Air Force Bases

Nike Ajax Missile Development History

In 1944, German advances in rocketry and jet aircraft, as well as the ability of bombers to fly at higher altitudes, brought to Army planners a somber realization that traditional antiaircraft artillery weaponry soon faced obsolescence. As a result of internal studies verifying the need for a "major caliber anti-aircraft rocket torpedo," the Army Chief of Ordnance issued a contract in February 1945 for Western Electric and Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) to determine the feasibility of such a weapon system. Army Ordnance based its selection of Western Electric/BTL on the team's experience in developing and producing gun directors and tracking radars.

Reporting back in mid-1945 that such an antiaircraft missile system was indeed feasible, Western Electric/BTL presented the parameters of a proposed system that came remarkably close to the system actually fielded 8 years later. The Army selected Western Electric as the prime contractor to develop the missile system. BTL maintained control of computer and radar development and worked with the Ballistics Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, in determining the optimum shape of the war- head. Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, received responsibility for developing the High-Explosive (HE) fragmentation device that would be placed in the warhead, while Frankford Arsenal, Pennsylvania, created the fusing device.

The Douglas Aircraft Company became a major subcontractor, responsible for aerodynamic studies on the interceptor missile. Aerojet Engineering supplied both the liquid-fueled sustainer engine and the solid-fueled booster rockets. The initial design called for eight booster rockets to be wrapped around the tail of the missile. The development schedule projected a weapon system ready for production in 1949. This schedule was not met.

The first static firing of a Nike missile occurred at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico, on September 17, 1946. The missile was returned to Douglas's Santa Monica plant for evaluation. A week after the first static test, the first actual launch of a missile occurred at White Sands. Several other "uncontrolled flight" launchings occurred that fall, with one missile reaching an altitude of 140,000 feet. Instead of warheads, these missiles carried onboard cameras to record instrument readings throughout the flight.

Launches at White Sands continued in 1947. Meanwhile, tracking experiments proceeded at Whippany, New Jersey, using an experimental monopulse radar.

By 1948 the missile project had fallen behind schedule. Problems with the reliability of the cluster booster configuration forced designers to adapt an Allegheny Ballistics Laboratory booster that had been developed for the Navy's antiaircraft missile program. With this single solid-fuel booster, the missile took on an elongated appearance as the missile now sat piggy-back on top of the booster. Launchings at White Sands now tested for roll stabilization and steering controls. Problems were resolved only after tedious study of telemetry records.

Technical advances continued at both White Sands and BTL. These advances sufficiently impressed the DOD Director of Guided Missiles, K.T. Keller, in October 1950 to recommend acceleration of the program. Despite the fact that system testing was still ongoing, the Army let a contract in January 1951 for Western Electric, BTL, and Douglas Aircraft to produce 1,000 Nike Ajax missiles (or the Nike I as it was then called) and 60 sets of ground equipment.

The Army's faith was justified when on November 27, 1951, a Nike successfully engaged a QB-17 drone over the skies of New Mexico. During the following April additional tests with live warheads further impressed VIPs visiting at White Sands. By July 1952, the first production-line Nike was launched. Testing continued to evaluate the missile and improve the reliability of the production models. By the following summer, the contractors were ready to turn over a complete missile battery to the Army Anti-Aircraft Command (ARAACOM). Soon soldiers were training to operate and maintain the system.

Over the next few years, hundreds of Nike Ajax missiles streaked across the southern New Mexico sky as battery crews, called "packages," trained at nearby Fort Bliss, Texas, before deploying. Later, most of these men returned to Fort Bliss to fire additional missiles during Annual Service Practices (ASPS). Beginning in 1957, many of the men who underwent initial training were National Guardsmen.