Nike’s Revenge: The Return of Urban Missile Defense

News last week that the US is contemplating area cruise missile defense – around US cities – against Russian missiles, no less – was enough to fill me with a certain sort of  glee.

Given the problems we’ve had with defending against ballistic missiles and their far more predictable (and detectable) trajectories, the technological barriers to implementing an effective urban cruise missile defense are likely to be high. (On the other hand, if the Russian ICBM threat is as overhyped as State is playing it, then we’ve got some breathing room to develop such a system.) Of course, this wouldn’t be our first iteration of urban aerial defense.

Nike Hercules missiles on alert, 1970s.

The Nike program from the early Cold War was the US attempt to thwart Soviet nuclear attacks by shooting down bombers (at first, with Nike Ajax), and eventually expanding to target ballistic missiles (Nike Hercules/Zeus). Surface-to-air missiles versus aircraft, essentially. By the 1970s, the threat of a massive, overwhelming ICBM salvo led some missiles had begun to be armed with nuclear warheads, most notably those of the separate SENTINEL/SAFEGUARD program with its 5 megaton W71. But the last of the Nike sites was decommissioned in 1974, and Safeguard only lasted a few months before being shut down in 1975. An excellent overview of all this has been published, of course, as an Osprey book.

Raytheon/Kongsberg HAWK-AMRAAM mobile launcher.

The proposed system is a little different – new active electronically-scanned area (AESA) radars would enable F-16s to shoot down the cruise missiles, rather than relying on a ground-based interceptor. The fighters would be networked with some sort of barrage balloon-type airships carrying sensors, as well as radars and sensors at sea (too bad Washington must bid adieu to USS Barry – would that it might gain a second life from this effort). However, Raytheon is considering land-based versions of both the SM-6 and the AMRAAM, which would require some degree of construction for basing.

What’s most interesting to me is where exactly such systems might be deployed. In addition to the major SAC bases, various Nike anti-air batteries defended major industrial and population centers.

Nike sites in the continental United States

Reading a list of the 40″defense areas” from the 1950s is like a snapshot of US heavy industry at its peak: Hartford, Bridgeport, Chicago-Gary, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Niagara Falls-Buffalo, Cincinnati-Dayton, Providence, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee (among others) were all deserving of their own ring of air defenses. But what would the map look like now?

It’s both a rhetorical and a practical question. The importance of place has changed, and in some ways the country as a whole is more sprawling than it was during the Cold War. More places to defend but also more targets for an enemy. As the JCS Vice Chairman Sandy Winnefeld is quoted, “we probably couldn’t protect the entire place from cruise missile attack unless we want to break the bank. But there are important areas in this country we need to make sure are defended from that kind of attack.” One can already imagine the hearings and horsetrading that would accompany any discussion of which cities are worthy of protection – picture the East Coast interceptor site debate multiplied a hundredfold.

Hopefully SM or AAMRAAM is a part of it, but if the new system of sensors and radars is indeed confined to mobile platforms – fighters, ships, balloons – we’ll be deprived of Nike’s wonderful legacy of ruins. Only one Nike site, that of Fort Barry in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Recreation Area, has been preserved and is open to the public. Others make for a nice, if haunting walk. Others have found new purpose – it was only in recent years that I learned Drumlin Farm, a wildlife sanctuary run by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and frequent field trip destination as a kid, was once home to  the control site of Launcher B-73 and its Ajax and later Hercules missiles.

Radar dome of Nike site Mike near Eielson AFB, AK.

Without the permanent physical infrastructure of a Nike-type program, our cruise missile defense initiative will be sorely lacking any vestiges for future generations to explore. Although how ironic is it that one of the better reasons to support a missile defense initiative is in anticipation of its eventual decommissioning? At any rate, it’s likely that any modern system would leave a smaller footprint than Nike, with presumably fewer control sites having command of multiple, if not all launch sites in a given area.

The land-based component might never be constructed. But at least with balloons in the skies overhead, we all might wake up one morning and wonder if we’ve been transported to some kind of alternate reality.

“Manhatan” (as it appeared on Fringe).

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