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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Nike Hercules (SAM-N-25) (MIM-14/14A/14B)

As the Nike Ajax system underwent testing during the early 1950s, the Army became concerned that the missile was incapable of stopping a massed Soviet air attack. To enhance the missile's capabilities, the Army explored the feasibility of equipping Ajax with a nuclear warhead, but when that proved impractical, in July 1953 the service authorized development of a second generation surface-to-air missile, the Nike Hercules. As with Nike Ajax, Western Electric was the primary contractor with Bell Telephone Laboratories providing the guidance systems and Douglas Aircraft serving as the major subcontractor for the airframe.

In 1958, 5 years after the Army received approval to design and build the system. Nike Hercules stood ready to deploy from converted Nike Ajax batteries located in the New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago defense areas. However, as Nike Hercules batteries became operational, the bitter feud between the Army and Air Force over control of the nation's air defense missile force flared anew. The Air Force opposed Nike Hercules, claiming that the Army missile duplicated the capabilities of the soon-to-be-deployed BOMARC. Eventually, both of the competing missiles systems were deployed, but the Nike Hercules would be fielded in far greater numbers over the next 6 years.

System Operation

Nike Hercules was designed to use the supporting components of the Nike Ajax system. To engage hostile targets, crews followed procedures similar to those used with the Nike Ajax. Because of the increased capability of the system, there were some additions to the ground equipment. For example, a High-Powered Acquisition Radar (HIPAR) was installed to track targets at greater range. Alternate Battery Radars (ABARs) were also installed as backup units. In addition, a Target Ranging Radar was added to counter enemy radar jamming attempts.

In March 1952, due to limitations of the soon-to-be-deployed Nike Ajax system (including the inability to discern individual bombers within a densely-packed flying formation), the Bureau of Ordnance recommended a study of the feasibility of equipping Nike Ajax with a nuclear warhead. Two months later, the Chief of Ordnance asked Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) to examine the feasibility of a nuclear Nike Ajax using the current ground system. After consulting with Picatinny Arsenal and Sandia Laboratories, BTL recommended either fitting an XW-9 warhead into the Nike Ajax or building a wider missile to carry the more potent XW-7 warhead.

In August, the Chief of Ordnance approved an engineering study to investigate the latter option with the objective of fielding a weapon quickly at minimum cost. As a result of this study, in December the Deputy Chief of Plans and Research approved plans for the follow-on project.

Two months later, in February 1953, the Army asked BTL to develop detailed proposals for a Nike "B" or Hercules. A month later, Bell and Douglas Aircraft Company representatives outlined three ground guidance systems for missile designs varying in range from 25 to 50 miles. Longer range missiles would require major revisions to facilities currently being constructed for the Nike Ajax. Soon thereafter, Nike "B" received approval from the Joint Chiefs of Staff with a 1A priority. On July 16, 1953, the Secretary of the Army formally established the Nike "B" program with the objective of obtaining a weapon that could intercept aircraft flying at 1.000 miles per hour, at an altitude of 60,000 feet, and a horizontal range of 50,000 yards.

Western Electric, BTL, and Douglas began the research and development phase and by 1955 began conducting test firings at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico. To build the new missile, the Nike Hercules design team simply took the components of the Ajax missile and multiplied by four. Four solid booster rockets were strapped together to push the missile into flight. Once the booster rockets fell away, four liquid-propellant driven engines would carry the warhead to the target. Unfortunately, this design, dependent on multiple systems, hindered reliability. Of the first 20 flights, 12 had to be terminated due to malfunctions. On September 30, 1955, tragedy struck at White Sands when a liquid-fueled engine undergoing static testing exploded with such force that the protective bunker sustained damage. This explosion killed one worker and injured five others. This incident convinced designers to consider a solid propellant engine for the sustainer missile. October 31, 1956, marked the first successful Nike Hercules intercept of a drone aircraft. On March 13, 1957, the first flight test using the new solid propellant sustainer engine was conducted at White Sands. During the following summer, a test called Operation Snodgrass conducted at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, demonstrated the ability of the missile to single out a target within a formation of aircraft. By this time, the first of several Nike Ajax sites had been converted to accept the new missile.

Meanwhile, work was well under way to improve acquisition and tracking radar capabilities that would further exploit the capabilities of the Nike Hercules. The Army pushed ahead with development of a system dubbed the "Improved Hercules" that incorporated three significant improvements. First, the Improved Hercules sites were to receive the HIPAR L-band acquisition radar to detect high-speed, non-ballistic targets. The other two improvements included improving the existing Target Tracking Radar and adding a Target Ranging Radar operating on a wide-ranging frequency band designed to foil attempts at electronic counter-measures.

The potential of the Improved Hercules was demonstrated on June 3. 1960, when a Nike Hercules missile scored a direct hit on a Corporal missile in the sky over White Sands. Beginning in June 1961, Army Air Defense Command (ARADCOM) began phasing in Improved Hercules to selected batteries.


During the course of the Cold War, the Army deployed 145 Nike Hercules batteries. Of that number, 35 were built exclusively for the new missile and 110 were converted Nike Ajax installations. With the exception of batteries in Alaska and Florida that stayed active until the late 1970s, by 1975 all Nike Hercules sites had been deactivated.

Nike Hercules was designed to use existing Nike Ajax facilities. With the greater range of the Nike Hercules allowing for wider area coverage, several Nike Ajax batteries could be permanently deactivated. In retrospect, air defense planners lamented the backfitting of Nike Hercules missiles into existing sites close to areas that were vulnerable to the new threat of Soviet ICBMs. In addition, sites located further away from target areas were desirable due to the nuclear warheads carried by the missile.

In the late 1950s early 1960s, surface-to-air missile batteries were placed for the first time around such cities as St. Louis and Kansas City and around several Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber bases. Unlike the older sites, these batteries were placed in locations that optimized the missiles' range and minimized the warhead damage. Nike Hercules batteries at SAC bases and in Hawaii were installed in an outdoor configuration. In Alaska, a unique above-ground shelter configuration was provided for batteries guarding Anchorage and Fairbanks. Local Corps of Engineer Districts supervised the conversion of Nike Ajax batteries and the construction of new Nike Hercules batteries.

Nike Hercules first entered service on June 30, 1958, at batteries located near New York. Philadelphia, and Chicago. The missiles remained deployed around strategically important areas within the continental United States until 1974. The Alaskan sites were deactivated in 1978 and Florida sites stood down during the following year. Although the missile left the U.S. inventory, other nations maintained the missiles in their inventories into the early 1990s and sent their soldiers to the United States to conduct live-fire exercises at Fort Bliss, Texas.

Converted sites received new radars and underwent modifications so the new missiles could be serviced and stored. Because of the larger size of the Nike Hercules, an underground magazine's capacity was reduced to eight missiles. Thus, storage racks, launcher rails, and elevators underwent modification to accept the larger missiles. Two additional features that readily distinguished newly converted sites were the double fence and the kennels housing dogs that patrolled the perimeter between the two fences. New sites, located away from populated areas did not have to be confined in acreage. Consequently, these batteries were all above ground with missile storage and maintenance facilities located behind earthen berms. Not all sites received the complete Improved Hercules package. HIPAR radars were denied to some sites due to geographical constraints and/or to avoid duplication of radars located at adjacent sites.

Length 41 feet
Diameter 31.5 inches
Wingspan 6 feet, 2 inches
Weight 10.710 pounds
Booster fuel Solid propellant
Missile fuel Solid propellant
Range Over 75 miles
Speed Mach 3.65 2,707 mph
Altitude Up to 150,000 feet
Guidance Command by electronic computer and radar
Warhead High-Explosive fragmentation or nuclear
  • Airframe: Douglas Aircraft Company Santa Monica, California
  • Propulsion: Booster: Hercules Powder Company Radford Arsenal, Virginia
  • Sustainer: Thiokol Chemical Corporation Longhorn Division, Marshall, Texas
  • Guidance: Western Electric Company New York

  • Nike Hercules crew in action at U.S. Army Air Defense Command missile site in Chicago during a launcher area readiness drill. (1959)

    Nike Hercules missile launching.

    Nike Hercules, WSPG, Jan 1957. One of the first photos released by the U.S. Army of Nike.


    • Adapted from: To Defend and Deter: The Legacy of the United States Cold War Missile Program, John C. Lonnquest and David F. Winkler, USACERL Special Report 97/01, November 1996.

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