Nike Missile System

Nike Hercules missile at White Sands Proving Ground, January 1957.  Until that time the Nike Hercules program was classified; this was one of the first Nike Hercules photos released by the U.S. Army
Nike Hercules missile at White Sands Proving Ground, January 1957. Until that time the Nike Hercules program was classified; this was one of the first Nike Hercules photos released by the U.S. Army.

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Background of the Nike Missile System

During World War II, air defense was provided by other aircraft or anti-aircraft artillery. At the end of World War II the U.S. Army began design of a new anti-aircraft defense system that would be capable of countering the newly developed jet planes. At the outset of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the immediate threat seemed to be fleets of bombers carrying nuclear weapons. The first weapon for this purpose was the Nike Ajax missile system, designed to supplement and then replace gun batteries deployed around the nation’s major urban areas and vital military installations. The Nike Ajax and later the Nike Hercules missile systems provided the Army missile component under the Army Air Defense Command (ARADCOM).

Nike Ajax

Battery of sixteen Nike Ajax missiles
Battery of sixteen Nike Ajax missiles.

On 27 November 1951, a Nike Ajax became the first guided missile to intercept and destroy an airplane in flight. Under the threat of Soviet developments, the Army rushed Nike Ajax into production and, between 1954 and 1958, deployed the missile system around key urban, military, and industrial locations, the world’s first operational surface-to-air missile system. In April 1958, production of the Nike Ajax system ended and the last missile was delivered to the Army.

In total, AT&T Western Electric, Bell Telephone Laboratories and numerous subcontractors produced 350 Nike batteries for domestic and overseas deployment, to be manned by regular and National Guard troops. Douglas Aircraft manufactured 13,714 missiles in its Santa Monica, CA plant and at the Charlotte, NC Army Ordnance Missile Plant.

One of the first cities to be protected was Los Angeles, chosen because it had a large population and Douglas Aircraft was located there. In 1954, Fort MacArthur became the HQ for the 47th Artillery Brigade that controlled a ring of Nike batteries around Los Angeles. The first site, called LA-78, was constructed on Saddle Peak in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking the beautiful Malibu Beach coastline. Nike site LA-43 was sited on the grounds of Fort MacArthur itself and fourteen others were built to provide full coverage of any approach to LA.

Nike Hercules

While the Nike Ajax system was being tested in the early 1950s, the Army decided that the missile would not be able to stop a massed Soviet bomber attack. The solution was to equip the missile with a nuclear warhead, but the Nike Ajax was underpowered for such an upgrade. In July 1953 the Army authorized development of the second generation surface-to-air missile, the Nike Hercules. Again, Western Electric was the primary contractor, Bell Telephone Laboratories provided the guidance systems and Douglas Aircraft manufactured the airframe.

In 1958, the Nike Hercules was ready to deploy to converted Nike Ajax batteries. The New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago defense areas were first on the list. The Army deployed 145 Nike Hercules batteries of which 35 were built exclusively for the Hercules and 110 were converted Nike Ajax installations.

However, the strategic landscape was changing and by the mid-1960s it was clear that massed Soviet bombers were no longer a credible threat while Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) were. The U.S. defense posture shifted to deterrence and the Nike became obsolete. Most Nike sites were closed by the end of 1974, with the exception of batteries in Alaska and Florida that stayed active until the late 1970s. The last U.S. Army Nike Hercules sites continued on duty in West Germany and South Korea until 1984.

Nike Zeus

The final member of the Nike family was the Nike Zeus, an Army program to develop a missile to defend against ICBMs. A study was initiated in 1955 to look into developing a missile capable of shooting down another missile. Funding and development, including testing at White Sands and over the Pacific, began in the late 1950s. The project became known as Nike Zeus to capitalize on the success of the Nike Ajax and Hercules.

The Nike Zeus was a three-stage, solid fuel missile carrying a nuclear warhead. Since it was almost impossible to actually hit an incoming missile, the objective of the system was to get the warhead close enough to destroy the intruder with a nuclear blast. As the system evolved its name changed to the Nike X, then to the Sentinel, and finally to the Safeguard.

Find additional photos and hi-res versions of the Nike Missile System at the Olive-Drab Military Mashup.