America’s First Strategic Cruise Missile Was Totally Useless
The Snark missile sucked
One of the most enduring symbols of the Cold War’s destructive potential is the intercontinental ballistic missile. But during the 1950s, the U.S. Force developed a strategic cruise missile known as the Snark.
The Snark was highly unusual at the time. Almost forgotten today, the flying branch developed the missile as a nuclear-armed “pilotless bomber” that would herald a new era of robotic warfare.
The Snark cruise missile became the first strategic cruise missile to enter service anywhere in the world. The flying branch even lifted the weapon’s peculiar name from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse The Hunting of the Snark.
The problem was that the Snark … sucked.
Shortly after World War II, the Air Force faced a dilemma. For one, it wanted missiles accurate enough to target Soviet military and industrial facilities from long ranges.
Heavy bombers and nuclear-armed ballistic missiles — that travel in a high arc — filled this strategic role during the Cold War. But despite the Germans’ pioneering work with the V-2 rocket during World War II, ballistic missiles still remained extremely difficult to build.
Ballistic rockets were wildly expensive, presented numerous technical challenges and required highly toxic and corrosive fuels. Their launch sites were not easily moved, and it took time to fuel them up. In a fast-moving nuclear war, they weren’t fast enough — yet.
Cruise missiles had their vulnerabilities, and they were easy to shoot down. Nazi Germany’s V-1 buzz-bomb was a crude predecessor, but the Nazis mainly used it as an indiscriminate terror weapon.
The United States needed every advantage it could get … at least until more capable ICBMs came along. Its new cruise missiles also needed to be fast and precise.
During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces had worked on a number of cruise missile programs. In March 1946, a trickle of research funding became available for the turbojet-powered Snark.
In September 1955, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower prioritized efforts to field an ICBM, which provided an impetus to continue the project. To be sure, the Snark was a cruise missile, but the weapon— and its manufacturer Northrop — benefited from the same budget windfall.
The result of an 11-year development program, the Snark looked impressive.
The subsonic missile had the potential to carry a nuclear warhead, and it offered plenty of space for fuel. The Air Force added an inertial guidance system that automatically supplied periodic updates using a star tracker programmed to take “sextant shots” of selected stars.
The aerodynamic design was extremely efficient, with an advanced swept wing mounted high on the body. It didn’t have a horizontal tail, which meant that the missile flew in an unusual nose-up attitude.
The robot plane required considerable testing, for which Northrop employed a miniature test vehicle known as the N-25. After two failures, the radio-controlled N-25 flew successfully in April 1951.
The full-size N-69 test vehicle followed the N-25, and served as the prototype for the SSM-A-3 Snark. The N-69 took to the air in August 1953, but the first five launches all ended in failure.
It wasn’t until the N-69’s 31st flight that Northrop recovered an airframe for analysis. Engineers focused on the prototype’s Allison J71 turbojet engine as a likely source for at least some of the problems.
The production-version Snark used a Pratt & Whitney J57 engine fed by a ventral air intake — the most efficient turbojet then available. The roomy fuselage accommodated 26,000 pounds of kerosene to provide a range of 6,325 miles.
To propel itself into the air, the Snark used a huge mobile launcher and a pair of rocket motors producing 130,000 pounds of thrust each. These rockets used vectoring nozzles to put the weapon on the right course. The Snark would then continue on turbojet power after jettisoning its booster.
Finally, the missile would climb at a speed of Mach 0.93 until reaching its cruise altitude — typically around 48,000 feet.
Once the guidance system indicated that the Snark was over the target, the missile would jettison its nose section, sending a megaton-yield thermonuclear warhead hurtling toward its objective.
Later models included chaff to spoof enemy defenses. And as long as the Snark didn’t jettison its nose section, it could return to base for reuse.
By 1960s, the Air Force tweaked the missile to allow it to fly low-level attack profiles — the idea being to skirt under radar coverage. The flying branch even considered developing a spy plane version of the Snark, but the proposal went nowhere.
Like the V-1, the Snark was fairly easy to move around. C-124 transport planes shuttled Snarks between their operational base in northern Maine and the test ranges of Cape Canaveral. Once on the ground, the missile could — in theory — be ready for launch within an hour.
But really, the Snark proved to be outright lousy.
The quip “Snark-infested waters” was common on the Atlantic Missile Range, according to a 1997 history from the Air Force History and Museums Program. Far too often, the test missiles crashed away from their intended targets or disappeared altogether.
The Snark’s guidance system was prone to errors. During test flights beyond a range of around 2,000 miles, the Snark’s accuracy eroded so badly that the missile would come down an average of 20 miles away from its target. The best-case scenario was within five miles.
With such poor reliability, even a thermonuclear warhead might not be enough to take out a target. In one embarrassing 1956 incident, an unarmed Snark launched from Cape Canaveral went astray over the South Atlantic.
“Radar crews tracked it while the launching party stood helplessly by at Patrick AFB,” the AP reported. “Radioed ‘command’ signals from the base intended to put the missile into a turn when its automatic devices failed or to explode it in flight were ignored by the Snark.”
Still, the Strategic Air Command declared the SM-62A Snark ready for service in early 1959. The sole operating unit — the 702nd Strategic Missile Wing — kept the missiles at Presque Isle, Maine within striking distance of Russia.
The first Snark missile arrived at the base in May 1959. The Air Force would end up manufacturing 30 Snark missiles.
But the pilotless bomber’s time in service was brief and inglorious. The Snark should have been the pride of the Air Force. Instead, the flying branch deactivated the 702nd in June 1961.
The Snark had been operational for less than four months.
This is because the Air Force regarded the missiles as a stopgap measure, at best. Perhaps SAC could have used the missiles in an emergency, but there was only a one-in-three chance the missile could get off the ground let alone find its target.
In the late 1950s, the U.S. began fielded Atlas ICBMs, rendering the Snark redundant. Administering the coup de grâce in a 1961 budget address, Pres. John F. Kennedy declared the missile “obsolete and of marginal military value.”
With the Snark program officially dead, the strategic cruise missile concept fell out of favor until Pres. Jimmy Carter resurrected it in the late 1970s. Once again, the the Pentagon looked to the cruise missile’s relative affordability.
Air-launched AGM-86s gave veteran B-52 bombers a new lease of life, while the U.S. deployed nuclear-tipped Tomahawks to Europe as part of Washington’s “dual track” policy for containing the Soviet Union.
Today, the U.S. relies on intercontinental or intermediate-range ballistic missiles — launched from ground silos or submarines — to provide most of its strategic missile capability. Winged, subsonic Tomahawk cruise missiles armed with conventional non-nuclear warheads serve as tactical weapons.
But the “pilotless bomber” concept predated the modern era of done warfare. Which is to say the Snark was simply ahead of its time — albeit so far ahead it didn’t work.