Fifty-four years ago today, the USAF/Northrop SNARK intercontinental cruise missile successfully flew its maximum range mission of 5,000 statute miles for the first time. SNARK would go on to become the only strategic cruise missile ever operationally deployed by the United States.
The SM-62A SNARK was designed to deliver nuclear ordnance at strategic ranges. The vehicle was conceived as an autonomous, winged, turbojet-powered aircraft with a high subsonic cruise capability. Ground launch was provided by a pair of disposable, high-thrust rocket boosters. The SNARK’s origins date back to the middle 1940’s.
The missile’s name, SNARK, is not an acronym. Rather, SNARK has reference to the mythical creature highlighted in Lewis Carroll’s poem, “The Hunting of the Snark”. Jack Northrop, president of Northrop Aircraft Company, developer of the SNARK, is credited with selection of the missile’s name.
SNARK engineering development and flight testing took place between 1946 and 1960. This protracted gestation period was partially due to mission requirements drift on the part of the Air Force. However, challenging technical problems, a flat funding profile and mission relevancy issues also served to draw-out the development effort.
The original SNARK prototype was designated as the N-25 by Northrop. The missile was designed to fly 1,550 statute miles and cruise at Mach 0.85. N-25 flight testing occurred between December of 1950 and March of 1952. While the results were not particularly encouraging, USAF still wanted a strategic cruise missile. This led to the development of a larger, more capable airframe designated as the N-69.
The N-69 SNARK configuration measured 67.2 feet in length and featured a wing span of 42.25 feet. Launch weight was roughly 49,000 lbs. Power was provided by a single Pratt and Whitney J-57 turbojet that generated a sea level thrust of 10,500 lbs. The missile carried a single W39 nuclear warhead with a yield of 3.8 megatons. The SNARK was ground-launched using a pair of Aerojet General solid propellant rocket boosters that produced a combined thrust of 260,000 lbs. The complete launch stack weighed 60,000 lbs.
The design operational range for the N-69 airframe was 5,500 nm. The type had a top cruise speed and ceiling of 650 mph and 50,000 feet, respectively. Maximum mission time was on the order of 11 hours. Northrop was constrained to use a celestial navigation system to get the SNARK to its distant target. The company optimistically advertised a CEP of 8,000 feet.
On Thursday, 31 October 1957, a SNARK N-69E airframe (S/N N-3324) successfully flew a strategic range flight for the first time. Launch occurred from either LC-1 or LC-2 (the historical record is unclear here) at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The missile flew 5,000 statute miles to its target near Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean.
While the range achieved on the SNARK’s Halloween 1957 flight test was impressive, guidance system accuracy was quite poor. Indeed, guidance system performance deficiencies plagued the SNARK Program throughout its life. Witness the fact that through May of 1959, the best the SNARK guidance system could do on long range flights was impact within 4.3 nm of the target. Moreover, the first guidance flight to be successfully completed did not occur until February of 1960.
The latter 1950’s saw rapid development of successful Intercontinetal Ballistic Missile (ICBM) systems within the United States and the Soviet Union. These suborbital warhead delivery systems outperformed the SNARK by every measure. In spite of its obvious obsolescence, low reliability and marginal accuracy, USAF opted to field the weapon anyway.
The first and only SNARK missile wing, consisting of 30 airframes, was operationally-deployed at Presque Isle AFB, Maine in February of 1961. However, the type’s deployment period would be brief. Newly-inaugurated President John F. Kennedy cancelled the SNARK Missile Program soon after taking office. As a result, the SNARK missile wing at Presque Isle AFB was deactivated in June of 1961.
America’s aerospace history is filled with unique aerospace systems that saw limited or no operational service. Notable examples include the Navaho, B-70, F-107, X-20 and the X-33. While these vehicles never filled the measure of their creation, the technology and capability accrued during their development greatly benefitted succeeding generations of aerospace craft. Such is the case for SNARK. Indeed, historically importnant operational missile systems such as Jupiter, Atlas, Minuteman and Titan were direct heirs of technology, capability and technical lessons-learned derived from the SNARK experience.