During the Cold War, the United States did not seem to actively develop anti-aircraft missiles (I know that Wikipedia is not an exhaustive source for lists, but just as a rough estimate, they list seven American systems and around 12 Soviet/Russian systems).

They seem to be cheaper, safer and easier to deploy than fighters for defensive purposes. Why did the US not develop them?

  • 9
    Do you have any evidence for the relative effort other than number of deployed systems? There's other possible reasons. Perhaps the US improved missiles more while keeping the designation, perhaps the US was more satisfied with its earlier weapons and was therefore slower to replace them. How much of this is naval? The USN had lots of carriers, and the Soviets didn't have any. Oct 26, 2011 at 12:29
  • user39 You are astute to notice this. We do not develop weapons to destroy vehicles when we have the best of those vehicles. For exactly the same reason the United States does not develop advanced anti-ship missiles. The last thing we want is to create technology that an enemy can copy and use to destroy our ships and planes. May 29, 2014 at 20:48
  • @TylerDurden I would rather attribute this to a difference in tactics any priorities though.
    – jjack
    Dec 29, 2017 at 14:01
  • I think your indicator is flawed. the number of systems is not an indicator of the amount of research, nor of the quality of the product.
    – MCW
    Dec 29, 2017 at 19:24
  • I suspect Soviet chopper pilots who got shot down over Afghanistan by Stingers might disagree somewhat with your assessment. I also disagree with the number of models as a proxy for commitment to a weapon system - Nazi Germany had a huge number of model variants, yet much lower volumes than the Allies, but where to fit a T34 into that? Dec 30, 2017 at 21:42

5 Answers 5


In fact, the U.S. did do a lot of work on AA missile systems, chiefly the Nike program. This included the Nike Ajax, Nike Hercules, and Nike Zeus. The latter was expected to counter ICBM launches. The program was scrapped in 1965 when it was determined that Soviet ICBMs would ultimately overwhelm any defenses, and that the only real defense was the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) doctrine, the same strategy that was lampooned in Dr. Strangelove. Also, the experiment was costly, delivering less bang for the buck (pun intended) than the administration could stomach, and defense funds were prioritized elsewhere, including to the burgeoning war in Vietnam.

Here are a few excerpts from an interesting website that describes the Nike Missile System:

Nike, named for the mythical Greek goddess of victory, was the name given to a program which ultimately produced the world's first successful, widely-deployed, guided surface-to-air missile system. Planning for Nike was begun during the last months of the Second World War when the U.S. Army realized that conventional anti-aircraft artillery would not be able to provide an adequate defense against the fast, high-flying and maneuverable jet aircraft which were being introduced into service, particularly by the Germans.


The first successful test firing of a Nike missile occurred during 1951. This first Nike missile was later given the name Nike "Ajax". Nike Ajax was a slender, two-stage guided missile powered by a liquid-fueled motor utilizing a combination of inhibited red fuming nitric acid (IRFNA), unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine (UDMH) and JP-4 jet petroleum. The Ajax was blasted off of its launcher by means of a jettisonable solid fuel rocket booster which fired for about 3 seconds, accelerating the missile with a power of 25 times the force of gravity.


The shifting nature of the Soviet threat meant that the air defense role, for which Nike was originally intended, became relatively less critical as time passed. Defense dollars were needed for other projects (including the development of American ICBMs and potential missile defenses) and also to fund the rapidly growing war in Vietnam.

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The picture above may also be found at the linked site.


The US also has the problem of where to put them. If you have anti-aircraft defences on your own soil it's rather too late (as Germany discovered) and the US is mostly surrounded by sea.

So you need very friendly allies to allow you to install, generally nuclear armed, anti-aircraft missiles in their country - which protects you but makes them an increased target

There were several generations of US AA missiles installed in Canada (eg Bomarc).

  • Downvote: Sorry, but how does this answer the question? Dec 13, 2012 at 10:43
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    Nuclear armed AA missiles?? May 31, 2013 at 13:03
  • 2
    @EugeneSeidel before miniature infrared/radar trackers and small fast computers it was hard to hit a single high flying bomber. With nuclear weapons (as in horse shoes) close counts!
    – none
    May 31, 2013 at 15:38
  • @EugeneSeidel and also, a nuclear tipped missile can potentially take out an entire formation of bombers, handy if you have only a small number of missiles and launch aircraft (both SAMs and AAMs were nuclear tipped, though never all of them).
    – jwenting
    Jan 3, 2018 at 10:27

The US developed many and very effective AA missiles. BOMARC was an early example and remained in service for over 20 years.
Redeye, Stinger, Hawk, Nike, Patriot, THAAD, Terrier, Talos, Tartar, Standard, Spartan, Sprint, the list goes on and on.
And that's just SAM systems, doesn't include AAM systems, of which several (Sparrow, AMRAAM, ASRAAM, Sidewinder) have found use as SAMs as well.
Of course the number of different systems doesn't come close to the number of different systems employed by the USSR at one time or another, but that's in no small part because of different design and numbering philosophies. When the Soviets designed a new system they usually started from scratch, the Americans tended to do more gradual changes, morphing one system into another over time.
Prime example of this is the US Navy Standard system, now in its 3rd major incarnation but still outwardly similar and using the same name. And it can be argued that Standard is merely a further development of Talos and Terrier. The Nike family is also comprised of several missiles bearing the same name. And at current THAAD is several weapons, Patriot is now in its 3rd incarnation as well.
On the AAM side, AMRAAM is in its 3rd incarnation (though the AIM-120B was not produced), Sidewinder has seen over a dozen variants (including several SAM and ground attack versions, and anti-ship and anti-radar missiles).

Also, they may appear cheaper, but are they? A single missile costing a few million dollars can indeed bring down an aircraft costing a hundred million, but you will likely need several missiles to bring down that aircraft.
Also, missiles are far less flexible than are aircraft, taking longer to forward deploy (especially the larger ones that would replace long range fighters) and are more prone to suffering from environmental problems that aircraft do not. Just ask the British about the trouble with their SAMs during the Falklands campaign.

  • Also, SAM launch sites (even "mobile" ones) are pretty easy to spot and neutralise (especially when forward deployed) - the US even had specialised tactics and weapons (such as HARM which aim straight for the launcher's radar) for dealing with the SAM launchers.
    – user13123
    Mar 16, 2017 at 22:00
  • @HorusKol but arguably less easy than airbases with their miles long concrete runways, taxiways, and all the other facilities they need.
    – jwenting
    Jan 3, 2018 at 10:22
  • but airbases don't need to be forward deployed, so are typically behind many many layers of defence - including interceptors (another role demanding flexible pilot-commanded aircraft).
    – user13123
    Jan 3, 2018 at 17:20
  • @HorusKol they do need to be available though, and the defenses in place or deployed. One of the largest logistical headaches in WW2 for all sides was building and/or repairing airbases during their advances and keeping them supplied and defended. This was in fact the largest factor deciding which islands the US would attack in which order in the Pacific war.
    – jwenting
    Jan 4, 2018 at 9:42
  • planes in WWII had much shorter ranges and no in-flight refueling ability. The island hopping of the Pacific Theatre is a fairly unique situation historically. The Falklands War is probably the closest scenario similar needing carrier support, possibly the Vietnam War (although, strategic bombing missions staged out of Japan and even US). Since the question is about missiles versus planes, it would make more sense to look at post-WWII conflicts - and in almost all of those, planes were staged from relatively deep behind the lines
    – user13123
    Jan 4, 2018 at 17:19

The United States did have a large system of anti-aircraft missiles. There was a image problem. For the system to be effective there needed to be a lot of them and they were needed to be around the cities. As the anti-war movement grew the missiles became a nearby symbol of the military to protest. Then was the issue or nukes on them. Some of the anti-aircraft missiles had nukes installed on them to stop incoming warheads or formations of bombers. Which missiles had the nukes were not public so every anti-aircraft missiles was suspect. This added the anti-nuke protest. Plus there was a whole controversy between the Airforce and the Army. Each was claiming they should be solely in charge of the anti-aircraft missiles for the nation and doing their utmost to make the others efforts sound like a waste of time. Which mainly sullied the whole idea of anti-aircraft missiles in the public mind. Eventually as part of a whole change in public opinion a great number of programs related to anti-aircraft missiles, bomb shelters, anti-ballistic missiles, and even a lot of radar installations were canceled.

As a historically side not there was the objections to antiaircraft guns being put up in some parts of Great Britain right before the start of WW2 and there is the current controversy with THAAD in South Korea. The aircraft were lost to SAMs in the Vietnam war and the losses Israel had in the Yom Kippur war demonstrated SAMS work. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_aircraft_losses_of_the_Vietnam_War][1] Which is why The United States continued to develop portable systems like Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, which can be set up as needed.


One point to consider... while the US did develop quite a few AA missiles during the Cold War: Bomarc, Ajax, Hawk, etc... they never got much publicity because they weren't used.

The Soviet SAM-2 became famous because it was actually used a lot... to shoot down a U2 (over their territory), in Vietnam, and in Egypt and Syria during the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

What is remembered about the US and AA missiles during that time, is the countermeasures they developed: Radar jammers, missiles that homed in on SAM radar (HARM: high speed anti radar), units trained to destroy SAMs (the Wild Weasels) and aircraft that could either outrun SAM's (the SR71) or aircraft that couldn't be found by SAM's (the F117 and B2).

To date, only one US AA missile has ever received any degree of publicity: the Stinger, as supplied to the opposition forces in Afghanistan during the Soviet intervention there.

That tells us quite a bit about who was on the offensive, and who was on the defensive, during that time.

  • Gary Powers was shot down by an SA-3, not an SA-2 :) And Patriot got quite a bit of publicity for its role in shooting down (or failing too more often than not) Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1990/1 Desert Shield and Desert Storm campaigns.
    – jwenting
    Jan 3, 2018 at 10:23

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