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Nike family of missiles: Zeus, Hercules and Ajax

During his tenure at Douglas Aircraft, Max became head of missile aerodynamics.  While there, he had responsibility for the design of the Nike-Ajax and Nike-Hercules anti-aircraft missiles, and Nike-Zeus, intended to defend against ballistic missiles.

Nike-Ajax Missile
The Army’s Nike-Ajax was the first U.S. operational surface-to-air missile.  It included a powerful solid-fuel booster and a second (sustainer) stage, which used a liquid-fuel engine. Nike missile batteries were stationed at many U.S. cities and were America’s primary defensive weapon throughout the early Cold war.  The first deployment of Nike-Ajax was in Maryland during March 1954. Nearly 200 additional sites were constructed in strategic areas of the United States. This deployment lasted 4 years. The last Nike-Ajax site was deactivated in 1963.

Nike Hercules
Even as Nike Ajax was being tested, work started on Nike Hercules (MIM-14). It improved speed, range and accuracy, and could intercept ballistic missiles. The Hercules had a range of about 100 miles (160 km), a top speed in excess of 3,000 mph (4,800 km/h) and a maximum altitude of around 100,000 ft (30 km). Deployment commenced in 1958. A total of 145 missile batteries were deployed. Most of these were converted Nike Ajax units. Deactivation of Nike Hercules batteries in the United States commenced in the early 1970s and was completed by 1975, with the exception of batteries remaining in Alaska and Florida.

Nike Zeus
Development continued, producing Improved Nike Hercules and then Nike Zeus A and B. The Zeus was designed to destroy Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile warheads before they could hit targets in the United States.

Zeus, with a new 400,000 lbf (1.78 MN) thrust solid-fuel booster, was first test launched during August 1959 and demonstrated a top speed of 8,000 mph (12,875 km/h). The Nike Zeus system utilized the ground based Zeus Acquisition Radar (ZAR), a significant improvement over the Nike Hercules HIPAR guidance system. 

The United States Army's Nike Ajax was the world's first operational surface-to-air missile (SAM), entering service in 1954. Nike Ajax was designed to attack conventional bomber aircraft flying at high subsonic speeds and altitudes above 50,000 feet (15 km). Nike was initially deployed in the US to provide defense against Soviet bomber attacks, and was later deployed overseas to protect US bases, as well as being sold to various allied forces. Some examples remained in use until the 1970s.

Technological development during the 1950s quickly rendered Nike obsolete. It was unable to defend against more capable bombers or multiple targets in formation, and had relatively short range. Even while Nike was being deployed, these concerns led to the contracts for the greatly improved MIM-14 Nike Hercules, which began deployment in 1959. As Hercules developed, the threat moved from bombers to ICBMs, and the LIM-49 Nike Zeus anti-ballistic missile project started to address these. All of the Nike projects were led by Bell Labs, due to their early work in radar guidance systems during World War II.

Originally known simply as Nike, it gained the Ajax as part of a 1956 renaming effort that resulted from the introduction of Hercules. It was initially given the identifier SAM-A-7 (Surface-to-air, Army, design 7) as part of an early tri-service identification system, but later changed to MIM-3 (Mobile Interceptor Missile, design 3) in 1962.

Part of the Nike Ajax development program designed a new solid fuel rocket motor used for the missile's booster. This had originally been designed for the US Navy's missiles, and was enlarged for the Nike efforts. The rocket was so useful that it found numerous applications outside the military world as the Ajax missiles were decommissioned in the 1960s. Many sounding rockets used the booster as their first or second stage, and many of those used "Nike" in their name.

Batteries of the ground-based Nike anti-aircraft missiles once were scattered around the United States, where they guarded against a potential attack by Soviet strategic bombers.  The last Nike installations were dismantled in the late 1970s.

“They were the last line of defense.  Every major city in the U.S. was protected by ring of supersonic steel,” said Steve Nelson, directory of the Fort MacArthur Museum in San Pedro, a former Nike launch and control site near Los Angeles Harbor.

Nike Ajax anti-aircraft missile on display

Legendary aerodynamicist poses in front of Nike family of missles.



Deployment locations of Nike Missile bases

Nike Launcher at Selfridge AFB



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The mission of the Maxwell W. Hunter Foundation is to support secondary-level aeronautical engineering curriculum in the United States while inspiring America's youth to consider careers in aeronautical engineering.

The Foundation also provides insight into America's golden age of space exploration by following the five-decade journey of legendary aerodynamicist and space visionary Max Hunter.

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