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Nike Missiles

The concept of the Nike Missile System was first introduced in 1945. Bell Telephone Laboratories which produced the ’Anti-Aircraft Guided Missile Report’ mapped out a command guidance system which would allow a missile to be guided to its target through ground based radar and computers. Nike Missiles were intended to thwart attacks by enemy bombers. They were also the “last ditch” line of air defense for selected geographic areas such as San Francisco and New York.

There are three types of Nike Missile; the Ajax, the Hercules, and the Zeus. The original Nike Missile, was called the Nike Ajax. It first became operational at Ft. George G. Meade, Maryland. While some Ajaxes were installed in launch sites around the United States, they were also given to European and Asian U.S. allies. It was a “two-staged, liquid-fueled missile 6.4m (21 feet) long.” They were guided by radar and could intercept aircraft flying within a range of 21 miles and at more than double the speed of sound. They were armed with highly explosive warheads “designed to bring the target down even with a near miss.”

In 1958, the Nike Hercules was introduced. It was significantly larger and began to replace the Ajax. Like it’s little brother the Ajax, it could also carry a highly explosive warhead, or it could also carry a nuclear warhead. Having a two-stage, solid propellant engine allowed it to reach speeds three times over that of sound and bring down enemy aircraft up to 150,000 high and more than 75 miles away. After the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missiles treaty with the USSR, Hercules Missile sites were disengaged in the U.S. and were eventually replaced with Patriot Missiles in Europe.

Finally came the Zeus. Like its brothers before it, it too was designed to intercept flying objects. But, the Zeus was the “first missile designed to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles.” Its short career ended in 1967.

The first purpose of the Nike Missile System was to counter parallel weaponry attempts being made by the Soviets. The fear that the Soviets could construct and maintain quite a sizable fleet of long-range bomber aircraft possibly capable of hitting the U.S. was enough motivation to put the Missile System into affect. Their second purpose was protection of Strategic Air Command buildings, and large urban and industrial areas. A Nike installation usually consisted of two separate parts. One was a radar and computer control site, usually placed high for visibility purposes. The other was a launch site, located below the control site and at least a mile away. The two parts of the site communicated through buried cable or by microwaves. Roughly, there were 250 such sites during the Cold War.

The Soviet Union military threat began to subside when the Soviets were unable to build a bomber force parallel to the U.S. Strategic Air Command. Therefore, defense of the U.S. air space started to become less and less critical. Since the Nike was originally conceived to take down threats to our air space, the possibility of its use became less prominent. None of the three types of Nikes remain in the U.S. inventory. The Nike missiles in Europe, that have not yet been replaced by Patriot Missiles, will likely remain in service well into the 21st century.

1 From “The Nike Missile System: A Concise Historical Overview”
2 Encyclopedia Britannica
3 Encyclopedia Britannica
4 Encyclopedia Britannica
5 Encyclopedia Britannica
(Research by Nikki Jennings)

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