The Douglas GAM-87A Skybolt was an air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) developed during the late 1950s. It was intended to provide a "safer" basing for the USAF's ICBM missile force, on its mobile bomber fleet rather than fixed missile silos. A series of test failures eventually led to its cancellation, much to the consternation of the British who had joined the program.
In 1958 several US contractors demonstrated that large ballistic missiles could be launched from strategic bombers at high altitude. Using astro navigation systems for mid-flight corrections of an inertial guidance platform, similar to that of the US Navy's SLBM systems, led to accuracy similar to that of their existing ground-based missiles.
The USAF was interested, and sent out tenders for development systems in 1959. Douglas Aircraft received the prime contract in May, and in turn subcontracted to Northrop (guidance system), Aerojet (propulsion), and General Electric (reentry vehicle). Initially being known as WS-138A, in 1960 the project was given the name GAM-87 Skybolt.
At the same time the Royal Air Force was having problems with their own ICBM missile project, the Blue Streak. Not only was the missile long overdue and overbudget, but the limited land area available on the British isles meant that it would be fairly easy for the USSR to find, and thus attack, the silos. They felt that the Skybolt would provide a much safer basing system, while at the same time allowing their V-bomber fleet to present a continued credible threat, with a long standoff range keeping them well away from the ever-increasing PVO Strany air defenses. This meant that their expensive Blue Steel II standoff missile, then under development, would not be needed. Prime Minister MacMillan met President Eisenhower and agreed to purchase 144 Skybolts for the RAF, and Blue Streak and Blue Steel were both cancelled.
The GAM-87 was ballistic missile powered by a two-stage solid-fuel rocket motor. Each B-52H was to carry four missiles, two under each wing on side-by-side pylons, while the Avro Vulcan carried one each on smaller pylons. The missile was fitted with a tailcone to reduce drag while on the pylon, which was ejected shortly after being dropped from the plane. After first stage burnout the Skybolt coasted for a while before the second stage ignited. First stage control was by movable tail fins, while the second stage was equipped with a gimballed nozzle.
By 1961 several test articles were ready for testing from USAF B-52's, with drop-tests starting in January. In England compatibility trials with mockups started on the Vulcan. Powered tests started in April 1962, but the test series was a disaster, with the first five trials ending in failure.
The first fully successful flight occurred on December 19th, 1962, but on that same day the whole program was cancelled and the production of the operational GAM-87A stopped. The US simply had no need for the missile any more, with improved silo-based missiles and SLBMs making their counterforce largely invunerable anyway.
This left the British with no credible nuclear deterrent. The program was offered to the British to continue funding, but instead they bought the Polaris SLBM, passing control of the nuclear deterrent from the RAF largely to the Royal Navy. The RAF kept a tactical nuclear capability with the WE177 which armed V Bombers and later the Panavia Tornado force.
Limited flight tests with the remaining XGAM-87A missiles continued after program cancellation. In June 1963, the XGAM-87A was redesignated as XAGM-48A.
- Length 11.66 m (38 ft 3 in)
- Span 1.68 m (5 ft 6 in)
- Diameter 89 cm (35 in)
- Weight 5000 kg (11000 lb)
- Speed 15300 km/h (9500 mph)
- Ceiling 480+ km (300+ miles)
- Range 1850 km (1150 miles)
- Propulsion Aerojet General two-stage solid-fueled rocket
- Warhead W-59 1.2 MT thermonuclear
See also: List of missiles