Nike, named for the mythical Greek goddess of victory, was the name given to a program which ultimately produced the world’s first successful, widely-deployed, guided surface-to-air missile system. Planning for Nike was begun during the last months of the Second World War when the U.S. Army realized that conventional anti-aircraft artillery would not be able to provide an adequate defense against the fast, high-flying and maneuverable jet aircraft which were being introduced into service, particularly by the Germans.
During 1945, Bell Telephone Laboratories produced the “AAGM (Anti Aircraft Guided Missile) Report” in which the concept of the Nike system were first outlined. The Report envisioned a two-stage, supersonic missile which could be guided to its target by means of ground-based radar and computer systems. This type of system is known as a “command” guidance system. The main advantage over conventional anti-aircraft artillery was that the Nike missile could be continuously guided to intercept an aircraft, in spite of any evasive actions taken by its pilot. By contrast, the projectiles fired by conventional anti-aircraft artillery (such as 90mm and 120mm guns) followed a predetermined, ballistic trajectory which could not be altered after firing.
The Nike Mission
During the first decade of the Cold War, the Soviet Union began to develop a series of long-range bomber aircraft, capable of reaching targets within the continental United States. The potential threat posed by such aircraft became much more serious when, in 1949, the Russians exploded their first atomic bomb.
The perception that the Soviet Union might be capable of constructing a sizable fleet of long-range, nuclear-armed bomber aircraft capable of reaching the continental United States provided motivation to rapidly develop and deploy the Nike system to defend major U.S. population centers and other vital targets. The outbreak of hostilities in Korea, provided a further impetus to this deployment.
The mission of Nike within the continental U.S was to act as a “last ditch” line of air defense for selected areas. The Nike system would have been utilized in the event that the Air Force’s long-range fighter-interceptor aircraft had failed to destroy any attacking bombers at a greater distance from their intended targets.
Within the continental United States, Nike missile sites were constructed in defensive “rings” surrounding major urban and industrial areas. Additional Nike sites protected key Strategic Air Command bases and other sensitive installations, such as the nuclear facilities at Hanford, Washington. Sites were located on government-owned property where this was available (for example, on military bases). However, much real estate needed to be acquired in order to construct sufficient bases to provide an adequate defense. This was a sometimes difficult and contentious process. Often, the federal government had to go to court in order to obtain the property needed for such sites.
The exact number of Nike sites constructed within a particular “defense area” varied depending upon many factors. The New York Defense Area — one of the largest in the nation — was defended at one time by nearly twenty individual Nike installations. Due to the relatively short range of the original Nike missile, the Nike “Ajax”, many bases were located relatively close to the center of the areas they protected. Frequently, they were located within heavily populated areas.
Nike Ajax missiles first became operational at Fort Meade, Maryland, during December, 1953. Dozens of Nike sites were subsequently constructed at locations all across the continental United States during the mid fifties and early sixties. Roughly 250 sites were constructed during this period. Nike missiles were also deployed overseas with U.S. forces in Europe and Asia, by the armed forces of many NATO nations (Germany, France, Denmark, Italy, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Greece and Turkey), and by U.S. allies in Asia (Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan).
End Of The Nike Era
Although Nike was created in response to Soviet efforts to design and deploy long-range bomber aircraft during the early years of the Cold War, Soviet military strategy soon changed. By the late 1950s, fearing that their manned aircraft would be too vulnerable to attack by American interceptor aircraft armed with rockets and missiles, the Soviet Union focused more of its attention on developing ICBMs or Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles against which there existed, at that time, no effective defense. The Soviet long-range strategic bomber force continued to operate throughout the Cold War. However, these forces never achieved the size or capabilities of their American counterpart, the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command or SAC.
The shifting nature of the Soviet threat meant that the air defense role, for which Nike was originally intended, became relatively less critical as time passed. Defense dollars were needed for other projects (including the development of American ICBMs and potential missile defenses) and also to fund the rapidly growing war in Vietnam. As a result, beginning in the mid 1960s, the total number of operational Nike bases within the continental U.S. was fairly steadily reduced, on an almost annual basis. All Nike Ajax sites in the continental United States were closed down by 1964. Closures of select Nike Hercules sites began during the mid 1960s.
During 1974, all remaining operational sites within the nationwide Nike air defense system were inactivated. Army Air Defense Command (ARADCOM) which administered this system was closed down shortly thereafter. The deactivation of the nationwide Nike missile system signaled the end of one of the nation’s most significant, highly visible and costly Cold War air defense programs. end.
Despite the termination of the nationwide Nike program in the United States, Nike missiles remained operational at a small number of sites in southern Florida and in Alaska for several more years. Nike missiles also remained operational with U.S. forces in Europe and the Pacific, and with the armed forces of many U.S. Allies overseas. Although no longer in the U.S. inventory, more than four decades after the first Nike missile became operational in the U.S., Nike Hercules missiles are no longer deployed by the armed forces of the US or our NATO Allies. The last known NATO allies to retire their Nike Hercules Missiles were Taiwan in 2002, Italy, Turkey and Greece in 2007.