The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project was completed in August 1998 and resulted in the book Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 edited by Stephen I. Schwartz. These project pages should be considered historical.

Mock-up Skybolt missiles mounted beneath the wings of a B-52H bomberMock-up Skybolt missiles mounted beneath the wings of a B-52H bomber

Skybolt was an effort by the Air Force to utilize B-52 bombers as ballistic missile launchers. As originally conceived, Skybolt was to have been a 39 foot (11.9 meter) , 11,000 pound (5,000 kilogram), two-stage missile with a range of some 950 nautical miles (1,759 kilometers) when dropped from a B-52 at a height of 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). At maximum range, it would reach its target in approximately 12 minutes. Other launch heights and ranges were also considered. Its mission, developed in an effort to regain ground lost with the introduction of the Navy’s new Polaris missile and submarine, was “defense suppression”: destroying air defense batteries to allow SAC bombers clear paths to Soviet targets (that the Polaris, then being deployed, could already accomplish this task did not deter the Air Force from proceeding). The Air Force originally sought to purchase 1,000 missiles to equip 22 bomber squadrons by mid-1967 for $15.3 billion (in 1996 dollars; $2.5 billion in then-year dollars), of which $3.7 billion ($600 million in then-year dollars) was for the missile’s planned 800 kiloton warhead.

At the urging of the Air Force, the DOD on February 1, 1960, authorized the Skybolt R&D program. That March, the British government, eager to bolster their independent nuclear force, expressed an interest in using the Skybolt in conjunction with their Vulcan bombers, received assurances from President Eisenhower that such a program would be developed, and formed a joint project office to work with the Air Force (in a secret quid pro quo deal agreed to during a meeting that month at Camp David, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan offered Eisenhower the use of Holy Loch, Scotland, as a strategic submarine base).

The Skybolt testing program, which included building and dropping full-size dummy missiles from both U.S. and British aircraft, failed to achieve much success and, with costs mounting, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara recommended to President John F. Kennedy on November 21, 1962, that the program be canceled. Kennedy agreed the following month, disappointing the Air Force, which had, ironically, been offered the project two years earlier as “compensation” for Kennedy’s cancellation of the troubled B-70 bomber, and straining relations with the British. Kennedy was prepared to offer Britain the data and materials from the Skybolt program in exchange for a $100 million (then-year dollars, $588 million in 1996 dollars) cash payment to cover development costs. But with Skybolt deemed a failure, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his Defense Minister Peter Thorneycroft set their sights higher and eventually convinced Kennedy (against the advice of the State Department, which was deeply concerned about the example this would set) to offer cooperation on the Polaris SLBM program. In all, Skybolt cost nearly $2.6 billion by the time it was terminated.
Credit: U.S. Air Force (courtesy Center for Defense Information)