A Brief History
On November 4, 1962, 69,000 feet above Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean a nuclear armed Nike Hercules anti-aircraft missile was detonated in the last atmospheric nuclear test by the United States. These nuclear warhead tipped missiles used to be deployed across the US, just waiting to blast the expected hordes of Soviet bombers from the sky as they swarmed over US targets.
If you were born after the Baby Boom, you probably do not remember major cities having anti-aircraft missile sites. Our local site was in Parma, Ohio (suburban Cleveland), and became a city park when the missiles were retired in the 1970’s. (Ohio had 12 sites, 3 around Cincinnati and 9 around Cleveland.) Of course, almost none of the public realized the missiles in their backyards may have been armed with nuclear warheads.
During World War II, the inadequacy of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA, or Flak guns) led to research into developing, at first, un-guided, and then guided, anti-aircraft missiles. Guidance by visual means, television, radar and heat signature were researched by both the Allies and the Axis powers. Effective ground to air guided missiles eluded researchers during that war (as did effective air-to-air guided missiles).
The first Nike family of ground to air guided missiles was first deployed in 1953, with the missile and the target tracked by separate radars. Normally, the missile was expected to be launched high above the target, and then guided to the target on the downward flight. These missiles were deployed at US military bases, missile sites and at major strategically important US cities. The next iteration in the Nike line was the Nike Ajax, but military strategists deemed regular high explosive warheads ineffective against formations of planes, and decided nuclear warheads were needed to knock out massed bomber formations.
Thus the Nike Hercules was developed, and it could be armed with a conventional (600 lb) high explosive warhead or a nuclear warhead with a yield of 2 to 40 kilotons. The Hercules was also developed to fly farther, higher and faster than its predecessors in order to counter the higher speeds of modern bombers and greater stand-off range of their weapons. The 41 foot long Nike Hercules weighed over 10,000 lbs and could soar to 150,000 feet, higher than any expected threat. Given solid fuel rocket motors, the Hercules was ready to be launched at short notice and required less maintenance than liquid fueled missiles. Hercules was developed by about 1958, and began to replace the Ajax models. The 75 mile range of the Hercules meant fewer missile sites were needed, so some of the 265 sites were retired. The last Ajax batteries were retired or replaced by 1964. Of course, these Nike missiles were also deployed to US military installations around the world, and some were sold to allies.
By 1966 US Nike sites were reduced to 112, and by 1969 only 82 sites were operational. The threat of bombers had been replaced by ICBM’s, and the anit-aircraft missiles were becoming unnecessary. In 1974, active sites remained only in Florida and Alaska, and by 1979 these were also closed. Hercules remained in service in Europe until 1988, when replaced by the Patriot missile system. Over 25,000 Nike missiles had been built, costing from $55,000 to $3 million apiece.
Question for students (and subscribers): Did you know the US had these nuclear armed missiles in America’s backyards? Was this idea good, or a Cold War waste of money? We welcome your thoughts in the comments section below this article. (Note: Wikipedia has an article, List of Nike Missile Sites if you are interested to find out if a site was near you.)
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For more information, please see…
Kaplan, Fred. The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War. Simon & Schuster, 2020.