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There were many projects during the Cold War that make me scratch my head and go "When did that start to seem like a good idea?". One of those is the SM-62 Snark.

A Snark being launched. Probably the safest place to stand would be at its target.
Never heard of it? Don't feel bad. They weren't around for very long. Obsolete before it went into production, it was only fully operational for 4 months. That's probably some kind of record.

Let's chalk this one up to "seemed like a good idea at the time".

So what's a Snark? It was one of the first ground launched cruise missiles and a rather ambitious project when it began in 1946.

Since Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles were still science fiction in 1946, they needed some way to deliver a nuclear warhead to targets in the Soviet Union. A pilotless airplane seemed like the way to go.

The program was never adequately funded. The Army and Navy were highly critical and even the Air Force was lukewarm to the idea.

The Air Force changed the specifications several times. After several fits and starts Northrop produced the SM-62, which Jack Northrop named the "Snark" after one of Lewis Carrol's characters.

Roughly the size of a jet fighter, the Snark had swept wings and was powered by the same J-57 turbojet I had on my B-52. Oddly enough it had no horizontal tail. Flight control was purely by wing mounted elevons.

Snark blasting off from its mobile launcher. I'm pretty sure it says "Acme" on it somewhere.
Launched from the back of a truck using two rocket boosters, it could fly at 55,000 feet and .9 mach for a distance of roughly 5,000 miles. Using an innovative for the time intertial/celestial navigation system it had a claimed accuracy of 1.5 miles. Since it carried a 4 megaton thermonuclear warhead, a mile and a half was probably close enough.
Note the very small vertical fin and total lack of a horizontal stabilizer.
When the missile neared its target the nose section containing the warhead would detach and fall to the target. This satisfied the Air Force requirement for a "supersonic dive to the target". Gravity assisted in this case.
Warhead separating from the fuselage.
I can actually see a certain logic to this missile. It didn't fly any faster or higher than a B-52, but you could buy 20 Snarks for the price of a B-52. It's launchers were vulnerable to attack but they were also mobile. The launchers could theoretically have been dispersed to ensure their survival.

Sounds good on paper. In practice they were, shall we say, less than reliable. The guidance system worked extremely well, when it worked. Which wasn't very often.

So many splashed in the Atlantic Ocean during testing that the term "Snark infested waters" became a running joke. The average Circular Error Probability (CEP) during test launches was 20 miles.

Most famously, one of the test missiles took a wrong turn and was last seen heading for.........Brazil. It managed to hide in the jungle until 1982.

Then there was the issue of being extremely vulnerable. It had no countermeasures and had no way of taking evasive action. Flying along straight and level at .9 mach these would have been target drones for Soviet air defenses.

That assumes that any actually made it to Soviet airspace instead of going off course and trying to nuke Poughkeepsie.

Its operational life was mercifully short. The first missiles were sent to Presque Isle Air Force Base in 1959. The 702nd Strategic Missile Wing became fully operational in February of 1961. A month later President Kennedy declared the Snark to be "obsolete and of marginal military value". The entire force was decommissioned in June of 1961. Only 30 were ever deployed.

One of the few surviving Snarks on display at the Air Force Museum. Where it can't hurt anyone.
With additional development the Snark could possibly have become a viable system. Jack Northrop, who was no dummy, believed it could be adapted to fly at 500 feet and equipped with countermeasures to penetrate enemy defenses. Since we had viable ICBMs by then, there was really no point to it.

Northrop learned a lot about building navigation systems, so it wasn't a complete loss. Just another odd chapter in Cold War history.

Originally posted to Kossack Air Force on Fri Mar 14, 2014 at 01:18 PM PDT.

Also republished by Central Ohio Kossacks and Aviation & Pilots.

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