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.

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