Sprint (missile)

The Sprint was a two-stage, solid-fuel anti-ballistic missile (ABM), armed with a W66 enhanced-radiation thermonuclear warhead used by the United States Army. It was designed to intercept incoming reentry vehicles (RV) after they had descended below an altitude of about 60 kilometres (37 miles), where the thickening air stripped away any decoys or radar reflectors and exposed the RV to observation by radar. As the RV would be travelling at about 5 miles (8.0 km) per second, Sprint had to have phenomenal performance to achieve an interception in the few seconds before the RV reached its target.

Sprint missile in flight
TypeAnti-ballistic missile
Place of originUnited States
Service history
In service1972
Production history
ManufacturerMartin Marietta
Mass7,700 pounds (3,500 kg)
Length26.9 feet (8.20 m)
Diameter53 inches (1.35 m)
WarheadW66 nuclear low kt

  • 1st stage: Hercules X-265 650,000 pounds-force (2,900 kN);
  • 2nd Stage: Hercules X-271
PropellantSolid fuel
25 miles (40 km)
Flight ceiling19 miles (30 km)
Speed12,250 kilometres per hour; 7,610 miles per hour; 3,403 metres per second (Mach 10)
Radio command guidance

Sprint accelerated at 100 g, reaching a speed of Mach 10 in 5 seconds. Such a high velocity at relatively low altitudes created skin temperatures up to 6,200 °F (3,430 °C), requiring an ablative shield to dissipate the heat.[1][2] The high temperature caused a plasma to form around the missile, requiring extremely powerful radio signals to reach it for guidance. The missile glowed bright white as it flew.

Sprint was the centerpiece of the Nike-X system, which concentrated on placing bases around large cities to intercept Soviet warheads. The cost of such a system quickly became untenable as the Soviets added more ICBMs to their fleet, and Nike-X was abandoned. In its place came the Sentinel program, which used Sprint as a last-ditch defense against RVs that evaded the much longer-ranged LIM-49 Spartan. Sentinel was itself changed to become the Safeguard Program, which was operational only for a few months from October 1975 to early 1976. Congressional opposition and high costs linked to its questionable economics and efficacy against the then emerging MIRV warheads of the Soviet Union, resulted in a very short operational period.

During the early 1970s, some work was carried out on an improved Sprint II, which was mostly concerned with the guidance systems. These were to be dedicated to the task of protecting the Minuteman missile fields. Further work was cancelled as US ABM policy changed.


Nike Zeus

The US Army had considered the issue of shooting down theater ballistic missiles of the V-2 missile type as early as the mid-1940s. Early studies suggested their short flight times, on the order of 5 minutes, would make it difficult to detect, track and shoot at these weapons. However, in spite of their much higher performance, intercontinental ballistic missiles' longer flight times and higher trajectories made them, theoretically, much easier to attack.

In 1955 the Army gave Bell Labs, who had developed the earlier Nike missiles, a contract to study the ABM issue. They returned a report saying the concept was within the state of the art, and could be built using modest upgrades to the latest Army surface-to-air missile, the Nike Hercules. The main technological issues would be the need for extremely powerful radars that could detect the incoming ICBM warheads long enough in advance to fire on them, and computers with enough speed to develop tracks for the targets in engagements that lasted seconds.

Bell began development of what became Nike Zeus in 1956, working out of the Nike development center at Redstone Arsenal. The program went fairly smoothly, and the first tests were carried out in the summer of 1959. By 1962 a complete Zeus base had been built on Kwajalein Island and proved very successful over the following year, successfully intercepting test warheads and even low-flying satellites.

New concept

During the period Zeus was being developed, a number of problems arose that appeared to make it trivially easy to defeat. The simplest was that its 1950s-era mechanical radars could track a limited number of targets, and it could be easily overwhelmed by numbers; a report by the Gaither Committee suggested a salvo of four warheads would have a 90% chance of destroying a Zeus base. This was of little concern during early development when ICBMs were enormously expensive, but as their cost fell and the Soviets claimed to be turning them out "like sausages", this became a serious problem.

But other issues also became obvious in the late 1950s. One issue was that nuclear explosions in space had been tested in 1958 and found that they blanketed a huge area with radiation that blocked radar signals above about 60 kilometres (37 mi) altitude. By exploding a single warhead above the Zeus sites, the Soviets could block observation of following warheads until they were too close to attack. Another simple measure would be to pack radar reflectors in with the warhead, presenting many false targets on the radar screens that cluttered the displays.

As the problems piled up, the Secretary of Defense Neil H. McElroy asked ARPA to study the anti-missile concept. ARPA noted that both the radar decoys and high-altitude explosions both stopped working in the thickening lower atmosphere. If one simply waited until the warheads descended below about 60 km, they could be easily picked out on radar again. However, as the warheads would be moving at about 5 miles (8.0 km) per second at this point, they were only seconds from their targets. An extremely high-speed missile would be needed to attack them during this period.


The result of the ARPA study came at the height of the debate over the Zeus system in the early 1960s. The new Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, convinced President Kennedy that Zeus was simply not worth deploying. He suggested using the funds allocated to its deployment to develop the ARPA system, which became known as Nike-X, an ad hoc name given by Jack Ruina when he was reporting on the concept.

Nike-X required great improvements in radars, computers, and especially the missile. Zeus had an attack profile lasting about a minute, Nike-X's interceptions would last about five seconds.


The conical Sprint was stored in and launched from a silo. To make the launch as quick as possible, the cover was blown off the silo by explosive charges; then the missile was ejected by an explosive-driven piston. As the missile cleared the silo, the first stage fired and the missile was tilted toward its target. The first stage was exhausted after only 1.2 seconds, but produced 650,000 pounds-force (2,900 kilonewtons) of thrust. On separation, the spent first stage disintegrated due to aerodynamic forces. The second stage fired within 1 to 2 seconds of launch. Interception at an altitude of one to eighteen miles' altitude (1.5 to 30 km) took at most 15 seconds.

The Sprint was controlled by ground-based radio command guidance, which tracked the incoming reentry vehicles with phased-array radar and guided the missile to its target.

The Sprint was armed with an enhanced radiation nuclear warhead with a yield reportedly of a few kilotons, though the exact number has not been declassified. The warhead was intended to destroy the incoming reentry vehicle primarily by neutron flux.

The first test of the Sprint missile took place at White Sands Missile Range on 17 November 1965.[3]

Design predecessors

The "HIBEX" (HIgh Boost EXperiment) missile is considered to be somewhat of a design predecessor and competitor to the Sprint missile, as it was a similar high-acceleration missile in the early 1960s, with a technological transfer from that program to the Sprint development program occurring.[4] Both were tested at the White Sands Launch Complex 38. Although HIBEX's initial acceleration rate was higher, at near 400 G, its role was to intercept reentry vehicles at a much lower altitude than Sprint, 6100 m, and it is considered to be a last-ditch anti-ballistic missile "in a similar vein to Sprint".[1] HIBEX employed a star-grain "composite modified double-base propellant", known as FDN-80, created from the mixing of ammonium perchlorate, aluminum, and double-base smokeless powder, with zirconium staples (0.125 inches in length) embedded or "randomly dispersed" throughout the matrix.[5]

The small "Thunderbird" rocket of 1947 produced an acceleration of 100 G with a polysulfide composite propellant, star-grained cross-section solid rocket motor.[6]

Engines and propellant

The first stage's Hercules X-265 engine is believed to have contained alternating layers of zirconium "staples" embedded in nitrocellulose powder, followed by gelatinizing with nitroglycerine, thus forming a higher thrust double-base powder.[7][8]


The first test of the Sprint missile took place at White Sands Missile Range on 17 November 1965.[3]


  • The Air Defense Artillery museum at Fort Sill, Oklahoma has both Safeguard missiles (Sprint and Spartan), plus Nike Zeus and HIBEX on exhibit.[9][10][11]
  • The White Sands Missile Range Museum has a HIBEX on exhibit.
  • Full Scale Replica on Display, RSL#3 Missile Site, Cavalier, ND www.rsl3.com

See also


  1. Sprint
  2. Designation-systems Directory of U.S. Military Rockets and Missiles. Martin Marietta Sprint.
  3. James Walker; Lewis Bernstein; Sharon Lang (2005). Seize the High Ground: The U.S. Army in Space and Missile Defense (PDF). Government Printing Office. ISBN 0160723086. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 February 2013. 17 November 1965 First guided SPRINT flight test took place at WSMR
  5. UpSTAGE TECHNOLOGY REPORT: SPECIAL MANUFACTURING AND FABRICATION 1972. McDonnell Douglas. p. 162–178, with impact sensitivity on G-24.
  6. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 6 August 2002. Retrieved 6 February 2016.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. Up-ship. Sprint missile
  8. DTIC. by SB Moorhead - 1974
  9. http://www.city-data.com/articles/US-Army-Air-Defense-Artillery-Museum-El.html
  10. http://srmsc.org/mis2050.html
  11. ADA park (Fort Sill), photo journal of Daniel DeCristo


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