The end of the atomic interceptors

An operational test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., is seen from nearby Lompoc, Calif., Sept. 26, 2013. The ICBM safely launched and traveled the approximately 4,200 nautical miles to its target in the Marshall Islands. Photo credit: Lt. Col. Andy Wulfestieg, U.S. Air Force.

An operational test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., is seen from nearby Lompoc, Calif., Sept. 26, 2013. The ICBM safely launched and traveled the approximately 4,200 nautical miles to its target in the Marshall Islands. Photo credit: Lt. Col. Andy Wulfestieg, U.S. Air Force.

The strategy of defending America’s cities from atomic attack by detonating nuclear weapons over them wasn’t abandoned because of its seeming absurdity. It was abandoned because new technology made it obsolete.

Nike, Bomarc and Genie had all been designed under the same assumption: that, when atomic weapons came flying towards American cities, they would be carried by manned bombers. And even though the new jet engine had made manned bombers faster, they were still slow enough to be detected long before they reached their targets, giving missiles and fighters plenty of time to reach them.

All those assumptions were overturned on October 4, 1957, when a Soviet rocket launched the first artificial satellite (“Sputnik”) into Earth orbit.

The ballistic missile age arrives

If a Russian missile could lob a satellite into space, defense planners realized, it could also lob a nuclear warhead into the heart of an American city; and that meant that shooting down the carrier of an atomic bomb had suddenly gotten much, much harder.

A cutting-edge 1950s Soviet jet bomber like the Tupolev Tu-16 could reach speeds of 650 miles per hour. That was fast, but the enormous distances between Russian territory and American meant that it would still take many hours for such a bomber to reach U.S. targets. For a rocket intended to reach space, though, 650 miles per hour was nothing; such a rocket had to go much, much faster than that simply to have enough velocity to counter the enormous pull of Earth’s gravity. So now defense planners had a very different problem: shooting down a vehicle carrying an atomic bomb at them at speeds closer to 18,000 miles per hour.

And shooting down a vehicle moving at 18,000 miles per hour, it turns out, is hard. Really hard. So hard, in fact, that even today it’s a problem that nobody has really been able to solve. Using 1950s technology, it was effectively impossible. The intercontinental ballistic missile quickly established itself as a weapon against which there was no practical means of defense.

Overnight, Sputnik had rendered Nike, Bomarc and Genie utterly obsolete.

Winding down

In the world of defense procurement, however, just because a weapons program doesn’t make sense anymore doesn’t mean money will stop being thrown at it.

The first of the three atomic interceptor projects to succumb to the new realities was Bomarc. The Air Force hadn’t even been able to get a single Bomarc installation up and running before Sputnik robbed the project of its reason to exist. Buffeted by budget overruns and safety problems, Bomarc soldiered on throughout the 1960s, but by 1972 all ten Bomarc sites had been decommissioned. The SAGE ground control system held on for a little longer, finally being replaced in 1983 by the Joint Surveillance System.

Unlike the Air Force, the Army had at least been able to get Nike into service while it still had some relevance, but the post-Sputnik world was no kinder to its ambitions for Nike than it had been to the Air Force’s for Bomarc. As Nike Ajax had been succeeded by the more capable Hercules, the Army planned to replace Hercules itself with an even more advanced system, dubbed “Nike Zeus.”  Recognizing that the nature of the threat had changed, Zeus’ designers tried to give it the capability to intercept not just bombers, but missiles and even satellites in space.

But testing of the system was inconclusive as to its effectiveness, and, more damningly, reports by two panels of experts found that the economic logic of the system was flawed — it would cost an adversary less to build more missiles than it would cost the U.S. to build enough Zeus capacity to shoot them down. Whether or not to continue with Zeus became a hotly debated subject in Congress in the early 1960s, which in turn made it one of the major defense issues considered by President John F. Kennedy and his defense secretary, Robert MacNamara. MacNamara eventually concluded that Zeus would cost more than it was worth, and when he convinced Kennedy of the logic of this position in 1963, the program came to an end.

The end of Zeus was not quite the end of Project Nike, however. Work continued through the mid-1960s on yet another system, “Nike-X,” which would further evolve through the late ’60s and the 1970s into the Sentinel and Safeguard projects. None of these would be deployed on a national scale the way Ajax or Hercules had been, however, so effectively the dream of a comprehensive system of defensive missile systems died with Zeus.

Ironically, the simplest and least ambitious of the three atomic interceptor projects, Genie, would be the longest-lived. Genie didn’t require extensive networks of ground-based launchers and guidance controls; all it needed was planes that were fitted to carry it. And the primary plane fitted to carry Genie, the F-106 Delta Dart, served for quite a long time — F-106s were in service with active-duty Air Force units through the early 1980s, and with Air National Guard units until 1988. Interceptors armed with nuclear-tipped Genie missiles were patrolling the skies of North America until almost the final moments of the Cold War.

The future is conventional

The end of the atomic interceptors didn’t mean the end of the dream of a defense against nuclear attack, of course. As noted above, Nike evolved into a series of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) projects, though the ABM Treaty of 1972 effectively closed them down. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan would famously revive the dream with his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as “Star Wars”; it focused on shooting down missiles using laser weapons based in space rather than missiles based on the ground. And while SDI research failed to ever produce a workable system, research continued through the Clinton Administration under the reorganized Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). President George W. Bush would shuffle the deck again, dismantling BMDO and replacing it with the new Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which still works on these problems today.

And that work really does continue: just three days ago, the MDA made headlines by announcing that it was able to successfully shoot down a ballistic missile in a test scenario. This was hailed as a breakthrough in anti-missile defense, though more skeptical observers noted that a single successful test result is still a long way from a comprehensive defense against missiles. But what’s worth noting here is that, while decades of research has in one sense brought the Department of Defense right back to the ground-based missile solution they started with, in another sense the projects they’re working on today are very different. Because, unlike Nike and Bomarc and Genie, today’s anti-ballistic missiles aren’t armed with nuclear warheads of their own, and no serious proposals exist to make them so.

If the problem is still hitting a bullet with another bullet, today’s solutions seek to refine our aim, rather than to build bigger bullets.