Nuclear ABMs of the USA

The Early Years

The initial thought of providing a defence against ballistic missiles started in World War II once the V2 started landing on their targets. In the context of the US ballistic missile defence effort, its anti-ballistic missile (ABM) effort can be traced back to the late stages of World War II. These early efforts by the US were focused on anti-aircraft defence rather than anti-missile. However, the concepts and methods required to intercept an inbound missile are comparable to those required to intercept an aircraft. The only difference is the speed of the target and the manner of detection. By mastering anti-aircraft defence, it was then a simple matter of extending those skills to intercept re-entry vehicles (RV).

It was in 1944 that the US Army Air Force requested General Electric to start Project Thumper (MX-795) which was to later develop the collision intercept method of intercepting a target and thus achieving its destruction. This project was to study the use of a missile in the anti-aircraft role. Another program with Boeing started in 1945 was called GAPA (Ground to Air Pilotless Aircraft). The final results of GAPA was BOMARC. Thumper was cancelled in 1948.

Meanwhile, the US Army, as opposed to the AAF, initiated a project with Bell Labs in 1945. This project was called Project Nike. It was from this project that Nike Ajax was developed and subsequently Nike Hercules. The ultimate Project Nike missile was of course the Nike Zeus.

The US Navy also had projects going as well. The Navy had a project called Bumblebee, while the Air Force started a while Bumblebee was more prolific and produced Talos, Tartar, Terrior and a number of other prototype missiles which never reached service including the Typhoon. (As an aside, the Navy proposed Talos as an ABM in 1959 as an alternative to Nike Zeus). Although these are not specificly anti-ballistic missiles (ABM), these programs and missiles provided an extensive base of knowledge and expertise required for the intercept of objects in flight.

With all this ground work, the anti-ballistic efforts finally gathered around two specific projects in the mid-1950s as the technology required to actually produce an ABM started to exist along with the need to actually have one with the growing numbers of ICBMs starting to be deployed. The US Air Force had a project call Wizard (MX-794) which had started just after WWII in 1946, and by the mid-1950s had a number of companies including Convair Astronautics, RCA, Lockheed and Raytheon providing input . These studies involved the interception of an incoming ICBM RV at distances up to 1,600km (1,000 miles) from the RV's target point. Out of Wizard, came the basic process that was later followed by other US ABM systems. This was target acquisition and subsequent tracking of that target, a nuclear tipped missile for interception which was guided using a separate target tracking radar.

In February 1955, a contract was placed with Bell Telephone Laboratories by the US Army for an anti-missile missile with an associated control system similar in concept to that employed by the Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules anti-aircraft systems.

With Sputnik orbiting the Earth, the US was forced to make many decisions earlier than it probably would have liked and as a result sparked a series of projects that continued for more than two decades. In January 1958, the US Secretary of Defence, McElroy created a new agency which was called the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA). This agency was charged with the authority to pursue research into space and missile systems, and this included ABM systems. This project involved with ABM was known as Defender. This project lasted for many years and covered many aspects of ABM defense before being transferred to the Army in 1967. Other projects that ARPA was involved in were not just strictly paper studies but also bore fruit in terms of actual flight hardware.

One of the other decisions that McElroy made in January 1958 was deciding between Wizard and Nike Zeus. He decided in the Army's favour. The reasons for this are various. Anything to do with ABMs is political, and this decision does appear to have a political flavour to it. The US Air Force had ICBMs and bombers, while the Navy had carriers and nuclear ballistic missile submarines. The US Army, had some short range tactical missiles and nothing much else. Allowing them to develop an ABM system provided them with an important nuclear capability. In addition, it also solved an ongoing dispute between the Army and the Air Force as to which service was to be responsible for missile based air defence of the continental USA. (It should be noted that both the USAF and the US Army had deployed ground based anti-aircraft missiles - BOMARC for the USAF and the Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules for the US Army). Even though McElroy decided in favour of the Army, he did direct continued development of the radars and command and control systems of Wizard so that those technologies could be incorporated into the Army's ABM program thus combining what was felt to be the better parts of both programs together. Nike Zeus was to commence full scale development immediately and was planned to reach operational status in 1964. Nike Zeus was born.

The beginning of the Nike Zeus program was the start of a long series of programs the US utilised over the 18 years, which culminated in the closing down of the single ABM base that the US had deployed. The programes which the US instigated over these 18 years were:

Other ABM Missiles

Ballistic missile defence was not the sole domain of the Nike Zeus/Spartan/Sprint missiles. Other missiles in the US arsenal have demonstrated the capability to shoot down ballistic missiles. These other missiles though were not necessarily nuclear tipped, nor did they destroy missiles armed with nuclear warheads. Such missiles include the Nike Hercules which in mid-1960 at White Sands intercepted a Corporal ballistic missile and on 12-Aug-1961 shot down another Nike Hercules at 11 miles altitude. The HAWK also intercepted a Honest John artillery rocket (29-Jan-1960) and a Corporal ballistic missile (23-Jan-1961) at White Sands. Another and more recent system that was used for intercepting ballistic missiles, and to a certain extent the only ABM system used operationally (although this was not its primary function and a function it was not really designed nor set up to perform) is the Patriot. In addition, the USA has persued other dedicated ABM missiles that do not use nuclear warheads to destroy the incoming RV. Further, dedicated and non-dedicated anti-satellite missiles have also been developed, and in some cases deployed and used, as well.


These are the publications which I have used to provide information for this site. Some of these publications I own, others were available from local University libraries while others are on-line. Most publications deal only slightly with ABM matters, either missiles or history, but the first reference deals with the history totally and so for those whose interest lies in that area it is well worth the read.

Adams, Benson D., Ballistic Missile Defense, American Elsevier Publishing Company, 1971.

Bruce-Briggs, B., The Shield Of Faith, Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Carter, Ashton B. and Schwartz, Ashton B. (editors), Ballistic Missile Defense, Brookings Institution/Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1984.

Gibson, James Norris, The History of the US Nuclear Arsenal, Bison Books, 1989.

Gunston, Bill, Illustrated Encyclopaedia of the World's Rockets & Missiles, Salamander Books, 1979.

Jane's All the World's Aircraft (Various years/editions)

Jane's Weapon Systems (Various years/editions).

Lonnquest, John C. and Winkler, David F. To Defend and Deter: The Legacy of the United States Cold War Missile Program, USACERL Special Report 97/01, November 1996. (Available online at Defense Technical Information).

Moeller, Colonel Stephen P., Vigilant and Invincible, Air Defense Artillery, May-June 1995. (Its online at Defense Technical Information).

Muolo, Maj Michael J., A War Fighter's Guide to Space - Volume 1, Air University Press, 1993. (Its available online here. ).

Papp, Dr. Daniel S., From Project Thumper to SDI: The Role of Ballistic Missile Defense in US Security Policy, Air Power Journal, Winter 1987, Vol 1, No.3. (This article is available at the AirPower Journal archives).

Stares, Paul S., The Militarization of Space. US Policy, 1954-1984, Cornell University Press, 1985.

Wilkes, Owen, et al. Chasing Gravity's Rainbow: Kwajalein and US Ballistic Missile Testing, Australian National University, 1991.

Star Throwers of the Tularosa - The Early Cold War Legacy of White Sands Missile Range

In addition I would also like to thank Doyle Piland for his assistance in answering questions and supplying some wonderful information about activities and facilities (especially the Nike Zeus radars) at White Sands and Kwajalein which has been included in this web site.

Web Links

When this site was first created, there was not a lot of places on the net which had information about the Nike Zeus/Safeguard programs and associated missiles and radars. Since that time the World Wide Web has grown considerably. Thus there is a lot more out there now than there was back in 1998, espeically in terms of official information, some of it being made available due to declassificaiton. What I list here is a fraction of what is avilable, and are sources which provide reliable and accurate information. It is not a totally inclusive list however.

Whats New

DM-15S info updated. Couple of other bug fixes.
Uupdating of web site. Extra maps, videos, information, fixing of links and some coding changes in the background as well.
Deployment information, updated info from Defend and Deter, fixing some spelling/grammar mistakes and cleaning up formatting/styles.
Shift to new server and fixing some dead links.
Added some extra links and radar information. Also placed Christmas Island in the Pacific. (There is an Australian territory also called Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. Very easy to confuse the two. The Christmas Island in the Pacific is now part of the Republic of Kiribati.)
Added some extra links to other missile sites, references and pages. Updated information on the Nike Zeus radars and fixed an error relating to the number of faces the MSR at Kwajalein had.
Totally revamped site (again). Visually changed the appearance of the site (the joy of learning HTML and CSS), added some new images (the joy of learning to scan) and fixed a variety of grammar and spelling mistakes (the joy of the English language) and added a lot more history (the joy of doing some more research).
Totally revamped site. Added Nike Zeus, Sprint, Computer & ramblings and split info onto separate pages.
New image among the trees and info on HIT for Spartan.
Added Improved Spartan, Whats New and Feedback sections. Updated launch table.
Advertised the page to the world (only Spartan page existed at this time)


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Last Modified: 3-Feb-2012