While the U.S. Navy has enjoyed unprecedented success in developing surface-to-air missiles for fleet air defense the path to success was not a linear one, but one that proceeded by trial and error, and in the early days, impelled by war, always pushing the outer limits of technological development. And while this is a story about more than just technology, as Max Boot points out in his best-selling War Made New, “My view is that technology sets the parameters of the possible; it creates the potential for a military revolution.” And indeed, the Navy’s journey to field effective fleet air defense has represented both an evolutionary and revolutionary approach.
But as with many things, the exigencies of war provided the impetus for this rapid technological development. World War II represents a huge technological departure point because it was the first war where guided munitions came into play. Up until that war, projectiles were thrown, shot, fired, or dropped. Most missed their targets, and they did so increasingly as range became greater. More on that in a moment.
Navy ships at sea were hit by air-launched Henschel Hs 293 glide bombs and Fritz X anti-ship missiles in 1943. Using these weapons, the launching aircraft never came within range of the ship’s anti-aircraft guns, and the missiles were too small and fast to be attacked effectively. This inspired the U.S. Navy to begin to study surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in a project known as Operation Bumblebee.
But the Navy’s efforts in this area received a new urgency during the Battle of Okinawa in the Spring of 1945. This was the first major battle where guided weapons played an important role.
Unfortunately, our opponent had the guided weapons. As Dr. Richard P. Hallion points out in Precision Weapons, Power‐Projection, and the Revolution in Military Affairs:
Approximately 2,800 Kamikaze attackers sank 34 Navy ships, damaged 368 others, killed 4,900 sailors, and wounded over 4,800. Despite radar detection and cuing, airborne interception and attrition, and massive anti‐aircraft barrages, a distressing 14 percent of Kamikazes survived to score a hit on a ship; nearly 8.5 percent of all ships hit by Kamikazes sank.
Under the auspices of Operation Bumblebee, initial specifications called for a ramjet-powered anti-aircraft missile able to destroy launcher aircraft at long range. Performance goals were target intercept at a horizontal range of 10 miles and 30,000 feet altitude, with a 300- to 600-pound warhead for a 30 to 60 percent kill probability.
Testing began in 1945 with the PTV-N-4 Cobra, built by the John’s Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. However, development of the guidance, propulsion, and radar systems at the same time led to long delays, and it was not until 16 years later that the Talos missile was cleared for operational use. In that time, the development of simpler rocket engines had led to the development of the Terrier, originally a weapon of severely limited performance with a range of only 19 kilometers. Improved versions followed quickly, and the Terrier ended up taking over many of the roles that Talos was originally designed for.
Surface-to-Air Missile Developers Move Forward
It is important to note that while the war provided an important sense of urgency to surface-to-air missile development – and the huge sailor and ship losses suffered during the Battle of Okinawa took that urgency to an incredibly high level – this sense of urgency had another, less helpful, impact. In an effort to “do something” many surface-to-air missile developers made predictions that were optimistic; often wildly optimistic.
Also important to understanding why the U.S. Navy didn’t enjoy much initial success in early surface-to-air missile development is a recognition of where the nation began its program. The United States had no real experience in missile propulsion, guidance, or control. The only power plants available were the relatively low-powered solid-fuel rockets used in short-range weapons launched by aircraft and by assault ships. A Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU APL) proximity fuze was the closest thing even approaching a radar that could be placed in the nose of a small projectile.
The upshot of all this was that the Navy tried to give every program a fair chance to succeed, resulting in a plethora of programs that diluted resources which might have been used more effectively had they been focused on a smaller number of programs. How widely-spread were the Navy’s resources in this area? At the end of the war the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) had a series of sixteen possible missile projects – under the designation pilotless aircraft – that it intended to pursue.
But BuAer was not the only player, and here is where the less-than-clear working relationships between the Navy’s Bureaus did not help surface-to-air missile development. Because they had designed and integrated all U.S. Navy fire control systems as well as the guns they controlled and shells they fired, the Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) had a huge say in the matter. Project Bumblebee was BuOrd’s surface-to-air missile, and JHU APL reported to BuOrd. Bumblebee became the first large-scale guided missile system program in the United States, predating various surface-to-surface missile programs as well as the U.S. Army’s Nike program.
“Build a Little, Test a Little, Learn a Lot”
As it sorted out all these competing programs and organizational relationships, the Navy pursued surface-to-air testing with alacrity. In addition to initial tests at the Island Beach, N.J., and Fort Miles, Del., temporary sites, Camp Davis, N.C. was used for Operation Bumblebee from June 1946 to July 1948. Topsail Island, N.C., became the permanent Bumblebee testing and launch facility in March 1947. This testing was transferred to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake and then to White Sands Missile Range in 1951, where USS Desert Ship was built as a prototype Talos launch facility.
Over time, the Terrier surface-to-air missile devised as a test vehicle became operational as a fleet anti-aircraft missile aboard USS Boston (CAG 1) in 1955. Talos became operational with the fleet aboard USS Galveston (CLG 3) in February 1959, and saw combat use during the Vietnam War.
The U.S. Navy ultimately recognized that trying to keep a wide-array of competing surface-to-air missile programs going simultaneously did dilute resources that might be better spent focusing on a more-limited number of programs. The primary focus of U.S. Navy surface-to-air missile development eventually turned to its “Three Ts:” Talos, Terrier and Tartar.