Nike Aircraft Kill vs. Patriot Scud Kill

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This section discusses what it takes to "kill" an aircraft and why this is simpler than "killing" an incoming ballistic missile. (This section ignores differences in target size, target speed, and other "minor" technical issues.)

An aircraft attacking a land target is assumed to fly to a bomb or missile release point, where the plane will release the weapon(s) and attempt to fly home. The assumption is that if you (the defending force) can prevent the aircraft from reaching that release point, you (the defending force) have largely done your task. Even better is to also disable the aircraft so that it cannot return another day. If you can disable the aircraft (say knock a wing off or kill the guidance system, the pilot) before the release point, you have definitely succeeded. The plane's weapon, even if it falls and explodes, does not explode in the intended location, and is probably wasted.

To accomplish its mission most effectively, the Nike missile was intentionally exploded about 10 yards before impacting the aircraft. The fragments of the Nike missile and warhead would expand outward (rapidly) and the aircraft would fly into them. This increased the probability of severely damaging the aircraft, even if the Nike missile was going to slightly miss the aircraft. A warhead blast 10 yards in front or to one side of any operational aircraft would certainly turn it into falling junk, unable to perform any intended mission.

"Killing" an incoming ballistic missile is a different problem. The weapon (bomb) has already been "released" (It is falling on a gravitationally controled path) and does not have to "fly" or be further guided to impact in the desired location. The missile body can be made into "junk" and if the warhead is still intact, it will still fall as intended and do it's job.

The loud controversy over Patriot missile "hits" of Scud missiles is an interesting case. If a Nike "hit" a target aircraft and broke it in half, the aircraft could not satisfactorily launch its weapon or drop its bomb. The defense "hit" or "won".

It a Patriot missile "hits" a Scud missile in the last (ballistic) part of its flight and "only" breaks the missile body in half, the heavy solid warhead will continue on roughly its original path and explode approximately where it would have if there had been no attempted interception. No one cares if Scud missile was ruined as a flying machine. The defense "missed" or "lost".

Same set of circumstances, the airframe broken in half, parts falling where they will, but the result viewed by the defense in completely different ways.

To score a "hit" on an incoming ballistic missile (or diving kamikaze airplane) you must do much more than ruin its flying capability. You must also explode the weapon far away, or you must disable the weapon so that much less (or no) damage is done. A much larger problem.

Nike "had it easy", we just didn't know it at the time. says:
"Quite right about killing a ballistic target. The Navy abandoned 20mm AA guns and replaced the quad 40mm with the dual 3" because to kill a kamikaze you had to literally blow it apart.

Also, the British have a system called Sea Wolf which is advertised as a "hittile" instead of a "missile". It has been able to strike 4.5" naval shells while in flight!"

From charles hancock (
Just finished reading SAB. One thought, if we fired Nike Hercules for defense of the United States meant that all else had failed, namely the Air Force. And as in that case the enemy had now gotten to the US border we had to throw everything we had, namely the nuclear warheads. All nuclear warheads have electronic or electrical circuits as part of the mechanism which sets up and sequences the netonation. For nuclear warheads to "do their thing" things have to be done in a precise way, other wise all you get is a "low order" explosion. The Nike nuclear warhead could burn out the circuitry of the incoming warhead. Even non-nuclear the Nike Hercules HE warhead was huge compared to Patriot. The Patriot warhead total weight is less than 100 pounds. The Herc warhead had 650 pounds of Comp-B, with the rest in steel fragments, total weight of about 1200 pounds.

If we would have had Nike Hercules in Saudi Arabia we could have shot at the incoming Scud three times if needed. We could have shot our first round a maximum range, one mid range and one in close. There is no doubt in my mind we would have got it. I know from participating in some tests that when the Herc HE warhead explodes the fragments get extremely hot ( I have gone out after a shot and picked up the fragments and they would still be too hot to hold even after waiting the necessary safety time, usually 10 minutes). The point is we placed other Herc warheads close to the one we were going to expolde, the hot fragments from the exploding warhead penetrated the adjacent warhead and detonate it. Had we shot a Scud with a Herc HE warhead we would have exploded the Scud warhead therby terminating its flight. Of course we didn't have the chance and everything I have described is only what I think would have happened.

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Updated March 2, 1998