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Following the Soviet Union’s detonation of its first thermonuclear bomb in 1953, the United States began actively developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The Titan II Missile program was a Cold War weapons system featuring fifty-four launch complexes in three states. Eighteen were in Arkansas, from which intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying nine-megaton nuclear warheads could be launched to strike targets as far as 5,500 miles away.
Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) systems were part of a three-pronged nuclear weapon strategy that included manned bombers, land-based ICBMs, and sea-launched ballistic missiles. The ICBMs needed only thirty to thirty-five minutes to reach their targets, making them capable of first strikes on enemy territory. Their powerful warheads were designed to destroy enemy capabilities with one blow. Titan II ICBMs had a range of 5,500 miles, enabling them to hit targets in China and the Soviet Union.
The Titan II program was part of the second generation of ICBMs, and missiles could be launched from within their silos in less than a minute; first generation missiles had to be raised from their silos, fueled, and then launched, which could take up to twenty minutes. Deployment of the Titan II missiles was approved by the U.S. Air Force in 1959. Three Strategic Missile Wings (SMWs), each housing two Strategic Missile Squadrons (SMSs) of nine missiles each, were established at Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville (Pulaski County), Davis-Montham Air Force Base in Arizona, and McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas.
The 308th SMW was based at Little Rock Air Force Base and included the 373rd and 374th SMSs. Sites for eighteen Titan II ICBM launch complexes were selected in Faulkner, Conway, White, Van Buren, and Cleburne counties. Construction on the first—Launch Complex 373-4 near Pangburn (White County)—began on January 3, 1961, and the complex became the first in the 308th SMW to be placed on strategic alert on May 16, 1963, ready to launch its missile at any time. Four-member crews manned each of the 308th’s eighteen launch complexes constantly once they were placed on alert.
Two of the most noteworthy disasters that occurred in the Titan II program took place in Arkansas. The first happened on August 9, 1965, when fifty-three civilian workers perished in an accidental fire while they were modifying Launch Complex 373-4. The second occurred on September 19, 1980, when an explosion destroyed the missile at Launch Complex 374-7 near Southside in Van Buren County.
On September 24, 1981, the Reagan administration announced plans to retire the Titan II program, citing concerns about safety, a need for cost efficiency, and an evolving nuclear strategy focusing on more modern and precise weapons systems. Destruction of the launch complexes required demolition of the launch ducts to a depth of some twenty-five feet, followed by excavation of soil around the silo to that depth. After being left open for six months to allow Soviet satellite confirmation of their destruction, the ducts were filled with debris, capped, covered with dirt, and seeded with grass.
The 374th SMS was formally deactivated on August 15, 1986, and its last launch complex, 374-9 near Quitman (Cleburne County), was demolished on November 19, 1986. The final day of operation of the 308th SMW was July 14, 1987, at Launch Complex 373-8 near Judsonia in White County. Captain J. Neil Couch made the final entry in the complex’s log: “For the last twenty-four years, the men and women of the 308th, 381st and 390th Strategic Missile Wings had endured the elements and boredom to stand as guardians of peace for the free world. We now close another chapter in military history as the mighty Titan; the bastion of peace; the dinosaur of ICBMs now fades away.” The 308th SMW and 373rd SMS were formally deactivated on August 18, 1987, ending more than twenty-five years of service.
Titan II ICBM Launch Complex 373-5 near Center Hill (White County), Titan II ICBM Launch Complex 374-5 at Springhill (Faulkner County), and Titan II ICBM Launch Complex 374-7 at Southside (Van Buren County), with their intact below-ground control centers and above-ground concrete pads, were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
For additional information:308th Strategic Missile Wing. http://www.308smw.com/ (accessed December 11, 2013).
Stumpf, David K. “We Can Neither Confirm Nor Deny.” In Sentinels of History: Reflections on Arkansas Properties on the National Register of Historic Places, edited by Mark K. Christ and Cathryn H. Slater. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
———. Titan II: A History of a Cold War Missile Program. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
“Titan II ICBM Launch Complex 374-7.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Mark K. Christ
Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
Last Updated 3/2/2016
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