Air Force Bases

Nike Hercules Development History

In March 1952, due to limitations of the soon-to-be-deployed Nike Ajax system (including the inability to discern individual bombers within a densely-packed flying formation), the Bureau of Ordnance recommended a study of the feasibility of equipping Nike Ajax with a nuclear warhead. Two months later, the Chief of Ordnance asked Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) to examine the feasibility of a nuclear Nike Ajax using the current ground system. After consulting with Picatinny Arsenal and Sandia Laboratories, BTL recommended either fitting an XW-9 warhead into the Nike Ajax or building a wider missile to carry the more potent XW-7 warhead.

In August, the Chief of Ordnance approved an engineering study to investigate the latter option with the objective of fielding a weapon quickly at minimum cost. As a result of this study, in December the Deputy Chief of Plans and Research approved plans for the follow-on project.

Two months later, in February 1953, the Army asked BTL to develop detailed proposals for a Nike "B" or Hercules. A month later, Bell and Douglas Aircraft Company representatives outlined three ground guidance systems for missile designs varying in range from 25 to 50 miles. Longer range missiles would require major revisions to facilities currently being constructed for the Nike Ajax. Soon thereafter, Nike "B" received approval from the Joint Chiefs of Staff with a 1A priority.

On July 16, 1953, the Secretary of the Army formally established the Nike "B" program with the objective of obtaining a weapon that could intercept aircraft flying at 1,000 miles per hour, at an altitude of 60,000 feet, and a horizontal range of 50,000 yards.

Western Electric, BTL, and Douglas began the research and development phase and by 1955 began conducting test firings at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico. To build the new missile, the Nike Hercules design team simply took the components of the Ajax missile and multiplied by four. Four solid booster rockets were strapped together to push the missile into flight. Once the booster rockets fell away, four liquid-propellant driven engines would carry the warhead to the target. Unfortunately, this design, dependent on multiple systems, hindered reliability. Of the first 20 flights, 12 had to be terminated due to malfunctions. On September 30, 1955, tragedy struck at White Sands when a liquid-fueled engine undergoing static testing exploded with such force that the protective bunker sustained damage. This explosion killed one worker and injured five others. This incident convinced designers to consider a solid propellant engine for the sustainer missile.

Testing continued. October 31, 1956, marked the first successful Nike Hercules intercept of a drone aircraft. On March 13, 1957, the first flight test using the new solid propellant sustainer engine was conducted at White Sands.

During the following summer, a test called Operation Snodgrass conducted at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, demonstrated the ability of the missile to single out a target within a formation of aircraft. By this time, the first of several Nike Ajax sites had been converted to accept the new missile.

Meanwhile, work was well under way to improve acquisition and tracking radar capabilities that would further exploit the capabilities of the Nike Hercules. The Army pushed ahead with development of a system dubbed the "Improved Hercules" that incorporated three significant improvements. First, the Improved Hercules sites were to receive the HIPAR L-band acquisition radar to detect high-speed, non-ballistic targets. The other two improvements included improving the existing Target Tracking Radar and adding a Target Ranging Radar operating on a wide-ranging frequency band designed to foil attempts at electronic counter-measures.

The potential of the Improved Hercules was demonstrated on June 3, 1960, when a Nike Hercules missile scored a direct hit on a Corporal missile in the sky over White Sands. Beginning in June 1961, Army Air Defense Command (ARADCOM) began phasing in Improved Hercules to selected batteries.