SMDC History: NIKE II study demonstrates intercept feasibility

By Sharon Watkins Lang (SMDC/ARSTRAT Command Historian)March 27, 2017

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

In October 2017, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command will celebrate its 60th anniversary marking the Oct. 3, 1957, creation of its predecessor, the Redstone Anti-Missile Missile System Office, or RAMMSO.

RAMMSO was the first Army organization established with a ballistic missile defense and space mission. Before there could be a RAMMSO, however, there was the Nike II study. Begun in March 1955, the Nike II study would determine the feasibility of a defense against strategic ballistic missiles.

In the early years of the Cold War, the U.S. Army developed missile systems to address the evolving threat -- bombers flew at altitudes beyond the range of traditional antiaircraft weapons. The first operational, guided, surface-to-air missile system, the Nike-Ajax was designed to counter the threat to the U.S. mainland posed by Soviet bombers.

By 1958, there would be almost 200 Nike-Ajax batteries deployed around urban, military and industrial locations. The next generation missile system, the Nike-Hercules increased the capabilities of the Nike system. While the Nike-Ajax was limited to one target at a time, the Nike-Hercules was designed for a potential massed air attack. The objective was to intercept aircraft flying at 1,000 miles per hour, at an altitude of 60,000 feet, and a horizontal range of 500 yards.

The Nike Hercules had both a greater range than its predecessor and also carried a nuclear warhead three times greater than the Ajax. Following three years of development and testing, the first Ajax batteries would be converted to Nike-Hercules in 1958.

Even as preparations were on-going for the Nike-Hercules, the Army Ordnance Corps began to look further into the future. In March 1955, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency contracted with Bell Laboratories and Douglas Aircraft Company (now McDonnell-Douglas) to conduct an 18-month study on an "anti-aircraft defense system for the Zone of the Interior to defense against future target threats in the 1960-1970 time period."

While the primary emphasis was initially placed on super air breathing targets, the task included "ballistic targets and the desire to defense against the extremely difficult Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)." Under these parameters, the target spectrum ranged from "the maximum speed of the air-breathing ramjet out to ICBM speed of 24,000 feet/second, and at altitudes far beyond 100,000 feet." By June 1955, however, intelligence reports predicted that the Soviet Union would soon have an ICBM capability. Thus with increased concerns over the ICBM threat, the NIKE II feasibility study placed primary emphasis upon this area.

The $1.65 million contract was designed to cover not only the system study, but also "exploratory hardware development" in radar and missile technology areas "defined as critical to successful development of a NIKE II System." An additional $1.8 million was added to the contract in March 1956 to expedite this exploratory development.

In their first report, released in December 1955, the Bell Labs team provided some initial recommendations, such as interchangeable nose cones to address the wide scope of the threat, and identified some key concerns. As summed up by historian Donald Baucom in his Origins of SDI, 1944-1983:

"These included such things as determining the optimum point in the ICBM's flight for interception and detailing the role required of an effective ABM command and control system that had to include the difficult task of distinguishing decoys from warheads."

One critical factor in the development of an effective anti-missile system then was "a long-range, high-data-rate acquisition radar." Could any communications network and computer system make the necessary calculations in such a timely manner as to guide a defensive missile to intercept an ICBM traveling at 24,000 feet per second? Scientists generally considered this feat impossible and compared the proposed endeavor as "tantamount to hitting a bullet with a bullet."

To address this specific issue, the Bell Labs team modified an analog simulation room used to test the NIKE-Ajax and -Hercules for ICBM intercepts. They then conducted 50,000 intercept simulations incorporating varying threat parameters and intercept altitudes. These analog computer simulations "convincingly demonstrated that ICBMs could be accurately intercepted when the guidance was properly scaled to the high-speed target."

In October 1956, the results of the NIKE II were reported to the Pentagon. The report, which included many specific technical recommendations, decided in favor of the development of an anti-missile system and projected that the first operational capability could be obtained in late 1962.

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