Nuclear Friday: Ma Bell’s Missiles

Remember Ma Bell, the government regulated family of companies affiliated with the old AT&T? I remember when you couldn’t buy a telephone. You leased a phone from your regional Bell affiliate. And that phone had heft. Phones with names like “Princess” and “Trimline” felt like weapons. That’s appropriate, because Ma Bell fought hard in the Cold War.


So, your enemy has the ability to lob nukes at you from halfway across the world? The US was not really that interested in missile delivery until after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. The USAF was only interested in aircraft and the brave warriors who would fly them. And bombers made sense for the US. With forward bases in Europe and the Pacific, Soviet targets were just a couple of hours away. Some targets were even in range of light tactical aircraft, and don’t forget that by the late 50’s “tactical” included the B-43 variable yield device.

Sputnik changed all this. If the USSR can launch tiny Sputnik into orbit, they can launch Sakharov’s RDS-37 3 megaton bomb to anywhere in the United States. America went insane about the “missile gap”, and JFK campaigned hard that he would close the missile gap. Ike had access to secret U-2 data and knew the USSR didn’t have that much of an effective missile force, but remained silent so as not to tip off what was known.

But some folks started thinking longer-term. In the late fifties there was a series of upper atmosphere nuclear tests. The idea was that while there are no blast effects at the edge of space, there are unusually large radiation effects. These effects might interfere with incoming missiles. It might be possible to take out incoming nukes with other nukes. This was the birth of Anti-ballistic Missile technology, ABM for short.

But who would take up this cause? You’d think it would fall to the US Air Force, but if it can’t be put on a plane or nuke the enemy, they didn’t care. The US Army, feeling left out in the 50’s had begun to develop the Nike Ajax system as point defense for US cities, but perceived advantages in Soviet missile tech cancelled the program.

The Army did not give up, and gained the support of Ma Bell. She delivered. Ma Bell pretty much created the computers we use today to solve the ABM problem.

Ma Bell and her daughter Western Electric made THIS:

Yep, thats a terminal phase intercept missile from the early seventies. That’s the Sprint missile. The real ones that were deployed had W-64 neutron bombs in them. Yes, neutron bombs. Why? because even the Sprint might intercept at such high altitudes that blast effects might be unreliable. Secondly, the target is falling from the edge of space. Blast moves near the speed of sound, the incoming target might move out of the blast range, but a specialized warhead can kill the incoming with X-rays and neutrons near the speed of light.

Here’s a longer film from the seventies. BMD became a bargaining chip:

Pretty much confirms that BMD was reduced to two sites under the ABM provisions of SALT. That’s a Ma Bell video not decassified until the late 90’s,


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