Additional Links

Back to the 1950s

The Pershing Missile System and the Cold War


In 1949 the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization virtually guaranteed the continuing presence of the United State Army in Europe as a bulwark against what was perceived as a real possibility of military expansion by the Soviet Union. From that time on, the US Army provided soldiers and their weapons to strengthen a war-ravaged Europe and to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to economic and social recovery without the threat of communism.

At the end of WWII, the United State Army went on a search for the German scientists behind Nazi Germany’s ambitious rocket program. American planners recognized the potential of weapons like the V-2, which had been launched from continental Europe against Allied targets. “Operation Paperclip” netted some 130 former German scientists and engineers, along with enough V-2 parts to construct some 80 complete V-2 rockets.

These specialists along with 500 US personnel were emplaced at Ft. Bliss, Texas and later moved to Huntsville Alabama, in an effort to shape America’s first missile program. The missile to be developed was to carry a nuclear warhead, in light of the Soviet Union’s newly-developed nuclear capabilities.

The result of their efforts was the Redstone missile. Developed in the early 50’s, Redstone was finally deployed to US Army units in June of 1958.

The original Pershing missile was conceived in 1957 by the Advanced Ballistic Missile Agency. That agency’s intent was to replace the aging Redstone missile. The Redstone was a major technological advancement for its era, but was large, cumbersome and not especially mobile. It also needed special fuel handling techniques for its liquid propelled rocket motors. The ABMA wanted a design which was smaller than the Redstone but with greater range and increased reliability.

The Pershing “land train” became the integral part of the first Pershing battalion activated in March 1963, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The first Pershing battalion was the 2nd Bn,44th Field Artillery, commanded by Lt. Col. Patrick W. Powers. Later, the battalion was redesignated the 1st Bn 41st FA, and later redesignated 4th Bn 41st FA . This battalion was then assigned to 7th Army in Germany, and headquartered in Schwaebisch Gmuend, Germany. The 4th Bn 41st FA was followed in the summer of 1964 by the 1st Battalion 81st Field Artillery, originally garrisoned in the little town of Wackernheim, a few clicks outside of Mainz, and then moved to Neu Ulm in 1968.

The third battalion to deploy to Europe with the Pershing system was the 3rd Bn 84th FA. in May of 1965 to Neckarsulm, Germany. All three battalions were assigned to the 56th Field Artillery Group in the command structure.

In 1965 Pershing units assumed an additional role in support of the nuclear deterrence mission of NATO. The three units were given the mission of Quick Reaction Alert which required a portion of each unit to maintain the highest level of combat readiness and be prepared to fulfill its wartime mission in a short time. Because of the increased requirements of this mission, the Army began an upgrade of Pershing I. At the same time, the Army authorized an increase in the number of launchers in each battalion from four to 36.

In September of 1970, the 56th Field Artillery Group became the 56th Field Artillery Brigade. The new brigade commanded the 1st Bn 41st FA, 1st Bn 81st FA, and 3rd Bn 84th FA Pershing firing battalions. The 2nd Bn 4th Infantry became part of the 56th FA Bde. The 2nd Bn, 4th Inf provided the infantry defensive support the units required. The 56th FA Brigade was supported by many other units that provided everything from Medical to Logisitcal support.

1974 saw the beginning development of a new terminal guidance system for the Pershing missile in what was to become designated Pershing II. In 1977 five Pershing II missiles were successfully fired at White Sands Missile Range.

NATO asked the United States to deploy intermediate range missiles to Europe in 1978 to counter the deployment of Soviet intermediate range, mobile SS 20 nuclear missiles, and the first Pershing II missiles arrived in the Brigade area in November 1983. By 1985 all three battalions of the 56th Brigade had achieved operational status.

In January of 1986, the 56th FA Brigade became the 56th Field Artillery Command (Pershing). The revised command structure authorized a signal battalion, the 38th Signal Battalion, to meet the communication requirements of the new command. The old 55th Maintenance Battalion became the 55th Support Battalion to reflect the additional logistic responsibilities provided by the unit. The aviation detachment became the 193rd Aviation Company, under the new command structure.

On the date of the redesignation from 56th FA Brigade to 56th FACOM, the 1st Bn 41st was redesignated 2nd Bn 9th FA, the 1st Bn 81 FA was redesignated 1st Bn 9th FA, and the 3rd Bn 84th FA was redesignated 4th Bn 9th FA. The 3rd Bn 9th FA already existed at Ft. Sill Oklahoma, so now all 4 Pershing battalions were constituted with a single artillery regiment.


With the signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement (INF) on December 8, 1987, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were committed to eliminate all ground launched ballistic and cruise missile systems with a range capability between 500 and 5500 kilometers. The 56th FACOM began the compliance required by the treaty. The 56th FACOM had accomplished its mission of maintaining its peacetime combat readiness and supported the overall objectives of the 1987 treaty. With its objectives accomplished, the Command continued to maintain its readiness level until removed from tactical mission status in Oct of 1990. The Command still had a mission of retrograding its missiles and hosting Soviet On Site Inspection Teams. The treaty also gave both sides the right to carry out verification measures to monitor compliance with the treaty.

During July 1988 the 56th FACOM hosted its first Soviet Inspection Team visit. The nine man Soviet team visited the Mutlangen Missile Storage Area located in Schwaebisch Gmuend, Germany in July of 1988. The team verified the number of treaty items. Other such inspections were conducted in Heilbronn and Neu Ulm during July and August 1988.

In September of 1988, Pershing missiles began to be shipped back to the U.S. By May of 1991, all Pershing II missiles had been eliminated, destroyed by static-firing and then all of the ground support equipment destroyed.


The Pershing 1 missile system’s mobility was dependent on the M 474 tracked vehicle, built on the chassis of an M 113 armored personnel carrier. The missile, without the warhead, was carried on an erector launcher mounted on the M 474, while another M 474 carrier trailed with the warhead. A programmer test station/power supply station was mounted on the third M 474. Finally, a tropospheric scatter radio terminal followed in the fourth M 474. The original Pershing system deployed in a tracked train arrangement.

In 1967, Martin Marietta Aerospace began develop what was to be designated Pershing 1A.. The most noticeable change was the introduction of wheeled vehicles to replace the M 474 tracked vehicle. The wheeled erector launcher was faster in the missile erection procedure and more reliable than its tracked predecessor.The new Pershing 1A also incorporated solid-state electronics which improved its self test and diagnostic capability. The majority of changes took place in the ground support equipment.

The Pershing 1 and Pershing 1A missiles were two-stage, solid propellant missiles measuring 35 ft in length, with an externally-aimed internal guidance system. It was designed to deliver nuclear warheads from 185 to 750 km (110-740 miles)

Like the P1A, Pershing II was a solid propellant missile with ground support equipment mounted on wheeled vehicles rather than the tracked vehicles of P1. The PII missile was designed to be launched quickly. The Pershing II missile, with the normal configuration of first and second stage propulsion sections and the reentry vehicle, weighed more than 16,000 pounds. It was approximately the same size as it’s predecessor the P1A., but its range was increase to 1,800 kilometers, almost 1120 miles. PII’s inertial guidance system steered the missile. During the reentry phase of the missiles’ flight, a radar/correlation guidance system steered the re entry vehicle to its target with exceptional accuracy.


The Pershing Missile was deployed to Europe to provide the largest effective weapon ever employed by the United States Army. The missiles were originally deployed in ground-mobile units, but their status was upgraded to that of Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) status, where not only were ground-mobile unit ready to move and launch, but each battalion manned a Combat Alert Status (CAS) site, with missiles ready to fire literally within minutes of receiving order.

During periods of quiet, command of the Pershings was under the United States Army Europe. During periods of high tension or actual war, command and control of the Pershing unit shifted directly to the NATO chain of command. In all cases the 56th Brigade/56th FACOM reported to the highest military authority in Europe.

In total, the Pershing Missile System and the various commands that supported it stood ready to defend Europe and NATO for 28 years, an exceptional amount of time for any ballistic missile system on either side of the Iron Curtain. Two generations of soldiers served the Pershing battalions, whose mission as defender of western Europe never changed. Generally speaking, the citizens of the United States never knew very much about the Pershings: like the ICBMs waiting in siloes in the heartland of the western hemisphere, Pershing was tacitly acknowledged, but never publicized.

Pershing did receive some un-sought publicity during the period when the Pershing II system was deployed, in the form of a protest movement against what was perceived as an unnecessary build-up of nuclear forces in the west. In fact, the deployment of the new and incredibly accurate PIIs were a major factor in bring the Soviet Union to the bargaining table.

During the entire deployment of the Pershing system, some 50 casualties were suffered due to training accidents and troop movements of the Army during exercises.

Courtesy of Rob Martin — Pershing Professionals Historian Pro Tem

Pershing Missile crewmen from B Battery, 1st Bn 41st FA participating in the frequent training required by NATO.

NCO's at Ft Sill OK practicing missile assembly and testing in the early 1970s.

“Road march” of P1A Erector-Launchers in Mutlangen Germany, near 1st Bn, 41st FA's missile storage area.

Training and readiness standards were very high in Pershing. The “red hat” inspector is evaluating the performance of a P1 crew.

A P1 launcher with a sentinel. Pershing was out in all weather conditions to remain ready

Sign outside the entrance to Wiley Barracks in Neu-Ulm Germany, home of the 1st Bn, 81st FA. Shown on the sign is the working relationship with P1 units of the German Air Force.

For additional information click here.

Back to Top

Note: Links to external sites will open in new browser windows and are not endorsed by The Cold War Museum.

The Cold War Museum

P.O. Box 861526

(7142 Lineweaver Road)

Vint Hill, VA 20187

(540) 341-2008