The Early Development of the Nike Missile

From the White Sands Missile Range Museum’s Archival Research Center
Edited for this website by Jenn Jett, Museum Specialist
Editor’s note: This narrative is undated, but is likely from the 1950’s-1960’s. The text of this document has been minimally altered and should be viewed from its contemporary perspective.

Named after the goddess of victory of Greek mythology, Nike is the end product of eight years of guided missile research, development, and engineering. Nike is the Army’s first supersonic anti-aircraft guided missile designed to follow and destroy the enemy target regardless of evasive action. It is the first guided missile system to defend American cities against aerial attack.

An integral part of the Army’s guided missile program, the Nike project was initiated in 1945 when Army Ordnance asked Bell Telephone Laboratories to undertake a study of the problems involved in the construction of a new anti-aircraft system. As a result of their recommendations, the Army promptly authorized a development contract so that the envisioned guided missile system could be brought to a reality.

Initial firing tests of Nike missiles started in the fall of 1946 at White Sands Proving Ground. Throughout the intervening years, the Nike missile and its associated equipment progressed from one development stage to another at WSPG, until finally it was ready for mass production.

This new addition to the country’s arsenal of defense was developed by a service-industry team composed of engineers of the Army Ordnance Corps, Western Electric Company, Bell Telephone Laboratories, and Douglas Aircraft Company. Current mass production of the control equipment is largely accomplished by the Western Electric Company. The missile and component parts of the Nike system are being produced by the Douglas Aircraft Company, Western Electric, and several hundred suppliers and subcontractors in more than 20 states.

The Nike system consists essentially of two parts: First, an expendable missile; second, an elaborate and highly complex control system requiring approximately 1,500,000 individual parts.

Essentially a defensive weapon, the Nike system will provide defended area with a far greater degree of anti-aircraft protection than was ever before possible with the more limited ranges and altitudes of conventional anti-aircraft guns.

Nike employment in the anti-aircraft defense of the Continental United States will utilize constructed emplacements. While the land requirement for each individual site is relatively small, positioning of the site is comparatively rigid. Only the absolute minimum land interests necessary to emplace and operate the weapon systems and to afford safety protection will be required. Government-owned land will be utilized to the maximum extent possible consistent with technical requirements. This will reduce to a minimum inconvenience to the civilian population and the removal of revenue-producing land from tax rolls.

The term “government-owned land” includes state, county and municipally-owned lands. In the developing program of setting up defense installations, decisions which would affect lands owned by states, counties, or cities will be reached only after consultations with officials of the governmental subdivisions concerned.

General Description

1. Nike is the nation’s first combat ready surface-to-air guided missile system to be put in use in the air defense system of the United States.

2. It also is the Army’s first supersonic guided missile to demonstrate its ability to knock enemy aircraft out of the sky.

3. The missile can out-maneuver bombers, fighters, or transport planes.

4. Nike can operate regardless of weather conditions and visibility.

5. The Nike system is mobile. All units of the system other than the launching racks are housed in specially designed all-weather van-type trailers. If necessary, the system can be transported by air.

Missile and Booster

Technicians in HAZMAT suits fueling a Nike I on its launcher in preparation for flight.

1. Nike is a liquid-fueled supersonic guided anti-aircraft missile.

2. The missile is approximately 20 feet long and about one foot in diameter. It has two sets of fins for guidance and steering.

3. Inside its aerodynamic body it carries an explosive warhead, a rocket propulsion unit and guidance equipment.

4. When launched, the missile is given its initial impetus by a booster rocket.

5. Nike is fired from its launcher by a remotely controlled missile launching mechanism.

6. To provide for maximum safety, the warhead is constructed so that it will explode only when in flight.

Target Engagement

A Nike Ajax missile successfully intercepts a B-17 Flying Fortress. Video by Joe Marlin.

The Nike missile is an integral part of a system which electronically picks up the target and causes the missile to intercept that target.

1. Nike battery receives early warning from the air warning net that hostile aircraft are approaching the area defended by them.

2. Target is picked up and tracked electronically.

3. Nike missiles are readied in vertical position on their launching racks.

4. A running account of the target’s changing position is transmitted.

5. The missile’s control mechanisms, stabilization, and navigational gear are checked and certain safety mechanisms are disengaged.

6. Target crosses Nike’s distant and invisible deadline and the missile is fired.

7. Missile roars off to meet its target.

8. Within seconds after launching, Nike has passed through the sonic barrier and is in supersonic flight, riding smoothly on its own rocket engine.

9. Nike and the target converge. Nike intercepts its target and explodes.


A Nike missile stands almost vertically next to three others on White Sands.

In January 1944, the Anti-Aircraft Artillery Board submitted military characteristics for a controlled anti-aircraft rocket projectile and recommended the initiation of a development program using these military characteristics as a basis. This was recognition of the fact that a new type of weapon was required to counter the speedy, maneuverable, high-flying aircraft then in existence and those on the drawing boards.

Several conclusions were obvious. The new weapon had to meet the target in its own element and on its own terms. Matching speed with speed was not sufficient since the initiative would remain with the plane. The weapon would have to be able to maneuver throughout its flight.

In 1945, the Army Ordnance Corps, which has the design, development, and procurement responsibilities for all the Army’s missiles, asked Bell Telephone Laboratories to undertake a paper study of the problems involved in construction of a new anti-aircraft system.

Five months later, their recommendations were submitted to the Army. Their solution was a supersonic surface-to-air missile system of a type which would keep the missile relatively simple. A development contract was promptly authorized. Bell Laboratories’ engineers started the task of bringing to reality the system that their study had envisioned.

The Douglas Aircraft Company became a full partner in the enterprise and was assigned responsibility for about half the development effort, including the design of the missile and launching equipment. Nearly five years were required to solve the new and complex technical problems posed by the Nike system. During this time, test firings to improve launcher and booster designs were made at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. In the meantime, development of the guidance equipment proceeded at Bell Laboratories.

A Nike Ajax blasts off from LC-33 with the Gantry Crane in the background and the Army Blockhouse on the far right.

The first test firings of Nike without guidance control took place in the fall of 1946, and their immediate success confirmed some of the predictions made in the 1945 study. Successful test firings of the controlled missile were made secretly several years ago.

Army Ordnance promptly placed production contracts with Western Electric, whose plants in several states are producing and furnishing important elements of the Nike system. Several hundred large and small suppliers and subcontractors located throughout the country are assisting Western Electric with the project. The most important one of these is Douglas Aircraft, which produces the missile itself and launching and handling equipment. Electronic assemblies for inclusion in the missile are furnished by Western Electric. Douglas and other subcontractors are themselves using the services of other companies to get the job done and it is estimated that well over a thousand concerns are contributing to the project.

Thank you to Wikipedia user NotLessOrEqual for providing the video in this article.

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