Continuing in our series on US missile systems.
The US Navy’s experience against the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean Sea during World War II became the impetus for development of long range guided missile systems. The HS293 and Fritz X guided bombs gave Luftwaffe bombers great enough standoff range to avoid most anti-aircraft fire, and sufficient accuracy to be deadly to ships. The need for a weapon with much greater range than the standard 5’/38 gun was clear. The added devastation inflicted by the Kamikazes (especially the Baka bomb) in the last stages of the Pacific War only added urgency to the desire to develop a long range weapon system.
Simply adding bigger guns was not a terribly practical approach. Larger guns would theoretically provide longer range, but the increasing speed of aircraft, especially jets, and the longer range would decrease gun accuracy unacceptably. Coupled with the greater weight and lower rate of fire of a larger gun system, little benefit would be gained. The Navy had been unimpressed with Japanese cruisers using 6” and 8” guns as “dual-purpose” guns (that is, against surface and air threats). Nevertheless, at the very end of the war, a dual purpose 6” gun mount was designed for our Navy. It was not terribly successful, and other approaches to long range anti-aircraft fire were pursued instead.
The “outer layer” of a fleet’s air defense was provided by its fighters, operating radar control from the carrier, picket destroyers, and finally, via Project Cadillac, airborne radar planes. But the Combat Air Patrol sometimes let “leakers” through, and the carrier’s cruiser escorts needed a way to solve that problem.
Enter Project Bumblebee.1 The navy decided to build a guided missile system. Early solid rocket motors were not powerful enough to provide the range and altitude needed, so the development settled on ramjet propulsion. Ramjets are very simple engines, with essentially no moving parts. But they have to be boosted to high speed before they can work. So an enormous solid booster was needed also just to get the missile off the ship and up to speed.
This ramjet powered missile, later christened Talos, used beam-riding guidance. The launching warship aimed a pencil beam of radar energy at the target aircraft and the missile centered itself on the radar beam and eventually intercepted the target. Since the radar beam was pointed at the target aircraft, there was radar energy reflected back toward the ship- and the missile. As a final guidance mode, the Talos used 4 nose mounted antennae to steer the missile toward the radar reflection, a mode known as Semi-Active Radar Homing or SARH.2
Coupled with the large warhead needed and the bulky electronics of the late 1940s, this resulted in a missile almost as big and heavy as some fighters of the day. The tracking and illumination radars were large and heavy as well. Clearly, this wasn’t a system adaptable to smaller warships such as destroyers. The logical choice was to modify some of the many cruisers left over from World War II, many of which had barely entered service when the war ended. By removing the after main gun turret, revamping the magazine spaces, and rebuilding the topsides (to accommodate the guidance and illumination radars) it was possible to install a Talos missile system onto three Cleveland class light cruisers. Even more radical modifications to Baltimore class heavy cruisers resulted in the three ships of the Albany class with Talos systems for and aft. The only other ship to operate the Talos system was the only nuclear powered cruiser ever built, the USS Long Beach. The Talos system worked, but was far to expensive to be installed on large numbers of ships.
As development of the Talos progressed, the range of the missile increased greatly from its initial goal of 10 nautical miles. By the time the first operational missiles were deployed, the system had a range of 50 miles. Later improvements almost doubled this range. Coupled with the ability to carry a nuclear warhead (to defeat mass attacks), the RIM-8 Talos system was a potent long range system. Three MiG pilots in Vietnam learned the hard way not to stray too close to any Navy task force equipped with it.
After only 20 years of service, the Talos was retired from active duty. Other smaller, lighter, cheaper missile systems were providing similar performance (though usually at somewhat shorter ranges) and could be installed on smaller, more numerous ships. The remaining Talos missiles were used as targets representing supersonic cruise missiles. Descendants of the Talos proved their capabilities by shooting down their predecessor.
One of themissile systems that replaced the Talos was Terrier. Terrier actually began life as a two staged, rocket powered test vehicle to validate the guidance system of Talos. As solid rocket motors improved, it quickly became clear that Terrier itself would be a viable weapon system, and it actually entered into service before Talos. Tartar, a smaller missile, basically a Terrier without the first stage booster, was developed from Terrier and equipped smaller destroyers and frigates. Since all three missiles sprung from the same intellectual well of Project Bumblebee, they are usually referred to as the “3T” missiles. For 20 years, the 3T’s formed the backbone of the Navy’s surface air-defense system, until replaced by the Standard Missile System.
1 Sometimes called “Operation Bumblebee”
2 SARH was for many years the most common radar guidance method, and is still used to this day by many missile systems, including the Aegis/Standard missile system on US Navy cruisers and destroyers.