Missile launch facility

The cupola of an underground missile silo, for a R-12 Dvina missile, at former Soviet Plokštinė missile base, Lithuania.

A missile launch facility, also known as an underground missile silo, launch facility—LF or nuclear silo, is a vertical cylindrical structure constructed underground, for the storage and launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The structures typically have the missile some distance below ground, protected by a large "blast door" on top. They are usually connected, physically and/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. In many cases they were the same ones used for civilian launches, such as Site 1 and Site 31. They were vulnerable to bomber attacks by the United States.

La Coupole

The La Coupole facility is the earliest known precursor to modern underground missile silos still in existence. It was built by the forces of Nazi Germany in northern Occupied France, between 1943 and 1944, to serve as a launch base for V-2 rockets. The facility was designed with an immense concrete dome to store a large stockpile of V-2s, warheads and fuel, and was intended to launch V-2s on an industrial scale. Dozens of missiles a day were to be fuelled, prepared and rolled just outdoors of the facility's concrete casing, launched from either of two outdoor launch pads in rapid sequence against London and southern England. A similar-purpose but less-developed facility, the Blockhaus d'Eperlecques had also been built, some 14.4 kilometers (8.9 miles) north-northwest of La Coupole, and closer to both facilities' intended targets for V-2 rocket bombardment meant for launch from both of them, towards southeastern England.

Following repeated heavy bombing by Allied forces during Operation Crossbow, the Germans were unable to complete construction of the works and the complex never entered service. The United Kingdom conducted Post war investigations, determining that it was "an assembly site for long projectiles most conveniently handled and prepared in a vertical position".[1]

United Kingdom

The first underground missile silo was built in the 1950s by the United Kingdom, to house their Blue Streak missiles. Only one test underground missile silo was built in the UK, at RAF Spadeadam. The UK cancelled the Blue Streak silo project, since the Soviets had developed missiles that could attack with little warning and insufficient time to arm Blue Streak missiles. The UK's ICBM nuclear missile launch mode was changed in 1960, to submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

U.S. Minuteman II missile being worked on, in its underground silo launch facility
U.S. Peacekeeper MX missile launches from its underground silo launch facility

United States

The German idea of an underground missile silo was adopted and developed by the United States for missile launch facilities for its intercontinental ballistic missiles. Most silos were based in Colorado, Arizona, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and other western states away from heavily populated cities. They had many defense systems to keep out intruders and other defense systems to prevent destruction (see Safeguard Program).

Atlas missiles

The Atlas missiles used four different storage and launching methods.


Launch facility (LF) configurations varied by U.S. missile systems.

Soviet Union

The former Soviet Union had missile silos in Russia and adjacent Soviet states during the Cold War, such as the Plokštinė missile base in Lithuania. The Main Centre for Missile Attack Warning, near Solnechnogorsk outside Moscow, was completed in by the Soviet Union in 1971, and remains in use by the Russian Federation.

Rapid launch underground silos

With the introduction of the Soviet UR-100 and the U.S. Titan II missile series, underground silos changed in the 1960s. Both missile series introduced the use of hypergolic propellant, which could be stored in the missiles, allowing for rapid launches. Both countries' liquid fueled missile systems were moved into underground silos. The introduction of solid fuel systems, in the later 1960s, made the silo moving and launching even easier.

The underground missile silo has remained the primary missile basing system and launch facility for land-based missiles since the 1960s. The increased accuracy of inertial guidance systems has rendered them somewhat more vulnerable than they were in the 1960s. The U.S. spent considerable effort and funds in the 1970s and 1980s designing a replacement, but none of the new and complex system designs were ever produced.

The United States built many missile silos in the Midwest, away from populated areas. Many were built in Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. Today they are still used, although many have been decommissioned and hazardous materials removed. Today they are popular houses and sites of urban exploration.

Mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles

The People's Republic of China, the former Soviet Union and current Russian Federation possess mobile ICBMs. The United States of America had plans to develop mobile ICBMs but these projects were canceled at the end of the Cold War.

They include the:

Present day

A Soviet MRMB base, photographed during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The inability of ground based launch complexes like this one to move makes them susceptible to discovery and long term monitoring by airborne and/or space-based surveillance systems, resulting in a push from some nuclear capable nations to place a greater number of their weapons on more mobile platforms, such as ballistic missile submarines or transporter erector launchers.
Decommissioned missile silos

The increase of decommissioned missile silos has led governments to sell some of them to private individuals. Some buyers convert them into unique homes, ultimate safe rooms, or for other purposes.

In 2000 William Leonard Pickard and a partner were convicted, in the largest lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) manufacturing case in history, of conspiracy to manufacture large quantities of LSD in a decommissioned SM-65 Atlas missile silo near Wamego, Kansas.[4]

See also


  1. Sanders, Terence R. B. (1945). "Wizernes". Investigation of the "Heavy" Crossbow Installations in Northern France. Report by the Sanders Mission to the Chairman of the Crossbow Committee. III. Technical details.
  2. Ed Magnuson; Neil MacNeil (December 20, 1982). "Dense Pack Gets Blasted" (web). Time (magazine). Retrieved December 27, 2008.
  3. Chosun.com (14 Dec. 2009)
  4. cjonline.com: "Silo LSD" (2 Sept. 2001)
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