The Missile Next Door: A Spatial History of Nike Ajax and Hercules

Nike Hercules missiles on display at the SF-88 launch site near San Francisco. Image by Bhautik Joshi.

A PDF version of this article with footnote citations and a full bibliography can be accessed here.

On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic weapon. Suddenly, a destructive force of terrifying power — one hitherto monopolized by the United States — was turned against its creator. Air defenses became an American military preoccupation, and a variety of countermeasures were fielded to protect key U.S. cities and defense installations from the atomic threat.

The Nike missile system was one such effort. Fielded in 1954 and improved repeatedly thereafter, over 250 Nike missile sites protected numerous American cities and airfields. The fulfillment of Nike’s expansive mission — defending America’s industrial and human capacity against Soviet bomber attack — required a peacetime military construction effort among the largest undertaken in the United States. Because Nike sites were situated near the communities they defended, the system’s later retirement presented unique opportunities for land reclamation and reuse, but also challenges related to environmental contamination. 

This article will examine the development, deployment, and enduring impact of the Nike missile system, with a special emphasis on spatial history. The included maps are based on coordinates drawn from Wikipedia, many of which ultimately derive from Ed Thelen’s Missile Site. This project would not have been possible without these collective resources and the volunteer work of the veterans and history buffs who compile and maintain them.

Nike – Cutting Edge Technology

Rapid technological advances during World War II yielded fast, high-flying heavy bombers which anti-aircraft artillery struggled to engage effectively. Guided missiles, another novel technology pioneered during the war, offered a solution: rocket-powered vehicles could be automatically directed towards enemy planes at high altitude. This weapon type, called an “anti-aircraft rocket torpedo” in early studies, came to be known as a “surface-to-air missile.” The Army’s fledgling surface-to-air missile program was initiated early in 1945 with a feasibility study led by electronics juggernaut Western Electric and its affiliate Bell Telephone Laboratories. This team leveraged its experience developing radars and fire control equipment to draft an initial proposal, which provided the conceptual basis for Nike. Development work began in short order, with Western Electric at the helm as prime contractor and Bell Telephone Laboratories handling the radars and computer system. Military laboratories, including the Ballistic Research Laboratory, Picatinny Arsenal, and Frankford Arsenal, helped to develop missile subsystems. Private-sector subcontractors included the Douglas Aircraft Company and Aerojet Engineering, which designed the airframe and rocket engines (respectively). Static test firings of Nike missiles began in 1946, and a target drone was successfully engaged in 1951. After this favorable test and amidst rising tensions between the United States and the Communist bloc, Nike was put into full-rate production. 

The initial Nike variant, dubbed “Nike Ajax,” was the world’s first operational surface-to-air missile system, with initial deployments taking place in 1954. Nike Ajax consisted of a fire control facility and a launch facility, physically separated by at least 1,000 meters. Both were static concrete emplacements — Nike was never adapted for mobile use on the battlefield. The fire control system used an L-band acquisition radar to detect targets, which were passed to a dedicated X-band target tracking radar. Once a missile was launched, its position was logged by a third radar, the missile tracking radar. Nike missiles had little organic guidance equipment; all intercept calculations were executed on the ground by a sophisticated analog computer, which generated commands for the missile. The missile tracking radar sent these commands back to the missile as a pulse-position modulated radiofrequency signal.

A Nike Ajax round on static display in Kentucky. Image by Chris Light.

Nike Ajax’s electronics could only guide one missile at a time, drastically limiting the number of targets a single battery could engage. Moreover, Nike Ajax’s tracking radars had poor resolution, so aircraft flying in tight formation appeared to the system as one large object. As a result, missiles would be guided to the middle of a formation, where they would detonate ineffectually. Another shortcoming was the lack of an engagement coordination system to manage the fire of different Nike batteries, resulting in the possibility of redundant engagements wherein two separate batteries fired at the same target.

Nike Ajax missiles had a range of around 25 miles and a maximum interception altitude of 70,000 feet. Like other first-generation surface-to-air missiles, Ajax rounds were imposing — each stood 33 feet tall and weighed around one ton. The missile had two stages, a solid-fuel booster and a liquid-fuel second stage powered by jet fuel (kerosene) and an inhibited red fuming nitric acid (IRFNA) oxidizer. This hypergolic combination was prone to catastrophic explosions when inadvertently mixed, so great care was taken when handling the propellants. Protective measures included the use of rubber suits in case of spillage and the provision of emergency showers in case of skin contact. To meet Army regulations governing the storage of explosive materials, Nike Ajax missiles were kept in below-ground magazines, which could hold around a dozen rounds. Prior to firing, the missiles would be raised out of the magazine with a large munitions elevator and manually transferred to a launcher. Once on a launcher rail, missiles were elevated to firing position. Though Nike Ajax featured automated guidance and cutting-edge computers, it was far from a turn-key system.

Each site required over 100 personnel, who handled operations, maintenance, logistics, and security. These men were housed in on-site barracks, most often located near the IFC. Nike sites were maintained at varying degrees of readiness — within each defense area, a portion of sites would be kept at the highest alertness level to handle unforeseen threats. The remainder of sites operated at lower readiness, allowing them to conduct maintenance and other tasks. However, even the most alert installations would take around five minutes to raise their missiles from the magazines and prepare them for launch. 

Training manuals used with Nike Ajax demonstrate the system’s complexity. Its computers featured an array of op-amps, servos, and other analog components for executing intercept math. Maintaining, repairing, and operating this equipment required a solid grasp of mathematics and engineering. Lengthy checklists and diagnostic procedures had to be followed diligently or catastrophic failure could occur, and Nike operators drilled regularly to maintain their proficiency with the system. Missiles were routinely shipped to battalion-level or national-level depots for comprehensive maintenance and checks, a task which required their complete disassembly. In addition, radars were taken apart and rebuilt yearly to attend firing practice in New Mexico. Over time, the Army transitioned many sites to Army National Guard control in order to free up active duty manpower, resulting in National Guard activations of unprecedented duration.

In light of its numerous flaws, the Army began considering upgrades to Nike Ajax right as deployments began. The risk of redundant engagements was soon addressed by a new Lockheed system, “Missile Master,” which coordinated the sites’ operations. However, the inability of Nike’s target tracking radar to resolve planes in tight formation remained.

The Army’s solution was to create a new Nike variant, “Hercules,” with a fission warhead, allowing the missile to obliterate an entire formation. Hercules featured a number of other improvements, including a maximum engagement range triple that of Ajax’s (~75 miles versus ~25 miles). This was achieved by essentially strapping four Ajax boosters together, creating a four ton, 39 foot tall missile. To make use of this improved range, a more powerful acquisition radar was provided. And, for enhanced safety, Hercules used a solid fuel second stage. These differences notwithstanding, Hercules operated in the same fashion as Ajax and used most of the same equipment, so Ajax sites could be upgraded to Hercules without too much trouble. Some new Hercules sites without below-ground bunkers were constructed in sparsely-populated areas, but these were a small minority of all Nike sites. Ultimately, Hercules supplanted Ajax — sites were either converted in the early to mid 1960s or decommissioned.

A Nike Hercules IFC. The left two pedestals hold the target tracking radars, the rightmost is the missile tracking radar, and the center pedestal holds the original Ajax acquisition radar. The large dome contains Hercules’ new higher-powered acquisition radar.

Teething issues were to be expected given Nike’s bleeding-edge status. To help work through kinks and improve the system, civilian engineers and contractors often visited the sites and collaborated with military personnel. A 1960 film produced by the Army, nearly thirty minutes in length and noteworthy for its detail, offers an intriguing look at the military’s attempts to lionize Nike. The production’s narrator describes Nike as a collaboration between the nation’s brightest civilian and military engineers, who harnessed emerging technologies such as computer simulations to develop and improve the system. Nike embodied modern warfare’s unprecedented technological complexity — in the narrator’s words, Nike operators and maintainers stood on the shoulders of such giants as “Faraday” and “Hertz.” 

The Geography of Nike

The Nike program deployed cutting-edge American military power into otherwise ordinary communities. Over 250 sites defended cities and airfields in 29 states — based on 1960 census figures, around 50 million Americans lived in counties with a Nike site (approximately ⅓ of the country’s population at the time). The following image shows the distribution of Nike installations in America (note: a handful of sites in Florida are missing from this map). Because the system’s range was limited, protecting the country’s borders with Nike would have been prohibitively expensive. Instead, the Army established sites around areas it believed were strategically important. 

Nike site distribution serves as a stark reminder of nuclear war’s brutal realities. Sites clustered around industrial cities because these were the loci of American strategic power, and planners understood that war with the Soviet Union would be a contest of attrition and annihilation. The Army’s air defense field manual, FM 44-1, explained that air defenses were deployed to guard “national defense production and retaliatory capabilities” by protecting concentrated populations and industrial capability. In one passage, the manual acknowledged that an area could only sustain so many casualties “if it is to remain alive and continue its key contribution to the national defense effort.” Nike’s job was to keep devastation below the “maximum acceptable damage [levels] . . . defined by isodamage contour lines.”

The placement of sites reflected this logic. Pittsburgh, a steel industry powerhouse, received a generous complement of twelve Nike installations, whereas Atlanta, Denver, and Houston were left completely undefended. The South, save for Florida and Texas, was largely neglected by planners, probably due to a perceived lack of industrial utility. Distance likely played a role as well — cities on the West Coast and in the North were closer to the Soviet Union’s bomber bases and would thus make easier targets. However, the Army constructed a number of Nike sites in the South to defend key military installations, suggesting that large Southern cities were also within the reach of the Soviet Union (and later Cuba). 

In addition to protecting industry and concentrated populations, Nike sites were arrayed to defend America’s nuclear arsenal. Illustrating the importance of retaliation, Georgia’s four sites were situated around Turner and Robins Air Force bases, but Atlanta was neglected entirely. The same is true of Louisiana, where two sites defended Barksdale Air Force Base while New Orleans received none. In Kansas, Schilling AFB was protected, but Wichita was not. And South Dakota’s Ellsworth Air Force Base, a major hub for strategic nuclear forces, was defended by four sites while the neighboring Rapid City was left unprotected (see below).

Each Nike site required at least 40 acres — IFCs typically occupied six to eight acres, while launch sites needed over thirty for their safety buffer zone. As aforementioned, the launch site and IFC were separated by at least 1,000 meters to ensure proper operation of the system’s electronics. Additionally, a clear line of sight between the IFC and launch area was necessary to prevent obstruction of the missile tracking radar’s command link. At some sites, the IFC and launch area were placed as close as possible on a single large parcel of land. 

In other instances, they were separated by a considerable distance, often with the IFC located on a hill to ensure its radars could operate free from obstruction. 

When possible, sites were deployed in a ring around the defended area, maximizing each battery’s coverage and avoiding redundancies.

However, geography made it necessary to place sites in the midst of some coastal cities. Every possible approach had to be covered, so cities bordered by a lake or ocean received batteries near their shores. Consequently, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Chicago all had sites placed relatively close to their downtowns.

Considering the number of sites, their proximity to cities, and the scale of the program — Nike required around 10,000 acres total — some land acquisition difficulties were to be expected. Articles in local newspapers document the Army’s efforts to obtain the necessary parcels, which included “customary” meetings with local officials prior to siting. When possible, Nike installations were placed on undeveloped land in military or federal government hands. For example, SF-89’s launch site was constructed in the San Francisco Presidio, a large military property, and its IFC was sited on a nearby undeveloped hill. When suitable government-owned land could not be found, plots could be purchased from private landowners, as was done for the Austin Defense Area’s batteries. Eminent domain was sometimes employed as well; one Miami ranch owner was awarded $560,000 in court after a portion of his land was “surrendered” to the military for Nike.

Community Relations

Some Americans feared the prospect of large missiles near their homes — an understandable sentiment, especially given Nike Ajax’s volatile propellants and Nike Hercules’ fission warheads. Whereas strategic bombers and ballistic missiles were typically situated in the expanses of America’s heartland, many Nike sites were close to urban and suburban areas, as illustrated by the maps displayed earlier. Newspaper coverage attests to a variety of accidents, explosions, and misfires, some of which killed or injured military personnel, contractors, and/or bystanders.

 Perhaps the most infamous was a 1958 accident wherein a chain reaction destroyed eight Ajax missiles, which were above-ground for work. Ten personnel died, and nearby New Jerseyans were jolted by the blast and showered with debris. Eyewitnesses reported that a few rogue missiles even began to lift off before disintegrating. Though nobody off-base was killed, residents of the Middletown Township, which housed the site, were furious. They had initially opposed the installation on safety grounds but were promised by the Army that Nike posed no danger. After this incident, the Army tried to assuage civilian fears and protect service members by instituting new regulations, which mandated that all maintenance be performed in the storage bunker and limited the number of missiles above ground simultaneously. Though the explosion received nationwide coverage and constituted a public relations disaster, the deployment of sites continued apace throughout the late fifties and early sixties. Even Middleton declined to lodge a formal protest of the site, with one council member asserting that “the bases are here for our protection and are here to stay.” The system may have been dangerous, but the possibility of nuclear bombs falling on one’s own neighborhood was apparently far more intimidating to most Americans. 

To foster good relations with their neighbors, many Nike sites held open houses, which allowed base personnel to socialize with members of the local community. One battery located in Bridgewater, New Jersey held an open house for three hours on a Sunday to mark the tenth anniversary of Nike’s entry into service. Attractions included a Nike Hercules missile on static display, a tour of the IFC, and a demonstration of the target tracking radar. In Illinois, an Arlington Heights site put a helicopter, a field medical station, and a Hercules missile on display for Armed Forces Day. Visitors were allowed into the Chicago Defense Area command room, the barracks, and the mess hall, with soldiers on hand to answer any questions. The newspaper article advertising this event noted that parking would be available and refreshments provided — evidently, the base’s operators wished to make the open house as pleasant and convenient an experience as possible. For the Army, these open houses were an opportunity to impress visitors with the towering atomic-age missiles and their sophisticated electronics. Moreover, guiding residents through the sites and explaining their workings could help assuage any fears they may have. Offering tours during Armed Forces day was standard practice for various military installations, not just Nike batteries. However, due to their unique siting amidst communities across the country, Nike offered the Army an excellent means of interfacing with the American populace and showing off its investments in air defense. 

Nike’s Legacy

Though groundbreaking upon introduction, Nike began losing tactical relevance only years after its initial deployment. Both Ajax and Hercules were ineffectual against intercontinental ballistic missiles, which traveled at hypersonic speeds and were quickly becoming the preferred means of nuclear weapons delivery. As a result, the Army began to decommission sites during the 1960s, beginning with many of the Ajax installations. Most of the smaller defense areas had been shuttered by the early seventies, and all of the remaining sites were closed in 1974 except a handful in Florida and Alaska, which ceased operations by 1979. The Army attempted to reinvigorate homeland defenses by developing a new Nike variant, Zeus, designed to intercept ballistic missiles using a nuclear warhead. Zeus was ultimately canceled in favor of Nike-X, which was itself canceled in 1967. As experts studied the issue of defending against ballistic missiles, they realized the so-called “cost imposition curve” made the problem intractable. It would always be cheaper to destroy an anti-missile system than to build one, so offense would win an arms race against defense. A long string of abortive replacement programs followed Nike-X, but these were intended to defeat a limited attack by a few ballistic missiles. Ultimately, hopes that American cities could be defended against a Soviet nuclear attack were dashed by the deployment of ICBMs and SLBMs, with mutually assured destruction becoming the dominant paradigm. 

Nike’s demise left the Army with hundreds of abandoned parcels, many in desirable locations. What became of these Cold War relics? The answer varies from site to site — newspaper articles, military documents, and modern satellite imagery can help establish the trajectory of individual Nike installations and draw some broader conclusions.

Like many defense facilities, Nike sites often posed health risks and required environmental remediation prior to re-use. Military documents, especially those prepared by contractors who assessed the sites, offer an intriguing look at the contamination challenges. One Army report, aptly named “Investigation of Former Nike Missile Sites for Potential Toxic and Hazardous Waste Contamination, lists the hazards inspectors should anticipate when evaluating an installation. Generally, the launch site posed a greater threat than the IFC. Since maintaining and operating the missiles involved using and disposing of “solvents, fuels, hydraulic fluids, [and] paints,” soil contamination was likely. A list of typical contaminants included “benzene, carbon tetrachloride, chromium, petroleum hydrocarbons, lead, perchlorethylene, toluene, . . . [and] trichloroethane.” Official Nike procedures called for gathering hazardous waste in drums and sending the drums to appropriate facilities for disposal. However, the report notes that some units engaged in “unofficial dumping” of their hazardous wastes in secluded areas, mostly for reasons of convenience. The drainage systems of the missile magazine and maintenance buildings were another major concern — runoff (often contaminated with paints and other chemicals) simply emptied into the ground. Because such hazards could exist at any Nike site, the DoD mandated that each one be checked as part of the Defense Environmental Restoration Program. 

Consequently, numerous government-commissioned studies document contamination at individual Nike facilities. Some are quite detailed, including one conducted on site KC-30 (Kansas City defense area) prior to its sale. The report’s authors conducted numerous interviews with former KC-30 operators and discovered that improper disposal waste oil disposal was frequent, explaining a large oily patch noted during inspection. KC-30’s waste oil was later stored in drums and tanks, but these developed leaks. Moreover, the inspectors noted that five tanks still containing heating oil were present on the site, and an improperly maintained septic system was suspected to contain various chemicals. Inspectors also found more mundane hazards typical of buildings from the era, including asbestos panels. After the issuing of the report, it appears remedial actions were taken; satellite imagery indicates the IFC has been razed, and the launch area is being used to store private vehicles. 

One intriguing document concerns the burial of UDMH, a starter fluid for liquid rocket engines, at various Rhode Island launch sites. This was apparently standard procedure at the state’s Nike facilities, even though dumping or burning would have been acceptable methods of disposal (UDMH is highly volatile and will evaporate or degrade upon exposure to the environment). Because the buried UDMH containers were sealed and the liquid would not dissipate over time, Army hazardous materials personnel visited the Rhode Island sites and, utilizing information gathered from interviews, unearthed the canisters to burn off the UDMH. At one site, they were assisted by a man, Mr. Bestwick, who had buried several canisters himself and remembered their approximate locations. 

It seems the largest and most expensive remedial efforts have been related to trichloroethane, or TCE. A commonly-used solvent during the 1960s, TCE has been deemed carcinogenic by the EPA and is often found in unsafe concentrations near Nike sites, especially in groundwater. One Indiana site, C-32, was found to contain very high levels of TCE; test wells gave readings of 400 micrograms per liter, twenty times over the EPA limit. Remedial efforts (ongoing as of 2019) are projected to cost in excess of two million dollars. Another site at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland was similarly contaminated with TCE and required a cleanup totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. In both cases, the federal government paid for the remediation.

The Army’s attempts to clean Nike sites have substantially reduced the risk of adverse health effects, but the surrounding communities have not always been cooperative. The saga of one Chicago site is especially illustrative. C-92/94 was an abnormally-large dual site, occupying 184 acres in the neighborhood of Vernon Hill, Illinois, a suburb to the northwest of Chicago. After decommissioning, the Army gave the site to the Navy, which planned to build off-base housing there but never completed the project. The Navy did, however, allow the FAA to build a high-frequency navigational beacon for nearby airports, including Chicago O’Hare. During the 1990s, local leaders set their sights on the large parcel of land, submitting proposals to the Navy that envisioned sports fields and school buildings. However, the plot required soil remediation before it could be repurposed. To accomplish this, the Navy wanted to remove the contaminated earth, a task requiring eight hours of trucking per day over a three month period. The only available route went through a residential neighborhood, and homeowners were livid. One resident complained, “We wanted a quiet subdivision, and now we have these huge trucks barreling through our residential streets, which are loaded with children.” A village trustee vowed to stop the excavation, stating, “If we have to fight the Navy, we will.” Unfortunately, the saga disappears from newspaper archives after this episode, but the outcome can be inferred using modern satellite imagery. Contemporary maps label the area “Vernon Hills Athletic Complex,” and a variety of sports fields are visible in satellite imagery. A few Navy-owned radiofrequency antennae remain on the site, and one of the main thoroughfares is appropriately named “Nike Parkway.”

Though sites were often repurposed, many have fallen into disrepair or neglect, especially those in more remote areas. The best way to explore forgotten Nike sites is through the internet, especially Google Maps and videos produced by urban explorers. Many Nike facilities have been marked as historical locations by Google Maps users and can be easily located by anyone who knows where to look.

Above: Nike site NY-56 marked on Google Maps. This IFC is relatively well preserved and serves as a museum. The square and hexagonal platforms on the left hand side are radar pedestals. Credit: Google Earth.

Oftentimes, users share pictures or “photo-sphere” captures, giving an up-close look at the state of a site. The below-ground missile bunkers are costly to remove and often remain intact, their doors slowly rusting away and their hazard stripes fading. IFC radar pedestals, built of thick concrete, also tend to persevere. Barracks, storage rooms, and other facilities sometimes remain, their roofs caving in and their walls adorned with graffiti. 

Above: A panoramic image of a deteriorated SF-51 IFC building. Image credit: Google, Chris Romero.

As noted by John Smoley, whose thesis explores the preservation of Nike installations, the Nike program does not fit neatly into the Cold War historiography (or, really, any other historiography). Nike Ajax and Hercules were state-of-the-art, but the widespread introduction of ballistic missiles came as a rude shock and pushed Nike into obsolescence and obscurity. And the Cold War’s dominant retrospective narrative has been that of mutually assured destruction, the very development which killed Nike. Moreover, Nike was never able to prove itself in real-world combat (whereas the Soviet S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile system, Nike’s communist equivalent, (in)famously shot down Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 over the Soviet Union). 

But perhaps this marginalization and idiosyncrasy are what make Nike so intriguing to study. In a historiography dominated by overseas conflict, Nike helps us remember the homeland’s importance in Cold War strategic thought. And the system’s atypical deployment geography brought issues often accompanying military installations — safety, contamination, land reuse and ownership — into sharper relief by forcing hundreds of municipalities to host an active weapon system. As long as Nike’s steel and concrete structures remain scattered across the American landscape, wayward hikers, urban explorers, and history buffs will stumble across its decaying vestiges and marvel at the thought — now almost inconceivable — of missiles next door.

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