Visualize growing up in Idaho to become a University of Idaho ‘Vandal’, then receiving a 2nd Lieutenant’s commission from their Air Force ROTC program with high hopes of soaring even higher as a fighter pilot. Then imagine the disappointment when rejected for pilot training due to the damage you caused your own unprotected ears during repeated target practice with a pistol.
You’re required to pick another Air Force career. That career is testing and developing intercontinental ballistic missiles with a megaton potential to destroy the world. Only special individuals with special intelligence and talent are chosen to handle the awesome responsibility of avoiding nuclear war through strength.
This is one of their stories.
Richard ‘Dick’ Rene spent his first three years in the military at the Air Force Weapons Lab at Kirtland AFB near Albuquerque.
“They were happy for me to go since my degree was in engineering. We worked on the Minuteman Missile Program,” Rene said. “I wrote the military characteristics for the missile from stockpile all the way to launch, including the defensive physiognomies of the missile.”
After three years in Albuquerque, newly promoted 1st Lt. Rene was sent to Colorado for 18 months to snow ski at Arapaho Basin. “Well, that’s not exactly all I was required to do,” Dick said with a smile. “The Air Force sent me to attend the University of Colorado to earn a Master’s Degree in Engineering. I suppose Arapaho Basin served as an incentive for the whole family.”
Next stop: Livermore Labs in Livermore, California. “I served as liaison officer to Livermore Labs. The Department of Energy utilized two labs, one in Livermore and one in Los Alamos. We developed the physics package for the Minuteman Missile. As the warhead neared final approval we had to complete the project. The Air Force is required to ‘buy off’ on the project, including Department of Energy Scientists. I chaired one of the groups as a newly promoted Captain. In that capacity we improved on the cone-shaped nuclear RV (reentry vehicle). On the Minuteman II the RV was held in place by a flange, not a very impressive design. We redesigned the holding mechanism by utilizing a hardened foam so the warhead could move just a bit, that way there’s not too much stress on reentry.”
Dick added, “I’d like to tell your readers about the safety aspects of our nuclear missiles. There are numerous safety gadgets used, one being the missile system has to recognize a long acceleration, in other words, a successful launch, before the warhead is armed. And the missile has to obtain a certain altitude before the warhead can be armed. I know terrorism is a problem, but if a terrorist did manage to enter a launch silo, which is high unlikely, they could destroy the missile but would be unable to detonate the warhead. Even a Russian missile hitting the silo would not detonate the nuclear device; some radiation would escape, but a nuclear explosion would not occur. In addition, missile silos are five miles apart and underground command centers are designed to take a direct hit.”
In 1971 Dick reported to Norton AFB in California, near San Bernardino for work on the Advanced Ballistic Reentry Program.
“Our purpose was development of the technology to allow our missiles to penetrate the Soviet ABM (anti-ballistic missile) system,” Rene said. “People don’t realize this, but in the 70’s the Soviets had an ABM system but we did not. We used penetration aids like chaff and electronic jamming devices, plus we had to work on our heat shields so the warheads could survive ABM nuke explosions. The Minuteman II ended up with a tape made of phenolic resin and carbon fibers wrapped around the warhead, sort of a space age version of duct tape, so to speak.”
Britain created a hardened heat shield with American assistance. “One thing I enjoyed about my job was TDY (temporary duty) assignments to London twice a year,” Dick said. “We interfaced with UK and met with their scientists to exchange data. It was very interesting.” Note: UK’s nuclear missiles are only stationed on submarines.
Next project: Los Angeles Air Force Station field testing underground nuclear explosions. “No,” Dick made very clear. “We didn’t detonate them in Los Angeles. I went to Las Vegas about once a month for the tests way, way out in the desert. They would dig a tunnel into the side of a mountain thousands of feet long, place a nuclear device at the end of the tunnel, then seal the tunnel with blast doors. The design of the doors allowed them to seal off the blast after the radiation goes by. It’s measured in nanoseconds, 10th to the 9th instead of 10th to the 6th; that is about one thousandth of a micro-second.” Dick Rene was the Project Manager.
Note to readers: If the terminology is overwhelming, you’re not alone. I had to ask repeated questions, correct spelling, and what-the-heck-is-that queries all afternoon.
To continue: “You see, a nuclear blast is slow, in milliseconds, whereas gamma and x-rays are nanoseconds. Comparatively speaking, the blast is a stick-shift four cylinder Chevy versus a gamma ray Lamborghini. It’s detonated remotely; people are 20 to 30 miles away. Las Vegas felt the detonations and they were 100 miles away. The nukes we detonated were not full blown warheads, only one or two kilotons, instead of 100s of kilotons. By comparison, the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII were about 25 kilotons.”
When asked about radiation contamination in both cities, Dick replied, “Immediate radiation sickness for days to weeks. Years went by before the radiation dissipated, so long term illness was a factor. They really didn’t understand the long term affects back then.”
Now a Major, Dick Rene reported to the Command and Staff School in Montgomery, Alabama. “Well, of all things, I ran into a fraternity brother, a fellow ‘Vandal’ from Idaho who joined the Navy. Scotty served three tours in Vietnam as a fighter pilot. Quite honestly, as the wife or kids could verify, Scotty and I partied a bit too much in Montgomery, but it sure was fun.”
After Alabama came the Pentagon. “I worked as a program monitor, providing justification for programs to Congress. There was a lot of interest in Congress at the time because we were developing counter measures against the Soviet ABM system. I accompanied the generals to Congressional briefings many times; in fact, they usually wanted me to answer the tough questions. Near the end of my tour I briefed one committee myself. Senator and former Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater sat on the committee. One time he asked me a question; I said, ‘I’ll take that for the record, Senator,’ then he smiled and replied, “Now you’re getting smart, Major.”
After attending a six month DOD Defense Management Course to train as a program manager for R&D (research and development) programs, Dick Rene, now a Lt. Col., reported back to Norton AFB to work on the new Peacekeeper ballistic missile program. As system engineer, Dick kept track of all missile requirements and performance capabilities, as well as briefing the General in charge of the project. “We called it the MX missile system. It was the system that broke the Soviet’s back. It could carry 10 warheads and was accurate enough to knock out a silo with one burst. I ended up as the program manager, plus received a promotion to full Colonel.”
The MX program was the first fully successful Department of Defense project. Dick recalled, “Our first 17 R&D tests were totally successful, number 18 had a guidance problem, but 19 and 20 were successful. I believe that to be one heck of an accomplishment in ballistic missile development.”
When he was asked to return to the Pentagon with ‘a good chance’ of obtaining the star of a Brigadier General, Dick recalls his decision: “There wasn’t a guarantee I’d see that star so I decided retirement was the best option.”
Colonel Dick Rene retired from the Air Force in 1987.
Future civilian employment included opening an office for Titan Missile System in Denver and launching missiles for the Xontech Company.
His final thoughts: “The Cold War was essentially a costly technology race between America and the Soviet Union. We won the race, and won the Cold War. God forbid the world sees a nuclear war. I know the massive power to be unleashed; there would not be anything left for the human race. A nuclear winter would block out the sun for at least a year.”
“Iran is more dangerous to Europe than us, at least for now. If Iran is allowed to continue, their ballistic missiles will eventually evolve with enough range to hit America. I hear talk about suitcase bombs, well, it could be a reality, but they would be used to create panic more so than destruction. Radiation would be confined to the size of a football field, but again, panic is the hazard. And Armageddon? Well, it’s scary when people are radical enough to send kids with suicide vests or vehicles to blow up innocent people, including themselves. That takes a really sick mind.”
“Russia and America are still the big cheeses with big nukes, but China is coming on strong. As for me, I’ve enjoyed my career and I miss it. I still regret not being a fighter pilot, but in truth not being a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War most likely saved my life.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.