Nike Missile System
During the Second World War, in 1944, the US Army began working on an anti-aircraft missile system – codenamed ‘Nike’ – to replace older gun-based anti-aircraft counter-measures which were proving to not be capable of dealing with the altitude or speed of the new jet-powered aircraft that were fast becoming a potential threat to the United States. The premise was simple, to chase a jet aircraft with a missile and detonate nearby, or collide with, the airplane to bring it down. This was actually fairly complex task to achieve as jet bomber aircraft fly high (60’000ft) and fast (500mph+), so it was not possible to just simply aim a rocket at a jet powered bomber and shoot it down, but rather more than one radar was required – a general search radar, a radar to track the airplane and one to track the missile and the missile had to be guided onto where the target was expected to be (the intercept).
Bell Laboratories put forward a missile design that could reach 1000mph speed, a height of 71’000ft and a range of about 25miles. It was formed of 3 parts – a solid rocket booster, and a liquid fuelled rocket engine and an explosive fragmentation warhead. This was known as the Nike ‘AJAX’ missile, the Army were very interested (long range missiles had passed over to the command of the US Air Force by this point) and continued to pursue the development of the missile system. The first successful test was in 1951 against a drone B17 bomber and by 1953 the Army had ordered 1000 missiles and 60 sets of equipment and were rapidly deploying the system to sites of national and strategic importance.
The batteries consisted of three main functional areas – the integrated fire control radars, the underground magazines and 3 launchpads for the missiles, and an administration area. The radars and administrative centres were often co-located and separated from the launch area by at-least 1000m. The batteries had a strength of 109 officers and men, the launchpads were kept on 15 minute, 30 minute and 2 hour readiness alert.
Even as the AJAX was being tested the Army started work on a missile with improved range, speed and ceiling height. They boosted the range to 100 miles, the speed to 3000mph and the ceiling to 160’000ft – this missile was to become the Nike ‘HERCULES’ and was intended to be effective against the new higher and faster Soviet bombers. This new class of missile started being deployed in the late 1950’s and by the mid 1960’s most of the AJAX batteries had been re-equipped by the HERCULES missile and re-staffed with units from the National Guard, rather than the Regular Army.. Some AJAX sites were also closed as the greater range of the HERCULES meant that less of them could defend a wider area. The increase in performance of the HERCULES was achieved by adding sustainer rocket motors, and basically by strapping 4 x AJAX boosters together to form the HERCULES booster engine. Other modifications included adding the option of a small yield nuclear warhead (2 to 30kiloton) to further guarantee a kill as the missile did not actually have to collide with an aircraft to destroy it, but rather a near miss could still guarantee destruction. Interestingly the Army also added the capability of surface-to-surface targeting aswell, meaning the missile could essentially be used as rocket artillery. Of particular interest is that all Nike HERCULES batteries in the United States were equipped with nuclear warheads, where as overseas it was generally a mix of high explosive and nuclear tipped. This is the only instance in the Cold War that US National Guard (essentially the same as the UK Territorial forces) were responsible for nuclear weapon.
Using a nuke to shoot down a nuke….. go big or go home?
The Army continued to work on developing faster missiles to target the new era Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) but budgetary, operational concerns and Soviet strategy (multiple ICBMS fired at once) meant that costs kept spiralling and this avenue was ultimately abandoned. The final nail in the coffin for the NIKE system was the signing of the the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement (SALT1) by the US and the USSR in 1972. This limited the numbers of missiles of each country could have and caused almost all NIKE sites in the United States to be deactiveated by 1974.
– Original Nike AJAX site – $1.2 million in 1953 (about $12million today)
- – Conversion of AJAX sit to Hercules Site – $340k in 1958 (about $3million today)
SF-88, San Francisco
There had been fortifications in the Marin Hills at Fort Barry since about 1905 when Battery Mendell was built as a coastal artillery fortification to protect the San Francisco bay. This Fort was old and obsolete but was used from the early 1940’s to the mid 1950’s for anti-aircraft guns. After the guns were removed some of the site buildings were used as barracks and admin for the temporary surface Nike Missile launchers, while the hardened underground structures were being built. The first AJAX missiles were moved to the permanent underground magazines around June 1955, and further modifications and improvements were made to the site in 1956 by adding more buildings and facilities. In 1958 work begun to convert the battery to the HERCULES configuration. The conversion work for all 5 San Francisco Nike Batteries was done by a local contractor – Williams and Burroughs Construction Company and was expected to take around 15 months. SF-88 was the first Battery to be converted, and the new missiles were installed in November 1958, with the first nuclear tipped missile being delivered in early 1959. Only minor changes occurred during the next few years, mainly to combat drainage and erosion that had become apparent around the site, but also changes to make it better and more efficient for the crew but also to enhance security. Around late 1973 the Army decide to cease all Nike operations around the San-Francisco-Travis Defence Area and issued noticed that operations at SF-88 would cease on 1st July 1974 with the official closing date of 2nd August 1974. It was proposed at the time that SF-88 should be transferred to the US National Parks Service as a ‘Historic Property’ – US Army Chief of Staff General Abrams Authorised this transfer, with the only stipulation that no explosives or classified materials be transferred. However, various items of a classified nature and equipment were stored by the Army at Fort Bliss with the view that when unclassified they would be returned to the NPS for display. Final hand over of the most complete, intact and working Nike Missile Site to the NPS occurred in late 1976 who have preserved it and opened it to the public as an educational museum, and memorial to the Nike Missileers.
Click below for a more extensive history
Videos of Launcher in action