The Nike Missile System
A Concise Historical Overview

Donald E. Bender

Updated 16 July 1999

Origins Of The Nike System

Nike, named for the mythical Greek goddess of victory, was the name given to a program which ultimately produced the world's first successful, widely-deployed, guided surface-to-air missile system. Planning for Nike was begun during the last months of the Second World War when the U.S. Army realized that conventional anti-aircraft artillery would not be able to provide an adequate defense against the fast, high-flying and maneuverable jet aircraft which were being introduced into service, particularly by the Germans.

During 1945, Bell Telephone Laboratories produced the "AAGM (Anti Aircraft Guided Missile) Report" in which the concept of the Nike system were first outlined. The Report envisioned a two-stage, supersonic missile which could be guided to its target by means of ground-based radar and computer systems. This type of system is known as a "command" guidance system. The main advantage over conventional anti-aircraft artillery was that the Nike missile could be continuously guided to intercept an aircraft, in spite of any evasive actions taken by its pilot. By contrast, the projectiles fired by conventional anti-aircraft artillery (such as 90mm and 120mm guns) followed a predetermined, ballistic trajectory which could not be altered after firing.

The Nike Mission

During the first decade of the Cold War, the Soviet Union began to develop a series of long-range bomber aircraft, capable of reaching targets within the continental United States. The potential threat posed by such aircraft became much more serious when, in 1949, the Russians exploded their first atomic bomb.

The perception that the Soviet Union might be capable of constructing a sizable fleet of long-range, nuclear-armed bomber aircraft capable of reaching the continental United States provided motivation to rapidly develop and deploy the Nike system to defend major U.S. population centers and other vital targets. The outbreak of hostilities in Korea, provided a further impetus to this deployment.

The mission of Nike within the continental U.S was to act as a "last ditch" line of air defense for selected areas. The Nike system would have been utilized in the event that the Air Force's long-range fighter-interceptor aircraft had failed to destroy any attacking bombers at a greater distance from their intended targets.

Nike Deployment

Within the continental United States, Nike missile sites were constructed in defensive "rings" surrounding major urban and industrial areas. Additional Nike sites protected key Strategic Air Command bases and other sensitive installations, such as the nuclear facilities at Hanford, Washington. Sites were located on government-owned property where this was available (for example, on military bases). However, much real estate needed to be acquired in order to construct sufficient bases to provide an adequate defense. This was a sometimes difficult and contentious process. Often, the federal government had to go to court in order to obtain the property needed for such sites.

The exact number of Nike sites constructed within a particular "defense area" varied depending upon many factors. The New York Defense Area -- one of the largest in the nation -- was defended at one time by nearly twenty individual Nike installations. Due to the relatively short range of the original Nike missile, the Nike "Ajax", many bases were located relatively close to the center of the areas they protected. Frequently, they were located within heavily populated areas.

Nike Ajax missiles first became operational at Fort Meade, Maryland, during December, 1953. Dozens of Nike sites were subsequently constructed at locations all across the continental United States during the mid fifties and early sixties. Roughly 250 sites were constructed during this period. Nike missiles were also deployed overseas with U.S. forces in Europe and Asia, by the armed forces of many NATO nations (Germany, France, Denmark, Italy, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Greece and Turkey), and by U.S. allies in Asia (Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan).

A "Typical" Nike Site

A "typical" Nike air defense site consisted of two separate parcels of land. One area was known as the Integrated Fire Control (IFC) Area. This site contained the Nike system's ground-based radar and computer systems designed to detect and track hostile aircraft, and to guide the missiles to their targets.

The second parcel of land was known as the Launcher Area. At the launcher area, Nike missiles were stored horizontally within heavily constructed underground missile "magazines". A large, missile elevator brought the Nikes to the surface of the site where they would be pushed (manually) by crewmen, across twin steel rails to one of four satellite launchers. The missile was then attached to its launcher and erected to a near-vertical position for firing. The near-vertical firing position ensured that the missile's booster rocket (lower stage) would not crash directly back onto the missile site, but, instead, would land within a predetermined "booster impact area".

The control and launcher areas were separated by a distance of 1,000 to 6,000 yards (roughly 0.5- to 3.5-miles) and were often located within different townships. Technical limitations of the guidance system required the two facilities to be separated by a minimum of 3,000 feet. Whenever possible, control areas were constructed on high ground in order to gain superior radar coverage of the area. Control areas were generally located between the area being defended and the launcher area containing the missiles.

Nike "Ajax": The First Nike Missile

The first successful test firing of a Nike missile occurred during 1951. This first Nike missile was later given the name Nike "Ajax". Nike Ajax was a slender, two-stage guided missile powered by a liquid-fueled motor utilizing a combination of inhibited red fuming nitric acid (IRFNA), unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine (UDMH) and JP-4 jet petroleum. The Ajax was blasted off of its launcher by means of a jettisonable solid fuel rocket booster which fired for about 3 seconds, accelerating the missile with a power of 25 times the force of gravity.

The Ajax missile was capable of maximum speeds of over 1,600-mph and could reach targets at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet. Its range was only about 25 miles, which was too short to make it a truly effective air defense weapon in the eyes of its many detractors. Its supporters countered that the new missile was markedly superior to conventional antiaircraft artillery, and that it was, significantly, the only air defense missile actually deployed and operational at that time.

Nike Ajax was armed with three individual high-explosive, fragmentation-type warheads located at the front, center and rear of the missile body. Although consideration was given to arming the Ajax with a nuclear (atomic) warhead, this project was canceled in favor of developing a totally new, much-improved Nike missile. Even as the first Nike Ajax missiles were being deployed across the nation, work on its successor, first known as "Nike-B" and later as Nike "Hercules" had already begun.

The Nike "Hercules" Missile

Work on a successor to the first Nike missile, the Nike "Ajax", was initiated well before the first Ajax missiles were deployed at sites across the nation. Two primary considerations drove the development of the this second-generation Nike missile. The first involved the need to field a missile with improved capabilities to defend against a new generation of faster and smaller targets, including supersonic aircraft and tactical ballistic missiles. The second was the desire to arm this new missile with a powerful atomic warhead.

Originally designated as "Nike B", the Nike "Hercules" -- as this missile was later known -- was a far more capable missile than its predecessor (the Nike Ajax) in nearly every way. With a maximum range of about 90 miles, maximum speeds of over 3,200 mph, and the ability to reach targets at altitudes in excess of 100,000 feet, the Nike Hercules was a very potent air defense weapon. The Hercules missile lacked most of the complex, miniaturized vacuum tubes utilized by the Ajax, and employed solid rocket fuel in its "sustainer" motor which made it easier and safer to manage than the Ajax which employed highly caustic liquid fuel components.

Unlike the Ajax, the Hercules was designed from the outset to carry a nuclear warhead. Designated "W-31" the Hercules nuclear warhead was available in three different yields: low (2-Kilotons); medium (20-Kt.) and high (30-Kt.). By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, near the end of the Second World War had a yield of approximately 12 Kilotons.

Armed with its nuclear warhead a single Nike Hercules missile was capable of destroying a closely spaced formation of several attacking aircraft. This warhead enabled the Hercules to destroy not only attacking aircraft, but also any nuclear weapons they carried, preventing them from being detonated. Some of the first Hercules missiles deployed in the United States were initially equipped with the "W-7" nuclear warhead.

The Hercules could also be equipped with a powerful, high-explosive, fragmentation-type warhead designated "T-45". The warhead provided a useful alternative to the W-31 (particularly for use against a single aircraft and for low altitude use in proximity to populated areas) and was deployed at many overseas sites. Additional warhead designs, including "cluster" type warheads containing numerous submunitions, were developed although not deployed operationally on the Nike Hercules missile.

More sophisticated radar and guidance systems were also part of the Hercules "package". These made the Hercules system more accurate and effective at longer ranges. During the early sixties, an "improved" version of the Hercules system, utilizing ABAR (Alternate Battery Acquisition Radar) or HIPAR (High Power Acquisition Radar) was deployed. The improved radar capabilities and other advanced electronic features of the Improved Hercules system made it more effective against small supersonic targets including aircraft, aircraft launched "stand-off" missiles, and tactical ballistic missiles.

An relatively unknown fact is that the Hercules missile could also be used in a surface-to-surface mode. In this role, Hercules would have been used to deliver "tactical" nuclear warheads to destroy concentrations of enemy troops and armored vehicles, or bridges, dams and other significant targets from bases and field deployments located primarily within Western Europe. This surface capability might also have proven useful in other areas where the Hercules missile was deployed including South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey.

Maximum range of the Hercules missile in the surface-to-surface mode was slightly over 110 miles, and was limited by the effective transmission range of the Missile Tracking Radar (MTR).

Although deployed at permanent sites within the continental United States, and at many overseas locations, mobile Nike Hercules batteries increased the flexibility and usefulness of this system, permitting the powerful capabilities of this versatile missile system to be extended wherever this could prove useful. Trucks and trailers were used to transport Nike Hercules system components to the desired field locations. In this mode, a single missile was mounted upon a truck-drawn trailer/launcher unit which also served as a firing platform.

Guidance & Control

Unlike some modern missile systems, Nike was guided entirely from the ground, from firing to warhead detonation. The electronic "eyes" (radar) and "brain" (computer) of the Nike system were located on the ground, within the Intergrated Fire Control Area.

At the IFC area, hostile aircraft were first identified by means of an acquisition radar (AR). This radar was manned 24 hours per day, scanning the skies for indications of any hostile aircraft. "Friendly" aircraft were automatically identified by means of electronic signals generated by IFF ("Identification Friend or Foe") or SIF ("Selective Identification Feature") equipment.

In practice, this target information would normally have been received from Air Force long range radar sites, by means of the Air Force's SAGE (Semi Automatic Ground Environment) system and other sources including Army "Missile Master" and related facilities, in order to provide an advanced warning for the missile batteries.

Having acquired and positively identified a hostile aircraft, a second radar, the Target Tracking Radar (TTR) would be aimed at and electronically "locked onto" it. This radar would then follow the selected aircraft's every move in spite of any evasive action taken by its pilot. A third radar, the Missile Tracking Radar (MTR) was then aimed at and electronically locked onto an individual Nike missile located at the nearby Launcher Area.

Both the TTR and MTR were linked to an "intercept computer" located at the IFC Area. This analog computer continuously compared the relative positions of both the targeted aircraft and the missile during its flight and determined the course the missile would have to fly in order to reach its target. Steering commands were computed and sent from the ground to the missile during its flight, via the Missile Tracking Radar. At the "moment of closest approach" the missile's warhead would be detonated by a computer generated "burst command" sent from the ground via the MTR.

For surface-to-surface shots, the coordinates of the target were dialed into the computer and the height of burst was set. At the precise moment calculated by the computer, the warhead would be command detonated via a signal sent via the MTR. Alternately (and, presumably as a back-up system) the warhead could be exploded via "contact fusing" when striking the selected target or target area.

End Of The Nike Era

Although Nike was created in response to Russian efforts to design and deploy long-range bomber aircraft during the early years of the Cold War, Russian military strategy soon changed. Fearing that their manned aircraft would be too vulnerable to attack by supersonic American interceptor aircraft armed with rockets and missiles, the Russians decided to focus their attention on developing ICBMs -- Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles -- against which there existed no effective defense. As a result, the Russians never deployed a large and capable strategic bomber force comparable to the Strategic Air Command of the United States Air Force.

The shifting nature of the Soviet threat meant that the air defense role, for which Nike was originally intended, became relatively less critical as time passed. Defense dollars were needed for other projects (including the development of American ICBMs and potential missile defenses) and to fund the rapidly growing war in Vietnam. Accordingly, beginning in the mid 1960s, the total number of operational Nike bases within the continental U.S. was steadily reduced, almost on an annual basis. During 1974, all remaining sites within the nationwide Nike air defense system were inactivated. Army Air Defense Command (ARADCOM) which administered this system was closed down shortly thereafter. One of the nation's most significant Cold War air defense programs had come to an end.

In spite of the termination of the nationwide Nike program, Nike missiles remained operational at sites in Florida and Alaska for several more years. Others remained operational with U.S. forces in Europe and the Pacific, and with the armed forces of many U.S. Allies overseas. Although no longer in the U.S. inventory, more than four decades after the first Nike missile became operational in the U.S., Nike Hercules missiles are today deployed by the armed forces of U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, and are likely to remain in service well beyond the year 2000.

Copyright 1996-2017 by Donald E. Bender. All rights reserved.

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