On Nike Duty


Smith, John, Army


Anti-Aircraft Missiles Protected Nation During Cold War

The U.S. has many relics of past conflicts. Ruins of forts and defensive battlements line most coastal states and often have been preserved or restored. Historic structures reach back to the Revolutionary and Civil wars and through the Cold War. In the latter category, there are remnants of numerous missile sites throughout the U.S., quite a few of them repurposed.

During the Cold War, which lasted from 1947 to 1991, there were three competing anti-aircraft missile systems. The Air Force had the Bomarc missile, the Army and Marines used Hawk missiles to defend against low-flying aircraft, and the Army, along with several NATO countries, deployed the Nike family of missiles to protect key strategic areas. The Air Force s Titan intercontinental ballistic missiles also acted as a deterrent, with 54 missile silos distributed over three states.

The Nike family was by far the most widely deployed. It consisted of the Ajax and Hercules missiles and a Zeus missile that never reached full deployment. Starting in 1953 to roughly 1979 and found in about 30 states, rings of these missiles were gathered around 40 strategic points in the U.S. called defense areas. Deployed and operated by the U.S. Army Air Defense Command, each defense area consisted of a ring of Nike batteries reporting to a battalion headquarters. Numbers of batteries per ring ranged from as few as two to more than 20. The numbers were reduced when the longer-range Hercules (capable of traveling over 75 miles) replaced the older Ajax missiles (25-30 miles). At the peak of their deployment, there were more than 260 Nike Ajax and Hercules batteries protecting the United States.

In the Niagara-Buffalo, New York, defense area, the Nike battalion I served with started out with seven batteries of Ajax missiles; this eventually was whittled down to three batteries with the conversion to Hercules. During the transition, some of the sites were dual sites-both Ajax and Hercules. Ours was one of those dual sites.

Component Competition

While our battery was Regular Army, the other two were National Guard, and there was always some competition between the two components, especially when the units were graded annually at McGregor Range, New Mexico. The Air Force made up a second branch involved in the defense. Batteries worked closely with the Air Force and, since I suspect the Air Force feared we might shoot down its planes, targets were assigned to us by the Missile Master. This would happen only after incoming aircraft were identified as foes and the Air Force determined it could not intercept them.

The Air Force was the first line of defense and had long-range radar networks that could spot aircraft thousands of miles away. While each Army and National Guard battery could operate autonomously, it would only do so if communication with the Missile Master was disrupted.

A Serious Game

Close cooperation with the Air Force intensified when Nike sites scored simulated bombing runs. To us it was a game because, in addition to scoring the accuracy of the Air Force s simulated bomb releases, we had the opportunity to try to counter their attempts at avoiding our defense, which they did by jamming our radar and releasing metallic chaff. We would spot aircraft about 150 miles out (usually around Syracuse, New York) and the Air Force would start jamming our acquisition radars to prevent us from locking on them with our target-tracking radar. We would counter by changing frequencies and they would try to follow our change.

Once we designated the target to our tracking radar, the flyboys would jam that, too, and often eject the chaff. Sometimes they would eject chaff forward and do a sharp turn behind it to try to confuse the Nike target-tracking radar range operator into locking onto a false blip. When the aircraft got close to the bomb release point, those of us not on duty would often look up into the sky and watch the vapor trails, marveling at the patterns they created before and upon the simulated release of the bomb. …

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