The nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia during the Cold War involved the equipping of land, sea, and air forces with nuclear weapons. Its most deadly form of competition was the race to introduce nuclear-armed missiles with intercontinental range. Overshadowed by the impending deployment of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) fleet, the Northrop SM62 Snark was a little-known missile system swept into service on the momentum of the Missile Race. On 18 March 1960, the first Northrop Snark missile was declared operational and placed on alert. The Kremlin undoubtedly took notice.
Although relegated to "also ran" status, the Snark nevertheless represented a large research and development effort by the U.S. Air Force. The first test flight of the missile had taken place at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, on 16 April 1951. The slow pace of development resulted in the first full-range flight of a Snark nearly six and a half years later, on 31 October 1957, when a prototype missile successfully flew 5,000 miles downrange from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to the target area near Ascension Island.
Powered by a Pratt & Whitney J-57 jet engine, the SM62 Snark was designed to fly up to 5,500 miles at Mach .9 guided by a navigation system described in Janes All the World’s Aircraft as a “Star Tacking System”, and described by the Air Force as a “Celestial Inertial" navigation system. The terminal phase of the missile’s flight took place when the Snark's fuselage and control surfaces broke away, resulting in the nuclear warhead continuing to the target in a ballistic trajectory.
On 10 December 1956, the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) published an operational plan for the Snark, and on 21 March 1957, it was announced that Presque Isle AFB, Maine, had been selected as the operational site for Snark. Patrick AFB Florida, was selected as the training and operational testing site for the missile. The 556th Strategic Missile Squadron (SMS), the Air Force’s first Missile Squadron, was activated as the operating unit at Patrick on 15 December 1957. On 27 June 1958, the 556th launched its first Snark from nearby Cape Canaveral, Florida.
On 1 January 1959, the 702d Strategic Missile Wing (SMW) was activated at Presque Isle AFB and assigned to
the 8th Air Force. Under normal Air Force basing concepts, the Wing was the establishment that oversaw numerous operating units on a base. These included not only the Strategic Missile Squadrons, but also the Maintenance Squadrons, Medical Squadrons and Clinics, Security Squadrons, Communications Squadrons and more. The 556th SMS was originally scheduled to
move from sunny Florida to Presque Isle in July 1959.
At the same time SAC prepared the ex-fighter base in Aroostook Country to become the nation's first operational strategic missile site, Air Force leadership was voicing serious doubts as to the Snark's effectiveness in light of its low speed, troubled test program, and more importantly, the impending deployment of the Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). All ICBMs were rocket powered, and their flight profile took them out of the atmosphere on a ballistic trajectory and following reentry, the warhead approached its target at extremely high speed.
There was no operational defense against an ICBM, though the Snark was vulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles and supersonic jet interceptors such as the MiG-21.
On 15 July 1959 the 556th SMS was inactivated by Headquarters SAC. The 702d SMW was still tasked with bringing the Snark missile to operational alert status at Presque Isle, and in a unique configuration, with no subordinate units, the wing continued to work toward that goal. On 18 March 1960 the first Snark was placed on alert, with three more to follow by the end of that Fiscal Year. At this point, thanks to the Snark, the United States could claim to have nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles on alert.
Technology was moving fast. The 702d SMW was declared operational on 28 February 1961. On 28 March 1961, the Snark was declared obsolete, and on 25 June 1961 SAC inactivated the 702d SMW. Less than four months had passed since the wing had been declared operational.
The 556th SMS would be back in the missile business in just a few months. Activated again on 1 October 1961, this time the 556th would operate Atlas-F ICBMs at Plattsburgh AFB, NY. An interesting side note to this Atlas dispersal is that two of this squadron's twelve launchers were located across Lake Champlain in the Alburg area of Northern Vermont, the only ICBMs ever to be based in New England.