Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Sentinal and Safeguard, Part 1: The fastest thing off Earth

Well, so far on the Chant, we’ve seen all sorts of winged aerospace thingies, especially someone’s fascination with the Spitfire, and several people infatuated with the phlying brick with wings. But, well, my dad was, after he was a fighter pilot, a missile guy. He even wore a missile badge. And, of course, in my un-wondering youth, I never got to ask him about it. Missed opportunities, dangit.

The USAF Missile Badge
My dad wore one of these

So, I’ve lived around Vandenberg AFB, where I got to watch the occasional Minuteman go flying downrange. And maybe some others, but, well, I was a kid and firing missiles was, well, ‘normal’ for where I lived.  So flying rocket thingies were common enough to not really warrant a close look, plus ballistic missiles all kinda look the same from 15 miles away as they fly downrange.  Not like the authorities allowed us to go wandering all over the launch sites and ogle all the pretty, pretty toys.  (And the launch facilities at Vandenberg are separated by ridges/hills/visual terrain obstacles that discourage direct viewing from the quarters area of the base, and, well, gee, it wasn't my darned business, now, was it.  (More lost opportunities, dang it.)

And then the family moved to Kwajalein, where we got to watch what was left of whatever they were firing from Vandenberg come down to ‘land’ or splash down or whatever, though we lowly plebes (children, most civilians, heck most servicemen on the whole atoll) weren’t actually allowed to actually watch the splash portion. And, dang it, we also weren’t allowed to watch the Perry Cubmarines go and pick up the re-entry vehicles from their watery depths. Did I want to see them? Darned tootin! Did I get to? No. Duh. Dangit.

This is a Perry Cubmarine. Think ‘Yellow’ and you’ve got it.

So, geez, missile badges and cubmarines, Beans, boooring, right?

Well, not so fast…


Where I lived…

We had…

A-frickin-B-to-the-M’s. Anti-Ballistic Missiles! Missiles that were actually designed to shoot down the reentry portion of Ballistic Missiles (boooo, hissssss) and protect our glorious country from the evils of the Evil Empire (more boooooo, hissssss.)

For Kwajalein Atoll, specifically Meck Island (on the Northeast section of Kwajalein Atoll) was a functioning launch and testing facility for the Sprint and Spartan ABM systems. Not just the wee missiles themselves, well ‘wee’ compared to a BM, that is. But to all the support structure for the aiming, firing, tracking, and whatnot of ABMs, to include radars, silos, maintenance facilities and such. We’re talking Project Safeguard, the pinnacle of US ABM programs that set the stage for ‘Aegis on Land’ and all the modern stuff, but this was back in the late 60’s and early 70’s so that makes it so much cooler.

Meck Island in 2009, Shooting and not scooting because it’s a friggin island

A convenient map of Meck showing the Project Safeguard facilities
Notice the side view of the island, showing the control building with the pyramid structure on the corner
the website ‘’ is a long deep well of information to fall into.

And Meck in all it’s glory, blasting out the mighty Sprint

Meck is an interesting island, been there on a ‘family field trip’ put on by the MWR (morale, welfare, recreation) troops so that we could all see the wonders of Meck. Which included a white-knuckle ride in a De Havelland Caribou, a fun, STOL transport flown by the US Army as the CV-2.

Funny looking plane, gauky, but I loved the ride

But, you may ask, what is the point of this whole article? Well, this time it’s the Sprint. The mighty Sprint. No other designation, just ‘Sprint.’ Which says it all.

Imagine, standing on your roof, watching a glowing object come glowing down from a northeast direction (Vandenberg AFB usually) heading toward someplace 20 miles north-northwest (the center of the atoll’s huge lagoon-basin. Glowing, getting closer, glowing, getting closer, brighter, brighter… And suddenly a lance of fire juts upward from north of where you’re standing and strikes the glowing object, resulting in more glowing objects falling into the lagoon.

Lance of Fire? What? Are we using Lasers or Fusion Guns or something?  In the early 70's?  Nope. That was a Sprint launch and intercept. Saw it several times. As amazing and stunning the last time as the first time.

So, what’s a Sprint?  The Sprint was a cone-of-death fueled by testosterone and rage… Well, actually, the Sprint missile was… Getting ahead of myself.

Back in the 1960’s, some smart-asses at Martin Marietta decided they could make a high speed interceptor. The company got the contract in March, 1963, and tested the ‘Squirt,’ a micro version of the actual big missile, to prove the concept. And, well, it worked.

This is the Squirt mounted on a Nike Ajax booster. Little cone of death.

So, from the humble beginnings, probably from an alcohol, caffeine and nicotine binge, the Sprint was born. 

Standing 26’11” tall, with a maximum diameter of 4’5” tapering down to a needle point, the Sprint was designed to go over Mach 10 to a maximum range of 100,000 feet, to set off it’s W66 1kt nuke (or make a direct hit). It was a two stage missile, launched using a gas launcher to punt the missile out of the tube, then the 1st stage accelerated the missile at 100g for a massive 1.2 seconds to reach Mach 10ish, then the 2nd stage accelerated the upper section to glowing speeds in excess of Mach 10, causing plasma to form on the outside of the missile, necessitating a super-powerful guide beam from the ground in order to penetrate the plasma shell. Get that?  Going so darned fast the burning atmosphere could interrupt the guide signal.  
Cutaway of the Sprint.  Cone of DEATH TO BALLISTIC MISSILES!!!

and what a non-nekkid one looks like.  Sexy, in a geeky way.

Sprint in it's launch cell, cross-section.

Here's the top of the launch cell.
That white dome is a fiberglass cover, the missile punches through it.
This isn't Meck.  This is one of the Safeguard Sites in North Dakota.
Which is up for sale.  Really.  Would I lie?
You can go to the below site and buy, buy, buy!

The mighty Sprint. 0 to Bazillion in nothing flat. And I saw almost direct kills.  People said ABMs wouldn’t work. I saw them working.

Here's a real-time video of a launch and intercept.

Oh, about the title, the Sprint was the terminal interceptor for both the Sentinel and Safeguard systems. Sentinel was an Army program for setting up ABM systems, consisting of control facilities and long-range and terminal interceptors, around major cities.  Safeguard was scaled back Sentinel, only protecting the missile fields.  More on that later.

My dad, an ex-pilot, USAF missileer, working with the Army on ABMs, while fitting in work with NASA on the space program and Navy Range Instrumentation Ships.  I came by my weirdness genetically. 


  1. Hmph. I had my credit card all set, fired up to blast out of dull DC to happening North Dakota, but the link didn't link correctly.

    No finders fee from the real estate agent for you!


    1. Just google "Sprint missile base for sale" and you'll come up with it.

      Strangly, the closest city to the place for sale is in Canada...

      Now, if it was in North Florida and I had a couple million to throw away, I'd take it. But frozen ND north? Um, no.

  2. Wow Beans...... Mach 10, 100 g's....... makes me wonder what research/testing is being done now. Your dad had quite"job". Fascinating post.

    1. Yeah, makes all that "New Hypersonic Missile" and "New ABM Missile" talk that's constantly going around seem so, well, 40 years ago.

      And I am still trying to get the USAF to cough up even the basics about what he did while with them. Just the stuff he told us kids was way strange.

  3. Dad was in a Nike Ajax battery in San Pedro in 57. My old, distinguished station GM was a Nike radar geek from 52-54. I've seen them kill a QB-17 on youtube with a Nike, made me sad.... The Fort is one of my favorite airplanes....

    Taking off the shelf items, and putting them to good use. If that isn't the American way, what is?? Great info!

    1. Always found the Nike Ajax systems to be fascinating. And so much resolve back then to protect our nation. Wish we had the same resolve today.

      Well, as to off-the-shelf items, it's always nice to be able to avoid a lot of pesky redesigning if the stuff is already there. Nike boosters got used for a lot of stuff in the research field, as they were pretty durable and reliable.

    2. Been to Fort MacArthur many, many times. At one time they had a Nike Hercules for display, but I hadn't seen it in quite a while before we moved.

  4. Beans that was an awesome post!
    It must have been like living in a science fiction novel.

    1. It was a culture shock when my family went civilian in late '73. No weird late-night phone calls. No living on the structured base. No planes overhead constantly, or strange noises, or unexplained road closures (happened at Vandenberg a couple times, I think when they were transporting missiles.)

      In contrast, moving to a town just south of Cape Canaveral was quiet. And boring.

      I've said it before, I haven't done really interesting things, but I've been a witness to strange stuff I still don't understand, which is why I really need to get the AF to release my dad's service info (the in-depth stuff, not the boring list on his DD-214.)

  5. The Summerfest grounds in Milwaukee was once a Nike battery site.

    1. After looking at how they were built, a Nike Battery would make a neat home/business facility, once all the chemicals and asbestos are remediated.

      The battery magazines by themselves, if the elevators are capable, would be great fun for a classic car collector. Build a shed over the elevator, and insta bunker.

  6. really good post there beans!
    as all good ideas go, this was one of the best until the politicians got involved(goldwater). the idea was to defend against the minimal attack. not a full house kill all the dogs and cats attack. Pols didn't see that. "so we have 1000 defensive missiles, the other guy builds 1001." I really hated goldwater.AZ is a festering pit if vipers for pols. several political downsides. what do I mean? CINCNORAD had nuclear release authority already(see Genie missle on F101&F106);but the pols screamed bloody murder about positive control. then it was which cities. so just the missile silos-thanks macnamara and your MAD crap. on the up side, the site to defend washington dc was never commissioned. serves them right.
    sprint had always impressed me with its technology and accuracy. the safeguard missile not so much. really great digging on your part.

    1. Never understood not protecting the country. We had devolved so much defensively that by the time 9-11 came around, the ready fighters that launched to shoot down any airliners weren't armed. The pilots knew they would have to ram the planes.

      Bobby 'Strange' McNamara started the whole cancelling of many of the Nike program portions. Jerk.

  7. Sprint launches always look like the footage has been sped up. Big things should not move like that.

    Would have been cool to see in person. Feels like a project I would have loved to work on, along with SLAM...

    1. They were cool, from a long distance. I wanted to see them from a lot closer, but nooooooooooooo. For some strange and stupid reason the Army wouldn't let us get anywhere near Meck during a launch. The jerks...

      I laugh when some aerospace weenie today talks about Mach 5 aircraft or Mach 9 missiles. We had both, in the 50's and 60's. Back when slipsticks and log charts ruled the math world.

  8. Good post. Like the pictures. As for that missile silo, it's all about location location location. Here's one that's not in such an inhospitable place:

    1. There's that one. And an Atlas E site in Arizona, an Atlas F site in west west Texas, a Nike base in N. Maine and several others.

      If I had the money...

  9. Man! Awesome post Beans! As Buck was wont to say, "I had no ideer!"

    FYI, I'm an indifferent typist when both eyes are working, this lack of depth perception is just weird. As is looking through a nitrogen bubble. Don't ask, THAT story is forthcoming, just don't know when.

    But with stuff like this? I'm good to let you guys run the ball for a while!

    1. Happy to " see " you up and about.


    2. You just need to get that 'Dragon' software they are always hawking on late-night tv so you can go full voice-recognition on your posts.

      And... I had to email LUSH late late last night to find out if you survived because YOU didn't designate anyone to send out the "OAFS ALIVE" message. Grrrr. Though the photo she sent me was funny. You need to get a stuffed parrot for your shoulder. Mayhaps you can have LUSH do a post on... You?

    3. "I'm alive post" happens in 3... 2...

    4. You could have had LUSH do it as her first post. But then you would have lost all control over what she wrote. Which would have been fun.

    5. She has asserted that she has "forgotten" how to log in. As busy as she's been with the granddaughters lately, I'm surprised she has time to breathe!

      But yeah, "I forgot how to log in," is just lame.

  10. AW:

    A nice tale, I'm looking forward to the rest of it.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

    1. It will come in spits and spurts. Most people didn't know that we had the ability to shoot down anything the Soviets wanted to toss our way, if we were willing to radiate the upper atmosphere, of course. We actually had the Soviets pooping their shorts several times and then in typical fashion somehow managed to piss it away.

      Like all the port defenses that everyone thought we'd never need after WWII, only to scrabble together half-assed attempts after 9-11.

      Many of my friends and acquaintances didn't understand what "Battery Park" or its equivalent in just about every port city was. Thinking the battery referred to some energy storage device. I know I'd feel safer if our ports were protected by some nice 6" and 8" rifles, along with missile batteries. But, nooooo, can't protect ourselves now, can we?

      We as a nation can be downright stupid at times.

    2. "We as a nation can be downright stupid at times."

      Oh, do tell. Is that how we got some of the so called leaders we have had?


    3. Yes. We're still paying the price of the "Peace Dividend." Who knows how many hundreds of billions it will take to bring our current equipment up to 85% usability? Let alone up to 95% or higher.

  11. Superb post, Beans!

    My first job after college was with Western Electric, and my reporting supervisor had worked on Kwaj on the Sprint. He said the first few they fired went all wonky right off the pad, and it was that 100g kick-in-the-butt when they launched.

    It was ripping components out of the circuit boards!

    And living in SoCal for 35 years I had the opportunity to go to VAFB and see some early NAVSTAR birds get lofted, and after the Internet arrived, I watched the launch schedules carefully, and got to see some spectacular night launches.

    Then there was Boeing and Sea Launch, so I got to see lots of cool stuff get launched.

    And some go BOOM!, and some go SPLASH!

    1. I got to witness the Delta disasters, in all their glorious destruction. Beautiful launches, then the Range Tracking ships would pick them up and 'blooie.'

      Only took them a little while before they realized the explosive bolts between the first and second stage were on the same frequency as some signal from the tracking ships. Oops.

      And the Sprint, the design of the tracking system to penetrate the plasma shield, who woulda thunk? And I can see things not bolted/welded completely rock solid would be a problem. Needless to say, not ever going to be a man-rated system like that unless some sci-fi handwavium is invented.

      I envy you being close to launches. Always wanted to be just outside of the no-go zone for a launch, or in one of those bunkers with the heavy glass.

      I wish they hadn't screwed up the wiring for the shuttle launchpad at VAFB. Would have been nice to have that launch capability (and maybe drop a solid booster on San Fran...)

    2. And, no matter what juvat feels, Air Defense Artillery is a little-talked about but essential part of the Aerospace Warfare field. We spent lots of time thinking and making things to shoot down the evil Soviet stuff. And a lot of really nifty stuff came out of that rabbit hole.

    3. Yep, and I helped build a lot of it. Working at Hughes Aircraft in the early/late 1980's was quite a bit of fun, and a couple of times I was allowed to witness a test at Point Mugu, and then China Lake.

      Amazing stuff!

      Living in SoCal for 35 years I got to explore many of the old military sites. As I mentioned above, I've been to Fort MacArthur dozens of times. My Radio Club held the Field Day exercise there every year, so I've crawled around Fort Mac many times. It's an interesting place, and spans the Port Defense spectrum from WWI through the Cold War; first Big Guns, then AAA, then Nike missiles.

      The FAA radar on top of Palos Verdes used to be USAF property, and was part of NORAD system. Also a great place to take your girlfriend, as it overlooks the entire L.A. basin, and is very pretty at night.

      And now being so close to Warren AFB, I'm finding all the locals know where all the old missile silos are here. There's one a couple of miles from the little country house we lived in when we first moved here.

    4. Well, maybe you and some other hams can renovate an old control building and do your ham stuff out of there, like you did on the Iowa. Would be neat.

      It is amazing the construction that went into a lot of these facilities, that just got tossed away by the gubmint after we got rid of ADA missiles. And now we need ADA missiles again, in the form of Aegis-On-Land and stuff like that.

      What goes around, comes around.

  12. Very cool post Mr Beans. And thank you for writing it in English instead of techno-geek babble. Much easier to understand!!
    Kinda neat to know that even when we were little kids practicing duck and huddle under our desks, Uncle Sam was coming up with ways to blast the Soviet missiles out of the air fist.

    I knew what Battery Park was for...and I never even lived in "The City". That story would make an interesting post someday too...

    Yea! Sarge survived!! Now he just needs to let the feline staff under the direction of Mrs. OAFS take care of him for a few days. Lest we don't ask for pictures like we will bug Juvat about. :)

    1. Yeah, blast them from our skies using nukes... Well, it would have worked. And I tend to techno-babble over medieval armor and weapons, so I try to resist techno-babbling.

      Sad thing is, for all the people badmouthing 'Duck and Cover,' it is a very effective survival technique for those not caught in the initial blast. And now, thanks to the fecklessness of the Worst President Ever and BillyJeff's wife, we get to relive those days. Yay.

      There's some real strange stuff out there regarding early air defense.

  13. Many of those reentry vehicles were test vehicles from the ABRES program (AF Systems Command/Ballistic Systems Division).From the mid 60's to early 70's these tests went into Kwajalein. The more interesting were the MIRV vehicles with multiple reentry vehicles. Eventually these tests resulted in the current RVs deployed with the ICBM force. Perhaps an unknown fact: smaller scale RV's were tested at a site in Green River, Utah.

    1. Those reentry vehicles were pretty to watch as they came kinda towards us and then disappeared. Strangely beautiful.

      Glad you know your stuff. Not a lot of people know or talk about the long development process that went into making our current nuke arsenal.

  14. A company seeding clouds to study snowfall patterns (mid 60's) had a complete Nike Ajax setup (less rockets) to track weather balloons. Other than the radar, all that technology today would fit into a smartphone and not need two ex-servicemen to keep it working.

  15. My fav was Terrier BTN. We just enjoyed the idea of a launch failure on a ship firing a nukulear tipped anti-aircraft missile. I forget what the land based version were called. Beans, tell me your dad wasn't stationed in Huntsville at Redstone anytime in the mid/late 1970s.

    OK, I also liked watching ERINT making contact kills on reentry vehicles. THAAD is OK but I liked ERINT.


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