Air Force Bases

Nike Missile System Overview

The Nike Ajax was the world's first operational, guided, surface-to-air missile. Armed with two conventional warheads, it was deployed in large numbers across the United States in the mid-to-late 1950s to counter what was believed to be a serious threat posed by Soviet strategic bombers (this "bomber gap" subsequently turned out to be illusory). Concerned that Nike Ajax would be incapable of halting a massive Soviet bomber attack, Army officials developed and deployed the longer range nuclear-armed Nike Hercules at 145 locations. An estimated 3,000 warheads (with yields of 2, 20, and 30 kilotons) were built for this system, which was operational in the United States from 1958 until 1979. A third missile, the Nike Zeus, evolved from its predecessors to address the threat posed by Soviet ICBMs. Although never deployed, the Nike Zeus was tested as an antiballistic missile and as an antisatellite weapon (both missions envisioned the use of nuclear warheads). It evolved into the Spartan missile, which was deployed briefly as part of the Safeguard ABM system in North Dakota in 1975.

This photograph traces the development of the Nike missile. From left to right: Nike Ajax, Nike Hercules, and Nike Zeus