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Northrop SM-62 Snark

DAYTON, Ohio -- Northrop SM-62 Snark in the Cold War Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio -- Northrop SM-62 Snark in the Cold War Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Snark, a pilotless nuclear missile, represented an important step in weapons technology during the Cold War. The SM-62 (Strategic Missile) program lasted from 1945-1961, and it gave the U.S. Air Force valuable experience in developing long-range strategic nuclear missile systems. The SM-62 was a significant forerunner of cruise missiles developed many years later.

In 1945 the U.S. Army Air Forces asked for proposals for a pilotless bomber that could deliver a 2,000-pound conventional (later nuclear) warhead. Northrop Aviation proposed the Snark design, an early and ambitious example of an intercontinental-range cruise missile. Guidance of the vehicle to the target proved to be the biggest technical challenge for the missile technology of the 1950s. To solve the problem, the near-supersonic Snark used an innovative guidance system that relied on inertial navigation updated and corrected by star tracking.

Development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and newer, faster manned jet bombers complicated the SM-62's prospects. However, the Snark concept remained attractive because it was cheaper than ICBMs, and unlike bombers, did not risk aircrews, needed no tanker fleet for air refueling, and was easier to maintain. Guidance and aerodynamic issues, though, slowed the SM-62's progress, even as design variations made the Snark bigger, faster and able to deliver more powerful nuclear warheads.

While several test Snarks were launched from fixed platforms, operational missiles were to be launched from mobile platforms. At launch, solid rocket motors helped the Snark quickly gain speed, then dropped away as its jet engine took over. When the Snark approached its target, the nose separated, and the nuclear warhead inside continued on a ballistic path to the target.

The USAF placed its first Snark on alert in March 1960 with the 702nd Strategic Missile Wing (SMW), Presque Isle Air Force Base, Maine. Soon after, however, the USAF withdrew the missile from service. In June 1961 the 702nd SMW was inactivated after President John F. Kennedy declared Snark obsolete compared to the newest nuclear ballistic missiles and manned bombers.

Armament: Nuclear warhead
Engines: Pratt & Whitney J57-P-1 jet engine of 10,500 lbs. thrust and two Aerojet-General solid-propellant booster rockets of 130,000 lbs. thrust each
Guidance: Doppler radar (at launch), celestial and back-up Doppler (midcourse), ballistic (terminal phase)
Range: 6,325 miles
Ceiling: 50,000 ft.
Speed: 650 mph

(Video)Museum Restoration Moves Snark within Gallery

Click here to return to the Cold War Gallery.

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