Missile launch facility

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The cupola of an underground R-12U launching facility in Plokštinė missile base, Lithuania.
A crew works on a Minuteman II in its launch facility.
A Peacekeeper MX launches from its launch facility.

A launch facility (LF), also known as a missile silo, is an underground vertical cylindrical structure for the storage and launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The structures typically have the missile some distance below grade, protected by a large "blast door" on top. They are usually connected, either physically or electronically, to a missile launch control center.


Until the 1960s ICBMs had been launched from surface bases. The Soviet Union used completely above-ground launchers similar to those found at a spaceport - and in many cases the very ones used for civilian launches, such as Site 1 and Site 31 - which made them vulnerable to United States bomber attack. The missile silo was first suggested in the 1950s in the United Kingdom as a suitable housing for Blue Streak missiles. Only one test missile silo was built in the UK at RAF Spadeadam and with the cancellation of the Blue Streak project as the Soviets had missiles which could attack these facilities with little warning, thus less time to arm the missiles. UK ICBM nuclear missile capability was transferred in 1960 to submarines; however the idea of the underground rocket bunker was adopted by the United States.

The U.S. Atlas missile used four basing schemes.

  • The first were vertical, above ground launchers at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
  • The second was stored horizontally in a warehouse or shed-like structure with a retractable roof at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.
  • The third was somewhat better protected, stored horizontally in a concrete building known as a "coffin", then raised to the vertical shortly before launch. These rather poorly protected designs were a consequence of the cryogenic liquid fuels used, which required the missiles to be stored unfueled and then be fueled immediately prior to launch.
  • The fourth version of the Atlas ICBM (the Atlas F) was stored vertically in underground silos. The Atlas was fueled in the silo and then had to be raised to the surface for launch—it could not be launched from within the silo. The Titan I missile used a similar silo basing scheme to the Atlas F.

Things changed with the introduction of the Soviet UR-100 and the U.S. Titan II missile series. Both used liquid fuels that could be stored in the missiles, thereby allowing for rapid launch. Both systems were then moved to the silo system. The introduction of solid fuel systems in the later 1960s made this easier.

The silo has remained the primary basing system for land-based missiles since that time. The increased accuracy of inertial guidance systems has rendered them somewhat more vulnerable than they were in the 1960s. The US spent considerable effort in the 1970s and 1980s designing a replacement, but none of the complex systems were ever produced. China, the Soviet Union, and the US all developed mobile ICBMs:

  • DF-31 (CSS-9): a Chinese road mobile ICBM (China also two older mobile IRBMs)
  • Mobile Protective Shelters (MPS) plan, in which 200 Peacekeeper missiles would be shuttled around between 4,600 soft shelters.
  • Midgetman missile
  • One version of Topol-M

The United States Air Force built many missile silos in the Midwest, notably in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado. Most of these silos are now decommissioned, and the government of the United States has insured that most of the radioactive material has been transported to designated areas. Old silos are also known to be popular exploration sites among urban explorers.


  • China also has silo-based weapons, but is now concentrating development on expanding its submarine and road-capable mobile weapons especially in underground tunnel networks.[1]
  • Russia has downsized their arsenal to a handful of mobile and silo-based weapons and Delta IV submarines.
  • Much of the US arsenal has been placed on submarines as submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
  • Iran announced that they have built a system of missile silos to protect their missiles from air attack.

The increase in decommissioned missile silos has led governments to sell them to individuals, who then convert them into unique abodes. In the US William Leonard Pickard was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture large quantities of LSD in a decommissioned Atlas missile silo in Kansas.[2]


Launch facility (LF) configuration varied by missile system. Titan II (deactivated) ICBMs were in a one launch control center (LCC) with one LF configuration (1 × 1). Titan missiles (both I and II) were located near their command and control operations personnel; access to the missile was through tunnels connecting the launch control center and launch facility.

The LGM-30 series Minuteman I, II, III, and Peacekeeper ICBM configurations consist of one LCC that controls ten LFs (1 × 10). Five LCCs and their fifty associated LFs make up a squadron. Three squadrons make up a wing. Measures were taken such that if any one LCC was disabled, a separate LCC within the squadron would take control of its ten ICBMs.

The LGM-30 LFs and LCCs would be separated by several miles, connected only electronically. This distance ensures that a nuclear attack could only disable a very small number of ICBMs, leaving the rest capable of being launched immediately.

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