Competition Between BOMARC and Nike Hercules Missiles
As BOMARC development showed promise, Air Force officials began to openly criticize the Army's system. The New York Times featured a representative salvo in an article headlined "Air Force Calls Army Nike Unfit To Guard Nation." This piece, dated May 21, 1956, cited an Air Staff analysis that challenged the Nike testing program and questioned the missile's ability to intercept high-speed bombers. Responding to the Air Force criticism, Defense Secretary Wilson reminded Americans in a Newsweek article that "one hard solid fact emerges above them all: no matter what the Nike is or isn't, it's the only land-based operational anti-aircraft missile that the U.S. has." From the Air Force perspective, this situation had to change.
In 1958 the Army began replacing some of its Nike Ajax batteries with the improved Nike Hercules system. The solid-fuel Hercules was a significant improvement over the Ajax. The new missile was 41 feet long, had a range of over 75 miles, could carry either a conventional or a nuclear warhead, and could engage enemy aircraft at altitudes up to 150,000 feet. By late 1958, with the Hercules being deployed around America's major cities, the debate between the Army and the Air Force over air defense intensified. In a television interview in late August, Senator Stuart Symington (D-Missouri) bemoaned the fact that the government had invested upwards of $7.5 billion in the Nike system. Shortly thereafter, an article titled "Air Force Seeks to Abolish Chicago Nike Installations" appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times. In the article, Air Force officials declared the new Nike missile inadequate. Similar articles comparing the merits of Nike Hercules unfavorably with BOMARC appeared throughout the country. Noting that these articles always seemed to appear in cities slated to receive Nike Hercules batteries, Army Air Defense Commander Lt. Gen. Charles E. Hart asked the Secretary of Defense to order the Air Force to stop what appeared to be a well organized campaign to discredit the Nike Hercules system. In addition, the Army began its own public relations campaign dubbed "Project Truth."
In November 1958, Secretary of Defense Neil H. McElroy seemingly resolved the feud by announcing the procurement and deployment of both the Nike and BOMARC systems, which he saw as complementary. However, both programs and their congressional allies realized that under such an arrangement neither side would receive the funding necessary to meet the Soviet threat. The Air Defense Command lowered its deployment goal from 40 to 31 BOMARC squadrons, but most senior Air Force officials realized this new goal was unrealistic because of rapidly unfolding events.
With the Soviet launch of Sputnik in October 1957, many in Congress questioned funding defenses against "obsolete" bombers. Military officials contributed to the congressional dilemma by successfully arguing for increased appropriations to fund U.S. ballistic missile systems as the best hedge against Soviet attack. Also, unexpectedly high defensive system operating expenses, such as the cost of AT&T (American Telephone and Telegraph) land line hookups between radars and SAGE centers, stunned many in Congress.
Consequently, in 1959 House and Senate committees began scrutinizing two missile systems that many saw as duplicative. After their respective hearings, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees came to opposite conclusions. The Senate Committee recommended cutting funds for Nike Hercules and the House Committee recommended cutting off BOMARC. Ultimately, Congress supported the Master Air Defense (MAD) Plan developed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. MAD retained both missile programs, but reduced SAGE construction and cut the number of BOMARC squadrons to 18.
Although it may have been premature to do so, in an effort to obtain favorable publicity, on September 1, 1959, the Air Defense Command declared the BOMARC squadron at McGuire Air Force base operationally ready. According to Air Defense Command historian Richard McMullen, the announcement strained the concept of operational readiness. As of that date, of the 46th Air Defense Squadron's 60 missiles, only 1 was operational. While the Air Force and Boeing engineers struggled through the fall to get a second missile operational at McGuire, efforts continued to have a second BOMARC squadron declared operational at Suffolk County, New York, by year's end.
The publicity effort failed to impress Congress. During House appropriation hearings for fiscal year (FY) 1961 held in January 1960, congressmen again bitterly attacked the Air Force program. DOD officials who spoke on behalf of the missile seemingly lacked conviction as they offered their testimony in the wake of a series of failed BOMARC B tests. Still, Air Force leadership remained committed to deploying all 18 BOMARC squadrons.
Nevertheless, this commitment was not yet firm. In an unusual move, the Air Force requested that the House hold hearings to consider revisions to the FY 61 budget. On March 24, 1960, Air Force Chief of Staff General Thomas D. White surprised many of his officers by recommending that BOMARC be deployed only to eight U.S. sites and two Canadian locations, and that SAGE improvements be canceled. White urged that the money would be better spent for ICBMs. White's recommendation stunned the Air Defense Command and prompted several congressmen to question the need for continuing any further funding for BOMARC. In the wake of the House hearings, retired Army Brig. Gen. Thomas R. Phillips wrote an article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, published on April 10, which concluded that the BOMARC program and companion SAGE had been the "most costly waste of funds in the history of the Defense Department."
However, an obituary for BOMARC would have been premature. The missile still had friends in the Senate, including Senator Henry Jackson (D-Washington). Three days after the Phillips article was published, the Air Force finally staged its first successful BOMARC B launch. Another successful test on May 17 allowed General White to approach the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with a willingness to support a limited BOMARC deployment. The Senate restored the funding to build and equip 10 sites (including 2 in Canada), and even added $75 million for 2 additional sites in the northwest. The additional sites were deleted when the conference committee met in July, but work would continue to deploy BOMARCs at the 8 U.S. sites. Some of these sites remained operational until 1972.
The apparent victor in this interservice missile program showdown was the Army's Nike Hercules. Because the Army deployed Nike Hercules ahead of BOMARC, the idea of scrapping a deployed system in favor of an untested system of questioned reliability was unacceptable to many in Congress. In addition, there is little doubt that the Army decision at this time to incorporate National Guard units into the ARADCOM infrastructure also pleased many members of Congress. By 1963, phaseout of Nike Ajax had been nearly completed and ARADCOM boasted of some 134 Nike Hercules batteries in service. However, like BOMARC, most of these batteries would be deactivated by the early 1970s.