Air Defense History: Project Nike (UPDATED W/VIDEO)

I talked about Short Range Air Defense (SHORAD) before. Now let’s look at the high altitude air defense. After WWII the Army found that guns, even those aimed by radar just weren’t fast enough to shoot down jets. Compounding the problem was the USSR’s nuclear forces.

The Ruskies armed their bombers with nuclear weapons. Just like in WWII, they targeted cities and military bases. We did the same too of course. How would we defense against jet bombers? At first big anti-aircraft guns were positioned in cities. But that was a stop gap solution. In 1945, Bell Labs had proposed a line of sight missile to down jets.

evolution of Nike

evolution of Nike

Bell’s proposal would have to deal with bombers flying at 500 mph (800 km/h) or more at altitudes of up to 60,000 ft (20,000 m). At these speeds, even a supersonic rocket is no longer fast enough to be simply aimed at the target. The missile must “lead” the target to ensure the target is hit before the missile runs out of fuel. This means that the missile and target cannot be tracked by a single radar, increasing the complexity of the system. One part was well developed. By this point, the US had considerable experience with lead-calculating analog computers, starting with the British Kerrison Predictor and a series of increasingly capable U.S. designs.

The result was Project Nike. Named for the Greek Goddess of Victory, a rocket was developed to replace the big guns.
Each Nike site was huge:

For Nike, three radars were used. The acquisition radar searched for a target to be handed over to the Target Tracking Radar (TTR) for tracking. The Missile Tracking Radar (MTR) tracked the missile by way of a transponder, as the missile’s radar signature alone was not sufficient. The MTR also commanded the missile by way of pulse-position modulation, the pulses were received, decoded and then amplified back for the MTR to track. Once the tracking radars were locked the system was able to work automatically following launch, barring any unexpected occurrences. The computer compared the two radars’ directions, along with information on the speeds and distances, to calculate the intercept point and steer the missile. The entirety of this system was provided by the Bell System’s electronics firm, Western Electric.
The missile contained an unusual three part payload, with explosive fragmentation charges at three points down the length of the missile to help ensure a lethal hit. The missile’s limited range was seen by critics as a serious flaw, because it often meant that the missile had to be sited very close to the area it was protecting.

The Army won the right to develop and field the missile. Other nations have their air force run all surface to air missiles. But the Army and the Army National Guard ran the program throughout the 1950’s and 60’s. Since the missiles had a limited range, Nike batteries were located near major cities and at US military bases. Each site was huge. Computers of that era took up a room. An Ipod has more computing power than all the radars in each Nike battery. Power was supplied by huge generators in case of power failure.

Diesel Tugboat engine as power backup

Diesel Tugboat engine as power backup

The first model of Nike missile was the Nike Ajax. The missile was first deployed at Fort Meade, Maryland in December, 1953, by 1962 another 240 launch sites were built. These replaced regular AAA units by 1957. With a max speed of Mach 2.25 (ca. 3,000 km/h), a range of 40 km and a ceiling of 21,300 m, they far outperformed the Skysweeper AAA gun they replaced. The national guard had over 800 Skysweeper emplacements alone.

Nike Ajax

Nike Ajax



But the USSR did not take this lying down. Improvements to their bombers (and the Cold War military buildup) caused the Army to develop the Nike Hercules:

Even as Nike Ajax was being tested, work started on Nike-B, later renamed Nike Hercules (MIM-14). It improved speed, range and accuracy, and could intercept ballistic missiles. The Hercules had a range of about 100 miles (160 km), a top speed in excess of 3,000 mph (4,800 km/h) and a maximum altitude of around 100,000 ft (30 km). It had solid fuel boost and sustainer rocket motors. The boost phase was four of the Nike Ajax boosters strapped together. In the electronics, some vacuum tubes were replaced with more reliable solid-state components.

Nike Herc on its Launcher

Nike Herc on its Launcher

Nike Hercules in a Museam

Nike Hercules in a Museam

The Nike Herc sites were huge. In addition to a conventional warhead, a nuclear warhead was also fielded. By Cold War Era thinking, the soviets would send formations of 50-60 bombers to attack American targets. One nuke would put paid to that. Nike Hercules could strike targets on the ground as well. In Germany, massed Soviet tank formations would have been stopped by nuclear tipped Nike Hercs. In the states, each National Guard Nike Herc battery had a single active duty army officer who was in charge of the nuclear warheads. National Guard units were for stateside defense, they reported to an Active Army chain of command.

Here are some pics of a Nike Herc site:

The missiles were tested at Fort Bliss Texas. Training for Nike soldiers was also done at Fort Bliss. The McGregor Range was where most of the live fires took place. To this day there are old discarded Nike parts still out there. Soldiers even built a chapel out of scrap wood and missile parts. Sadly the chapel, like the missiles, is gone.

As the Cold War thawed and Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles took the place of bombers, the Nike batteries stood down. By 1975 most were history, the sites converted to other uses. Patriot replaced the system in the 1980’s, in part because Patriot is mobile. Fort Bliss transitioned to Patriot and so did the Army and our allies. Germany, Japan, Greece, and Italy were the chief foreign users of Nike Hercules. Today most examples of Project Nike are found in museums. Another lasting legacy is the family of sounding rockets developed from the missiles. Nike furthered space and atmospheric research in addition to being a weapon of war.

History Channel Blurb on Nike Hercules:

US Army film on Nike Ajax:

Nike Hercules being raised to launch position:

Nike Hercules test fire


  1. Project Nike @ Wikipedia
  2. The Last AADCP of the
    Last Operational U.S. Nike-Hercules Missile Battalion
    and Nike-Hercules ALASKA source of the Nike site pictures and the diesel engine pic.
  3. Red Canyon Range Camp: Ed’s Nike Missile Site
  4. McGregor
  5. Nike Herclues: A Greek Nike website.
  6. McGregor today: US ARMY

One Response to “Air Defense History: Project Nike (UPDATED W/VIDEO)”

  1. […] It was large, bulky and expensive, but Chicago and Long Beach shot down three Migs in Vietnam. Like Nike, there was a nuclear armed version of the missile. When the Long Beach was decommissioned in 1979, […]

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