Technology Milestones for 1980s

Missiles, Missile Defense, Tactical Missiles, and Related Technology

January 11, 1981: The Boeing Company delivered the first USAF air-launched cruise missiles to the 416th Bombardment Wing at Griffiss Air Force Base, New York. Capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to a target 1,500 miles away, the new missiles contained a terrain-contour-matching system that allows extremely low-altitude flight to avoid detection by enemy radar. (Haulman)

May 2, 1981: An airborne laser destroyed an aerial target for the first time when the Airborne Laser Laboratory (ALL), a modified KC–135 aircraft armed with a carbon dioxide laser, shot down a drone over White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. Two years later, the ALL successfully shot down five Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, proving its utility as an antimissile system. (Haulman)

October 2, 1981: President Ronald Reagan announced that the M–X missile would be deployed initially in existing missile silos. (Haulman)

July 1, 1982: United States Air Forces in Europe activated the 501st Tactical Missile Wing at Royal Air Force Greenham Common, United Kingdom. This unit was the first of six ground-launched cruise missile wings in Europe. (Haulman)

February 3, 1983: To modernize America’s retaliatory capability, Strategic Air Command completed the retrofitting of 300 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles with new reentry systems. (Haulman)

July, 1984: The first Harpoon (AGM–84) missile was delivered to the 69th Bombardment Squadron, 42d Bombardment Wing, Loring Air Force Base, Maine. B–52s could launch the missiles to destroy enemy ships. (Haulman)

August 28, 1984: A C–5 Galaxy arrived at Florennes Air Base, Belgium, with the first shipment of support equipment for ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe. (Haulman)

August 23, 1985: Air Force Systems Command successfully conducted its first “cold launch” from an underground silo, a modified Minuteman launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The cold-launch technique ejected the missile from the silo by gas pressure, and the propellant ignited after it became airborne. This technique caused less damage to the silo and reduced the time needed for another launch. (Haulman)

June 19, 1986: All USAF Rapier surface-to-air missile units in Europe became operationally ready. (Haulman)

PeacekeeperOctober 10, 1986: The Air Force placed the LGM–118A, also called the Peacekeeper or MX missile, on alert duty. Each of these new intercontinental ballistic missiles could deliver warheads to 10 different targets. (Haulman)

December 8, 1987: The United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, agreeing to remove all intermediate-range (620–3,415 statute miles) missiles from Europe. The agreement resulted in the inactivation of six USAF tactical missile wings equipped with ground-launched cruise missiles. (Haulman)

May 5, 1987: Strategic Air Command removed the last liquid-fueled Titan II missile from alert duty at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, ending the operational life of the nation’s largest intercontinental ballistic missile and the last one with liquid fuel. (Haulman)

May 4, 1990: The AIM–120A advanced medium-range air-to-air missile passed its final flight test for use on U.S. fighters. (Haulman)

New Aircraft Technology

March 17, 1981: McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company delivered the first KC–10A Extender tanker/cargo aircraft to Strategic Air Command. Substantially larger than the KC–135 tanker/cargo aircraft, the Extender not only could carry more fuel and cargo, but also could refuel more types of aircraft, including other KC–10s. On June 21, 1982, Strategic Air Command conducted a successful aerial refueling only 750 miles from the South Pole. During this southernmost in-flight refueling, a KC–10A Extender transferred 67,400 pounds of aviation fuel to a Military Airlift Command transport that was conducting resupply operations in Antarctica. (Haulman)

KC-10A ExtenderThe primary mission of the KC–10A Extender was aerial refueling, but it also carried cargo and passengers. (Haulman)

June 18, 1981: The F–117 Nighthawk, the world’s first stealth combat aircraft, flew for the first time. Hal Farley piloted the revolutionary aircraft, which presented very little radar image, at Tonopah Test Range, Nevada. (Haulman) By 1983, the Air Force declared the system operational, and by 1986, thirty-six F-117s had been delivered, with the remaining twenty-six delivered by July 1990. (Dr. Paul G. Kaminsky) On November 10, 1988, the Air Force revealed the F–117 stealth fighter to the public for the first time. Manufactured by Lockheed, the F–117 could evade most radar detection with its radical shape and radar-absorbent surface. (Haulman)

September 15, 1981: Strategic Air Command received its first TR–1A reconnaissance aircraft. Built by Lockheed-California, this improved and enlarged version of the U–2 reconnaissance aircraft could conduct all-weather day-and-night missions at altitudes exceeding 70,000 feet. (Haulman)

September 6, 1976: A Soviet pilot landed his MiG–25 Foxbat jet fighter in Hokkaido, Japan, and asked for asylum in the United States. Japanese and U.S. officials closely examined the aircraft and on November 15, returned it, dismantled, to the Soviet Union.

November 5, 1981: The first operational EF–111A defense-suppression aircraft was delivered to the 388th Electronic Combat Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. The EF–111A would eventually replace EB–66 and EB–57 aircraft to provide worldwide support of tactical air strike forces. (Haulman)

January 8, 1986: Military Airlift Command accepted delivery of its first C–5B Galaxy, an improved version of the C–5A, at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma. On October 4, 1989, a 60th Military Airlift Wing crew landed a C–5B Galaxy in Antarctica for the first time. With a load of 72 passengers and 84 tons of cargo, including two fully assembled Bell UH–1N helicopters, the huge aircraft landed without skis at McMurdo Station. (Haulman)

August 23, 1990: The 89th Military Airlift Wing received the first of two Boeing VC–25A presidential transport aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. The VC–25A was a modified 747–200B commercial transport that replaced the VC–137C for service as Air Force One. (Haulman)


September 1, 1982: The Air Force activated Space Command, redesignated Air Force Space Command on November 15, 1985, following activation of United States Space Command—a joint organization—at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, on September 23, 1985. Between April 1 and May 1, 1983, the Air Force transferred 31 units and four installations from Strategic Air Command to Space Command, which took over missile warning and space surveillance systems. (Haulman)

September 13, 1985: The first antisatellite intercept test took place when a weapon launched from an F–15 successfully destroyed a satellite orbiting at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour approximately 290 miles above Earth. (Haulman)

June 14, 1989: On its first launch, the Martin Marietta Titan IV heavy-lift booster, nearly 20 stories tall, successfully lifted a Defense Department satellite into orbit. (Haulman)


Daniel L. Haulman, One Hundred Years of Flight: USAF Chronology of Significant Air and Space Events, 1903–2002. Air Force History and Museums Program and Air University Press, 2003.

Paul G. Kaminski, “Low Observables: the Air Force and Stealth,” in Technology and the Air Force: A Retrospective Assessment, ed. By Jacob Neufeld, George M. Watson, Jr., and David Chenoweth. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997.