Project NIKE: Earliest US Air Defence Program - Cold War DOCUMENTARY
Fortress America is an expression that often gets used during the Cold War, referring to the tools and methods used to defend the United States and Canada from a direct attack. The threat of nuclear attack, at first by bomber and then later by ICBM, led to the creation of a variety of both early warning systems as well as defensive weapons systems. One of these tools was a series of nuclear-tipped, anti-aircraft missile sites protecting key cities, facilities and installations across the United States. I’m your host David and today we are going to look at the US Army’s Project NIKE, the last line of nuclear defense for almost two decades. This is The Cold War.
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The beginning of human flight in 1903 is rightfully a momentous event in human history, but, true to form, it did not take very long for aircraft to be used as a weapon of war. The 1911 Italo-Turkish War is often recognized as the first use of heavier-than-air aircraft in combat, although lighter-than-air craft, balloons, had been used for far longer. But as with any new combat technology, it took very little time for countermeasures to be introduced. The Franco-Prussian War saw Krupp deploy a one-pound gun mounted on a cart that was to be used to shoot down French observation balloons. As airplane technology evolved
through the first half of the 20th Century, so did defensive technology. Faster planes capable of higher altitudes necessitated the design of bigger and more powerful antiaircraft guns. By the end of the Second World War, antiaircraft guns like the US 120mm Gun MK1 could fire a 120mm shell shell to an altitude of 60,000 feet and these defensive weapons began to be deployed at sites across North America during the early Cold War period, designed to guard potential targets from attack by Soviet aircraft, specifically the Tupolev Tu-4 Bull, a Soviet copy of the American B-29. But, the birth of the jet age was proving a tremendous challenge
for conventional anti aircraft systems. Even with automatic ammunition loaders, powered traversal, and search and fire-control radar systems, jet aircraft were proving able to outfly even the most sophisticated antiaircraft technologies, which were, up until that time, all based on gunpowder-powered projectiles; you know, bullets and shells. This is also a relevant time to point out that studies from the Second World War seemed to indicate that antiaircraft systems were likely only about ten percent effective. Ninety percent of the time, the bomber would get through. The birth of the atomic age then posed a massive problem. If only a single bomber got through, it would mean a tremendous loss of life and destruction. Now, it took the Soviet Union until 1953 to first fly a jet-powered strategic bomber capable of develivering a nuclear payload, but the United States military had begun to consider what would be needed to stop this combination several years earlier. As early as 1945 the US Army’s Ordnance Corps had requested Bell Telephone
Laboratories to investigate options for a guided missile antiaircraft system. Bell Labs might seem like a strange choice if you only thought of it as a telephone company, but at the time they were one of the worlds premier scientific research facilities and specifically had extensive wartime experience developing gun directors and radars, crucial technology for a guided missile system. The study that Bell Labs produced, "envisioned development of a 1,000-pound guided missile, 19 feet long and 16 inches in diameter, with an effective range of 20,000 yards and an effective altitude of 60,000 feet. It was to be powered with an acid-aniline, liquid fuel rocket motor and was to attain a maximum velocity of 23,000 feet per second at the end of burning. The control system
was to contain two radars - one tracking the target and the other tracking the air defense missile - and a computer for comparing the data from the radars.” This study resulted, eight years later, in the worlds first guided-missile antiaircraft defense system, the NIKE AJAX. But, before we get to that, let’s talk about how anti-aircraft defense was organized in the US military. Air defense systems had always fallen under the purview of the US
Army but naturally had very close ties to the US Army Air Force. The creation of the US Air Force as a separate branch of the military in 1947 however, created a quandry; which branch would assume control of antiaircraft defense. The USAF naturally advocated that they should assume control as it had to do with aircraft and controlling the skies. The Army however, argued that they should retain control as they were protecting ground installations, that AA guns were often used as field artillery, and that the lineage of the branch was steeped in Army tradition as well as its deep links to the Coast Guard Artillery Corps which, although severely stripped down, was still responsible for protecting coastal and naval installations.
By March of 1948, the Joint Chiefs made the decision that antiaircraft systems would remain under Army control. Army Anti-Aircraft Command, ARAACOM, was created in 1950. ARAACOM was renamed to US Army Air Defence Command or USARADCOM in 1957 and remained a Major Command until it was inactivated in 1975. This was because in 1968, the US Army created the Air Defence Artillery branch, responsible for all anti-aircraft weapons in the US Army’s inventory, not just those in the United States itself. This is a branch that continues to exist to this day Now, what did ARAACOM/ARADCOM do? Well, it was responsible for air defense in the Continental United States and was organized with regional commands. Their mission, after their creation in 1950, was to provide air defense for key military resources as well as civilian population and industrial centers in the event of an enemy air attack. They weren’t the only line of defence but were rather considered the last line. Since 1946,
the plan was that attacking bombers would be engaged by fighters from Air Defence Command, ADC, who would be guided to their targets by interconnected lines of radar stations. ARAACOM was created to provide point-defence, a last line tasked with targeting and destroying any bombers that that fighters were unable to stop before the bombers could drop their ordenance. Ok, so with that minor digression out of the way, let’s come back one of the key tools that ARAACOM was given in order to fulfill their mission. This was Project NIKE-AJAX, the worlds first deployed guided-missile antiaircraft system. Interestingly, Bell Labs deviated from their normal approach on
how to implement this project. Instead of taking a building-blocks approach and resolving any issues with each component in a linear fashion, not tackling a new component until earlier ones had been sorted, the engineering teams used a parallel development process. This meant that various teams worked the different concepts and components separately, assuming that each of the teams would be able to overcome any obstacles put in front of them and that by the end, everything would integrate together. Keep in mind, this was a complicated system, with a lot of moving parts and new technologies and components needed to be created, including both solid and liquid fuel to power the rockets, as well as guidance, homing and control systems for the radars and missiles.
In fact, one of the simplest things about NIKE was the ordnance package, because making things explode was by the 1940s, a bit of an American speciality. Bell Labs worked on NIKE through the second half of the 1940s but due to the massive budget cuts that the US military was forced to absorb in the post-war period and given how much of what was left was being directed towards Strategic Air Command, little was leftover to seriously fund NIKE. It took until 1950 and NSC-68, as well as the outbreak of the Korean War, to seriously change that. NSC-68, a 66 page top-secret policy paper issued by the National Security Council,
determined that the US military was severely lacking in the ability to defend North America let alone stop communism from spreading globally and advocated for a massive spending increase in the defense budget, including the research of new technologies and weapons. The outbreak of the Korean War that summer only reinforced NSC-68 and military budgets began to balloon. A direct beneficiary of this was Project NIKE as the Army requested Bell Labs to implement the project. The parallel design technique that had been employed proved to be quite successful. By 1951,
Bell Labs was successfully test firing, and hitting, remote-control piloted B-17s over the New Mexico desert. The overall NIKE system consisted of three radars, one for acquisition of the target, one to track the target called the TTR, the Target Tracking Radar, and one to track the missile once it had been fired, the Missile Tracking Radar or MTR. A computer compared the TTR and the MTR and would send a signal to the missile instructing it to change course as necessary to achieve a successful intercept. This was also how the missile was detonated, based on a calculation made at the ground station that the missile was at the closest point of intercept. The missile itself, designed by Douglas Aircraft, had two stages, a solid-fuel booster stage and a liquid-fuel second stage, which could propel the missile to a maximum speed of one thousand miles per hour, thats one thousand six-hundred kilometers per hour to an altitude of seventy thousand feet or twenty one kilometers, to a maximum range of twentyfive miles or fourty kilometers. The missile carried three fragmentation warheads, arranged down the body of the missile to help ensure the target aircraft was disabled or destroyed. Based on the
successes that Bell Labs was able to demonstrate, a government order was placed for 60 sets of equipment and one thousand missiles. This number would increase dramatically over the coming years But what good is a missile system if there is nobody trained to operate it? To prepare crews a guided missile department was established at the Antiaircraft School at Fort Bliss, Texas, not far from the NIKE testing grounds in New Mexico. One of the most significant challenges was the short time frame envisioned on the deployment of the system; there were dozens of NIKE systems scheduled to come online within a few short years of the order being placed in 1951 and there were thousands of men that required training not only on operation of the system but also on maintenance and repair. At the core of each NIKE battalion were 14 officers and 123 enlisted men. Eighty Nine of the enlisted were put through an eight week course on how the system operated, including emplacement, energizing of the radars, equipment alignment, missile loading and target tracking. The 14 officers and the remaining 34 enlisted were sent on different training courses, which included a 15 week maintenance and repair course.
Two of the officers were put through a thirty one week course at the Artillery School to become guided missile officers. Once all training was complete, all groups would come together to participate in a five week training program meant to integrate all teams. The first active deployment of a NIKE unit was made in December of 1953 to Fort Meade, Maryland and by December of 1954, only a year later, there were seventeen battalions deployed across the United States. By 1957, that number had reached its planned maximum of 244 NIKE batteries. Men assigned directly to NIKE units constituted around thirty five thousand personnel at any given time. This may not seem like a lot to some of you, used to a large standing army, but for comparison, keep in mind that in, for example, 1935, the entire US Army consisted of less than 119,000 troops. Thirtyfive thousand troops dedicated JUST
to domestic anti aircraft missile defense during peacetime then is a huge amount of resources. So what did a NIKE site look like? Well, they weren’t small, consisting of three different parts, each separated from each other by a minimum of one thousand yards or nine hundred and fourteen meters. The three radar systems and control computers would be positioned on Site C, usually about a six acre site. Site L, which was normally about forty acres, contained the underground missile magazines and four launchers. The third site, Site A, would contain the battery HQ, barracks, mess hall, motor pool and any recreation facilities. Often, Site A and Site C would be
adjacent while Site L could be on non-contiguous land. The placement of NIKE sites was whenever possible on land already owned by the government. However, since the purpose of NIKE was to defend targets that already existed, this luxury wasn’t always possible and land needed to be purchased. NIKE sites, once operational, remained manned and active twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year, sixty-six in a leap year. Of the four launchers on any site, one was always on fifteen minute standby, meaning they would be able to fire a missile inside of fifteen minutes.
Two others would be on thirty minute standby and the fourth would be able to fire within two hours of an alert. The batteries remained on an almost war-time footing for their length of service. Given that their mission was to be the last line of defense in preventing a nuclear strike against their country, there was deemed to be no margin for error or unreadiness and failure to pass inspections resulted in immediate retraining for all involved. OK, now for those of you who are paying attention, i mentioned in the intro that there was a nuclear armed system. NIKE-AJAX was not nuclear; it was armed with conventional munitions. But
it was realized, even during the development of AJAX, that as jet aircraft became faster, the AJAX would not be enough to ensure a kill. The range of the missile was relatively short and an attacking plane moving at speed could potentially outfly the blast radius of the AJAX. This concern was magnified by the ongoing development of standoff weapons which could be launched from a substantial distance from the target. One last concern over NIKE-AJAX was that due to the low resolution of radar systems at the time, a formation of bombers would appear as a single target on the acquisition and tracking radars and the missile would be guided to the middle of the formation where the relatively small blast would be ineffective. A solution was needed, but preferably one that DIDN’T require the development of a brand new weapon.
The answer was a modified version of the NIKE system, what became known as NIKE-HERCULES. Bell Labs had to make a choice; they could improve radar fidelity or they could expand the blast radius. In a decision that would make Vault Boy proud, the easier path was taken and it was decided to make NIKE nuclear-capable. By enlarging
the missile, a W31 atomic warhead could replace the conventional payload. The W31 would have a selectable blast yield of 2, 20, or 40 kilotons. If you couldn’t hit the target precisely, just blow up a chunk of sky where the plane, or planes, were going to be.
Now, NIKE-HERCULES came with several other advantages too, not just destruction. The radar systems it employed were upgraded to increase the acquisition range to 50 miles or 80 kilometers. The new HERCULES missiles were bigger too, 7 feet longer but 2.7 time larger in diameter. They still used a two stage rocket system, but now both were powered by solid fuel,
which made maintenance and transportation on the missiles much easier for crews. The much larger missiles could achieve a top speed of Mach 3.65 at sixty-five thousand feet and had a range of as much as one hundred miles. Crucially though, despite all of these changes, the launch systems that were used were the same, with only minor modifications needed.
This meant that the same launching system that was already built and in place could go through the requisite upgrade and then be capable of firing both HERCULES and AJAX missiles. HERCULES began active deployment as early as 1958 and over its lifetime almost four hundred HERCULES ground systems were built and perhaps as many as nine thousand missiles. By the early 1960s, the United States was being protected from enemy bombers by hundreds of nuclear-armed anti-aircraft systems. Some areas, like Chicago or New York had over twenty different NIKE sites providing air defense.
So what happened? Well, Nikita Khrushchev happened. Khrushchev placed a huge focus on the development of ICBMs rather than trying to built a large bomber fleet; Soviet Long Range Aviation gave way to Strategic Rocket Forces. As the 1960s progressed and the Soviet missile arsenal expanded, it was understood that the Soviet bomber threat was rapidly shrinking. Additionally, in the United States, military budget constraints due
to the focus on South East Asia meant funding was diverted away from domestic air defense. Although Bell Labs had begun work on an anti ballistic missile version of NIKE, dubbed NIKE ZEUS, cost and technology constraints caused Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to delay the project in 1961 and then cancel it altogether in 1963. A brand new ABM system dubbed NIKE X was explored on a limited basis but in 1967 President Johnson made the decision to proceed with SENTINAL. That spelled the end to future NIKE systems. And the future of the NIKE systems that were already in place also had a shelf-life. Even by 1965, ARADCOM and NIKE sites were being withdrawn from service. As NORAD and SAGE came
online and with interceptor aircraft stationed at forward bases like Thule in Greenland, as well as Strategic Air Command’s Airborne Alert system, point defense lost its priority and base defenses began to be withdrawn from Greenland and SAC bases across North America. By 1969, only eighty-two NIKE-HERCULES batteries remained in place, down from 134 in 1963. Into the 1970’s, as America withdrew from Vietnam, budgetary and manpower challenges presented themselves and the United States leaned harder into the concept of Second Strike capability over initial defense. The best defense is a good offense, and all of that. By 1974, almost all NIKE sites across the UNited
States had been decommissioned. Some remained active until the early 1980s, both in the United States and on several overseas deployments, such as in South Korea, but the NIKE era was done. So why is this story important to tell in an overall history of the Cold War? Well, for me, it exemplifies a tremendous part of what the Cold War was all about. NIKE and ARADCOM was a vast military organization that sat on a war footing for twenty years, yet, was never actually AT war.
And they didn’t deploy in huge numbers to overseas bases but rather, served at home in the United STates, providing domestic defense but in an unsung role. For over two decades, American cities and bases were defended from possible attack and for half of that time, those defenses involved the potential use of nuclear weapons directly above American soil. If using nuclear weapons to defend yourself from nuclear weapons doesn’t typify the Cold War, then I don’t know what does. We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode and to make sure you don't miss our future work, please make sure you are subscribed to our channel, have pressed the bell button and have setup a ring of nuclear-armed defensive systems just in case somebody else tries to attack that button. Please consider supporting us on Patreon at www.patreon.com/thecoldwar or through YouTube membership. We can be reached via email at email@example.com. This is the Cold War Channel and as we think about the Cold War,
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