Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Missiles, Intermediate-Range Ballistic

Longer-ranged missiles designed for use within a specific theater of war. Intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) are generally defined by their range, which is approximately 1,500–3,000 nautical miles (NM). This is compared to medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) systems of 600–1,500 NM and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) of 3,000–8,000 NM. Early IRBM systems were developed by the United States and the Soviet Union for all-weather and night-delivery nuclear capability, complementing aircraft and cruise-missile delivery systems for nuclear strikes. IRBM nuclear capability was an important component in theater planning, but these systems were also designed to be a backup for ICBM systems, which posed a greater technological development challenge in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The United States developed and deployed two IRBM systems in the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force's Thor and the U.S. Army's Jupiter. The Jupiter missiles were placed at bases in Italy and Turkey as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) force structure, and the Thor missiles were operated by the Royal Air Force from sites in the United Kingdom. The U.S. systems were quickly made obsolete by advances in ICBM forces, but they were retained for deterrence effect and as symbols of American commitment to the defense of Europe. The Soviets also developed and fielded a series of IRBM systems during the 1950s. These systems, designated SS-4 (often classified as MRBMs) and SS-5, provided an early nuclear delivery capability and remained part of the Soviet force structure into the 1980s, when they were replaced by the SS-20. The Chinese and the French also developed and deployed IRBM systems as part of their nuclear force structures.

IRBM systems played a central role in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Soviet IRBMs were placed in Cuba in 1962 in an effort to enhance the delivery capability against the United States, precipitating the most dangerous standoff of the entire Cold War. After the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba, the Americans removed their Jupiter missiles from Italy and Turkey in a publicly unacknowledged tradeoff and an expedient elimination of obsolete weapons. The Thor missiles were also removed from Britain in 1963.

The U.S. military moved away from land-based IRBMs in the 1960s, turning to submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and long-range aircraft for deep theater nuclear delivery capabilities, complemented by shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons. The Soviet military retained its IRBM capabilities throughout the Cold War because of the proximity of targets and its strategy for nuclear employment in theater operations. Soviet modernization of its IRBM force with the much more accurate and multiwarhead-capable SS-20 missiles in the late 1970s resulted in a brief arms race in Europe, as the United States responded with the deployment of Pershing II ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles to counter the potential first-strike capability of the new Soviet missile force. The U.S. deployment of new nuclear delivery systems in Europe resulted in considerable political protest and resistance, but the move produced arms control discussions with the Soviets that led to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The INF Treaty, signed in 1987, eliminated all theater nuclear delivery systems in Europe with ranges between 270 and 3,000 NM.

Jerome V. Martin


Further Reading
Nash, Philip. The Other Missiles of October: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Jupiters, 1957–1963. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.; Neufeld, Jacob. Ballistic Missiles in the United States Air Force, 1945–1960. Office of Air Force History. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.; Scott, Harriet Fast, and William F. Scott. The Armed Forces of the U.S.S.R. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2002.
 

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