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Project Nike

Project Nike was a US Army project, proposed in May 1945 by Bell Labs, to develop a line-of-sight anti-aircraft missile system. The project delivered the world's first operational anti-aircraft missile system in 1953, the Nike Ajax. A huge number of the technologies and rocket systems used to develop the Nike Ajax were re-used in a number of roles, many of which gained the "Nike" name. The missile's first-stage solid rocket booster became the basis for everything from the Nike Hercules missile to NASA's Nike Smoke rocket, used for upper-atmosphere research.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Nike Ajax
3 Nike Hercules
4 Nike Zeus
5 See also


Project Nike began in 1944 when the US military demanded a new defense system to combat the potential new jet aircraft, as existing gun-based systems proved completely incapable of dealing with the speeds and altitudes that such planes operated at. Two proposals were accepted, Bell Labs' development of the WWII German Wasserfall missile for line-of-sight interceptions became Project Nike, and a much longer ranged collision-course system was developed by General Electric as Project Thumper, eventually delivering the BOMARC missile.

Bell's proposal was more complex that the wartime Wasserfall due to the increased speeds of the targets. Unlike Wasserfall's target bombers travelling at about 175mph at 25,000ft, Nike would have to deal with bombers flying at 500mph or more at altitudes of up to 60,000ft. At these sorts of speeds even a supersonic rocket like the Wasserfall is no longer fast enough to be simply aimed directly at the target, instead the missile must "lead" the target to ensure it hits it as soon as possible, before it runs out of fuel.

As a result of these requirements, Nike used a complex system of radars and computers to calculate the proper flight path of the missile and guide it to an interception. After detection by long-range radars a target tracking radar was "locked onto" the target aircraft. The missile was tracked by another similar radar, while a radio direction finder allowed the radar to find the missile soon after launch. Once in the air the computer compared the two radar directions, along with information on the speeds and distances, to calculate the intercept point. Guidance commands were then sent to the missile via radio control. The entirety of this system was to be provided by Bell's electronics firm, Western Electric.

While all of this was more complex than the Wasserfall, the Douglas-built missile was considerably simpler. Advances in rocket design allowed the Nike design to be some 1/3rd the size of the Wasserfall, yet have even better performance. The two stage missile had a solid fuel booster stage and a liquid fuelled (IRFNA/UDMH) second stage. The missile could reach a maximum speed of 1,000mph (1,600km/h), an altitude of 70,000 ft (21 km) and had a range of 25 miles (40 km). The missile contained an unusual three part payload, with explosive fragmentation charges at three points down the length of the missile. The missile's limited range was seen by critics as a serious flaw, it often meant that the missile had to be sited very close to the area it was protecting.

After bickering between the Army and the Air Force (see the Key West Conference), all longer-range systems were turned over to the Air Force in 1948. They merged their own long-range research with Project Thumper, while the Army continued to develop Nike. In 1950 the Army formed the Army Anti-aircraft Command (ARAACOM) to operate batteries of anti-aircraft guns and missiles. ARAACOM was renamed the US Army Air Defense Command (USARADCOM) in 1957, it adopted a simpler acronym, ARADCOM, in 1961.

Nike Ajax

The first successful Nike test was in November 1951, intercepting a drone B-17. The first type, Nike Ajax (MIM-3), were deployed from 1953. The Army initially ordered 1,000 missiles and 60 sets of equipment. They were placed to protect strategic and tactical sites within the US, a last-line of defence from air attack they were positioned to protect cities as well as military installations. The missile was first deployed at Fort Meade, Maryland from December, 1953. A further 240 launch sites were built up to 1962. They replaced 896 90mm and 120mm AA artillery, operated by the National Guard or Army to protect certain key sites, leaving a handful of 75mm Skysweeper emplacements as the only remaining anti-aircraft artillery in use by the US.

Each launch site was in two parts, separated by at least 1,000 yards (914 m), one site of about six acres contained the radar systems to detect incoming targets (acquisition and target tracking) and direct the missiles (missile tracking), along with the computer systems to plot and direct the intercept. The other site, around forty acres, held underground missile magazines, four launch assemblies and included a safety zone. The site had a crew of 109 officers and men who ran the site continuously, one launcher would be on 15 minutes alert, two on 30 minutes and one on two hour alert.

Specifications (Nike Ajax)

Nike Hercules

Even as Nike Ajax was being tested work started on Nike-B, later renamed Nike Hercules (MIM-14). Intended improvements were to speed, range and accuracy, with the ability to intercept ballistic missiles. The Hercules had a range of about 100 miles (160 km), a top speed in excess of 3,000 mi/h (4,800 km/h) and a maximum altitude of around 100,000 ft (30 km). It had solid fuel boost and sustainer rocket motors. The boost phase was four of the Nike Ajax boosters strapped together. Another improvement over Ajax was the replacement of vacuum tubes with solid-state components.

The missile also had a nuclear warhead option to improve the probability of a kill, the W-31 was a variable yield system offering 3, 20 or 30 kiloton detonations. The non-nuclear option was a explosive fragmentation type, the T-45. The fire control of the Nike system was also improved with the Hercules and included a surface-to-surface mode.

The Nike Hercules was deployed from June 1958. First deployed to Chicago, 393 Hercules ground systems were manufactured. By 1960 ARADCOM had 88 Hercules batteries and 174 Ajax batteries, defending 23 zones across 30 states. Peak deployment was in 1963 with 134 Hercules batteries.

The development of ICBMs decreased the value of the Nike system, from around 1965 the system was being contracted. Thule air defence was cut in 1965 and SAC base defence in 1966, reducing the number of batteries to 112, budgetary cuts reduced that number to 87 in 1968 and 82 in 1969.

Nike Hercules was included in SALT I discussions as a ABM and following the treaty signed in 1972 and further budget cuts almost all Nike sites were deactivated by February 4, 1974.

Nike Zeus

Launch of a Nike Zeus missile

Development continued, producing Improved Nike Hercules and then Nike Zeus A and B. Zeus, with a new 400,000 lb (1.78 MN) thrust solid-fuel booster, was first test fired in August 1959 and demonstrated a top speed of 8,000 mi/h (12,875 km/h) but had certain deficiencies, it was renamed Spartan in 1967. Production of the Zeus was deferred in 1961 and phased out in 1963 in favor of a specific ABM system initially designated Nike X but later renamed Sentinel.

Some small-scale work on using Nike Zeus as an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) was carried out from 1962 until the project was cancelled in favor of Thor based systems in 1966. In the end, neither development would enter service. However, the Nike Zeus system did demonstrate a hit-to-kill capability against ballistic missiles in the early 1960s; something that many current opponents of the National Missile Defence project claim cannot be done.

See also