The Boeing Bomarc was the world’s first long-range surface to air missile and despite its shortcomings remain in service for a decade. It was an extremely ambitious project and is a Cold War weapon that few today are familiar with.
In the late 1940s, Boeing began work on a surface to air missile – then described as a ‘pilotless interceptor’. The project was code-named MX-1599 and the Michigan Aerospace Research Center (MARC) joined Boeing to work on the programme.
The MX-1599 was to be a long-range supersonic nuclear-tipped surface to air missile (or SAM), detonated by a proximity fuse. The missile went through a number of official designations as it was developed during the 1950s – finally becoming known as the Bomarc – an acronym of Boeing and Michigan Aerospace Research Center.
The Bomarc was launched vertically using rocket boosters, before its main ramjet engines took over, enabling it to cruise at Mach 2.5 (approx. 1,920 mph). The initial Bomarc A had a range of 200 miles with an operational ceiling of 60,000 feet.
It was ground controlled using NORAD’s Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system until it neared its target, when an onboard radar, a Westinghouse AN/DPN-34 radar, took over.
The Bomarc could be tipped with either a 1,000 lb conventional high explosive or low yield W40 nuclear warhead. These were detonated by a radar proximity fuse. The W40 had a yield of up to 10 kilotons, able to destroy entire formations of aircraft.
The missile had a wingspan of just over 18 feet or 5.5metres, it was 45 feet or 13.7 metres in length and weighed approximately 16,000 lbs (7257 kg) on launch. The Bomarc’s first flight took place on 24th February, 1955.
The USAF intended to use the missile to engage incoming Soviet bomber formations and ICBMs. Originally planning for over 50 Bomarc launch sites, but only one was operational by 1959 and only eight were operational by the early 1960s. The upgraded Bomarc B was developed in the early 1960s, with an improved radar, a Westinghouse AN/DPN-53, and a greater maximum range of 430 miles, as well as a higher operational ceiling of 100,000 feet.
The Bomarc was stored horizontally in specially built semi-hardened bunkers and kept fuelled and ready to launch at a moment’s notice. When targets were detected the missile would be raised and launched vertically.
One of the dangers of keeping the missiles fuelled became clear in June 1960, when a nuclear-armed Bomarc A caught fire exploding the onboard tank and contaminated part of McGuire Air Force Base with melted plutonium. Despite this the missiles remained operational for over a decade with the first sites being deactivated in 1969 with the last stood down in 1972.
While the Bomarc missiles were the world’s first operational long-range anti-aircraft missile they were too slow to achieve operational readiness to keep pace with the rapidly changing nuclear threat – as both superpowers transitioned from bomber to ICBM-focused strategies. They were expensive to manufacture and difficult to maintain at readiness. In the late 1950s the Bomarc also embroiled in a war of words with the US Army arguing their short range Nike Hercules (SAM-A-25/MIM-14) missile was more effective. The Hercules remained in service through to the 1980s, albeit as a air defence missile – rather than targeting soviet ICBMs or bomber aircraft.
The Bomarc was an ambitious project when it began in the late 40s, but with technology and cold war nuclear strategy rapidly evolving the Bomarc was almost obsolete before it became operational. A total of 570 Bomarc missiles were built between 1957 and 1964 with the US and Canada (which led to considerable political controversy) being the only countries to deploy them.
I hope you guys enjoyed this look at the Bomarc, we’ll have a few more videos on missiles in the future.
Wingspan: 18 feet 2 inches
Diameter: 35 inches
Length: 45 feet
Approx. takeoff weight: 16,000 pounds
Top speed: Mach 2.5
Range: 400 miles (IM-99B)
Ceiling: 100,000 feet
Power: 50,000-pound-thrust solid-fuel rocket (takeoff); two 12,000-pound-thrust Marquardt ramjet engines (cruise)
Armament: 1,000 lb conventional or 10 kiloton W40 nuclear warhead
IM-99A/B BOMARC Missile, Boeing, (source)
Nuclear Weapons of the United States: An Illustrated History, J.N. Gibson, (1996)
Nike Historical Society (source)
Supersonic Guardian, Boeing film, c.1960 (source)
The Bomarc featured in the video is part of the Hill Aerospace Museum’s collection.