration was concerned, however, there is little basis for the charge. When the news of Skybolt's cancellation broke, a terrific fuss was stirred up in Britain. What had been planned as a largely social meeting between the Prime Minister and the President at Nassau became a crisis summit meeting to resolve the matter. The cat was among the pigeons and the chickens had come home to roost. For a variety of reasons, including but not limited to its possible effect on Britain's effort to join the Common Market, State was persuaded that the British should not be allowed to buy Polaris missiles. The British ended up with Polaris. De Gaulle vetoed the British bid to enter the Common Marlet, citing Nassau as evidence that the British were tied to America and not ready to be true Europeans.

Skybolt was no minor crisis, and although most of its drama was played out behind the scenes, it was a severe testing of wills and statesmanship at a critical moment of the Cold War. Skybolt is particularly important because it offers a rare view of the Anglo-American nuclear relationship in all its complexity. From President Kennedy's perspective, American policy had brought about that which it had endeavored so mightily to prevent, at almost any price: British acquisition of a second-generation, sovereign, independent nuclear deterrent that could now rest on two pillars--the V-bomber and the Polaris ballistic missile submarine (SSBN).

The Skybolt missile was never deployed. The Hound Dog was designed originally for a short three-year life span, and was intended to be replaced by the Skybolt air-launched ballistic missile. After the Skybolt program was canceled, the Hound Dog would stay in service for fifteen years until it was replaced by newer weapons. In 1972, SAC began deploying the Short Range Attack Missile (SRAM) and began phasing out the Hound Dog. The last Hound Dog missile was removed from alert on 30 June 1975.



NEWSLETTER
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list