Western Electric MIM-14B Nike Hercules

1:1 scale model of a Nike Hercules missile, outdoors, with mountains and blue sky in the background, and a man in jeans and T-shirt standing at its base, demonstrating its sizeIntroduced in 1958 as successor to the first-generation SAM-A-7 (then called M1 and from October 1962 MIM-3) Nike Ajax long-range surface-to-air missile, the Western Electric MIM-14 Nike Hercules SAM was still in limited service during the late 1980s, but by this time was generally obsolescent. The Nike Hercules was replaced in the US inventory by the MIM-104 Patriot, most of the units being retired in 1983.

The Nike Hercules was a solid-propellant two-stage surface-to-air missile for the high- and medium-altitude air-defence role, and also possessed a limited surface-to-surface role capability. A Cold War development, the Nike Hercules was intended for the destruction of Soviet bombers (both individually and entire formations) and to a more limited extent ballistic missiles. Western Electric, Bell Laboratories and the Douglas Aircraft Company were chief contractors for the system. Nuclear-armed Nike Hercules missiles were deployed in the USA, Greece, Italy and Turkey, and with the Belgian, Dutch and US forces in West Germany. Conventionally armed Nike Hercules missiles also served in the USA, Denmark, Japan, Norway, Taiwan and West Germany. The deployment of the Nike Hercules to Europe began in 1959, and the last nuclear-armed Nike Hercules missiles in Europe were deactivated in 1988. The Nike Hercules missile systems built in Japan were later retrofitted with upgraded guidance systems in which the original vacuum tube systems were replaced by transistorised systems.

Key features of the Nike Hercules’s design were its range and altitude capabilities, the powerful General Electric HIPAR radar associated with the system, and the potent warhead. Where this last was concerned, only the USA fielded the initial W7 Mod 2E 2.5- or 28-kiloton nuclear warhead or, from 1961, the W31 nuclear warhead. The latter was fielded in two basic variants: the W31 Model 0 with yields of 2.5 kilotons (Y1) or 30 kilotons (Y2), and the W31 Mod 2 with yields of 2 or 20 kilotons. The latter weighed 1,123 lb (509.4 kg) and used an enriched uranium known as oralloy (plus tritium) as the fissile material with Cyclotrol as the explosive to produce the implosion which resulted in the fission reaction. The W31 warhead was developed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1954, and entered service in 1958.

The origins of the Nike Hercules system went back to Project ‘Nike’ (the Greek word for victory) in the years immediately after the end of World War II. Throughout that war the continental USA had remained largely untroubled by the possibility of strategic air attack by Germany and Japan (though both countries were developing weapons for that purpose as their wars ended), but the concept of hemispheric defence was still strong in the minds of the US services. World War II had demonstrated what could be achieved by massed bombers carrying conventional bombs, or a single bomber carrying a nuclear bomb, and defence against such a threat was already a high priority when the USSR exploded its first nuclear device in September 1949. By this time the Tupolev Tu-4 ‘Bull’, a reverse-engineered and therefore wholly unlicensed copy of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress strategic bomber, was already beginning to enter service. Other indications of the USSR’s plans were readily forthcoming in Berlin and Korea, and the SAM-A-7 programme was pressed ahead with all priority.

The team selected for the programme was centred on Western Electric as prime contractor and Bell Telephone Laboratories as main subcontractor. This was the team which had been responsible for the M9 radar fire-control system evolved in World War II for the USA’s M117 and M118 90-mm (3.54-in) high-altitude anti-aircraft guns, and from this it was simple to deduce that the new surface-to-air missile system was designed to operate in a comparable fashion within the context (from 1956) of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) network of radars and computers tasked with the defence of the continental USA. The large thermionic valve computers allocated specific weapons, such as AA guns, fighters or missiles to each potential target detected by the radar systems. After detection and acquisition by a SAGE radar, the target was passed to a Western Electric target-tracking radar, which in turn provided a continuous stream of data to the fire-control computer that selected the appropriate missile and fired it at the optimum moment into the beam of the missile-tracking radar; thereafter the computer commanded the two radars to intersect their beams at the predicted position of the target, and commanded warhead detonation when the climbing missile was just below the target aircraft. Given the complexity of the system, as well as the size and power requirements of the associated radars and computers, the Nike system was necessarily fixed, with launch sites, complete with radars, computers and traversing/elevating single-arm launchers, located on strategic approach routes to targets in the continental USA.

The system became operational with the US Army in December 1953 as the world’s first fully guided SAM system. The missile was produced in North Carolina by Douglas Aircraft as the Nike Ajax. This was 34 ft 10 in (10.617 m) long complete with its slim tandem-mounted booster, which weighed 1,245 lb (565 kg). The booster had three cropped triangular fins set 120° apart, and had a Hercules Powder Company solid-propellant rocket delivering 59,000-lb (262.45-kN) thrust for 2.5 seconds. Thereafter propulsion was entrusted to the missile’s Bell Aircraft liquid-propellant sustainer, delivering 2,600-lb (12.73-kN) thrust for 21 seconds to give the 1,210-lb (549-kg) missile a burn-out speed of Mach 2.3 and a maximum range of 44,000 yards (40235 m). The missile proper had a diameter of only 12 in (0.305 m), and was excellently streamlined towards its pointed nose. The cruciform of low-aspect-ratio delta wings was fixed, control being effected via the cruciform of smaller delta canards nearer the nose and indexed in line with the wings, which were located just aft of the body’s mid-point. Between the canards and the wings was another cruciform of swept surfaces, these small projections housing the antennae for the guidance system.

The missile had an unusual warhead arrangement, with separate charges of 12, 122 and 179 lb (5.44, 55.3 and 81.2 kg) surrounded by 0.25-in (6.35-mm) metal cubes for optimum shrapnel effect against a heavy bomber. Production of the Nike Ajax continued up to 1958, by which time 15,000 missiles had been delivered. From 1957 the type was supplied to a number of the USA’s main allies both within and outside NATO, but even by this time it was clear that the missile was obsolescent. Yet, given the fact that there were well over 3,000 launchers in service, the US Army alone having 40 battalions each operating 36 or 48 launchers, there was considerable economic and logistical pressure to upgrade rather than replace the whole system.

This led to the development, still under the overall leadership of Western Electric, of the Nike Hercules initially as the SAM-A-25, adopted for service as the M6 and in 1962 redesignated MIM-14. This new missile’s performance was impressively superior to that of the Nike Ajax, largely as a result of its more powerful booster. Developed by Radford Arsenal and Borg-Warner, this tandem-mounted M42 arrangement incorporated four Hercules M5E1 solid-propellant rockets of the same type used singly as the booster for the Nike Ajax, strapped together by a circular tapering nose band containing the attachments to the Nike Hercules proper, and by a square-section tail band whose four curved corners each supported a swept fin. The M42 booster package produced a thrust of 220,000 lb (978.61 kN). After booster burn-out, the missile proper used a Thiokol M30 solid-fuel sustainer motor delivering a thrust of 10,000 lb (44.48 kN) to give the missile a burn-out velocity, in later models, of about 2,750 mph (4425 km/h) or Mach 3.65, a range of 90 miles (145 km) and a ceiling of 150,000 ft (45720 m).

The Nike Hercules was a radically different missile to its predecessor, with a considerably wider-diameter body (again beautifully tapered along its forward portion), and a cruciform of very long-chord low-aspect-ratio wings indexed in line with the fins of the booster. Projecting guidance-system antennae at the forward end of the wings looked like small canards, and aerodynamic control was entrusted to servo-actuated elevons on the trailing edge of each wing. The missile’s propulsion was also radically improved, the low-power liquid-propellant sustainer of the Nike Ajax being replaced by a powerful solid-propellant unit giving early Nike Hercules missiles a velocity of Mach 3.35 at burn-out.

The warhead (either nuclear or 1,106-lb/502-kg HE) warhead was located just aft of the guidance system bay. The T45 blast/fragmentation HE warhead contained 600 lb (272 kg) of HBX-6 explosive. General Electric was responsible for the improved guidance and warhead fusing systems.

The Nike Hercules entered full-scale service in 1958 as the M6 (from 1962 the MIM-14A), and was produced eventually to the extent of some 25,000 missiles including licensed production by Mitsubishi in Japan (Nike-J). During the early 1960s this initial service model was superseded in production by the M6A1 (MIM-14B Nike Hercules) with the Thiokol M30A1 sustainer and a number of electronic improvements. The system was initially deployed in direct replacement of the Nike Ajax, using the same radar, fire-control and launcher systems. This was again too cumbersome for anything by operational- and strategic-level use, but here the Nike Hercules soon proved itself a formidable weapon, especially when the new General Electric HIPAR (High-Power Acquisition Radar) was tied into the system. Early in 1969 a Nike Hercules intercepted and destroyed a Corporal ballistic missile, and later in the same year a Nike Hercules successfully tackled another Nike Hercules at a combined closing speed of Mach 7+, at an altitude of 161,500 ft (49225 m) and range of 52,800 yards (48280 m). These trials proved conclusively that the Nike Hercules was effective against some ballistic missiles and all high-altitude aircraft.

Comparable developments were taking place in the USSR, and the death of the ‘high-flier’ age was signalled by the shooting down of Gary Powers’s Lockheed U-2 spyplane over the USSR during 1960. Henceforward combat air operations rapidly switched to low altitude, and here the Nike Hercules was largely ineffective. Efforts were made to reduce this limitation, and to improve the system’s mobility, resulting in the introduction from 1962 of a semi-mobile Nike Hercules launcher unit and associated electronic systems. The Nike Hercules thus became a more effective operational- and tactical-level weapon, being able to operate independently yet still retaining the capacity for integration into a higher-level command structure.

The most important electronic development associated with the mobile version of the Nike Hercules system was the MPQ-43 mobile version of the HIPAR, requiring only three vans and two trailers instead of the semi-mobile HIPAR’s 20 vehicles. The HIPAR/MPQ-43 system operated in the D-band, and provided long-range target detection of high accuracy even in conditions of severe electronic countermeasures. Indeed, it was claimed that the system offered high-elevation and moving-target indication capabilities unequalled in modern, but smaller, radars right into the early 1990s.

Once a possible target had been acquired, it was interrogated by a TPX-46 IFF system and, if judged positively non-friendly, the data were passed to the missile battery’s target-tracking radar and fire-control system. This generated a solution to the fire-control problem as the launcher was trained to the right bearing. At the appropriate moment the missile was launched automatically at an elevation of 85°, its guidance system being activated only after the separation of the booster. At this point the missile was rolled onto the correct course for interception and warhead detonation.

The Nike Hercules network reached its peak in 1963, when there were 134 US Army batteries equipped with the type. Even at this time it was appreciated that the shifting balance of air operations required the rapid adoption of a more mobile system optimised for defence at lower altitudes, and the SAM-D requirement was issued. This led eventually to the MIM-104 Patriot, which entered service in 1981, and to maintain the Nike Hercules’s capabilities as an interim weapon a series of improvements was put in hand from the early 1960s. The missile itself was upgraded to MIM-14C Nike Hercules standard with improved electronic counter-countermeasures and the Thiokol M30A2 motor. As late as 1981 it was decided to upgrade surviving systems still further with a new fire-control/fault diagnosis system based on a Norden digital micro-computer. The US Army started to deactivate its operational Nike Hercules batteries in the USA during 1974, but retained a number of training batteries and also maintained batteries in Alaska, Florida and Europe up to 1983. The MIM-14B system was also employed by Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Japan (Nike J to MIM-14C standard), Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey and West Germany. with the collapse of the USSR from the late 1980s, the last of these missiles were retired.


MIM-14B Nike Hercules

Type: ground-based two-stage long-range operational/tactical-level SAM

Dimensions: diameter 31.5 in (0.80 m) for booster and 21 in (0.53 m) for the missile; length 41 ft 6 in (12.649 m) overall and 26 ft 10 in (8.18 m) for the missile; span 11 ft 6 in (3.51 m) for the booster and 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m) for the missile

Weight: total round 29,000 lb (13154 kg) and missile 10,415 or 10,710 lb (4720 or 4858 kg); warhead 900/945-lb (408/429-kg) W31 Mod 2 nuclear with a yield of 2, 20 or 40 kilotons, or alternatively 1,106-lb (502-kg) M17 proximity-fused FRAG-HE

Propulsion: four jettisonable Hercules solid-propellant booster rockets packaged as the M42 booster rated at 220,000-lb (978.61-kN) thrust for 2.5 seconds, and one Thiokol M30A1 solid-propellant sustainer rocket rated as 10,000-lb (44.48-kN) thrust

Performance: speed Mach 3.65; range 90+ miles (145+ km); altitude limit 150,000 ft (45720 m) Guidance: radar command

[Photo by jurvetson]

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  1. At what altitude after launch did booster separation occur with the Nike Hercules missile?

    1. It’s not so much at what altitude did the boosters separate, as the missile could be launched anywhere between vertical and a highly acute angle, but how long did they burn. The answer to the latter is 4 seconds. The missile accelerated at 25 g and, on the assumption of a vertical launch, had reached a speed of 1,700 mph (2735 km/h) at booster burn-out.

      1. Part of that is NOT true. The missile was erected to about 85-degrees for launch in all missions. We didn’t want the booster falling back on the site.

        Immediately after booster separation the missile would execute a pre-programed roll to orient its ‘belly’ toward the predicted intercept point and then start a dive away from vertical; and the ground-based computer would retake control of the flight all the way to intercept.

          1. Added: of course the booster disposal area was a deciding factor in determining angle of launch .

  2. A few acres of land in Mahwah NJ used to house a US Army Nike missile launching base with underground missile magazines—reinforced concrete and nearby blacktop. It was demolished around 1990. Today the field is very dense grass, but no trees. There were a long list of possible contaminants at Nike missile sites around the country including perchlorate, tricholroethylene, hydraulic fluid, radioactive material ?, diesel fuel, arsenic, chromium, lead, asbestos, etc. Why are there no trees growing on this property after all these years? This is a mystery to me, and I have years of gardening experience. What would allow grass to grow, but not allow trees to grow????

      1. Your first comment led me to suppose, given that the missiles used solid propellants, that the problem lay with the gases discharged at launch. It’s good to know that there’s a ‘natural’ reason!

        Thanks for your posts,

        Chris Chant

    1. Radio active material not a possible contaminant short of one point destruct or a full nuclear implosion. You would certainly know of either but in the case of one point destruct the danger would be more from HE than a contaminant.

      As regards your list of contaminants the operative word is “possible”.

      The no trees phenomenon may attributed to the possibility no one planted trees or from your “very dense grass” description that blocked seedlings.

  3. During Nike development, I remember my dad (who worked in the Western Electric shops in my native North Carolina) talked about gyro problems. They were eventually solved with the use of “clean rooms” where gyro scopes were assembled. It seems that it didn’t take much dust to raise failure rates of what were a pretty sophisticated U.S. SAMs. About what year would that have been? If I comprehended what he was doing, I must have been at least ten- years-old–1960.

    1. I worked the Nike systems and warhead systems throughout the 1950s late 60s . Never encountered gyro problems as an unusual rate of failure. Maybe your Dad was referring to the manufacturing stage – not after systems emplacement.

  4. I read that the mobile HIPAR’s operated in D band. I worked on at least a dozen Rome air defense center, Syracuse and field systems and my recollection is that these operated in “L” band.

    GE Engineering/Field Service 1962-1992

  5. One seldom reads of Nike Herc sites with mobile capability. Most assumed such ponderous launchers, HE components, and heavy vans in the IFC and launcher areas would preclude effective mobility.

    In Europe US Seventh Army, mobility of all weaponry was a paramount requirement.

    I participated in a field exercise where we moved one section to the field for emplacement (HE rounds only). No picnic but we proved it could be done. The prime mover drivers were praiseworthy, I recall movement of about 50 miles and movement through German narrow streets in villages was a challenge.

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