Nike History Online

Issue 1, March 1998

Editor's Message

During the past several years, interest in the documentation and preservation of America's Cold War era military sites, has increased dramatically. This edition of Nike History Online describes the documentation to the standards of the Historic American Engineering Record of two former Nike installations located in the state of Illinois. Increased coverage of similar efforts from all across the nation is planned for future editions of this publication.

Donald E. Bender
Editor & Publisher

Preservation News

Illinois Sites Documented

Two former Nike missile installations located within the State of Illinois were recently documented to the standards of the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER). The project was initiated during 1991 when the Chicago District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signaled its intentions to declare surplus various lands belonging to several former Nike installations. Because it was likely that these sites would later be demolished, the Corps of Engineers, acting in accordance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, agreed to document "the two most intact Nike installations in Illinois".

The Cold War era air defense installations chosen for this in-depth historical documentation were Nike site C-84, located near Barrington, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago) and Nike site SL-40, situated in the vicinity of Hecker, Illinois, an element of the St. Louis, Missouri defenses.

The selection of these two particular Nike installations was significant. Site C-84 had operated only with the first-generation Nike missile, known as the Nike Ajax. The existing buildings and structures located on this installation, accordingly, illustrate the type of facilities developed for this pioneer surface-to-air missile system which employed liquid-fueled missiles, armed with conventional warheads, and used a ground-based guidance system having three integrated radar systems.

Nike site SL-40, by comparison, was designed to operate only with the far more capable, second-generation Nike missile, the Nike Hercules. Differences in the technology of the Hercules missile and its related systems necessitated changes in the design and configuration of the sites which were equipped with this more advanced missile type.

The changes made to Nike Hercules launcher areas typically included: the addition of a separate warheading building; enhancements to the standby power generating facilities; a second (inner) layer of security fencing directly surrounding the underground missile storage and ground-level launch facilities; enhanced site security features and additional sentry stations; and, a kennel for sentry dogs. The need for increased site security reflected the fact that the Hercules missile -- unlike its predecessor, the Ajax -- could be armed with either conventional (high-explosive) or nuclear warheads.

Modifications to the "control" or "IFC" (Integrated Fire Control) areas of Hercules-equipped sites typically included the following elements: standby power generating system enhancements (including larger generator buildings or the enlargement of existing buildings); additional radar towers and improved radars systems; and, new buildings housing equipment related to those radar systems.

By selecting these two distinct former Nike missile sites for documentation under the HAER, important aspects of the history of both the Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules systems were captured, illustrating the evolution of these Cold War air defense installations in response to ongoing technological developments.

Documentation of both installations was facilitated by means of an agreement with the U.S. National Park Service's Rocky Mountain Regional Office. This office had previously (during 1995) completed similar documentation of a former U.S. Air Force Minuteman ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) complex.

The standards of the Historic American Engineering Record were established in 1969 by the U.S. National Park Service, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the U.S. Library of Congress. The goal of the Historic American Engineering Record is to assist with the documentation of America's "historic engineering, industrial and transportation resources".

The HAER documentation of these two former Nike missile sites in Illinois is a good indicator of heightened interest in Cold War era military sites on behalf of the nation's historic preservation community. Many similar initiatives to document our Cold War heritage have been developed and will be reported in subsequent editions of Nike History Online.

Source: Carlson, Christina M. and Robert Lyon. Last Line of Defense: Nike Missile Sites in Illinois.Denver: National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Field Office, 1996.

Buildings & Structures

Radar Towers

Ground-based radar and guidance systems were a unique and defining feature of the Nike missile system. The Integrated Fire Control (IFC) areas of Nike missile sites contained a variety of radar antennas associated with this ground-based system. The radar units were either located atop towers or set upon concrete foundation structures.

During the early Fifties, a tower of standardized design was created to support the Missile Tracking Radar (MTR) and Target Tracking Radar at Nike Ajax sites then being constructed in many parts of the nation. The TTR/MTR tower consisted of a freestanding, concrete pylon assembled from cylindrical, reinforced concrete pipe sections. Situated atop this column was a reinforced concrete platform, square in plan view, measuring 16-feet on each side. The concrete platform/pylon supported the Target- or Missile- Tracking Radar unit.

Surrounding this concrete structure was a separate, open "skeletal" framework of steel beams, resting on its own foundation footings, which supported walkways surrounding the top of the tower and a ladder. To see a photograph of a Nike tracking radar tower, click here.

At some sites, corrugated metal panels were attached to this outer steel framework in order to minimize solar heating effects on the central concrete pylon supporting the tracking radar. Because the accuracy of the Nike system was dependent on a very precise alignment of its ground-based radar systems, any factor affecting this alignment -- such as thermal expansion of the concrete support pylon -- had to be minimized.

The tracking radar towers also featured a demountable, bipod lifting device used to hoist the radar (antenna, motor and base unit with three adjustable, folding support legs) up or down the tower for replacement or maintenance. At certain sites, these devices were left in place atop the towers when the sites were deactivated.

A clever feature of the Nike tracking radar tower design was its modularity. By varying the number of elements utilized, the same basic design could be used to create towers standing 10, 20, 30 or 40 feet tall. This standardized, modular design enabled engineers to adapt the height of the radar towers to suit the unique conditions of geography and topography at each individual Nike site.

Towers of this type can still be seen at many Nike installations across the nation. Many are intact, although at some sites the towers' steel frameworks have been removed, leaving only the central concrete column and platform.

A new tower design was subsequently designed for the Target Ranging Radar (TRR) later present at select Nike installations. This new design tower also appears to been used for the TTR and MTR at certain installations and may have been retrofitted to these sites. At other Nike installations, however, no towers were used to support the tracking radars. Instead, they were supported on foundations resting directly on the ground (often on raised earthen mounds created for this purpose).

Depending on the relative locations of the separate control and launcher areas, local topography, radar "masking" and line-of-sight considerations, both radar towers and concrete foundation structures were employed at some Nike sites in order to optimize the positioning of these all-important, ground-based guidance system components.


Quonset Air Museum

Rhode Island's Quonset Air Museum, located on the site of the now defunct Quonset Point Naval Air Station, is currently preparing a historical exhibit illustrating former Nike missile sites in Rhode Island. A scale model of the former Bristol, Rhode Island Nike installation is being developed.

For more information, contact the Quonset Air Museum: Quonset State Airport, 488 Eccleston Avenue, P.O. Box 1571, North Kingstown, RI. Telephone: (401) 294-9540. QAM Web site:


FAA Using Nike Radar

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is presently using three vintage Nike system tracking radars in tests involving non-military Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for aircraft. The tests are being conducted at the FAA's Atlantic City, New Jersey, Technical Center.

The FAA obtained the radar units from the U.S. Army and refurbished them, replacing some original components with solid-state devices. The accuracy of the Nike radar used in the tests (basically, a 40-year-old design) was described as "impressive".* Bell Telephone Laboratories in Whippany, New Jersey, were the original designers of the system.

*Source: Thomas A. Horne. GPS on the Threshold. AOPA Pilot. March, 1993. Note: Special thanks to Ronald Plante for bringing this article to the publisher's attention.


Nike Hercules and Operation "Plumbob"

Located in the desert roughly 60 miles north of Las Vegas, the Nevada Test Site (NTS) was, for decades, a primary testing ground for American nuclear weapons. During 1957, a series of 25 nuclear weapons detonations and 5 "safety tests" were conducted at the NTS in what was known as "Operation Plumbob".

The final shot in the Plumbob series, designated "Morgan", involved testing the new transistorized guidance package of the soon to be deployed Nike Hercules missile in order to determine its ability to withstand blast and radiation effects.

For purposes of comparison, both the new "solid state" guidance package, and one featuring a more conventional design (utilizing miniaturized vacuum tubes) were used in this experiment. Three pairs of guidance packages were arranged at distances of 590, 1,390 and 2,198 feet from the epicenter of the blast.

At 5 AM (Pacific Standard Time) on the morning of October 7, 1957, the nuclear device -- suspended from a tethered balloon, floating 500 feet above the desert floor -- was detonated. The flash from the detonation was described as "unusually bright", and light from the blast could be discerned by residents of Los Angeles, 200 over miles distant.

* Source: Richard L. Miller. Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing. New York: Free Press, 1986, 251-252.

Web Watch

Team Redstone Online

It would almost be an understatement to say that the U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal played a major role in the development of many significant Cold War era missile systems, including Nike. The award-winning Team Redstone Historical Information Web site, successfully captures much of that history and provides a wealth of historical information and images in a variety of multimedia formats.

Nike-related information includes a detailed four-part history of the Nike system, titled Vigilant and Invincible, by Colonel Stephen Moeller, and over 40 photographic images of Nike missiles from Ajax to Zeus.

The Web site also contains a large and growing amount multimedia information relating to other historical U.S. Army missile systems and Army Aviation. Video clips and audio features enhance the impact of this information.

The Team Redstone Historical Information Web site is one of the best military history sites on the Web and is highly recommended to anyone seeking information concerning historical U.S. Army missile systems and Army aviation.

NOTE: As this publication was being finalized, a new Web page was released by the Redstone Arsenal Historical Office. Titled "The Nike Site", this new offering contains additional Nike-related historical materials, including Mary Cagle's official monograph of the Nike Ajax missile system in PDF format. The Nike Site is accessible from the Team Redstone Historical Information home page.

Contact Us

To contact Nike History Online, send an e-mail message to Donald E. Bender, editor and publisher, at

Nike History Online is published by Donald E. Bender. Copyright 1998 by Donald E. Bender. All rights reserved. Contact the publisher for additional information: Contact Publisher

Important disclaimer: The information contained within this publication is intended for general historical and informational purposes only. The views expressed herein, unless otherwise noted, are those of the publisher alone. The publisher accepts no liability whatsoever for errors or omissions of any type, nor for any misuse of this information.

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