Category Archives: Missiles

Understanding B61-12: America’s Most Dangerous Weapon

B-61 Bomb
B61 bomb in stages of assembly. The nuclear component is contained in the small, silver cylinder near the upper middle.

The U.S military has many weapons at its disposal and some are also used not just as a weapon, but also as a deterrent to threatening nations (The best defense is a good offense).  However, when it comes to an offensive defense, nothing is more frightening to an enemy than a weapon of mass destruction. In its arsenal, the United States has approximately 16,300 nuclear weapons. Of those,, the most deadly is the B61-12 nuclear bomb. To date, much has written about the B61-12. Unfortunately, most of it has been regarding its cost. Therefore, we will address the specifications of the B61-12 features in this article. So what does the B61-12 have that the other WMDs don’t? Let’s take a look.

The Features of B61-12 Nuclear Weapon

The U.S military takes pride in the B61-12 nuclear weapon and rightfully so. It is an intermediate strategic and tactical nuclear weapon featuring a two-stage radiation implosion design; in other words, this bomb is a monster that can gobble up the enemy with ease. The biggest benefit of the B61-12 is its usability. The low-yield and precision accuracy of the B61-12 define its usability. It is head and shoulders above the rest, as it’s the only nuclear-guided missile that the U.S. has. Compared to the 110-170 meters circular error probabilities (CEP) of other American nuclear bombs, the B61-12 has a CEP of just 30 meters.

The B61-12 has a maximum yield of fifty kilotons. Furthermore, for any particular U.S military mission, this yield can be lowered. Using a dial-a-yield system, the explosive force of the B61-12 nuclear bomb can easily be lowered. Thanks to these features, this device is the most usable bomb in the U.S military arsenal. Although it isn’t the most powerful U.S. nuclear bomb, its accuracy makes it the most destructive and fearful.

The low-yield of the B61-12 ensures that if there’s a nuclear strike, no mass and indiscriminate killing of civilians occurs. Compared to the three to four million that other nuclear weapons would kill, the B61-12 bomb would claim only seven to eight hundred lives. Just a few decades ago, it was considered naive to think that nuclear weapons would claim a few lives and obtain the desired objective. If this feature is used, it would be mainly in the battle field as a tactical nuclear weapon. This feature of the B61-12 has made the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S military and this is something that the enemies of the U.S. dread. Knowledge that the US has such a weapn has made the U.S military even more potent and this is the reason it’s considered as a highly effective nuclear weapo

AGM-65 Maverick

The AGM-65 Maverick is a precision attack air to ground missile used in the US Air Force, the US Marine Corps and more than 33 countries.

AGM-65 Maverick Air to Ground Missile
AGM-65 Maverick

This missile played a crucial role in the Vietnam War, Iran-Iraq, and the Persian Gulf Wars. The Persian Gulf War began with a massive US-led air offensive known as Operation Desert Storm. About 5,000 AGM-65 missiles of different variants were used to attack the armored targets of the Iraqi military.

The start of the development of the Maverick started in 1966 and took about six year to complete. The missile was originally designed to replace the aging radio guided AGM-12 Bullpup missiles that were first launched in 1959. The Maverick was deployed for the first time in 1972, also replacing the AGM-62 Walleye in the 70s.

Raytheon Systems (then called Hughes Missile Systems) won a contract worth $95 million from the US  Air Force to produce 17,000 Mavericks in 1968. The AGM-65 A variant was developed with an electro-optical television guidance system. An improved version, AGM-65B, was developed next.

In 1983, version AGM-65D was developed and delivered to the US Air Force. This type contains an imaging infrared seeker. Subsequently, G, E, and F models were also produced. Currently, the Maverick H and K are the most modern missiles being produced by Raytheon with an AGM-65L under development which will contain a digital semi-active seeker.

The Maverick is one of the first fire-and-forget missiles, following the path to its targets autonomously. It also shares the same configurations as the AIM-4 Falcon and AIM-54 Phoenix. The missile also carries two types of warheads, a heavyweight warhead that penetrates targets before detonating, and a shaped charge warhead with a contact fuze in the nose.  

The missile system is compatible with 25 jet fighter aircraft, including the F-16 and A-10 and they have been exported to countries worldwide including Australia, Japan, Israel, Poland, Sweden, South Korea, and more.

AIM-9 Sidewinder Missile

One of the oldest, yet most effective short range weapons in air to air combat is the AIM-9 Sidewinder Missile.

After World War II, the most popular missile guidance system was radar. This was expensive to build and required manned operation to help guide the missile to its intended target. Then in 1947, a Naval physicist named Bill McLean began researching and developing a new type of system that would not utilize radar. Instead, it would search for the infrared signature of the aircraft using infrared (heat seeking) technology. This was not only more precise than radar but weighed much less as well.

Initially, the Sidewinder guidance system was equipped with vacuum tubes that were used to form the guidance computer, but with the advent of semiconductors, vacuum tubes were replaced with the actual program embedded within the semiconductor chip.

AIM Sidewinder Missile
A U.S. Navy McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet firing an AIM-9R Sidewinder missile at China Lake, California (USA), 5 April 1991. USAF Public Domain.

The AIM-9 weighs 188 lbs and is 9 feet, 11 inches long and uses a WDU-17/B warhead.

In general, a missile of this type requires nine major components:

  • The rocket motor, which provides the thrust to propel the missile through the air
  • The rear stabilizing wings, which provide the necessary lift to keep the missile aloft
  • The seeker, which sees the infrared light from the target
  • The guidance control electronics, which process the information from the seeker and calculate the proper course for the missile
  • The control actuation section, which adjusts flight fins near the nose of the missile based on instructions from the guidance electronics
  • The flight fins themselves, which steer the missiles through the air — just like the flaps on an airplane wing, the moving flight fins generate drag (increase wind resistance) on one side of the missile, causing it to turn in that direction.
  • The warhead, the explosive device that actually destroys the enemy aircraft
  • A fuze system that sets the warhead off when the missile reaches the target
  • A battery to provide power to the onboard electronics

Needless to say, the Sidewinder missile has certainly shown its capability as it has been in existence  from 1956 to present day.

Titan II Missile

The Titan family of rockets were used between 1959 and 2003. There were two main categories of Titan rockets. Those used in a passive role by NASA for spaceflight and those used by the US Air Force as defense against Soviet aggression.

In this article, we will focus on the Titan missile used for defensive deterrent, which was in use from 1963 to 1987.

Titan II Missile
There were 54 Titan II Missiles located throughout the US (Public Domain)

The Titan II was a powerful two stage, 103 feet tall intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM),w with 170 tons when loaded with fuel. There were 54 missiles in all, strategically located in bomb proof silos across the central United States; specifically, Arkansas, Kansas, and Arizona.

These awesome machines were designed to launch in just 58 seconds, as time was of the essence in the event of a surprise attack. Each of these ICBMs were nuclear tipped with a 9-megaton nuclear warhead and were able to travel to targets over 6300 miles away within a time span of just 30 minutes.

The facility that contained and controlled the Titan II was about 90% underground, so only the top level was seen from the ground, giving the appearance that it was nothing more than a farm of small government office. Recall that all these missile facilities were top secret during the Cold War.

The Air Force had squadrons  – an array of missile sites within a designated location. For example, the 34th squadron contained nine missile sites within the Little Rock, Arkansas area.

Nine was not the exceptional number, as each Titan II squadron across the midwest consisted of nine launch facilities, each housing a single missile and each a distance of seven miles from the other. Each silo was directly connected to an underground launch control unit, manned by a round the clock combat crew of two officers and two airman. The Air Force deployed six squadrons of Titan II missiles facilities. To save money, the squadrons were grouped in pairs, controlled by one operational base.

As with the B-52s, these missile facilities were under the management of SAC and provided the additional deterrent to supplement the B-52 bombers.

Fortunately, these missiles never had to be used and after the Cold War ended, the facilities have been removed; however, there is one still standing, but not active. That is the Titan II Missile Museum near Tucson, Arizona.

Nike Missile System

In the later part of World War II, German technological advancements in jet plane production was moving from the planning stages to the development stages. In view of this, anti-aircraft guns were strategically placed around the major cities of the United States in order to combat this potential threat.

After the war, the defensive posture of the United States took on an even more significant role; notably, the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s military technology was a direct match with American ingenuity, but this time, rockets and missile technology took a giant leap forward. The fear of Soviet aggression, via Russian Bear Bombers entering American airspace was much more real than German or Japanese aircraft attacking the US mainland in World War II.

The gun batteries that were initially set up across the United States were replaced with Nike Missile batteries, beginning in 1954. These were supersonic (Marc 2.25), command guidance system, solid rocket booster missiles, called Ajax (Nike Ajax). They were designed to intercept long range Soviet bombers and destroy them while still over the ocean.

Nike Ajax Missile
Nike Ajax. Photo taken from the American Air Power Museum, Long Island, NY

Soldiers who were stationed at these Nike sites were on 24 hour turnaround shifts and lived in ready barracks. Examples of Nike Missile battery sites were Fort Tilden and Fort Hancock, New York, which had a  Missile Launch Area (the radar area), AKA, the Integrated Fire Control Area (IFC). The sites had two missile batteries, known as double battery sites, and subsequently, each battery had two underground storage rooms for a total of four magazines at each site. A missile magazine is the hardened storage barrier where the missile lies when inactive. Rooms accompanied the magazines and each had an elevator unit that raised and lowered the missiles.

The Ajax was the first Nike Missile deployed. It was designed to destroy aircraft from 30 miles away. By 1958, a new, more advanced Nike rocket replaced the Ajax, called the Hercules, which had a range of over 96 miles and was designed to carry a nuclear warhead.

Nike Missiles
Nike Missile Family. Hercules on far left. Ajax on far right. US Army photo. Public Domain

The difference between the Ajax and the Hercules when in the air was that the Ajax was designed to hit one bomber, called One missile, One Hit. The Hercules was nuclear tiped, so that one missile can disable or destroy a fleet of bombers by detonating their nuclear charge up to 1000 feet above them and disintegrating everything below. The missiles were designed to target these planes when over the ocean.

Unbeknownst to the general public, there were close to 250 Nike missile bases situated across the United States, as well as more located in Europe. The New York City area contained one of the largest network of antiaircraft Nike batteries, with over 20 sites that circled the city, both in New York State and New Jersey.

Nike missiles were part of the U.S. Army Air Defense Command (ARADCOM), and in agreement with the SALT treaty, all missiles were decommissioned and removed in 1974; however, a few inactive sites remain. The Sandy Hook, New Jersey, (NY-56) site is one of of those Nike missile batteries and is currently open to the public.

Nike Ajax Missile Battery
Nike Ajax Missile Battery at Sandy Hook, New Jersey
Nike Hercules Missile Battery
Nike Hercules Missile Battery, Sandy Hook, New Jersey

The removal of the Nike Missiles was not the end of missile deployment. It was actually only the beginning. After the Nikes were removed, in comes a new, much more powerful rocket – the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile or ICBM. They were deployed on both sides of the Atlantic, as the cold war still existed and continued to intensify.

This video from the 1950s is a fascinating look not just how the missles were set up for US defense, but also how these film clips were shown at that time.