Air Force Bases

Nike Ajax Missile Program Acceleration

In October 1950, Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson named K.T. Keller of Chrysler Corporation to the newly established position as the DOD'S Director of Guided Missiles. Keller reviewed the progress of all antiaircraft missile programs in development and quickly concluded that the Army's Nike program was furthest along. In view of the ongoing Korean War, Keller recommended accelerating the program to build 1,000 production models by December 31, 1952, with a production capacity of 1,000 missiles per month thereafter.

In January 1951, Secretary Wilson approved Keller's recommendations despite the need for additional testing of the system. Testing continued, and on November 27, 1951, a Nike missile succeeded in destroying a drone QB-17 bomber flying over White Sands.

In April 1952, the Army impressed visiting VIPs in a demonstration of the system's viability. Yet, the Army Ordnance Department already understood that "Nike I" had limitations in discerning targets within closely packed aircraft formations. However, if the warhead could be made more lethal, the problem would not matter. During the following month, the Chief of Ordnance asked Bell Telephone Laboratories to investigate the feasibility of placing a nuclear warhead on the missile.

After consulting with Sandia Laboratories and Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, Bell returned with two options: (1) place an XW-9 "gun-type" warhead on the current missile, dubbed "Nike Ajax," or (2) design a wider missile with a greater range to carry the XW-7 warhead. The Army selected the second option with the condition that the follow-on missile could be deployed using the same ground infrastructure being designed for the Nike Ajax missile. In December 1952, the Army approved a development plan for the follow-on missile that would eventually be known as "Nike Hercules." Consequently, development of the warhead for Nike Hercules commenced at Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque and at Los Alamos. Eventually they produced the W-31, a warhead with variable nuclear yields. The low-yield setting produced the explosive equivalent of 2 kilotons of TNT, the higher yield produced an explosion 20 times more powerful. In March 1953, this program received a 1A priority designation from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

While the Army received the go-ahead to develop a follow-on missile, Nike Ajax production models were undergoing evaluation at White Sands. With consistent testing successes, the Army began training its troops to deploy with the new weapon. Training was conducted at Fort Bliss, Texas, and at the newly established Red Canyon range in New Mexico. The first battalion began arriving at Fort Meade, Maryland, late in 1953, and the first Nike Ajax battery was put into operation in April 1954. The 34-foot long missile had a range of 25 to 30 miles, carried a conventional warhead, and could engage targets at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet. Soon after, Nike Ajax batteries began replacing gun units that had been stationed in and around cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and San Francisco.

The Air Force welcomed Nike Ajax deployment as an enhancement of the point-defense mission that the Army provided for the nation's strategic targets. Although the Air Force had always expressed concern that a lack of coordination between the services could place Air Force aircraft within range of the Army's antiaircraft forces, interservice cooperation between ARAACOM and the Air Defense Command (ADC) had resolved many of the coordination problems. Besides, the Air Force believed that two strategic concepts, deterrence and defense, if fully supported, would prevent Soviet bombers from getting close to American cities.