Nike: Bolts From The Blue
Jim Wolfmeyer (Photo F. Harms)
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Written by William Clark
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The highly advanced German jet aircraft darkening the skies towards the end of the First World War demanded a response from the US Army. It came in the form of a guided surface-to-air missile system named in honor of the Greek Goddess for victory: Nike.
This gleaming metal lady emerged as a two-stage, supersonic missile. Capable of continuous guidance to its target by means of ground-based radar and computer systems it followed the enemy pilot's every evasion.
After the war a powerful new threat had emerged in the communist Soviet Union with the capacity to attack America with long range aircraft carrying nuclear-armed bombs. If US fighter aircraft failed to halt a Soviet attack, Nike would be the last ditch defense.
As the Cold War era intensified, Nike bases mushroomed in rings around key urban and military areas. The first Nike Ajax missiles were ready by 1953 at Fort Meade, Maryland, and in total around 250 sites were constructed. America's overseas forces and allies also deployed them.
A typical site had two sections: a high-ground Integrated Fire Control (IFC) Area with tracking radar and computer systems. In the Launcher Area's strong underground missile magazines an elevator lifted the Nikes up to rails to be pushed bodily by the crew to the launcher that erected it to near-vertical firing position. The two areas were separated by a half to three and a half miles.
The stylishly slender, two-stage Nike Ajax was powered by a liquid-fueled motor. It rose from its launcher with a 3 second thrust from a jettisonable solid-fuel rocket booster.
At Speeds of over 1,600-mph the Ajax could hit targets within a range of 25 miles at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet. It packed a punch of three individual, high-explosive, fragmentation-type warheads at the front, center and rear.
Due to Ajax's limitations, and to counter the increasingly sophisticated enemy technology of supersonic aircraft and cruise missiles, an advanced model "The Hercules" was developed. It could carry a nuclear warhead to destroy the attacking plane and its possible nuclear bomb. Speeding to its target at 2,700mph, it had a range of about 90 miles at an altitude of 150,000 feet.
The Nike Hercules used safer solid fuel and could also use conventional explosives. The radar and guidance systems were more sophisticated and could be used against ground targets like troop concentrations. A very useful aspect of this new system was it could be mounted on and fired from a truck-drawn trailer/launcher unit.
How the missile system worked
Alerted by the Air Force's nationwide defense network the guys in the IFC area used their rotating radar to identify incoming aircraft as friend or foe. An enemy would then be electronically locked on to by the Target Tracking Radar (TTR) while the Missile Tracking Radar (MTR) locked on to the Nike missile at the Launcher Area.
The target and missile tracking radars were linked to the guidance computer within the Battery Control Trailer at the IFC Area and busily compared relative positions of target and missile. The analog computer calculated the intercept course and steering instructions were sent by the MTR until the missile was close enough for the warhead to be exploded by a "burst command".
The Soviets began to change tactics by developing Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and Nike Ajax was phased out by 1964 in the US. The Hercules was gradually reduced from the mid 1960s till 1974 and the administrator, the Army Air Defense Command, was shut down soon after. A few remained active in Southern Florida and Alaska for a time and with US forces in Europe and the Pacific. They are still in use by Italy, Greece, Turkey and South Korea.
These missiles had a stylish quality that made them beautiful to watch, and film footage of their preparation and launch is well worth seeing. After all, they were named for a Greek Goddess!
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