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An often overlooked bit of nuclear weaponry is the Nike series of surface to air missiles. There were something like 300 Nike bases scattered throughout the country, surrounding the forty military, population, and industrial centers thought to be the most likely targets of nuclear attack by the Soviets. These were tactical, rather than strategic weapons, due to their limited range, and were purely defensive.
Though associated with the Cold War, the Nike system had it’s roots in WWII, as a defense against possible attacks by anticipated German jet powered, long range bombers. Against such aircraft, the existing AA guns, and artillery would have been nearly useless. Development was complex, and the war had ended while the system was being designed, so the Nike was not fully developed and deployed until 1953, when it was put in place to protect us against our former allies in that conflict, the Russians.
The original system had a range of around 30 miles, and
even the latest developments were never able to attain a range
of more than 520 miles. These were purely tactical weapons,
despite their eventual use of nuclear warheads. Early nuclear
tipped Nikes had an adjustable yield (up to 40kt) warhead, while
the final version had a 5mt thermonuclear warhead. The Nike
system used one radar to track the target, and a separate radar
to track the flight of the missile. A computer compared the two
tracks, and sent corrections to the missile, via radio. This was
the first of what was to be known as a SAM system.
The Nike system used one radar to track the target, and a separate radar to track the flight of the missile. A computer compared the two tracks, and sent corrections to the missile, via radio. This was the first of what was to be known as a SAM system.
These were pretty much intended to be a weapon of last resort to knock down bombers, which had broken through all other defenses and were within United States territory. Detonation of a 40kt to 5mt warhead, over a section of the United States would have had some serious consequences. Still, it would probably be better than a direct hit on a city, by a functioning ICBM, or a load of nuclear bombs from a Soviet bomber.
There were 22 (some say 23) Nike sites ringing the
Chicago – Milwaukee area. Each site was capable of launching
anywhere from 6 to 20 missiles.
Each site was divided into two parts. The launch area was
separate from the radar/control/administrative center, usually
by at least 1000 feet. This was a requirement of the early radar
systems, which could not reliably track the fast moving
missiles at closer distances. In practice, the Army based
the two components of the system anywhere from a half mile, to
three miles apart.
In practice, the Army based the two components of the system anywhere from a half mile, to three miles apart.
There were eight Nike bases protecting Milwaukee. One
site, M-20, was at the lakefront, and was sold to the city, upon
decommissioning, to become the Summerfest grounds. Most of the
others have become housing developments, municipal facilities,
or parks. Site M-74, was deployed in Waukesha, and remains
relatively untouched, though it has not aged well. The
radar/control area is in what is now called Hillcrest Park, just
off of Davidson Road. The launch area is in what is now the
appropriately named Missile Park,
east Broadway, and east of highway 164/59. This site is often
erroneously referred to as site M-47, due to a typo in
Wikipedia, which has been repeated by many researchers, who use
this as their only source of research. The site was active from 1956 - 1971.
The site was active from 1956 - 1971.
As of March, 2006, the City of Waukesha owns the property, and there is some interest in turning the site into a Cold War museum. The control center is a fun place to wander around in, and there are a number of structures still to be seen. The launch area is a different story. It has been cleaned up, graveled, and the magazine elevator doors have been covered with asphalt, in order to prevent the curious from falls and injury. Still, it is worth a visit, for those who happen to live in the area. For those who wish a bit more, there are presently two restored Nike sites, and a third in the process of restoration.
The Nike missiles themselves were stored in underground magazines, until just before launch. At launch, they would be sent up, between a set of armored doors, via hydraulic elevator, to be emplaced on the surface mounted rail launcher. A typical magazine held six to ten missiles. Battery sizes varied. A launch site could have from one to four launchers, each being fed by one to four underground magazines. Radar installations also varied, and there really was no such thing as a “typical” Nike site.
For it’s entire service life, the Nike system was operated under the fiction that it was a mobile system. Thus, even with its missiles stored in underground, concrete magazines, its launchers mounted in concrete pads, and its large radars mounted on steel towers, the launch controllers, communications gear, and radar screens were all mounted in trailers. These trailers would then generally be housed in a concrete blast bunker.
Remaining at the Hillcrest Park site are a radar tower, and framework for an antenna, the blast shelter, and the barracks. The buildings are in very good shape; but are being used by the park, and have been modified to better suit their new roles. The tower and framework are in very good shape. Fencing, guard posts, and most other lighter structures are gone, as the area was cleaned up for use as a park.
For its day, the Nike system was a marvel. Much of the technology developed for the Nike is still in use today. A direct descendant of the old Nike is the modern Patriot missile system. Though the Nike was the major element of the Army, Air Defense Command, and took over the major air defense role, in replacing the old 90mm, 120mm, and 40mm guns, it was not the only system. The Air force had its BOMARC, and Genie systems, the one being ground launched, and the other being air launched. The Air Force had, at this time, just separated from the Army, to become its own branch of the service, and there was quite a bit of jealousy and competition, while both sides attempted to outdo the other and define their own turf. Of the three systems, the Nike was the longest lived, with some U.S. sites remaining active until 1984, and some overseas sites remaining in service until 1992.
Though it was probably still a viable system, upon its retirement, and well able to continue its mission, the mission itself had nearly gone away. The original mission of the Nike was to intercept, and destroy incoming high speed, high altitude aircraft. During its initial deployment, in 1952, American was fighting the Korean War, and its most advanced fighter aircraft was the F-86, a straight winged jet, barely able to manage Mach 1. Much of the American and Soviet air forces still relied upon old style prop driven planes. Compared to this, the radar controlled, mach 2.5 Nike was a marvel. By the seventies/eighties, when the Nike was retired, the F-15, and F-16 fighters were leading the way. These mach 2 - 2.5 aircraft were well able to act as interceptors, for any potential enemy bombers. Even this, though, was not the entire story.
Development of the modern ICBM, first by the United States, and then by the USSR, meant that any major attack, from an opposing nuclear power, would likely come from space, with a 20 minute warning, at 15,000 mph. The Patriot missile, and similar systems are being tweaked to counter this type of threat; but for fifty years, there really has been no reliable way to counter the ICBM. Bombers have been relegated to the status of a secondary threat, and are no longer considered to be a first strike weapon, in this type of conflict. Modern laser type weapons are being looked at as a possible solution to the ICBM; but they are still off in the future. The way that the superpowers have been dealing with this threat is to essentially give up, and admit defeat. Rather than attempting to defend ourselves, we have taken great pains to assure any enemy, that an attack on the United States will result in the certain destruction of the attacker. This is the domain of the ICBM, and the SLBM, the so called doomsday weapons, like the Minuteman, Peacekeeper, and Trident missiles. These systems got all of the press, all of the attention, the money, and the status. They also generated most of the fear. These were commanded by the gentleman technocrats of the Air Force, and Navy. This was to be the ultimate in push button warfare.
Still, a crew working a Nike site, had they ever been required to launch in earnest, would have been doing so, in order to protect their families, their nation, and themselves. They would also have known that they might have a chance to succeed in their mission. The crew of a missile submarine, or the team working underground in a Minuteman launch center would have had no such reassurance. In contrast to the Nike operators, these men would have known that all was lost, and that their mission of deterrence had failed. All that would be left for them would be a mission of vengeance.
Fortunately for everyone, neither system was ever used, so in a sense, both succeeded. The Cold War is one that we won, In truth, it is the only war of consequence to have been fought, since WWII, and may even be considered as a bit of an outgrowth of that war, and of the shifting of power which resulted from it. All of the other conflicts, and wars fought since, have been minor theaters of that great, long war, as the superpowers sought advantage for an ultimate showdown which never came.
It is fun to look at these old places now, secure in the knowledge that the threat they were designed to counter, threatens us no more. There are some initiatives to turn old M-74 into a Cold War museum. Several old Nike bases are being restored and opened to the public, in Florida, California, and New Jersey. Most of the others rust and rot. The photo to the right is of a base in the west; but gives a pretty good indication of what old M-74 looked like while it was in service. The pedestal of the tracking tower, and the framework of the HIPAR are pretty easily recognizable. When compared to the photos of the site in its current condition below.
A mile south of the radar site is the launch site. As of this writing it is covered by snow, and is difficult to access, due to the condition of the county roads. I do plan to go there, and photograph the place sometime this summer, and will update this page at that time.
Chances are, if you live in any large metro area, there are some Nike sites scattered around, for you to visit. The sites were strongly built, to survive near misses during a nuclear strike, and would thus be very difficult, and expensive to knock down. So most were left standing. Some have been taken over by The National Guard, others by schools, and municipalities, and a few became parks. Many were just left as they were - abandoned after everything that could be reused was removed. They are out there, their locations are well mapped and easy to find, just waiting to be visited by the urban explorer.The Site Today