At the onset of the Cold War, the U.S. military was equipped with small numbers of antiaircraft guns remaining from World War II. When the Korean War began in June 1950, some of these weapons were dispatched to the war zone, but they ultimately encountered few targets. Others were hurriedly situated at strategic locations in the United States because American leaders feared that the Korean conflict might presage a surprise Soviet bomber attack, an especially disturbing possibility because the USSR had recently acquired nuclear weapons. Even after the Korean hostilities ended, concern about a Soviet strike grew with the advent of higher and faster jet aircraft requiring more capable anti-aircraft weapons.
Initially, the United States fielded radar-aimed antiaircraft guns, which were better than previous antiaircraft weapons. However, a faster, self-propelled, maneuverable projectile capable of reaching high altitudes was necessary for defense against strategic bombers. Consequently, the U.S. Army over-saw the development of a relatively complex system that utilized radars, rudimentary computers, and other equipment to locate and track distant targets and to direct missiles at them. Because missiles received electronic guidance commands after launch and could alter their course as they flew, they were capable of reacting to a target's evasive actions. The Nike-Ajax missile's 25-mile range, high speed, and maneuverability made it considerably more capable than anti-aircraft guns. Beginning in 1954, these missiles were deployed at 222 specially constructed locations across the United States, and within four years an improved version (dubbed Nike-Hercules), which flew farther and faster, replaced the earlier model at many sites.
The Nike-Hercules carried a relatively low kilotonage nuclear warhead meant to provide the greatest practical blast at the interception point, thereby obviating the need for a direct hit and ensuring destruction of all aircraft in the target area. After 1964, when the Nike-Hercules defenses were joined by two launch facilities for nuclear-equipped BOMARC antiaircraft missiles in Canada and six more manned by the U.S. Air Force, the substantial commitment to defending North America against bomber raids was most evident. Many of these weapons had been decommissioned by 1974, although some remained operational until 1979.
Other nations including the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France developed similar surface-to-air (SAM) anti-aircraft networks during the Cold War. The Soviet Union's elaborate antiaircraft effort was obviously influenced by the size and capability of U.S. strategic bomber forces and by persistent U.S. and British reconnaissance overflights of Soviet territory. After the Soviets developed sophisticated anti-aircraft technologies—best demonstrated when a Soviet SA-2 missile downed an American U-2 reconnaissance plane at high altitude in May 1960—the tactics and armaments considered for use in the event of nuclear attack on the Soviet Union changed accordingly. The British, by turning to submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in the early 1960s as the mainstay of their nuclear strike force, seemed to suggest that bombers were becoming obsolete. The Americans disagreed, however, and prepared to fly above or below the effective altitude of the antiaircraft weapons or to release payloads before coming within their range.
Alternatively, the Soviet Union never built large numbers of long-range bombers, but it is not entirely clear why this was so. More than likely, however, it was because the number and type of SAMs in North America discouraged the use of long-range bombers in a nuclear exchange.
In addition to defending against strategic bombers, Cold War adversaries equipped their naval and ground forces with antiaircraft guns and missiles for shipboard or tactical or field use. Some were mobile or seaborne versions of antibomber weapons. Others were sufficiently small and lightweight to be transported and operated by one or two soldiers. Generically termed MANPADS (for Man Portable Air Defense Systems), these small SAMs were typically guided by radio command or were drawn automatically to a target's hot exhaust. Like antiaircraft guns, MANPADS had a relatively short range, were simple to operate, and could be lethal when employed properly. This made them ideally suited for protecting troops on the battlefield and minimizing attacks by forcing the enemy to strike from greater distances and at higher speeds. In 1986, guerrillas fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan began to use MANPADS provided by the United States and Britain. Within months they had inflicted sufficient losses to retard helicopter gunship attacks and to reduce the efficacy of certain aerial resupply efforts.
Similar Soviet SA-7 portable MANPADS were used against the Americans years earlier during the Vietnam War with somewhat less significant results. In this and other ways, that conflict exemplifies the Cold War role of antiaircraft weapons and their influence on military doctrine. When the United States initiated sustained bombing of North Vietnam beginning in 1965, more than 1,500 airplanes were shot down. Many more helicopters were also lost, almost all of them in South Vietnam and most of these to small arms fire. The overwhelming majority of losses were inflicted by North Vietnam's arsenal of more than 7,000 radar- and optical-sighted guns, many surrounding the especially well-defended cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. The lethality of these weapons forced U.S. pilots to attack from higher altitudes and limited their time over a target. In July 1965, however, the North Vietnamese downed their first American aircraft with a Soviet-made SA-2 missile, causing planes to fly at lower levels where they became vulnerable again to antiaircraft guns. Between 1965 and 1972, more than 9,000 SAMs were launched, destroying 150 American aircraft, including 18 during the eleven days of the LINEBACKER II bombing campaign of December 1972.
In this and other engagements, however, some agile fighter aircraft managed to survive by outmaneuvering or outpacing the missiles. In other situations, planes emitted electronic signals, decoy flares, or metallic strips to jam or confuse SAM guidance systems. SAM attacks were also thwarted by firing on an antiaircraft site when its radar signals or combat preparations were first detected but before a missile was launched. Regardless of these actions, the antiaircraft forces marshaled by the North Vietnamese caused the Americans to alter their tactics and design appropriate countermeasures throughout the conflict. Many aircraft, antiaircraft guns, and SAMs that were subsequently deployed during the Cold War reflected the lessons learned in Vietnam.
Christopher John Bright
Chun, Clayton K. S. "Winged Interceptor: Politics and Strategy in the Development of the BOMARC Missile." Air Power History 45(4) (Winter 1998): 44–59.; Correl, John T. "The Vietnam War Almanac." Air Force Magazine (September 2004): 42–62.; Werrell, Kenneth P. Archie, Flack, AAA, and SAM: A Short Operational History of Ground-Based Air Defense. Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1988.