Saturday, October 25, 2008

Northrop Snark Missile

A product of the USAF's early postwar interest in long-range “unmanned bombers”, Northrop's Snark would be, in terms of warhead yield and range, the most powerful cruise missile ever operationally employed by the US. However, the type was fated to spend far longer in development than it ever did in operational service.
Northrop SM-62 Snark
Restored SM-62 at Dayton, 2012

The Snark family started out with the N-25 model of 1949-1950; generally in the class of the Matador, the N-25 was fairly conventional for its day, having a cylindrical body, high-mounted swept wing, and a J33 turbojet engine. Launching was accomplished via a rocket sled system. Had the N-25 been used as a straightforward baseline for a service model, an early operational debut for the Snark might have been possible. However, a revised requirement for a weapon with an intercontinental range would greatly alter (and delay) the whole program. The first (attempted) flight of an N-25 Snark took place in December 1950, with the first successful launch taking place in April of the following year.

There were some reasonable arguments for proceeding on such a course; ICBMs were far from the hardware stage, and in any case might prove unworkable, whereas cruise missiles were a much more known quantity. However, creating an intercontinental Snark was essentially an exercise in starting the program over; the N-69 model (military designation SM-62) shared little with its predecessor save the basic planform, being greatly enlarged to accommodate the fuel needed. This larger and heavier missile was fired from a zero-length launcher under the power of two solid motors fitted to the sides of the fuselage under the wing, each being rated at 105,000lbs of thrust. After these were jettisoned, the cruise portion of the mission would be powered by an Allison J71 axial-flow turbojet.

Snark missile on outside display at Dayton, 1990s.
Preserved Snark on outside display at the Air Force Museum, 1992

There would be several alterations later made to the N-69/SM-62, including the installation of 130,000lb thrust boosters, and the use of the more fuel-efficient Pratt &; Whitney J57. Operational models (N-69C) also featured a warhead section that would detach and fly free in the final phase of flight; this in principle would aid in survivability since Soviet radars would have to differentiate between the warhead and the discarded airframe. However, this was really a case of making virtue of a necessity, as it had been found that the elevons did not give enough authority to put the entire airframe into a terminal dive. The Snark's warhead was a W39, rated at just under four megatons of yield. This was an evolution of the Mk.15 thermonuclear weapon, and was also used on the Redstone ballistic missile.

SM-62 test operations from the Cape included flights of versions with skid landing gear, and recovery of these articles at the Canaveral airfield led to this facility being named the “Skid Strip”. Getting the missiles back to Florida was far from assured, however. Among the mishaps during testing was a December 5,1956 flight that quite literally “went off the reservation”. The plan was for this vehicle to fly a pattern off the coast of Florida, but the reality was that the Snark went its own way and headed towards South America despite destruct commands; one criticism of the Snark system was that it would be too vulnerable to interceptors, but in this case at least, the missile avoided destruction. The Snark was still heading south when it left American radar coverage, and some speculated that it might have reached Brazil before burning the last of its fuel. This would mark a distance record for a U.S. missile, but this inadvertent achievement was somewhat ill-timed, coming during a period of American-Brazilian negotiations, ironically over missile-tracking stations. No further trace was found of the Snark at that time; however, in 1982, when the only known Snark survivors were museum pieces, another example reappeared when the long-lost (and all but forgotten) missile turned up, having indeed come down in a Brazilian forest. This was not the only occasion that a Snark (or at least part of one) reached another continental landmass; in June 1958 an “aircraft component” washed up on the British island of Jersey turned out to be an aileron from a Snark launched from Florida two years previously.

Like Navaho and Regulus II, Snark (at least in its final form) came along just as ICBMs were ready, and although the SM-62 managed to enter service, this was probably due more to procurement inertia than any contribution the system could have made to the deterrent force. The 556th Strategic Missile Squadron fired a Snark from Canaveral as early as June 27, 1958, but it would still be several years before the system was ready to be deployed.

The only operational Snark base would be Presque Island AFB Maine, whose northerly location would put the SM-62s in range of the USSR. The Snark could be airlifted by C-124s, but thoughts of using Globemasters to rapidly put SM-62 units into forward locations in times of tension never went into actual practice. The 702nd Strategic Missile Wing had a few Snarks in operation by late 1960 (two years after the projected date) but it would be February of the following year before an official operational capability would be achieved. Snark was finally in service, but its career would prove to be a fleeting thing, as President Kennedy announced not long afterwards that the system would be deactivated. On the drawing boards and in the test stage for a decade and a half, Snark spent only a few months in actual use, being withdrawn by the early summer of 1961.

Magazine Articles
Photo: Snark Aviation Week February 27, 1956 p.27

Photos: Snark (3) Aviation Week April 16, 1956 p.30-31

“AF Transports Snark In Douglas C-124 Aviation Week September 3, 1956 p.29

“Snark Details Viewed by Public at Aircraft show” Aviation Week September 24, 1956 p.95 4

“Snark Extends Landing Legs” Aviation Week December 24, 1956 p.28-29 1 illustration

"Snark to Become Operational With SAC" Aviation Week January 21, 1957 p.31 1 illustration

"Snark Flight, Ground Tests" Aviation Week January 28, 1957 p.61 2 illustrations

“Snark Gets Boost” Aviation Week December 2, 1957 p.71 1 illustration

“First Photos Show Separation of Snark Warhead” Aviation Week July 11, 1960 p.29 3 illustrations

“Snark Fired From Mobile Launcher” Aviation Week August 1, 1960 p.61 1 illustration

Newspaper Articles
Alvin Shuster “Missile Runs Wild And Is Lost in Test On Atlantic Range” The New York Times December 7, 1956 p.1

“U.S. Thinks Missile Went 3,000 Miles” The New York Times December 8, 1956 p.1 1 illustration

“Snark Missile Fired” The New York Times December 7, 1957 p.9 c.2

“First Group of Missile Airmen Ends Training on Coast” The New York Times December 18, 1957 p.3 1 illustration

“Missile Unit Fires Its First Snark” The New York Times June 28, 1958 p.37 c.2 1 illustration

“Snark Part Identified” The New York Times July 18, 1958 p.8 c.1

"Snark Goes The Distance"
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