The Aegis integrated weapons system currently on board more than 70 U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers is a lineal descendant of the service’s original antiaircraft missile system, which featured a huge weapon named after a bronze giant from Greek mythology: Talos. Rear Admiral Wayne Meyer Jr., the “father of Aegis,” received his introduction to the world of air-defense missiles through the Talos system, and its successes and failures helped teach him what Aegis needed to become the success that it is today.
The Talos story began in 1944, as the U.S. Navy sought an answer to the new threat presented by German glide bombs. These guided weapons were too small and fast to be hit by antiaircraft fire and were generally launched from outside antiaircraft range. The Navy had enjoyed considerable success with proximity fuzes, developed by the Johns Hopkins University war-research organization’s Division T, which soon would be renamed the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
To counter the German threat, Division T proposed developing a ramjet-powered, beam-riding interceptor missile. The liquid-fuel ramjet would use its own forward motion to compress air that it would convert to tremendous thrust and supersonic speed, and the missile would “ride” a radar beam to its target. The Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) let the first contract in December 1944 for what was named Project Bumblebee.
Although it soon became obvious that the weapon system would not be produced before World War II ended, Bumblebee continued because the type of threat it had been conceived to meet was, if anything, becoming much worse with the advent of standoff missiles and nuclear weapons. Although the U.S. Navy did not know it at the time, the Soviets had adopted the wartime German glide bombs and within a few years were working on a much larger missile, Komet (NATO AS-1), powered by the same engine as the MiG-15 fighter. By 1960 jet bombers carrying such missiles would be considered the most formidable threat to U.S. carrier task forces.
Division T understood from the outset that almost all features of its concept were radical. No one in the United States had built either a ramjet or a supersonic missile, let alone controlled it by radar. The Applied Physics Laboratory decided to work on a step-by-step basis, using known technology to build test vehicles. For example, to solve control problems it developed a Supersonic Test Vehicle (STV) powered by a known type of engine (a solid-fuel rocket), with control surfaces similar to those planned for the full ramjet missile.
About the same time that the first STVs were ready, the perceived international situation worsened dramatically, first as the United States was drawn into the Greek Civil War and then as communists seized power in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In the spring of 1948 the United States began to rearm.
The Bumblebee ramjet was nowhere near ready, but as an interim fleet defense measure, a weaponized version of the STV, named Terrier, was developed and first tested in 1951. Like Talos, Terrier was a two-stage missile. By 1955 its upper stage had been adapted as a smaller ship missile called Tartar. This weapon in turn became the basis of the Standard Missile, which ultimately became the standard Aegis weapon.
Meanwhile, development of the ramjet Talos continued. The first full version flew in October 1952, and BuOrd evaluation on board the first Talos cruiser, the Galveston (CLG-3), began in May 1957. With a 28-inch diameter, the missile was 19 feet, 2 inches long and had a wingspan of 9 feet, 2 inches. It could carry a 300-pound warhead at nearly Mach 2 speed. Later versions were up to 21 feet long and hit Mach 2.5. An 8-foot, 4-inch solid-fuel booster stage powered the missile to flight speed, at which point its ramjet took over.
The ramjet offered much better range than the solid-fuel Terrier and Tartar—50 nautical miles at the outset and eventually more than 100. That demanded sophisticated guidance. In the 1940s and 1950s BuOrd had developed a solution. No radar beam could be tight enough to precisely guide a missile all the way to a distant target. Normally, beam-riding meant locking a tracking beam onto a target and using the same tracker to generate a guidance beam. While the tracker provided target-position information, the guidance beam “guided” the missile to the target.
But that system was inefficient at long range. BuOrd’s solution was to control the guidance beam with a computer that knew the tracking beam’s—and hence the target’s—position; that also allowed the missile to follow the most efficient possible flight path. Once the missile was within reach of the target, it switched to semiactive homing, flying toward the radar energy reflected from the target.
All of this was ingenious, but by the mid-1950s it seemed obvious that the Soviets could defeat the system. They could jam the big radars that tracked the targets or, even worse, saturate the system with targets (a Talos ship could not handle more targets than it had missile trackers). The Applied Physics Lab’s solution—Typhon—was built around an enormous guidance radar capable of tracking multiple targets and numerous defensive missiles, and a new lightweight missile.
Unfortunately, Typhon was rather costly and required a large, expensive ship (nuclear power seemed to be needed to merely keep the system’s radar continuously lit). Rising costs collided with a presidential administration that wanted money to rebuild the U.S. Army so that it could fight communist insurgents in Southeast Asia, and in 1963 Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara canceled Typhon before it had ever been tested. An additional reason for ending the program was that the three existing systems—Talos, Terrier, and Tartar—were hardly reliable.
To solve that problem money was released for a “3-T” missile “get-well” program—a project in which then-Captain Meyer served as a test-center chief. He learned that failures were generally due to lapses in tight control, whether of quality or of firing procedure.
Meanwhile, others in the Navy sought a less expensive alternative to Typhon, which ultimately emerged as Aegis. It was actually a good deal more capable, due in large part to the explosive improvement in microelectronics between the 1960s and the 1980s.
As for the 3-Ts, the get-well program worked. By about 1968, the Navy’s missiles could reliably meet their operational requirements. Now the spectacular performance designed into Talos came into its own. Initially the Joint Chiefs of Staff were reluctant to use the missile over North Vietnam for fear that duds would be captured, but once that restriction was lifted, the nuclear cruiser Long Beach (CGN-9) managed to shoot down a MiG at a range of 65 nautical miles in May 1968. She shot down a second in September, at a 61-nm range. MiGs found that evading Talos missiles was difficult because they approached the aircraft from above, thanks to the beam-riding guidance along a preferred flight path.
Overland shots stopped with the 1968 bombing cease-fire but resumed in 1972, when the Talos cruiser Chicago (CG-11) was given primary responsibility for covering the mining of Hanoi-Haiphong Harbor by A-6 Intruders. She drove off a group of North Vietnamese MiGs by downing one with a Talos at a range of 48 nautical miles. The cruiser Oklahoma City (CLG-5) may have shot down a MiG-21 at much greater range (about 100 nautical miles), but this reported action may actually be a reference to that ship’s first use of Talos in its alternative antiradar surface-to-surface role.
Talos was spectacular—but also so huge that nothing short of a cruiser could accommodate it. That doomed the missile, particularly after it turned out that the semi-command guidance offered by Aegis and the related New Threat Upgrade could control a Standard Missile 2 (Extended Range)—a modernized Terrier—for about as far as the Talos system could its large ramjet.