The Army Ballistic Missile Agency and Its Special Delegations of Authority

by Michael E. Baker
Command Historian, US Army Aviation and Missile Command

The birth of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, or ABMA, like other events in history, was not an arbitrary novelty. As World War II ended, many of the top scientists of the German Army's Peenemunde Rocket Center group led by Dr. Wernher von Braun surrendered to American military forces. At that time, the Army offered employment in the United States to a select group of these ballistic missile developers. The code name "Project PAPERCLIP" was given to the secret operation of establishing these scientists and technicians in the United States to assist with rocket and missile development. By December 1945, Von Braun and over 100 Germans had been moved to Fort Bliss, Texas.

Werner Von Braun

Following World War II, disputes between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies, particularly over the Soviet takeover of East European states, led Winston Churchill to warn in 1946 that an "iron curtain" was descending through the middle of Europe. For his part, Joseph Stalin deepened the estrangement between the United States and the Soviet Union when he asserted in 1946 that World War III was an unavoidable and inevitable consequence of "capitalist imperialism" and implied that such a war might occur.

The United States, having participated in the Korean action, was now indeed aware that her World War II comrade-in-arms was no longer a comrade but still in arms. The Soviets made dramatic breakthroughs in nuclear fission, and their concentration on missiles and rocketry had become common knowledge. The US Army had also taken some steps on its own initiative. In 1950, the Army relocated the Peenemunde team under Von Braun, moving personnel and equipment from Fort Bliss to Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.

By 1955, there were indications that the Soviet Union had made significant technological gains, especially in the guided missile field. This included developmental progress in weapon systems of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (or ICBM) and intermediate-range ballistic missile (or IRBM) capabilities. Reports circulated by the media in the United States mentioned a "missile gap" between United States and the Soviets. Public opinion demanded the perfection of similar weapons in a short order.

On 8 November 1955, Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson issued a significant decision concerning this nation's long-range ballistic missile program. Wilson's orders covered the long-range ballistic missile program, which included two ICBMs and two IRBMs. All were to be afforded the highest national priority, with a qualifying stipulation that the IRBMs were not to interfere with ICBM development. The Army, in cooperation with the Navy, was to develop IRBM #2 (later named the JUPITER) to achieve an early land- and sea-based capability. To direct the program from the top level, a joint Army-Navy Ballistic Missile Committee (or January-BMC) was established, with the Secretary of the Navy serving as Chairman and the Secretary of the Army as Vice Chairman. They, in turn, reported to the Ballistic Missile Committee, which the Secretary of Defense established in his office. Secretary of the Army Wilbur Brucker and Army Chief of Staff Maxwell D. Taylor relayed the word to all army elements that the IRBM #2 program was to carry top priority in the Army.

JUPITER rocket on launch pad

Shown in front row (left to right) are<br>
            Secretary of Navy Dan Thomas, Secretary of Defense Charles E.<br>
            Wilson, and Secretary of Army Wilber Brucker. In back row are MG J.<br>
            B. Medaris, ABMA Commander; James H. Smith, Assistant Secretary of<br>
            Navy for Air; LTG James Gavin and W. E. Martin, who are in charge of<br>
            research and development operations for the Army.
Shown in front row (left to right) are
Secretary of Navy Dan Thomas, Secretary of Defense Charles E.
Wilson, and Secretary of Army Wilber Brucker. In back row are MG J.
B. Medaris, ABMA Commander; James H. Smith, Assistant Secretary of
Navy for Air; LTG James Gavin and W. E. Martin, who are in charge of
research and development operations for the Army.

Once the decision was made, reaction was quick. Major General John B. Medaris was made Commanding General designee of the to-be-formed Army Ballistic Missile Agency on 22 November 1955. Exactly one month later, the general orders were published activating ABMA, with an effective date of 1 February 1956, as a Class II activity under the Chief of Ordnance.

Major General John B. Medaris

A major factor influencing the recommendation of assigning this project to this Army agency was the availability of facilities at Redstone Arsenal. There was a complete static test building consisting of twin vertical test stands of 500,000-pound-thrust capability, a horizontal test stand, a cold calibration stand, a block-house, and related buildings that were near completion and expected to be in operation by the early part of 1956. Development shops and assembly buildings were capable of fabricating complete missiles the size of the REDSTONE missile at the rate of two per month. There were well equipped laboratories, a large computation laboratory, facilities for all types of mechanical component development, airplane design, and structural testing facilities.

Along with world-class support facilities, Redstone boasted having the highest-trained and most technologically up-to-date staff of scientists and engineers in the Free World. Besides Von Braun's rocket team, Redstone Arsenal had over 1,600 personnel who were experienced in this type of work. The educational background of these employees was indicative of the developmental possibilities centered in one spot. Nineteen employees had received their doctorates; 78 had their masters degrees; and 424 held bachelors degrees in various scientific fields.

More importantly, the decision to allow the Army at Redstone Arsenal develop the JUPITER was based on the fact that Redstone Arsenal had experience developing and fielding missile systems and had recently turned over production of the REDSTONE system to a contractor. This meant that an industrial capability would be available at the arsenal when the JUPITER reached the stage of fabrication.

redstone rocket in flight

When ABMA was established in 1956, Secretary Brucker delegated to the Commanding General of ABMA (through the Chief of Ordnance) specific powers and authorities covering nearly every legal authority in the development and procurement field which could legally be delegated. The ABMA Commanding General could deviate from established Army procurement procedures and regulations, use other Ordnance installations and activities on a priority basis, and issue instructions directly to other Army agencies to accomplish his assigned mission. In addition, he could directly contact the Secretary of the Army and Chief of Staff of the Army when deemed necessary. These delegations were to be used in those critical instances when they were necessary to prevent delay in accomplishing ABMA's priority missions-at that time, the REDSTONE and JUPITER IRBM programs.

By early 1958, the growing need for centralized control of the development of a variety of missile weapon systems of all types made it apparent that the management and development workload had grown to the point that an ordnance materiel command was necessary. For this reason, the Army Ordnance Missile Command (AOMC) was established on 31 March 1958. General Medaris became the Commanding General of that organization. ABMA was also designated as a subordinate agency of AOMC and no longer required the specially delegated powers. These were transferred to the Commanding General of AOMC for application to all Special Priority Programs assigned to the Command. The NIKE ZEUS Program had the highest Army and national priority by that time in 1958.

The Commanding General had resources and authority far above the normal field commander. In contrast, a Class Determination and Finding given to field program managers for use as authority to negotiate contracts at that time was completely limited in nature. Limitations included the length of effective life, the number of contracts that could be negotiated, and the aggregate funds that could be obligated through negotiation of contracts under the authority of that Determination and Finding. The Class Determinations and Findings made available to the ABMA Commanding General by the Secretary of the Army had none of these limitations. Under them, authority was available to negotiate contracts without dollar limitations, or limitations on the number of contracts, or time expiration limitations.

To a large extent, the frequency or infrequency of use of these specially delegated powers provided data to higher authority on these regulations that unnecessarily restricted procurement actions. As later shown by AOMC, the prompt and proper use of the "Charter of Delegations" resulted in a striking reduction in procurement lead-time. Moreover, during almost five years of experience--two at ABMA and almost three at AOMC--no serious questions were raised by higher authority as to use on a legal, operational, or policy basis.

One of the key items of the delegation of powers was the phrase "subject to the availability of funds." There were definite statutory and program limitations on funds designated for particular programs that the Commanding General could not exceed, nor could these limitations be relinquished. These programs already had been studied by the BMC and had been approved before ABMA could operate. Such line item approval itself constituted a limitation. The Joint Army-Navy Committee's approval also authorized such actions and acted as a limitation.

Higher authority maintained a close check on the special delegations and powers. For example, when such action under ABMA special regulations became necessary, the Commanding General had to wire a message to the Secretary of the Army at least 24 hours before a contemplated action could begin. Then, monthly, he had to provide the Secretary with a summary of all actions under the delegations granted to him by the Secretary. All requests were directed to the Chief of Ordnance through that establishment's Guided Missile Commodity Coordinator. The Coordinator also received information copies from ABMA of documents or letters placing requirements on or giving authorizations to field installations.

In the normal course of operations, the various regulations dealing with Army or Armed Services procurement were used by the ABMA Commanding General as limitations and as a basis for his own policy limitation on exercise of the Special Delegations. Even when deviations were necessary, the activity requiring the special assistance had to provide documentation justifying that the use of the special powers was the only recourse available. Each such request was required to be carefully scrutinized by the ABMA's General Counsel and receive his concurrence before being presented to the Commanding General for his critical review.

The Agency primarily operated within the limitations of the appropriate procurement regulations. In view of the urgent need to develop the JUPITER, it would appear that the Commanding General might have authorized his contracting officers to use letter contracts extensively as an expedient as opposed to negotiating definitive contracts. Such was not the case. Army procurement procedures discouraged the use of such means first, and was the basis of the restrictive policy on the ABMA Commanding General on the use of letter contracts. If letter contracts were used, the policy was very specific: he required justification for such action and the means by which it would be accomplished. Such contracts were to permit expenditure of funds only to 50 per cent of the total estimated amount of the definitive contract. Under normal Army procurement procedures, if an amount beyond the cited 50 per cent were necessary, review would have had to be made by and approval received from the Contracts Branch in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics. Such cases under ABMA programs required the approval of the Commanding General who used his delegation to authorize a deviation from regulation.

The Army Ordnance Corps also had instructions on placing letter contracts under normal circumstances. Contracts could not be extended, except by approval of higher authority, or amended in quantity, additional items, or additional facilities. These requirements were also used as a basis of ABMA policy requirements in this area.

When there were cost reimbursement type supply contracts to be issued, the contracting officers had to insert specific clauses in keeping with the direction on such matters contained in the regulation. These pertained to allowable costs, fixed fee, and payment, and other provisions. The contractor had to know exactly how he would be paid and what documentation and action was necessary on his part before payment would be accomplished.

Although the Commanding General of ABMA could deviate from the foregoing regulations and instructions as a normal practice, deviations were not allowed. The careful liaison and applied policy and procedural restrictions on the use of the charter of delegated authority was the key to the success of the Agency operation between 1 February 1956 and 31 March 1958. Under these internally applied controls and limitations, allowances were made for review, approval, and fabrication lead time. The special powers acted as a safety valve: the work was keyed to the critical elements of time and schedules of an accelerated IRBM program.

The first real consideration for removal of the special priority delegations came in 1960. The feeling at higher echelons seemed to be that the procedure bypassed experience and knowledge available only in Washington. General Medaris stated that the crux of the matter in exercising the delegations of authority was not at the Washington planning or decision levels, but at the field execution level.

In programs of special priority nature, General Medaris contended that a high level of competence of the field commander selected to carry forward such programs was required. The Secretary of the Army and the Army Staff could exercise selectivity in these matters. Controls placed by higher authority meant little unless such competence existed, and, in programs such as the ballistic missile development program, experience and decentralized authority were necessary. Both experience and competence had to be maintained in the field with full authority to execute the programs once they were approved and funds were provided. General Medaris noted that actually more personnel experience and knowledge continuity were maintained in the field than at higher levels because of the personnel turnover rate of the latter. Hence, the selection of a field commander was vitally important, and a competent commander should be given the power to execute his program. Despite Medaris' objection, Secretary Brucker announced that effective 30 June 1961, the special authorities previously delegated to the Chief of Ordnance with the power of re-delegation to the Commanding General of AOMC would be revoked. Secretary Brucker concluded that the special delegations had served their purpose and were no longer needed to accomplish missile programs.

However, at AOMC's request, the Secretary of the Army allowed the Commanding General of AOMC to keep certain delegations of authority. These included certain deviations from procurement procedures for the NIKE ZEUS and PERSHING missile systems; contract approval for the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, programs not to exceed funding authority furnished to the Ordnance Corps by ARPA; contract approval (other than Research, Development, Test and Engineering) of contracts and amendments not exceeding $4 million; authority to issue the highest production priority rating; and authority to issue contracts with certain limitations for programs such as PERSHING, HONEST JOHN, and military assistance programs for Marine Corps HAWK and NIKE HERCULES.

nike zeus being launched

Whether the system was a result of the special delegations or whether the Commanding General was responsible for developing the programming system, the two produced an IRBM well within the critical time element. They also helped pioneer the nation's early space effort through several notable achievements such as:

(1) placing four earth satellites into orbit;
(2) launching the Free World's first lunar probe and first solar satellite;
(3) launching three primates into space, two of which were recovered alive;
(4) initiating the effort on a 1.5-million-pound- thrust booster being designed for a lunar exploration vehicle; and
(5) beginning the work on the launch vehicle which would carry the first men into space.

Thus, the ingredients of commander competence, unified single program review at all levels, delegated authority to execute the program, and a system to facilitate the execution, all appeared equally important.

Editor's note: This paper was written by Michael E. Baker, Command Historian of the US Army Aviation and Missile Command's Historical Office. It was presented to the 1996 US Army Historians' Conference in Alexandria, Virginia.

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