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Nike Zeus

Much like the NIKE air defense systems that preceded it, the ABM system evolved through many stages. The same Bell Labs that produced NIKE AJAX and NIKE HERCULES spearheaded the ABM effort, although many more subcontractors were involved.

America's ABM system was the result of a research and development effort started in 1956. It began with the Army's NIKE ZEUS system, a concept very similar to the other NIKE systems. ZEUS had radars to acquire and track the target and also a radar to track the intercepting missile, as well as a computer. Another radar not found in other NIKE systems was a discrimination radar used to determine which objects being tracked were threatening, because of decoys being mixed with incoming warheads. However, this system suffered from the same problem as other NIKE systems and the HAWK system: it could track and intercept only one target at a time.

In January 1961 ARGMA submitted "NIKE-ZEUS Defense Production Plan" to the Chief of Ordnance. The plan provided for the production and deployment, over an eight-year period, of 29 defense centers, 70 batteries and supporting equipment and 3,160 missiles. Plan approved by Secretary of the Army and forwarded to Secretary of Defense. NIKE ZEUS system is composed of a ZEUS Acquisition Radar, two Target Track Radars, one Discrimination Radar, three Missile Track Radars, battery control equipment, target interceptor computer and four ZEUS launch cells. By June 1961 the entire NIKE-ZEUS system (4 launch cells, 7 radars and battery control equipment and target intercept computer) had been installed on Kwajalein Missile Range (KMR) for testing.

The system demonstrated its ability to intercept single objects successfully with its first live intercept at Kwajalein in July 1962.

ZEUS was severely limited by several factors that made its operational deployment impractical. Decoys, chaff, balloons and other means of confusing such an elementary system were conceived or developed. It was limited by its low traffic handling capability. Exoatmospheric discrimination of the incoming objects was impossible and atmospheric discrimination resulted in commitment altitudes that were too low for practical use. These disadvantages were so serious that in January 1961 the Nike Zeus program was canceled and a new development, NIKE X, begun.

Draft Memorandum From Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Kennedy, dated September 30, 1961, summarizes the various factors that were considered in reaching a decision to recommend a program for deployment of Nike Zeus. The recommended program was 6 Zeus Defense Centers, each with a Zeus Acquisition Radar, and 12 Nike-Zeus batteries, each with one discrimination radar, 6 target track radars, 12 missile track radars, and 96 missiles. The mission of the system, which would take 6 years to complete installation from the time of a decision to construct it, was to defend 6 cities and "about 39 million people."

"A recent technical analysis has confirmed that Nike Zeus will not provide soft targets an effective defense against large scale or sophisticated ICBM attacks. A purely technical appraisal would not lead to a recommendation for deployment of a weapon system with so limited an operational effectiveness. This has been the conclusion of past technical evaluations; the current review has revealed no important new technical factors.

"The existence of a deployed defense may substantially increase the degree of uncertainty at the Soviet decision-making level. The offense will find it more difficult to be certain that weaknesses do not exist which may have been discovered by the defense. Recent evidence indicates that existing warheads on our ballistic missiles are subject to destruction at fairly large distances by nuclear detonations. Though this would not in fact make Nike Zeus effective against planned U.S. missile systems, it is an example of the unpredictable elements involved.

"Some counter may be desirable against future Soviet claims to a successful anti-missile system. Soviet efforts in the field of ballistic missile defense appear to be more ambitious than our own efforts. Even if U.S. scientists can offer claims of a U.S. capability to counter completely the USSR defense, this will not cancel out the psychological advantage gained by the USSR in announcing or demonstrating an ICBM defense capability.

"It should be recognized that deployment of any active city defense (including Nike Zeus) presupposes a system of civilian fall-out shelters. There is at least one danger in deployment of a defense system of doubtful effectiveness such as Nike Zeus: the Executive Branch of the government, the Congress, and the people may develop an unwarranted faith in its capability to deter a Soviet attack or to mitigate its consequences if full-scale nuclear warfare is initiated."

Dr. Jerome Wiesner, Kennedy's Science Advisor, explained: “[T]here were several things wrong about the Nike-Zeus that would have made it relatively ineffective in real situations. First, as originally designed, it was supposed to intercept incoming missiles at very high altitudes, out of the atmosphere. This meant that it was easily confused; an enemy could mix real nuclear missiles with lightweight decoys made to look like missiles and send them in against Nike-Zeus, so that it would be totally saturated. To correct this we allowed the incoming devices to come down into the atmosphere; the difference in weights allowed the heavy pieces, the real warheads, to go on, while all this other lightweight decoy junk was slowed down and separated out. This tended to work somewhat better, but even so, the whole system as conceived really wasn’t good enough. It could not respond fast enough. Its radars weren’t good enough. Its traffic-handling capacity–that is, the number of missiles it could deal with at one time–was not adequate.

“Also, Nike-Zeus was subject… to something called blackout; that is, if a nuclear explosion were set off to destroy an incoming missile, it also upset the gas in the air, ‘ionized’ it–electrons strip off from the molecules, and for a while the gas acts like a metal rather than a gas so that radar waves cannot go through it and you cannot see what is behind it. Nike-Zeus was open to this in two ways. First, if you fired some rockets and they set off their own nuclear weapons, you might generate self-blackout. Second, if the enemy recognized that the defense had this vulnerability, he could design his offensive system to occasionally dump in a rocket with a nuclear warhead, explode it, and generate enough ionization to black out your radars. But, NikeZeus had another interesting weakness–by the time it had been brought down to a reasonably low altitude so that the atmosphere would filter incoming devices, no one could be sure that when it set off its nuclear explosion it would not damage itself….

“Still another problem with the Nike-Zeus was that its destruction of the incoming nuclear weapons depended on a phenomenon called neutron heating. When one explodes a nuclear weapon near another nuclear weapon, a flux of neutrons is released; these penetrate into the guts of the second nuclear weapon and heat it enough to melt it. However, this effect does not work over very great distances; so the Nike nuclear explosion could be effective against only a limited number of incoming targets. Although I do not think that cost factors are the most important part of the argument against the ABM, this did create an economic case against it.”

The Kennedy administration announced reorientation of its ABM efforts in the improved and more robust Nike-X Project in January 1963. The following month, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Soviet Union would have “the capability of deploying an antimissile missile system by 1966.” ”

After Secretary McNamara added that the Nike-X Project “should be ready by 1970,” Senator Strom Thurmond (D-S.C.) began an effort to field the controversial Nike Zeus ABM system as soon as possible as an interim hedge against the possibility of “a period in which there will be a defensive gap” in U.S. strategic security. On 11 April 1963, Senator Thurmond led an extraordinary effort in Congress to revitalize and accelerate the Nike Zeus Project. ”

In the first Senate closed session held in twenty years, the Senate assessed the merits of Thurmond’s arguments, but determined that the proposed Nike-X Project had more promise than revitalizing the Nike Zeus Project. ”

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