Nike Missile Sites
What was Project Nike?
Project Nike was a U.S. Army project designed to counteract new jet aircraft, as existing systems were incapable of stopping aircraft at the speeds and altitudes at which jets operated. The system consisted of missile bases surrounding large cities, population centers, or strategic locations. These locations were called “Defense Areas,” with the rings surrounding them being called “Rings of Steel.” Each Nike missile site consisted of a launch area, an Integrated Fire Control (IFC) site, and an administrative area, the latter which was often co-located with the IFC. The launch area held the launch platforms and missile batteries, while the administrative area contained the battery headquarters, barracks, mess, recreation hall, and motor pool. The IFC sites consisted of radar towers to track launched missiles and incoming targets, and also contained the computer systems necessary to lead missiles to their targets. Generally, these locations were geographically close to one another, separated by at least 1,000 yards but no more than a mile. This was because the IFC and launch site had to be within line-of-sight, so the radar stations could track missiles as they were launched.
The purpose of Project Nike was to stop incoming enemy bombers (and later, ballistic missiles) before they could attack Defense Areas. This was done by flying a missile into a bomber formation and detonating, with the hope of disabling or destroying as many bombers as possible. The Rings of Steel allowed multiple Nike batteries to bear on a single target, increasing defense in depth (where staggered defenses are used to eliminate a single point of failure in a system), and also granted 360° protection of defense areas, so attacks can be repelled from any direction. This system of defense replaced 896 radar-guided anti-aircraft guns that were being run by the U.S. Army or Army National Guard.
Types of Missiles
There were two types of Nike missiles that were deployed; the Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules. The Nike Ajax, the world’s first operational surface-to-air missile (SAM), was first deployed in 1953. The Nike Ajax had an overall length of 32 feet, an operational range of 30 miles, a top speed of Mach 2.25, and a flight ceiling of 70,000 feet. The missile’s payload was high-explosive, with explosive fragmentation charges at three points down the length of the missile to help ensure a lethal hit. Because of their short range, launch sites had to be stationed close to their Defense Area. Each launch area had 1-3 magazines, each serving a group of four launch assemblies. Each magazine held 12 Ajax missiles, with missiles being brought to the surface with a 30-ton elevator for reloading launch platforms.
Even as the Nike Ajax was being tested, the Nike Hercules was being developed. This new missile system improved speed, range, and accuracy, and could intercept ballistic missiles. The Nike Hercules had an overall length of 41 feet, an operational range of 90 miles, a top speed of over Mach 3.65, and a flight ceiling of 150,000 feet. A key difference between the Ajax and Hercules was the missile’s payload. While the Ajax missiles had a high-explosive payload, the Hercules missiles were nuclear, and came in 2, 10, 20 and 30 kiloton yields (for comparison, the nuclear weapon used on Nagasaki, Japan during WWII was estimated to be 20-22 kilotons). This is the only known instance of Army National Guard units being equipped with operational nuclear weapons. Because the Nike Hercules sites contained dozens of nuclear weapons, all surrounding major population centers, the program was steeped in secrecy. The Nike Hercules was designed to operate from existing Ajax infrastructure, so while the first deployments of Hercules were on new bases, Ajax units started conversions as well. Given the larger missile size, underground magazine capacities were reduced from twelve missiles to eight. Given the larger area of protection granted by Hercules, not as many sites were needed to provide coverage of Defense Areas, so some Ajax sites were retired instead of converted.
Additional improvements to the Nike Hercules were designed and tested, such as the Nike Zeus and Nike-X, but nothing was ever deployed. Due to easing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union around 1965, the number of Nike batteries was reduced, until nearly all Nike sites in the United States were deactivated by 1974. After decommissioning, the Nike launch and IFC sites were first offered to other federal agencies, then state/local governments (including school districts), with the remainder being offered to private individuals.
Here is a Google Earth file containing all Nike missile sites in the United States: