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Marin Headlands

Started: 2016-06-05 20:50:19

Submitted: 2016-06-05 23:15:39

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator visits a historical relic of the Cold War in Marin County

When I visited Fort Funston in April, I parked on top of an old Nike Ajax missile bunker and saw a reference to a Nike missile bunker in the Marin Headlands open for tours. The Internet told me that the site had two tours every Saturday, and on my next available Saturday I headed across the Golden Gate Bridge into the Marin Headlands to see the Cold War relic.

The Marin Headlands is operated by the National Park Service as a unit of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It was occupied by a series of Army forts until the 1970s when it was handed over to the Park Service. The headlands are littered with coastal defense batteries from various eras, showing the progression of artillery through the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century.

The world changed abruptly in 1945 with the advent of nuclear weapons, coupled with intercontinental strategic bombers capable of delivering them. The battleship was obsolete, as were the weapons designed to defend against one. The artillery batteries were decommissioned, replaced by a brand-new weapon: the Nike Ajax guided surface-to-air missile, capable of shooting down a strategic bomber 37 miles away.

Nike missile site SF-88
Nike missile site SF-88

The Nike Ajax was quickly deployed across the United States, only to be quickly replaced by an even-more-powerful weapon: the Nike Hercules, a dual-stage missile that could be armed with a small nuclear warhead, in addition to a conventional high-explosive warhead. Both warheads were surrounded by substantial amounts of shrapnel; the missile was designed to destroy an entire squadron of Soviet bombers flying in formation before they could get close enough to drop their weapons, either from the overpressure created by the explosion, the shrapnel unleashed from the warhead.

Radar domes at Nike missile site SF-88
Radar domes at Nike missile site SF-88

The Nike missile site that I visited in the Marin Headlands was originally designated SF-88. It began life as an Ajax battery, and was converted to fire the much-larger Hercules missiles. I arrived at the site minutes before the first tour of the day began, starting a the small hut dominated by a partially-disassembled upper-stage Nike Hercules surrounded by period computer equipment. The entire system was based on analog computers: ground-based radar would track the attacking bomber squadron and the missile and send guidance signals to the missile as it flew: right/left, forward/back, and detonate. The ground station could only track a single missile in flight at any one time, but the missile could cover its 87-mile maximum range at super-sonic speeds in a minute or two.

Nose cone of Nike-Hercules missile
Nose cone of Nike-Hercules missile
Guidance computer in Nike-Hercules missile
Guidance computer in Nike-Hercules missile

After he explained the historical background of the weapon system, our guide took us around the grounds of the missile battery. Missiles would come to the site in pieces and would be assembled on-site by the missile crews. Fueling the missile took place in a corner of the site, protected from the rest of the site by an earthen berm intended to deflect any accidental explosion.

Nike-Hercules bunker at SF-88
Nike-Hercules bunker at SF-88

The last -- and most impressive -- stop on the tour was the underground missile bunker itself. After the missiles were assembled and tested, they were lowered into an underground bunker to await the order to fire. (In the event of an attack, early-warning radar would give many hours of notice to the US military, and both the Navy and the Air Force would have the opportunity to shoot down the attacking squadrons. Nike was the last-ditch defense once everything else failed.) We climbed the narrow stairs into the concrete bunker, capable of holding a dozen missiles, with one elevator in the middle of the bunker to raise the missiles above ground to be fired. After our guide showed how well-balanced the missiles were and how easy it was to push them around on their rails, he hit a button on the wall and an angry klaxon blared out a warning. This immediately got my attention (even as the back of my mind was thinking how perfectly clichéd the alert klaxon was -- it seemed to come straight out of a hundred movies, though that might just be because they borrowed the sound from the Army.) The giant blast doors on the top of the bunker opened under hydraulic power, and the elevator pushed the waiting missile up to ground level to prepare it to be launched.

Nike-Hercules missile on launch pad in rest position
Nike-Hercules missile on launch pad in rest position
Nike-Hercules missile raised to firing position
Nike-Hercules missile raised to firing position

We climbed up the stairs, back out into the mid-day sun, to see the missile now resting above the ground. A retired soldier who had been stationed at another Nike Hercules base in the San Francisco area stood at the controls to raise the missile into its firing position -- 88.5°, just far enough from vertical so that the first stage would land somewhere downrange when it was discarded. (The Army never actually fired any Hercules missiles from any San Francisco site, since they weren't precisely sure where the spent stages would land, and didn't want to find out unless the fate of San Francisco itself was at stake. Missile crews did rotate through White Sands for live-fire drills every year.)

Nike-Hercules missile lowered from firing position
Nike-Hercules missile lowered from firing position
Nike-Hercules missile in firing position
Nike-Hercules missile in firing position

That was the end of the tour -- with the missile upright and ready to launch at the Soviet bombers that never came. Throughout the tour our guide encouraged us to think about the annihilation that the world faced during the Cold War, and the counter-factual questions of how effective it was to build defensive armaments against an enemy that never came. Nike was a spectacularly expensive weapon system to develop and maintain, but did it forestall a Soviet attack? We will never know for sure.

Marin Headlands
Marin Headlands

With those existential questions running through my head I drove around the rest of the Marin Headlands, looking out over the verdant bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean before driving back along the headlands to eat lunch Sausalito before heading back home to San Francisco.

Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands
Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands
There's no gossip jucier than what's on bitscape.org, so I don't really
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- Yanthor, Festing: The Gathering, 21 March 2003