Nike Missile History


Nike, named for the mythical Greek goddess of victory, was the name given to a program which ultimately produced the world’s first successful, widely-deployed, guided surface-to-air missile system. Planning for Nike was begun during the last months of the Second World War when the U.S. Army realized that conventional anti-aircraft artillery would not be able to provide an adequate defense against the fast, high-flying and maneuverable jet aircraft which were being introduced into service, particularly by the Germans.

A typical Nike air defense site consisted of two separate parcels of land. One area was known as the Integrated Fire Control (IFC) Area. This site contained the Nike system’s ground-based radar and computer systems designed to detect and track hostile aircraft, and to guide the missiles to their targets.

The second parcel of land was known as the Launcher Area. At the launcher area, Nike missiles were stored horizontally within heavily constructed underground missile magazines. A large, missile elevator brought the Nikes to the surface of the site where they would be pushed (manually) by crewmen, across twin steel rails to one of four satellite launchers. The missile was then attached to its launcher and erected to a near-vertical position for firing.

During 1974, all remaining operational sites within the nationwide Nike air defense system were inactivated. Army Air Defense Command (ARADCOM) which administered this system was closed down shortly thereafter. The deactivation of the nationwide Nike missile system signaled the end of one of the nation’s most significant, highly visible and costly Cold War air defense programs.

missile bay

The first successful test firing of a Nike missile occurred during 1951. This first Nike missile was later given the name Nike “Ajax”. Nike Ajax was a slender, two-stage guided missile powered by a liquid-fueled motor utilizing a combination of inhibited red fuming nitric acid (IRFNA), unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine (UDMH) and JP-4 jet petroleum. The Ajax was blasted off of its launcher by means of a jettisonable solid fuel rocket booster which fired for about 3 seconds, accelerating the missile with a power of 25 times the force of gravity.


The Ajax missile was capable of maximum speeds of over 1,600-mph and could reach targets at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet. Its range was only about 25 miles, which was too short to make it a truly effective air defense weapon in the eyes of its many detractors. Its supporters countered that the new missile was markedly superior to conventional antiaircraft artillery, and that it was, significantly, the only air defense missile actually deployed and operational at that time.