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Looking Back: Winged Missiles, 1950-1975

  • Published
  • By Tony Landis
  • Air Force Materiel Command History Office

The latter part of WWII and beyond saw a significant development in weapons technology. Among them, long range missile development. The Germans proved to the world that they could use the V-1 and V-2 rockets to strike targets from a long distance. After the war, the United States put forth a great effort to develop a similar technology. Using captured V-1 and V-2 rockets, American engineers duplicated and improved upon the German designs.

Before the use of the term ‘cruise missile’ became commonplace, most people referred to many long range systems of the era as ‘Winged Missiles’. The definition of the term, "an unmanned self-propelled guided vehicle that sustains flight through aerodynamic lift for most of its flight path and whose primary mission is to place an ordnance or special payload on a target”. Beginning in the 1950’s, weapon systems such as the Martin Matador and Mace, Boeing’s BOMARC, Northrop’s Snark and North American’s Navaho and Hound Dog became part of America’s deterrence juggernaut.

As expected, after WWII, the Air Force demanded that contractors build these weapons with the nuclear mission in mind. As warheads became smaller and more potent, the missiles themselves became more aerodynamic with improved range and greater accuracy. The Matador and Mace fell under the control of the Tactical Air Command due to their shorter range and mobile design, the tactical strike mission was better suited for their capabilities.  The ’TAC Missileers’, a higher headquarters’ moniker and a wink to their SAC counterparts, deployed to locations around the world including West Germany, Okinawa and Libya. By the time the Air Force retired the TAC missiles, Strategic Air Command had taken over the nuclear delivery role while Air Force Ballistic Missile Organization took over the ballistic delivery systems.

Not all winged missile systems were designed for ground targets. Getting in front of the Soviets, Boeing designed the BOMARC as a ramjet-powered, high speed interceptor that could cut off and kill Soviet nuclear bombers that the U.S.S.R. planned to field in the 1960’s. Although the threat never fully materialized, the BOMARC stood guard from many locations across the United States and Canada for nearly two decades before being quietly retired. Their hardened launch stations abandoned and left to being forgotten landmarks of a bygone era.

Northrop’s Snark had a very brief operational career. Its first successful flight took place in April 1951, but SAC did not receive its first training missile until January 1958. Operational deliveries took place in May of the following year to the one and only operational Snark Squadron, the 702nd Strategic Missile Wing, Presque Isle Air Force Base, Maine. The unit reached its full operational capability in February 1961, and one month later President John F. Kennedy declared the Snark “obsolete and of marginal military value”. The Air Force inactivated the unit on June 25, 1961.

Undoubtedly the most technologically challenging of the winged missiles, North American Aviation designed the Navaho, as a rocket-boosted, ramjet-powered Mach three nuclear delivery system of the future. Beset with technical challenges, system delays and cost overruns, the weapon system never became operational. Despite having some successes, the system encompassed too much state-of-the-art technology to become a reliable delivery system with many of the missiles ending up as target drones for BOMARC testing. Though the missile system itself was not considered a success, many of the design elements such as metallurgy, canard configuration and navigation systems went into the XB-70 Valkyrie and Hound Dog missile.

North American Aviation’s Hound Dog could be considered the first true ‘cruise missile’. With turbojet power and nap of the earth navigation, SAC carried the Hound Dogs, one under each wing, aboard its specially modified Boeing B-52’s. In nuclear combat, SAC aircrews would release the missile at an altitude of 45,000 feet, which would climb beyond 56,000 feet and cruise at Mach 2 to its target over 700 miles away. After 15 years of operational service, the Air Force removed the Hound Dog from alert deployments in June 1975 and the last one delivered to retirement storage 3 years later.

As the Hound Dog reached its retirement, a new generation of cruise missiles came on line to replace them. The AGM-86 series of Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) as well as the AGM-129 and AGM-158 were small, subsonic, internally carried, and could be armed with nuclear or conventional warheads. The age of the true ‘winged missile’ was over but their legacy lives on in a new generation of advanced cruise missile technology.

View the full length photo essay at: Winged Missiles:  1950-1975