United States Nike-X

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Originated From:United States
Possessed By:United States
Basing:Land
Status:Terminated

Nike-X was an anti-ballistic missile system developed during the mid-1960s as an improved successor to Nike-Zeus. Though Zeus had demonstrated successful intercepts, it was still vulnerable to large salvos and decoy warheads.1 The US Department of Defense decided not to deploy Zeus and “direct[ed] the Army to reorient the Nike Zeus effort toward a new system approach, to be called Nike-X” in January of 1963.2

The Nike-X system consisted of a Multifunctional Array Radar (MAR), the Missile Site Radar (MSR), the Sprint missile, the Zeus missile, and the requisite computers to process data.3 The Zeus missile, which was a longer and heavier version of the Zeus-B,4 was a long-range missile intended to provide area defense by intercepting warheads in their exoatmospheric midcourse.5 Sprint was a high acceleration missile intended to intercept warheads during their endoatmospheric terminal phase, and thus function as insurance in case of a failed Zeus intercept.6 Both Zeus and Sprint were nuclear tipped interceptors, but Sprint’s warhead was “a low-yield enhanced radiation device that would cause little damage to the defended area.”7

The most critical component of the new system was the MAR. The Nike-Zeus system featured mechanically steered radars which left the system vulnerable to multiple incoming targets. MAR, as well as MSAR, were phased array radars, “which steer[ed] their beams by shifting the phase of many discrete radiating elements rather than by rotating their main face. That made it possible to move the beam very quickly so the radar could maintain track on objects already detected while continuing to scan for others.”8 The MAR was designed to be a long-range acquisition radar that identified targets for the Zeus missile and provide central control and battle management.9 The MSR was smaller and was capable of controlling Sprint as well as Zeus missiles.10

Prior to being directed to reorient Zeus system efforts to Nike-X, the Army wanted to deploy Zeus and phase-in new equipment (e.g., Sprint and phased array radars) as they became available. The resulting system would have closely resembled Nike-X. To defend this proposal, Army chief of staff Earle Wheeler, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, acknowledged the plan’s significant cost ($2.8 billion), but argued “it is worth something to protect a large number of people and a large segment of the economy.”11 The Army, members of Congress, and other proponents of early BMD deployment did not view missile defense systems as threatening to US adversaries. Proponents of early deployment understood that mutually assured destruction required having a survivable retaliatory strike capability and viewed defensive systems as a means of enhancing that survivability and retaliatory capability.12 The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and members of congress, continued to push for deployment of a missile defense system throughout the 1960s, but Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stood opposed.

McNamara believed a civil defense program was “the quickest and least expensive means of saving human lives under the circumstances.”13 As with Nike-Zeus, Nike-X “could not save sufficient lives in an all-out Soviet nuclear assault because the Soviets could easily penetrate the system at a fraction of the cost of a heavy American Nike-X deployment.”14 McNamara also argued that fallout shelters were necessary; without them, the Soviets could detonate airbursts upwind of population centers and out of range of active defenses, even if the antimissile systems were deployed.15

Political factors beyond McNamara’s preference for civil defenses continued to postpone the deployment of the Nike-X system. One leading thought was that missile defense systems would destabilize the deterred relationship with the Soviets and aggravate the arms race. To curb the arms race, the Johnson administration attempted to enter arms limitation discussions with the Soviet Union. The administration was delaying deployment of a BMD system because it felt such a system would undermine any potential negotiations with the Soviets.16

A new role for missile defense was created when China successfully tested its first nuclear weapon in October, 1964. Analysts began looking at missile defenses to protect against limited attacks from China in addition to large scale attacks from the Soviet Union. Initially, the threat from China was too meager to justify the cost of deploying an ABM system.17 China successfully tested its first thermonuclear weapon in June, 1967 (at least a year faster than predicted by US analysts) and continued to demonstrate fast-paced advancements in missile technology.18 McNamara announced the US would deploy a thin ABM system, specifically oriented against China in September, 1967.19 Though McNamara fought against deployment of ABM systems on the basis of their inability to adequately defend against a large Soviet nuclear salvo, he acknowledge Nike-X would be sufficient to defend against the type of limited attack China was expected to be capable of.20 In his speech, McNamara renamed the thin ABM deployment Sentinel, “and ordered that its development, production, and deployment be an entirely different project from the Nike-X development program.”21

 

  1. U.S. Army, History of Strategic Air and Ballistic Missile Defense.1956–1972. Vol. II. (Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2009). (Back)
  2. U.S. Army, History of Strategic Air and Ballistic Missile Defense.1956–1972. (Back)
  3. U.S. Army, History of Strategic Air and Ballistic Missile Defense.1956–1972. (Back)
  4. Nuclear ABMs of the USA, “Nike X.” Last modified August 02, 2002. Accessed July 24, 2013. http://www.nuclearabms.info/HNikeX.html (Back)
  5. US Missile Defense Agency, “Edited extract from: Department of Defense Annual Report for Fiscal Year 1996,” (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office), 1967. Available at: http://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/1966%20BMD%20extract.pdf (Back)
  6. US Missile Defense Agency, “Edited extract from: Department of Defense Annual Report for Fiscal Year 1996.” (Back)
  7. U.S. Army, History of Strategic Air and Ballistic Missile Defense.1956–1972. (Back)
  8. Gregory H. Canavan, Missile Defense for the 21st Century (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 2003). (Back)
  9. US Missile Defense Agency, “Edited extract from: Department of Defense Annual Report for Fiscal Year 1996.” (Back)
  10. US Missile Defense Agency, “Edited extract from: Department of Defense Annual Report for Fiscal Year 1996.” (Back)
  11. U.S. Army, History of Strategic Air and Ballistic Missile Defense.1956–1972. (Back)
  12. U.S. Army, History of Strategic Air and Ballistic Missile Defense.1956–1972.
  13. Yanarella, Ernest, J. The Missile Defense Controversy: Technology in Search of a Mission. (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002.) (Back)
  14. Yanarella, Ernest, J. The Missile Defense Controversy: Technology in Search of a Mission. (Back)
  15. Yanarella, Ernest, J. The Missile Defense Controversy: Technology in Search of a Mission. (Back)
  16. U.S. Army, History of Strategic Air and Ballistic Missile Defense.1956–1972. (Back)
  17. Yanarella, Ernest, J. The Missile Defense Controversy: Technology in Search of a Mission. (Back)
  18. U.S. Army, History of Strategic Air and Ballistic Missile Defense.1956–1972. (Back)
  19. Yanarella, Ernest, J. The Missile Defense Controversy: Technology in Search of a Mission. (Back)
  20. U.S. Army, History of Strategic Air and Ballistic Missile Defense.1956–1972. (Back)
  21. Yanarella, Ernest, J. The Missile Defense Controversy: Technology in Search of a Mission. (Back)
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