Project NIKE: Earliest US Air Defence Program - Cold War DOCUMENTARY

Project NIKE: Earliest US Air Defence Program - Cold War DOCUMENTARY

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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 or through  YouTube membership. We can be reached via email   at This is the Cold  War Channel and as we think about the Cold War,  

please remember that history is shades  of gray and rarely black and white.

2022-11-30 23:16

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