Project Nike began during 1944 when the War Department demanded a new air defense system to combat the new jet aircraft, as existing gun-based systems proved largely incapable of dealing with the speeds and altitudes at which jet aircraft operated. Two proposals were accepted. Bell Laboratories offered Project Nike. A much longer-ranged collision-course system was developed by General Electric, named Project Thumper, eventually delivering the BOMARC missile.
Bell Lab's proposal would have to deal with bombers flying at 500 mph (800 km/h) or more at altitudes of up to 60,000 ft (20,000 m). At these speeds, even a supersonic rocket is no longer fast enough to be simply aimed at the target. The missile must "lead" the target to ensure the target is hit before the missile depletes its fuel. This means that the missile and target cannot be tracked by a single radar, increasing the complexity of the system. One part was well developed. By this point, the US had considerable experience with lead-calculating analog computers, starting with theBritishKerrison
For Nike, three radars were used. The acquisition radar searched for a target to be handed over to the Target Tracking Radar (TTR) for tracking. The Missile Tracking Radar (MTR) tracked the missile by way of a transponder, as the missile's radar signature alone was not sufficient. The MTR also commanded the missile by way of pulse-position modulation, the pulses were received, decoded and then amplified back for the MTR to track. Once the tracking radars were locked the system was able to work automatically following launch, barring any unexpected occurrences. The computer compared the two radars' directions, along with information on the speeds and distances, to calculate the intercept point and steer the missile. The entirety of this system was provided by the Bell System's electronics firm, Western Electric.
The Douglas-built missile was a two stage missile using a solid fuel booster stage and a liquid fueled (IRFNA/UDMH) second stage. The missile could reach a maximum speed of 1,000 mph (1,600 km/h), an altitude of 70,000 ft (21 km) and had a range of 25 miles (40 km). The missile contained an unusual three part payload, with explosive fragmentation charges at three points down the length of the missile to help ensure a lethal hit. The missile's limited range was seen by critics as a serious flaw, because it often meant that the missile had to be situated very close to the area it was protecting.
After disputes between the Army and the Air Force (see the Key West Agreement), all longer-range systems were assigned to the Air Force during 1948. They merged their own long-range research with Project Thumper, while the Army continued to develop Nike. During 1950 the Army formed the Army Anti-Aircraft Command (ARAACOM) to operate batteries of anti-aircraft guns and missiles. ARAACOM was renamed the US Army Air Defense Command (USARADCOM) during 1957. It adopted a simpler acronym, ARADCOM, in 1961.
A Nike Hercules missile.
Main article: MIM-14 Nike-Hercules
Even as Nike Ajax was being tested, work started on Nike-B, later renamed Nike Hercules (MIM-14). It improved speed, range and accuracy, and could intercept ballistic missiles. The Hercules had a range of about 100 miles (160 km), a top speed in excess of 3,000 mph (4,800 km/h) and a maximum altitude of around 100,000 ft (30 km). It had solid fuel boost and sustainer rocket motors. The boost phase was four of the Nike Ajax boosters strapped together. In the electronics, some vacuum tubes were replaced with more reliable solid-state components.