SMDC History: Nike-Zeus, ABMA and Dr. von Braun

By Sharon Watkins Lang, USAMSDC/ARSTRAT Command HistorianMarch 1, 2018

SMDC History: Nike-Zeus, ABMA and Dr. von Braun
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

The headquarters for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command is located in the von Braun Complex on Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. As a result, the command is often asked about the relationship between USASMDC/ARSTRAT and Dr. Wernher von Braun, noted aerospace engineer and architect of the American space program.

There is actually no direct link between the two. While both played significant roles in the history of Redstone Arsenal, von Braun was a leader in the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, or ABMA, while the Nike-Zeus program was a primary component of the Army Rocket and Guided Missile Agency, or ARGMA. Both organizations belonged to the overarching Army Ordnance and Missile Command, or AOMC.

However, as the Nike-Zeus program sought to secure test ranges, exploring facilities in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, they also began an assessment of possible target vehicles for a test program scheduled to begin in 1961.

Given constraints at various sites, the ARGMA and the AOMC ultimately focused upon flights of intermediate range ballistic missiles, or IRBMs, and simulated intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, launched from Johnston Island toward the Kwajalein Missile Range.

To that end, on March 1, 1959, the ABMA was assigned responsibility for development of ballistic targets for the Nike-Zeus test program. The Jupiter rockets, developed by von Braun and the team at ABMA to launch the nation's first satellites just a year earlier were identified as the target vehicles. The Jupiter and the modified Jupiter Agena, a simulated ICBM, would provide both an IRBM and an ICBM test format.

This relationship, however, was short lived. Soon after the Army announcement, Dr. Herbert York, director of Defense Research and Engineering, or DDRE, proposed an alternative Nike-Zeus test program.

The DDRE advocated a program which featured the Atlas ICBM launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California towards Kwajalein as a "feasible and sound method to provide targets for test of Zeus capabilities."

As the authors of the ARGMA annual historical report noted, this "target missile controversy" would ultimately "[overshadow] even the most spectacular research and development firing at White Sands Missile Range."

No decision would be made for an additional six months when in September 1959, the secretary of defense approved the ARGMA proposal. At the same time however, he withheld approval for the Jupiter Agena development program and limited the requested number of Jupiter IRBMs to 15, pending further study by the Army of the relative merit of ICBM type targets fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The program was at a standstill. Speaking to a Department of Defense policy group in June 1960, Col. John G. Zierdt, ARGMA commander observed that, "one of the prime requisites to effective management, is the absolute necessity of establishing a goal, committing the authority and resources necessary to its realization, and then having the good sense to leave that part of the effort alone."

Citing the target issue, Zierdt added, "in the management of the Nike-Zeus system development effort our inability to obtain solid decisions is, I believe, the most singularly damaging influence and is the most difficult to cope with in any current missile endeavor."

This counterproductive "Stop-Start Philosophy," as illustrated by the target program, "permeates program funding, technical decision, and in fact every phase of system activity."

In May 1960, the secretary of defense requested that the special assistant to the president for science and technology convene and ad hoc panel to study the issues and resolve the differences between the two programs. After two days of hearings, the panel decided in favor of the DDRE's Atlas proposal.

It would be one more month before a final decision would be made. In a June 29, 1960 memorandum to the secretaries of the Army, Navy and the Air Force, the secretary of defense directed that all Nike-Zeus ICBM targets would be delivered by Atlas missiles launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

At that time all plans for the development of launch facilities on Johnston Island and the production of all Jupiter missiles for use in Nike-Zeus testing were cancelled; thus ending the relationship with the ABMA.

Soon thereafter, von Braun and most of the personnel, facilities and equipment of the ABMA and the Army's space missions, transferred to NASA's newly created Marshall Space Flight Center on Redstone Arsenal.

With regard to the Nike-Zeus test program, negotiations with the Air Force began almost immediately and a proposed memorandum of agreement was forwarded to the Department of Defense on July 18, 1960.

While the Nike-Zeus team sought to move forward with the planning, in an effort to reduce the delays in the test program, the Air Force leadership opted to await a signed agreement. This document was not completed until October 1960.

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